Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Ribbon Lake Backpacking Adventure With Kids

If you're from the Calgary area and spend a lot of time hiking in Kananaskis, you'll be familiar with the popular hike to Ribbon Falls on the easy Ribbon Creek Trail. Continue past the falls and you can continue on to Ribbon Lake where a gorgeous backcountry campground awaits you. The crux however is the cliff bands that you'll have to climb to get from Ribbon Falls to Ribbon Lake using a series of chains put in place to keep backpackers safe.

2023 disclaimer: This trail has been updated. The chains have been removed above Ribbon Falls and there is now a via ferrata style route in place. I'm told it's easier and safer.

Photos to come after I've hiked the new route. All photos in this guide are from our original trip in 2016.

Ribbon Falls, Kananaskis

I myself had never been up to Ribbon Lake before but had always wanted to climb up the chains past Ribbon Falls and began to form a crazy thought in my head...

What if we backpacked into the Ribbon Lake campground --which meant we'd be climbing the chains with heavy overnight packs... - yeah, that would be easy, right?
What if we brought the kids with us? We could bring our son and a pile of other kids between the ages of 5 and 7... -- that would be doable, right? And smart given that none of us had ever done the trip solo without kids first. Right?
What if we hiked into Ribbon Lake via another route (we were thinking of Buller Pass, a challenging family hike for sure,) and then hiked out via Ribbon Creek, down climbing the chains (again with our heavy overnight gear and with kids...) --that would be fun, right? And going down is always easier than going up a cliff band, right? No?

Traversing a set of chains between Ribbon Falls and Ribbon Lake

Challenges aside, a plan was born! We would do a family backpacking trip to Ribbon Lake via Buller Pass, hiking out via Ribbon Creek with a car shuttle set up ahead of time. We'd invite a bunch of other families, and we'd head out for a wee little adventure... - except who am I kidding - we knew it would be epic, we knew it would be hard, and we knew it would challenge every one of us. But in the words of some wise person I'm sure, "Bring it!" We were ready. We hoped...

Hiking over Buller Pass en route to Ribbon Lake

Buller Creek to Buller Pass - Day One

We set up a vehicle shuttle with cars at both Buller Mountain Day Use Area on the Spray Lakes Road and at the Ribbon Creek Trailhead near Kananaskis Village off of Hwy 40. We then proceeded to hike to Ribbon Lake on the Buller Creek Trail which would take us over Buller Pass in a 670 metre climb spread over 7.4 km of hiking.

From the top of Buller Pass, we would lose 250 - 300 metres of height as we hiked down into the Ribbon Lake basin to reach the Ribbon Lake Backcountry Campground in a 10.1 km hike total distance.

On the Buller Creek Trail and ready to go!

The Experience:

The hike to the small waterfall, roughly 5 km from the trailhead, seemed to take a long time. The trail wasn't especially interesting and we just plodded uphill through the forest. There were no views and it was seriously overcast, threatening to rain most of the day.

The small waterfall on the Buller Creek Trail

The waterfall made for a good rest spot and we had lunch here. After that we continued on for the pass which was the most enjoyable part of the hike. The valley opened up, we had views around us, and we could see the pass far in the distance. It took a while to get there though! The trail gradually got more steep as we got closer to the final switch backs that would take us to the top of Buller Pass.
Hiking through a burnt forest on the Buller Creek Trail (Photo: Megan Dunn)
Hiking through upper meadows below Buller Pass
Tough hike but always smiles!
Rest break in the meadow before climbing up to the pass

On a clear day, this would have been a beautiful hike and the views from Buller Pass would have been stellar down to Ribbon Lake. Next time!
The final hike up to the pass was a bit of a slog up steep switch backs but it was blessedly short and didn't take too long to tackle. At the top of the pass it was extremely windy and we didn't hang out long! There was still some lingering snow but it didn't cover the trail or make route finding hard.
Final rest break before the switch backs up the pass
Heading towards Buller Pass
A helping hand always helps you get up the toughest trails
We could see Ribbon Lake far below us and I know I was thinking, "Oh, wow, that's a long ways off!! We'd better keep moving!"
The view to Ribbon Lake - far below us at Buller Pass
Buller Pass down to Ribbon Lake in the distance (Photo: Megan Dunn)
Starting the descent down from Buller Pass (Photo: Megan Dunn)

Buller Pass to Ribbon Lake - Day One

Here's where the going got tough for a bit. The trail was extremely steep down into the basin and the rock was loose. I took one small fall as I skidded out on loose scree and we had to cross a sketchy snow slope that would have been better with an ice axe. Fortunately it was short and nobody fell!

Descending a snow slope from Buller Pass
"Interesting" hiking down from Buller Pass
More snow on the trail down to Ribbon Lake
Who forgot the sled??
Once we got down into the basin, the hiking was easy for the most part and we were back on easy ground following a good trail. The only sketchy part was another snow patch right beside a creek. You really didn't want to slide or you would have been in the creek for sure!

Final hike to Ribbon Lake
Trying to stay above the creek without slipping off the trail (Photo: Megan Dunn)
Bridge before the campground (Photo: Megan Dunn)

The final 1.3 km of hiking from the Guinn's Pass turnoff seemed to take a long time and we were all tired by this point with our heads down, just trying to reach camp.

Finally at Ribbon Lake!

More on the Experience:

By the time we had reached Buller Pass we were all getting pretty tired and the packs were starting to feel very heavy. The kids were all troopers though and they all walked the entire 10 km distance. The 5-year olds did amazing and both 7-year olds were strong. Especially amazing was that one of the 7-year old boys had never done an overnight trip before and this was definitely his longest (and most challenging) hike.
This was also the first backpacking trip for one of our four families. I'm happy to say that they loved it and have agreed to come with us again. (on a winter trip next time!!)

Stopping for a rest break below Buller Pass

Camping at Ribbon Lake

Ribbon Lake is a beautiful backcountry campground with 20 campsites, two pit toilets, food lockers, well spaced out (and generally private) tent pads, two fire pits with benches around them, and picnic tables.

Cooking and eating area at Ribbon Lake

One thing that I really loved was that there was a communal area where you could eat, store your food, and sit around the fire. This made it easy for all of us to hang out in one central spot. We also got to choose a tent pad that was very close to the communal area so we didn't have to worry about leaving our son alone in the tent while we were still sitting around the fire at night.

Huddling around one of the campfires to stay warm at night

Had it have been warmer, I'm sure kids would have played in the lake too, but alas, it was a very chilly weekend and nobody was going in that glacial lake!

Our tent (close to the communal area at camp)

Will we return:

Yes, we will definitely return to Ribbon Lake again. I will be trying to time our visit for a sunny weekend though next time and I haven't decided if we will hike in via Buller Pass again or if we'd try Guinn's Pass next time. (or ascend the chains from Ribbon Creek)
While it was a challenging campground to reach, there were 6 families total at the campground while we were there so this would tell me that it is a family-friendly destination.
The kids had a lot of fun playing in the wood pile! (Photo: Megan Dunn)

I would recommend the trip for families with children 8+ because there is honestly no easy way of reaching the campground. You either climb over Buller Pass, climb over Guinn's Pass, or ascend the chains from Ribbon Creek (which local guide book authors don't recommend doing due to the difficulty of ascending/climbing down the chains with heavy packs.)
While we did the trip with children between the ages of 5 and 7, we were hiking with a very strong group of kids and I wouldn't say our experience was the "norm" for what you would expect of kids this young.

Playing in the Camp Wood Pile

Ribbon Lake to Ribbon Falls via the "Chains" - Day Two 

The most common route to reach Ribbon Lake involves climbing a set of cliff bands from the Ribbon Creek Trail. This is the route we'd take out.

It started off fine on an easy trail that circled the lake. Then it got a bit more "interesting" with some hands on moments. The kids got to scramble down some slabs and parental supervision/help was definitely required. We were still definitely on a hiking trail though and no fall would have too terrible.

Bunny! Hiking around Ribbon Lake (Photo: Sean Strang)
5-Year old traversing cliffs down from Ribbon Lake (Photo: Sean Strang)
Looking down to the Ribbon Creek Valley

Then we reached "the sign."

"Cliff Hazard Ahead. Use at your own risk." 

Always a comforting sign to see when hiking with young children - not. :)

Pulling out the climbing rope

We proceeded and sure enough, we had arrived at the "chains." At first, it was pretty benign and you could easily down climb by just sitting on your butt and sliding down each short section. Each pitch was individually set up with chains to hold on to and for the most part, we just had to supervise the kids sandwich style (one adult above and one below.) I was actually thinking that this wasn't going to be too bad.

Easy down climbing from Ribbon Lake with the help of fixed chains

Before long however, I was taking my pack off because I just didn't feel comfortable down climbing the steep terrain with a heavy pack on, pulling me backwards. And try sitting down on your butt to lower yourself down -- with a heavy pack on! You can't go down sitting while wearing a pack. It just pushed me forward away from the rock. I eventually took my pack off and had one of the guys bring it down for me. (Thank you Sean!!)

Helping the kids down the cliff bands

Pack off, I found the chains relatively easy and the kids were of course doing fine (being part mountain goat I'm sure!) The children weren't scared or phased in the slightest by any of the chains and did very well guided by their parents.

Nothing too serious...yet!

Then we came to the BIG cliff band with the largest set of chains. And I was flat out terrified!! Again, the kids did fine because we had brought climbing gear with us. We put a harness on each child and had them down climb while being belayed down. Most of the kids had previous climbing experience and found this quite easy. There were no tears, no complaints, and I didn't see fear in any child's eye. It was exactly like rock climbing and if you bring the right gear, it is totally doable with kids.

The BIG cliff where you can't see over the edge!
My 7-year old down climbing the big cliff while on belay
Easy peasy right? (Photo: Sean Strang)

Meanwhile, myself, I knew I had no harness, I was not on belay, and I had to down climb a vertical cliff without falling. A fall could have been fatal so extreme caution had to be used. All of the adults in our group felt confident with the down climb and I feel like a wuss for admitting this, but I ended up convincing my husband to put me on belay like the children.

Once I started climbing down the cliff, I realized that my fears were all in my head, and that the rock was super grippy. Without a pack, it was quite easy to get down this cliff. Still, I'm glad I was protected. Better to be a bit of a coward and come home alive than be overly brave and not come home at all!!

The kids seriously thought it was awesome! Just another day at the crag!

The big cliff behind us, we just had one more tricky section to cross. We had to traverse the edge of a cliff while holding on to a hand line and then down climb a crack (roughly 7 - 8 metres in height) to reach the hiking trail below. The traverse was easy with great foot holds but there was a small gap between the two sets of chains and I admit that I was once again scared. I passed my pack back to my husband and managed to get across but for a second, I thought I was going to be stuck in this spot forever.

The final chains, traversing along a ledge to a crack in the rock
I'm pretty sure my kid is ready to try a Via Ferrata Tour now! (Photo: Sean Strang)

Looking back at the giant set of cliffs we came down!

Back on a good hiking trail, it was an easy walk to the Ribbon Falls we had been eagerly waiting to see. I hadn't been up the Ribbon Creek trail since the flood in 2013 so it was great to see the falls again.

Hiking down to Ribbon Falls
My son's first time seeing Ribbon Falls

Overall opinion on doing the "chains" with kids:

I admit that I must agree with the author of the Kananaskis Country Trail Guides that "if you must camp at Ribbon Lake, take easier routes: Buller Pass or Guinn's Pass." Hauling oneself up the chains with a heavy backpack is not an easy feat (nor is lowering oneself down the chains either.)
Ribbon Falls
In the future, I think we would camp at Ribbon Lake and visit Ribbon Falls as a day trip. This way we could enjoy the fun scrambling terrain without our overnight packs. Alternately, we'd camp at the Ribbon Falls campground and visit Ribbon Lake as a day trip. A circuit could still be made too by hiking in over Buller Pass and out via Guinn's Pass. 
 As for the chains themselves, treat them as you would a rock climbing day with the kids. Bring harnesses, bring a short section of rope, and be prepared to belay the kids on the big cliff. The rest of the time, guide the children through the entire section with one adult above and one below. Short roping them to yourself would not be a bad idea as well! We often short rope our son when out scrambling and we feel much more secure knowing that he's tethered to Dad with a short section of climbing rope.
Not a rock climber and kids have no experience climbing? Save this trip until the kids are older. An experienced ten year old with some good hikes under his belt would have few problems. Younger than that, it's your call. - just make sure you know that your kids are capable of doing an exposed scramble before you choose that this is your route to the campsite or your route back to the car! 
Beautiful scenery above Ribbon Falls


Ribbon Falls to the Ribbon Creek Trailhead  - Day Two

 Total distances for day two were as follows:

Ribbon Lake to the Ribbon Falls Campground - 1. 9 km
Ribbon falls and Campground to the Ribbon Creek Trailhead - 9.2 km

Height loss to Ribbon Falls for us was 277 metres and then we lost another 311 metres as we hiked down the creek.

Stopping to rest along Ribbon Creek

The experience:

Easy peasy hiking along Ribbon Creek.
We stopped a few times to rest by the creek and to have snacks but for the most part, had to keep our heads down and walk quickly because we spent a LONG time on the chains.
The hike in took us roughly 5.5 hours and the hike out took us 6 hours. Both days were long but we were very glad there was no height gain on the second day. That was the only way my son could have done two long days in a row without a rest day in between. 
You get to cross lots of bridges on the Ribbon Creek Trail


Overall Experience  

We've reached the point where our son and his friends can do BIG things. They can tackle the same backpacking trip that I'd plan with girlfriends or with my husband as a solo trip.
We're now at the stage where a family trip makes me just as sore and tired as an adult trip would. There's little difference between family and adult trips now. The kids can come on many of the crazy adventures that we cook up and there's no reason for us to leave them at home with babysitters or grandparents. This is wonderful and we are loving it!
We are raising tough kids and they never cease to amaze us with their energy, their determination, and their love for adventure! Bring on more fun trips! 

Our crazy group and friends at Ribbon Lake (Photo: Megan Dunn)

Want to Plan this Trip with Your family?

Information on backcountry camping at Ribbon Lake can be found on the Alberta Parks website.

To purchase a good guide book, consider the Kananaskis Country Trail Guides by Gillean Daffern. 


  1. wow, I just love reading what your family does!!

  2. What an amazing trip. Your children are so lucky!!! I am so glad to see you bring your kids along for the challenge. It just warms my heart to see big adventures where the kids are are brought along.

  3. I love this hike, I have done it three times...twice from Buller pass and once from Guinn's pass. I'm from and live in Ontario but my heart is in the West :)

  4. When did you do the hike (timeframe) April long weekend will the campgrounds be open and accessible/

    1. we went mid June. You wouldn't want to do this particular trip until June. There would still be too much snow higher up in April. In April you need to do more shoulder season hikes lower to the ground and in the front ranges.

  5. Love the details of your hike to Ribbon Lake. Just wondering though if you have gone back in Ribbon Lake after this and have you used the Ribbon creek trail to ascend to Ribbon Lake. We've booked Ribbon lake for this September long weekend and still trying to decide which trail to use with our youngest 5-year-old hikers. TIA.

    1. We just did this trip again, and yes, we hiked up the Ribbon Creek Trail. Then we hiked out via Guinn's Pass and Galatea Creek. I still recommend a rope for the chains. There is one section that's very polished and hard to climb up.

  6. You probably know this, but I was just looking on AllTrails, and now they have added rebar "steps" to the chain section.

    1. yes, thanks Kayli. I'll update this post shortly. Thanks.