Camping at Elbow Lake Backcountry Campground

by - Wednesday, July 27, 2016

For the best first-time backpacking trip - and shortest hike in the world - head to Elbow Lake Backcountry Campground in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. Besides a super short hike in (1.3 km), the lake is beautiful, there are good dayhikes in the area, and you can have a fire at night to keep warm!


The Hike

Elbow Lake Trail climbs rapidly and steadily to Elbow Lake. The gravel trail is partially shaded and bordered with vibrant wildflowers in early summer. As you approach the lake, mountains rise up to greet you and soon after, the lovely clear, green lake appears straight ahead. It took us about 40 minutes to reach the lake at a very leisurely pace with our kids.

Trailhead/Parking: Look for the Elbow Pass turnoff on Highway 40. Note that the highway is closed from Dec 1-June 14 each year.
Distance: 1.3 km
Elevation gain: 150 m
Chariot friendly? Yes, but it is VERY steep, so I wouldn't recommend it.
Washrooms? At the trailhead and Elbow Lake (outhouses)


  
Elbow Lake Trailhead
Trail to Elbow Lake
Approaching the lake
Elbow Lake

The Campground

Once you reach the lake, Elbow Lake Backcountry Campground is to your right. Sites 12 & 13 are closest to the water, but all the campsites were really nice with level tent pads. Tent pad dimensions are approximately 2.7 x 2.7 metres.

Elbow Lake Backcountry Campground Map

Campground amenities include: bearproof food lockers, outhouses, communal cooking areas with fire pits and picnic tables, and outhouses.

Scenic fire pit at Elbow Lake
As at any backcountry campground, cooking is done away from your tent. Be sure to pick up food scraps and garbage before you leave the communal cooking area. My friends have seen a grizzly on the slopes of Elpoca Mountain (NW side of the lake) more than once and it would be nice to keep the bear uninterested in the campground!

Store food and attractants (this includes toothpaste, lip gloss and insect repellent) in the bear locker when you sleep or are not using them. Coolers should not be brought in as they are too big to fit in the bear locker and are not bearproof.

Bearproof Food Lockers at Elbow Lake
Water for drinking and washing must be brought in or drawn from the lake. Please Leave No Trace and dispose of grey water in the outhouses. 
  • Not sure how to make water safe for drinking? You could boil your water, but would need to pack in a LOT of fuel. Check out my comparison of water purifier vs. filter vs. Steripen (UV light) here: Potable Aqua PURE Electrolytic Water Purifier Review. Chlorine tablets or drops are inexpensive and effective options.
Elbow Lake
Firewood is free with your backcountry permit and an axe is available near the woodpile for your convenience.
  • Please keep fires to a moderate size and put them out properly before you leave the area or go to sleep. Soak it, stir it, and soak it again! 
  • Do not collect forest deadfall - not only is it illegal, this fragile mountain environment needs any natural compost it can get. We were quite dismayed to see families sending their kids to collect sticks to burn. 
Firewood bin at Elbow Lake
New and clean outhouses at Elbow Lake

Activities in the Area

HIKING

The best family-friendly hikes from Elbow Lake are Elbow Lake lakeshore (less than 2 km round trip, flat) and the picturesque Edworthy Falls (6.4 km return, 50 m elevation gain). I used to hike to Rae Glacier (5 km return, 500 m elevation gain) and slide in the snow, but the glacier has retreated so far up the mountain, there isn't really much to see/do there now.

There are several longer hikes in the area too. I recommend picking up a Gemtrek map and Gillean Daffern's Kananaskis Trail Guide for more information.

Elbow Lake's crystal clear waters
Edworthy Falls
FISHING

Fishing folk will enjoy sight fishing for little brook trout at Elbow Lake. The fish are plentiful, but stunted due to the harsh environment. Most of the fish we caught were 6-8" (with a couple 10").
  • Conservation Officers come by frequently, so be sure to have your Driver's License, WIN Card and fishing license on you. Children under 16 fish for free!
Big POG and her Brook Trout

For information on getting started with backpacking, see my 8 Tips for Fun Family Backpacking. Did you know that children shouldn't carry more than 10-15% of their body weight? 

Got any questions about camping at Elbow Lake? I'd be happy to help!

Related Posts

Peter Lougheed Provincial Park Camping and Activity Guide

Backpacking to The Point, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park - only a 3.4 km hike!

Not sure if you're ready for backpacking? Start with walk-in camping! Beyond Car Camping With Kids has a fun Camping Readiness Test, tips, and list of walk-in campgrounds near Calgary.

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8 comments

  1. Hi Karen. Great article. We just did our first back country camping trip with our kids (ages 5 & 7) to the Point campground. We actually canoed in and it was a smashing success! I think we will have to try this one next year.

    I really enjoy fishing but am quite a novice. What were you using for lures? We had no luck on upper Kananaskis but had fun trying. . . well . . . right up until my daughter cast her rod into the lake (from the canoe)!

    Thanks for the read!
    Arthur

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  2. Thanks Arthur! I'm glad you had a great time! We were supposed to be at the Point and Forks a few weeks ago, but couldn't go as the Upper Kan Lakes Trail was closed due to bear activity. Upper Kananaskis Lake has bull trout (0 limit), cutthroats and rainbows, but most people catch and release bull trout there. I caught a 2 pound bull trout on a Mepp's Black Fury - fishing from shore! I've heard others have had good luck fishing with pink and green streamers or gold Crocodiles spoons, but when we tried those we had no bites. Panther Martins are also great lures to try there. Watch your lure in the water to ensure you are reeling in fast enough to make it spin but are not too fast for the fish. When I was starting out, I had the speed totally wrong but once I got it right, I got lots of bites. Water temperature will affect fish activity too. When it's really cold or really warm, fish are generally less active. Also the best time is early morning and evening. I caught my bull trout after dinner near the campground!

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  3. Can you please confirm that the several communal fire pits are the only fire pits, ie one cannot have fires by their tent?

    Thanks!

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  4. Hi Chris, thanks for your question! Yes, there are group cooking areas (fire rings and picnic tables) and no fire pits near the tent pads. When backcountry camping, you should prepare food about 100 m from your tent.

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  6. OK so we just booked Elbow, and as I'm scanning around I come across this blog and have a good read. When I look at the picture of M I'm like Jake! Jake! We know these people! Looks fun and we are totally bringing our fishing rods with such a short hike. Thanks Karen :)

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    Replies
    1. Hi Margo, yeah my poor kids have to be in so many stories. Lol. Glad you found the blog and hope you have a wonderful trip to Elbow Lake! We went 4 times last year (Summer camping, November camping, and summer fishing/picnic) and loved it each time. I was fishing with a fly and bubble as the water near shore is quite shallow. If you walk around the left side, you can fish at the dropoff and hopefully snag less lures on the bottom. Let me know how it goes!

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