I have a fun summer challenge for you this year: Pack up the car, load up the kids and pets, and head out to Kananaskis or Banff for a day trip! But here’s the catch, choose somewhere you’ve never been before; visit a new picnic site, explore a new corner of Kananaskis, or go off the beaten path and choose a new road you’ve never driven. This summer, venture beyond Elbow Falls. I chose the following 10 destinations for their proximity to Calgary (most are within an hour of the city), and because each one offers you more than just a ‘pretty picnic spot.’ Rent a stand-up paddle board or kayak, go for a swim, find a hidden rope swing, or hike a new trail. Each destination has something fun waiting for you!
1. Barrier Lake, Kananaskis. Located along Highway 40, you’ll pass this lake on your way to Kananaskis Village. There are two official day-use areas here. Barrier Dam is the first one you’ll come to (it is also the busiest). Keep driving. You want to drive down to the Barrier Lake Day-Use Area, which takes you to a large parking area with picnic spots, tables, and a boat launch for canoes, kayaks, or paddle boards. While the water is quite cold, your kids will still have fun playing by the shore and may enjoy a quick dip in the water on a hot day.
Add an adventure: Kananaskis Outfitters rents boats here during the summer months. Try stand-up paddle boarding for the first time or rent a couple of kayaks to paddle over to Jewel Bay for your picnic. You can also book a backcountry campsite at Jewel Bay if you want to spend the night; it’s a very short paddle across the lake.
2. 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 the pond is a tad chilly for a full swim, you can still spread a blanket out by the shore while the kids play and snack on the food you’ve brought. You’ll also find a few picnic tables and fire pits here along with a short walking trail around the pond.
Add an adventure: For families who enjoy biking, you can access Wedge Pond via the paved Bill Milne Bike Trail. For your picnic, I recommend starting at the Kovach Day-Use Area below Kananaskis Village and biking to Wedge Pond. It will be mostly flat or downhill on the way back, so it’s an easy return ride after playing at the pond. The total distance between the two day-use areas is 17 kilometres return (if this is too far, an adult can bike back for your vehicle while the rest of the family plays at the pond).
3. King Creek Day-Use Area, Kananaskis. Continue past Barrier Lake and Kananaskis Village along Highway 40 until you come to the turnoff for Peter Lougheed Provincial Park (where you’d turn right). King Creek Day-Use Area is on your left-hand side before you turn into Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. It’s the last day-use area you come to before you start climbing toward Highwood Pass.
This small day-use area gets very little attention and is generally used as a parking lot for hikers scrambling King Creek Ridge. Last summer, my family had a lot of fun here and the kids could have played for hours in the rocky creek, digging in the mud (hello mud pies!) and skipping rocks across the water.
You won’t find many amenities here other than one picnic table and an outhouse. If you plan on having a picnic, bring your own chairs and a blanket.
Add an adventure: If you’re prepared with good water sandals or don’t mind getting your feet wet, you can follow a rugged trail up the creek. Expect to hop-cross the creek many times using rocks or logs (I’d recommend saving this activity for a hot day).
4. Peninsula Day-Use Area, Lower Kananaskis Lake. My family discovered this fabulous day-use area last summer, and it has become a new favorite locale of ours. Drive down Highway 40 until you come to the turnoff for Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and Kananaskis Lakes Trail. Turn right (if you continue to follow this road, you will pass several campgrounds and end up at the Upper Kananaskis Lake).
You’ll quickly come to an intersection where you’ll turn right onto Highway 742 (the Smith Dorrien Trail or Spray Lakes Road), which eventually takes you north to Canmore. The Peninsula Day-Use Area is a short drive up this road. The adventure at this locale is finding the parking lot, which does not show up on Google maps, unfortunately. Once you get there, you’ll find several picnic tables scattered along the lakeshore with short walks down to the lake where kids can wade in the water, play beside the shore, or use sit-on top kayaks in the protected coves. If you have them, bring your stand-up paddle boards, kayaks, or canoe. If you don’t have any, take a detour to the Boulton Creek Trading Post in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park where you can rent a boat for the family.
5. 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 a beautiful pond near the beginning of the campground area. At this pond, you will find fire pits and picnic tables. It’s also a great place to walk around and explore as a family.
While there, make sure you also search for the hidden beach area underneath the suspension bridge. There’s sand and more than enough rocks for the kids to throw in the Elbow River.
Add an adventure: If your family enjoys biking, you can take an out and back ride on the Big Elbow Trail from here by crossing the suspension bridge and following the double track old road. Turn around whenever you get tired.
6. Quarry Lake, Canmore. This is Canmore’s local beach and a very popular spot on a hot summer day. To find the lake, drive through Canmore, cross the river, and get onto Highway 742 (the Smith Dorrien Trail or Spray Lakes Road) following the signs for the Canmore Nordic Centre.
At the lake, you’ll find a few picnic tables but no fire pits. The only change rooms are the outhouse toilets on-site, so I suggest your family wears their swimsuit under their clothing, so they only have to do the final change in the bathroom.
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.
Add an adventure: If you are looking for a hike that you can do first, the Grassi Lakes Trailhead (3.5-kilometre hike return) is a short drive away just past the Nordic Centre.
7. Cascade Ponds, Banff. This day-use area is accessed off the Lake Minnewanka Loop Road (first exit for Banff from the Trans-Canada Highway). It is the first parking area you’ll come to and is very close to the highway. You’ll find plenty of parking here, picnic tables, fire pits, and grass for spreading a blanket beside the pond. Children will have fun playing in the cold water. Having fun playing in inflatable boats is a very popular activity here, too. Jumping off the farthest of the two bridges is also a lot of fun for older kids (it’s not quite deep enough for adults). Note: As water levels can fluctuate, I recommend jumping in yourself first from the shore to check the depth before allowing your children to jump off the bridge.
Add an adventure: The paved Legacy Trail starts from here and you can bike as far as you want in an out and back ride toward Canmore. The full ride is approximately 20 kilometres. Alternately, ride from Canmore and use the pond as your reward to cool off at the end (send an adult back for your vehicle while the kids play in the pond).
8. Johnson Lake, Banff. This is Banff’s local town beach. It is a popular spot on a hot summer day, so arrive early to get a parking space. Bring swimsuits, a blanket, and the sand toys. There are a few picnic tables on-site but no fire pits. As with Quarry Lake, wear your swimsuit under your clothing or you will be changing in the outhouse bathroom.
The lake is also accessed off the Lake Minnewanka Loop Road. Follow signs for Two Jack Lake. Johnson Lake is before Two Jack, but you won’t see it from the road, so I recommend checking Google Maps, for example, so you know where you’re turning off.
Add an adventure: While at Johnson Lake, enjoy a peaceful paddle on the lake (bring your own boat or inflatable raft) or hike around the lakeshore in a 3.5-kilometre loop. Make sure you keep your eyes open for the swings located along the hiking trail (one is a normal swing, but the other is a rope swing you can use to jump in the lake). If you’re looking for the rope swing, wear good water shoes because the slope down gets very slippery when wet; you can also paddle over to the swing.
9. Banff Recreation Grounds, town of Banff. This popular picnic area is located near the Bow River in downtown Banff and has picnic tables and fire pits. There is a wonderful playground here that can entertain a wide range of ages along with a small bike park for the mountain bikers in your family. There is also a new skatepark, and it is one of the best my family has ever seen for flow (it gets very busy, so go early if you want to let your children play here).
Add an adventure: From the Banff Recreation grounds, access the paved Bow River Trail and bike or walk around the town of Banff. You can also rent boats from the nearby Banff Canoe Club, reached in a short walk along the paved pathway from the Recreation grounds. Rent a canoe, kayaks, or stand-up paddle boards and go for a tour along Echo Creek to 40 Mile Creek and the First Vermillion Lake.
10. Herbert Lake, Lake Louise. This is the farthest destination in this article, but I’m including it because my family is always looking for a rest stop on the way to Jasper. This day-use area is located along the Icefields, 10 minutes north of Lake Louise. You’ll find picnic tables spread around the day-use area and the lake is a lovely spot to launch a boat if you’ve brought along a canoe, kayaks, or stand-up paddle boards. The water is also warmer than most mountain lakes, making it an ideal spot for a quick dip.
Add an adventure: If you walk around the lake in a clockwise direction, you’ll find an old diving board at the back of the lake mounted on some large rocks. While it doesn’t have much spring left in it, it’s still sturdy and every member of my family has jumped off of it. It’s our favorite activity while driving the Icefields Parkway and we always stop for a few jumps. If you have kayaks or a canoe, you can paddle out to the diving board; otherwise, it’s a short 10-minute walk.
Have a great summer exploring and discovering new day-use areas in Kananaskis and Banff to visit with your family!
Tanya is a freelance writer and mom to a spunky boy. 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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