elbow falls closeup

Closeup view of the falls from the lookout


View downstream (left). Path along the cliff (right)


View back to the falls

river rock

Rocky riverbed


Imposing canyon walls enclose the river

Warning! This is not an official trail. It is dangerous.

I’ve always hesitated to hop the fence and go out of bounds. Boundaries are there to protect sensitive areas and keep us from doing things that are unsafe, even deadly. So when I get to the top level lookout over Elbow Falls, I have always followed the paved high-road trail back to the parking lot. Today I did the big nasty and soon realized that a crowd of people had done it before me. The footpath along the top of the cliff downstream from the Elbow Falls lookout is well trodden. There are some washouts, loose dirt and stones and a precipitous 30-metre drop that could kill if you’re not careful.

The trail follows the edge of the cliff that drops down to the river. It took quite a while to get down to the first bend in the river as I was taking pictures and searching for a lookout back to the falls, but you can’t see the falls until about 800 metres downstream. A clearing and a curve afford a nice view of the falls and, in the opposite direction, the canyon walls and outcrops of rock in the river.

The trail is fairly flat although there is one short steep hill. There are a couple of trails. You may be tempted to take the lower trail, but the upper one is easier walking and you get to the same place and see the same thing: trees and rocks. You can also access this trail from the pull-out on the south side of highway 66 between the boat launch and the falls. As you approach the first bend, the trail drops quickly to the river where large slabs of flat rock and gravel provide easy access to the waters edge. I was there in early April so the water level was low. There were a few Canada Geese and an American Dipper. This water bird has an odd habit of bobbing straight up and down and has a distinctive call made up of buzzing, whistling and warbling. It lives here year round and nests in the crevices of the rock cliffs.

I turned back at this point as do most others judging by the condition of the trail beyond. I assume that the trail extends to the boat launch opposite the Canyon Creek road. This stretch of the river is distinguished by high canyon walls that tower over the rocks and rubble strewn along the river. There are many hazards and rock ledges that make this stretch unsuitable for paddling. At least that’s my impression, but there are those who kayak over the falls which seems to be a very dangerous thing to do. In fact one kayaker died trying to navigate this stretch in 2004.

american dipper

American Dipper

It only took about 15 minutes to walk from the river bend back to the falls parking lot. This is a short trail and the access to the rivers edge is attractive. But, I can’t recommend it as there are dangers here.

Upstream from the falls there is a wide flat gravel bed that appears to be popular with all terrain vehicles. Across the river is the MacLean Creek OHV area. These vehicles are not allowed to cross the river, but they do. In fact there is a well used track down to and across the river just past the winter barrier.



River discharge – cubic metres per second (m3/sec)
Name of river Watershed area (sq. km) Daily Mean Min (Month) Max (June)
Bow at Banff 2210 39.7 7.64 (Mar.) 127
Bow at Calgary 7860 90.9 44.2 (Mar.) 231
Elbow above
Elbow Falls
437 7 1.8 (Mar.) 17.2
Elbow at
Bragg Creek
791 7.1 2.6 (Feb.) 24.2
Kananaskis near Seebe 933 15.4 7.2 (Apr.) 40.6
Sheep at Black Diamond 595 4.6 0.9 (Feb.) 18.2

Source: Water Survey of Canada, Environment Canada