Karst Spring Trail is one of our favorite Kananaskis hiking trails, in fact, it’s one of the few Kananaskis hikes we try to make time for each and every year. We love hikes with a payoff, and this hike delivers big-time!
The Karst Spring hike culminates at a small viewing platform against the side of a rock wall along the north face of Mt. Shark. Here you will witness first-hand the incredible power of nature as a huge stream of water appears out of nowhere, gushing from the rockface at tremendous force. We’ve been here countless times and it never ceases to impress.
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This mountain spring flows rapidly downhill next to the trail, creating one of the most beautiful and dramatic cascading waterfalls we’ve seen in the Canadian Rocky Mountains (or anywhere else in the world for that matter).
Note: To get to the “official” Karst Spring Trail, you need to start your hike along the Watridge Lake Trail. After 4km you’ll turn left at a junction with a nearly unreadable, well-worn trail map. Within a few minutes you’ll arrive at the small, but beautiful Watridge Lake. There is an easily identifiable sign for Karst Springs at the trailhead.
When we use the term “Karst Spring Trail”, we are including the first leg along Watridge Lake trail and the second leg on Karst Spring Trail.
Karst Spring Trail Highlights
Watridge Lake Trail Highlights:
- Traditional mountain hiking trails are narrow, forcing groups of people to walk single file, but the best part of the Watridge Lake Trail is how wide and open it is, making it an excellent hike for groups. This makes Karst Spring a great family hike, teambuilding hike, hike for a stagette party, etc. The wide trail is the primary reason Karst Springs made our list of 9 Best Kananaskis Hikes for Social Distancing.
- The wide-open trail allows for excellent views of the surrounding mountain peaks.
- The small mountain creek running alongside the trail makes it a magnet for Canadian Rocky Mountain wildlife. Seeing the larger mammals is rare but watch and you’ll see evidence of them along the trail. On our most recent hike we saw a pile of wolf scat!
- Listen carefully and you may hear the distinctive sound of woodpeckers in the forest.
Karst Spring Trail Highlights
- The first part of this leg is super-fun for kids of all ages. The hiking trail transitions into a narrow single-file wooden walkway through a marsh. Keep your eyes open, this is prime moose habitat!
- The marsh is created by the runoff from Karst Spring. The area is noticeably more humid and the forest becomes very lush, with lichen covered trees and a carpet of brilliant-green moss along the ground.
- The trail soon meets up with a rapidly running river. The trail starts to climb steeply here alongside the river. The rapidly flowing, cascading waterfall the river becomes is incredibly picturesque. In fact, it’s up there with some of the most beautiful waterfalls we’ve seen anywhere.
- And of course, the spot where the spring water gushes out from the side of Mt. Shark is simply incredible!
Karst Spring Hiking Trail Stats
Distance: The one-way distance of the Karst Spring Trail is 3.2 miles / 5.1km.
Elevation Gain: The first 2.2 miles / 3.5km of this hike is very flat. In fact, this part of the trail is very wide, so if hiking with a group you’ll likely be too busy socializing to notice any of the gentle inclines along the way.
It’s really only the final 0.3 miles / 0.5km before you reach the Karst Spring that you will have any noticeable uphill hiking effort. This very short section is quite steep, but trust us, it’s worth the effort! The elevation gain over this short stretch is 340 feet / 103m.
Difficulty: If it weren’t for the final 0.3 miles, we would rate this hike as “easy”. Karst Spring Trail is a reasonably short hike and it’s flat almost the whole way.
The last 0.3 miles is pretty steep and you’ll likely find yourself breathing hard. It’s for this reason we ultimately give this hike a “moderate” rating.
Duration: It should take a typical adult about 1 hour to reach the Karst Spring.
We did this hike with our 3 & 5-year old kids, so we were a bit slower, completing the one-way distance in 1 hour and 40 minutes.
How to Get from Banff to Karst Spring Trail: The Karst Spring Trailhead leaves from the Mt. Shark Day Use area in the Spray Valley Provincial Park part of Kananaskis Country.
The fastest way to get to the Mt. Shark Day Use area 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 20 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. Watch for cute rabbits along the final stretch of road to the Mt. Shark parking lot – there’s tons of them!
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.
Karst Springs 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 AllTrails hiking app. Within the hiking app, search for “Karst Spring Trail”. 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 backup paper map 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, “Canmore and Kananaskis Village”.
You can order one before your trip or you can pick one up while you are in Banff as they are widely available.
Hiking Karst Spring with Kids
Karst Spring Trail is one of our favorite family hikes in Kananaskis Country. The wide-open trail at the start is great for family fun while you walk and the raging mountain spring at the end always impresses the kids!
There are lots of fun spots for kids to play along the way, including balancing on fallen tree trunks, along the creek-beds, and the wooden walkway. Just keep a close eye on little ones during the steep ascent to the spring – there are no handrails (except for the platform at the top) and the raging waterfall can be a little too close for comfort at times.
We have some great resources for hiking with kids on our Family Can Travel site. Check out our best tips for hiking with kids, the best hiking gear for kids and the 9 Best Hiking Songs for Your Family.
Where to Stop for Lunch or a Break
There are a few good spots to stop for lunch or a break along the way. There are a few picnic tables at the trailhead, but we recommend skipping those due to the better options ahead.
About 75% the way to Watridge Lake there is a slightly hidden bench in a clearing on the right-hand side of the trail. It’s a nice spot to stop and enjoy the surrounding views and to rest your legs before the steep climb to Karst Spring.
There are also a few benches along the steep trail to the spring. The riverside / waterfall scenery makes it a pretty epic place to stop. It’s also much cooler here, making it a good place to stop on a hot summer day. These benches are pretty popular though, so you may not get one.
There are benches on the platform at the very top, but the platform is quite small and on a busy day it wouldn’t be a great spot to stop for lunch as it’d be too crowded.
Karst Spring 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 before hitting the Kananaskis trails.
Karst Spring Trail Logistics
- There are port-a-potties at the trailhead.
- 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.
- Mountain bikes are allowed on Watridge Lake Trail, but not on the Karst Spring Trail. Many people ride their bikes to Watridge Lake, then lock them to a tree as they hike up to the spring. For more info on biking to Karst Springs, read Kid-Friendly Bike Rides in Banff & Kananaskis.
What to Bring Hiking Karst Spring
You don’t need a lot of hiking gear to enjoy hiking in Kananaskis. Our list of hiking essentials contains the hiking gear and clothing you’ll need for the variable Kananaskis weather and trail conditions.
One tip specific to the Karst Spring hike is to bring a jacket, even on a hot sunny day. Once you turn onto the Karst Spring Trail you enter a thick, humid forest. It becomes a lot cooler there. We even saw snow on the ground in June!
You can wear any old shoes on your feet for the easy Watridge trail.
The terrain gets a bit more challenging along the final leg to the Karst Spring. The trail becomes rocky with protruding tree roots and due to the moisture in the air, it can get a bit muddy along the trail. Due to these factors, we recommend you wear a proper pair of hiking shoes.