Do it ALL at Carnarvon Lake

September 12, 2019

Carnarvon Lake had been on my hiking partner Annette’s list for a few months, and for good reason. We Biked, Waded, Hiked, and ‘Climbed’ to reach the lake. If it had been a super hot July afternoon, I would probably add Swim to this list.

Why go to Carnarvon Lake? If you’re a scrambler, there are some excellent mountains to climb and the lake makes a great base camp. I recommend visiting Explor8ion for his trip reports. Fishers really like this lake too, as it’s quieter than some of the other lakes in Kananaskis Country. There were three guys fishing when we arrived at the lake. We met another two guys as we descended the chains, and they asked if the fish were biting. This is also equestrian terrain. We didn’t see any horses today, but there was lots of, lets say evidence, of their travels. Most of my horse friends have ridden up to the waterfall.

This is a very LONG day hike. I could not imagine walking the whole way for a couple of reasons. One – it’s a pretty uneventful hike as you’re in the trees for 80% of the time with no views. Two – the elevation gain is slow and gradual, with no switchbacks to liven it up. This makes it ideal for horse or bike riding. Three – it’s a long way! I clocked just over 24 km return on Strava.

If I did return to Carnarvon Lake, I would do a backpack, stay a few nights, and try bag a summit. The lake is outside the Kananaskis park boundary so random camping is allowed. This does NOT mean you can abuse the environment. There have been several reports of people ignoring fire bans, and not cleaning up. I passed four campsites on the way to the lake and was disappointed. Broken beer bottles, paper, plastic, and other debris scattered about. If I had known how bad it was, I would have brought a garbage bag with me and did some clean up.

TRAIL HEAD – Cat Creek Parking Lot

The hike starts at the Cat Creek parking lot. You can park in the lot next to the outhouses, or drive to the far north end. From here, take the trail heading north that goes past the barricade. You are parallel with the Highwood River on your left and Highway 40 on your right.

Looking down at the Highwood River from the trail north of the Cat Creek Parking Lot. Fall colours are just starting.

I waited until September to allow the Highwood River to drain down for the river crossing, but that was in vain. We had two days of rain prior to going, so the river was pretty much at July levels. Regardless, it was a pretty easy crossing, even with bikes. On the way out I changed into crocs to keep my boots dry. The trail was very wet and muddy, so I left my dirty boots on for the return river crossing in the hopes of getting them clean. It helped. A bit.

It was a chilly crossing in the morning, and the water almost reached my pant legs. The river level was higher in the afternoon, so I made sure to take out the phone and writing pad from my leg pockets to ensure they didn’t get wet.

The Highwood River crossing is about 2.3 km from the trail head. Keep your water shoes on, because there are two small creek crossings about 500 m further.

I believe this is McPhail Creek, which comes down from The Hill of the Flowers route. These crossings were shallower than Highwood River, but deep enough to keep my crocs on. I switched back into hikers on the other side.

We biked for a total of 6 km from the trail head. The trail was muddy with pooling water from two days of rain, which meant it was pretty slow going. It was on the bike section that we got a glimpse of our objective. Take the time to enjoy these sights as they are few and far between.

A view of the route. 12 KM will take you up the draw, to the base of the head wall waterfall on the right. Carnarvon Lake is in the basin at the base of the mountains.

This is the view for most of the hike. Trees, trees, and more trees. Thankfully I have a very interesting hiking partner and we never seem to run out of things to talk about. If you are having marital problems, I highly recommend this hike to work things out.

The endless view. Some might call it boring, but I’m never bored in the mountains. Especially with my hiking partner Annette who keeps me entertained with endless conversation.

At the 6 KM mark (according to Strava, but 5 KM according to my map), we decided to park the bikes. This spot is easy to find. It’s a large open clearing, with the hiking trail continuing to the right, while another (probably equestrian) trail leads straight ahead. We found a camp area, and locked up the bikes. Be careful – lots of broken glass.

This whole area is a favourite spot for horse riding. Please be aware of horses on the trail. If you do see some, slow down, or better yet, just stop. If you are unsure what to do, just ask the riders. Some horses are great with bikes, while others get freaked out.

From this open area, take the trail on the right. It is marked with stones and painted arrows. The trail is now noticeably narrower (single track), and is also the start of the sustained elevation gain. The trail was very wet and muddy, so we were glad to be on foot. I am not a mountain biker, but for those who are, you can stay on your bike until you reach the top of the treed elevation gain. Before you is the view right before you descend down to the scree. Stash your bike here.

At the top of the treed elevation gain. This is a good snack spot before going up the waterfall. Stash your bike here before you descend to the scree. This is Mount MacLaren before you.

From here, it is a quality scree trail over to the waterfall. Highly enjoyable.

The hiking trail goes to the right. It was well marked with logs blocking the way forward, and arrows painted on rocks. If you choose to go straight, the path will lead you to the base of the waterfall. Please do NOT do this in winter as it’s an avalanche terrain trap.

You can see the scree trail heading off towards the waterfall. Specifically, to the bottom of the first pitch of the waterfall. This is where the chains start.

The waterfall itself is gorgeous. If you’ve run out of water at this point, you can consider refilling your bottle here.

Carnarvon Lake waterfall. On a hot day, this would be SO refreshing. Be sure to dunk your head before the long walk back to the car.

NOW the fun really begins. If you’re backpacking, going up and down the headwall can be tricky. This trail is getting quite popular, so the once sticky limestone rock is now getting worn smooth in several spots. My hiking boots are ready for retirement, so I really felt the slippery spots.

The chains begin to the right of waterfall. Look up until you see the end dangling down. I recommend one person at a time, but you do you.

Annette coming up the first chain section.

From here, you traverse to the right some more until you pick up the next chain. This section has several chains bolted in. This is where I noticed the rock was being worn smooth.

The final chain section. Several chains bolted in, but also very slippery rock.
Quite a few people have been caught out by this section. It’s a full-on headwall.

At the top of the final chain section. In the background of this photo is the scree trail leading back into the trees. Highway 40 is way back there, before the wall of mountains start.

Typical Canadian – shorts and a toque. It was VERY windy from here all the way to the back end of the lake.

The trails winds up to the right of the lake outflow.

Follow the trail to the right of the lake. This will take you to the back of the lake where the wind blessedly eases off.

First glimpses of the azure blue coloured Carnarvon Lake. In the background you can see one of three guys fishing. Again – a quality scree trail awaits.

Carnarvon Lake is small but most spectacular. We were not seeing it at it’s best condition with low light from the clouds and a brisk fall wind whipping up the lake. Some people have described Carnarvon Lake as the most gorgeous lake in Kananaskis. While I think it IS beautiful, I also suspect Carnarvon Lake of having the best publicist in the business, and is using this claim to lure hikers out for the long slog in.

It was cloudy and threatening rain, but Annette willed the sun to come out and light up the lake. The water was crystal clear and a most amazing blue as it got deeper.

As mentioned before, this is outside the park boundary so random camping is allowed. Please try and use existing sites, and do as little damage as possible. This truly is a pristine location and the only ones messing it up is US! Also remember that this is prime bear country, and with all the people pulling fresh fish out of the lake, it’s to your advantage to keep a clean campsite. Eat and store your food well away from your tent (and everyone else’s tent too).

One random camping site close to the shores. As you can see, the vegetation is beat down quite a bit. Stay in previously used areas, bury your $h!t, and pack out ALL your garbage.

Annette and I spent some time at the lake, dreaming about what we would do next time we came. We chatted with the three fishermen – two from Scotland! – before heading home.

On the way back to the waterfall, we took some time to admire the outflow a bit more. So beautiful in early fall, I can imagine this place being drop-dead gorgeous in full summer.

The lake outflow above the waterfall.

The trail back to the bikes was muddier than ever with the sun warming up the ground. Again, thankful that we hiked this bit, but more advanced bikers than us managed the trail up to here.

After we picked up our bikes, it was a very fast descent back to the creek and river crossings.

Annette is putting on her water shoes. Across the stream is another trail. There are LOTS of trails in this area, most of them equestrian. Have your map and GPS handy.

I was so muddy from the bike and hike, that I decided to leave my hiking boots on for the creek and river crossings in an attempt to get them clean. The water did help a bit, and the wet feet were quite refreshing for the final KMs back to the car.

Now I know why mountain bikers are so filthy 🙂


Return KMs – 24.2 km (according to Strava)
Elevation gain – 566 m (1,868′)
Total Time – 6 hrs 58 m

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Posted in Adventures, Hiking

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