Story and photos by Chris & Connie.
This hike is nothing but fun the whole way and the further in you go the better it gets. There are lakes, many of them, one a gorgeous jade colour, stunning peaks all around, giant boulders and if the timing is right (and it was for us) golden larches in the fall. At the end is a barren rocky basin surrounded by mountains that is incredibly photogenic. This is the Three Lakes Valley trail in Kananaskis and the scenery is simply amazing.
Drive to the Chester Lake parking lot on Highway #742, aka the Smith-Dorrien/Spray Trail road. You can approach from either Canmore or Peter Lougheed Park. It’s a gravel no matter which way you come, so expect to get your car dirty. The price we pay…
Begin at the north end of the parking lot, by the biffies, and find the marked Chester Lake trail – the one on the south end of the lot takes one to Headwall Lakes, a fine destination too. Cross a stream and follow the logging road as it twists and climbs generally trending east. Many offshoot roads are passed – the logging area is a maze of them – but most are overgrown meaning the way to go is always obvious. Expect to share this trail with many fellow hikers, it’s a busy one, and if you’re unsure where to go, just follow them!
As you gain height, look back and take in the many mountains on the opposite side of the valley. One can see the route up Burstall Pass too.
Higher up the road ends, at some bike racks, the trail reverting to single track from there on. It soon levels outs. Here and there some breaks in the trees allow one a view ahead. A large meadow is passed, shared with Chester Creek, and soon after Chester Lake itself is reached. Take time to circle it or simply bask in its beauty, or do that on the way down as we did. We pass some extensive bear diggings here. Towering over the lake on the south shore is Mount Chester, which can be scrambled.
Flanking the left side of the lake, we take the less-beaten path heading left and up, leaving the Chester Lake trail behind (for now). We’ll come down via another route that parallels this one a few hundred metres east, the Three Lakes Valley trail most people use, on the return trip. We come to a stream, with some small waterfalls, and soon reach a huge pile of boulders, the reason we came this way. Stuff to play on! The larches get thicker here and all were a glorious yellow. This species is the only conifer to shed its needles for winter.
Moving again, we meet up with that more heavily used trail which we spoke of earlier, that we’ll use on the way back. Turn left, heading in a northeasterly direction as the path winds here and there sometimes beside a gurgling stream. A lake is passed, the first of those in Three Lakes Valley, and the largest and lowest. The others are higher up, much higher and at best, are puddles. At least at this time of year – perhaps in spring they’re bigger.
Climb up a steep grassy ramp to the top of a headwall, leaving the trees behind. Your soon in a barren rocky valley that’s incredibly desolate, yet oh so beautiful. It had been cold and windy all day for us hut up here the temperature dropped dramatically and snow squalls came and went. This is hiking in Kananaskis in the fall!
The going from here on is on rocks. There is no trail but none is needed. A little more climbing and the next two of the Three Lakes Valley “lakes” come into view. The basin extends east at a fairly level grade for perhaps a kilometre or two. We keep on but many other hikers turned around here.
At a cairn on a small rise is our turn around point, a truly magical place, a treeless jumble of rock, surrounded on three sides by mountains – Mount Galatea on the left, Gusty Peak on the right and a high ridge connecting them together in front. A more starkly beautiful place could not be imagined.
If you go further, the valley becomes much rougher. There are huge boulders everywhere and it’s not really worth the effort. The views are just as good from this spot. The old Fortress Ski Hill is right on the other side of ridge seem directly in front. By car, it’s dozens of clicks away.
On the way back we take refuge below some boulders, next to one of the lakes, to have our lunch. The snow swirls around us.
In no time you’re back at the top of the headwall. Enjoy a great view of the valley spread out below. Wow!
Drop down, pass the first lake and in short order come to a mass of giant boulders, different from the ones seen on the way up (assuming you follow our directions to the letter). They’re said to look like an Elephant and in fact are known as Elephant Rocks, but we don’t get it. I circle around twice to see if I could make it/them out. Perhaps it’s like constellations and you need a wild imagination to make it work?
From here Chester Lake is not too far away and getting to it takes no time at all. It’s a lovely body of water, tinged a wonderful blue/green. It’s too big to get in one shot though. A popular destination for many hikers all by itself, those wanting something not too strenuous with a good reward at the end, plus anglers, means you’ll share it with many others.
An easy trail circles around the north shore, a rougher one, the south. A second valley home to Upper Chester Creek, heads off to the east of the lake and appears to be a popular destination too. Hikers can be seen coming down the scree from the headwall high above. We might want to check that out ourselves some day.
Back on the Chester Lake trail it’s a four kilometre, almost exclusively downhill trek, back to the parking lot. We share the route with many happy hikers, heading back as us, who also spent an enjoyable day in the high country. It’s a busy place, but a happy one.
Date of adventure: September, 2015.
Location: Smith-Dorrien area, Kananaskis AB.
Distance: 13km there and back.
Height gain maximum: 550m.
Height gain cumulative: 580m.
NOTE: all heights and distances are approximate.
Reference: Kananaskis Trail Guide by Gillean Daffern.