Backpacking Ya Ha Tinda to West Lakes & Warden Rock – Bighorn Wildland

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!

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~ Taylor ♡

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.

Opportunities at Ya Ha Tinda: WWOOFing, guided horseback tours, glamping,

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.

Backpacking West Lakes & Warden Rock at Ya Ha Tinda Ranch - Bighorn Wildland
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!

Backpacking West Lakes & Warden Rock at Ya Ha Tinda Ranch - Bighorn Wildland
Warden Rock (left) and Wapiti Mountain (centre)
Backpacking West Lakes & Warden Rock at Ya Ha Tinda Ranch - Bighorn Wildland
Prairie field backed by the Rocky Mountains

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.

Backpacking West Lakes & Warden Rock at Ya Ha Tinda Ranch - Bighorn Wildland
Backpacking down the dirt road toward Wapiti Mountain

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.

Backpacking West Lakes & Warden Rock at Ya Ha Tinda Ranch - Bighorn Wildland
Random camping at West Lakes & Warden Rock

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.

Backpacking West Lakes & Warden Rock at Ya Ha Tinda Ranch - Bighorn Wildland
Warden Rock and West Lakes at night

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.

Backpacking West Lakes & Warden Rock at Ya Ha Tinda Ranch - Bighorn Wildland
Random camping at West Lakes featuring Warden Rock in Bighorn Wildland

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…

Backpacking West Lakes & Warden Rock at Ya Ha Tinda Ranch - Bighorn Wildland
Alpenglow over Wapiti Mountain in Bighorn Wildland

Here’s some information if you’re interested in summiting Warden Rock.

More Backpacking Trails

Looking to venture further and see more of the backcountry? Click below to discover more backpacking trails in Canada and beyond.

Personal Backpacking Gear Recommendations

Here are my favourite backpacking essentials and items I can’t live without in the backcountry.

My backcountry gear guide goes into further detail about the below + additional things I bring into the backcountry.

Warmth: as someone with Raynaud’s Disease, one of the trickiest things about backcountry travel is staying warm at night. I wear thick fleece socks and clothes when I sleep in addition to popping Aurora Heat’s reusable fur foot warmers into my socks. For additional warmth you can also fill a Nalgene bottle with boiling water and place it in your sleeping bag overnight. PS – the wide opening Nalgene bottle doubles as an easy way to collect drinking water.

Sleeping: I use the Hotcore winter sleeping bag which has a -20 rating (useful in the Rockies during summer). I also use Hotcore’s fleece sleeping bag liner and the Thermarest NeoAir XLite for my sleeping pad. The MSR Hubba Hubba 2P is my go-to tent.

Cooking: I use the MSR Pocket Rocket Deluxe stove and the RioRand mess kit. I also love Stasher Bags for carrying, rehydrating, and cooking food plus the euroSCRUBBY and slice of this soap for cleanup.

Extras: 3L Hydrapak for water carry and both the Hydrapak attachable filter and aquatabs to clean water. Dry bags for food storage and to keep clothes/electronics dry. I use the women’s Osprey Aura 65L backpack (Osprey Atoms 65L for men). A lightweight camping pillow for comfort and a bug suit if you enjoy keeping your sanity. I also always bring these thin gloves and a toque.

And finally, rain gear. Bring both a rain coat and rain pants as they’re lightweight and make a world of difference if you need an extra layer of warmth or to protect yourself from the elements.

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
Backpacking West Lakes & Warden Rock at Ya Ha Tinda Ranch - Bighorn Wildland
My cutest pal on our Bighorn Wildland adventure

Happy adventuring!

Taylor ♡

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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.


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