Provincial parks are close to the highest designated levels of protection available for land in the Province. It’s no surprising that the stunning mountains, glaciers, lakes and wildlife of the Spray Valley are so protected.
Where is the park?
Spray Valley Provincial Park is a single contiguous park, but is slightly confusing in that it extends out of Spray Valley proper over to an area east of Highway 40. In total, it is 27,471 hectares in size.
Starting in the northwest, the west boundary of the park butts up against Banff National Park all the way down to Mt. Smuts, where it connects to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park (“PLPP”). From there, the park boundary heads east to the Fist, then cuts around the Tryst Lake route, takes a beeline due east through Rummel Lake until it hits the Fortress Mountain leasehold. It almost surrounds this lease, continuing south along the summits of Mts. James Walker, Inflexible and Lawson before dropping into the Kananaskis Valley, intercepting Highway 40 at Grizzly Creek, all that way abutting PLPP. From here, it heads north staying east of Highway 40 (abutting the Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park) until north of Wedge Pond, when it meets up with the Evan Thomas Provincial Recreation Area, surrounding Mt. Kidd on it’s slopes. Meeting up with Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park, it then runs just north of Ribbon Creek a ways, then up to Ribbon Peak, Mt. Bogart and Mt. Buller, before dropping down to Highway 742. Everything west of 742 north from there to the Goat Creek day use area is in the park. See the general map of the park above right.
The Park’s history
The park is relatively “young” from a Kananaskis perspective, having only come into existence in 2000 via Order in Council 365/2000. The boundaries were slightly adjusted in 2004 with OIC 484/2004. One day, we will understand why they made a new park in 2000 instead of just expanding Peter Lougheed Park, but that day is not today.
While native Canadians had been using the area for over 1,000 years, it was David Thompson and Duncan McGillivray who were the first Europeans down the valley in 1801, following a native trail in the Spray Valley down to White Man’s Pass (in Banff Park, south and west of the south end of Spray Lakes). The fascinating book “Life of the Trails, Vol 5” by Sanford and Beck provides an in-depth history of usage of the route pioneered by Thompson & McGillivray, from the 1840’s to today.
Past and present industrial activity
As we write here, the current Spray Lake was constructed by TransAlta building the dam in 1950. Prior to being a park, the area was actively logged, with one core of those operations near the south end of Spray Lakes. There’s a reason the company is called “Spray Lakes Sawmills”.
They started operations in 1954 in the Spray Lakes area and had mill sites in several spots including what is now Sawmill (surprise!) and the Commonwealth Valley, and they only moved to Cochrane in 1969. Logging in the area ended in 1978. A total of 1,495 acres was logged from 35 cutblocks; the photo shows cutblocks on the slopes of Mt. Engadine & the Tower. There was also historical logging in the Ribbon Creek area, as well as mining. The park is also the home to the first ever heli-ski venture in the world; Hans Gmoser flew guests to the Old Goat Glacier in the 1960’s.
There have been significant wildfires in the park, in 1867 and 1895, but the last major significant natural fire was in the Fortress/Galatea area in 1936. Prescribed burns for vegetation management are always under consideration. To quote the area Management Plan that we’ll review below:
Large fires over 1,000 acres of medium to high intensity have occurred on an average of every 30 years since 1712. Smaller fires have occurred on an average of every 14 years. Records prior to 1712 are spotty, as more recent fires have destroyed evidence of earlier fires. However, no large fires have occurred since 1936.
Facilities in the Park
There are LOTS of facilities in Spray Valley Provincial Park.
- There are 14 official hiking trails all or partly in the park: Goat Creek, Watridge Lake, Karst Spring (pictured at right), Buller Creek, Galatea, Guinn’s Pass, Terrace South Trail, Ribbon Creek, Eau Claire Interpretive, Wedge Pond Trail and Wedge Connector, the start of the Evan Thomas Fire Road, and small bits of the Bill Milne trail. The Spray West “trail” running south from the Spray West Campground is an active road used by TransAlta to service the Canyon Dam, and is managed jointly with Banff National Park as it provides access to Banff’’s “Trail Centre” in the winter. More on Spray West below;
- Rummel Lake trail bears a unique distinction in K-Country as being an official trail that is maintained in the summer for winter use. Eventually, they’re supposed to build a parking lot for the Rummel Lake trail, according to the management plan, but that’s an Alberta Transportation problem;
- There are multiple kilometers of cross-country ski trails in the Mount Shark area (including a mass start space for competitions), and a full biathalon range. These are once again groomed regularly.
- There are 2 car accessible campgrounds, Eau Claire and Spray Lakes West;
- There are 3 summer backcountry campgrounds: Lillian Lake, Ribbon Falls and Ribbon Lake;
- New for 2021, there are two Hiker-biker campgrounds, at Spray Lakes West and Buller Pond (see more on these below);
- Kananaskis’ only winter-only backcountry campground is at Rummel Lake;
- There are 9 day use areas: Driftwood, Galatea, Mt. Shark, Sparrowhawk, Spray Lake, Buller Mountain, Goat Creek, Opal and Wedge Pond;
- Driftwood Day Use has a boat launch;
- There’s an official helipad near Mt. Shark, though its only real use is shuttles to and from Mt. Assiniboine;
- Commercial dogsledding operations use both the west and east sides of Spray Lake, north and south of the Three Sisters Dam.
Facilities no longer there
Interestingly, there used to be a 12 site, car accessible, winter only campground at Buller Mountain Pond. It was closed despite a recommendation in the management plan that it be maintained. We don’t know why it was closed, but we’re betting manpower and lack of interest from the campground contract operators were the reasons. We have an old Gem Trek map that still shows the campground. Buller Pond is now the home for one of the Hiker-Biker campgrounds.
Spray West campground used to have sites all the way down the west side of the lake to Canyon Dam (the campsite number signs are still there) but these were closed when the management plan (see below) was adopted, for the reasons we’ll get into in a paragraph or two.
Routes, not hikes
A short list of just the most popular but unofficial (and thus not maintained) “routes” in Spray Valley Provincial Park include:
- East End of Rundle
- Old Goat Glacier
- Shark Lake
- Tent Ridge and the Horseshoe (pictured at right)
- Tryst Lake
- the Mount Kidd Fire Lookout
- North Buller Pass
- Rummel Pass
- Lost Lake
Like Bow Valley Wildland Park, sections of the new High Rockies Trail run through the park, but that was built privately and maintenance by Parks staff only started on it in 2020. The parts that are actually in SVPP include the section from Goat Creek to the Three Sisters Dam, and from Mt. Buller through to Rummel Lake.
Leave the cellphone at home!
There may be lots of facilities, but there are no power or telephones lines in the Spray Valley south of Three Sisters Dam, and no running water or sewage treatment facilities servicing the park. Cell service is spotty at best and unlikely to improve any time soon!
How the Park is managed
Spray Valley and Peter Lougheed Provincial Park are both managed under a Joint Management Plan that was passed in 2006. That plan places most of the land within the park under one of two designations as you can see in the map to the left (Map 4, from Page 20 of the Plan). To quote from the plan (emphasis ours):
- “Preservation” zones have been applied to those areas that are known to be important as wildlife habitat (e.g., sheep or goat range, bear habitat) or movement corridors. Existing designated trails will remain in the preservation zones but no new designated trails, backcountry campgrounds or other facilities will be developed. Non-designated routes will be low standard, unsigned and not regularly maintained.
- “Wildland” zones have been applied to areas that have both important natural and wildland recreation values. Preservation of natural values will be the priority and facilities will be limited to trails, backcountry campgrounds and signage where necessary. Off-trail use will generally be allowed but not encouraged by signage, upgrading or regular maintenance. Resource management and visitor use controls may be implemented in order to maintain or enhance natural and wilderness values.
A “Wildland Zone” management designation is not to be confused with a Wildland Provincial Park.
As you can see from the map of these spaces, the only areas that are not either Preservation or Wildland are a small area around the Mt. Shark day use area, and (interestingly) the valley bottom north of the Three Sisters Dam. These areas are considered “Natural Environment” zones “where there is more intensive year-round trail recreation and camping opportunities along with learning and interpretive opportunities for visitors.” We’re not sure why the valley bottom zone is so designated, but hey, they shoot movies there (like THE REVENANT — that’s the fort under construction in the photo). Basically, the land on the west and south sides of the lake are Preservation, and the rest Wildland.
Those zone designations explain why you’ll never see a trailhead sign for the Old Goat Falls or Glacier, and why new formal trail development in the majority of the park is unlikely to ever happen. Two Preservation areas in particular are worth noting.
A critical wildlife area
The Spray West road/trail runs all the way from the Three Sisters Dam down the entire length of Spray Lake on the west side. It eventually enters Banff National Park, and connects in the south to Banff’s “Trail Centre” at Bryant. The road section in SVPP goes through two wildlife pinch points. Use of this trail/road is actively discouraged, and a quick look at a topo map or the photo will help you understand why.
Wildlife wishing to move north/south on the west side of Spray Lakes must transit a narrow pinch on the flanks of Mt. Nestor, and from across the lake on Hwy 742, you can see the cliffs that block their way and force the animals onto the road/trail (this pinch point is circled in the photo from Tent Ridge). This is why the Management Plan resulted in the closure of the southern section of the Spray West campground, to basically eliminate road traffic. The same thing happens south of the Canyon Dam on the flanks of Mount Fortune, where the Spray West trail basically hugs the only bit of level ground right down at the lake edge, creating a second pinch point.
When the HRT was being planned, that “Preservation” designation kicked in and caused the trail to be routed to the other side of the valley instead of down the existing road. We suspect were it not needed for TransAlta’s access to their Canyon Dam facilities, the entire Spray West road would be shut and reclaimed. Banff also needs the section from Trail Centre to Canyon Dam to connect with their Spray River Fire Road trail.
To ensure traffic on this trail stays low, there is now a seasonal wildlife closure south of the Canyon Dam, which you can see here. No traffic is allowed in a section from Canyon Dam to near Turbulent Creek at all from April 15 to November 15th annually. Doing a “lap of the lake,” or riding down Spray West Road to get to the Trail Centre is no longer legally possible.
As noted, that the southern most part of the Spray West route runs along the border of Banff National Park. There are several Banff Park trails down there, including the official Spray Valley trail and the unofficial Turbulent trail. But all are closed to all users from April 15 to November 15 annually as well.
The other Preservation area of note is the southern end of Spray Lake, north of the Mt. Shark ski trails. This also is a high use wildlife movement zone and critical wildlife area where no new trails will be developed, according to the Management Plan.
Mt. Engadine Lodge
The park surrounds (but doesn’t actually contain) a commercial backcountry lodge: Mount Engadine Lodge, a truly spectacular place at the extreme south boundary of the park in the Spray Valley. The lodge was built in 1987, 13 years before the park came into existence. The blob of land it is on is actually leased Public Land, so is administered by Alberta Environment and Parks Lands division, not its Parks Operations division. Mt. Engadine is yet another one of the many “holes” in the Parks.
Fishing is popular in the park, mostly in Spray Lake, Wedge Pond and Rummel Lake. Ice fishing in popular in Spray Lake, too (we counted 26 huts one winter weekend). We watch kite skiers zipping around on the lake, too, plus know folks who occasionally ice boat on the lake.
In a Provincial Park, horses are only allowed on designated trails, and in Spray Valley PP, there are just 2:
- the Spray West road (remember: use of that road is discouraged) and
- the Watridge Lake trail.
The primary reason for both is to access the Banff Park’s trails. A horse corral that used to be at the Canyon Dam was removed and de-commissioned.
Being a Provincial Park, bikes are only permitted on roads or designated trails, and the short list of designated trails is:
- the Watridge Lake trail leading into Banff Park (also excellent for fat bikes in winter);
- the Spray West road (though again, use is discouraged);
- the Goat Creek trail leading into Banff Park;
- the first ~5 km of Ribbon Creek;
- the Bill Milne trail and Wedge Connector;
- the Terrace South trail;
- the High Rockies Trail.
As of 2021, e-bikes are only permitted on Ribbon Creek, Bill Milne, Wedge Connector and Terrace. Note that e-bikes are not yet permitted on the High Rockies trail.
Hunting and hiker-biker camping
It’s not a Wildland Park, so you can’t hunt in the park. Generally, usage restrictions in a Provincial non-Wildland park are more driven by conservation, so this is not surprising. Accordingly, you can’t burn deadfall or standing dead in your backcountry campsite. You can’t random camp at all in the park (no sneaking into the old Spray West campground area near Canyon Dam). Climber bivouac camping (no tent, no fire) is permitted.
In 2021, Parks opened a series of Hiker-Biker campgrounds down the Spray Valley, two of which are in SVPP: Spray West and Buller Pond (there’s another at Sawmill in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park). These are associated with long distance use of the High Rockies and Great Divide trails. Use is restricted to non-motorized travellers. To quote the signage:
“This area is designated for hiker-biker camping between 6 PM and 9 AM for one night stays only. Hiker-bikers are recreationists who, under their own power, and without the support of a motorized vehicle, travel through Kananaskis region. All other overnight camping is not permitted”
At each location, there are a bank of 8 food storage lockers, a registration kiosk, outhouses and signage indicating where the camping is permitted. At the time of writing, all sites currently cost $31 per night (including GST). Spray West (located at the entrance to the Spray West campground) also has bike racks and a bike service station, with an air pump and tools, plus a communal fire area a short distance away from the campground. Firewood is for sale at that location as well.
Users coming out of Banff Park in the Goat Creek area on the High Rockies Trail now have camping options accessible all the way down to the facility zone in PLPP.
Other “normal” park regulations are in force, so your dog has to be on a leash, you can’t set off fireworks, etc.
Spray Valley Provincial Park:
Camping: 2 car accessible, 3 back-country summer, 2 hiker-biker, 1 back-country winter campground. Random camping not permitted.
Fires: Permitted in designated fire pits only.
Hiking: 15 designated official trails.
Mountain biking: On 6 permitted trails only.
Horseback Riding: On 2 permitted trails only.
Hunting: Not allowed.
Services: 9 day use areas
Learn about some other elements of K-Country here!