The Northover Ridge Challenge!

For the second year in a row, Manny, Neil and I decided to tackle hiking Northover Ridge in a single day push. Northover Ridge is a spectacularly beautiful backpacking trail in Kananaskis Provincial Park that most people take around 3 days to complete, camping at Aster Lake and Three Isle Lake. Manny had done this as a backpacking trip a few years ago and somehow we came up with the harebrained idea that it would be a “fun” challenge to try to complete the entire 35 km loop with nearly 2,000 meters of elevation gain in one day.

My Garmin GPS track

Last summer, we completed the challenge in 11.5 hours, on an extremely hot, extremely smoky August day. When we finally reached the final 10km (which are relatively easy compared to the rest of the hike) or so, we were so exhausted, and so dehydrated, that we had pretty much completely stopped speaking to each other! So we decided to give it another go this year – the main motivator being the utter lack of views along the legendary ridge due to forest fire smoke. So, if you want to read about how to hike Northover in a day – this post is for you! But you can take the same info and easily extend the trip to 2, 3 or 4 days (see the end of the post).

The view of Three Isle Lake from Northover Ridge

Let’s start with the Basics

Northover Ridge is a loop, which makes for a great hike because you get to see different views the entire way! Alltrails says the trail is 33.2 km long but our GPS told us that it was 35 km round trip. We started and ended the hike at the Interlakes Parking Lot and did the route counter-clockwise (so you hit Aster Lake campground first), which Manny is convinced is the ‘easier’ way to do the route as you save yourself from some terrible scree ascents.

There is a lot of up and down on this trail – the total elevation gain is around 1,800 meters, which to put into perspective is more elevation gain than scrambling to the summit of the iconic Mount Temple at Moraine Lake.

If you are planning on doing this as a day hike, here are a list of things you should bring with you. Mountain weather is unpredictable and we experienced sun, wind and rain all in one day. We went from wearing t-shirts at Kananaskis lakes to multiple layers and gloves and a toque on top of the ridge!

One-day Northover Ridge Packing List!

Our packs may not look big but we have everything we need!
  • At least 2 litres of water. If you’re bringing less, make sure you pack a water purification system to refill your water at the lakes. It’s also helpful to bring some electrolytes to mix into your water!
  • Gloves and a toque
  • Extra socks
  • Small first aid kit with a blister kit
  • A base layer sweater and/or long-sleeve shirt
  • A warm midlayer jacket (I love my Patagonia Nano-Air jacket that I literally wear on every hike)
  • A rain jacket
  • Sunhat or baseball cap
  • Lots of snacks for the day – we loaded up on nut bars, beef jerky, leftover pizza, and chopped veggies. But bring more than you think you need!
  • Hiking poles may be helpful, especially when descending steep slopes
  • I highly recommend bringing a map (GPS or topo) and/or SPOT or Garmin emergency beacon. There is no cell reception anywhere in the area, and if you need help, you may be many kilometers away from your car or even other hikers.

The Northover Ridge Route

Interlakes Parking Lot to Aster Lake

We set off from the Interlakes parking lot just after 8 a.m., starting our trek by following the trail that hugs the right-hand side of Upper Kananaskis Lake. A left fork kept us along the lakeshore, and after hiking through the woods past Point Campground, we crossed a wooden bridge, and took the side trail to our right that leads to Hidden Lake. The last year we did this, we completely missed this trail, as it is often overgrown with bush and can be hard to find without a GPS map. You’ll know you’ve found the right trail if you come across a big sign that warns you of the dangers of hiking in the backcountry (and all the possible ways you could get injured – rockfall, bears and extreme weather – oh my!) a hundred meters or so in.

By August and September, Hidden Lake isn’t much of a lake anymore!

We soon reached Hidden Lake, which by September, was mostly dried out. After reaching the backside of the lake, the uphill grind began, and we started up the first big incline of the day up the headwall towards Aster Lake. This section offered beautiful views of Upper Kananaskis Lake behind us, and in front of us, the stunning Fossil Falls cascaded down into the valley. A couple sections required some brief hands-on scrambling, but after that it was easy hiking to reach Aster Lake Campground. Along the way, keep your eye out for fossils that are embedded in the rock beds that line the side of Foch Creek! We stopped at this section to have a quick snack break an check out the hundreds of fossilized sea shells – it’s hard to imagine that millions of years ago, instead of towering mountains, this area was actually the Western Interior Seaway!

Aster Lake to Northover Ridge and Three Isle Lake

Continuing on from Aster Lake, we crossed a beautiful alpine valley with views of Mount Joffre then began to ascend the steep pass up towards Northover ridge. By now, we had officially crossed over from Alberta to British Colombia, and passed by two beautiful tarns that some people have chosen to random camp at. The final grind up the scree slope onto Northover Ridge was a leg burner, and by now, the wind was picking up so touques and gloves and layers had to be put on. When we finally reached the ridge itself, there was a gale force wind that froze our fingers – so we hunkered down behind some rocks for a lunch break. Fortunately, the views on the ridge are stunning, no matter what direction you look.

The ridge walk was by far our favourite part of the entire hike (despite being freezing cold and windy!). These were the views we came for that we didn’t get to see last year due to smoke – and boy were they worth it! Sunbeams streaked through breaks in the clouds to cast a golden glow on a myriad of alpine valleys, surrounded by castle-like peaks in every direction.

The ridge however does contain a couple sections which are not for the faint of heart, and is the reason one of our colleagues calls Northover Ridge “the death ridge”. The path narrows to less than two-feet wide, where nearly vertical rocky scree lies to the left, and a steep glacier is below on your right. It’s not actually that bad, as long as it is clear from snow, and if you’re a bit nervous you can always cross it “au cheval” style, which is French for “on a horse”, since you put one foot on either side of ridge and straddle the middle to cross. While Neil had no problem sauntering over the ridge with his hands in his pockets, I chose to do an awkward mix of crawing and “au cheval”!

To the north, we could see Three Isle Lake in the distance, but first we had to descend a fairly steep scree slope (I didn’t bring poles, but they would’ve helped!) to reach the valley below. From there, it was a lovely hike through alpine meadows and beautiful larch forests to Three Isle Lake campground.

Three Isle Lake and Homeward Bound!

Once we reached Three Isle Lake, this for me at least, was where I mentally “checked out” and felt like I was done the hike. Because at this point, we had completed all the most difficult parts of the hike! With only ~11 km to go, of which 99% is either flat of downhill, we were home free!  Unfortunately, by this point, all the most scenic sections of the hike were also behind us, especially after descending the headwall below Three Isle Lake, and it was a relatively boring trudge through the woods back to the car. We also got caught in a passing rainstorm, which I am so grateful hit us when we were in the forest and not up on the ridge!

We got back to the parking lot around 7:30 pm, which meant that we completed the hike in 11.5 hours. We didn’t end up improving our time compared to last year, but the second go-around went much smoother, and spirits remained high till the very end, which is a win in my books! And as always, in Neil-Manny-Christina tradition, hit up the Kananaskis Delta Lodge for some much-needed pub food to celebrate!

Not up for a single day push? Here is a 2 night, 3 day itinerary

Day 1: Hike from the Upper Lake Day Use Area to Aster Lake Campground  via Upper Kananaskis Lake Circuit/Aster Lake Route Trail – 10.8 km

Day 2: Hike from Aster Lake to Northover Ridge and to Three Isle Lake Campground – 12.5 km

Day 3: Hike back to your vehicle! – 10.3 km

If you want to extend this one more day, you can camp at the Northover Tarns that I mentioned in the blog post! Both Aster Lake and Three Isle Lake campgrounds should be booked in advance through Alberta Parks, just follow the links!

Happy Hiking!

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