Kananaskis Country is more than just parks and protected areas. It also includes Crown Land, also 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 “PLUZ”s – 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, almost all of it is sorted into various zones, and each of these zones has its own management framework.
The largest of these zones is the confusingly named Kananaskis Country Public Land Use Zone, which we shorten to the KC-PLUZ. We find it confusing because its only some of the public land in Kananaskis Country, not all of it, but they don’t ask us when they name things. There was a time that this space was called the Forest Land Use Zone, but the name was changed several years ago. There are 4 PLUZs in K-Country, but in this article, we’re only going to focus on the KC-PLUZ.
Where is the KC-PLUZ?
Covering over 1,100 square kilometres — more than a quarter of the total land in K-Country — the KC-PLUZ consists of two large, and two small, disconnected tracts of land on the eastern side of Kananaskis Country proper. It is highlighted in Purple on the map to the right. The KC-PLUZ covers basically all of the land east of the designated Parks to the eastern boundary of K-Country that is not otherwise designated a Park.
The KC-PLUZ has two major cut-outs (the two other PLUZ’s of Sibbald and McLean, which each have their own management plans), plus many minor ones. In any PLUZ, all designated Recreation Areas or Provincial Parks are excluded from the PLUZ. There are a lot of those types of exclusion zones, though they are mostly small.
The parts of the KC-PLUZ
The first tract of the KC-PLUZ starts up in the north at the K-Country boundary with the Stony Reserve around Hwy 68, and runs eastward to the eastern boundary of K-Country by Bragg Creek. It follows the eastern boundary of K-Country to Hwy 546 surrounding the east and north sides of the Sheep and Bluerock Parks, covers all the land east of a portion of Don Getty Wildland Park, then butts up against the east boundary of the Elbow-Sheep Wildland Park. The first small tract is the extreme northern bit of the KC-PLUZ, north of the Sibbald PLUZ.
The second large tract does the same in the south, covering all of the eastern part of K-Country that is not a Park, plus abutting the southern end of Peter Lougheed, the east side of Elbow Sheep and Don Getty, and the north side of the Cataract Creek PLUZ. The split from the northern KC-PLUZ tract is created by two Parks (Sheep and Bluerock Wildland) that make up the Sandy McNabb area (though in one spot, the split is less than 600 m wide). The photo at right is the awesome Allsmoke Canyon past the Hog’s Back south of the MacLean Creek Area accessed from the Threepoint Creek trail.
The final tract is much smaller, consisting of a little blob of land between two bits of Don Getty Wildland Park south of Little Elbow Campground.
So all of this land is Public land, and NOT a Park. It is managed by Environment & Parks’ Lands Division, whereas Parks are managed by E&P’s Parks Operations Division. The KC-PLUZ was established in 1979 along with the Sibbald, McLean and Cataract PLUZs to split motorized and non-motorized recreational activity.
Because a PLUZ is not a Park, the Parks Act does not apply. Rather, it is managed under the Public Lands Act (the “Act”), and the supporting Public Lands Administration Regulation (the “PLAR”).
What can you do on Public Land?
On public land, you can pretty much walk anywhere, ski anywhere, camp anywhere (so long as you are more than more than 1 km from a road — see below), and hang out to your hearts content for up to 14 days — unless you can’t due to a closure or because it has been prohibited for any reason. It is Public Land for use by the public, but that doesn’t mean you can trespass (if “No Trespassing” signs are up) or go under closure tape.
Being Public land, under the Act the Minister can grant all sorts of dispositions on it. He can:
- let cattle or other animals run on it for grazing purposes (except bison – you can’t run bison in K-Country. That’s a cow blocking the way on the North Fork trail in the photo);
- permit trapping on it;
- permit mineral extraction and grant mineral surface leases (including mining for minerals or coal, or oil and gas exploration and production);
- sell the land;
- allow logging to occur;
- grant licenses to commercial operators to do trail riding;
- allow pipelines;
- allow cultivation.
Almost all of these take place in KC-PLUZ. As one example, in March 2015, Spray Lakes Sawmills renewed a disposition they have had for ~60 years, through a Forest Management Agreement signed with the Minister, for the right to harvest timber in the KC-PLUZ – though it’s worth noting that much of the timber in the KC-PLUZ can’t be harvested for a variety of reasons, such as topography. Many sections of the KC-PLUZ are actively logged today, including the Quirk Creek Valley and along the northern sections of the Powderface Trail. Many have been logged in the past, including up Sullivan Creek, and up most of the valleys between Odlum Ridge and Baril Creek; it’s old logging roads that are used to access the back-country lakes in that area.
There’s oil and gas production and pipelines in a number of areas in the KC-PLUZ, too. There was historical mining in the KC-PLUZ; coal was mined in the Cat Creek area. In short, there are very few protections in a Public Land Use Zone; the Minister can authorize pretty much any activity he feels like.
If you can get a disposition for “X”, it would make sense that you can’t do “X” without a disposition. So you can’t take trees or gravel or rocks or any other resource off of Public Land, because the Minister hasn’t granted you the disposition to do so. That’s why you need a tree cutting permit to get your Christmas tree out of Sibbald every year, and why there’s a designated space for you to do that. You can’t collect fossils, either, nor “disturb any other artifact” or resource of value (such as harvesting mushrooms or collecting deer antlers) for commercial use without Ministerial permission.
Schedule 4 of the PLAR specifically covers the KC-PLUZ. That schedule has the following principal guidelines, based on why the PLUZ was created:
- You can’t use an off-highway vehicle in the KC-PLUZ (unless it’s associated with a permitted activity);
- You can’t camp or have a fire within 1 km of a recreation area or road.
Now, you ARE permitted to drive a snowmobile from the Sibbald area down the Powderface Trail and around the Elbow Loop from January 1 to March 15 each year. This permitted route crosses from the Sibbald PLUZ into the KC-PLUZ, and into Don Getty & Elbow-Sheep Parks. More on these Public Land Recreation Trails below or on the link.
There are all sorts of regulations governing commercial trail riding defined by the PLAR, and there are several commercial enterprises that use the southern and central portions of KC-PLUZ for trail riding.
Are there trails in the KC-PLUZ?
What becomes interesting to The Friends in this space is trails. The trails in the KC-PLUZ are managed by the trail crews from Environment and Parks Lands Operations. As of 2022, AEP’s Recreation Management team has only a very small trail crew, and they manage all the rec trails on all the public land in the southwest portion of Albert, including K-Country’s 4 PLUZs. Partners (such as FKC) work with AEP these days to add resources to help stewards some of these areas. As a result, except for just a few notable “official” trails that are maintained with the assistance of Alberta Parks trail staff, trails in large sections of the KC-PLUZ (especially the further south you go) are not maintained if they are official, or just not official so not maintained either. In the photo above right, there are no designated nor maintained trails from the 2nd valley north to the horizon. The Trails Act of 2021 introduced the ability to designate official trails on public land.
The Bragg Creek area
Our friends at the Greater Bragg Creek Trails Association (GBCTA) solved this problem for the KC-PLUZ area around Bragg Creek by building partnerships with Environment and Parks and other land users, obtaining a land use agreement on the Public lands, and designing, developing and building a trail system in that space — because in essence, no one else could or would do it.
GBCTA was not alone in this creative solution. There are also the officially authorized trails that are constructed and maintained under this model on Moose Mountain by the Moose Mountain Bike Trail Society (MMBTS). The trails between MMTBS’s and West Bragg’s were built and maintained by the Calgary Mountain Bike Alliance (CMBA) using a similar model. CMBA look after about 70km of trails. Those three and the Friends are all members of the Kananaskis Trail Builders Coalition.
Outside of Bragg Creek
Lands Division manages this massive space by splitting it into Recreation Management Unit Zones, as shown on the map on the right. Aside from the GBCTA & Moose Mountain spaces, here are the groups of official trails in the KC-PLUZ that are maintained (we may be missing some):
- A number of trails in the Sibbald Zone. Most of these are occasionally maintained by Parks for Public Land, or by the Friends. These include Tom Snow, Eagle Hill, Deer Ridge, Ole Buck Loop, and the Jumpingpound trail;
- The North West Kananaskis Zone along the Powderface Trail, including Cox Hill, Jumpingpound Ridge & Summit, Lusk Pass, Powderface Ridge, Ford Creek, Nihahi Ridge, Powderface Creek, Prairie Link and Prairie Creek. E&P was supported by Parks trail crews for many of these in the past, but now the Friends manages the area for E&P (see below). A part of the Baldy Pass trail is in the KC-PLUZ space but is uniquely carved out as it’s very own Provincial Recreation Area (“PRA”); the KC-PLUZ has lots of these little PRA carve-outs like that;
- The Elbow Valley area. Many official trails weave in and out of Provincial Park, PRA and KC-PLUZ spaces, including Sulphur Springs, Elbow Valley, Diamond T, Fullerton, and Riverview. Some of these are supported by GBCTA, MMTBS, CMBA or the Friends as they link into trails in those managed spaces, but others are managed by Parks;
- The Quirk Valley/Volcano Creek area, including Wildhorse, Threepoint Creek, Hog’s Back, Volcano Ridge, Volcano Link, Volcano Creek, Threepoint Mountain and Gorge Ware Connector, all in the Central Kananaskis zone;
- The Mesa Butte area, including North Fork, Curley Sand, Ware Creek, 9999 & Death Valley, also in the Central Kananaskis zone;
- A small bit of the Green Mountain trail is in the South Kananaskis zone;
- Cat Creek Interpretive, which the Friends helped Parks staff re-build after the 2013 flood — our only project in the last 10 years in the Highwood area, and the only official trail wholly in the South Kananaskis zone.
The Management Plan for the Sheep states that the Junction Mountain Fire Lookout access road in the South zone will be maintained by Alberta Transportation, but the other routes to the lookout from the east will not be (you can just make out the fire lookout in the photograph to the left).
The Friends have a space!
The Friends and Environment and Parks started conversations in 2014 about assisting with trail maintenance in some of these areas. These came to fruition in 2018 with an agreement to permit us to start maintaining trails in the “North West Kananaskis Zone”, which you can see on the map is everything north and west of Prairie & Moose Mountains in the Powderface Trail area. Our focus so far has been identifying projects generally, and working specifically on the Prairie Creek trail.
Public Land Recreation Trails
There are two designated “Recreation Trails” within, but not part of, the KC-PLUZ: the “Ford Creek-Jumpingpound Forest Recreation Trail” (which is not what you think it is) and the “Little Elbow Loop Public Land Recreation Trail” (the latter being in several Parks as well as the KC-PLUZ). You can read about both here.
Spaces with few trails
The 2013 flood was the final deathnell for the old Gorge Creek road, which used to run from Hwy 549 at North Fork to the Sheep River Trail. It is now blocked on the north end at Ware Creek PRA, and on the south at Gorge Creek Day Use Area in Sheep River Provincial Park. It remains bikeable and hikeable, and horses are permitted on it, and it is now called the “Ware Creek Trail”. Be aware logging activity in the area in 2020 & 2021 made the road less hospitable to travel.
South of the Sheep and wrapping all the way around through the Highwood area up to the south end of Peter Lougheed, there are no designated and essentially no maintained trails in the KC-PLUZ, as you can see on the zone map (trails are red lines… there are just 3). These not yet designated, unmaintained trails includes “popular” unofficial routes like:
- Loomis Lake, Odlum Creek, McPhail Creek, Carnarvon Lake, Bishop Creek. the Strawberry Hills, the Coyote Hills, the Cat Creek Hills, Grass Pass, Gunnery Creek, the Bull Creek Hills, Junction Creek, Flat Creek, Head Creek & Sullivan Pass.
So these routes may be better known, but “occasionally used” is a better description than “popular”; Carnarvon has become more popular in the last few years due to promotion on social media. There are other unofficial routes in the Central and Northern Zones too, such as
- Black Cow, Mt. Ware, Surveyor’s Ridge, Link Creek, Missinglink, Square Butte, Phone Line and Wolf Creek. Phone Line and Wolf Creek were maintained and official at one point, but so underused they were dropped in 2008.
Other than the Greater Bragg area, the single most popular trail in the KC-PLUZ is Prairie Mountain — which is unofficial, undesignated and unmaintained. By the way: interested in flying a paraglider? You can legally launch one from the top of Prairie Mountain (the landing is a challenge).
So if you want “wilderness”, the KC-PLUZ is it, especially the South zone — like virtually everything in the photo on the right. The majority of recreational use in the southern half is hunting, though there’s plenty of hunting in the northern section, too. There are spaces (like south of the Sheep River trail, or west of Highway 40) that are virtual “No Man’s Lands” with almost no access and nothing but a whole lotta trees.
Can I camp in the KC-PLUZ?
Random camping is not just permitted, its now the ONLY way to camp in the KC-PLUZ because all of the once-designated backcountry campgrounds contained within the whole 1,100 square kilometre KC-PLUZ are now gone.
Wildhorse, in the Quirk Creek Valley (it was in the forest on the left in the photo) is mostly not there any more. It was never technically in the KC-PLUZ; it was always one of those PRA carve-outs, and it used to have a campground. But for many reasons including remoteness, lack of use and a generally awful location (it was surrounded on three sides by a buggy swamp), it was decommissioned in 2010. Now, by “decommissioned”, what we mean is that:
- The outhouse is still there, but unserviced, and is being slowly eaten away by porcupines;
- There remains 1 picnic table and one fire ring.
Another backcountry PRA carve-out campground in the Wolf Creek area was so under-utilized it was closed in 2008.
A third campground, Lusk Pass Backcountry & Equestrian, was not a PRA. It was the only actual designated campground in the KC-PLUZ. But it was decommissioned in 2012. And no trace of it remains, as the area it was in was totally logged in 2019.
Threepoint Mountain Campground has never been a part of the KC-PLUZ. It’s not a PRA either. It’s actually a tiny part of Bluerock Wildland Provincial Park, but entirely within the KC-PLUZ (though only about 400 m from the Wildland Park boundary). It, too, is now closed, though not decommissioned. You’ll still find dilapidated signs, multiple picnic tables, a few fire rings (but no firewood), an unserviced outhouse, horse hitching rails and the bear poles for hanging your food.
While you can still camp AT the abandoned Wildhorse, Threepoint or Wolf Creek sites, they remain designated PRAs or Parks. Accordingly, you can’t legally camp within 1 km of them.
So random camping in the KC-PLUZ is your only option, and it is free once you have the Kananaskis Conservation Pass needed to enter K-Country. Just as in Wildland Parks, deadfall can be burned in random campsites, but live trees cannot be cut, nor can standing dead be used. And, by regulation, you must camp at least 100 m from any lakeshore.
What about horseback riding or other activities?
In any PLUZ — in fact, in most of K-Country — horses are only allowed on designated equestrian trails, you can find them by going to this link and filtering on the word “horse”. You’ll get a listing of every designated equestrian trail in K-Country, though not sorted by land base. In the KC-PLUZ, there are a lot of equestrian trails, mostly concentrated in the space between the Elbow & Sheep south of McLean Creek OHV zone, plus off the Powderface trail. Here’s the list (we think; we may have missed one or two):
- Eagle Hill, Deer Ridge, Quaite Valley, Ford Creek, Ford Knoll, Powderface Creek, Powderface Ridge, Prairie Creek, Prairie Link, Sulphur Springs, Threepoint Creek, Trail Creek, Wildhorse, Death Valley, Gorge Creek, Gorge-Ware Connector, Green Mountain, 4 Volcano area trails (South, Link, Ridge & Creek) and many of the West Bragg trails
The commercial outfitters have additional permitted trails listed in their dispositions, so that list gets longer still. These include many west of Hwy 40. We have been asked if private horses are permitted on non-designated trails where outfitters have commercial dispositions so can ride. Truthfully? We have no idea.
How about mountain biking?
Mountain bikes, on the other hand, pretty much have free reign. Defined under the Act as a “conveyance”, ride your bike in the KC-PLUZ to your heart’s content — so long as it it not “motorized” under the definitions of the Act (the use of motorized conveyances is restricted). E-bikes are defined as “powered bicycles” and are NOT motor vehicles.
There are hundreds of kilometres of mountain bike trails in the Moose Mountain/West Bragg area just to start with. Many people carry their bikes across the Highwood River to access the lakes near the Divide. Bikes are often used to head up Sullivan, Flat and Coal Creeks.
As noted, hunting is quite popular throughout the KC-PLUZ. Trapping takes place in the KC-PLUZ; at least 11 Registered Fur Management Areas exist in the KC-PLUZ. Interestingly, dogs do not have to be on a leash in the KC-PLUZ, but they have to be leashed in any designated recreation area within a PLUZ. However, dog owners are always responsible for their dogs, so they always need to be under control and it is highly recommended, for the sake of the animal, the owner, large carnivores and nesting birds that they be kept on leash.
Kananaskis Country Public Land Use Zone:
Camping: Random camping only, permitted when more than 1 km from a road or designated Recreation Area.
Fires: Permitted more than 1 km from a road or designated Recreation Area.
Hiking: +30 designated trails, plus the numerous West Bragg/Moose Mountain trails.
Mountain biking: Permitted.
Horseback Riding: Permitted on designated trails
Services: None. All day use areas in the KC-PLUZ are actually separate PRAs.
Learn about some of the other elements of K-Country here!