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Alberta Parks paving way for more parking in Kananaskis Highwood Pass

“Increased parking capacity will help the area safely welcome more visitors, including providing a pull-through loop for RV parking and future transit opportunities.”

KANANASKIS COUNTRY – Alberta Parks is putting up a parking lot at a busy day-use area in Kananaskis.

The Highwood Meadows day-use area, which currently accommodates about 50 vehicles with access to several popular hiking trails off Highway 40, will see its parking capacity expanded in a paving project expected to last over a year.

“Increased parking capacity will help the area safely welcome more visitors, including providing a pull-through loop for RV parking and future transit opportunities,” said director of communications for Alberta Forestry and Parks Victoria Person, in an email. 

“It will help provide a designated place to park which will limit parking on the shoulder of the highway or in avalanche run-off zones.”

Construction is scheduled to start at the beginning of July and could take until November 2025 to complete, closing the new parking zone and surrounding affected areas.

The project comes in the midst of public transit feasibility discussions for Kananaskis Country and after a recreation use and experience study was conducted in the area from June through September in 2022.

The study’s purpose was to understand visitor distribution, use, and recreational experiences in the Highwood Pass corridor. Alberta Parks staff surveyed visitors at various day-use, parking and provincial recreation areas, and collected comments from 1,218 respondents.

Respondents predominantly said they were using area trails such as Ptarmigan Cirque, Arethusa and Pocaterra Ridge/Cirque, and travelled there with about two to 2.5 people per vehicle on average.

In every month surveyed, respondents suggested more parking to improve visitor experience, but most notably in September and at Highwood Meadows day-use area, coinciding with the onset of the busy larch hiking season.

In fall 2022, Alberta Parks staff shared the study results – which also included information on visitor demographics and activities – with Kananaskis Improvement District council.

Kananaskis west area manager Debbie Mucha told council at the time that “due to social media, due to the popularity of the outdoors and a variety of other reasons, the Highwood has become very, very popular.”

On average, Kananaskis Country sees about four million visitors annually.

“We’ve always had fairly steady use of the highway but it’s really gotten to a point where we really don’t know what to do with the highway anymore,” Mucha told KID council.

She likened larch season in the Highwood of Kananaskis – typically in late September through October – to a Black Friday sale at Walmart, “except it’s every weekend.”

Alberta Parks has been studying visitation patterns to inform a future visitor management strategy that supports the visitor experience while continuing to protect the region for future generations, including making decisions about parking and trailhead access.

The 2022 survey found a need to develop visitor use management strategies to address issues such as inadequate control of parking beyond lot size, insufficient facilities for current use and degradation of designated trails.

About 25 per cent of those surveyed during the busy larch season – when larch trees turn from green to gold – noted a lack of parking and 19 per cent commented on overcrowding.

Pocaterra Cirque, Ptarmigan Cirque and Arethusa Cirque are among some of the more popular larch season hikes in the area, and in fall 2022, Alberta Parks implemented additional parking controls in those areas along the Highwood Pass, with cars lining Highway 40 and parking in unofficial areas, including in ditches and on top of vegetation.

“The data from this survey helps understand existing recreation use and may be used to inform the planning and management of Crown land in the Highwood Pass area in the future,” the study noted.

Presenting the survey’s findings led to discussion around exploring public transit for the Highway 40 corridor as a potential answer to mounting vehicle congestion. Earlier this year, KID and the MD of Bighorn jointly hired Dillon Consulting to carry out a survey of residents and visitors on the subject, with results and a final transit plan expected to be presented to KID and MD councils in the fall.

According to Alberta Parks, upgrades to the Highwood Meadows day-use area will also include adding another washroom facility and additional waste collection areas to prevent littering, along with additional signage and wayfinding to help improve visitor experience. 

“The existing Highwood Meadows day-use area parking lot will have intermittent closures throughout the construction period to accommodate construction activities,” states an Alberta Parks advisory. 

The closure encompasses the new parking area, west of the current day-use area, as well as Highwood Meadows Interpretive Trail and west routes such as Pocaterra Cirque.

Intermittent closures are also expected throughout the construction period in the existing parking area and to Ptarmigan Cirque Trail. There will be no alternative access to Highwood Meadows Interpretative Trail.

Area closures aim to reduce visitor danger while contractors move heavy equipment, clear vegetation, and haul asphalt for paving, as outlined in the project’s scope of work.

Alberta Parks noted conservation officers will enforce the area closure under the Provincial Parks Act and advise the public to follow signage and not cross construction barriers for safety reasons.

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.

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