Raise your hand if your last mountain picnic was at Elbow Falls in Kananaskis. If your hand is up, guaranteed it isn't the only one since this is easily the most popular picnic destination within a 45-minute drive from Calgary. Fortunately, there are many other locations that are equally accessible from the city - and definitely less crowded. Visit one of these new day-use areas this Fall and plan a mountain picnic for the next nice weekend. Many of the picnic areas highlighted here have water features as well, so bring your swimsuits for a final dip before colder weather sets in!
1. Wedge Pond, Kananaskis. Located just beyond Kananaskis Village on Highway 40, this small pond is great for children who enjoy wading or playing in water. While you likely won’t go swimming in this cold pond, you can still spread a blanket out by the lakeshore while the kids play and snack on the delicious food you’ve packed. You’ll also find a few picnic tables and fire pits here, along with a short walking trail around the pond.
For families who enjoy biking, you can also access Wedge Pond via the paved Bill Milne Bike Trail. I recommend starting at the Kovach Day-Use Area below Kananaskis Village and biking to Wedge Pond for your picnic. It will be mostly flat or downhill on the way back, so it’s an easy return ride after playing at the pond. Total distance between the two day-use areas is 17 kilometres return. Note: If this distance is too far for your family to bike, an adult could bike back for the vehicle while you play at the pond.
2. Forgetmenot Pond, Elbow Valley, Kananaskis. While you could go to Elbow Falls, Forgetmenot Pond is a much nicer location for a picnic. You’ll only have to drive 10 kilometres farther down Highway 66 toward the Little Elbow Campground where you’ll find this beautiful pond near the beginning of the campground area. At the pond, you will find fire pits and picnic tables. The pond is also a great place to walk around and explore as a family. Make sure you also search for the hidden beach area underneath the suspension bridge while here. There’s sand and more than enough rocks for the kids to throw in the Elbow River.
3. Beaver Lodge Day-Use Area, Elbow Valley, Kananaskis. Another popular option in the Elbow Valley, you’ll find a few picnic spots here and a cute little hiking trail that follows along beside a couple of beaver ponds. Kids love playing in the ponds, and the trail is fun for toddlers or preschoolers on run bikes. There is one picnic table located right at the largest beaver pond; this is where we usually try to set up camp for a couple of hours while the children play.
This day-use area is located within a kilometre of the Elbow Falls day-use area so you can visit both locations in the same outing, if you want. The kids will have fun playing in the river below the falls where there are plenty of rocks to keep them busy.
4. Buller Mountain Day-Use Area, Spray Valley, Kananaskis. I only just discovered this great Day-Use area in Spray Valley Provincial Park this summer. You’ll find picnic tables, fire pits, and a lovely pond in this secluded location that is rarely crowded or busy.
Popular activities in the area include easy family- friendly mountain biking from the Mount Shark Day-Use Area to Watridge Lake (3.7 kilometres one way on an old gravel road), visiting Mount Engadine Lodge for afternoon tea (no reservations required), or hiking to Chester Lake (4.6 kilometres one way).
5. Elbow Lake, Kananaskis. This hike-in option is great for an active picnic. The trailhead is located on Highway 40 just to the north of Highwood Pass, and the hike is only 1.4 kilometres one way. The trail is Chariot-friendly, and you’ll find wood at the campground that sits beside the lake. Bring some marshmallows and hot dogs, and head here for an enjoyable Fall day in the mountains.
For the adventurous, you can also spend a night camping at Elbow Lake. It’s one of the easiest backcountry campgrounds to access and pretty comfortable with fire pits, wood, and food lockers. Reservations can be made through any Kananaskis Visitor Centre.
6. Ghost Lake Reservoir. The Ghost Lake Reservoir is located 20 minutes west of Cochrane. We enjoyed an evening paddle up the reservoir this summer and discovered the perfect beach for your next picnic. The beach is located at the spot where the Ghost River flows into the lake after paddling under the bridge and up the narrow part of the reservoir. With wind in your favor, this is an easy 20- to 30-minute paddle by canoe or kayak.
But wind can be a serious challenge on this lake, so choose a very calm day for your picnic and plan a backup option if it is windy. You don’t want to be stuck at the far end of the lake with a head wind, fighting to get back to your vehicle. Bring sand toys for the kids and a change of clothes for the drive home.
7. Quarry Lake, Canmore. This is Canmore’s local beach and a very popular spot on a hot summer day. Visit in the Fall, though, and you’re likely to have the beach to yourself. At the lake, you’ll find a few picnic tables but no fire pits. The only change rooms are the pit toilets on-site, so wear your swimsuits under your clothing and only do the final change in the bathrooms.
There is also a lovely walking trail around the lake, and it’s a popular spot for families wanting to bring an inflatable raft or boat. If you are looking for a hike that you can do first before having your picnic, the Grassi Lakes Trailhead (3.5-kilometre hike return) is less than 5 kilometres away.
8. Johnson Lake, Banff. The sister to Quarry Lake, this is Banff’s local town beach. Again, you’ll be hard pressed to find a parking spot here in the summer, but visiting in the autumn is magical for still warm days and enjoying fewer crowds. Bring your swimsuits, a blanket, and sand toys for the kids. There are a few picnic tables on-site but no fire pits. As with Quarry Lake, wear your swimsuits under your clothing or you will be changing in the bathrooms.
While at Johnson Lake, enjoy a peaceful paddle (bring your own boat or inflatable raft) or hike around the lakeshore in a 3.5-kilometre loop, and make sure you keep your eyes open for the bench swing along with the rope swing, both located along the hiking trail. Families who enjoy mountain biking will also find the trailhead for the intermediate Water Tower Trail here. The trail begins just past the bridge on the right side of the lake. Follow the old road up to the water tower and continue on the single-track trail from there. It’s best done as an out and back ride. The trail is roughly a 6-kilometre return, if you stop at the high point above Cascade Ponds, and is an enjoyable hike as well.
9. Banff Recreation Grounds, Banff. This popular picnic area is located near the Bow River in downtown Banff and has both picnic tables and fire pits. There is a wonderful playground here that can amuse a wide range of ages along with a bike park for your junior mountain biker.
From the Banff Recreation Grounds, you can access the paved Bow River Trail and bike or walk around the town of Banff. You’re also close to the other amenities of Banff including ice cream shops, restaurants, and shopping.
10. Sundance Canyon, Banff. This is another hike-in picnic option and I’ve chosen it as No. 10 for a few reasons. First, the trailhead passes through the Cave and Basin National Historic Site where you can see the original source of the Banff Hot Springs. The site commemorates the birthplace of Canada’s National Parks system and is free to visit if you have an annual Parks Canada pass. After visiting the Cave and Basin Site, you can continue on the paved Sundance Trail, which leads to a picnic site at the entrance to Sundance Canyon. There are bathrooms and picnic tables at the picnic area.
The paved Sundance Trail is 3.9 kilometres one way to the picnic area and entrance to the Sundance Canyon Loop (1.6-kilometre loop on a moderate trail, which has stairs and a few spots where you’ll want to hold a hand if hiking with young children). The first part of the trail is Chariot- friendly up to the picnic area, making this a great hike for parents with babies and toddlers. Bring a child carrier, if you want to continue through the very scenic canyon.
This trail is also great for families who enjoy biking. It’s a relatively easy ride up to the picnic area followed by a nice coast most of the way back to the Cave and Basin Site. There is benches spread along the trail for resting, and you can look out for people canoeing down the Bow River beside you.
With so many options, you’ll have plenty of choices beyond Elbow Falls this Fall as you head out for that final picnic of the season.
Tanya is a freelance writer and mom to a spunky seven-year- old. She loves hiking, camping, skiing and all things mountain- related. She is the author of the blog, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies, rockiesfamilyadventures.com.
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