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Penstock Loop Snowshoe Trail in Kananaskis

Since we started snowshoeing in the Rockies over a decade ago, the Penstock Loop snowshoe trail remains one of our favorite easy Kananaskis snowshoe trails. The Penstock snowshoe trail is an easy trail through the forest near the Kananaskis Lakes which provides a wide variety of Rocky Mountain scenery.

Along this Kananaskis snowshoe trail you’ll enjoy elevated views of Lower Kananaskis Lake, a unique hydroelectric wooden aqueduct and many of the most recognizable mountains which surround the Kananaskis Lakes.

Boy in blue jacket and toque looking at mountains along Penstock snowshoe trail

If you’re looking for an easy half-day activity, the Penstock snowshoe trail in Kananaskis will fit the bill!

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boy in blue jacket snowshoeing on Penstock snowshoe trail with mountains in the distance

Penstock Loop Snowshoe – Quick Details

Trailhead: Canyon Day Use Parking Lot

Distance:  4.5 km Loop

Elevation: 156 m elevation gain

Penstock Snowshoe Trail Highlights

You gotta love Kananaskis snowshoe trails where the scenery starts right from the parking lot. As you walk from your car in the Canyon Day Use Area to the Penstock trailhead, you’ll be treated to a beautiful view of Lower Kananaskis Lake with the jagged peaks of Little Lawson Peak (2,386 m) and South Kent Peak (2,365 m) across the water.

views of the Lower Kananaskis Lake from the Penstock Loop Snowshoe trail in Kananaskis Alberta

The Penstock Loop snowshoe trail begins on the north side of the parking lot, just to the left of the toilets. This easy snowshoe trail begins through a thin evergreen forest which affords views of Lower Kananaskis Lake through the trees on the left. If the water is not yet frozen you’ll see the yellow safety buoys floating in the water around the intake to the penstock.

In case you are wondering, a penstock is an enclosed pipe which delivers water to hydro turbines. In this instance, the Penstock Loop was named after an old wooden penstock which delivered water from the Lower Kananaskis Lakes to a hydro-electric plant downstream.

the old penstock in Kananaskis covered in ice. Mountains loom in the distance

The old wooden penstock was so interesting and beautiful in the wintertime as it leaked like crazy, creating a wonderful collection of aqua-blue icicles down its length. Now, the new (while likely more functional but not nearly as interesting) penstock is buried underground.

the old penstock in Kananaskis covered in ice
Images from 2009 – we’ve been snowshoeing here for many years!

After 100 m of snowshoeing you’ll reach a short bridge over the Lower Kananaskis Lake spillway. You’re in for a real treat if you are ever lucky enough to snowshoe the Penstock Loop on a day when the spillway is open. The powerful water flows down the spillway, which oddly enough, has a bit of an upward ramp at the bottom. Watching the raging water hit the ramp and fly into the air is great fun to watch!

man crossing bridge to access Penstock snowshoe trail

There are no trees around the spillway, affording great views of Mt. Warspite (2,850 m) and Mt. Black Prince (2,932 m) behind you and Mt. Blane (2,993 m), Mt. Brock (2,902 m), Mount Hood (2,903 m) and Mount Evan-Thomas (3,097 m) ahead.

The junction for the Canyon trail (another of our favorite easy Kananaskis snowshoe trails) is just before the bridge across the spillway. Go right for the Canyon snowshoe trail or go left across the bridge for the Penstock snowshoe trail.

After crossing the bridge you’ll snowshoe up a little hill to a massive berm along the north-east shore of Lower Kananaskis Lake. Enjoy the panoramic mountain views from atop the berm for 300 m until you reach the orange diamond snowshoe trail marker pointing to the right.

girl standing atop a hill along Kananaskis snowshoe trail - Penstock loop

Following the snowshoe trail down the big hill is a ton of fun when there is a lot of deep snow. Try to take really big steps and the deep snow will cushion your steps all the way down.

There’s another trail marker at the bottom of the hill, showing the Penstock Loop goes both directions. This post is written following the Penstock snowshoe loop to the right, going in a counter-clockwise direction.

Going right, the Penstock snowshoe trail is a very wide and flat trail leading into a mature evergreen forest. Gap Mountain (2,675 m) pokes its pointy head up through the trees ahead.

trail junction for Kananaskis snowshoe trails

You’ll reach the trail junction for the Tailwater Trail at the 0.7 km mark of the Penstock Loop. The Tailwater snowshoe trail is a 1.9km trail which connects the Penstock Loop with the Pocaterra Day Use area, crossing the Lodgepole cross-country ski trail along the way.

Staying on the Penstock Loop, Mt. Evan-Thomas appears through trees. The healthy forest here has lots of lichen hanging from the branches of evergreens and you’ll often hear the sounds of a few hardy birds hanging in for the winter.

You’ll enter a large, open meadow at the 800 m mark of the Penstock loop. This meadow often has deep snow surrounding the snowshoe trail which is a ton of fun to snowshoe through. Be a bit careful with the large snowy hill to the left as there are huge boulders hidden underneath the snow.

mother and son snowshoeing on an easy Kananaskis trail with mountains off in the distance

Follow the orange trail markers through the meadow and you’ll re-enter the forest at the 1.1 km mark. This section of the Penstock snowshoe trail is around 4 people wide making it fun to snowshoe with your family or friends.

father and daughter snowshoe the Penstock Loop snowshoe trail

This leg of the Penstock loop is a straight shot through the forest. The trail goes up and down many short hills along this stretch. There isn’t much in the way of views in this leg, so you can entertain yourself looking for animal tracks in the snow. Judging by the number of tracks, there seems to be a healthy rabbit population in this forest!

two kids snowshoeing in Kananaskis on Penstock snowshoe trail

You’ll enter a clearing after 2.4 km of snowshoeing the Penstock Loop trail where you’ll have nice views of Little Lawson Peak ahead on the left and Opal Peak and Grizzly Peak (2,545 m) on the right.

The Penstock Loop crosses the Smith-Dorrien Highway here, so watch out for fast moving cars. The orange trail marker is off to the right on the far side of the highway.

boy crossing highway to connect to Penstock Loop snowshoe trail on the other side. Mountains loom in the distance

As you climb the hill on the far side of the road to re-enter the forest, views of Mount Blaine (2,993 m) and The Blade (2,910 m) are prominent ahead.

This leg of the Penstock snowshoe trail is a straight shot through a narrow single-file gap in the trees. At the 3.2 km mark of the Penstock Loop, you’ll reach a big creek, which you can easily cross in the heart of winter. Early in the season, you’ll need to snowshoe upstream a bit to find a safe place to cross.

snow covered trees on Penstock Loop Snowshoe Trail - Kananaskis

After crossing the creek you’ll reach a TransAlta water diversion facility. This facility captures water from Kent Creek and diverts back into the creek you just crossed or into a long wooden aqueduct.

a flat section next to the wooden trough on Penstock snowshoe trail - Kananaskis

The Penstock Loop snowshoe trail follows the wooden aqueduct for several hundred meters. The presence of this visually interesting wooden aqueduct makes for a really unique and fun section of snowshoeing.

The wooden aqueduct eventually transitions to a dirt trench created by the berm you are snowshoeing on. You’ll enjoy nice views of Gap Mountain and Mount Pocaterra (2,941 m) ahead.

This stretch of the Penstock Loop is a very enjoyable snowshoe. High atop a wide road on a berm, with the forest well below on the left, it’s a unique snowshoeing trail which just feels good to trek on. Take a moment to look behind you for a good view of the very pointy Little Lawson Peak behind you.

Looking back on Penstock Loop trail in Kananaskis with Little Lawson Peak in the distance

As the snowshoe trail turns gently to the right, breaks in the trees give excellent mountain views with Mt. Wintour (2,700 m) being the most prominent. A snow-covered Spillway Lake rests below you across the road on the left.

girl in white jacket and pink toque snowshoeing Penstock snowshoe trail looking down on Spillway Lake

The elevated trail ends at the 4.7 km mark of the Penstock Loop snowshoe when you reach a small parking lot next to the Smith Dorrien Highway. This parking lot is often busy as the High Rockies trail can be accessed from here.

After snowshoeing across the Smith Dorrien Highway, you’ll quickly meet up with the Lower Kananaskis Lake again. From here, you’ll simply need to snowshoe the length of the berm on the NE shores of the lake to get back to the Canyon Day Use parking lot.

snow swirling around along the Lower Kananaskis lake

This section along the berm is one of the nicest little walks in Kananaskis and is one of the reasons I enjoy the Penstock Loop snowshoe trail so much. There are outstanding views the whole way. Gypsum Ridge (2,115 m), Mount Indefatigable (2,670 m), and Sarrail Ridge are all visible across the Lower Kananaskis Lake, while Gap Mountain and Pocaterra Ridge are straight ahead.

On a particularly windy day, you can snowshoe down on the left beside the berm to get some shelter from the wind.

Penstock Snowshoe Trail Stats

How Long is the Penstock Loop Trail?

The Alberta Parks webpage states the Penstock snowshoe loop is 4.6 km long, which is about 1 km shorter than what we recorded it at. Using the AllTrails app we recorded the Penstock Loop to be 5.6 km.

If you are looking for a longer outing, you can also access the Lower Lake Snowshoe Trail and the Canyon Snowshoe Trail from the same parking lot. You can also access the High Rockies Trail heading up the Smith-Dorrien from the Penstock snowshoe trail.

father and child snowshoeing amongst snow covered forest on an easy Kananaskis snowshoe trail

How Steep is the Penstock Snowshoe Trail?

The Penstock snowshoe trail starts out flat. There’s a steep downhill when you leave Lower Kananaskis Lake behind, but after a quick slide down the hill the trail becomes flat again. There are a few short little up and downs as you snowshoe towards the highway. But the remainder is mostly flat. With a total elevation gain of 156 m, this is a pretty flat snowshoe trail in Kananaskis!

man with two small children on Penstock snowshoe trail in Kananaskis

How Hard is the Penstock Snowshoe Loop?

If you arrive and the trail is packed, then this is one of the easiest snowshoe trails in Kananaskis. If you are the first one on the trail after a big snowfall, then it will be a tough 5 km.

One of the first times we snowshoed the Penstock Loop, we were the first to arrive after a very large snowfall. With plans to complete a couple of snowshoes that day, we only managed the Penstock Loop snowshoe. We took turns breaking the trail, but were exhausted!

snowshoeing with kids on easy snowshoe trails in Kananaskis

That being said, our two kids (who are now 8 & 6 years old) have snowshoed the Penstock trail many times in their short lives. This kid-friendly snowshoe trail in Kananaskis is perfect for kids and beginners to snowshoeing.

How Long Does It Take to Snowshoe Penstock Loop Trail?

It should take a typical adult about 1.5 to 2 hours to snowshoe the full loop of the Penstock Trail.

With kids, you can expect this trail to take 2.5 to 3 hours depending on how much time you take to play in the snow.

Penstock Loop Snowshoe Trail Location

The Penstock Loop Snowshoe trailhead is found in the Canyon Day Use parking lot. To find the start of the Penstock Loop trail, cross the road to the toilets. The trail begins immediately to the left of the toilets.

Sign for Kananaskis Lakes snowshoe trails

Directions to the Penstock Day Use Parking Lot

The directions to the Penstock Day Use Parking Lot are the same regardless of whether you start from Calgary, Canmore or Banff. Take the TransCanada Highway to Kananaskis Trail (Hwy 40).

Drive south until you reach the Kananaskis winter gate, where you turn right onto Kananaskis Lakes Trail. After approximately 3.5 km, you’ll see a sign for Canyon Day Use which you’ll follow by making a right turn. Follow the road until you reach the parking lot.

Penstock Loop Trail Map

You really don’t need a map for the Penstock Loop snowshoe. The entire trail is well marked and easy to follow. Just look for the orange diamond snowshoe signs along the way.

orange diamond snowshoe trail marker with mountains in the distance

There’s no harm in having a map though. We use the AllTrails app as it’s easy to download the maps and have it available while we snowshoe.

To find this snowshoe trail on AllTrails, look for Penstock Loop Trail.

The Penstock trail appears on this pdf map of Peter Lougheed Winter Trails, but it’s hard to read in the bottom right hand corner.

Snowshoeing Penstock Loop with Kids

Like we mentioned above, the Penstock snowshoe trail is a kid-friendly Kananaskis snowshoe trail. This is a mostly flat trail with a few little ups and downs along the way. There are also plenty of opportunities to let kids play in the deep snow.

Couple that with the reasonably short distance of 5.5 km making the Penstock snowshoe ideal for kids. Even as toddlers, our kids would do portions of this trail and we’d carry them again when they got tired.

two small children standing in snow with mountains in the distance - Penstock Loop snowshoe trail

We always recommend saving some time to allow your kids to play in the deep snow just off the trail, since this is what will get them most excited.

girl touching the ice crystals on long pieces of grass

Our experience snowshoeing with kids is that they tend to get bored faster vs summer hiking. On this trail, the first big hill (after you cross the small bridge to the berm along Lower Kananaskis Lake) is a great place to have some fun running and rolling down! Just make sure there is plenty of snow, as this hill is very rocky otherwise!

Girl falls in snow on steep hill on easy Kananaskis snowshoe trail - Penstock Loop snowshoe trail

One fun activity to do while snowshoeing Penstock Trail with kids is to look for animal tracks in the snow – find as many different kinds as you can and try to guess which animal made them.

Also note, this is also one of the few snowshoe trails in Kananaskis that you can do with a chariot. We pulled our double chariot on the Penstock Loop snowshoe many times. The two challenging sections will be getting it across the road, and the short but steep hill that crosses the creek before you reach the large wooden trough.

woman wearing a blue jacket snowshoeing while pulling a double chariot along the easy Kananaskis snowshoe trail called Penstock Loop

Where to Stop for Lunch or a Break

The Penstock Loop snowshoe is short, so we don’t always stop along the way. If we do make a stop for a snack or lunch, we always stop near the large wooden trough for a snack on the Penstock trail. This is a little more than halfway, but it’s a good place to stop.

large wooden structure used to move water found along the Penstock snowshoe trail

Even with snow pants on, it can get cold sitting on frozen trees or picnic table benches, so we recommend you bring a winter picnic blanket if you have room in your day bag.

Penstock Snowshoe Trail Safety

Kananaskis Wildlife Safety

In the dead of winter, the bears around the Kananaskis Lakes 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.

Rocky Mountain Sheep in Kananaskis

Penstock Loop Trail Report

It’s always a good idea to check the Penstock snowshoe trail conditions before you leave home. Alberta Parks publishes a Penstock Loop Snowshoe Trail Report for the snowshoe trail which details any area closures, known animal risks, etc.

Penstock Loop Snowshoe Trail Logistics

  • There are toilets at the Canyon Day Use area.
  • There are no drinking water facilities, so bring as much water as you’ll need from home.
  • There is also picnic area in the Canyon Day Use area that has fire pits.
  • On-leash dogs are allowed on the Penstock snowshoe trail.
woman crouched with a dog on either side - snowshoeing with dogs in Kananaskis

What to Bring for Hiking Penstock Loop in Winter

It’s really tough to decide how to dress for winter hiking or snowshoeing in Kananaskis. If you snowshoe at a fast pace or decide to have fun in the deep snow, you’ll get hot pretty quickly, even when it’s cold outside.

The Penstock snowshoe trail often runs through deep forest, keeping you in the shade most of the time but also out of the wind. When you are in an open area, you may enjoy the warmth of the sun, but the cold winds will make you cold quickly. In the winter, shade and wind result in noticeably colder temperatures, so you’ll be adding layers quickly to keep warm!

man and daughter snowshoeing in Kananaskis on easy snowshoe trail - Penstock Loop Snowshoe

Our kids were quick to give up all their outer layers when we did this trail recently, but they were equally quick to put them back on as we exited the forest and the wind was blowing. Even on a warm sunny day. The berm that runs up high along the Lower Kananaskis Lake offers little protection from the wind, and this is where it can get really chilly.  

Given these challenges, we recommend dressing in layers while snowshoeing in Kananaskis and having a good daybag to store your unused layers in.

Ice crystals cover a plant

Penstock Loop Foot Traction Recommendations

The Penstock snowshoe trail does have some short, steep sections. You will want some sort of traction devices. In fact, even on flat trails traction devices are always a good idea – you never know when you’ll hit an unexpected icy patch.

Snowshoes

If you are going to snowshoe the Penstock Loop, make sure you have multiple crampons underneath your snowshoes – some on the front toe and a pair under your heel. Also, if possible, look for a pair of snowshoes with double-ratchet bindings and avoid snowshoes with any form of buckle bindings – they tend to come undone, which gets annoying quickly.

Shop for snowshoes

girl in white jacket and pink toque snowshoeing the Penstock trail in Kananaskis

Winter Hiking Traction Devices

If you are going to winter hike the Penstock Trail you should have some form of traction device on your feet. We don’t recommend doing this unless the trail is hard packed by snowshoes, otherwise you’ll find yourself post-holing the entire way.

We almost always pack both our snowshoes and our microspikes. Once we reach the trail, we make the decision on which will be best for the conditions.

micro spikes are better than yaktrax for a Kananakis ice walk

We own and highly recommend Kahtoola MICROspikes. Look at the steel spikes on the bottom of the Kahtoola MICROspikes and you’ll see why we love these traction devices so much. They are a scaled-down recreational version of the crampons you’ll see on mountain expeditions.

Yaktrax are another popular multi-purpose traction device used around Banff for winter walking or running. They are popular as they are very comfortable for walking on winter hikes or snow-covered walking trails in Canmore or Banff. The lack of spikes makes them comfortable to walk on snow and cleared pathways, but they are not great for ice walking.

Shop for traction devices

Trekking Poles

No matter which traction device you use for your feet, you should consider using trekking poles to help your balance. We’ve tried trekking poles and to be honest, we don’t like them nor use them, but we seem to be in the minority. Trekking poles are widely used around Banff and Kananaskis in winter.

It makes sense… winter hiking on snow or ice in the mountains is often very slippery and trekking poles add two more points of contact with the ground, thus greatly reducing your odds of slipping.

Shop for trekking poles

The Penstock Loop is an easy Kananaskis snowshoe trail that’s perfect for kids and beginners to snowshoeing!

Other Nearby Kananaskis Snowshoe Trails

Other Things to do in Kananaskis in Winter

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The Penstock Loop Snowshoe trail in Kananaskis, Alberta is an easy snowshoe trail that's great for kids and beginner snowshoers! Give this easy Kananaskis snowshoe trail a try this winter!

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