Highwood Pass is located on the highest paved road in Canada and offers incredible adventures year-round. Cyclists flock to this area in Kananaskis Country each spring to bike the highway before it opens in June for the summer season, and then the area is popular with hikers and backpackers until early autumn when the snow returns again.
Winter comes early to this part of the Canadian Rockies and by mid-November it’s already prime time for snowshoeing. The only challenge is that one must seize the opportunity quickly before the road closes for the season on December 1 , shutting off all easy access to this amazing snowy playground.
Hikers and skiers looking for early season powder will find everything they dream of at Highwood Pass. By late October, The Highwood Pass area is already snow-covered and hikers will need ice cleats at the bare minimum for the slippery trails. Within a couple weeks into November, snowshoes are definitely required for all travel and the snow can often be knee-deep already for travelers venturing off the beaten path.
Located off Highway 40 in Kananaskis, The Highwood Pass area stretches from the day use area at Little Highwood Pass past the parking lot for Elbow Pass and on to the Highwood Pass day use area approximately five miles away. Within this short distance, there are three main trails that hikers will want to explore and the first one is very family-friendly through the end of November with little to no avalanche risk.
Beginner-friendly Elbow Lake
The family-friendly trail to Elbow Lake leaves from the Elbow Pass day use area and is reached in under a mile one way. While the trail climbs a steady 450 feet uphill to the lake, it is wide enough to pull young children in sleds, and most novice snowshoers will find the trip gentle enough for a pleasant outing.
Continue as far as the lake-shore and backcountry campground, returning the same way for a trip free from avalanche danger. Proceeding further would require winter knowledge in backcountry terrain and hikers would want to carry avalanche beacons and other necessary gear with them.
Intermediate Snowshoe Touring to Ptarmigan Cirque
The next step up for those choosing a bigger adventure would be the Ptarmigan Cirque trail which departs from the main Highwood Pass parking lot. This loop is just over two miles round trip but the height gain is more substantial than for the easier Elbow Lake hike with 750 feet gained. This hike is easy for families in the summer or fall but makes for a better adults-only adventure by mid-November with potential avalanche risk. The trail is also too steep and narrow for pulling sleds which limits those accompanied by children on the journey.
The views from Ptarmigan Cirque are incredible and this is a premier snowshoe destination in the Canadian Rockies if you can make it here while the road is still open. Just make sure to check avalanche conditions with a local information center before you go and only head up into the cirque when conditions are stable. If the avalanche risk is moderate or higher, you would want to consider bringing beacons and gear with you, or choose the safer Elbow Lake trail.
Backcountry Snowshoeing to Pocaterra Tarn
My third recommended snowshoe hike in the Highwood Pass area travels to the little known Pocaterra Tarn. This is a “locals” favourite due to the lack of official trail. You will want to pick up a guide book or check out a detailed route description ahead of time if you are unfamiliar with the area.
The hike starts from the main Highwood Pass parking lot and follows the easy walk to Highwood Meadows. From there, you will be on a small trail back into a cirque and if you’re lucky, will be able to follow the footsteps of those who have gone before you. For a complete route description for this one, pick up a copy of Gillean Daffern’s Kananaskis Country Trail Guide, Volume 1 and look at the route for Pocaterra Ridge and Grizzly Col. Daffern gives a brief trail description for the Tarn.
The Pocaterra Tarn hike is doable with older children and is less than two miles in distance one way. Height gain is minimal and without snow, the hike is very easy. As always, with snow, the difficulty increases significantly and you likely wouldn’t be able to pull tots into the tarn on a sled.
If you want to do the hike as a family, go in late October when snow will be easier to navigate through. As with Ptarmigan Cirque, this is another hike that could present risk for avalanches so be prepared and check with a visitor center before you go.
Visiting Highwood Pass for some early winter snowshoeing is an incredible experience that should definitely go on all Rocky Mountain bucket lists. Follow the trip up with a visit to one of the pubs at the Kananaskis Village on your way back to Calgary or spend the night at the Village. Accommodation can be found at the Delta Kananaskis Lodge or the HI Kananaskis Hostel.
For more information on Kananaskis and Highwood Pass, visit the Alberta Parks website. For information on early avalanche conditions, please consult a local Kananaskis visitor center before heading out on the trails. Trail conditions can also be found on the Parks website above.