The Rocky Mountains are one of the world’s largest mountain ranges and are one of Canada’s most impressive features. Stretching the entire length of North America, there’s never a shortage of places to hike, peaks to conquer and mountains to explore.
If you’re an avid hiker like me, trying to decide which mountain to climb can be a daunting task as there are just so many to choose from! That being said, one of the most notable overnight hikes is called Northover Ridge. This hike is full of stunning views, high alpine lakes & meadows and glacier topped mountains. If you’re looking for an epic hike, this one should be the top pick for any backcountry hiker visiting the area.
Where, When & Why
As with all large mountain ranges, The Rockies are divided and sub-divided into ranges and regions to better classify certain areas. Alberta’s Kananaskis country is one of the most beautiful and most photographed regions of the Rocky Mountains. Easily accessible from near-by Calgary and Banff, the Kananaskis are littered with hiking trails, scenic viewpoints and camp grounds.
Northover Ridge is located in the Kananaskis region in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, about a 2 hour drive from Calgary. To get to there from Calgary, take the Trans Canada Highway west towards Banff. Just as you’re about to enter the mountains head south on Highway 40 (otherwise called the Kananaskis Trail). Follow this until you see signs for Upper Kananaskis Lake, the starting point of the Northover Ridge hike (confusingly, this is located south of Lower Kananaskis Lake).
You may choose to begin the hike from one of 2 parking lots, both located on the shores of Upper Kananaskis Lake. We chose to park in the Upper Kananaskis Lake Day Use area, the more southern parking lot of the 2. I recommend parking here as it could shorten the hike by 4.5 km (I’ll explain how to get back here without hiking later on), which is the distance between the 2 parking lots.
Alternatively you can park in the more northern of the 2 parking lots called North Interlakes Day Use Area and hike around the upper part of the lake rather than the lower. Doing it this way means the first and last few kms of the hike will be along the same trail (rather than doing a complete loop it will be more of a lasso).
The Kananaskis Trail (HWY 40) is closed from December 1st to June 14th so you can only drive to this park during the summer and fall. There are many cross-country ski trails through the park in the winter, usually accessed from parks to the north.
What makes this hike so spectacular is the scenery and various ecosystems you hike through. This trail travels through forest, past high alpine lakes, through wildflower filled meadows, across glacier fed streams, up high skree fields, over narrow mountain ridges and across alluvial fans. It’s a hard, physical hike but you are rewarded with the most breath-taking views of the gorgeous mountains in the heart of the Kananaskis.
How To & How Long
Often done as a 3 day, 2 night hike due to the placement of the 2 camp grounds, it can easily be done in 2 days, 1 night. The 2 campsites are located at Aster Lake and Three Isle Lake, approx. 1/3 and then 2/3 of the way along the trail, thus making it a 3 day hike. The Aster Lake site is small with only 5 tent spots in a small clearing by a rushing glacier fed stream. Three Isle Lake has 16 campsites in a high alpine forest. All sites are usually booked up early in the season so plan ahead.
These camp grounds are only open from June 24th – November 30th.
The entire Northover Ridge trail is approximately 34 km long. If you hike this loop in a clockwise direction, Aster Lake campground is 10.8 km from the Upper Kananaskis Lake Day Use area. Though there is a lot of uphill hiking you can easily reach this site in 4-5 hours. On your second day you’ll hike approx 12.5 kms to Three Isle Lake and again, should only take about 4-5 hours to complete. On the last day it’s a 10.3 km hike back to the North Interlakes parking lot on Upper Kananaskis Lake.
If you’re willing to tackle this hike over 2 days rather than 3, you don’t need to worry about having to obtain a hard-to-get campsite reservation. While you aren’t allowed to wild camp (camping in non-designated camp grounds) in the province of Alberta, you can in British Columbia (BC). Fortunately, the trail actually leaves Alberta (and therefore, the park) just before you hike across Northover Ridge (if your hiking in the clockwise direction). There are 2 high alpine tarn lakes located here and offer a great spot to wild camp with truly spectacular views.
It’s important to obtain a camping permit if you plan on using the designated campsites as park staff are around and do ask to see permits. On the second day near the end of our hike, we met a park ranger who asked to see our camping permit. I explained that we had camped at the tarn lakes, located in BC (and therefore didn’t require a permit). She then asked if we had taken any pictures and could I show them to her to prove my story. I wasn’t deterred by this interaction and the park ranger was quite friendly and enjoyed seeing my pictures. She was just doing her job keeping the wilderness pristine so others many enjoy the same natural beauty that I did.
Beginning on the shores of Upper Kananaskis Lake the trail winds around part of the lake and then upwards to the high alpine. The first section is on a well maintained trail and you’ll likely encounter other hikers. The second section is a rough, newly made trail that may involve some bushwhacking through thick forest. Emerging on the shores of Hidden Lake, you’ll again find a well traveled, single track trail around the lake to one more thick forest section where you’ll be deposited at the bottom of a steep skee field.
Hiking up the large skree field and crossing glacier fed streams you make your way through high alpine forest and meadows. If you do this hike at the beginning of August you’ll have the added beauty of the rocky mountain wildflowers littering the high alpine meadows (I highly recommend hiking at this time of year!).
The trail takes you past Aster Lake camp ground which is one of the 2 designated campsites on the trail. Continuing on, you hike around Aster Lake across a large alluvial fan, then up and over a ridge.
From there you’ll see 2 high alpine tarn lakes with stunning views. At this point in the hike you are technically in British Columbia and wild camping is allowed. We chose to camp here for the night as we were doing a 2 day trek.
The approximate mid-way point is marked by the trails namesake, Northover Ridge, which is next to Mt Northover. This is where we began day 2, hiking up to the top of Northover Ridge from the tarn lakes.
Once you get to the top of the ridge you’ll be treated with the hikes most spectacular view (in my opinion!). You have 360 degree view of mountain tops and looking forward, you can see Three Isle Lake, the second designated campsite for this trek.
This section crosses a loose skree covered ridge. At times the trail is a narrow single track with steep ledges dropping off on both sides. One section, about 25 feet in length, becomes so narrow that I had to crawl across it on my hands and knees as it was too uneven and narrow to safely walk across.
Once you reach the end of the ridge, it’s a long steep hike down to Three Isle Lake. As you get lower the trail leaves the skree field behind and you enter another high alpine meadow. Continuing down the trail all but disappears as you cross a flood plain that will take you to the shores of Three Isle Lake.
From there, the trail continues straight down to the original elevation, as you tackle a very steep decent. Once down in the forest you enjoy a few hour hike along beautiful, flat forest trail.
Eventually the trail emerges onto the shores of Upper Kananaskis Lake, but on the opposite shores from which the trail began. The first parking lot you’ll come to is North Interlakes Day Use area and may not the one you started from. As I mentioned earlier, there are 2 parking lots on this lake and if you started from the Upper Kananaskis Lake parking lot you’ll need to get back. Option one involves hiking the 4.5 km’s from North Interlakes to Upper Lake. Alternatively you can try and hitch-hike back to your car as there are usually many tourists around heading that direction. If you began from the North Interlakes area then you hike is done!
Experience: For experienced hikers only! Hikers should be well versed in backcountry hiking and camping as this trail takes you through fairly remote and difficult to access areas.
Fitness: You should be in good physical shape for this hike as it is quite strenuous as you hike up to and back down from Northover Ridge.
Bear Safety: This is grizzly bear country! They are a common site to see so be prepared with bear spray or other bear deterrents. Know how to act appropriately if you encounter one (ie. never turn your back, never run). I personally came across a large grizzly during this hike. He was standing in the middle of a high traffic trail, munching on some berries and paid us no attention while we cautiously retreated.
Best Route: This trail is a loop, beginning and ending in the roughly the same location. I highly recommend doing this trail in the clockwise direction. The ascent is more gradual while the decent is very steep. I couldn’t believe how much hiking down I did on the second day and thought what a killer trek it would have been had I gone counter clockwise.
Northover Ridge is one of the most spectacular hikes I’ve ever done but also one of the most physically challenging. Though it’s not too long in length, you will work hard while you’re out there. Every backcountry hiker should add this one to their bucket list for its incredible scenery and to experience the remote mountain wilderness.