Monday, November 12, 2018

Wild Mountain Skating Guide for Banff and Kananaskis

Mid-November is here and that means it's game on for wild mountain skating in the Canadian Rockies. Some of the lakes are starting to freeze, the ice is thick enough for skating, and they are snow free (for now.) Once it snows, the ice will be covered and that will be it for another year.

Wild Mountain Skating in Banff on Johnson Lake

What is "Wild Mountain Skating?"

There are many outdoor ponds, lakes, and rinks in the Rockies that get cleared of snow and maintained by park or resort staff through the winter, usually starting mid to late December. 

November (and sometimes December if snow is late to arrive) however gives us a different experience where we can often experience "natural skating" on lakes that are not maintained or cleared of snow. 

We often get a brief window mid to late November where some mountain lakes have frozen (with ice thick enough to skate on) without being snow covered yet. Some years, it never happens. Other years, we get a magical window where the ice on certain mountain lakes is smooth like glass and 100% snow free.

Skating across Johnson Lake in Banff on November 11th, 2018

Skating on Johnson Lake, Banff

Johnson Lake in Banff is always one of the first lakes to freeze and my family has skated on it nearly every year now for the past eight years. We started by pushing our son across the ice in a chariot when he was just a toddler, and now, at 11 years old, my son doesn't even like skating indoors anymore. He's become spoiled and loves his wild mountain skating days.

Playing hockey on Johnson Lake, November 9, 2013

Some years we luck out and get ice that's as smooth as glass and 100% snow free. Other years, we shovel off a small area to play hockey and skate (as in the photo above where the ice thickness was so bad we never actually went further than this tiny rink we cleared).)

Often, benevolent angels in the Bow Valley show up with shovels to clear paths around the lake if there's been snow before the lake freezes.

Johnson Lake on November 15, 2014

Other Options Around the Town of Banff for Wild Mountain Skating 

Other options around the Town of Banff for natural skating are the Vermilion Lakes (we have skated on all three of the Vermilion Lakes,) or Cascade Pond

Skating on the First Vermilion Lake, November 19th, 2016

First and Second Vermilion Lake are easy to access and you can park right beside the ice. If you want to skate on the Third Vermilion Lake, park by the outhouses in a parking lot along Vermilion Lakes Road and hike in from there to the east side of the lake. There's always open water if you try to start from the boat dock.

Ice that was smooth as glass on the Third Vermilion Lake, November 1, 2019 

Two Jack Lake can often be good for skating as well in late November or even into December. In 2018, we were on Two Jack Lake on November 21st but in 2017, we weren't skating here until December 15th. 

Skating on Two Jack Lake, December 15, 2017

The cool thing about Two Jack Lake is that when it's frozen, you can skate down the canal through the campground. In 2017 it wasn't frozen but in 2018, it was. It made for a 4 km round trip skate from one end of the lake (as far as we dared go in the Minnewanka direction) down the canal and back.

Skating down the canal on Two Jack Lake, November 21, 2018

It doesn't get prettier than this on Two Jack Lake,  November 21, 2018

- note the life jacket in the photo above: the ice was barely thick enough to skate on.

Finally, Lake Minnewanka is a popular skating lake later in the season and I finally caught a window for this one in 2018 for the first time, and again in 2019. Sometimes you can skate all the way down the lake, other times you can only skate in the first bay, and other times you have to hike a ways down the lake to find skateable ice. It's always an adventure on this wild lake.

Skating on Lake Minnewanka, December 29, 2019

Bubbles on Lake Minnewanka, January 22, 2018 

Other Popular Skating Choices in the Bow Valley 

There are many choices, depending on the season. Below are a few popular locations:

  • Lac Des Arcs off the TransCanada Hwy

  • Carrot Creek, Banff  located between Banff and Canmore off the TransCanada Hwy (requires a hike down from the highway and you have to be driving eastbound on the highway.)

  • Gap Lake off the Hwy 1A between Canmore and Exshaw (The parking lot is on the 1A)

  • Grotto Pond beside the Grotto Canyon Day Use Area (this one is usually cleared by locals and can be skateable into December.)

  • The Yamnuska Nature Area located off the Highway 1A near the popular Yamnuska trailhead. There are many ponds and lakes here to skate if you're willing to go for a hike. Start at the Yamnuska parking lot and hike to the first lake you come to that's located right beside the 1A (That's Loon Lake and you can see it on the map in the link above.) The hiking trail in the link above doesn't go here, but it's easy to find from the Yamnuska parking lot.

    The second lake we've skated is called Crescent Lake and on the map at the link above, it's the uppermost lake at the bottom left. The one below it (closer to the highway) is Reed Lake and we've skated on this one as well.

    For a really good map of this area, labeling all of the lakes, with different access points for hiking, check out Gillean Daffern's 3rd Kananaskis Hiking Book.

  • Ghost Lake Reservoir just outside Cochrane off the Hwy 1A (this one is often skateable through the winter season and is popular with ice sail boats)

Lac Des Arcs, November 26, 2016

Halloween skating on Gap Lake, October 31st, 2019 

Grotto Pond, December 18th, 2016

Ghost Lake, December 1, 2020

Skating on Loon Lake in the Yamnuska Nature Area, December 1, 2020

And one final place you can often skate in the Bow Valley is called the "Back Swamp." We hiked in here in 2019 and found a small skating area that was fun for a group of kids.

Directions: Park on the side of the TransCanada Highway just after the Sunshine Village turnoff. (the link takes you to the exact spot on Google maps.) You'll be heading west from Banff towards Lake Louise.

Skating on the Back Swamp in Banff, November 16, 2019 

You will see a gate in the fence if you park at the correct spot and you'll be able to exit the highway through that gate. From the gate, follow wide clearings until you reach the pond that you can see on the Google Maps link. It's about a 15-20 minute hike.

This is a large wetland area and if conditions are right, you'll have a very large skating area.

Parked on the side of the road and you can see the Sunshine exit in the background 
The gate you'll want to park beside so that you can get through the wildlife fence
Hiking through open meadows to the Back Swamp in Banff 

Wild Mountain Skating in Kananaskis

It's a real treat to be able to skate on some of the big lakes in Kananaskis. Dates are variable year to year, and I've only managed to personally skate on a couple of them due to timing.

Spray Lake Reservoir 

The crown jewel here is Spray Lake which had the most amazing season in 2017 for about a week where the ice was snow free and smooth as glass. 

Skating on Spray Lake, December 16th, 2017

Edit for 2020, we have had another amazing window on Spray Lake and we were able to skate a loop of roughly 4.5 km from the Driftwood Day Use Area. The ice got thinner as we went south.

Spray Lake from the Driftwood Day Use Area, December 3, 2020

Upper Kananaskis Lake

In 2017 we also got to skate on Upper Kananaskis Lake which I feel might have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

Skating on Upper Kananaskis Lake on December 16th, 2017

Lower Kananaskis Lake

In 2020 we finally got a window to skate on the Lower Kananaskis Lake. It was smooth as glass, completely empty of people, and a true local secret for the week that it was thick enough to skate on (before it snowed.)

Skating on Lower Kananaskis Lake, December 5, 2020

We actually got out twice on this lake in 2020 and had it completely to ourselves the first time. The second time we only had to share the gigantic lake with one other small group.

The lesson we learned here: Always bring your skates with you when you're going hiking, skiing, or even visiting another lake between November and December. We decided to stop by the Lower Lake on our way home from skating on another lake - out of curiosity - and were completely surprised that it was thick enough to skate on (after measuring it.) 

The best wild skating experiences will always be those where you get that "first ice" after doing safety checks and measuring the ice, before it's carved up from hundreds of other users, and before social media has broadcast the news that the lake is ready to go.

First tracks on the Lower Kananaskis Lake, December 5, 2020

Barrier Lake

In 2018, we had two new additions to our "we've finally skated here" list: Barrier Lake and Wedge Pond.

Barrier Lake had been on my bucket list for years now to skate but I'd never found a window before when it was frozen but still snow free. December 2018 was the year and we caught a very small window when the ice was like glass.

Note if you want to skate Barrier, you'll be starting at the day use area where they have boat rentals in the summer, and NOT at the dam itself. The ice is never frozen or smooth enough at the dam. You want to park way up above the Barrier Lake Day Use Area beside a gate that's closed for winter and then you'll hike about a kilometre down the closed road. If you are not hiking down to the lake you're at the wrong spot. (see the link above for the Google Map location)

Skating across Barrier Lake on ice as smooth as glass, December 16, 2018

Wedge Pond

Wedge Pond gave us another great skating day in December, 2018, and we were surprised by this one because I'd never seen this pond frozen (with ice thick enough to skate on) and snow-free at the same time. 2018 was a truly magical season where we had no snow for a very long time, and it gave us some windows for skating I don't expect we'll get again anytime soon.

Skating on very smooth ice on Wedge Pond, December 15, 2018

Goat Pond

In 2019 we got another first, and we were able to skate on Goat Pond off the Spray Lakes Road. There wasn't a huge area to skate on, but we caught a 2-day window where the ice was thick enough and snow free.

There's currently another window for this one as of December 3, 2020 and it's been quite popular.

Magical skating on Goat Pond, November 2, 2019 

Skating on Creeks and Rivers

Truth be told, I almost prefer creeks and rivers over lakes because I think it's fun to skate along a winding channel with bends and interesting features.

In 2018 we heard about people skating on Cougar Creek in Canmore, and had to go check it out. It was absolutely magical!!

Skating down Cougar Creek in Canmore, January 8th, 2018

Basic Directions to find Cougar Creek: 

  1. Start at this off leash dog park in Canmore on Bow Valley Trail / Hwy 1A.

  2. Walk under the bridge (crossing under the 1A)

  3. Follow the creek until you find good skating ice. You will come to a junction where Policeman's Creek and Spring Creek come in to join you from the northwest. Here we headed towards the river and found great smooth ice. 

As this is a skate-hike, you'll need winter boots to reach the ice, and either a backpack to hold your skates (or just carry them.)

Where Cougar Creek meets the Bow River in Canmore

Another option is the Bow River in Banff. The Town of Banff sometimes clears an oval on the Bow River downtown Banff along Bow Avenue. This is often skateable throughout the winter and is a nice safe choice.

Skating on the Bow River Oval downtown Banff, January 8th, 2018

Finally, we love skating on the creek in Bowness Park, right in Calgary (super close to home!) It's cleared and maintained through the winter and gives a very natural skating experience close to home.

Skating down the creek in Bowness Park, Calgary 

For more information on where to skate in Banff and Kananaskis:

Banff Town Guide to Ice Skating (with safety information and locations for skating all winter long)

8 Memorable Places to Skate in Banff National Park - Banff Lake Louise Tourism Guide

Ice Skating on the Ghost Lake Reservoir - often great for skating all winter long

How to Love Winter in the Rockies - On Skates!

November is my favourite month to visit Banff  

Johnson Lake 2018 - Pure Magic!! 

Safety Guideline for Ice Thickness

Recommendations for ice thickness are based on clear, blue or green ice: 

3" (7cm) or less STAY OFF

4" (10cm) ice fishing, ice skating, walking, cross country skiing

5" (12cm) one snowmobile or ATV

8"-12" (20-30cm) one car or small pickup truck

12"-15" (30-38cm) one medium truck (pickup or van)

And I'll confess that we do skate ice that is 3 inches thick (most dedicated wild mountain skaters in the Rockies will because it's the only way to get the good glass) but we take safety precautions when doing so, never skate alone, and we measure the ice often using an ice screw. Those new to wild skating will want to stick to ice that is 4 inches thick.

Skating down Cougar Creek, Canmore on January 8th, 2018
Skating down the canal on Two Jack Lake, November 21, 2018

Disclaimer: It is up to you the individual, to verify that all ice is thick enough to skate on. I rely on social media reports, measurements from friends and acquaintances, and sometimes even official warnings/notices from Parks Canada. 

I also don't like to venture out on lakes unless I can see lots of other people enjoying the ice. It gives me a sense of comfort to know that we're not alone on the ice.

I highly recommend bringing a full change of clothes and a rope or even a hockey stick/ski pole in case you have to pull somebody out. Some people also choose to wear life jackets.

Finally, it's always a good idea to skate with other people in a group (or to choose a lake with many other people out on it.)

Ghost Lake, December 1, 2020 


  1. I always find your blog very interesting. Thanks for the share.

  2. Does anyone know the current condition of the lakes for skating?

    1. Best way is to join the Wild Skating Group on Facebook.

    2. hi the link doesn't work. would love to join

    3. Sorry, they archived the group. It got too crazy. Too many people wanting to get outside. Everybody going to the same place... But if you want to receive updates I often post them in my personal FB group if you live in the Calgary area with kids.