Backpack to Carnarvon Lake

Rate this Adventure 50.410343,-114.717286

Distance

13.2 Miles

Elevation Gain

1706 Feet

Activities

Camping, Photography, Backpacking, Hiking

Skill

Intermediate

Season

Summer, Autumn

Type

Out-and-Back

Added by

James Hueser

Easy Parking
Forest
Lake
Scenic
Swimming Hole

One creek, ten kilometers, and three chains is all that's separating you from the most pristine alpine lake in Kananaskis.

I first heard about Carnarvon Lake (mistakenly called Carnivore Lake) in 2015 at my sister's wedding in Rhode Island - which is actually the last place I figured I'd get a recommendation. I spent a good amount of time trying to find any mention of Carnivore Lake on the internet, and asked anyone who even mentioned the word hike to me in conversation. Eventually I chalked it up to a bad tip, or some miscommunication, or that it just wasn't meant to be. All I knew was that it was supposed to be a nice lake, and I didn't think I was really missing out on it. 

I remember last year, I had a random conversation with a local fishing aficionado (or a-fish-ionado) and he was filling me in on his favourite fishing locations in Kananaskis. Even though his list of must-see-places was long, there was one that he had visited decades before that had left a lasting impression on him. The fishing wasn't the best and the hike wasn't the easiest, but he had never seen anything like it before, and nothing ever quite measured up to it again. When he said Carnarvon Lake, a switch flipped and I couldn't wait to finally make it. Not just because of his description, but to finally complete something that was never really started.

One of the most frustrating things about searching for a Carnivore Lake for so long was that there's no lack of guidance for Carnarvon Lake. A simple google search will bring up YouTube videos, trip reports, photos, and GPS trails. There's nothing difficult about finding the trailhead, and there are only two forks in the trail that could send you in the wrong direction. The obstacles are defined and well documented, and the pictures are stunning. They're so stunning that you'll probably be bargaining with the weather in order to get out there as soon as you can. 

Now for the important/useful stuff. The trailhead is at the Cat Creek Trail Head - you can approach from the north through Highwood Pass, or you can approach from the south and drive through Longview to get to Highway 40. The trail is wide and easy for the first ~2.5 km, and rises and falls as it traces the river. At the 2.5 km mark you'll need to cross the river. Remember the velocity of the river is lowest where the riverbed is widest. A good crossing point is about 50 meters upstream as it is the widest point and usually has the least turbulent flow. For any crossings taking early in the summer (before July) the river may be at or above your knees. The depth of the river will decrease as the summer goes on, and was only around the middle of my calves at the beginning of September. 

With the first obstacle out of your way, ~8 km of hiking is waiting for you. Again, the trail is wide, but this hike does include around 520 m of elevation gain. It was definitely harder with my backpacking gear than I anticipated, but luckily that just means I got to take more breaks and enjoy my surroundings. After a solid while of hiking, you break out above the treeline and can see the trail cutting through scree leading to the headwall. 

To get up the headwall does include some third to fourth class scrambling with the assistance of chains. With daypacks, this would be a breeze. As is tradition, it was a bit more than I anticipated, especially with a heavy backpacking pack. Even looking back at it, it was mostly a mental crux rather than much difficult scrambling. However, it's worth noting that at the bottom of the second chain, the rock is slabby and slick, so a tight grip and moving past it quickly is recommended. Also, be aware of the comfort level and risk tolerance of all members in your group. As someone who climbs a lot, it'd be easy for me to brush off any worries from other people. However, as someone with a fear of heights (more like a fear of falling from heights), I could definitely see myself not wanting to do this - particularly if the weather was chilly and my hands were cold. 

Once you're past the chains, keep heading up until you're at the lake! You'll see a small patch of trees to your left (a krummholtz patch worth exploring) as well as a large grove of evergreens at the back of the lake. There are a handful of makeshift campsites (5+) at the back of the lake. My favourite part about this trip is that Carnarvon Lake is located in the Don Getty Wildland, random camping is allowed and no reservation is required! While the lake doesn't get a ton of traffic, don't be surprised if you have some fellow campers. 

As you walk around the north side of the lake to get to the camping area, take note of the deep and bright blues that are present in the water. I don't think there'd be anything quite as inviting as the tropical beach blue water on a scorcher after the hike up. Once your camp is set up, or even after you unload your pack, the best view of the lake is up the headwall behind the camping area. Once on top, you'll be straddling the Continental Divide while gaining an incredible view of the lake to the east, and a lush valley to the west.

For backpackers specifically, finding a tree to hang a bear bag is actually pretty difficult. Another option is to hang it from the cliffs of the headwall behind the camping area. Also, make note of any fire bans in the area prior to leaving. There are makeshift fire rings at most sites, but all fire bans should be respected. 

For anyone spending more than one night, there are some mountains to be climbed! Mount Strachan, Maclaren, and Shankland are all options, with Mount Strachan being the most popular. 

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations.

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Distance

13.2 Miles

Elevation Gain

1706 Feet

Activities

Camping, Photography, Backpacking, Hiking

Skill

Intermediate

Season

Summer, Autumn

Type

Out-and-Back

Added by

James Hueser

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