As I emerged from the deep pine forest trail into the beautiful, open alpine meadow one chilly October morning, I found myself amazed that after all these years, the Chester Lake hike can still wow me.
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Blessed with stunning mountain scenery, Chester Lake is one of the best hikes in Kananaskis. It’s certainly one of the Kananaskis hikes we have done most often in our lives. We have hiked and snowshoed this trail in all seasons and keep returning due to its raw natural beauty. Quite simply, we never get tired of it.
Chester Lake Hike Highlights
- Unlike typical mountain hiking trails, Chester Lake has a nice wide trail allowing groups of people to easily socialize along the way up. The wide hiking trail makes Chester Lake perfect for group outings such as a family hike, a stag party hike, team building etc.
- The wide-open trail allows for excellent views of the surrounding mountain peaks.
- Chester Lake is one of those great hikes where you get the elevation gain out of the way first. You reach your peak altitude after 3.5km and it’s either flat or downhill for the remaining 6.2km.
- Once you reach your peak altitude, the trail ventures into the heart of a beautiful alpine meadow with rocky mountain peaks towering above on all sides. We especially enjoy the massive rock wall created by Mount Chester along the right-hand side.
- Having a picnic lunch along the shores of Chester Lake is one of our favorite things to do in Kananaskis. When you reach the lake, watch for a small log bridge which crosses Chester Creek. This leads to a nice little patch of forest alongside the lakeshore.
- As mentioned above, there is a modest cluster of larch trees along the shores of Chester Lake. The timing varies from year-to-year, but typically they change color in late-September to early-October.
“Chester Lake has larch trees?!?”.
It may sound funny to those who are not familiar, but larch trees are the rock stars of the Canadian Rocky forests. Larch trees look like normal evergreen trees, but their needles turn golden in the fall and drop off. Seeing a cluster of golden larch trees on a sunny fall day is nothing short of breathtaking.
There are better larch tree hikes such as Valley of the Larches (Larch Valley) in Banff or Burstall Pass in Kananaskis, but they get so crowded that the parks often place limits on daily hikers, making Chester Lake a good alternative.
Chester Lake Hiking Trail Stats
Distance: The total there-and-back distance of the Chester Lake Trail is 9.0km.
Elevation Gain: You will get all the uphill sections of this hike out of the way in the first 3.5km. Over this span you will climb 310m feet. The middle 1.5km of this stretch is reasonably steep, but it’s not too bad; anyone who is in reasonable shape will have no issues.
Once you reach the top, you’ll enjoy 6.2km of flat and/or downhill trails!
Difficulty: We have hiked Chester Lake with a wide variety of people, ranging from our kids (aged 4 & 6) to grandparents. The 310m incline over the first 3.5km can be a bit tough on people who aren’t accustomed to mountain hiking.
That said, everyone we’ve hiked with has made it to the lake and back, so it’s definitely do-able for most people. We’d rate the Chester Lake hike as “moderate”.
Duration: It should take a typical adult about 1.5 – 2 hours to hike the full there-and-back distance of Chester Lake.
We most recently did this hike with our kids, so we were a bit slower, completing the full distance in 3.5 hours.
How to Get from Banff to Chester Lake Trail: The Chester Lake Trailhead leaves from the Chester Lake parking lot in the Peter Lougheed Provincial Park part of Kananaskis Country.
The fastest way to get to the Chester Lake parking lot from Banff is to turn off the TransCanada Highway in Canmore and take the Smith-Dorrien Trail Highway (AB742). This very scenic drive should take you approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Along the way you’ll pass the Canmore Nordic Centre (home of the Nordic events for the Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics). As you climb the steep, winding road past the Nordic Centre, watch for groups of Bighorn Sheep which love to cling to the rocky slopes next to the highway.
Once the highway stops climbing, you’ll pass a few parking lots for two of the most popular Canmore hikes: Ha Ling Peak and EEOR (East End of Rundle). Much of the remaining drive is through a dense forest along the shores of the beautiful Spray Lakes Reservoir.
This route is the fastest and is very scenic, but the stretch past the Canmore Nordic Centre is all gravel. It can get busy in the summer making it a very dusty experience. There can be a pothole here and there, making it a bit dicey to drive a rental car along.
Chester Lake Trail Annual Closure
As part of an ongoing Kananaskis trail closures program, the Chester Lake hike is closed every year from May 1 to June 29 to allow the area to dry and prevent damage.
Chester Lake in Winter
Chester Lake is a popular winter activity in Kananaskis. There are separate trails for people on snowshoes or on cross-country skis, so please follow the signs for your activity.
If you are considering snowshoeing Chester Lake, you may wish to consider putting ice cleats on your winter boots instead. Chester Lake is so popular that the snow on the trail will be hard packed, making snowshoes unnecessary. When on popular winter trails, I find hiking with ice cleats on preferable to using snowshoes.
Biking on Chester Lake Trail
Biking is only allowed on the first 2km of the Chester Lake Trail.
Chester Lake Trail Map
If you’re like me, you’ll want to have a map of this hike on your phone. I’m currently using the GAIA GPS trail maps app. Within the hiking app, search for “Elephant Rocks via Chester Lake”. Be sure to download the hiking map for offline use as you will not have a cell signal anywhere along the trail.
Safety experts recommend having a paper backup and compass on hand just in case your phone battery dies. If this idea appeals to you, I highly recommend Gem Trek hiking maps.
They are the gold standard for Banff & Kananaskis hiking trails maps and we own the entire set. They are exceptional 3D topographic maps which I love looking at for hiking inspiration. The Karst Springs Trail appears in the map entitled, “Kananaskis Lakes”.
You can order one off Amazon before your trip, or you can pick one up while here as they are widely available.
Hiking Chester Lake with Kids
Chester Lake isn’t a slam-dunk for the typical list of kid-friendly hikes in Kananaskis, but if your kids are active then they will enjoy it, just budget a little more time. The wide trail at the start is great for families as it allows easy side-by-side conversation as you hike.
Being largely in a dense pine forest, your kids will have endless fun balancing on fallen tree trunks, finding treasures, etc. The flat stretch along the top to and from the lake is easy and often prompts a game of tag or hide-and-seek.
If you are considering hiking Chester Lake with a baby, we would not recommend a stroller due to the steepness and the presence of tree roots and big rocks in the trail. When we hiked Chester Lake with our babies, we really enjoyed hiking with our Deuter Kid Comfort III hiking baby carrier.
Where to Stop for Lunch or a Break
There are a few good spots to stop for lunch or a break along the way, but the best spots are found around Chester Lake. Once you reach the lake, our favorite spot can be found by crossing a little wooden bridge on the right.
This takes you to a patch of trees along the shores of the lake where you can stop and soak in the majesty of this special place.
There are no picnic tables or benches, so a compact picnic blanket is a nice treat if you have room in your pack. We ALWAYS forget ours and regret it every time!
Chester Lake Trail Safety
Kananaskis Country is bear country. We love bears and would hate for any harm to come to them or you, so please take the time to educate yourself on How to Be Bear Smart.
Although you will see lots of people with off-leash dogs, please keep yours on leash. Besides being the law, an off-leash dog can very easily draw a bear or cougar back to your group. This happens far too often and puts your life and the life of the animal in danger. It’s just not worth it. Here’s a very recent example of a person who was lucky to walk away from a grizzly attack.
We recommend checking the latest Chester Lake Trail Report for trail conditions and possible closures before you head out.
Chester Lake Trail Logistics
- There are toilets at the trailhead. There is also a porta potty along the trail as you near Chester Lake. It’s about 100m away from the lake on the left-hand side.
- There are no drinking water facilities, so fill your hydration packs before you leave.
- There is no camping or fires allowed in the area.
- Dogs are allowed on-leash.
What to Bring for Hiking Chester Lake
- Bear spray is a must. You can’t order it online, but it’s available at many retailers in Banff and Canmore.
- Water – a hydration pack is an effective way to bring enough water for a long hike.
- A hat and sunscreen – you’ll often be in the open sun along Chester Lake Trail.
- Mosquito spray for hiking Chester Lake in the summer.
The trail climbs up the side of a mountain through a pine forest, so the trail surface is a bit challenging at times. The trail is often rocky with protruding tree roots, so we recommend you wear a proper pair of hiking shoes.
Chester Lake is one of our favorite all-season trails in Kananaskis Country. We hope that it is one of the highlights of your visit!