Elephant Rocks create unique winter sculptures near Chester Lake in Kananaskis Country.
Elephant Rocks are a glacial deposit of huge, standalone boulders just above and beyond the far end of Chester Lake in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada.
Access to the trail-head is via the Smith-Dorrien Trail south from Canmore, Alberta. Elephant Rocks become very beautiful in winter as layers of accumulated snow are windswept into remarkable and perpetually unique snow sculptures.
This snowshoe trip is relatively easy for people who are experienced on snowshoes and reasonably fit. The snowshoe into Chester Lake can be an excellent season opener with a high reward to effort ratio. The hike or snowshoe into Chester Lake guarantees a day of awesome and spectacular natural beauty in any season.
Driving west on the TransCanada Highway, the sunrise begins bright orange on the horizon and radiates horizontally through parallel clouds into diminishing bands of pastel orange.
Passing the junction of Hwy 22 to Bragg Creek, the mountains in the distance are bright crimson embedded is a surrounding shroud of pink mist. This visual is brief but spectacular before the cloud-covered mountains are bathed in gold by the rising sun. Mother Nature is hosting quite a display this morning.
At the Chester Lake parking area, the heavily overcast sky is protecting a temperature near -20 C which is colder than forecast. The snowshoe begins with 4 top and 2 bottom layers with gaiters and snowshoes to begin the 6 kilometer (3¾ mile) trek into Elephant Rocks.
Immediately the winter wonderland of recently deposited snow on surrounding evergreen trees embraces the journey. The 305 m (1,000 foot) gain in elevation is a good workout in snowshoes over uneven trail through rough, heavily wooded and beautiful terrain. The grade is moderate and relatively consistent.
At the top of the ridge, dense forest changes to open ground which provides excellent views of 10,020 ft. Mount Chester towering above frozen and snow-covered Chester Lake. As the sun breaks over the mountains, shadow and contrast improve substantially and the sea of white borrows the characteristics of rolling desert.
Chester Creek is incredibly beautiful with snow mushrooms and floating ice crystals, sparkling like diamonds on the surface of gently flowing, crystal-clear, water.
There is no indication from the Chester Lake trail that discloses the location of Elephant Rocks which are accessed by a short, steeper climb towards the far end of Chester Lake. The grouping of large rocks is initially a bit disappointing at first on discovery the rocks are dramatically draped with fresh snow but there has been little layering or wind sculpting.
The shaded access is briskly cold which motivates the requirement to find sun on higher ground behind the rock formation. The warmer area will be ideal for lunch and warmth while resting and enjoying a thermos of hot chocolate. The water bottle has frozen solid.
The off-trail jaunt becomes interesting and physically challenging through newly deposited and drifted powder which cannot support the snowshoes so the process is deep post-holing up a fairly steep incline in 0.9 m (3 feet) of powder.
Each snowshoe-clad footstep sinks deep into the snow with snow collapsing in behind. The poles are used horizontally for lift and balance. Vertically the hiking poles with snow baskets are often shorter than the depth of the snow and only the handles remain above the surface.
Significant effort and balance are required to pull out a buried leg and swing a snow-shoe up and in front of the other buried leg. Progress could be described as comical.
On the 6 kilometer (3¾ mile) return trip, the day is warming up and there is more time to travel at a slower pace and absorb the incredible surrounding vistas as the sun begins to set behind distant mountains.
The Smith-Dorrien trail south provides incredible mountain views en route to Kananaskis Lakes Road for the short link east to Kananaskis Trail (Hwy 40) on the trip north, then east on the TransCanada Highway to Calgary, Alberta.
A wonderful orange sunset forms and fades behind. These are short winter days.