After 40 years of asking—hikers, anglers and environmentalists in southern Alberta finally got what they wanted.
In September 2015, the Alberta government halted logging and new oil, gas and mining development in the Castle Wilderness, a 1,000-sq-km chunk of windswept and wild mountains north of Waterton Lakes National Park and south of the Crowsnest Pass.
As part of the platform that got the new NDP government elected, Environment Minister Shannon Phillips says turning the area into two parks—a provincial park and a wild land provincial park—was on their agenda for years. The area is home to important populations of threatened species like grizzly bears, cutthroat trout and bull trout and it’s one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the province. At one time, it was actually part of Waterton Lakes National Park, but was removed and made a provincial game reserve and opened to resource extraction. Hikers, horseback riders, mountain bikers and paddlers have been exploring the valleys and long ridgelines for years. But playing here requires fortitude, says Wendy Ryan, an avid hiker and a member of the Castle Crown Wilderness Coalition.
“This isn’t like hiking in the national park; few trails are marked or maintained,” she says. “But for the adventurous, it’s an amazing area. There’s no where else quite like it.”
Here are her picks for getting started in the Castle:
At Castle Mountain ski area, right in the heart of the wilderness, there’s a motel, hostel, condos and chalets for rent. Campers should swing into the Castle Falls Provincial Recreation Area and grab one of the sites near the river.
One of the Castle’s must-do hikes is Table Mountain. Rising up from the edge of the mountains at Beaver Mines Lake campground, it gains elevation fast to a plateau with good views. Ditch the crowds, who typically stop here, and continue another 45 minutes to the peak, a good place to see bighorn sheep and a 360-degree panorama. This area is often used for First Nations vision quests, testament to just how special this place is.
The Castle’s mountains line up in waves; long alpine ridgelines heading south towards Waterton Lakes. Following a route south typically leads to nonstop views, a great adventure and often into Waterton Lakes National Park. A good one to start with begins at Bovin Lake, climbs onto Loaf Mountain and then follows a ridge south towards Avion Ridge on Waterton’s northern boundary.
The Canadian portion of the Great Divide Trail cuts through the heart of the Castle. It mostly follows ATV paths, but from Waterton to the ski hill, it’s a high-elevation ridge ramble. Check The Great Divide Trail Association’s website for maps and route beta.
Golden trout were introduced to the first two of the three South Forks Lakes. These feisty, pretty fish remain abundant. Beyond the fishing, the lakes sit in a beautiful mountain cirque and the limestone is rich in 3.5-billion-year-old stromatolite fossils.
The Castle River tumbles off exposed bedrock in a 15-km run of pool-drop fun from Castle Falls to the Rodeo Grounds. Depending on water level, it’s Grade II to III, with plenty of surfing and easy to hit wave-trains. Many start with a bang by running the Class IV falls first.
In the winter, the Syncline XC trails serve as the local cross-country ski area. When the snow melts, it’s great mountain biking. Elsewhere, old logging roads cut up almost every valley in the Castle, and with many bridges in disrepair or gone entirely, a mountain bike brings out-of-reach hiking destinations within day-trip range.