Now THIS, this is a backpacking trip for the books. Backpacking Ya Ha Tinda to West Lakes is a scenic backpacking trip in Bighorn Wildland. This is also a random camping destination, which means you get to camp for free in front of the incredible Warden Rock – no reservations required!
Ya Ha Tinda is primarily a ranch that offers horseback trails, but backcountry campers are welcome as well. The hike to West Lakes & Warden Rock is a journey through a picturesque field backed by distant mountains nestled between Banff and Jasper.
I honestly don’t think words or pictures can truly capture the pure beauty Bighorn Wildland offers, so I guess you’ll have to backpack Ya Ha Tinda yourself to get a real taste of what this place is like.
Now, let’s go backcountry camping!
- How to get to Ya Ha Tinda
- Ya Ha Tinda backpacking trail
- Backpacking Ya Ha Tinda
- Essential backpacking gear
- What to wear backpacking
- Tips for a successful trip
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How to get to Ya Ha Tinda
On this map I’ve marked parking for Ya Ha Tinda as well as the random camping spot at West Lakes in front of Warden Rock.
The trip to Ya Ha Tinda is quite lengthy, but worth every minute of driving. From Banff you can expect 3 hours, from Calgary it’ll be about 2 hours and 40 minutes, 2 hours and 20 minutes from Red Deer, and about 4 hours from Edmonton.
You’ll have to take Ya Ha Tinda road in Bighorn Wildland to get to the Red Deer River trailhead. This road is all gravel, steep in some sections, and full of sharp turns. I was able to complete this drive in my corolla, however if there was any inclement weather I don’t know how I would have done.
The drive is quite scenic and features tons of little farms, rolling valleys, and dramatic mountain views. Keep an eye out for wild horses! My friends and I saw quite a few on our drive there.
For more information about Ya Ha Tinda, visit Parks Canada.
One of my hiking partners made a video of our trip, you can watch it
Ya Ha Tinda Backpacking Trail
- Distance: 20km
- Elevation gain: minimal, if any
- Rated: easy
- Type out trail: out & back
- Estimated time: 2 days (10hrs total of hiking)
^I didn’t track this hike so these numbers may be a tad off.
This trail goes from Ya Ha Tinda in Bighorn Wildland all the way to Lake Louise in Banff. I’m just using it as it highlights the trailhead and the Red Deer River trail. Don’t follow this all the way to Lake Louise! The West Lakes are about 10km from the Red Deer River trailhead where you’ll be random camping in front of Warden Rock.
Okay so my friends and I made multiple mistakes on this backpacking trip. The two biggest mistakes being navigation and almost freezing to death. I’ll get to that freezing part later, but let’s start with some directional facts first.
The backpacking trail to West Lakes and Warden Rock is not actually a backpacking trail – it’s a horseback trail. Expect to find lots of… gifts… along the way. You’ll be following the Red Deer River trail which runs along the – you guessed it – Red Deer River.
Don’t Do What We Did!
My friends and I somehow managed to go completely off trail and did like 25 river crossings… We then had to bushwhack and just guess where we were going, hoping to eventually show up at our camping spot at West Lakes. I’ll give you a bit more of a play by play next, but don’t do what we did. Use the Alltrails map above – we didn’t have this at the time, soooo I’m using that as my excuse for why we f**d up so bad.
After following more horse trails you’ll eventually come to a dirt road with a trail sign. This is how you know you’re on track. The lakes will only be 5ish kilometres straight ahead from this point.
This map outlines the summit route to Warden Rock, however I’m adding it here so you can get a sense of where the West Lakes at Ya Ha Tinda Ranch are located. See the little dots on the opposite side of the Red Deer River to Warden Rock.
Backpacking Ya Ha Tinda
When my friends and I started this Bighorn Wildland backpacking trail the sky was blue, the weather was warm, and the vibes were good… That didn’t quite last.
Red Deer River Trail Through Ya Ha Tinda Ranch
From the parking lot you can hike straight past the gate blocking the road and start hiking. There will be a few trails where you must turn and navigate a bit, but if you follow the Alltrails map and use common sense you should be able to make it just fine.
We kept going right and ventured down a little cliff to a small stream (not the Red Deer River). We ended up doing multiple river crossings in hopes to navigate this section, but we were unsuccessful. Eventually we made our way out of the river, followed some animals paths, bushwhacked through the trees, and emerged into a large and beautiful field.
Thank god we decided to change route because we were headed in the wrong direction!
ps. if you walk through this field you’ll find tons of huge, spooky animal bones.
To The Dirt Road
We aimlessly wandered through this field, knowing generally where we were going but not quite. If you follow the Red Deer River trail you’ll already be stationed more left, but if you somehow fudge it up like my friends and I did, aim left toward the dip in the mountains.
Although we had no clue where we really were we didn’t quite mind because I mean… Look at that view.
Eventually you’ll come to a clearly defined dirt road with a trail sign. From this point forward you can walk straight without questioning your directions. Within around 5km you’ll arrive at the West Lakes; hiker’s left. You’ll be able to see the lakes from the path (although you may have to pay attention), so there’s no need to go off-trail and search.
Going off path is something I thought sounded like a great idea. We did it, we backtracked, and we walked directly through marshy terrain in order to end up exactly where the trail eventually would have led us to. Oops.
West Lakes & Warden Rock
Ahhh yes, West Lakes and Warden Rock. One of the most scenic places I’ve camped. I believe the term I muttered when I arrived at the West Lakes was “real life or photoshop?” This spot is SO wow.
The best spot to camp is the spot closest to the Red Deer River trail. To be specific, the spot that’s elevated higher than the rest of the surrounding area.
The serene beauty of this spot quickly started to fade though, as the temperature dropped immensely within the hour. My friends and I set up camp, cooked dinner, and got the fire going. But DAMN was it getting cold!
We put all our layers on and hoped we hadn’t made a huge mistake by only bringing our summer sleeping bags… It had been so warm and sunny earlier that day, but the nighttime mountain weather was apparently gonna do us dirty.
That Time I Almost Froze To Death
I’ll always remember my Ya Ha Tinda backpacking trip as the “time I almost froze to death.” That night was absolutely brutal – I didn’t sleep a second due to the extremely cold temperature and the chattering of my teeth. The combination of my +10 sleeping bag and waterproof layers did not mix well with the subzero temps.
Did I mention this was pre May long weekend? Yup, I was dumb and yup, I learned my lesson.
I laid there all night shivering so violently my hammock swayed back and forth. At one point I shed a single tear because I genuinely thought there was a chance of frost bite and/or death.
I thankfully made it to morning and bought a good quality sleeping bag within days of returning from my Ya Ha Tinda backpacking trip. For reference I use this sleeping bag and I LOVE it! It’s Canadian made, SO warm, and very affordable! For those who are always cold, you could also toss a fleece sleeping bag liner in your sleeping bag for extra warmth.
Sunrise on Warden Rock
So yes, I almost died that night camping at West Lakes. However the morning alpenglow, the rolling fog, and the reflection of Warden Rock on the West Lakes made everything worth while and then some.
Waking up – or I guess crawling out of my hammock after a sleepless night – to a view like this… There’s no better feeling in the world!
Ya Ha Tinda is a breathtakingly beautiful place and this Bighorn Wildland backpacking trail is by far one of the most scenic adventures I’ve embarked on. I’d highly recommend this trip as it’s more than worth the effort for the reward. Just maaaaybe wait until June to backpack to West Lakes so you can avoid the whole almost freezing to death thing.
Next I’ll talk about a few backcountry essentials for camping in the Rockies as well as outline some tips to make this a successful trip.
But first, one more pic of the morning alpenglow…
Here’s some information if you’re interested in summiting Warden Rock.
Explore More Backpacking Trails
Here are a few of my backpacking trails, but you can find more
- Glacier Lake Backpacking Trail – Banff National Park
- Backcountry Gear Guide – What to Pack for Camping in the Canadian Rockies
- A Guide for Hiking the Highland Backpacking Trail in Algonquin
Best Gear For Backpacking
If you wanna spend time in the Canadian backcountry you’re gonna need gear – no ifs, ands, or buts. I talk about what I bring on my backcountry camping trips in detail here, but the following are my favourite pieces of gear that make the “essentials” list for every trip:
No one wants to spend their night in the wilderness frozen which is why it’s super important to have a warm sleeping bag. The Hotcore winter sleeping bag (comfort rating -12) is cheap, WARM & Canadian made – my fav sleeping bag! You’ll also want to pick up a sleeping bag liner: fleece (extra warmth), cotton (cleanliness – good in cool temps), or silk (for cold temps & smooth material is great for people with claustrophobia; me)
A good quality stove is worth the investment. In my opinion the best stove out there is the Pocket Rocket (I use the Deluxe). This stove is compact, lightweight, great on fuel, and reliable in any conditions. A MUST-HAVE for backpacking.
Having a good quality backpack is imperative for multi-day trips, especially when you’re carrying 25lbs+ on your back. I have the Osprey Aura 65L (men’s version) and I swear by it. It’s top of the line, comfortable, great quality, and has a suspended back system which takes the weight off your shoulders. PLUS it has pockets. So. Many. Pockets.
You’ll also want to have easy and clean access to water. You’ll need a hydration pack – I use the 2L Hydrapak – and a filtration system. For this you can either use a water filter or aqua tabs and cheese cloth.
What To Wear Backpacking
Choosing what to wear on your backpacking trip is also so important… and confusing. What layers are best? Is the extra weight worth carrying extra clothes? Do I really need rain gear? Yes, the answer is always yes to rain gear.
I’ve been on backpacking trips all over Canada and I’ve learned exactly what layers work best for the backcountry. A few pieces I’ve found to be invaluable are:
A waterproof jacket traps your body heat and protects against wind and water. This is exactly the layer you want in the cold, rain, or when you’re tired at the end of the night. I use the Eco Precip (men’s version). It’s economical, lightweight, and folds into its own pocket. Don’t forget to always pack rain pants (men’s version) too.
You need a warm layer for backpacking. I always bring my puffer jacket (men’s version). This puffer jacket is lightweight, compact, and throws a ton of heat. If I know temperatures will be cold I also bring my zip fleece (men’s version) which is great for sleeping in as well.
A warm pair of socks is the nicest luxury at the end of a long hiking day. They are also super important for keeping your feet warm when the nightly temperatures drop. I find these ones work great for keeping your toes toasty – and this is coming from someone with Raynaud’s disease.
Additionally I always bring gloves (men’s version) and a hat. I wear actual hiking pants (men’s version) rather than leggings and I’ve always got a good quality, Gore-tex pair of hiking boots; my fav are the Scarpa Kailesh (men’s version).
You also want to make sure you bring separate clothes for sleeping – whatever you do DO NOT wear your sleeping clothes outside of sleeping and ensure they don’t get wet; you might even want to keep them in a dry bag.
More: Backpacking Gear Guide
Tips For A Successful Trip
- Expect to see no one (minus the odd horse back riding group) on this trail – be prepared. Here’s my backcountry gear guide which outlines everything you’d possibly need for a backpacking trip
- Wait until June/July to backpack in Bighorn Wildland OR bring warm clothes and proper gear to random camp early in the season
- Bring a map/download Alltrails – there’s no official trail/trail signs for the majority of this hike
- A satellite communication device would be extremely beneficial on this backpacking trip for safety reasons
- You’ll need to do a bear hang – make sure you have a dry bag and rope
- The best place to fill your hydration pack is at the West Lakes. Water sources are limited on the Red Deer River Trail
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About The Author
HI, I’m Taylor – the voice behind The Holistic Backpacker.
After moving to Banff National Park in 2020 I became an outdoor adventure enthusiast and vowed to never stop exploring.
I now spend my days travelling the world, climbing mountains, and spending nights under the stars in the Canadian Rockies backcountry.
I created The Holistic Backpacker so I could share my adventures and help connect people like you with the same amazing experiences.