NOTE: As of September 2021, Three Sisters Mountain Village is exercising private property rights and has posted NO TRESPASSING signs at the access point to East End of Highline Trail. It’s an evolving situation, covered by CBC News on September 4th. We hope that Alberta Parks and Three Sisters Mountain Village soon reach agreement on access to the Highline Trail. Stay tuned…
We’ve been walking to the big waterfall on Three Sisters Creek at least once a month for the past four or five years. I’ve published more than a dozen posts showcasing some of the wildflowers, ice and snow formations, wildlife and remnants of Canmore’s coal-mining days that we’ve noticed along the path. But I realized the other day that I’ve never posted a real trail description, so here goes…
Take the Three Sisters / Stewart Creek exit off the TransCanada highway. This is the first Canmore exit if you’re driving west from Calgary. Once you’re off the highway, head south (up hill) towards Three Sisters. At the four-way stop, carry on straight to the end of the Three Sisters Boulevard. There’s room for 3 or 4 vehicles to park on either side of the top end of Three Sisters Boulevard. PLEASE do not block driveways and watch for children at play.
The front section of the Three Sisters Creek is actually the east end of the Highline Trail, which starts at the end of Three Sisters Boulevard, heading up and bearing left through a gate. It follows the fence line (wooden) of the Steward Creek course and continues through a patch of trees between Stewart Creek golf course and the unfinished Three Sisters golf course. NOTE: Highline Trail is a popular mountain bike / fat bike trail, so stay alert to on-coming and overtaking riders.
Around the 1.5 km mark, you’ll cross two wooden bridges. Just past the picnic table, the trail goes up a small incline to a trail junction. Cyclists veer sharply right to continue along the Highline Trail (blue trail marker and indicated with a curved line of rocks on the trail). Hikers: turn left here!
In about 75 meters there’s easy access to the creek, just below an old stone dam. Internet consensus seems to be that it’s about a century old and dates back to Canmore’s coal mining days. It was in great shape when we first saw it back in the fall of 2010. By the summer of 2012, we noticed some minor damage to the structure (rains and spring runoff). The June 2013 flood event compounded the damage. There’s no longer a small reservoir upstream along the eastern stretch of the dam, but there’s a more impressive waterfall because the creek flow is channeled through the break in the dam. If you’re interested in waterfall photography, careful positioning of your tripod allows for some decent shots here – both of the waterfall over the dam and smaller cascades along the east side of the creek.
Depending on trail conditions, creek flow rates and your level of energy, you might decide to turn around here. But if your energy level is still high and you’re up for something a bit more challenging, it’s possible to continue along the less well-established trail up and to the west of the creek (this section can be very slippery in the winter). About 20 meters upstream of the dam you’ll need to cross the creek. There are usually enough rocks carefully lined up across the creek bed that the crossing is straightforward. If the rocks are covered in ice, if the creek level is a little higher than usual or if you’re just not comfortable making the attempt then please turn back. We’ve had someone put their foot in the creek while making the crossing and while that may be tolerable mid-summer, it’s downright hazardous mid-winter!
Once you cross the creek, the trail may require some basic route finding and will definitely require rock jumping since the June 2013 flood washed away one stretch of the trail and you now have to make your way along some random rocks that have been carefully placed along the left shore of the creek. But it’s only about 400 meters from the creek crossing to the overlook at the “big” waterfall. Keep in mind that “big” is relative. My estimate is that the “big” waterfall drops a total of 8 or 9 meters, with the longest step maybe 4 or 5 meters. But it’s a nice and cool here on a hot summer day and it’s a readily accessible (and usually not busy) place to practice waterfall photography (bring a tripod and an 8 or 10 stop ND filter).
If you opt to take photographs from the base of the falls, we’ve found it best to go part way back down the trail towards the old dam and look for a point of easy access to the east bank of the creek. It takes some work to get up and over boulders and flood debris (fallen trees) to make it back upstream the 150 meters or so to the base of the falls. It’s almost always shaded there, so bring along an extra layer so you don’t get chilled.
Retrace your route to get back to the trailhead parking. When we don’t do any photography, our total walking time is about an hour. But we usually end up spending 2 to 3 hours on this trail since we almost always have our photography kit along.
Total hiking distance = approx. 4 km
Net elevation gain = 100 m
Do you have a favourite “go to” walk/hike? What makes it some compelling? If you’ve blogged about your favourite trail somewhere, please include a link in your comment so we can check it out!
15 thoughts on “Hiking the Bow Valley – Three Sisters Creek and Waterfall”
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Hello GeoKs! Can you please explain your camera settings for the beautiful shots that turn the water into angel’s hair? Thanks! Love this trail.
Angel’s hair…what a beautiful description!
The angel’s hair effect is created entirely by a longer shutter speed – the longer the shutter is open, the more smooth the water (up to the point it becomes ridiculous or blown out). I usually find the sweet spot is somewhere between 1/4 second and 2 seconds, sometimes as long as 8 – 10 seconds depending on water flow rates and my mood.
So, first off, you need a tripod to mount your camera. In terms of actual settings, you can go with S or M. I usually go with M so I can dial in the lowest ISO possible on my camera (ISO 100). Next, I set the shutter at 1 or 2 seconds. Then, using the in-camera light meter/histogram to guide me, I dial in the aperture needed to get a proper exposure. Often, this is as small as f22. If it’s a bright, sunny day, an 8 stop neutral-density filter is pretty much a requirement to avoid over exposure. Finally, I set a 2 second delay on the shutter to avoid the bobbling that happens when I press the shutter affecting the sharpness of image.
I always take multiple shots, adjusting the shutter speed incrementally until I get something appealing.
This is something that’s taken me a fair bit of practice. Since I don’t shoot waterfalls everyday, I’d say it was a good year after I started working on waterfall photography before I felt confident I’d always come away with something I’d be happy with.
This is a pretty brief description. There are lots of more detailed tutorials on the interwebz. I particularly like this one:
And this one has a few good tips, too:
Good luck! Looking forward to seeing your waterfall photos posted on FB. Hope we can get out and shoot some angel’s hair together come spring.
BTW, Mr. GeoK walked up to the big waterfall last week and it’s currently frozen solid. No opportunity for angel’s hair until there’s a good thaw.
As a concerned resident of Hubman Landing please update your Parking description to educate readers. You mentioned there’s no parking on 3 sisters Blvd, that’s incorrect. Your allowed to park on both sides of 3 sisters. On Hubman, we have issues with visitors speeding down street, making a u turn to get a parking spot we’ve had a near miss of child on the street, litter(garbage bin right on corner), off leash dogs, public urination right beside cars, many disrespectful visitors. No problems with visiting, but be respectful in our neighborhood.
Sorry to hear about the disrespectful/uninformed visitors…seems to be happening more and more frequently. Parking suggestion has been updated as requested.
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What a beautiful spot! I’ve never even heard of it. Your photos are stunning! : ) I really want to go there now. Do you think the stream hopping would be too challenging for my 4 & 5 year olds? Our go to hike is Troll Falls (www.playoutsideguide.com/2014/10/kinder-bike-and-hike-in-kananaskis-part.html). We can hike it, bike it, check out the ice falls in the winter, and play by the river in the summer. Looking forward to doing longer hikes this summer! Will come back here for ideas.
From what I’ve read about your family’s outdoor adventures, your girls would probably have a lot of fun on this trail. I’d recommend later in the summer maybe, when the water level is usually a bit less, and wearing a good creek walking sandal, like something from Keen, or another water-friendly shoe. There’s no need for creek hopping unless you go upstream of the old dam. There’s a picnic table near the bridge over the creek, which makes it a good spot to watch for mountain bikers while enjoying the sights and sounds of the creek.
This is a great post! Thanks for the detailed directions. I’ve never been, despite living very close. It’s now on my list! So many great hikes. We love Grotto Canyon near Exshaw. Not very challenging, but so beautiful where the water has carved out the canyon of rocks! LOVE your waterfall photography!!
Interested to hear what you think after you’ve knocked this one off your list. And thanks for the Grotto Canyon recommendation…haven’t done that since before I started blogging so you’ve got me thinking about a long overdue return visit.
As for the waterfall photography, I confess it took me far too long to figure out how to manipulate the exposure triangle to get the look I want. Thank goodness for fearless teenagers – they have no fear when it comes to figuring this stuff out! 🙂
wooow! truly beautiful.
That it is…easy to see why it’s a perennial favourite, even with our teenage boys.