Travel the TransCanada Highway between Calgary and Banff and it’s hard to miss the Camp Chief Hector sign near the Seebe exit. Camp Chief Hector sits in the middle of the lesser-known south part of Bow Valley Provincial Park. And there’s a a fairly extensive network of hiking/biking/equestrian trails here – great for maintaining conditioning over the winter, for family picnics, for enjoying fall colours and more.
We’ve hiked this area twice. Our first exploration was in early October, a little past peak fall colour on the aspen trees, but still gorgeous. We returned in early January, when the ice along the Kananaskis River piqued our interest.
A highlight both times? The Stoney-Nakoda ti-jurabi-chubi sites. Mother Nature is slowly reclaiming three sacred lodge sites. The signage is poor and information is scant. But it’s easy to understand why this location was chosen to express thanks for life, the beautiful world, the sun, the rain, and the changing seasons.
Take the Seebe exit off the TransCanada Highway; it’s between the exit to Highway 40 to Kanananskis country and the Lac des Arcs exit. The small, unsigned parking lot is on the south side of the highway. If you end up driving towards the distinctive Mount Yamnuska, you’re going the wrong way!
The small, unsigned parking lot has room for about a half dozen vehicles. There is no pit toilet at this location, but there is a wildlife-proof garbage can.
Plaques mounted to a boulder just off the parking lot commemorate Scouts Field, the site of Canadian and World Scout Jamborees in 1981, 1983 and 1993.
The Trail Network
The trails in this area are NOT marked There are no trail map signs with “you are here” markers. It’s extremely helpful to carry a copy of Gillean Daffern’s map of Bow Valley Provincial Park South, which you can find here or in her Kananaskis Country Trail Guide Volume 3.
Look for the Stoney Trail sign, beside parallel tracks that mark the original Highway 40, built in 1934. During WW II, it connected the Bow Valley to Prisoner of War Internment Camp #130, near Barrier Lake.
This sign marks the NW access to the fairly extensive trail network. It’s basically a large loop bordered by the Rafter Six Ranch, the Kananaskis River, and Camp Chief Hector and its access road. The loop is biscected by a cutline, a powerline and other trail segments. At the south end of the loop, Stoney Trail continues to Barrier Lake (about 1 km), where the Stoney Trail listed on Alberta Parks’ website begins and extends all the way to the Ribbon Creek Parking lot (22.5 km). We’ve made note of the possibility of exploring the entire Stoney Trail via mountain bike. More research required… 🙂
Check this area on any topo map and it looks pretty flat. But because it’s in the valley bottom that was carved by glaciers during the most recent ice age, it’s “knob and kettle” country. Although somewhat masked by vegetation, a keen observer will note drumlins, depressions and other glacial moraine features. Near the Kananaskis River, at least one trail descends to water level. So despite topo map appearances, this is actually a great spot for spring conditioning hikes – with no avalanche risk!
During the short fall colour season, aspens make the first couple of kilometers quite photogenic.
When snow is on the ground, prevailing winds carve patterns in the snow. Catch the sun reflecting off wave patterns or frame crisscrossing animal tracks for some beautiful images.
A return visit during wildflower season is warranted.
Ti-Jurabi-Chubi Meadows (aka Sundance Lodge Meadows)
Three sacred lodge dance sites sit in wide open meadows a short walk from the Kananaskis River. There is also the frame of a sweat lodge. In accordance with Stoney-Nakoda tradition, Mother Nature is slowly reclaiming these sites. There is limited information on the posted sign and a few minutes searching the internet has yielded little more.
Along the Kananaskis River to Broken Bridge Picnic Area
The trail from the meadows down to the river is the steepest section yet, with loose rock and – most recently – fallen tree obstacles. On our January trek, the windfall was so recent the smell of evergreen sap was strong.
The water level of this stretch of the Kananaskis River is controlled by TransAlta’s Barrier Lake dam. During our fall hike, the water was flowing nicely.
In January, we discovered the hard way (i.e. soaking wet feet), that the water had overflowed the river banks at some point. Several days of well above freezing temperatures meant we broke through the thin layer of top ice on the trail, to swamp our waterproof shoes from over the top!!
The ice jam along the river incorporated fallen trees and huge blocks of ice pushed into all kinds of angles – visual evidence of the power of moving ice.
The Broken Bridges picnic area is a great destination, with several picnic tables in a sunny spot beside the river. Although we saw little evidence of the broken bridges that once allowed travel to the opposite river bank in the fall, we spotted some of the old wooden structure during our winter visit. It’s a picturesque spot for a snack, lunch or a hot/cold drink.
Undulating Trail to Aspen Groves
Continuing south from the picnic area, along undulating trails (there are a couple of options here) to a stunningly beautiful aspen cathedral just off the trail.
Even further south, the trail passes through more aspen groves, equally photo-worthy.
South End of the “Loop”
Approaching the south end of the “loop”, there are many spots with peek-a-boo views into what is generally considered Kananaskis Country: Mount Baldy, the Kananaskis River whitewater kayaking course, the U of C field research station and more.
If you make it all the way to where the powerline cut crosses Stoney Trail, it’s decision time: head back to parking via the powerline cut? continue on Stoney Trail south to Barrier Lake? return to parking via one of the trail sections that cuts behind Camp Chief Hector?
Route Behind Camp Chief Hector
In the fall, we opted for one of the trail sections that took us behind Camp Chief Hector and then we looped around behind Whale Lake. Highlights from this stretch were the heart-racing, distinctive wing beat patterns of grouse taking off, a couple of woodpecker sightings and beautiful fall colours.
Considerably less scenic, the powerline cut is a direct line back to Stoney Trail as it loops around to the Ti-jurabi-chubi meadow. It’s at least a third shorter than the route behind Camp Chief Hector.
More a wetland than a lake, Whale Lake is north and west of Camp Chief Hector and can been seen from Stoney Trail as it curves towards the Ti-jurabi-chubi meadow. For a short stretch of the legs, consider Stoney Trail to the Whale Lake loop around, including Bonsai Rocks (a spot we’ve yet to visit).
In addition to grouse and woodpeckers, we spotted grey jays, ravens, magpies and squirrels, along with tracks and other signs of showshoe hares, coyotes and deer. There were several kinds of ducks at Whale Lake in the fall.
The trail network in the south part of Bow Valley Provincial Park offers options for short hikes, half-day hikes, full day hikes, and bike-and-hikes. The trails are NOT signed. Be prepared, with a GPS pre-loaded with trail maps OR strong navigational skills while referencing a printed copy of Gillean Daffern’s trail map.
Distance = variable, approximately 11 to 12 km for the routes described in this post
Elevation gain = variable, approximately 125-250 meters for the routes described herein
Hiking time = variable, approximately 3.5 to 4 hours for the routes we’ve done
The trails are likely to be busy during summer camp season. We recommend this area for shoulder season and winter conditioning hikes. Other nearby shoulder season hiking options are at the Bow Valley Campground and Yamnuska Natural Area .