Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park (“BVWPP”) is K-Country’s most visible and single most complicated space. I want to acknowledge Duane Fizor, former Friends Board member and former Kananaskis Region Information and Advisories Coordinator, Seasonal Conservation Officer Genivieve Primeau and District CO Andrew Rees for their assistance with this lengthy and detailed post.
Where Is BVWPP exactly?
BVWPP is NOT Bow Valley Provincial Park, despite what Apple Maps may tell you. BVWPP spreads far and wide and is made up of several discontinuous fragments, as you can see in the map to the right (best to click on it to enlarge it).
It runs from the Banff Park Boundary in the northwest, down the east side of Spray Lakes to Buller Mountain, across Mt. Bogart to the Ribbon Creek area, surrounds the Nakiska Ski Area, runs up the west side the Kananaskis River and past Barrier Lake to just short of the Rafter 6 area (abutting Bow Valley Provincial Park the whole way), covers most (but not all) lands south of the 1A through the Bow Valley, and surrounds Canmore, the Nordic Centre and and Harvie Heights.
There’s a northwestern extension north and east of Harvie Heights surrounding Mt. Lady MacDonald, but Grotto Mountain is not included. There’s a discontinuous section of the Park on the north side of the 1A as well that butts up against the base of the Yamnuska cliffs. BVWPP includes lands within the Town of Canmore boundary. The islands and inlets along the Bow River from Banff Park to Seebee are a mixture of Canmore Town land, BVWPP, Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park and Bow Valley Provincial Park land. Here’s the official BVWPP park map. Study it carefully!
You’ll even see that there are currently some “holes” in the park; private land the park surrounds. All are in the Bow Valley and represent old privately held mining or exploration lands, mostly south and above Three Sisters, or in Quaite Valley. Parks has been working to make some of these disappear by purchasing them, or swapping land for them. In 2022, one small and one large hole were “filled”, and are now part of the BVWPP. The map showing the park expansion is to the right. We talk a bit about “holes” here.
When was BVWPP created?
Most of the Park came into being via an Order in Council in December 1998, along with the Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park and a realignment of the Bow Valley Provincial Park. BVWPP was expanded in September 2000 with the addition of lands in the Spray Valley, again in October 2004 when the area previously known as the Yamnuska Natural Area was included in the Wildland Park, and again in 2022. The Park now sits at over 37,000 ha, or 144 square miles. The South Saskatchewan Regional Plan recommended expanding the Park to include the space east of Cougar Creek, west of Yamnuska and south of Don Getty Wildland park, but that hasn’t happened yet.
The Park includes a space that is becoming more controversial over time: the only designated wildlife corridors in Kananaskis. There are two; one is above Silvertip and the second is above Three Sisters. Because things aren’t complicated enough, the “P4 Corridor” above Three Sisters has several separate segments, and a part of the corridor in the Nordic Centre is closed seasonally. The one above Silvertip is well marked; the Three Sisters one is starting to be better marked, though it is signposted in the big bend on Hwy 742 near the Rundle Forebay.
Corridors are a “space within a space”. Closed by a Ministerial Order in 2005, people are not allowed to be in designated wildlife corridors except on trails designated by the Minister. The Montane Traverse and the Highline Trail accesses are such designated trails. The Highline Trail itself (which the Friends help build) was specifically designed to stay out of the Wildlife Corridor as much as possible. Note that stepping off the designated trails while in the corridor is illegal, meaning some popular routes (like, for instance, Grassi Knob) are actually illegal. Read more about these corridors on the Canmore Trail Alliance website.
In addition to designated wildlife corridors, there are also three designated spring wildlife protection closure areas in BVWPP. These are in Wind Valley, Pigeon Mountain, and The Centennial Trail, which are closed each year to protect wintering ground for sheep and elk (that’s a deer in the Pigeon closure space to the right; Wind Ridge’s closure space is in the background).
Access to these areas is closed December 1st to June 15th every year, and when closed, no one is allowed in those areas, similar to a wildlife corridor. But unlike a wildlife corridor, during a closure window all the trails close (even the designated ones, such as the Centennial Trail) and people are not allowed in the area at all, even on official trails. An unofficial mountain bike trail on Pigeon Mountain was decommissioned in part because it was in the seasonal wildlife closure area. These are also the only designated wildlife protection closures in Kananaskis with such seasonal restrictions – though Highway 40 has a wildlife space through the Highwood Pass, but that’s for a different page. The Management Plan originally proposed 9 of these in BVWPP.
AND there’s an seasonal winter closure on the G8 Trail, too. This is signposted, but not covered by Ministerial Order and not in a designated corridor.
What hiking trails are in BVWPP?
What really is a “trail” or a “route”? Interestingly the Parks Act doesn’t actually define what a trail is. Parks reserve the term “trail” for official ones only. Anything else Parks calls “routes”, which is also undefined. We explore this more on a page called “When is a trail NOT a trail?”.
Hiking is permitted in the Park, with the following surprisingly short list of only 18 official trails:
- Heart Creek (from the parking lot to the creek only; the rest is in Heart Creek Provincial Recreation Area);
- Quaite Valley;
- Jewell Pass;
- Windy Point on Wind Ridge in Wind Valley;
- Prairie View;
- Montane Traverse;
- Ridge Traverse;
- Johnny’s Trail;
- Tibbits Quarry Trail;
- Meander Trail;
- The Douglas Fir Trail;
- The G8 Trail;
- The Horsehoe Loop;
- Ha Ling (official only to treeline even though it was rebuilt);
- Lady McDonald (official only to the old helipad);
- Yamnuska (rebuilt in 2021, now official to Raven’s End);
- The Highline Trail and it’s 3 access trails;
- Skogan Pass;
- The Centennial Trail;
- Stoney Trail wiggles in and out of BVWPP and Bow Valley PP from Jewel Pass to Troll Falls, as it sits on the boundary of the two parks.
The TransCanada Trail is not listed above because it’s “special”. It has two sections in BVWPP. The first runs from Quaite Valley to Dead Man’s Flats. In here, that trail’s actual name is the Bow Corridor Link Trail. While official and (mostly) in the park, it is not maintained by Parks, but by the Canmore and Area Mountain Bike Association (CAMBA), under an agreement with M.D. of Bighorn and Alberta Parks. The other section in BWVPP is called the High Rockies Trail (HRT). It runs from Spray Lakes Dam to near Buller Pass. That trail is now under Parks management, though we at the Friends mostly manage the maintenance. As noted here, Heart Creek trail is mostly in it’s own PRA.
Because most people don’t know which park is which, there are trails people think are in BVWPP that aren’t. Grotto Canyon is in Bow Valley Provincial Park. East End of Rundle, Old Goat Glacier and the first kilometer of Goat Creek aren’t in BVWPP either; all are in Spray Valley Provincial Park, as is Ribbon Creek (though parts of Ribbon are in Evan Thomas Provincial Recreation Area). Grassi Lakes isn’t either; that’s in Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park. Jura Creek, Exshaw Creek and (most of) the Grotto Mountain trail aren’t currently on park land at all.
What about unofficial routes?
A short list of just the most popular but unofficial (and thus not maintained) “routes” in BVWPP include:
- Three Sisters Pass;
- West Wind Pass;
- the continuation above Windy Point to Wind Ridge;
- the Yamnuska Traverse;
- Sparrowhawk Tarns;
- Read’s Ridge & Tower;
- Little Lougheed;
- Memorial Lakes;
- Pigeon Mountain;
- the Razor’s Edge mountain bike trail (but its VERY CLOSE to being official); and
- the Heart Mountain Horseshoe.
Several of these are working their way through the process to become official (a process we describe here) but are not there yet. Several are serious scrambles as well. Notice that there are basically no official maintained trails in BVWPP south of the Bow Valley corridor other than the HRT, Centennial and Skogan.
Can you build your own trails in BVWPP?
In any Provincial Park, you can go for a walk anywhere except where specifically prohibited, such as a wildlife corridor. Does walking somewhere enough constitute building a trail? Section 9.1(1)(b) of the Parks Act says you can’t disturb the surface of the ground in a Park, and 9(2)(a) says you can’t damage plant life. So if you dig up the ground to make your trail, that’s contravening the aforementioned sections and have hefty citations associated with them. Stamp the ground down with 10,000 feet a summer (like West Wind Pass) and a trail will show up, but that’s technically not illegal. However — and a big however…
Section 3 of the Parks Act makes the purpose of any Park pretty clear, and one of the highest mandates is protection of flora and fauna. Yes, recreation is a purpose, too, but it takes a back seat to protection. So Parks spends a LOT of time creating park management plans, and the one for BVWPP is merged with the other protected areas in the Bow Valley. Routes and trails — even those stamped down by 10,000 feet — that are in contravention of this management plan can and will be closed. So… it’s complicated. But no, you can’t legally build your own trails anywhere.
There is much controversy about the construction of new and illegal bike trails in the wildlife corridors around Canmore (remember: no trails in a wildlife corridor unless specifically approved by the Minister). But outside of this, unofficial routes pop up all over the place. The G8 and Horseshoe Loop areas on the north east side of Canmore, for instance, are a rabbit warren of unofficial routes, and every unofficial route listed above (including West Wind Pass) falls into this category.
Let’s explore biking some more
Under section 9.1(1)(a) of the Parks Act, you’re not allowed to build a permanent structure in a Wildland Park. So that bike ramp is always illegal, even if the route or trail is not, even if it is built out of deadfall. Cutting down the trees to build a bike ramp increases the severity of the offence, because you’re not allowed to cut trees in a park without a permit, and those permits are REALLY hard to come by.
Yes, a permit even needs to be issued to Parks themselves if they are constructing something. The Parks thorough trail approval process also includes archaeological and ecological reviews, among others. Build your own route by digging up the ground, cutting down some trees PLUS do all that in the Wildlife corridor and the consequences can be severe.
And even more confusing, Provincial Parks General Regulation 27(2) prohibits cycling in ANY park except on trails designated for cycling and identified by signage as such. So now it gets messy. In BVWPP, bikes are allowed on roads, plus any official trail listed above EXCEPT Heart Creek and Centennial. Technically, no other routes in BVWPP are designated and signed. So technically, bikes aren’t allowed on that rabbit warren of routes in the Horseshoe Loop area, but are allowed on the Loop itself. Needless to say, there are a lot of folks breaking rules they don’t know exist. Don’t get too worried, though; in practice, Parks specifically posts trails where bikes are not permitted (like Heart Creek Interpretive) and allows them elsewhere. The question of whether you could mountain bike on the disused 1950’s exploration road system in Wind Valley was cleared up in 2022 when Parks put up a “No Bikes” sign at the only entrance to the valley, just past the Skogan Pass turn off (you CAN bike Skogan Pass).
Can you ride horses in the park?
Section 19 of the Regulations treats horses a lot like bikes. You can only ride horses in designated areas. But folks ride horses all the time around the G8 Trail and the trails on the northwest side of Canmore; there are, after all, two riding stables there. There are hitching rails at Wind Valley, and Quaite’s designated, too. In practice, just like bikes, Parks marks trails where horses are not allowed, and essentially permits them everywhere else.
What other rules are in place?
You’re allowed to launch a hang-glider or paraglider from the top of Lady MacDonald or Ha Ling, but nowhere else within BVWPP. Other general Parks regulations apply, so you can’t set off fireworks. Under Park Regulation 15(1) dogs must be on a leash less than 2 m long, and you must remove your dog’s excrement. Regulations 17 & 18 gives CO’s the right to take your dog if it is not under your control. There’s more they can do, too, but that’s for a different page.
How about camping?
The camping rules in BVWPP are complicated. There is only 1 designated campsite in the whole Park: Quaite Valley backcountry campground (one of the few backcountry campgrounds in Kananaskis that is open all year). It hides in the trees in the photo to the right. The road accessible campgrounds in the Bow Valley are not in the Wildland Park; they’re in Bow Valley Provincial Park, as is Jewell Bay Backcountry Campground. A new campground was under consideration for BVWPP at Memorial Lakes in 2012 but the flood delayed its construction; it now may never happen.
To make up for this, you are allowed to random camp for free in a Wildland Provincial Park. We have a special page dedicated to random camping in K-Country here. However, BVWPP has numerous unique restrictions on random camping. For instance
- you must be at least 1 km from a road or other infrastructure — a normal rule everywhere you can random camp;
- you basically can’t random camp anywhere in the Bow Valley at all;
- you can’t random camp near Yamnuska or around Barrier Mountain (except for the YMCA camp – who, under their lease, can random camp on their lease, though you can’t);
- you can’t random camp within 1 km of Quaite Valley back country campground;
- On Wind Mountain, in Wind Valley and Mt. Lougheed areas, “bivouac” camping designed for climbers is all that is allowed (bivouac camping means no tents and no fires) – and even that camping is subject to the seasonal wildlife closure area rules mentioned above.
And most confusing of all, you need a (free) backcountry camping permit to random camp in the center section of the Park, including Sparrowhawk Tarns and Memorial Lakes. This is the only area in Kananaskis where random camping requires obtaining a permit. The map to the right shows the camping areas, taken from the 2002 Bow Valley Protected Areas Management Plan. If you want to random camp somewhere in BVWPP, we strongly recommend first reviewing the Random Camping Backcountry information on the Parks website, review our page, then calling the Parks Information Line and chatting about it with the knowledgeable folks there.
In your random campsite, you’re allowed to burn deadfall in your campfire. That’s prohibited in anything other than a Wildland Park, and it’s only allowed in your random campsite. Note that Quaite is not a random camping spot; it’s designated, so you can’t burn deadfall there. And the only deadfall you can burn must be on the ground already; you cannot cut down standing dead to use as firewood.
Can you hunt in the park?
Most of the random campers in the Park are hunters, because hunting is allowed in a Wildland Park — and very popular. BVWPP is covered by WMU’s 408 and 410. WMU 410 includes the Bow Valley and north, with 408 south of this. This is a nice map showing the WMUs in northwest K-Country. The hunting regulations are very complex and we can’t do them justice here. About the only things you can’t hunt in 408 & 410 are mountain goats and grizzly bears. Bow hunting is a common thing almost everywhere in the Bow Valley corridor area, including around the hamlets of Harvie Heights, Dead Man’s Flats and all the way through the swamps of Bow Flats. Rifle hunting is not allowed in WMU 410 but is allowed in 408. For the seasons, see this link and look for 408 and 410.
And again, you can’t build a permanent structure in a park, so if you “improve” you hunter’s random campsite by building tables or chairs out of logs, that’s an offence. We’ve seen camp chairs and tables built out of stacked rocks; we don’t know whether these qualify as permanent. The photo is a lovely picnic table someone built out of rocks in the back of Sparrowhawk Tarns. Again; phone the Parks Information Line for more info.
And finally, there are 3-day use areas that serve the Park: Heart Creek, Wind Valley and Yamnuska. Any other day use areas you think of, like Sparrowhawk or Barrier Dam, are in a different park.
Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park:
- Camping: 1 back-country campground.
- Random camping: Permitted with numerous restrictions.
- Fires: Permitted.
- Hiking: 19 designated official trails, plus one not maintained by Parks.
- Mountain biking: On designated trails only, though in practice, permitted unless signed otherwise.
- Horseback Riding: On designated trails only, though in practice, permitted unless signed otherwise.
- Hunting: Allowed.
- Services: 3 day use areas
Find out more about some other elements of K-Country here.