With lingering snowpack on a number of trails around Banff and Yoho the second week of July, Stephan and I decided to make the trip over to Kananaskis Country for a quick hike. Located just south of Canmore, Kananaskis Country encompasses the foothills and front range of the Canadian Rockies. Covering an area of over a million acres (4,200 square kilometers), Kananaskis offers countless recreation opportunities across nine provincial and wildland provincial parks as well as a mélange of other mixed-use areas and public lands.
Our first visit to Kananaskis took us to Windtower – a 8,800’ (2,682 m) summit within Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park. The hike begins from the West Wind Trailhead, about 40 minutes south of Canmore along the Smith Dorrien Trail (Highway 742). This bumpy, dirt road winds through Kananaskis Country for 70 kilometers (44 miles) and is one of the highest roads in all of Canada. The scenic drive is known for its views and wildlife, and we can attest to both. The stretch that parallels Spray Lakes Reservoir is quite beautiful, and there was no shortage of wildlife when we drove through. We spotted a lone elk and at least a half dozen herds of bighorn sheep along the way to the trailhead.
Beginning in the forest, the trail climbs moderately for about 1.5 miles (2.3 km) until it reaches West Wind Pass. As the trail gains the open ridgeline, it affords the first views out to Spray Lakes Reservoir, Goat Mountain and Mt. Nestor. From the pass, you can see the trail stretch along the ridge to the southeast as it makes its way around Windtower, with the peak’s blocky summit rising overhead.
The trail continues its moderate climb up the ridge for another mile (1.5 km) over a well-worn trail with a few short scrambles up some minor rock bands. Looking back toward the pass, there’s a sweeping view of the Rimwall and Wind Valley. Additionally, with every bit of vertical gain from here to the top, the panoramas of Spray Lakes just get better and better.
Eventually, the trail reaches a scree field where it begins a steeper climb – gaining 1,100’ (335 m) of vertical over the last 0.8 miles (1.3 km). It’s kind of a barren slog across this last section, but the panoramic views of the reservoir are totally worth it. When we arrived at Windtower’s summit, it became immediately clear why the peak earned its name, with a 45 kph (30 mph) breeze zealously greeting us. While a couple of windbreaks offer a smidge of protection, plan to just bring a windbreaker and be blown around a bit as you take in the sweeping vistas of Spray Lakes.
In addition to the lakeside panoramas, the north face of neighboring Mt. Lougheed also looks particularly imposing from Windtower’s vantage point. To the northwest, you can see Kananaskis’ iconic Three Sisters rising above the Bow Valley just beyond the Rimwall.
While there is a bit of space to move around atop Windtower, the summit isn’t super large and there is an insanely sheer drop off on the north side of the mountain. Make sure you stay well clear from the edge here, as the rock is loose and the peak just literally drops away.
As you head down the same ascent route, make sure to soak in those expansive views one last time. They may not have changed from the way up, but they sure are pretty freakin’ gorgeous.
Total distance: 6.5 miles (10.5 km)
Elevation gain: 3,264 feet (1,000 m)