Kananaskis Country is more than just Provincial Parks and various protected areas. It also includes Crown Land, known as Provincial Land or Public Land. In order to manage this land, it tends to be sorted into different zones called Public Land Use Zones or PLUZs, which enable enhanced management – though Public Land doesn’t have to be in a “zone”. Throughout the province, there is a substantial amount of public land. To best manage K-Country’s public land, most of it is sorted into various zones, and each of these zones has it’s own management framework.
PLUZs in K-Country
There are 4 PLUZs in K-Country, which you can see in the map to the right. Here you can read about the largest of these, the Kananaskis Country PLUZ (purple in the map); it’s in the northwest portion of the KC-PLUZ where the Friends has taken on primary management of designated trails in partnership with Public Lands. In this article, we’ll look at a PLUZ where another group maintains the trails: the Cataract Creek Snow Vehicle PLUZ (“CCSV-PLUZ”), which is the yellow zone on the map.
The CCSV-PLUZ was established in October 1979 under the Public Lands Act by the Forest Recreation Regulation. That regulation was replaced in 2011 by the Public Lands Administration Regulation (“PLAR”) with essentially no change in wording or rules as it pertains to any PLUZ in K-Country. The CCSV-PLUZ was created along with the Sibbald, McLean and Kananaskis PLUZs to separate motorized and non-motorized recreational activity. Part D of the PLAR defines the CCSV-PLUZ.
At 503 square kilometres, the CCSV-PLUZ is fairly large, and is located across the southern boundary of K-Country as seen in the detailed map at right. The southern end of K-Country is Hwy 532; “across the street” from the CCSV-PLUZ to the southwest is the Willow Creek PLUZ. The CCSC-PLUZ surrounds the Plateau Mountain Ecological Reserve (that we write about here). On the map, you can see parcels 9 through 13 of Don Getty Wildland Park.
So why create the CCSV-PLUZ?
The CCSV-PLUZ was created to define a space that would allow snow vehicle use. Snow machines are permitted on designated trails in the CCSV-PLUZ from December 1st through April 30th. Snow vehicles (defined under the PLAR as “a motor vehicle designed and equipped to be driven exclusively or chiefly on snow or ice or both”) are the only vehicles you can ride in the PLUZ; other OHVs are not permitted. There are a bunch of rules in the PLAR about operating snow vehicles in a PLUZ including:
- They can only be operated if there’s enough snow;
- They can only be used where it is signed that you can do so;
- They can only be used on trails designated for their use, and signed as such (or anywhere else with a specific permit);
- You can only ride at the lesser of the posted speed or 20 km/hr.
How are the trails built and maintained?
As we note on our page for the KC-PLUZ, the Public Lands division of Alberta Environment and Parks doesn’t really have trail staff. In the CCSV-PLUZ, NONE of the trail work is done by AEP staff (though flood damage from 2013 was repaired with AEP funding and assistance). The network of official, designated trails are looked after by the Calgary Snowmobile Club and their partners under an agreement with AEP. They even have their own trail grooming snow-cat. For photos of their trails inside the CCSV-PLUZ, take a peek at their newsletters. This club is serious about safety, with participants in club rides requiring avi gear, and lots of focus on trip planning, notification and communication. They do a great job keeping the trails in top shape for winter riding.
The part we find most interesting about the CCSV-PLUZ is that only the west half of it is actually used for snowmobiling. ALL of the designated snowmobile trails – which are shown in blue on the map to the right – are west of Hwy 940 (snowmobiles are also permitted to drive on Hwy 940 between the winter closure gates at Cataract and Wilkinson Summit). Perhaps there is a lot less snow east of Plateau Mountain. There are certainly potential trails east of Plateau; the Sentinel Pass area is obvious. But there are no designated snow machine trails there, and remember, even in the Cataract PLUZ, snow machines are only allowed on designated trails.
Can non-snow machine users use the PLUZ?
If the PLUZ is “set aside” for snow machines, what about the rest of us? How does the PLUZ designation affect hikers, mountain bikers, logging or anything else for that matter?
Simply put, Part D of the PLAR (which defines the CCSV-PLUZ) permits snow machines and restrict them to designated trails. Everything else in the PLAR treats the area like all other Public Land – and our article on the KC-PLUZ went deep into what that means, so we will only summarize it (for details, go back to that article):
- The Minister can grant dispositions for oil and gas, logging, mineral exploration, commercial trail riding, grazing, pipelines, surface materials and many other things;
- The Minister could sell the land;
- You can pretty much walk anywhere, ski anywhere, camp anywhere, and hang out to your heart’s content for up to 14 days in one spot — unless you can’t due to a closure or because it has been prohibited for any reason;
- You can’t camp within 1 km of a road or facility;
- You can walk your dog under control but off leash (note the trapline sign, though. A leash here could easily save your dog’s life.)
- You can use public land for any recreational purpose – including boating, fishing, hang gliding, ballooning, snorkeling, diving, snowshoeing, dogsledding, horseback riding, skating, tobogganing, or use any non-motorized conveyance (mountain bikes are just fine).
As with the other PLUZs and public land in Kananaskis, there is active industrial activity. There are suspended and active gas wells around the flanks of Plateau Mountain and north of Indian Graves. There is logging in the CCSV-PLUZ, especially around Plateau Mountain and southwest part where the snowmobilers are. The Calgary Snowmobile Club has arrangements with Spray Lakes Sawmills to use some of SLS’s roads and bridges, though some are gated, and SLS is under no obligation to maintain anything (including the roads) for snowmobilers or anyone but SLS, nor keep the roads open after logging is completed.
What about trails for hikers & bikers?
The CCSV-PLUZ has NO official, designated hiking or biking trails in it, and all the official trails shown in the map above are maintained for snowmobiles only. However, as a hiker/biker/runner or other outdoor user, you’re more than welcome to use the snowmobile trails (and even volunteer with the snowmobile club to help maintain them). In the summer, they’re very quiet and not particularly popular. Remember they are designed and maintained for winter use, so not brushed to ground.
In the winter, it’s a bit different. Since some are groomed, you might think they could make nice cross-country ski or snowshoe tracks — but be abundantly clear that they are, first and foremost in the winter, trails for snow machines. Best to think of it as how you are permitted to walk on rural roads: stay out of the way of the cars, because on foot, you really don’t have any right of way. Snow machines travelling 20 km/hr can appear at any time on any designated trail. Please stay out of their way. Stay east of Plateau Mountain and you won’t see snowmobiles.
Routes in the CCSV-PLUZ
Even though the CCSV-PLUZ has NO official hiking or biking trails in it, that’s not to say it has nothing in it for hikers other than the snowmobile trails; far from it. The Great Divide Trail alone runs for probably 30 km up the west side of the PLUZ, but it’s not “official” (former FKC Chair and GDT lover Jeff Grutz would love to change that). In addition to the GDT and the snowmobile trails, check out these other unofficial but popular routes:
- Raspberry Ridge Fire lookout. This was an official trail once, but a number of years ago, the road to the lookout was decommissioned. The picture to the right looks west from the lookout over SLS cutblocks to the Mt. Etherington on the left and Baril Peak on the right. Everything is within the PLUZ except for the rocky mountain flanks (they’re in Don Getty WPP). The picture at the top of this article looks southeast from the Raspberry Ridge route towards Plateau Mountain;
- Pasque Mountain, a great place for Western Larch peeping in the fall;
- A short part of the Cataract Creek route (most of it is in Don Getty WPP);
- Mt. Burke and the abandoned Cameron Fire Lookout;
- Sentinel Pass and Sentinel Peak;
- Bear Pond, the Iron Lakes and Iron Creek;
- Indian Graves Ridge;
- Bear Creek and the southern bit of Zephyr Creek
- Salter Creek and Pass;
- Stimson/Hay Trail;
- Pekisko Creek;
- Corral Creek, Cougar Pass & Cougar Hill;
- Hailstone Butte Fire Lookout and ridge. The photo to the right looks north from Hailstone over the Iron Creek pass to the Sentinel area, with Mt. Burke on the left. Virtually eveything in the photo is in the PLUZ.
The GemTrek Highwood map shows bikes and horses not permitted on the Upper Raspberry Pass trail (in the heart of the snowmobile area). We’ll take their word for it. In the field, that could certainly be signposted, in which case the restriction is legitimate. Otherwise, there’s nothing in the PLAR about it. Accordingly, bikes and horses are allowed everywhere in the CCSV-PLUZ.
Camping in the PLUZ
Indian Graves, Etherington and Cataract Creek Campgrounds are surrounded by the CCSV-PLUZ, but each is it’s own Provincial Recreation Area (and closed in the winter), so aren’t technically a part of the PLUZ.
The only camping within the CCSV-PLUZ itself is random camping, which is permitted and is free (once you have the Kananaskis Conservation Pass necessary to visit K-Country). Check the link for random camping rules.
There are no Day Use Areas inside the PLUZ, but the Cataract Creek Provincial Recreation Area includes the campground (closed in winter), and the parking lot directly across the road that is one of the primary staging areas for sledders. It has a winter-only shelter and noticeboards for snowmobile trail updates. The main trail leading off the parking lot is shown at right; note the lack of a bridge crossing Wilkinson Creek. Sledders also stage at Etherington, which is another primary trailhead (and another notice board), and at the start of the Raspberry Ridge trail (some signposts).
From a summer hiking, biking and other outdoor pursuit perspective, the Cataract PLUZ is full of wilderness possibilities, and no matter how busy it gets in some places of K-Country, we guarantee you can have vast swaths of land here to yourself entirely. But facilities in the PLUZ are non-existent; it’s the Wild West out there. Come prepared to explore self-sufficiently.
In the winter: stay out of the way of the snowmobiles, or stay east of Plateau Mountain, and there is much to discover.
Cataract Creek Snow Vehicle Public Land Use Zone:
- Camping: Inside the PLUZ, random camping only; 3 front country campgrounds abut the PLUZ;
- Fires: Permitted. Deadfall can be burned at a campsite, but standing dead cannot be taken down, nor can trees be cut;
- Hiking: No official maintained hiking trails, but many unmaintained routes and The Great Divide Trail, plus multiple kilometres of official, designated snowmobile trails;
- Mountain biking & Horseback Riding: Permitted;
- OHVs: Not permitted, except snowmobiles where signed;
- Hunting: Permitted;
- Services: None.