The trail starts at a mountain lake, goes past a waterfall and ends at the top of a mountain (bring a water bottle -- this is the Rockies). At the top, you’ll find a funny little building inhabited by a friendly Albertan, who likely has binoculars attached to his or her face. This is the Barrier Lake Fire Lookout, and that Albertan is keeping an eye out for wildfires. But that job comes with a bonus: a breathtakingly beautiful view of a valley that has been a local’s secret for years, but is finally having its moment.
This is Kananaskis Country, home to some of the most amazing mountain parks in the Canadian Rockies, stunning lakes, the best Instagram spots, unforgettable hikes, the highest paved road in Canada, and a host of new (and luxurious) recreational opportunities. But here’s the thing: you’ve maybe never heard of K-Country (that’s what the locals call it), but you’ve probably seen it.
Kananaskis (it’s pronounced Can-a-nass-kiss) has, for years, been kind of like the little brother to Banff National Park, which is just a few minutes up the highway. While millions of travelers visit Banff from all over the world, they pass right by the equally beautiful jewel that locals have tended to keep to themselves. But after some major developments in recent years, and no small thanks to Hollywood, Kananaskis is finally be having its day in the spotlight.
The valley has hosted some memorable Hollywood scenes over the years. That climactic scene in The Revenant, the one where Leo DiCaprio finally gets his (spoiler alert) revenge? That’s Kananaskis. That weird snowy dream-within-a-dream mountain fortress at the end of Inception? Kananaskis (fittingly, it was shot on a peak called Fortress Mountain. I know, right?). That old ski resort scene in War for Planet of the Apes? Kananaskis.
Recently, the region has taken some big strides toward shedding its reputation as a hidden gem. The picturesque Kananaskis Country Golf Course is open after several years of rebuilding following a flood, and the plaid-pants set is raving about it. The area’s hotel has been renovated, rebranded as the Pomeroy Kananaskis Mountain Lodge (the views are amazing), and now hosts a most luxurious Nordic spa (seriously, go in winter where the transition from hot to cold pools will make you love life again).
That’s in addition to some of the area’s long-standing amenities. There’s downhill skiing at Nakiska, which hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics. There’s Boundary Ranch (home of the original Guy on a Buffalo) and Rafter Six Ranch, to get your cowboy on. There’s Engadine Lodge, a cozy mountain getaway. There’s the Highwood Pass, a scenic drive so high up in the mountains it sometimes needs to be plowed for its seasonal opening in mid-June.
Amid all of that, there’s camping and hiking galore. The area has some of the best trails in the Canadian Rockies, front- and back-country camping and some beautiful lakes to canoe through. In winter, there’s skiing, snowshoeing and fatbiking (check out Kananaskis Outfitters for rentals and guides all year long).
As much as locals like to keep Kananaskis to themselves, it’s easy to bet at least one local who loves the idea of sharing. Working in a fire lookout can be a lonely job. Company will be welcome.