McGillivray Canyon Trail in Kananaskis

If you are looking for a really fun winter hike near Canmore, check out the McGillivray Canyon Trail. This unique Kananaskis winter hike follows the McGillivray Creek riverbed into a narrow slot canyon between Pigeon Peak and Mount McGillivray.

As if winter hiking into a slot canyon isn’t fun enough, the McGillivray Canyon Trail throws a bunch of obstacles at you along the way. The McGillivray Creek Canyon is full of large boulders and dry waterfalls which require a little extra effort to get up and over.

McGillivray Canyon is one of the best winter hikes near Canmore

Thankfully, for every obstacle on the McGillivray Canyon Trail, there is some form of assistance for you to navigate it. All along the McGillivray slot canyon you’ll use ladders, ropes, fallen tree trunks, chain ropes, steel ropes and more.

The challenges you face winter hiking in McGillivray Canyon are hard enough that you’ll feel a good sense of accomplishment, but also easy enough that most people in reasonable shape should be able to do most of them.

Climbing McGillivray Canyon is a ton of fun
Hikers encounter ladders and ropes along the McGillivray Canyon Trail

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McGillivray Canyon Hike Highlights

After a quick walk from the parking lot, you soon find yourself walking westbound on the Great Trail (formerly known as the TransCanada Trail). You’re only on the Great Trail for approximately 200m or so, but I always enjoy the feeling of being on a hiking trail which goes from coast-to-coast in Canada. It’s the longest hiking trail in world – pretty cool!

To get to the McGillivray Canyon Trail, you walk on the Trans Canada Trail for a bit

The McGillivray Canyon trailhead is an unmarked left-hand turn off the Great Trail into the forest. It’s a pleasant walk through the forest for another 300m until you arrive at the base of the McGillivray slot canyon. Look for a purple ribbon tied to a tree to alert you to the trail into the canyon.

On the McGillivray Canyon winter hike, the junction for the bypass trail and the canyon trail is at the purple ribbon
McGillivray Canyon Trail on the right – Bypass Trail on the left

If you find yourself walking noticeably uphill on the side of the canyon wall (as we did), you’ve missed the entrance to the McGillivray Canyon and you’ll need to backtrack to enter the canyon.

I love walking through slot canyons! The McGillivray Canyon is much longer and better formed than the popular one at nearby Jura Creek Trail. The raw power of nature which has carved this path through solid stone over thousands of years never ceases to amaze me.

The canyon walls have been carved into magnificent shapes and the canyon floor is littered with massive boulders, dropped there by the power of McGillivray Creek.

Hiking the Kananaskis McGillivray Creek slot canyon in winter

The canyon walls of McGillivray Canyon have a thick layer of moss draped overtop. I thought the sight of a layer of white snow on top of the thick moss was quite beautiful.

Winter hiking in Kananaskis

What makes McGillivray Canyon one of the best Kananaskis winter hikes is the obstacles. As you hike further up into McGillivray Canyon you’ll encounter a series of challenges to overcome. These obstacles are typically where a waterfall would be in the warmer months, but in winter you are left with a bare rock wall to overcome.

Climbing fallen logs up a dried up waterfall in McGillivray Canyon near Canmore

You’ll overcome these McGillivray Canyon obstacles with the help of the Kananaskis adventurers who came before you. Each time you encounter an obstacle, you’ll find conveniently placed ropes, ladders, fallen tree trunks and more to help you up-and-over.

A man uses ropes and felled trees to navigate an obstacle on the McGillivray Creek & Canyon Trail near Canmore

The McGillivray Creek & Canyon obstacles are challenging, but easy enough for most to do – it does require a bit of upper body strength. The highest one is approximately 10 feet or so. If you find one which seems out of your capabilities, take a closer look. There may be a short bypass trail around it, or perhaps another rope which you hadn’t seen. It seemed like every obstacle had multiple ways of getting up.

This McGillivray Canyon Trail obstacle requires you use a rope to ascend a dried waterfall

While the McGillivray Canyon obstacle course is a ton of fun, this excellent Kananaskis winter hike offers outstanding scenery as well. The slot canyon walls are not just beautifully eroded, but in places they tower sky-high above you.  

It's easy to see why McGillivray Canyon is popular with rock climbers

The most famous part of the McGillivray Canyon Trail is the massive chockstone stuck between the slot canyon walls. This massive boulder is equal parts beautiful and impressive and makes the effort to hike there completely worthwhile. As with all McGillivray Canyon challenges, there are ways to go behind and climb up on top of the chockstone, but the risk didn’t seem worth it to us…

The McGillivray Canyon chockstone is a massive boulder wedged in-between the canyon walls
McGillivray Chockstone

Hiking back down McGillivray Canyon is just as fun as the way up. The challenges need to be overcome in different ways on the way down, making your experience that much more fun.

On the McGillivray Creek Trail you can go back through the slot canyon or take a bypass trail around the obstacles

Going down seems a little harder and perhaps a bit scarier as you become more keenly aware of the drop-offs from the top to bottom of the dry waterfalls. If you’d rather skip the McGillivray Canyon obstacles on the way down, look for the bypass trail which goes up and around the slot canyon.

You can avoid the difficult obstacles on the McGillivray Canyon Trail by taking the bypass trail around the slot canyon

McGillivray Creek Canyon Trail Location

The McGillivray Canyon Trail isn’t the easiest Kananaskis hike to find. Here’s how to find the McGillivray Canyon Trail:

The McGillivray Canyon parking lot is an unmarked lot on the south side of the TransCanada Highway, just moments west of Lac des Arcs.

The McGillivray Canyon parking lot is off Highway 1 in the shadow of Grotto Mountain

Access to the McGillivray Canyon parking lot is only available if you are traveling eastbound on Highway 1. Once you see the large tower from the Lafarge plant straight ahead, slow down and look on your right for a gravel road into the trees. If you are driving from Calgary to McGillivray Canyon, you’ll need to drive west for a few minutes past the parking lot and turn around at Dead Man’s Flats.

Here is a Google Street View shot travelling eastbound on the TransCanada Highway. The McGillivray Canyon parking lot is the gravel road on the right.

Once you find the unmarked parking lot, the trailhead is easy to find; it heads south away from the highway into the forest.

McGillivray Creek & Canyon Trailhead

McGillivray Canyon parking lot location

McGillivray Canyon trailhead location

McGillivray Canyon Trail Stats

How Long is the McGillivray Creek and Canyon Hike?

The McGillivray Canyon hike is a pretty short Kananaskis hike, clocking in at just under 5km long (2.5km one-way).

The Kananaskis McGillivray Canyon Trail is 5km long

How Steep is the McGillivray Canyon Trail?

The total elevation gain you’ll encounter along the McGillivray Canyon Trail is approximately 200m. The incline of the hike to the McGillivray Canyon chockstone is quite gentle the whole way, with the exception of the obstacles.

The hike to the McGillivray Canyon chockstone is not very steep, aside from the obstacles

How Hard is the McGillivray Creek and Canyon Hiking Trail?

If it were not for the obstacles you’ll need to overcome along the way, we’d have otherwise described the McGillivray Canyon trail as an easy Kananaskis hiking trail. It’s short and not very steep – it’s just the challenging obstacles which prevent us from using the ‘easy hike’ label.

If you have decent upper body strength and good flexibility, you’ll have no trouble navigating the challenges through the Kananaskis slot canyon. I believe just about anyone should be able to do this fun Kananaskis hike.

Using chain ropes to climb up the McGillivray slot canyon requires upper body strength

We rate the McGillivray Canyon Trail as “moderate”, but be aware there are lots of people who would rate this hike as ‘difficult’.

How Long Does It Take to Hike McGillivray Canyon?

It should take a typical adult roughly two hours to complete the full round-trip distance of this unique Kananaskis winter hike.

McGillivray Canyon Trail Map

The McGillivray Creek & Canyon hiking trail is not easy to find or follow. The hiking trail begins heading south into the forest from the parking lot. After 200m you’ll arrive at a T-intersection for the TransCanada Trail.

Turn right at the T-intersection and walk for another 200m or so. There will be an unmarked trail heading left into the forest. Making things more challenging is the presence of multiple left-hand turns into the forest. In the winter, it only takes one person making an incorrect trail in the snow to throw everyone off.

The McGillivray Canyon Trail is unmarked - we recommend having a map on your favorite hiking app
Unmarked trailhead for McGillivray Canyon Trail

Once you leave the Great Trail, you are now officially on the McGillivray Canyon Trail. You’ll enjoy an easy 300m hike through the forest. When you see a purple ribbon on a tree, look for a series of trails heading down into the McGillivray Canyon.

Do yourself a favor and download the “McGillivray Creek and Canyon Trail” map on the AllTrails app. We used it and found it invaluable to finding the proper left-hand turn into the forest. It also helped us realize we missed the turn into the slot canyon. A final benefit of using AllTrails for your McGillivray Creek map is that is has the location of the slot canyon bypass trail.

For most Kananaskis hikes, we describe AllTrails as a ‘nice to have’, but the McGillivray Canyon trail is confusing enough that we highly recommend you have it.

Being so close to Canmore and Dead Man’s Flats, you should have weak cell service near the highway, but it will be spotty at best after this point. It’s a good idea to download the McGillivray Canyon trail map onto your phone ahead of time just in case.

McGillivray Canyon climbing up logs

Hiking McGillivray Canyon Trail with Kids

On a recent trip to Palm Springs with our kids, we had a healthy debate over whether our kids (aged 4 & 6) were capable of hiking the popular Ladder Canyon Trail. Similar to the McGillivray Canyon hike, the Ladder Canyon hike is a slot canyon with many obstacles to overcome. We gave it a shot and it turned out to be our favorite family hike of the trip.

With this experience in hand, we debated whether we’d hike McGillivray Canyon with our kids (now aged 5 & 7). We know they’d love it as would enjoy the part through the slot canyon and they love climbing rocks.

The Ladder Canyon Trail had many strong, steel ladders to climb, while the McGillivray Canyon Trail has a hodge-podge of devices ranging from knotted ropes, wooden ladders, to balancing on smoothed tree trunks.

The obstacles makes hiking McGillivray Canyon with kids a little too hard
Smaller kids may find McGillivray Canyon too difficult

In the end, we decided that the slippery winter conditions make the McGillivray Creek & Canyon hike a little too risky for our kids. When they are just a little older, our kids are going to love this fun hiking trail near Canmore!

If you feel comfortable hiking McGillivray Canyon with kids in winter, they will love the slot canyons. There’s something about a slot canyon which inspires kids. Watch your kids race ahead through the tight twists and turns, climbing over fallen trees and boulders, laughing and smiling all the way. As if this wasn’t fun enough, the obstacles will be a ton of fun for your kids to overcome – they’ll build a lot of confidence along the way!

Can you hike McGillivray Canyon with kids?

We didn’t use the bypass trail, but apparently there is a large teepee on this section of trail which is popular with kids.

If you are looking for a kid-friendly Kananaskis slot canyon hike, Jura Creek Trail is a great option. It’s also an especially good back-up if the Grotto Canyon ice walk parking lot is overflowing (as is typical).

Kids slide down a rock in the upper Jura Canyon slot canyon in Alberta
Jura Creek with kids

If you are looking for a longer Kananaskis hike and want to see a little Cold War history, you could always tack on the Heart Creek bunker trail. This interesting kid-friendly hike features a Cold War bunker dug deep into the mountain which is great fun to explore. You can access it from the McGillivray Creek Canyon parking lot, but you turn east on the Great Trail instead of west.

Where to Stop for Lunch or a Break

There are no picnic tables or benches in the McGillivray Canyon parking lot or anywhere along the trail, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a picnic lunch or snack.

The McGillivray Creek Canyon Trail runs through a mountain canyon with a lush evergreen forest setting. If you’d like, there are many places along the hiking trail where you can sit down on a rock or log and enjoy a break.

McGillivray Canyon winter hike in Kananaskis

The best place to stop for lunch on this fun Kananaskis winter hike is at the end of the McGillivray Canyon trail. There’s a bunch of large boulders where you can sit and look back at the amazing McGillivray chockstone and the towering canyon walls around it.

If you have room in your day bag, a winter picnic blanket is a nice touch. It allows you to sit on a cold & snowy rock without getting your butt too cold.

McGillivray Canyon Hiking Safety Tips

Kananaskis Wildlife Safety

In the dead of winter, the bears around McGillivray Creek Canyon should be hibernating (be careful in early winter or early spring though!) But that’s not a reason to let your guard down as wolves, cougars, elk, etc. still provide a safety risk to Kananaskis visitors. Take a few minutes and read “Living with Wildlife” by Alberta Parks.

McGillivray Canyon Trail Report

Despite being part of the Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park (and therefore part of Kananaskis Country), Alberta Parks doesn’t publish an official McGillivray Canyon trail report.

There is no official McGillivray Canyon Trail Report from Alberta Parks

There are still several ways to get an idea of McGillivray Canyon trail conditions though. We recommend you read the Heart Creek trail report (10 mins away) and the recent hiker reports of the McGillivray Creek and Canyon hike on AllTrails before you head out. The combination of these two sources will be a good proxy for a McGillivray Canyon trail report.

McGillivray Canyon Avalanche Risk

This moderate Kananaskis winter hike follows a canyon nestled snuggly at the base of Pigeon Peak and Mount McGillivray. Any time you venture along the base of a mountain in winter, you need to assess your avalanche risk.

We highly recommend consulting the Kananaskis Avalanche Danger Report published by Avalanche Canada before you go. Most of the McGillivray Canyon hiking trail would be classified as “Below Treeline”, but you near the end of the treeline as you get close to the McGillivray chockstone.

Kananaskis winter hiking avalanche risk

We are not avalanche experts, so please educate yourself and make smart, informed decisions while safely enjoying the beauty of McGillivray Canyon in winter.

McGillivray Creek Trail Logistics

On-leash dogs are allowed on the McGillivray Canyon hike. We love hiking with dogs, but in this case we strongly recommend you leave your dog at home as the trail is not very dog-friendly.

There are no washrooms in the McGillivray Canyon parking lot. Given most of this winter hike is in a tight slot canyon, there are not many opportunities to find a private spot to go. We recommend you stop and use the facilities at the nearby Heart Creek Trail.

Winter hiking slot canyon in Kananaskis

Be aware there are vehicle break-in warning signs posted in the Grotto Canyon and Heart Creek parking lots – two trails which are very close to McGillivray Canyon. Just in case, take your valuables with you on the hike or better yet, leave them at home.

There are no drinking water facilities on the McGillivray Canyon, so fill your reusable water bottles or hydration packs before you leave home.

You might get some cell service from nearby Dead Man’s Flats when you are outside the canyon, but don’t count on it inside the McGillivray Canyon.

The towering cliff walls on McGillivray Canyon are beautiful

What to Bring for Hiking McGillivray Canyon

Generally speaking, you don’t need a lot of hiking gear on short day hikes in Kananaskis. Check out our list of hiking essentials with the hiking gear and clothing we recommend to enjoy your hike, regardless of the variable winter Kananaskis weather and trail conditions.

One item specific to the McGillivray Canyon hike is to bring a pair of tough gloves with good grips. As you ascend the obstacle course through the slot canyon you’ll need to grip fabric rope, chain ropes, tree trunks and more. You’ll appreciate having a tough pair of gloves to make it through the obstacles.

Strong leather gloves are recommended for the McGillivray Creek Trail in Kananaskis
Gloves are a better choice than mitts

It’s hard to know how to dress for winter hiking in Kananaskis. If you hike at a good pace uphill or walk in deep snow, you can generate a decent amount of internal heat. On the flipside, the sun is low in the sky during winter, making it difficult for the sun to find its way to the bottom of McGillivray Canyon. Winter hiking in the shade, coupled with the wind that often rips through the canyon, can make it feel much colder than the forecasted weather.

Dress in layers while hiking in Kananaskis in winter

We recommend dressing in layers while winter hiking in Kananaskis and having a good daybag to store your unused layers in.

McGillivray Canyon Hike Footwear Recommendation

You’ll be winter hiking McGillivray Canyon on mostly hard-packed snow, but it can get icy in spots.

As with most winter hikes in Kananaskis, we began the hike wearing our Kahtoola Microspikes for traction. They are excellent for traction on snow and ice and they came in handy while scooching up some smooth logs over an obstacle.

We ended up taking our microspikes off for a while as we needed to use the soles of our winter boots for traction on smooth rock as we used ropes to ascend up a few canyon obstacles.

We recommend using traction devices for most Kananaskis Lake winter hiking trails
Kahtoola Microspikes

We recommend you bring microspikes for the McGillivray Canyon winter hike. You’ll be glad to have them for the majority of the hike and they are easy to take off for the moments when you’d prefer not to have metal spikes on your feet.

There are traction devices for kids too. Kahtoola doesn’t make microspikes for kids, but you can often find smaller versions by other manufacturers. Our kids have High Stream Gear Ice Cleats for Kids, but these are often sold out on Amazon. There are other traction devices for kids – just watch the sizes carefully as many of these products are for bigger kids.

What to wear on McGillivray Canyon Trail in winter

Yaktrax are another popular option for winter hiking in Kananaskis. Their spike-less design makes them more comfortable when walking on pathways and sidewalks, but less effective on uphill icy trails.

McGillivray Canyon Hike in Summer

We’ve always known the McGillivray Canyon hike to be primarily a winter activity in Kananaskis, so we’ve never visited this amazing slot canyon in summer, but it is a year-round activity and is equally as popular in the summer.

The primary reason people avoid McGillivray Canyon in summer is the dangers of the slot canyon. Water levels can be high and become especially dangerous after a rainfall. We will visit McGillivray Canyon this summer (2021) to see for ourselves, but in the meantime, here is what I learned from the summer 2020 comments on AllTrails:

  • There is a by-pass trail on the left around the slot canyon for people who wish to mitigate the risks of hiking through the high water.

  • The vast majority of hiker reports complained about bugs… so many bugs. Be sure to bring bug spray!

  • Snow remains on the McGillivray canyon floor until May. As the snow started to melt, many hikers in mid-May described the water being too strong to get through the slot canyon safely. By June/July, the water level was manageable and by August, the creek water had effectively dried up.

    If you hike through the water, be aware it will be freezing cold. Wearing Keen sandals while hiking McGillivray Creek in summer is a good idea to manage the wet / dry aspects.

Interested in more easy winter hikes near McGillivray Canyon? Check out our comprehensive list of easy winter hikes in Banff and Kananaskis.

The McGillivray Creek & Canyon chockstone in Kananaskis

We hope you love the McGillivray Canyon Kananaskis winter hike as much as we do!

Kananaskis & Banff in Winter

Banff Planning Resources

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