Bow River Interpretive Trail in Kananaskis

Author: Celine Brewer

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The Bow River Interpretive Trail in Bow Valley Provincial Park is a very enjoyable, easy Kananaskis hike along the banks of the Bow River. Just 20 minutes from Canmore, the Bow River Interpretive Trail packs a lot of Alberta Rocky Mountain scenery into a short distance.

The Bow River trail can be hiked as an out-and-back trail or combined with other Bow Valley hiking trails to make your outing an enjoyable hiking loop along the Bow River and through the interesting montane forests this part of Kananaskis is known for.

Bow River Trail in Kananaskis

This post describes the Bow River Trail as a loop. We combine the Bow River trail with the Whitefish trail, the Elk Flats trail and the Moraine trail. Trust us, it’s well signed and not as complicated as it sounds. Turning the Bow River trail into a loop provides you with significantly more variety in Kananaskis scenery than simply hiking the Bow River trail as an out-and-back.

Moraine Trail - kid friendly Kananaskis hikes

Bow River Interpretive Trail – Quick Details

Trailhead: Whitefish Day Use

Distance: 5.6 km loop

Elevation: 122m elevation gain

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Bow River Hike Highlights

Our iteration of the Bow River hike begins in the beautiful Whitefish Day Use area. Take a few moments to linger by the shores of the Bow River and admire the Rocky Mountain scenery which draws people to this area from all over the world. From this vantage point, you can see unimpeded mountains from Mt. Yamnuska all the way to Canmore’s Three Sisters.

Whitefish Day Use in Bow Valley Provincial Park

We’re the type of people who save the best for last, so we chose to save the official Bow River Interpretive Trail until the end of the hiking loop. We began our hike on the Whitefish trail, located in the south-east corner of the Whitefish parking lot. There’s a trail sign showing the way into the forest (don’t walk along the river – we’re saving that trail for last).

Trail Marker along Bow River Trail Kananaskis

The Whitefish trail in Bow Valley Provincial Park is only 400m long and cuts between the Whitefish Day Use area and the Many Springs trailhead. Enjoy your easy, slightly uphill walk through this lush forest filled with robust evergreen trees and large dogwood bushes. In late-spring the plentiful wildflowers (including wild roses, shooting stars and columbine) attract many butterflies.

The Whitefish trail is nestled in the middle of the Many Springs and Middle Lake, so there is an abundance of birds in this forest. Take a moment to stop and listen to the variety of bird calls.

Forested trail along Bow River Interpretive Trail Kananaskis

Before long, you’ll arrive at the Many Springs trail parking lot. If you have the time and inclination, the Many Springs hike is a wonderful, 1.5km hike around a small lake created by a natural spring. In late-spring, you won’t believe the number of wildflowers along this trail.

To continue the loop around the Bow River trail, turn left at the trail sign for the Elk Flats trail. This 1.5km segment of this easy Kananaskis hike runs between the Many Springs parking lot towards the Middle Lake parking lot.

The Elk Flats trail begins with a slight uphill through a dense evergreen forest. Along the way, you’ll encounter small breaks in the forest where an abundance of wild flowers flourish. In early spring, you’ll be treated to lots of crocus flowers, while later in wildflower season you’ll enjoy a wide variety of mountain wildflowers, including the provincial flower of Alberta, the wild rose.

Wildflowers along easy Kananaskis hike in Bow Valley Provincial Park

If you’re really lucky, you’ll spot the incredibly beautiful, striped coral root orchid. Look for a little purple plant about 4 inches high. You’ll need to get real close (but don’t touch) to see that each plant has a lot of little orchid flowers along the vertical stem.

striped coral root orchid - Alberta wildflowers

At the 0.7km mark of the Bow River loop trail, you’ll cross the main road through the Bow Valley Provincial Park again as you pass the Elk Flats group campground. Randomly, there’s a lone picnic table with a firepit in the forest just past this point. It’s so isolated, I wonder if anyone uses it? They should – it’s in a beautiful little part of the forest.

The forest along this leg of the Bow River loop is a beautiful mix of evergreens and aspens, with wild grass, juniper bushes and moss carpeting the forest floor. There are a few sections where you’ll pass really old & tall Douglas fir trees. The forest here is too dense to allow many wildflowers to grow.

Douglas fir tree along Moraine Trail in Kananaskis

The Elk Flats trail starts to ascend again very slightly at the 1.3km mark. You’ll alternate between patches of dense forest and open meadows, many with a nice view of Yates Mountain on the right (home to another of our favorite Kananaskis hikes).

You’ll arrive at the trail junction for the Moraine Interpretive Trail after 1.9km of hiking. The trail junction is located in a beautiful, open meadow with several aspens, wild roses, paintbrushes and crocuses.

Turn right at the junction to go to the trailhead for the Middle Lake hike (yet another enjoyable, short Kananaskis hike in Bow Valley Provincial Park). Or, you can turn left on the Moraine Trail (as we did) to return to the shores of the Bow River Interpretive Trail in the Bow Valley Campground.

Moraine Interpretive Trail - Bow Valley Provincial Park Kananaskis

For the first leg of the Moraine Trail, you’ll pass through a pleasant forest with many beautiful old growth Douglas fir trees. There are interpretive signs nearby to educate you a bit on the Douglas fir trees and the trembling Aspens. Take a moment, while you are at the sign to stop and listen to the rustling of the aspen leaves.

After 200m of hiking along the Moraine Trail, you’ll arrive at the top of a small hill with an open clearing. At this amazing viewpoint, you’ll enjoy unimpeded views of Goat Mountain, Loder Peak, Grotto Mountain, the Three Sisters, Wind Ridge, Pigeon Mountain, Mount McGillivray and Yates Mountain. A virtual who’s who of the Kananaskis mountains in the Bow Valley.

landscape scenery from Moraine Interpretive Trail Kananaskis

From here, the Moraine Trail follows the ridge line of the little hill, alternating through forests and meadows. This portion of the hiking trail is especially fun as it winds its way downhill through the forest, often with nice views in the distance.

At the 2.6km mark of the Bow River trail loop through Bow Valley Provincial Park, you’ll arrive at a cut line for some power lines. Not the nicest scenery in the world, but in late spring you may be lucky enough to find the beautiful & exotic Tiger lily flower growing here. We saw several of them within 20-30m of the trail. Keep your eyes peeled for bright orange flowers growing about 12” off the ground.

Tiger lily wildflower along Bow Valley Provincial Park hiking trails

You’ll pass the Bow Valley campground amphitheatre at the 2.9km mark of your hike. If you brought kids on this kid-friendly Kananaskis hike, stop and let them put on a show for you on the stage. In addition, kids will love stopping at the playground, just a few meters along the trail past the amphitheatre.

Bow Valley Campground Amphitheatre - Kananaskis camping

At the 3.1km mark, you’ll arrive back at the river and the junction for the Bow River Interpretive Trail. Turn left to return to the Whitefish Day Use area to conclude the hiking loop. The trail also follows the Bow River for another 600m if you turn right.

We think the scenery is so beautiful along this part of Kananaskis, that we turned right and hiked to the end, before turning back to walk the full length of the Bow River Interpretive Trail back to the Whitefish Day Use parking lot.

The Bow River trail is the star attraction of this easy Kananaskis hike. Nearly 2km long, the Bow River Interpretive trail runs parallel to the Bow River its entire length, with views of majestic Kananaskis mountains just beyond.

Views of Yamnuska from Bow River Trail in Kananaskis

As you walk along the shores of the Bow River, also be walking through a beautiful medium density forest. With the moisture from the river, along with the dappled sunlight which breaks through the forest canopy, you’ll love the variety of late-spring wildflowers, including lady slipper orchids, clematis, wild roses, shooting stars and columbine flowers. 

lady slipper orchids along Bow River Trail in Kananaskis

Depending on how social you are, the only potential knock on the Bow River trail is that passes through the Bow Valley Campground, coming pretty close to some river-front campsites. It seems like most campers don’t want to chat with every hiker, but if you’re feeling social you’ll have a chance to be social with some campers and their on-leash dogs.

Bow River trail near whitefish Day use

The final stretch of the Bow River trail is along an open meadow next to the Bow River. The lack of trees provides panoramic mountain views ranging from Mt. Yamnuska all the way to the Three Sisters. A fitting way to end a very enjoyable, easy hike in Kananaskis.

Bow River Trail Location

The Bow River Interpretive Trail can be started in two different spots. One end is right in the Bow Valley campground for anyone camping in Kananaskis. The other is in the Whitefish Day Use, which is where we recommend starting.

Bow River Interpretive Trail - short Kananaskis hike
Start of the Bow River Trail in Bow Valley Campground

Drive to Bow River Interpretive Trail, Bow Valley Provincial Park

It’s just over one hour drive from Calgary to Whitefish Day Use, or just a 42 minute drive from Banff to the Whitefish Day Use.

Whitefish Day Use

The Whitefish Day Use area is a beautiful picnic spot in the Bow Valley Provincial Park. Located on the shores of the Bow River, you’ll enjoy incredible Kananaskis scenery including sweeping mountain views beyond the Bow River. The Whitefish picnic area has approximately 7 picnic tables, many of which have their own fire pits.

Picnic area at Whitefish Day Use Kananaskis

Bow River Interpretive Trail Statistics

While the Bow River Interpretive Trail is still beautiful as an out-and-back trail, we prefer to make it a loop. The details here are for a 5.6km loop, which is made up of the 0.4km Whitefish Trail, the 1.1km Moraine Interpretive Trail, the 1.9km Elk Flats Trail and finishing up on the 2.1km Bow River Interpretive Trail.

Bow River Trail - Kananaskis easy hikes

How Long is the Bow River Interpretive Trail?

The Bow River Interpretive Trail is a 2.1km out-and-back trail. While this trail is beautiful, we recommend combining it with the Whitefish Trail, the Moraine Interpretive Trail and the Elk Flats Trail to make a far more interesting loop.

How Hard is the Bow River Hiking Trail?

Like many of the other trails in this area of the Bow Valley Provincial Park, the Bow River hike is one of the easiest hikes in Kananaskis. With only 122m of elevation gain on the entire 5.6km loop, this hike is short, flat and easy but it delivers a ton of incredible scenery.

How Long Does It Take to Hike Bow River Interpretive Trail?

It should take a typical adult roughly 1.5 hours to hike the Bow River loop trail.

We recently hiked Bow River with our kids (5 & 7) and it took us just over 2 hours. This includes plenty of stops along the way.

Bow River Interpretive Trail in Bow Valley Provincial Park

Bow River Trail Map

These trails in Bow Valley Provincial Park are reasonably well marked with trail signs. If you are new to the area, we recommend having a trail map on your phone to ensure you find your way.

To find the traditional Bow River hiking map on AllTrails, simply click here for the “Bow River Trail”.

Cell service is pretty spotty in this area, so it’s a good idea to download the trail map onto your phone ahead of time.

A recent App of the Year winner, AllTrails is also one of the best apps for visiting Banff! Enjoy map downloads and many more premium features with a 7-day free trial of AllTrails+!

Hiking Bow River Trail with Kids

This kid-friendly Kananaskis hike combines a river trail, forested trails and mountain vistas. While kids don’t always appreciate the scenery, the changing trail will be enough to keep them interested.

Bow River Trail Kananaskis hikes with kids

In late spring, the wildflowers and butterflies will be fun for kids. If all else fails, the promise of a playground in the middle of the hike will be enough to entice kids to walk.

The Bow River hike is short and easy enough for most kids to complete themselves, even if they are little. This is a huge confidence builder for little kids and is a good building block for harder hikes.

Bow River Interpretive Trail - Bow Valley Provincial Park hiking trails

Where to Stop for Lunch or a Break

The most obvious answer to this question is to grab one of the many picnic tables in the Whitefish Day Use Area. Alternatively, the picnic table near the Many Springs trailhead or the amphitheatre would make good places to stop.

Bow River Hiking Safety Tips

While the chances of a dangerous wildlife encounter along the Middle Lake hike are low, you never know when you might encounter a bear or other dangerous animal. Be educated and prepared.

We recommend you check the latest Bow River Interpretive Trail Report, Moraine Interpretive Trail Report and the Elk Flats Trail Report for trail conditions, wildlife warnings and possible closures before you head out.

Wildlife Safety

When hiking in Kananaskis Country, you are responsible for your own safety. Before hitting the hiking trails we highly recommend you read our 9 Essential Kananaskis Hiking Tips for information about bear safety, trail conditions, wildlife warnings and possible closures.

Bow River Trail Logistics

On-leash dogs are allowed on the Bow River hike. Bikes are not allowed.

There are no drinking water facilities along the Bow River Trail, so fill your reusable water bottles or hydration packs before you leave home.

What to Bring for Hiking Bow River

Even though this isn’t a very long hike, you need to be prepared with the basic hiking gear. Before you hit the Bow River hiking trail, be sure to check out our list of recommended Kananaskis hiking gear to ensure you safely enjoy your hike.

Bow River hiking trail Kananaskis

Other Easy Hikes in Bow Valley Provincial Park

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The Bow River Interpretive Trail in Bow Valley Provincial Park has incredible scenery along the Bow River. We recommend adding on the Whitefish trail and Moraine Interpretive trail for a loop. This easy hike in Kananaskis offers incredible views plus a peaceful walk through the forest.

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Celine Brewer, a local Canmore resident, is the co-owner of Travel Banff Canada. She has a passion for being out in the mountains any time of year. In the summer, you'll often find her hiking or mountain biking. In the winter, she enjoys cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and winter hiking the most.

As much as she loves the mountains, she also loves travel! When she's not playing outdoors at home, she's either traveling the world with her husband and two kids or working on their other two travel sites: Family Can Travel and Baby Can Travel.