Chester Lake – Winter Ski & Snowshoe Routes

20+ Years

Whenever I’m feeling blue, and I need a solid hit of positive mountain vibes to fill my soul, I grab my skis and head to Chester Lake. I often come here by myself, because the peace and majesty of the towering mountains allows me to calm and reconnect. I’m also alone here because it is extremely safe from avalanche danger.

While Chester Lake is a worthy summer destination, I will admit to only coming here once in the summer. It’s a wonderful spot year round, but this is a favourite ski destination.

Gear

Light touring skis (like cross-country skis, but wider, heavier and with metal edges), gators, and light touring ski boots (heavier than regular cross-country ski boots, good ankle support, and a thicker binding bar).

I have several warm layers, including a light puffy for my lunch break. I also have my usual day pack kit. For winter trips, I bring a small thermos of hot tea.

Trail Confusion

There is a great deal of confusion as to where exactly showshoers / winter hikers and skiers are supposed to go. This is because the winter ski trail and the summer hiking trail are the same route. Unfortunately, winter hikers have erroneously assumed that the summer only hiking trail also means winter hiking. It does not. Hikers in the past two winters have trampled the ski trail so such that it is unusable by skiers. I am in talks with Alberta Parks to get the signage changed to clearly show where the winter ski and hiking trails are (and are not).

This is the sign that is confusing people. When the sign was made, there was NO snowshoe or winter hikers. At all. This sign (for the past forever) indicated that this was the trail for WINTER skiers, and SUMMER hikers. This is NOT the trail for winter hiking / snowshoers. I am in talks with Alberta Parks to get these signs changed to avoid confusion.

Don’t take my word for it! Friends of Kananaskis have been instrumental in cutting new and specific snowshoe / winter hiking trails in the Chester Lake / Sawmill area. They have created a brochure and map that clearly defines where each group is supposed to travel.

This is an excerpt from the main brochure and map. Note that the RED trails are all the snowshoe / winter hiking routes. There is only one small BLUE trail for skiers. Surely with all this specific terrain for snowshoers, that it is possible for foot traffic to stay off the small section of ski trails.

Damage to Ski Trails

The Chester Lake ski trail is not maintained by a groomer. It is 100% track set by skiers. When someone walks on a ski trail, the damage is done for the year. There will be no magical reset once a week.

Post-holing is dangerous to skiers because we cannot simply walk around a hole. Skiers have a limited area in which to gain purchase on our skis, especially when going up hill. The bottom of our skis HAVE to make contact with the snow the entire length of our ski. A gaping hole under the ski means the skier can no longer get a grip, and they will fall. Walking on ski trails puts holes in the snow, ruining the trail.

This is a photo I took from 2019 when people first started to snowshoe. The damage from just two people (!!!!) has ruined the ski trail. Now, there are hundreds of people walking on the ski trails each winter season.

Walking on ski tracks also digs up the smooth track. This is incredibly difficult to ski over, but it also makes skiing down a death-defying experience. I am not kidding. Cross-country skis are very limited in their ability to navigate hazards. The only control is a snowplow, which is incredibly difficult to do on a trail that is dug up by hikers.

My friend Nancy is an incredibly strong skier. She skis multiple times a week cross-country, and is a double-black downhill skier. Unfortunately, hikers almost ruined her ski season. Nancy fell numerous times on the hiker damaged ski trails, and she strained several muscles and ligaments. Ruining someone else’s health is not cool.

Walking on ski tracks also creates a narrow groove on the trail. Skiers need a wide track so they can herring bone up, and snowplow down. Walking on a ski trail causes the centre of the track to sink down. This divot prevents skiers from using their own trail.

This is a photo of the skier only section. Unfortunately, hikers have beat down a path through the middle of the trail, making it impossible for skiers to herringbone up or safely snowplow down this trail. As this trial is NOT maintained by Alberta Parks, there will be no snowmobile to fix this mess.

As you can see, walking on ski trails is not just poor mountain etiquette, but it is actually causing harm to other people.

Overview

From the Chester Lake parking lot, start at the trail head directly behind the washrooms. The first 200 m is a mixed use ski and snowshoe trail.

After 200 m, there is sign for snowshoers to turn right and pick up the main snowshoe/winter hiking trail. Snowshoers keep on this main trail for the 3.4 km until you reach Chester Lake.

Skiers (and skiers only!) go straight at the 200 m sign. After another 400 m, turn right at the Y intersection to head uphill. After 1.6 km, turn right at the T intersection and keep going until you reach Chester Lake. Make note of this T intersection. On the return, instead of turning left (which is the way you came up), stay to the right (straight ahead) and ski the wider path back down to the first Y intersection.

Once at Chester Lake, the skier and snowshoe trails combine. From Chester Lake, you can continue up the hill to the Elephant Rocks.

Return the way you came. Chester Lake IS NOT A LOOP. Skiers return on the ski track and showshoers / winter hikers must return on the snowshoe trail.

Parking and Trail Head

From the Smith Dorian Highway (you can go either way from Canmore or Highway 40 in Kananaskis), pull into the Chester Lake parking lot. Depending on how massively busy it is, grab a parking spot where you can. Head towards the outhouse building. The ski and snowshoe trails begin directly past the outhouses.

The start of the trail system is visible behind the outhouse building. The mixed use trail is straight ahead, while a snowshoe / winter hiking trail goes off to the right.

Snowshoe / Winter Hiker Only Trail

From the north side of the outhouse building, start on the mixed use trail heading into the trees.

After 200 m, turn right at the Snowshoe Trail sign. ALL non-skier traffic MUST take this route. This trail was specifically cut several years ago by Alberta Parks for the exclusive use of snowshoers and winter hikers. You will note that there are no skiers on the snowshoe trail, so please return the favour and do not walk on the ski trail.

This is the official start of the snowshoe trail. Showshoe / winter hikers turn right here.

The snowshoe / winter hiking trail is delightful. It is narrower than the ski trail, and has more interesting twists and turns. It also has some steeper spots, which adds challenge and interest to this otherwise very easy winter hike.

The snowshoe / winter hiking trail meanders in and out of the forest.
As you can see, the snowshoe / winter hiking trail is much narrowing (and frankly, way more interesting) than the ski trail.

Once through the treed section, you will hike into an absolutely gorgeous meadow surrounded by Mount Chester on your right, Little Gatatea on your left, and the narrow wedge of Gusty Peak straight ahead.

Mount Little Galatea (left) and Gusty Peak (straight ahead) greet us as we enter the meadow.
The snowshoe / winter hiking trail takes you way closer to impressive Mount Chester than the ski trail.

You know you are at Chester Lake when you find the flat round area, ringed by spruce trees. Don’t laugh – many people (including me) have walked right onto the middle of the lake and then asked – so, where’s the lake?

Chester Lake is straight head. It is the flat area at the base of this cirque. You may see tracks heading up the slope straight head. This is avalanche danger area. In the background, the peak of Fortress Mountain is poking through.

From the far end of Chester Lake, it is possible to pick up a narrow trail through the trees that heads up to the Elephant Rocks. Once you’ve gotten your fill of these amazing stones, then head west to find the smaller bunch of Elephant Rocks. Either place is a great place to stop and eat your lunch in the sunshine.

Snowshoe / Winter Hiker Return

From either Chester Lake or the Elephant Rocks, return the way you came on the snowshoe trail ONLY. Chester Lake is NOT a loop. The trail on the other side of the meadow is a skier ONLY trail. Walking on this trail damages the trail beyond repair, ruins the experience for skiers, and causes harm as many skiers fall while trying to ski over footprints.

Skier Only Trail

From the Snowshoe turn off sign (200 m from the trail head), continue skiing straight for another 400 m. This is the first of two intersections – Y and T. At this first Y intersection, go right. The trail narrows here, and ascends through a heavily treed area. It has a few switchbacks to get over some of the steeper terrain.

At the first Y intersection, turn right and continue uphill. While the trail is nice and wide, hikers have trashed the trail, and made a groove down the middle. Several skiers, including us, had to cut a new trail off to the side.

After skiing up for about 2.2 km, we hit the second of two intersections – the T. We turned right at the T, and continued up another narrow trail. The initial section of this trail is steep and twisty, but it soon levels out into the first of two meadows.

This is the second T intersection. Go up to the right here. Again, another trail has been used on the right by skiers, because hikers have trashed the main trail. In case any fat bikers are reading this trip report – NO, this is not a winter fat bike area. There are summer mountain bike trails lower down.
This is the first small meadow. After this, it’s back into the trees for a short bit.

After a short stint back in the trees, we emerged into the main meadows surrounded by Mount Chester on our right, Little Galatea on our left, and the wedge view of Gusty Peak straight ahead.

The ski trail curves around the left side of Chester Lake. When you can’t go straight any longer, the lake is on your right. Distance to Chester Lake is 4.5 km. Time to the lake was about 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Chester Lake is on the right. The trail behind Sonya leads to the first of two Elephant Rocks.

To extend your day, turn left at the end of the lake and take the narrow trail through the trees up to the Elephant Rocks. This is now a mixed use trail. I used to be able to ski right up here, but it’s useless now (well, perhaps with skins it would work). For the first time in 20 years, I removed my skis and walked up this trail.

The Elephant Rocks truly are spectacular. I always hike up the back to the tallest one, and have my lunch up here. Once you have your fill of the views (or the crowds), then ski along the top of the hill to see the second, smaller mound of rocks. You can descend from the far side of these rocks back to the main ski trail.

This is the first and most impressive Elephant Rocks. We like to hike up the back of the biggest rock and eat our lunch up there. Gusty Peak is on the left, and Mount Chester is the range on the right.
This is the view from the second and smaller Elephant Rocks, looking down on the first set of rocks.

Chester Lake Ski Return

Skiers, please return on the skier trail ONLY. The snowshoe trail is for snowshoers / winter hikers only. Skiing down that trail will cause you to collide with hikers as they make their way up.

The downhill skier has the right of way. The downhill skier will yell TRACK, which is your cue to move over to the side, and allow them to quickly ski past. Downhill skiers – please tell the uphill skiers how many are in your group so they know when it’s safe to return to the trail.

At the T intersection, be sure to stay to the right (straight ahead on the return). This will take you off the narrow trail, and put you on a wider, flatter trail. If you like to go fast, then this is the place to let ‘er ride. The wider trail also makes a snowplow possible.

This the T intersection. Turn right (or straight ahead) on the return. You can see that this section of the trail is wider. It is also a lot straighter than the uphill trail on the left, which means you can go quite fast down this trail. As you can see though, hikers have also absolutely trashed this ski trail. Normally, this is an easy ski down. Right now, it is full on survival skiing.
This is also the T intersection. This is the uphill route you skied from the Y intersection to the T intersection. While there is a Skier sign here, I suspect this is for the summer hikers telling them to not go left here, but straight ahead. Again, leave this as an uphill only trail, and go right (or straight ahead) on the return.

Stay on the wider trail until you reach the initial Y intersection (1.6 km between intersections). At the Y, continue straight. Going left will put you back on the up track, which is fine if you want another loop. From the Y intersection, it’s another 600 m back to the parking lot.

This is the Y intersection on the return. Go straight (to the right) to return to the parking lot. Going left will take you back up towards Chester Lake. From here, it’s about another 600 m to the parking lot.
Looking down on the parking lot from the trail. The mountains across the highway towards Robertson Glacier are spectacular!

Chester Lake is an absolutely gorgeous meadow surrounded by epic peaks on three sides. It’s ideal for a winter adventure due to the wide valley being well away from avalanche danger. Alberta Parks has done a great job of creating separate trails for both skiers and snowshoers/winter hikers. It is now OUR job to ensure we respect each other’s space and trail systems, and stick to the designed trails.

If you found this post useful, please do me a huge favour and click the Star button to “Like” it. You can also follow my blog, follow me on Instagram, or join my FaceBook page Al’s Adventurers.

Alisen

Totals – Tracked on Strava

Date: February 19, 2021 (plus 20 years of prior trips)
Group:  Three (Alisen, Sonya and Nancy)
Distance:  11.3  km
Elevation:  384 m (1,267′)
Time:  4 hours 15 minutes (includes lunch & breaks)

The trail to Chester Lake is a fairly easy one, with most of the steep elevation gained on the lower slopes. Once at the lake, we were surrounded by stunning peaks that are conveniently located far enough away from the main valley to keep their avalanche debris away from skiers and snowshoers.
There really isn’t a lot of elevation to gain on this trail, but you might feel otherwise as you work your way up on skis or snowshoes through some of the more narrower sections.
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Posted in Adventures, Hiking, Skiing
20 comments on “Chester Lake – Winter Ski & Snowshoe Routes
  1. One of our favourite places to go when avalanche conditions are high. And I completely agree how dangerous it is to have hikers and snowshoers use the ski trail. I’ve gotten in several arguments over the years. You gave great descriptions for all users. Maggie

    • alisendopf says:

      Oh yes… I’ve also had words with hikers. When you look at ALL the terrain they’ve cut for hikers, I really can’t understand their mentality. I’m hoping Alberta Parks will take this seriously and update the signs.

  2. What an amazing landscape and how detailed description about the trails of the area. Also, I was not aware that you have different trails for hikers and skiing.

    Of course, sounds very obvious, but here in Greece, due to the fact the winter season is very short, we don’t have such ski trails.

    Thank you if the very nice post with all the good info.

    • alisendopf says:

      Well, normally I don’t go into such detail about the separate trails but we are having issues right now with hikers absolutely destroying the ski trails. I think some do it on purpose.

  3. Beautiful photographs. I had no idea hiking and trail damage was such an issue for skiers. I will be extra careful when I go out.

  4. I can easily see why that sign creates confusion. Hopefully Alberta Parks listens to your concerns and fixes the issue. That must be incredibly frustrating (and dangerous) to have your cross-country tracks ruined by hikers.

    • alisendopf says:

      The Parks have responded that they are “aware of the situation and are working on a solution”. Fingers crossed it’s a good solution, and not just a removal of the ski signs…

  5. moragnoffke says:

    Wow! You are blessed live in a country where it’s safe enough to go places alone. I would love that. I remember going about on my own as a teenager but not anymore.

    • alisendopf says:

      Yes, in general, Canada is really safe. That’s a shame you don’t feel safe where you are. I think that would be very restrictive to not be able to move about on your own. Is this just for women, or does everyone have to travel in groups?

      • moragnoffke says:

        Sorry I meant to answer you sooner, I had to think about how to answer… I think the answer is: it depends… Mostly it is much more unsafe for women to go hiking on their own and so normally we have hiking groups that go out together, safety in numbers. But a lot more caution is taken into consideration generally. I think unusually so compared to many other places but if caution is followed we can still enjoy the great outdoors we have which is the draw card for our tourism… And for living here.

      • alisendopf says:

        Ah, I understand. Safety in numbers does definitely help. I am glad you have a hiking group that you can go out with. I am lucky that I know several women who are keen to hike, but that wasn’t the case. About 10 years ago, if I wanted to get out to the mountains, I had to go alone.
        Take care! Al

  6. heathercyrus says:

    This looks so beautiful! What state is this? (Sorry if I missed the details.)

    • alisendopf says:

      Hi Heather,
      It’s actually in a province 🙂 This is in Alberta, Canada, west of Calgary. The Provincial Park is called Kananaskis Country. It’s our private mountain paradise that is off the beaten path, because most tourists go to Banff National Park, which is just next door.

      Maybe when the pandemic is over and our borders reopen, you’ll be able to visit some of this amazing winter wonderland! Until then, take care and thanks so much for visiting.
      Alisen

  7. heathercyrus says:

    Thank you for the clarity. Yes, as a tourist, Banff is on my bucket list, but the area you describe here looks amazing.

    • alisendopf says:

      Sssshhhh! Don’t tell anyone 🙂 Yes, K Country is beautiful. It’s very rugged though, with almost no services. It’s great for car camping and hiking/backpacking.

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