The hike to Elbow Lake is a wonderful, family-friendly hike in the Highwood Area. Adventurous types will want to continue and explore the area beyond Elbow Lake, and we love the hike to the Alpine that explores the Rae Glacier.
From the Stoney Nakoda Casino on the TransCanada, take Highway 40 south for roughly 62.0km. Turn left into the Elbow Pass Parking lot.
|When to do|
June 15 to October
Out and back
The hike to Elbow Lake is a classic family hike, with great scenery for limited effort. There is a backcountry campground, and for many families this is the first backpacking trip they do.
From the Elbow Pass Parking lot, take the signed path that heads out from the parking lot. You’ll follow this wide path for about 1.0km. At the 1.0km mark, you’ll find yourself in a wide-open cirque with views all around you. On your right, you can see a peak from the Mount Rae massif: its shape reminiscent of a breaking wave.
In a few hundred metres you’ll reach Elbow Lake. With deep emerald and blue tones, this lake is as beautiful as they come. A mountain from the Elpoca massif on the left slides right into the lake. If you’re camping here the campsite is to your right.
To head up to Rae Glacier you’ll want to go around the right side of the lake. And follow a path that goes off at the NE end of Elbow Lake.
At roughly the 2.3km mark you’re going to come upon a smaller creek bed coming down from the Rae Massif. This creek bed is often dry later in the year. Follow along the right side of the small creek bed for a short while, trying to keep your eyes on the trail.
Soon you’ll come to a spot that looks as though the path splits: stay left. From here on out you’ll want to keep an eye out for where the path is, as it’s hard to follow. Also keep your eyes open for red or yellow tape on tree branches, as these roughly follow the route.
In a couple hundred metres you’ll come upon a much larger, dry streambed. Follow the streambed to the right. As you follow it, keep to the right of the streambed. You might have to stroll into the dry streambed to find an easier path at times. You’ll ultimately gain the right side of the bed to follow the path.
Here is where the elevation gain begins. The dirt path will eventually fade into rocks. By about the 3.6km mark you’ll be picking your way through a rock field with a wonderful view giving you a 270-degree view of the surrounding peaks and the Rae Glacier. The Rae Glacier is not the most impressive glacier in the world, in fact it’s pretty small as it quickly recedes as the climate in this part of the Rockies is rapidly changing. While the Rae Glacier is not what it once was, the view back is what makes this hike worthwhile.
The rise to a vantage point is rocky but manageable, though a bit treacherous in snow. Go slow and watch your footing. The lookout point is an obvious plateau marked with a little cairn. The view looking back is amazing. You can see Elpoca Mountain across the valley floor as well as Tombstone Mountain to the right of it.
After you start descending, you’ll see on your right a little stream’s waterfall that has carved its way into a rock cliff. It stems from another high-valley and there’s a little plateau you can reach. We recommend hiking up there too, if you have the energy.
You should be able to make out a path after you cross over the dry stream bed. From that plateau you’ll get the great views again but from a slightly different angle.
After you descend the second vantage point you’ll want to find the path you took up. You can always look for the ribbons to help you find the route.
Eventually you’ll reach a junction at the edge of Elbow Lake. From here we recommend walking around the lake. Go right on this path and follow the path taking you around the other side of the lake. You’ll have to cross over a shallow creek at the tail end of Elbow Lake. The views from this side of the lake are even better than the side you hiked out on.
Finish circumnavigating the lake. You’ll find the same wide path that took you up to the lake in the first place. Follow this back to the trailhead.
Elbow Lake is a great first backpack for families. Due to the elevation make sure you do it on a warm night, ideally in late-July or early August.
The Rae Glacier is one of the sources for Calgary’s Elbow River.
Often you can have wonderful sun at Elbow Lake however cloud and rain will linger around the Rae Glacier.
The entire Highwood Pass area, including the southern portion of Highway 40, is closed from December 1st to June 14th each year. This hike can only be reached via a long bike ride while the highway is closed.
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