The Canadian Rockies are a paradise for skiing in every form…alpine, backcountry, and of course, nordic or cross-country skiing. I’ll admit that I was initially intimidated by the prospect of cross-country skiing in a landscape known for its steep slopes, but the valleys of Kananaskis Country offer hundreds of kilometers of flat and rolling trails, frequented by novices and Olympians alike.
Along these parallel tracks, you’ll find unparalleled views. Whether you’re out for a full body workout, or just enjoying some leisurely strides, there are many stunning places to cross-country ski in K-Country. Remember that a valid Kananaskis Conservation Pass is required while recreating in these Provincial Parks.
Where to Cross-Country Ski in Kananaskis
1. Canmore Nordic Centre
A legacy of the 1988 Winter Olympics, this world-class facility provides over 65 km of trails suited to all ages and abilities. As the home of Canada’s National Cross-Country and Biathlon teams, you’ll be cross-country skiing with the very best.
Only a few minutes drive from downtown Canmore, the Nordic Centre is one of the most convenient and comfortable places to scoot out for a short or long ski if based in the mountains. There’s cellular service, a day lodge with concessions, a ski shop with rentals, a mid-trail warming hut, and well-groomed tracks. Not to mention the picturesque location alongside the iconic Rundle range.
If you do tire of cross-country skiing, the Nordic Centre caters to an extensive range of winter activities with fat biking and snowshoe trails, a disc golf course, a toboggan hill, and a skating rink.
Given the regular snow-making and meticulous maintenance, winter trail fees are in effect at the Nordic Centre (and charged separately from the Kananaskis Conservation Pass required to park). Ski passes can be purchased at the daylodge between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. at a daily rate of $15 for adults (reduced rates for children, youth, seniors). Free night skiing along a 7km illuminated loop is available from 5 to 9 p.m.
The Nordic Centre’s quality trails host various competitions over winter weekends. While it can be fun to see the speedy pros flying in and out of the stadium, public trail use may be restricted at such times. Check for event notices posted on CNC’s website.
Why cross country ski here? Convenient location, warm amenities, impeccable grooming, illuminated night skiing
Best for Beginners: Banff Trail
- Distance: 5.5km to 12km
- Elevation: 60m to 160m
- Time: 1 to 2.5 hours
- Grooming: double track, suitable for classic and skate skiing
This wide, easy run heads west from the stadium, passing the biathlon range. With a track set in both directions with ample space in the middle for skate skiers, it’s a bustling route that leads to many other parts of the park. The trail undulates, with most of the elevation gained in gentle inclines on the way out.
Opt for Banff Loop at junction #2, which reunites with Banff Trail at Mine Meadows. With picnic tables, a warming hut, and washrooms, this is a great place to catch your breath and admire the panoramic peaks.
You can either loop back from here or continue beyond the meadow for as long as your legs hold up. If you have the stamina, ski the full 5.5km to the end of the park and hang a right at Cold Shoulder. You’ll be treated to a scenic rest area that overlooks the Bow Valley. Fortunately, the journey back to the stadium on Banff Trail passes quickly as you can let gravity carry you along stretches of descending tracks.
Feeling more adventurous?
Head down Bow Trail at junction #19. This intermediate trail meanders westwards just below Banff Trail with options to reconnect at a few junctions. If you’re just starting to wade into intermediate trails, try the short teardrop loop. Following Bow Trail to its terminus will lead to the Cold Shoulder viewpoint. From here, you can opt for an easy return via Banff Trail or continue blazing along blues by taking Meadowview.
2. Mount Shark
Isolated and idyllic, Mount Shark’s cross-country ski network is tucked between Spray Lake and its namesake mountain off the Smith Dorrien Highway. Almost 25km of well-signed, dog-friendly cross-country ski trails are groomed here between December 1 and March 31. Situated over 1,700m above sea level, Mount Shark is usually covered by snow starting in November.
While amenities at Mount Shark are limited to outhouses, picnic tables and bear-proof bins at the trailhead, the tranquil mountain scenes and generous powder more than make up for its rustic facilities.
Why cross country ski here? Dog-friendly trails, serene ambiance, après ski at Mount Engadine.
Best for Beginners: Watridge Lake Trail
- Distance: 7.5km
- Elevation: 160m
- Time: ~1.5 hours
- Grooming: double track, suitable for classic and skate skiing
From the trailhead, it’s a short, flat ski to the major junction where most trails converge. Head straight through the dip to stay on track to Watridge Lake. This multi-use trail forms the spine of the Mount Shark system, with tracks set in each direction and space for those travelling on skate skis, foot, snowshoes, or skijoring (if you don’t know what this is, it’s well worth the google search).
After about 2km of skiing through forests framed by towering peaks, you’ll cross a bridge over Watridge Creek. Take the left trail that gently rises and leads through pine forest. A short ungroomed trail branches to the left after about 1.5kms and leads down to the lake. The hill is fairly steep, so snowplow (aka pizza ski) to control your speed. You can also easily walk this short section.
Feeling more adventurous?
Try the mythically-inspired trails that wind through the woods like Virgo, Pegasus or Orion. Some of these intermediate trails include steeper advanced sections that require skilled maneuvering. On-site maps can help you find routes that match your abilities. Instead of typical green-blue-black colour-coding, Mount Shark differentiates trail difficulty with line patterns, so keep this in mind when consulting the maps. Aside from Watridge Lake trail, most routes at Mount Shark are one-way, with signs to point you in the right direction.
3. Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
With almost 80km of trails accessed from 5 parking lots, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park (PLPP) boasts the most extensive cross-country ski network in Kananaskis. There is no shortage of trails to explore. Newbie skiers can circle Marl Lake or traverse Lodgepole, while enthusiastic experts can trek up Blueberry Hill or Lookout.
On cold days, the Pocaterra warming hut offers a cozy refuge, complete with fireplace. Similar to Mount Shark, the higher elevation often brings a thick blanket of snow to PLPP. Trails are regularly groomed and set for classic skiing. To make the most of the many route variants and inviting vistas, dedicate ample time when visiting these stunning trails.
Why ski here? Varied and picturesque classic ski trails, picnic lunch by the fire in Pocaterra Hut
Best for Beginners: Pocaterra
- Distance: 12km+
- Elevation: 230m+
- Time: 2 – 3 hours
- Grooming: double track, classic only
On the more ambitious end of beginner skiing, the loops from Pocaterra provide a whimsical cross-country tour over rolling hills through a woodland wonderland. Start from the warming hut and follow the gentle blue trail that leads south, crisscrossing the Come Along trail. You can take either of these routes as they reconnect and then converge back into Pocaterra.
About 4km after setting out, you’ll come to an important junction. Unless you’re prepared for a very long day, turn sharp right onto Lynx. An uphill section and about 2km skiing leads to another junction.
To return directly to the warming hut, take a right and then connect onto Woolley, which leads north to Meadow trail for a total 12km loop. Turning left offers a longer circuit around Marl Lake via Amos-Wheeler before joining Meadow trail. There are no shortage of variations at PLPP. No matter which option you choose, a post-ski fireside lunch at the Pocaterra Hut is certainly well-earned.
Feeling more adventurous?
Experienced skiers could consider doubling this distance, elevation, and time by keeping left on Pocaterra at the Lynx junction. After crossing the creek, the trail ascends as it approaches Pocaterra Mountain with junctions after 3kms (to Packers) and 5kms (to Whiskey Jack), eventually leading up the panoramic Lookout trail. All of these options will get your heart-pumping as they cover distances over 20km with steep inclines.
Alternatively, start the day at one of the southern trailheads like Boulton Creek or Elk Pass to ascend Blueberry Hill or Lookout trail. Your efforts will be rewarded with sweeping views over the Kananaskis Lakes and high-speed descents.
If time allows, plan an overnight trip to Elk Lakes Cabin, a backcountry hut operated by the Alpine Club of Canada. From the trailhead at Elk Pass, it’s a 14km ski across the Alberta-BC border (approx. 3-4hrs). Reservations are required in advance to secure spaces in this shared, rustic cabin.
4. Ribbon Creek
Encircling Kananaskis Village, the Ribbon Creek network includes over 50km of cross-country trails winding along the mountainsides and into the valley. Many provide exceptional views for relatively low effort.
The trail network is easily accessed from a number of trailheads off Highway 40. With various flat trail options that allow skiers to cruise in tracks without snowplowing or any other technical challenges, Ribbon Creek makes a superb venue for those new to cross-country skiing
To cap off a day of gliding on the trails, recharge tired limbs at the nearby Kananaskis Nordic Spa (reserve in advance) or grab refreshments from one of the Pomeroy Mountain Lodge‘s delightful restaurants.
Why nordic ski here? Dog-friendly trails, newbie-friendly flats, expansive mountain views
Best for Beginners: Bill Milne
- Distance: Variable, up to 16km
- Elevation: Minimal
- Time: As long as you want, plan for 1 – 3 hours
- Grooming: single track, suitable for classic and skate skiing
This long, mostly flat track that connects Kananaskis Village and Mount Kidd RV Park through the Kananaskis Golf Course is perfect for soaking in the rays on sunny days.
You can start your journey from a few different parking lots, but I’d suggest either the Kovach Day Use Area or the golf course to complete the 4km section in between (for a total of 8km). While you can ski out-and-back track for as long as you’d like, this middle stretch takes you through some of the most scenic surroundings in about 1-2 hours.
The Terrace Loop and Wedge Connector are also good options for novice cross-country skiers. Wedge Connector can be completed as a 7km counterclockwise loop when Evan-Thomas Creek is frozen. If, like me, you are put off by multiple highway and water crossings, you can opt to ski the Wedge Connector as a slightly shorter (~5km), out-and-back trail from the Wedge Pond parking lot.
The lower elevation of these valley trails makes snow accumulation more variable and cross-country skiing is best saved for snowy-mid winter days when you can count on a solid base.
Feeling more adventurous?
For some exhilarating hill action, loop Terrace, Aspen, and Kovach trails counterclockwise from Kananaskis Village. Well-seasoned cross-country skiers can complete the much lauded and challenging Skogan Pass Loop from the Ribbon Creek trailhead. I have yet to acquire the skills and the stomach for this 20km, 700m gain/loss cross-country ski objective, but the views seem incredible.
Avalanche hazards exist beyond the designated tracks on this western side of the Ribbon Creek network, so be mindful of signs and only venture further with proper training and gear (beacon, probe, shovel).
5. West Bragg Creek
Nestled in the foothills of the Rockies, West Bragg Creek (aka Bragg Creek Trails) is very popular among Calgarians seeking groomed trails outside the city. The drive is farther if based out of the mountain towns, but the Bragg Creek’s 60km of groomed trails through varied landscapes make it worth the while.
Bragg Creek Trails indeed has a trail for all skills and all forms of winter recreation, including dedicated cross-country tracks, as well as trails for snowshoeing, hiking, fat-biking, and equestrian. Although most cross-country ski routes are classified ‘intermediate’, the hills are fairly gentle. Those who prefer flats can loop a series of short trails from the parking lot or head out-and-back on Mountain Road. As the name alludes, the best views can be found on Mountain View trail, accessed from West Crystal Line or Mountain Road.
A dedicated team of volunteers keep the Bragg Creek cross-country ski trails in top shape for regular use. Public access is free but donations are appreciated to support upkeep and maintenance.
Why ski here? Dog- and family-friendly trails, proximity to Calgary
Other Fantastic Cross Country Ski Trails in Kananaskis to Consider
Elk Pass: As far as cross-country ski trails go, Elk Pass isn’t all that long but it can be very difficult. The path ascends along a historic fire road, covering a distance of 4.9 km until it intersects with a meadow and arrives at West Elk Pass. From there, you have the option to extend your journey into British Columbia and explore Elk Lakes Provincial Park (BC Parks).
Sandy McNabb: If you’re short on time, the Sandy McNabb cross-country ski area is home to 7 km of very easy trails that are suitable for anyone, including first-timers. The snow conditions vary so if you don’t plan strategically, you may end up dealing with very bad conditions. The best time to go is right after a recent snowfall.
Skogan Pass: If you want to cross-country ski in the Skogan Pass region, you’ll need to make your way to the Nakiska Ski Hill where you’ll find the trailhead. This trail is very hard so it might not be the best one to attempt if you’re only new to cross-country skiing. It’s steep, it’s sometimes icy and it’s pretty long at almost 20 km but the spectacular views that can be enjoyed at various viewpoints along the way make it all worthwhile!
Winter Safety in Kananaskis
Winter in the Rockies is a beautiful and ethereal season, but also notably hazardous. Skiers venturing into the mountains are responsible for their own safety and must consider associated risks like avalanches, frostbite, hypothermia, thin ice, wildlife encounters, equipment failure, slippery conditions, and exposed debris.
Well-informed decision-making is essential to a fun and safe winter recreation, so take the time to learn about the risks and prepare accordingly. Here are some tips to get you started:
- Research trails in advance to know where you’re going and to identify routes suited to your abilities. A colour-coding system is used for cross-country trails, similar to downhill ratings – green for easiest, blue for intermediate, black for difficult. While Alberta Parks often posts maps and signs along trails, printed and offline maps can also be useful for navigation. Note that poor conditions like ice and thin snow can increase difficulty.
- Check the latest conditions and reports. For Kananaskis cross-country ski areas, grooming updates are available through Nordic Pulse (which also has a downloadable app) and general advisories posted on Alberta Parks website. Recent trip reports are posted on the Skier Roger website. Local weather forecasts are also important for planning, especially for skis that require waxing.
- Be Avalanche Aware. While most designated cross-country ski trails in Kananaskis are not exposed to avalanche hazards, some trails do go near avalanche terrain. Check trail locations and daily forecasts for Kananaskis prepared by Avalanche Canada. Adhere to any warnings at trailheads and only enter avalanche terrain if you have the proper training and gear (i.e. beacon, probe, shovel).
- Pack for Comfort and Emergencies. Weather conditions in the mountains are notoriously variable. Dressing in layers can help manage fluctuations in temperature as you move and as weather changes. Wondering what to wear in the winter? Check this post for suggestions. It’s a good idea to bring the 10 essentials including water, snacks, first aid kit, repair supplies, and a headlamp.
- Consider possible wildlife encounters. Although bears are most likely hibernating, winter sightings have occurred in Kananaskis.
- Let someone know your plans in case of an emergency and consider bringing a satellite communicator like a Garmin InReach or Zoleo. With the exception of Canmore and Kananaskis Village, there is little cellular reception in K-Country.
Cross Country Skiing Trail Etiquette
- The track set portions of cross-country ski trails are for classic skiing and you should avoid walking or skate skiing over the tracks. Where dogs are permitted on groomed trails, keep them out of the tracks.
- Stay on the right side of trails to provide space for passing or oncoming skiers.
- Descending skiers have the right of way, so keep an eye out when travelling uphill.
- Obey all signs, including closure notices and one-way directions.
- Move off to the side if taking a break to allow others to ski along the tracks.
- Do not litter. Pack out what you bring in and dispose of any garbage in designated bins.
When is the Best Time to Cross Country Ski in Kananaskis?
The long mountain winters support cross-country skiing from November to April. Some early skiing can be found at the Canmore Nordic Centre, where a combination of snow storage and production allow for some trail use as early as October! With the most snow, January, February, and March typically provide the best months for skiing.
Where to Rent Nordic Skis in Kananaskis?
In Canmore, you can rent cross-country ski gear from Gear Up on Bow Valley Trail or from Trail Sports at the Nordic Centre. In Kananaskis Village, rentals are available from Kananaskis Outfitters. Trail Sports and Kananaskis Outfitters also offers lessons for first time skiers and those wishing to improve their technique.
Plan Your Trip to the Canadian Rockies
- Hiking in the Rockies: Purchase an AllTrails subscription to have a mobile map on you as you hike.
- Tours (New in 2024): The Banff Blog is partnering with one of the leading tour companies in Western Canada so readers can experience the magic of the Rockies with other travelers – without having to think about a thing. See all our 2024 tour offerings here!
- Hotels in the Rockies: There are many places to stay, from luxury hotels to wilderness cabins. See all our favorites here.
- Get to Banff or Canmore Without a Car: The Banff Airporter provides fantastic service that will connect you right from YYC to the town of Banff or Canmore.
- Get Around: We suggest renting a car to get around. You can search for rental cars on Rentalcars.com. Or embark on an epic campervan trip. We like to compare prices on Motorhome Republic and Outdoorsy.
- Fly For Free: Turn your spending into airline miles and points with travel credit cards (that’s what we do!). See our favorite travel credit cards. We also use Going to watch for cheap airfare deals!
- Hop On, Hop Off: This tour is taking Banff by storm. It’s exactly what it sounds like, hop on and off a bus bound for all the best attractions at your own pace!
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