Galatea and Lillian Lakes Hike in Kananaskis
Hiking to Lillian and Galatea alpine lakes in Kananaskis
This is one of my favourite shoulder season hikes. We hike this trail once per year, sometimes twice. Because it’s such a good, even trail, it also makes a great trail run.
The trail is closed from May 1 until sometime in late June, once the trail has dried out from the spring runoff. The area itself has some great access to many trails, and it’s worthwhile to spend a night in one of the many backcountry campgrounds in the area and explore.
About the hike
This hike is moderately strenuous and takes you through a canyon past some waterfalls. It starts at Galatea trailhead accessible from Highway 40 in Kananaskis. There are no views until you get to Lillian Lake, and the best views are when you climb up towards Galatea lake. From there, you can continue up to Guinn’s pass.
It’s 12.6 km to Liillian lake and back, and 16 if you go to Galatea lake, which is highly recommended. Galatea lake is a real highlight of the trail and should not be missed. Plus, if you’re keen and want to hike more, you can hike up to Guinn’s pass.
The best time of year to do this trail is either right when it opens or in September or later. The trail is very busy in the summer, so you’ll constantly be passing people all day.
This trail was very damaged during the 2013 floods in Alberta. Mountain parks were the worst hit, and all major mountain drainages suffered major flooding. The Galatea creek trail was very hard hit during this time and many bridges were completely destroyed. This took a long time to fix, and the trail features all new bridges which were brought in by pieces in a helicopter and then assembled on the trail. There were a few years after the flood where you had to walk along sketchy logs to get across the creek, so the new bridges are really nice to have.
The original trail up to Guinn’s Pass also had to be re-routed because of extensive flood damage. Going to the same point, the trail now takes you all the way to Galatea lakes instead up straight up the drainage like it used to. This means you can easily tag both lakes and the pass in a single (though long) day. But it’s completely doable.
The map below shows the old junction to Guinn’s pass. Now, you access Guinn’s pass from the Galatea lakes junction, meaning it’s simpler to see both lakes and the pass in one day.
Backcountry camping at Lillian lake
Lillian lake has a great backcountry campground which just re-opened a few years ago after flood damage in 2013.
The campground sustained major flood damage in 2013 and was effectively wiped out. Now there are new wooden tent platforms (so you’ll always camp on flat ground), food storage lockers, picnic tables, a fire pit and a composting outhouse. Reserve your spot and check availability on the Alberta Parks website. The campground actually has 17 spots, and in the high summer (July and August) is mostly full, especially weekends.
The trailhead is located on the Kananaskis highway 40. From Highway 1, drive 33 km south on Highway 40. The Galatea trailhead parking lot is on the south side of the road at 1550 m.
There are several ways to hike the trail and explore the area.
Option 1: Lillian – Galatea Lakes and back
Road trip distance 16 km
Elevation 800 m
Round trip time 4.5-6 hours.
If you come up this trail don’t miss the last climb up to Galatea lakes, it’s worth the effort. The trail starts off by heading downhill, then across the Kananaskis river. It intersects the Terrace trail and heads left up the drainage in thick forest. There are plenty of bridges to cross to get across the creek, and you can observe the extensive flooding damage which is still evident. In the spring of 2017 a huge avalanche came down one of the drainages into the creek and though the trail is repaired, you can still see the big trees that were taken for a ride down the mountain.
There are two Galatea lakes: upper and lower. The trail to the upper lake is an additional 1.3 kilometers from the junction.
The trail is a moderate grade then steepens for the last two kilometers to Lillian. If there is snow on the ground, it’s quite slick, so bring hiking poles.
Option 2: Lillian – Galatea – Guinn’s Pass and back
Round trip distance 19 km
Round trip time 7 hours.
If you have more energy, at the intersection at Galatea lake take the right fork up to Guinn’s Pass. Enjoy sprawling views high above Lillian lake, and the Ribbon creek valley and Buller pass. Now that the trail has been re-routed, it’s easy to do both lakes and the pass in a single day. It’s long, but completely doable if you’re fit.
Option 3: 2 days. Lillian – Galatea – Guinn’s pass – Ribbon Creek
Total distance 28 km
Elevation gain 1004 m over Guinn’s pass
Elevation loss 600 m from Ribbon lake
This is a really nice overnight trip with a beautiful climb up over Guinn’s Pass and down the other side. You’ll do most of the hiking in the first day as your trip down from Ribbon lake is all downhill. For a day trip up from Ribbon lake campground, hike up towards Buller Pass. The hike out from Ribbon lake campground is 13 km with a 600 m elevation loss. The first part of the trail is flat and easy for 2 km, and then you have to walk down the headwall where the lake funnels into a waterfall. There are some chains here to help you keep your footing during the scramble. It’s easy but trickier in fall if a bit of snow has fallen on the rocks.
This trip will require you to shuttle two vehicles. Park one vehicle at Ribbon creek day use area, that’s where you will end the trip. The shuttle is close and easy, and camping at Ribbon lake is wonderful. The campground at Ribbon lake is equipped with lockers, picnic tables, a fire pit and tent spots are close to the lake.
Ribbon lake is high (almost 2000 meters elevation) so it’s a cold place to camp in the fall. We were here once in October and had our -7 bags with us, which didn’t keep us warm enough. Bring plenty of warm layers and a warm sleeping bag.
Option 4: 2 days. Buller Pass – Ribbon Lake – Guinn’s Pass – Galatea lake
Total distance 24 km
Elevation gain 700 m over Buller pass and about 800 over Guinn’s pass.
Elevation loss 600 m from Ribbon lake
Another great one is to go over Buller Pass down to Ribbon lake and camp for the night. The next day, head up Guinn’s pass to the lakes and back down. This trip is beautiful because it takes you over two stunning alpine passes, and you get to see three amazing alpine lakes: Ribbon lake, Galatea and Lillian lakes. The hike up Buller pass is moderate from the Spray lakes side.
To start the hike, park at the Buller Mountain day use area, and the other at the Galatea trailhead. You’ll start the hike at Buller and and at Galatea parking lot. This trip can be done in either direction, but we’ve done it starting at Buller pass, and enjoyed it.
Buller pass is also a great place to see larch trees turning in the fall.
The only problem with this trip is that you have to do a long and tedious shuttle. The hiking distance of the trip is only 24 km, but the roads go all the way around and the trailheads are 50 km apart by road.
From Ribbon lake, it’s only 2 km up to Guinn’s pass and this is a fairly steep climb. It’s just under 4 km to Galatea lakes from there. It’s only 11 km to hike out of Ribbon lake with a big pass to climb out on the way out, which will be slow if there is snow on the ground.
There are lots of bears in this valley, even with all the human traffic. We hiked this trail and while we were out for the day there were two black bears on the Terrace trail which branches off the Galatea creek trail, prompting a closure. The day after our hike someone ran into a grizzly on the trail and deployed their bear spray, so hike in groups, carry bear spray and make noise. Read more on bear safety here.
Note that even though this trail is busy with hikers, lots of wildlife roam in this valley, so be aware. Check trail conditions for Kananaskis valley here. Read more about bear safety here. If staying overnight, be diligent about keeping a clean camp, and put all food and scented items in the lockers provided.
Check for advisories, closures and trail conditions on the Alberta parks. This trail also has a seasonal closure to allow spring runoff to drain and the trail to dry. This hiking trail is in a valley and subject to plenty of snow and creek drainage in the early spring, and is quite wet and very muddy. It opens officially for the season sometime in mid June.