So it’s the middle of summer, and your kids are clamouring to go play on a sandy beach. Or maybe your mind is turning to thoughts of the endless sands of Maui, or Mexico. Or perhaps you’re thinking of a trip to the magnificent coastal dunes of Oregon. Well, why not just go to K-Country?
Okay, love K-Country as we do, even we can’t tell you that our sandy beaches can hold a candle to Maui’s. Or our dunes with Oregon’s. But did you even know we had sand dunes? Most people don’t.
The sand dunes of Bow Valley Provincial Park
These dunes hide in plain sight. They are unmarked, unsigned, and there’s not really even a trail leading to them. But they start less than 50 m off a paved road. If you’re willing to put up with a 5 minute walk in a meadow, you can get to the dune pictured at the top of this page.
It’s the largest, but by no means the only, sand dune in this area of the park. Many are growing over and stabilizing. Lots of native plants like living in sandy soils. Another dune in the photo to the right used to be bigger but is getting heavily vegetated.
Note, too, the very old snow fence in this photo. We suspect (and it’s only a guess) that it was put there a long time ago to collect sand, not snow. Now, why are there dunes there, and how would a snow fence help?
How the dunes formed
There are lots of ways to build a sand dune. These happen to be aeolian lacustrian dunes. Them’s fancy geology words meaning the sand blew in here (aeolian) from dried up lake deposits (lacustrian). Where the heck from, and how?
Well, the Bow River carries a lot of sediments. Where the water flows fast, small sediments like sand are carried with it. Where the river slows down to a crawl (say in a lake or on the flats), the smaller sediments including the sand drop out. High water in the spring and early summer give way to low water in the fall. The deposited sands are then out of the water, and they dry out in the sun.
Then the ever-present winds blow the sand out of the valley. The wind slows down a bit as it leaves the valley and hits the prairie. It does so at the west end of Bow Valley Provincial Park. A combination of this, and a bit of topography, causes the sand to drop out of the wind and start collecting. The snow fence causes sand to drop out in the wind just like it causes snow to drop.
The source of the sand
Most likely this sand came from the Lac Des Arcs area. The dunes built when Lac Des Arcs was still an active part of the Bow River and the lake basically dried up in the fall. There’s now a dam separating the direct river flow from the lake (clearly visible in the photo). It was built to control dust (which is blowing sand) in the community of Lac Des Arcs by keeping the lake level more constant.
The dunes don’t show signs of much new material arriving, and so the vegetation is winning, as you can see in the pictures above. We’re betting that the little dam is effectively killing the dunes by cutting off the primary source of sand. So come see them before the forest reclaims them.
They’re easy to find. Drive to the west end of Bow Valley Provincial Park, and park at the Many Springs Trailhead (note exposed bits of sand in the forest beside the road as you get close to the parking area). Walk out to the road and continue west about 50 m, passing under the power line. Then turn left into the meadow before you get to the forest. Pick up a weak and sandy trail that curves right and drops you into the first of the dunes. Then follow the now very sandy path through stabilizing sand towards the river to get to the bigger dunes.
Sand here goes all the way down to the riverbank, and you can poke around and find several bits of sand outcropping. Be careful if you head right in the forest towards the road near the river’s edge, as the bank cliffs get unstable.
We freely admit to first learning about these dunes in Gillean Daffern’s excellent little book “Short Walks For Enquiring Minds”. Her 4th Edition, Volume 3 Trails Guide, hike #1 also talks of other dunes in a sand forest up in the Aura Creek area of the Ghost/Waiparous. We haven’t made it there yet, as access is via a well-used ATV trail from the Waiparous Creek PRA. But we will one day. We’re not sure why that sand is there, and it’s worthy of investigation.
What about sand beaches?
The easiest to access sand beach in K-Country is also aeolian and lacustrian in nature. It’s at the Barrier Lake boat launch ramp at the Barrier Lake Day Use Area (not at the dam; about 2 km further south than the dam along Highway 40. Look for the day use area & boat rental signs). The Day Use Area was expanded and re-built in 2020 so there’s a lot more parking these days.
Go down to the boat launch ramp and walk along the beach to the left. The sand beach here is about 200 m long. The sand itself is great and clean with very few rocks (though there is some deadfall and driftwood on the shore).
There’s the odd sand cliff, showing that the forest in here is just one giant pile of sand, as you can see in the photo to the right.
Again here, sand was historically deposited by the ebb and flow of the Kananaskis River, sourced in the sandy flats that are now the start of Barrier Lake. These sand flats are often visible from Highway 40 when the lake level is low. As you drive south down Highway 40 here, you cross over a big bump that is usually referred to as Barrier Hill. All this beach sand was blown down the Kananaskis Valley and settled in a wind eddy in the lee of Barrier Hill.
We admit that this isn’t Maui, Mexico or Oregon. But on a hot summer day, playing in the sand in K- Country is fun for kids of all ages.
Find out more of K-Country’s special places here!