Elbow Pass: Tombstone Lake & Rae Lake Loop (3 days / 20 km)
Elbow Pass is a backcountry hikers’ paradise. This gorgeous mountain pass within the Elbow-Sheep Wildlands and Peter Lougheed Provincial Parks is framed by the giants of the Misty Range to the south and the South Banff Ranges to the north. This route takes you right through the middle of the valley, offering stunning views without too much effort. Elbow Pass is the perfect basecamp for epic day adventures; whether this is hiking to one of the many glacial lakes or summiting one of the rocky giants.
Trip Completed: August 2019
Starting Point: Elbow Pass parking lot Highway 40 (Coordinates: 50°38’7.63″N, 115° 1’25.20″W)
Ending Point: Elbow Pass parking lot Highway 40 (Coordinates: 50°38’7.63″N, 115° 1’25.20″W)
Total Distance: 20 km
Elevation Gain: 700 m
Duration: 3 days
This route is located in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and Elbow-Sheep Wildlands.
Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of Tsuu T’ina, Stoney, Ktunaxa ɁamakɁis, and Niitsítpiis-stahkoii(source).
Maps & Resources
Map: AllTrails – If you have the premium version, you can download the topographic maps for offline use. Following the trail systems marked on AllTrails is very helpful in customizing your trip through this area.
Campsite Reservations: Reservations required for Tombstone Backcountry campsite on Alberta Parks website. The campsite at Rae Lake is within wildlands and Wildland regulations apply. Read here for rules about random camping.
Permits: Print out your permits before you leave. You must place them on wood posts at your campsite in Tombstone Backcountry. No permits required for the wildlands.
Outfitters & Shuttles
Outfitter: There is no outfitter servicing the park. Bring your own backpacking gear (including bear spray!).
Shuttle: No shuttle is required as the route starts and ends in the same place. Parking is available at the trailhead.
Day 1: Elbow Pass parking to Tombstone Backcountry
It was the August long weekend, and I needed a backcountry adventure. I decided on Elbow Pass located within Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and the Elbow-Sheep Wildlands park. I had hiked through Elbow Pass in the winter and was struck by its beauty. It is a wide meadow valley where the headwaters of the Elbow River meander through on their way to Calgary. The valley is framed by the giants of the Misty Range to the south and the South Banff Ranges to the north. The goal for this trip was to have a relaxing long weekend backcountry trip but somewhere that offered epic day trips if we were feeling up for it.
We left Calgary at 8 AM, with a quick 1.5hr drive to the trailhead. The parking lot is small and located off of Highway 40. Being a long weekend, we barely were able to get a spot so I recommend getting there early if you want to ensure you can park. The summer heat was at full strength with temperatures being in the 30s. Now being from Ontario, I couldn’t complain since there is no humidity when you are 2 km above sea level.
The trail is very easy to follow. It is so well-trodden that you can even see it easily on Google Earth. The first section of the trail acts as the perfect warmup, as it is a 140 m elevation gain over 2 km. Not bad, but it will get your heart pumping right away. Once you make this initial climb you are greeted with the beautiful view of Elbow Lake with Mt. Rae rising out behind it. There is a campsite here as well. There is the option of day-hiking to Rae Glacier. To do this, take the trail to the right of the lake. We had other day hikes in mind, so we continued on to our campsite, taking the left trail around the lake.
Here the trail follows the Elbow River and you will eventually reach a sign telling you that you are now in the Wildlands Provincial Park. Firearms are allowed in the wildlands. The trail here is wide and flat which is perfect as you can focus on the stunning views of the mountains. One of my favourite views in this area is of the meadow to your left which is framed beautifully by Elpoca Mountain, Mount Schlee, and Tombstone Mountain.
As you continue on the trail watch for a small rockpile (cairn) on the left of the trail. This is marking a quick side trail to the beautiful Edworthy Falls. This 20 m falls, with its turquoise plunge pool and Elpoca Mountain backdrop, offers the perfect lunch spot. I was too busy relaxing by the waterfall that I forgot to take a picture but below is a picture of the waterfall that I took in the winter. Getting back on the main trail, continue on for another ~1.7 km where you will need to turn left. At this point, the trail is a gravel road. Continue on this gravel path for about 800 m and you will have arrived at the Tombstone backcountry campsite. This only took us about 2.5 hours from the trailhead. There are a handful of campsites here so you will likely not be alone. On the long weekend, it was about half full, but noise was not an issue.
We set up camp, had a light snack and a drink and then decided we wanted to do a day trip. This campsite acts as a very good basecamp for day trips. For beginners, you can hike 2 km further to the Tombstone lakes which are incredibly beautiful and I recommend them! More experienced scramblers and climbers have access to Tombstone Mountain, Elpoca Mountain, Branded Peak, Outlaw Peak, Cougar Mountain and the list goes on. We opted for Tombstone Lake where we brought dinner with us and enjoyed the serenity of these glacial pools. We got back to the campsite, had many drinks and an amazing fire thanks to the free firewood brought in by Parks staff.
Campsite: Tombstone Backcountry campsite. This is definitely a luxury backcountry campsite. Since it is serviced by an old logging road, the Alberta Parks staff bring in firewood for free use and the outhouse is the cleanest public bathroom I have ever used. Even comes stocked with a Febreze can. There are iron ring fire pits that are very deep and bear lockers for your food. Water can be accessed from the meadow below the campground. The views are incredible!
Campsite Coordinates: 50°40’33.60″N, 114°58’21.73″W
Day 2: Tombstone Backcountry to Rae Lake
We woke up the next morning to frost on the ground. Despite it being 30 degrees in the day, the lack of humidity allows the nights to still get cold. If you are used to Ontario summer camping, you might want to consider bringing layers even on the hottest of days. I got the fire started, made some breakfast and coffee, and sat above the meadow watching the Elbow River as the sun peaked up over the eastern Rockies.
Our goal today was to hike to the Rae Lake wild campsite. The hike from Tombstone to Rae Lake is only 4 km and 210 m elevation gain. Head back on the trail you entered the campsite through, all the way to the fork in the road where you had turned left the day before. A right turn here would bring you back to the trailhead so continue straight and follow the gravel road for 2km. You will reach a stream and should see a trail off the road to your right. Since this is a wildlands park trails are not maintained nor marked. As the years pass, people start to take different routes and the trails will change slightly.
The trail up to Rae Lake essentially follows a stream and it was not too tough to follow. After about 1.5 km uphill you will reach the Rae Lake campsite. This campsite is within the wildlands park, where camping is allowed anywhere (following the law of course, resource linked above). It was quite busy when we arrived, and it was difficult to find a spot that had been used before. When wild camping try and use areas that have been camped on before to minimize the damage to the vegetation. We setup camp, met some really nice people and went out to the meadow by the lake to play frisbee and bask in the sun under the gaze of Mt. Rae. As night fell, we were greeted with a cloudless night and more stars than you could count could be seen. In fact, that night the aurora borealis decided to reach all the way down to this area of Alberta. Unfortunately, we went to bed too early.
Campsite: Rae Lake. This is an “established” wildlands campsite meaning it is fully unserviced but a popular spot. There is no thunderbox. This site is located within the wildlands provincial park. Water can be accessed from the stream or Rae Lake itself.
Note: Please ensure you follow rules regarding Leave No Trace and packing out garbage. Remember to bring a trowel if burying poop, and never bury toilet paper.
Campsite Coordinates: 50°39’18.94″N, 114°58’16.06″W
Day 3: Rae Lake to Elbow Pass Parking
The next day, all we had to do was hike the 8 km back to the car, so we took our time to enjoy this beautiful area. We packed our bags, said goodbye to our newfound friends and headed on our way. Instead of going back to the gravel road from Rae Lake the same way, we chose to follow the path through the meadow. At first this went well but soon the trail was non-existent and it turned into a bushwhack. I would recommend going back to the road the way we came up. We made it back to the car by mid-afternoon and drove to Canmore for a celebratory burger and beer at the Grizzly Paw.
The Elbow-Sheep Wildlands Provincial Park is amazing and there are many different versions of this trip you can take. We opted for this loop up to Rae Lake however I will take the liberty here to point out a few more options and recommend looking at the trail system on AllTrails as a guide. In addition to the western entrance this route describes (Elbow Pass parking lot), there are also two eastern entrances (Little Elbow Provincial Recreation Area at the end of Highway 66 and an entrance at the end of Highway 546). I have marked these on the map above for your reference. This means that you have the possibility of doing thru-hikes if you have two cars available. There are no shuttles that exist to my knowledge. Please message me on Instagram if you would like more information on other options.
Upon reflection, I loved the laid-back nature of the route I described here. I was not with avid climbers, so we opted for the easy but beautiful day hike to Tombstone Lakes. The amazing part of this area (other than the views) is the fact that you can tailor your trip however you want. Do you want a relaxing trip with friends and good times around the fire? You can do it here. Do you want big climbs and scrambles up some of the most epic mountains in Alberta? You can do that here as well. All using the campsites described here as your basecamp. My only regret from this trip was falling asleep too early and missing the northern lights.
Sean Vandersluis is an outdoor enthusiast who loves exploring Canada’s outdoors. He always brings along his camera to capture some of Canada’s most beautiful locations. Mostly a backpacker in the mountains of western Canada, he has started to get into canoeing after moving to Ontario (but still prefers a good old fashion hiking trip). Follow his Instagram to follow along!
Instagram: @seanmarksluis and @seanmark_photography