The lowdown: Most people who know about Highwood Pass, a 7,710-foot height of land in the southern Kananaskis Country of Alberta’s Rocky Mountain Front Ranges, think of it as a day-hiking destination. But go a little farther, pick a route across a meadow, navigate through the folds and faults of these mountains, and you’ll find a rarely visited backcountry that’s made for backpacking. The numerous lakes, full of hungry cutthroat trout, are usually tucked beneath impressive headwalls making them unforgettable campsites with a nest-like feel. The eroded peaks provide generally easy scrambles up open ridges with views to the glaciers of the Continental Divide and out to Calgary and the prairie. The meadows are vast, frequent and full of wildflowers. The area has a number of established routes, and you can link them with wildlife trails and old First Nations paths to create a variety of loops. One of the best is the 45-kilometre Highwood Circuit. It starts at Highway 40—about 16 kilometres south of Highwood Pass— and climbs along Picklejar Creek, before continuing to a higher campsite at Cliff Creek. From here you climb Mist Ridge, a five-kilometre ridge walk. Then it’s down to Rickerts Pass and the Sheep Valley beyond. Round the circuit off in two longer days by heading down Sheep Creek to Junction Creek and then climb to a narrow, high pass before dropping back down to the Picklejar Lakes. But don’t limit yourself while doing this circuit: One of the joys of backpacking in this area is the easy off-trail hiking. It’s perfect for the adventurous backpacker looking to explore, something that’s definitely frowned upon in the parks.
When to go: The road through Highwood Pass (Highway 40) is closed from December 1 to June 15. The trails are usually snow-free by the beginning of July and should be hikeable into October.
Time needed: Four to five days is plenty of time to complete the Highwood Circuit hike described above, and to do some exploring in the area.
Experience required: While there are many designated trails, most of the backpacking routes in this area will require some off-trail hiking. You should be comfortable navigating by map, compass and feel. The privilege of hiking off-trail comes with the responsibility of knowing how to leave no trace. This is grizzly country as well, so be prepared to properly store food and camp to avoid encounters. Fitness wise, you should be able to comfortably hike for 10 kilometres with moderate elevation gain and a heavy pack.
What to take: Solid high-cut hiking boots are a must for scree fields and hummocky meadows. Don’t come without warm clothes and a sub-zero sleeping bag, no matter the weather. Snow can fall year round. A solid but light three-season tent will keep you comfortable at night but not weigh you down over passes and peaks. You’ll appreciate hiking poles on long descents and on uneven ground. And don’t forget a length of rope for stringing bear hangs.
Resources: Where Locals Hike in the Canadian Rockies by Craig and Kathy Copeland. Kananaskis Country Trail Guide by Gillean Daffern.
Guides: Yamnuska Mountain Adventures leads two trips that take in the best of the Highwood Pass backcountry: the four-day, moderately difficult and mostly on-trail Highwood Circuit (August 29 to September 1; $855; canadianrockieshiking.com) and the five-day, strenuous, off-trail Elk Highline, which explores the west side of the pass (August 4 to 8; $1,050).
Getting there: Highwood Pass is the highest point on Highway 40, which runs from the Trans-Canada Highway in the north to the town of Longview in the south. Drive west from Calgary on the Trans-Canada for about 40 minutes to the Kananaskis exit. Head south on Highway 40 for about 55 kilometres, through most of Kananaskis Country, to the Picklejar Recreation Area. The Highwood Circuit route starts here and ends two kilometres down the road at Lantern Creek Recreation Area.
Best campsite: An unofficial campsite high in the Junction Creek valley that used to be a sawmill. It’s backed by a cascading waterfall with a perfect swimming hole at the bottom.
Best place to look at daisies: The flanks of Mist Ridge are covered in grassy meadows stuffed with alpine flowers, especially in early July.
Best place to cast for cutthroat: Any of the lakes are good, but it’s hard to overlook Picklejar Lakes, which got their name because the fishing here is as easy as pulling pickles from a jar. Enough said.