Hiking the Bow Valley – Horseshoe Falls

2021 UPDATE: While we did our research back in 2021, we’ve concluded from recent news reports that the east of this route trespasses onto Stoney Nakoda lands. We will not be doing this hike again.


This winter we’ve enjoyed many long walks in Canmore and Calgary, but over the past several weeks we’ve been increasingly eager for the start of the 2012 hiking season. Recent snowfall has added to already significant accumulations in the Canadian Rockies, so we knew if we wanted to get a hike in over spring break, we’d have to look for a trail at lower elevations and pack our crampons / microspikes “just in case”.

After spending a few hours with topo maps, hiking guide books covering the Canmore / Kananaskis / Banff areas and the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre’s 2012 Spring/Summer Program & Rental Guide (pgs 4 & 5), Mrs. GeoK identified a couple of options for our first family hike of 2012. After a short consultation, the parental units agreed that Horseshoe Falls would be our first hiking destination of 2012.

Hikers can chose from two routes to reach Horseshoe Falls: an unmaintained trail that generally follows the north bank of the Bow River (approx. 8 km return) OR a trail / utility road on the south side of the Bow River (approx. 5 km loop). There’s adequate parking for each trailhead, located just off Highway 1X near the former hamlet of Seebee.

We opted to trek along the north bank of the Bow River, for two reasons: 1) GC2GHCR Kananaskis Dam cache is roughly 100 meters from this trailhead; and 2) whenever possible, we prefer to avoid trekking on roads (even those that are closed to public vehicles, like this one).

In either case, hikers start at the Kananaskis Dam, which was constructed in 1913 at the confluence of the Bow and Kananaskis Rivers. It was expanded in 1951 and modified again in 1994 and currently has a generating capacity of 18,900 Kw.

The Kananaskis Plant is the most upstream of TransAlta’s four hydro plants on the Bow River. The plant is a run-of-the-river plant, which means instead of storing water in a reservoir, the plant generates power from the river’s natural water flow.

All the natural water flow must have been running through the large pipes to the turbines today, as only one gate was open, so there was very little water flow visible at the dam.

Kananaskis Dam
Only the spillway farthest to the right was partially open this morning, so we presume the river’s flow was travelling through the large pipes to the power-generating turbines.
Weld on water pipe at Kananaskis Dam
Oldest GeoKid pointed his Olympus E-PL1 at a few details near the Kananaskis Dam, including this weld on a water pipe running north from the dam. The purpose of the pipe wasn’t immediately obvious to us – perhaps an irrigation water supply? drainage from lands to the north? or?

Although the north bank trail to Horseshoe Falls appears on 6th edition of Gem Trek’s “Canmore and Kananaskis Village” map and trail guide, it’s not part of the trail set included in the version of Southern Alberta Trail Maps currently loaded on our GPS receivers, so after a short side trip to find the lone geocache along this trail, we put our trail finding skills to the test.

For the most part, the trail was easy to follow. Within a few minutes, the route emerges from the mixed trees / shrubs and the trail follows the edge of a bluff sitting 25 or 30 meters above the Bow River. Across the river, Douglas Firs grow in niches in the Cardium sandstone bluffs and there are a rapids on the river to draw the eye.

After several minutes of walking too close to the edge of the bluff for Mrs. GeoKs’ comfort, the trail moved slightly inland, into thin mixed forest. There’s a lot of wind fall here; although the trail is marked as “unmaintained” on Gem Trek’s map, someone’s been out with a chainsaw recently, as we only had to climb over one fallen tree.

The topography from here is somewhat mixed: generally flat, with sections in the woods and other sections on exposed rolling prairie.

Horseshoe Falls Trail
This fairly open section of the trail gives an indication of the mixed woods (Douglas Firs and aspen), grasslands and outcroppings of Cardium sandstones.

About 2 km along the trail, we came across the highlight of our hike: a magnificent bald eagle. We settled in to watch the lone predator for a good 15 or 20 minutes. It would take flight from the deformed top of a Douglas Fir, soar over the Bow River and eventually return to the same tree.

Youngest GeoKid exclaimed that sighting this bald eagle was “epic”! And we all powered up our cameras to try to do justice to its majesty.

It wasn’t long after we finally started walking again that our trail-finding skills let us down. We veered right at a fork and followed the sandstone bluffs down to water level, making our way along about 400 meters of almost frozen mud before deciding to turn back at a 10 meter band of sandstone that was more challenging that we felt like tackling so early in the season.

Mr. GeoK and Youngest GeoKid along the sandstone bluffs
Mr. GeoK and Youngest GeoKid made their way along the top of this section of sandstone bluffs, spotting a couple of likely swimming holes before descending a grassy slope to water level.
Muddy section
In hindsight, we should have realized the trail wouldn’t be down at water level, which can change as the snow melt ebbs and flows.

Our poor reasoning added about 800 meters to our trek, but we were soon on the right track, climbing a short, steep section to open grassland where we meandered generally north east, spotting occasional crocus shoots poking up through the dry grass.

There was one more challenge – a small ravine we had to descend and climb out of, after crossing a small creek. It might have been possible to skirt the ravine, but it wasn’t clear how much distance that would add to our trip and with moisture-laden clouds moving in slowly from the west, we decided to take the shorter route.

Horseshoe Falls must have been something to see pre-1911, when Horseshoe Dam was constructed right at the waterfall. Today, the site is a strange blend of natural and manmade. This is another “run of river” power plant, so there’s no reservoir upstream of the dam.

Horseshoe Dam
Horseshoe Dam, with the original powerhouse on the left and the natural falls forming the base of the spillway. Distinct rock layers are visible on the right bank.

Gem Trek’s map shows the trail continuing for at least another kilometre past Horseshoe Dam, but we decided to head back. As it was, our total distance was 9.3 km. Allowing for our error/detour, we estimate it’s about 8 km to Horseshoe Dam and back with a total elevation gain of less than 100 meters.

We spotted nesting pairs of Canada Geese, swans (tundra or trumpeter) and a bald eagle on our trek; ospreys have been seen in the area. The trail along the north side of the Bow River meanders onto Stoney Nakoda lands, so some hikers may feel more comfortable with the trail on the south bank. This option is thoroughly described in Gillean Daffern’s “Short Walks for Inquiring Minds: Canmore & Kananaskis Country“.

Although we’ll head up into the Rockies when conditions permit, this was a good choice for our first hike of 2012 – no too long, pretty flat, lots of interesting things to see along the way and a geocache to start things off!

2 thoughts on “Hiking the Bow Valley – Horseshoe Falls

    1. Thanks for the great feedback. We tried really hard to get some great photos of the eagle. Too bad I didn’t pack my really long lens…

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