Despite no new snow since December 23, there’s plenty of snow in Kananaskis County, so on New Year’s Day we drove south from Canmore along the Smith-Dorrien highway through the scenic Spray Valley to the Chester Lake trailhead parking lot. The Smith-Dorrien is a gravel road, quite narrow as you leave Canmore and then widening out after about 25 minutes. It’s dusty in the summer and plowed and sanded in the winter (even so, we encountered a few very slippery sections and in a few spots saw evidence of vehicles sliding off the road).
We stopped once to take photos of the Spray Valley and arrived at the trailhead about an hour after leaving Canmore. It was New Year’s Day, so despite our late arrival at about 11 o’clock, we were the sixth vehicle in the large parking lot. After taking a close look at the trail conditions, we opted to wear MICROspikes and leave our snowshoes in the back of the vehicle.
It’s clear that Chester Lake is as popular in winter as it is in summer – trailhead signs and signposts along the way make it quite clear that once you’re a short distance from the parking lot, cross-country skiers veer left while those on snowshoes veer right. Where the two winter sports part ways, there’s an extra-large signpost which has been turned into a bit of a back-country shop. All the “lost and found” toques, mittens and bandanas hang from the post, on the chance their owners will stop by again before the snow melts.
Since we didn’t take the cross-country ski trail, our best guess is that it pretty much follows the summer hiking trails. The snowshoe route is quite a bit steeper and took us on an unfamiliar route. We were surprised at the extensive trail braiding. I guess that if the vegetation is under a meter (or more) of snow, it doesn’t really matter where you walk! There’s a lot more freedom to choose your own route on snowshoes than there is during hiking season, when proper etiquette and stewardship of the land dictate sticking to established trails.
Evidence of trail braiding was particularly evident when we emerged from the trees into a large alpine meadow. Every photographer hopes for unmarked snow in the foreground with majestic peaks in the distance, but we had no chance of getting that perfect shot! Plus, with the sun so low in the sky, we had extensive shadows to deal with. Here are a couple of our better results…
Chester Lake was in full shadow, which meant is was pretty cold. We were in our regular hiking boots with heavy wool socks and our toes soon grew chilled. We had planned to replace the logsheet in our Chester Lake micro cache, but even though we hung the cache at eye height in an evergreen tree, it was under the surface of the snow. After scrabbling away at the surface for a minute or two, we gave up and started back town, opting to eat lunch in our vehicle.
Despite the fact that meant Mr. GeoK packed our lunch all the way up to Chester Lake for nothing (but the added workout), it was a good decision to head directly back down. We must have passed a hundred people on their way up and there were more than 50 vehicles in the parking lot when we reached it at about 1:15. Although there were a couple of times I would have liked have snowshoes so that I could go off trail exploring a bit, the decision to “go light” was also a good one. In fact, on our way back down, several people we passed commented on how nice it would be not to slog along in snowshoes. The other great thing about wearing MICROspikes was that on the steep declines, it was easy to “hop, skip and jump” your way down, kind of like scree jumping on a steep gravel decline. Awesome fun!
Total hiking/snowshoe distance = 7.3 km
Our rating = easy to moderate, depending on your experience and physical condition
Remember to check avalanche and trail conditions and ensure your daypack is adequately stocked for medical and equipment failure emergencies.
We stopped once more on the way back to Canmore, to photograph one of the many ice-fishing huts dotting the Spray Lakes…