Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Hiking Alberta

 

Picklejar Lakes are nestled in the mountains of Highwood, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada.

 

 

Picklejar Lakes are best accessed via Lantern Creek on the Picklejar Lakes Trail.  You could hike to Picklejar Lakes on the Picklejar Creek Trail and the Picklejar Connector but that would be longer. 

In June 2013, a major flood damage occurred in this area.  Stop at a Visitor Centre for potentially changing access information.

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Lantern Creek - Highwood, South Kananaskis Country.

 

The weather, on the drive west from Calgary, deteriorates while driving south on the Kananaskis Trail.  The winter closure gate opened June 15 and this is the first run of the season south past the turnoff to Kananaskis Lakes.  Driving into the clouds occurs as elevation is gained past trail-heads to Rae Glacier, Pocaterra Ridge, Rock Glacier and Ptarmigan Cirque among others.  Any hope that weather will improve south of Highwood Pass is dashed as density of fog increases accompanied by a light drizzle.  There are hundreds of waterfalls on adjacent mountains as spring runoff is fully underway. creating a spectacular amount of running water. 

The car park at the Lantern Creek Day Use area, rain gear is donned and the hike proceeds a short distance north on Kananaskis Trail to the very obvious trail-head on the east side of Kananaskis Trail and north side of Lantern Creek.  A short stretch of flat, wet trail soon gains fairly aggressive elevation above Lantern Creek in the valley to the right.  The wet forest aroma is wonderfully powerful.

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

 

Visibility decreases significantly on this hike literally into the clouds.  Occasional avalanche chutes provide edgy views to the bottom of the valley.  Running water on, and across, the trail increases as altitude increases.  An ethereal, ghostly scene of drifting mist combines with limited visibility.  On the approach tothe pass, mud increases on steeper grades and hiking boot soles struggle to successfully gain traction in mud.

 

 Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

 

The final approach to the pass is steep on a secure, gritty, vertical shale surface.  Check dams have been cast aside by recent heavy rain combined with snow melt.  Near the top, the trail disappears under an intimidating wall of snow which is deceptively easy to navigate.  The snow is dense and load bearing.  Vertical faces can be easily negotiated by punching steps into the surface.

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Roots

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Large mounds of snow.

 

Game trails lead too high on the ridge.  A quick correction down a scree slope finds the tiny scramble over a V notch in the rock ridge to a downward sloping trail across scree and talus on the other side.  Visibility is very limited.  There is no visual evidence of lakes but they are out there somewhere.

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada An impressive Inukshuk sculpture bolsters confidence on the scree/talus slope.

 

Literally, arrival at the first Picklejar Lake is a surprise.  The trail down down to the lake is over snow, off trail, or over talus with the occasional snippet of waterlogged trail providing a small degree of confidence.  The shoreline of the fourth Picklejar Lake appears mere meters from approach.  There is a blue box containing cards called Voluntary Angler Reports, intended to gather fish stock data in this hugely popular backcountry fishing mecca.  The majority of the trail at lakeside is under running water as the roue along the south shoreline proceeds on high spots which keep water predominantly below the top of Gortex liners in the hiking boots.

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

 

This is a very beautiful place.   These lakes are being viewed for the first time in unusual, early season conditions.  The four Picklejar Lakes reside in large rock bowls tiered one above the other in an east-west series.  The short climb from the east end of the Picklejar Lake # 4 is past a fast flowing waterfall, over a shallow ridge and down to a snowbound lake.

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada A spectacular, roaring waterfall flowing from Picklejar Lake 3 into Picklejar Lake 4 in South Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada The fog-enshrouded, mystical shoreline of snowbound Picklejar Lake 3 in Highwood, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada.

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Leaving Picklejar Lake 3 in South Kananaskis Country, Alberta - the fog begins to lift.

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Reflections in the crystal, clear water of Picklejar Lakes, surrounded by pristine, alpine wilderness, are breathtakingly beautiful.

 

Given the depth of snow, and amount of water running, the decision is made to turn around and retreat via the same route taken in.  The Picklejar Lakes are very close together and Lakes 4 and 3, respectively, are achievable under adverse conditions, but a return later in the season will allow reasonable access over the full length of the four lakes.  Ironically, as the retreat proceeds, clouds begins to lift and previously unseen mountains appear.  WOW!

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada On return, the labyrinth of trails in the area gets close to the gushing waterfall between Picklejar Lakes 3 and 4.

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada A view of Picklejar Lake 4 from the west end in South Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada.

 

Following are a series of photos taken along the south shore of Picklejar Lake # 4 as cloud lifts and previously unseen surrounding mountains begin to reveal themselves.  Mist is moving up and down as it laterals at fairly high speed in the developing afternoon breeze.  It is a surrealistic and dynamic sight.  You may visualize but it can be no substitute for standing there with wide-angle visuals and the sun and breeze on the face.

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada The outlet of Picklejar Lake 4 into Picklejar Creek which flows south-west to feed the infamous Highwood River, Alberta, Canada

 

On the return hike many photos are captured looking back because none of it was witnessed hiking in.  The crossing of the scree and talus slope is much more obvious and the notch in the rock ridge can be seen from a distance with the field of snow behind it.

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Looking back from the scree and talus slope approach to Picklejar Lake 4 in South Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

 

From the top of the pass to parking in the Lantern Creek Day Use area, is an entirely different experience and following photographs illustrate the outstanding scenery which has revealed itself as the afternoon turns sunny briefly.

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada A bridge crossing over a creek where water is channeled underneath through a hollow log.

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada A Lantern Creek Trail photograph of the sun struggling to break through a thin veil of cloud.

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

 

On the final stage of the hike, loud thunder is increasing in frequency and arrival at the car is accompanied by heavy rain pounding on the outside and lightning flashing overhead while footwear is changed. 

Ten minutes later, the sun comes out and stays out for the drive north then east, all the way to Calgary.  Amazing and not overly unusual.  It is like nature is putting on a perfectly timed, full sensory presentation as a reward for participating and getting the job done.

 

Picklejar Lakes - Highwood - Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

 

This hike is done, this day, in varied and unusual conditions.  The distance one way to the first lake (# 4) is 4.2 KM (2⅝ miles) and the route along the south shore of all four lakes is about 1.5 KM (⅞ miles).  Net elevation is 450 m (1,476 ft) with limited fluctuation, so I would estimate gross elevation to be less than 5% more to a high point at the pass of 2,180 m (7,152 ft).

Return on a summer or fall, fair weather day to do a loop of Lantern Creek, the four Picklejar Lakes, the Picklejar Connector and Picklejar Creek would create an excellent hiking experience.  The road distance on Kananaskis Trail would be less than 3 KM (1⅞ miles) so the loop could be completed on foot for a total on the day of around 14.2 KM (8⅞ miles). 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

That Highwood south section of Kananaskis Trail remained closed last summer. You will need to check with Parks. I expect damage along Lantern Creek is extensive. Thank you for your comment, Val.

Love your site, informative and fun. Missed out on Picklejar last summer due to the remarkable flooding and closures that occurred. My question is: are the bridges over Lantern Creek intact or is there a way over them(it?). It is one of our favourite hikes. You also failed to note how many incredible fossils one can find all over the trail, but no taking home as it is a provincial park.

Thanks for the clarification, Garry. I will revise the post. The map I was using does not number the lakes and I assumed....

Hi Barry, Great pics! I hike up to Picklejar lakes at least once a year and sometimes 2 or 3 times a year! You have got your lakes numbered wrong. The first lake you come to is # 4 and the next is # 3 followed by # 2 which is the deepest lake. The furthest lake is # 1. There is great fishing for cutthroat trout at # 2 and # 4. The odd time there is fish in # 3 from the overflow from lake # 2.

In fair weather, it will be a spectacular trail. I will try to get back there later in the summer to do the loop. There are a number of spectacular hikes in the Highwood / Cataract Creek area and the Highwood River is famous for fishing. I will wait for running water from snow melt to subside. I did enjoy this hike immensely and the only real issue was maintaining route across the snow at the pass. Visibility was only a few metres and game trails looked like very good possibilities. When I dropped down on the ridge and peered through the V to the scree slope on the other side, it was not clear if there was a trail there or not. Went on speculation and it worked out. The blue box on the pole told me I had found something and the lake was just beyond but the reflection on the surface blended in with the fog. I was nearly on the shoreline before I realized the lake was there. It was a WOW moment when the fog lifted and the surrounding mountains appeared. Indelibly memorable. Thanks for your comment, Helen. It took the very best, most appropriate footwear, combined with considerable experience and a keen sense of adventure to stand up to several parts of this special hike. I am also glad I did not postpone this day. Very special. A good portion of Kananaskis Trail South, below the turnoff to Kananaskis Lakes, is closed between December 1 and June 15 each year. The reason is touted to be wildlife migration and protection. Snow removal and avalanche acivity are likely strong motivators as well. On this trip there was a lot of avalanche debris at roadside. Highwood Pass is Canada's highest road at 7,239 ft (2,206 m)

Glad you didn't postpone the day. Hiking in these conditions makes the effort so much more worthwhile. I gather you would agree, it leaves one totally exhilerated. When does the winter gate normally open?

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