Hiking into Southfork and Barnaby Lakes. ~ updated September 9, 2023
Distance: 9.6 km (round trip)
Elevation: +/- 710 m
Hiking Time: 4 – 6 hours
First hike to Southfork and Barnaby Lakes: My story
I am asked often when I’m guiding, “How many times have you hiked this trail?” And it really depends because sometimes I’m hired to take people out in areas that I’m not as familiar with and that’s okay because as a certified ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides) guide we are highly trained to navigate through terrain both on and off trail. We know what the area is going to look like well before we even go. However, around Crowsnest Pass, I have started to lose track of how many times I’ve done some trails. This is the case with Southfork and Barnaby Lakes trail. I used to manage a backcountry trails program for Alberta Environment and Parks and even before the Castle became a designated park, I was in here assessing and evaluating this trail.
I do, however, remember the first time I went into this area and it is a very fond memory. It was my second summer in Crowsnest Pass and I didn’t have time to go into all the areas I wanted to during work hours, so I often took every spare moment to get to know my area on days off. I had a couple of friends who also wanted to go, so on June 30th, we headed in after work. Back then, we had to take our shoes off and cross the West Castle River, we walked up and down the river until we found the distinct trail. Now, there is a beautiful bridge that crosses the river. Once we found the trail, it was easy to navigate and we lugged up our big backpacks in preparation for an overnight camp at the lakes. I couldn’t think of a better way to bring in Canada Day than celebrating the beauty of the Rocky Mountains.
Changes along the trail to Southfork and Barnaby
More recently, Alberta Parks and their staff have done an excellent job of adding in signage and some switchbacks to eliminate a very unsustainable, steep trail. I remember huffing and puffing as I packed my temporary home on my shoulders along this straight-up trail. It is much better now, thanks to the major trail reroute improvements. Note: Please remember to respect the areas that are closed off for reclamation. Especially this trail as it will cause erosion issues if reopened.
The trail rewards you with views of Castle Mountain Resort, Syncline Mountain, Syncline Brook valley, and more. You can gaze up towards Barnaby Ridge, appreciate the geological formations that surround you on this hike, and nibble on Saskatoon berries (if the timing is right). There is always a lot of information to share and stories to tell while peering down the valley overlooking opportunities for your next adventure.
Admiring the lakes
Continue along the trail, pass the meadow and through the forest. When you start to hear water flowing, you know you are getting close to the first lake. You will be greeted with a small waterfall. There used to be a yellow box that was used to collect information from fishermen at this spot. The first lake is called Barnaby Lake and it is really only the beginning of this spectacular area. This is where you can relax beside the lake for a snack before continuing around it for your next ascent. There is also a “green throne” at this lake, also known as a toilet without walls and it is green. It may be the best view on a toilet that you will ever experience.
Next, you will come to the other two lakes: lower and upper Southfork Lakes. The origin of their name is captivating to me. I do a lot of research on the history of this area and I would often see Crowsnest River named Crow’s Nest River. When digging even deeper, I find it called the Oldman River. Interestingly, the Oldman River flows through the Gap of the Livingstone Range, several kilometres north of Crowsnest River and even further from Southfork. The origin of Southfork comes from when even Castle River was called the Oldman River and it was considered the ‘south fork’. Crowsnest River was the ‘middle fork’ and Oldman River was the ‘north fork’; at one point they were all called the Oldman River. The Southfork name stuck around through the years and is a gentle reminder of how naming changed throughout time.
As I continue to reminisce about my first time to these lakes, I remember taking in the sunset at the lakes and watching the golden trout jump for food. It is a subtle cue on how unique the South Canadian Rockies are in comparison to other, more popular locations. I remember watching the sunset and the ridge light up with fantastic yellow lichen. The rock has a tinge of red in it and during sunset or sunrise, these colours are exaggerated. Then, I peered out the valley and caught a glimpse of Crowsnest Mountain, the iconic mountain that draws me to this area that I call home. The mountain that I consider the heart of the South Canadian Rockies.
Canada Day adventures
The next day, I woke up early and wanted to find more adventure. I went back to town to pick up two avid hikers, who have now become close friends, to drop them off in Waterton to start their 3-month journey out to the west coast. On my way home, I stopped in at Bovin Lake and rode my bike in so I could check on the trail work that was going on. I ended up being the only one on the trail and over the years. I have seen it become exceptionally popular. However, I will save this story for another day.
You can probably see how this Canada Day has become a very fond memory for me. Leave a comment below if you have a distinct memory of Southfork and Barnaby Lakes and how it was special to you. We love hearing your stories.
Southfork and Barnaby lakes are a fall hiking favourite
Back to Southfork and Barnaby Lakes – the reason I am sharing with you this location is because the alpine larch trees showcase themselves to the world. It is certainly a fall favourite with the striking colours of the rock, three alpine lakes, and the larches turning their golden yellow. The Castle Parks is a magnificent place to see larches as the colour combinations are intensely aesthetic.
I do recommend spending a night at the lakes. You should know how to set up a backcountry camp outside of a designated camping area. Technically you are in the Castle Wildland Provincial Park and there currently are no designated camping spots. Familiarize yourself with the rules of a Wildland Provincial Park as I’ve been seeing a lot of disrespect for wildland areas, which is likely caused by lack of knowledge. There is an outhouse, the green throne type, at the first lake. Otherwise, you are packing out what you are taking in. All of it…
If you’d like tips on going to the bathroom in the backcountry, our blog post – The “doos” and don’ts of outdoor bathroom etiquette – shares best practices.
Backcountry camping at Barnaby and Southfork
If you are unfamiliar with setting up a backcountry camp site, I recommend taking the Intro to Backpacking course. Uplift Adventures teaches how to mitigate risk, reduce wildlife-human conflict, and leave-no-trace techniques so that we can all enjoy the outdoors. This is a small part of this course, but a very important one.
Enjoy your fall hiking this year. I enjoy writing stories and sharing my trips with you. Please share these stories with others and encourage them to support your local guiding company. Guides are trained professionals who keep you safe, educate, and enhance your experience while in the outdoors.
Heather Davis – Owner & Guide of Uplift Adventures
Heather is trained by the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides as a Hiking Guide and Interpretive Guide Association currently as an Apprentice Interpreter Guide, with a University Degree in Environmental Science and a Professional Agrologist with the Alberta Institute of Agrology. She has a passion for the outdoors and connecting others to the environment – a place that has given her the space to heal after traumatic events. She believes that we are always learning more about ourselves and our surroundings – let’s go find out more and see what we are capable of.
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