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An unknown gem in the Canadian Rocky Mountains – readily accessible
Amazing Abraham Lake is located in the front ranges of the Alberta Rocky Mountains, in a region also known as Bighorn Country (named after the Bighorn Sheep, which are common in the area). Bighorn Country is surrounded on three sides by Banff and Jasper National Parks and a portion of the area was part of Jasper National Park until 1930, when it was returned to the Province in a land exchange that saw Lake Minnewanka and Bankhead near Banff incorporated into Banff Park. The entire region today is as picturesque and ecologically important as the National Parks themselves. The Kootenay Plains, which border and were partially flooded by Abraham Lake, are an important wildlife sanctuary and the valley is one of the least disturbed montane forests in the eastern slopes. First Nations people have used this area for thousands of years and the observant visitor will find signs of their activity in numerous locations.
Since the construction of Hwy 11 in 1964 and the Bighorn Dam in 1972, the area has seen very little development. The highway, also known as the David Thompson Highway, was named after the map-maker and explorer David Thompson who scouted out the region in the early 18 hundreds in search of a passage across the formidable Rocky Mountains. The highway today provides the major access into the area from Banff National Park in the west and Central Alberta (Red Deer / Rocky Mountain House) in the east. Together with the Icefields Parkway, the David Thompson Highway between Nordegg and Banff Park is considered one of the most scenic roads in Canada, yet one of the least travelled.
Bighorn Dam was constructed on the North Saskatchewan River (designated a Canadian Heritage River) to offer flood protection for the communities downstream, including Edmonton. The resulting lake was named Abraham Lake after Silas Abraham, a knowledgeable and respected Stoney Indian guide whose descendents still live in the small Bighorn Reserve community below the dam. At 33km long, Abraham Lake is Alberta’s longest manmade lake and it sports the same magnificent turquoise waters found in many famous lakes in the mountain parks. However, in size it is about as large as all those lakes combined… The water color is a result of very fine glacial sediments suspended in the water, which absorbs the red portion of the light spectrum.
Surrounded by prominent mountain peaks, the lake is a gorgeous sight year round and it has gained notoriety lately for the methane bubbles trapped in the lake ice in winter. These can be found elsewhere too, but strong winds in the North Saskatchewan River Valley often clear the ice of all the snow that tends to blanket most lakes in winter.
Forget boating and swimming as the lake is very cold and the high winds can generate large waves. However, the area around Abraham Lake is spectacular hiking country, offering everything from easy walks in the Kootenay Plains, to more challenging scrambles onto some of the many ridges (with stunning views) and even multi-day back-country hiking or trail riding. Mountains, forests, rivers, canyons and waterfalls, as well as wildlife are among the many attractions of the Abraham Lake area.
Mountain biking, rock climbing, fishing, canoeing and kayaking are other popular summer activities whereas the region is popular with ice-climbers in winter and a lack of snow often make it suitable for winter hiking.
Although only a 20 minute drive from the world famous Icefields Parkway, because of the minimal development to-date, the area is a hidden secret for all those visitors wishing to escape the crowded tourist centers and busy trails / attractions in the National Parks. Here you can enjoy the Rocky Mountains far from the mass tourism and commercialism of Banff and Lake Louise. Services are very limited though with few fixed roof accommodations, a handful of campgrounds and no shopping, entertainment, etc..
Abraham Lake and Kootenay Plains are for those who want to get away from it all.
The area is readily accessible year round and the local micro-climate is less harsh than what you will find in the adjacent main ranges and foothills regions. Milder winters, cooler summers and generally less precipitation have formed a unique region which is distinctly different from surrounding areas and home to abundant wildlife, prairie-like grasslands with rare plants, and some of the oldest trees found in Alberta (limber pines). If hunting and trapping are eventually disallowed in the region and the area receives the protection it deserves, Kootenay Plains and Bighorn Country will again become the Serengeti of the Rocky Mountains, as the area is a favorite wintering ground for many park animals.
For visitors wishing to stay in the area for a while, the David Thompson Highway – A hiking guide offers great background information and trail descriptions for the entire area between Nordegg and Banff Park. This is an important resource, as many trailheads and trails themselves are generally unmarked. There are no good maps which cover the entire area as it sits on the fringes of the well publicized National Parks. If you can, pick up a copy of the latest Government of Alberta Bighorn Backcountry map, which will at least give you an idea of the lay of the land and permitted recreational activities and a few place names and trail locations. Other than that, your best bet are the official printed or electronic topographic maps of Canada for the region.