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Sawmill Snowshoe Trail in Kananaskis Country

For over a decade, the Sawmill Loop has been one of our favorite easy Kananaskis snowshoe trails. It’s such an enjoyable snowshoe trail in Kananaskis that we make time for it almost every winter.

With being just over 5 km looping along the lower slopes of Kent Ridge North (2,914 m), the Sawmill snowshoe trail offers a wide variety of winter scenery in a short distance. Enjoy views of the surrounding Kananaskis mountains, follow frozen creeks and walk though magical forests of snow-covered evergreen trees.

If you haven’t had an opportunity to snowshoe the Sawmill loop, make this winter the time you give this easy snowshoe trail in Kananaskis a try.

Boy in blue jacket on Sawmill Snowshoe loop with orange snowshoe sign in the foreground

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Sawmill Loop Snowshoe – Quick Details

Trailhead: Sawmill Day Use Parking Lot

Distance: 5.1 km Loop

Elevation: 216 m elevation gain

Sawmill Snowshoe Trail Highlights

The incredible views begin before you even start the Sawmill snowshoe trail. Looking back across the Smith-Dorrien highway you’ll enjoy excellent views of Hero’s Knob and Mount Murray (3,024 m).

Boy playing on large snow pile in Sawmill Day Use Parking Lot with Mountains in the background

As you start snowshoeing the Sawmill trail, the first mountain you’ll see through the trees ahead is Mount Chester (3,054 m). You’ll notice orange diamond snowshoeing signs on the trees, simply follow these the whole way around the Sawmill Loop snowshoe trail.

orange trail marker on sawmill snowshoe trail - Kananaskis

This easy Kananaskis snowshoe trail begins on a flat section through a forest of young evergreen trees. The young trees are still short enough to allow nice views of the surrounding Kananaskis mountains.

There is a large expanse of treeless meadow along the beginning of the Sawmill snowshoe trail, which is a great opportunity to have fun snowshoeing in the deep snow off the trail. It’s tiring though, so be careful not to use all your energy before you even begin.

two kids snowshoeing Sawmill Loop Snowshoe trail

A few hundred meters into the Sawmill Loop snowshoe trail, you’ll get a beautiful view of Mount Murray through the trees. You’ll then need to cross a bridge, which can be a little narrow early in the season if there hasn’t been much snow yet.

small child snowshoeing over snow bridge over creek on Sawmill Loop - easy snowshoe trail in Kananaskis

Soon you’ll snowshoe to a T-intersection where you’ll turn right into a forest of more mature evergreens.

There’s nothing like being the first ones on a snowshoe trail after a snowfall to get a sense for how much wildlife is around. There’s a lot of wildlife tracks on the Sawmill snowshoe trail after a fresh snowfall, including rabbit, deer and probably plenty more tracks we don’t recognize.

views of snowy trail and snow covered trees on Sawmill Loop snowshoe trail in Kananaskis

This section of the Sawmill snowshoe loop has a slow and steady incline. It’s wide enough for two people, but typically the trail is only broken for single file snowshoeing. If you are hiking in a group, try taking turns walking in the deep snow – it’s way harder and much better exercise.

After 800m of snowshoeing Sawmill, you’ll reach the James Walker Creek. If you snowshoe the Sawmill trail early in the season before too much snow accumulates, you can see the massive log jams created from the devastating 2013 floods. It’s an incredible sight to see!

snow covered Log pile from 2013 flood on Sawmill loop snowshoe

The Sawmill Loop trail follows the James Walker Creek for a while. Being next to the creek creates a wide gap between the trees, creating a beautiful winter Kananaskis scene. Despite following the creek upstream, the snowshoe trail maintains a barely noticeable incline.

After 100m of following the James Walker Creek on the Sawmill snowshoe trail, take a look behind you for a beautiful view of Mt. Warspite (2,850 m). Depending on recent temperatures and snowfall levels, you can often still see or hear the water running in the creek at this point.

As you snowshoe further along the Sawmill trail, Mount Murray and Prairie Lookout (3,185 m) appear on the left. Again, if the snow isn’t too deep, take a moment to truly appreciate the power of nature with the visual evidence of the devastation from the floods.

At the 1.2 km mark of the Sawmill snowshoe loop, Mount Chester reappears through the trees in front of you. The creek is still beside you on your left, but the trail starts to become a little steeper.

child snowshoeing on Kananaskis snowshoe trail - Sawmill Loop

You’ll snowshoe across the James Walker Creek at the 1.8 km mark. For most of the winter this is no problem due to the thick snow and ice, but use caution if it has been warm or there isn’t much snow cover.

After crossing, the Sawmill trail leaves the shores of the creek via a short, but steep section of switchbacks. This leads to an uphill section of snowshoe trail surrounded by young, snow-covered evergreen trees.

As you snowshoe higher, Mt. Chesmill (2,829 m) comes into view to the right of Mt. Chester. Be aware that a small creek runs below the snow here, but for most of the winter it’s undetectable.

man snowshoeing easy Sawmill snowshoe trail in Kananaskis

You’ll get your best views of Mt. Chester and Mt. Chesmill at the 2.2 km mark of the Sawmill loop. These Kananaskis mountains look especially majestic when dusted with a layer of snow over their steep rocky slopes. With the James Walker Creek running immediately below, this is a beautiful winter scene in Kananaskis country.

Mountain views on Sawmill Snowshoe in Kananaskis

At the 2.2 km mark, you’ll reach the trail junction for Sun Cup which according to the Alberta Parks Smith Dorrien trail map connects the Sawmill Loop to the High Rockies Trail. The Sawmill snowshoe trail continues down to the right.

There are a few short steep sections here, which can get pretty slippery. You’ll be grateful for the crampons providing traction on the bottom of your snowshoes.

Boy snowshoeing up hill with mountains in the distance

After a slow, but steady climb, you reach the furthest point of the Sawmill snowshoe loop at the 2.5 km mark. This point of the snowshoe trail is a junction for the Snowdrift trail, which ultimately ends up at the Chester Lake snowshoe trail (another of our favorite Kananaskis snowshoe trails).

At this point of the Sawmill trail, you’ll be standing at the very top of a long, steep hill. It’s so fun snowshoeing down this hill – take giant steps and enjoy sinking into the snow as each foot lands. It’s a ton of fun!

man snowshoeing long downhill on Sawmill Loop Snowshoe Trail

You’ll likely be having too much fun to notice, but if you remember, take a look through the trees on this hill for a good view of Heroes Knob through the trees ahead.

At the bottom of the hill, you’ll cross the James Walker Creek again. For most of the year, it’s perfectly safe, but be wary early or late on the season. Our snowshoes broke through the ice crossing the creek in early November, but thankfully neither of us ended up with wet feet.

girl and mother snowshoeing Sawmill snowshoe trail - Kananaskis

Beyond the creek crossing, the Sawmill snowshoe trail is reasonably flat through a forest of mature evergreen trees.

You’ll reach the trail junction for the Mt. Chesmill route after 3 km of snowshoeing. Following the Mt. Chesmill trail gets you much closer to the alpine zone of these Kananaskis mountains. Be sure to know the avalanche risks before proceeding along the Mt. Chesmill trail.

To continue the Sawmill snowshoe trail simply continue straight. This long section of easy snowshoeing is a nice, easy downhill. A very enjoyable section of snowshoeing!

two kids far in the distance on snowshoe trail in Kananaskis

You’ll reach another trail junction at the 3.3 km mark, this time for the Snowdrift Trail (it also shows up as the beginning leg of the Mt. Chesmill route on many maps). This section of trail is a common shortcut that people snowshoeing Sawmill often take (including us), but the official Sawmill trail is to the left.

There’s not much to say about the final leg of the Sawmill snowshoe loop. It’s a beautiful snowshoe through a forest of tall evergreen trees. With no breaks in the trees, there’s not much to look at, aside from the beautiful winter forest surrounding you.

This section of the Sawmill snowshoe loop doesn’t have an abundance of the orange diamond snowshoe trail markers, so it’s a good idea to have the Sawmill Loop trail map on your phone just in case you need to check which direction you need to go.

Snowcovered trees on one of Kananaskis easy snowshoe trails - Sawmill Loop snowshoe

We were lucky enough to be snowshoeing through fresh snow on this leg of the Sawmill loop in November 2021 and we followed the tracks of a small wild cat – perhaps a bobcat or lynx.

At the 4.6 km mark of the Sawmill Loop, the noticeable downhill descent towards the parking lot begins. 100m later, you’ll reach the trail junction for the Kent Ridge North Route, which looks way too steep to be a snowshoe trail.

As you near the parking lot, you’ll start to get some excellent mountain views, like the ones you enjoyed from the parking lot. The views of Mount Murray and Cegnfs (oddly, that’s not a typo) are especially nice.

Sawmill Snowshoe Trail Stats

How Long is the Sawmill Loop Trail?

The Alberta Parks webpage states the Sawmill snowshoe loop is 5.1 km long, which is very close to what we recorded it at. Using the AllTrails app we recorded the Sawmill Loop to be 5.76 km.

Man snowshoeing in Kananaskis on Sawmill Loop Snowshoe

How Steep is the Sawmill Snowshoe Trail?

The Sawmill snowshoe trail starts out relatively flat, then has a very gradual incline along the creek. The total elevation gain is 216 m, which mostly happens after the first kilometer. As you cross the creek and leave it behind, you have more sections of short climbing until you reach the base of Mt. Chester. From there it’s a slow descent back down to the parking lot.

woman with toddler backpack carrier on her back looking at mountains on Sawmill snowshoe trail in Kananaskis

How Hard is the Sawmill Snowshoe Loop?

Like any snowshoe trail, how easy or hard it is will depend entirely on how packed down the trail is. If you are snowshoeing on a well packed trail, this will be an easy snowshoe. In fact, you can probably leave the heavy snowshoes behind and opt for mircrospikes for traction.

If you happen to be the first one out after a big snowfall, then you’ll be amazed at how much more difficult a short and easy trail like Sawmill can be.

That being said, our two kids (who were 7 & 5 years old at the time) managed to snowshoe the Sawmill Loop. They’ve been doing portions of it since they were 3-4 years old too.

woman carrying toddler on her back snowshoeing with small child on Sawmill Loop Snowshoe trail in Kananaskis

How Long Does It Take to Snowshoe Sawmill Loop Trail?

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

We recently did the Sawmill Loop snowshoe trail and were quite surprised it took us almost 2 hours to snowshoe the loop. Breaking trail almost the entire way definitely slowed us down! We did this same trail with our kids (aged 5 & 7) last winter when it was packed down and it took us 2.5 hours with them.

two kids snowshoeing in Kananaskis - Sawmill Loop snowshoe

Our pace is typically almost double what it is when we are out with the kids, but the deep snow really slowed us down! At least that’s what we are telling ourselves!

Sawmill Loop Snowshoe Trail Location

The Sawmill Loop Snowshoe trailhead is found in the Sawmill Day Use parking lot on the Smith-Dorrien Highway (Hwy 742).

Directions to the Sawmill Day Use Parking Lot

The directions to the Sawmill 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).

Sign on Smith Dorrien Highway for Sawmill Day Use parking lot

Drive south until you reach the Kananaskis winter gate, where you turn right onto Kananaskis Lakes Trail. After approximately 2 km, make another right onto the Smith-Dorrien Trail/AB-742 and drive another 14 km. There’s a sign for the Sawmill Day Use on the right immediately before the right turn into the parking lot.

Sawmill Loop Trail Map

If you’re like us, you’ll want to have a map of this snowshoe on your phone. 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 Sawmill Loop Snowshoe.

The Sawmill snowshoe trail also has plenty of maps at the trailhead to help you navigate and orange diamond snowshoe trail signs marking the way.

Trailhead signs for Sawmill snowshoe kananaskis

The Sawmill trail appears on this pdf map of Peter Lougheed Winter Trails.

Snowshoeing Sawmill Loop with Kids

The Sawmill snowshoe trail is a kid-friendly Kananaskis snowshoe trail. There definitely is some incline that will slow kids down, but it doesn’t last long. Couple that with the reasonably short distance of 5.7 km makes the Sawmill snowshoe possible for all but the youngest kids.

Woman holding hand with small child on Kananaskis snowshoe trail - Sawmill snowshoe

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 in purple jacket and toque making snow angel on Sawmill snowshoe trail - Kananaskis

Our experience snowshoeing with kids is that they tend to get bored faster vs summer hiking. This is likely because they can’t run wild and most of the things they find interesting on a hike (finding treasures, etc.) are now buried under the snow.

One fun activity to do while snowshoeing Sawmill 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.

Where to Stop for Lunch or a Break

We always stop at the half-way point for a snack on the Sawmill trail. You’ll know it because it’s where you reach the junction for the Snowdrift trail and the Sawmill trail now starts heading back down.

sign at Junction for snowshoe trails - Kananaskis

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.

Sawmill 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

Sawmill Loop Trail Report

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

Sawmill Loop Snowshoe Trail Logistics

  • There are toilets at the Sawmill Day Use area.
  • There are no drinking water facilities, so bring as much water as you’ll need from home.
  • There is no camping or fires allowed in the area.
  • On-leash dogs are allowed on the Sawmill snowshoe trail.
Woman in blue jacket and pink toque with toddler in carrier on her back smiling in front of snow covered mountains and trees - Sawmill snowshoe trail

What to Bring for Sawmill 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 Sawmill 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!

Woman snowshoeing with toddler walking in front on kid friendly Kananaskis snowshoe trails

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

Sawmill Loop Foot Traction Recommendations

The Sawmill 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 Sawmill 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

woman snowshoeing in Kananaskis on Easy Sawmill Loop Snowshoe trail

Winter Hiking Traction Devices

If you are going to winter hike the Sawmill 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 Sawmill Loop is a very enjoyable easy snowshoe trail in Kananaskis, packed with a mix of meadows, snow covered trees and mountain scenery.

Other Nearby Kananaskis Snowshoe Trails

Other Things to do in Kananaskis in Winter

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This winter add the Sawmill Loop snowshoe trail to your list of easy Kananaskis snowshoe trails. This snowshoe trail in Kananaskis offers mountain views and sections through open meadows and snow covered forests.

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