Kananaskis visitor demands prompt moves toward public transit, better planning

Ptarmigan Cirque is a popular hike in Kananaskis because of its family friendly loop. (Helen Pike/CBC - image credit)
Ptarmigan Cirque is a popular hike in Kananaskis because of its family friendly loop. (Helen Pike/CBC - image credit)

With ongoing visitor pressures in Kananaskis, officials in the region are looking to build up momentum to get ahead of traffic and parking problems, and better manage Alberta's crown jewel park.

Tourists like this part of the province because of its wild feel, lack of structure, and countless recreation options. But tourism advocates and officials believe Kananaskis needs structure to keep it sustainable and accessible for years to come.

To get ahead of continued traffic pressures, groups have come together to start conversations and studies that could add public transit options to the park that currently is only accessible for those with access to a private vehicle.

"What visitors to Kananaskis really love is the wilderness and untapped adventures you can have in Kananaskis," said Tourism Canmore Kananaskis CEO Rachel Ludwig. "While this works for now, I think we need to be better set up for growth in the region."

Back when the Kananaskis Conservation Pass was introduced, former Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon told reporters the daily, or annual, park entry fee for vehicles would encourage people to carpool.

Dave Gilson/CBC
Dave Gilson/CBC

The fee was a way to collect cash and fund more boots on the ground, and deal with issues like parking enforcement, overflowing garbage bins, and rescue organisations under pressure. But there were no immediate plans to launch a transit network.

"Other parks of this magnitude across North America have achieved incredible results by using different types of busing technology within the park, increasing parking lots," said Nixon on Apr. 27, 2021.

"The goal isn't to immediately overcome that. But to be able to start to build a foundation."

Record visitors, record problems

The Kananaskis region saw record visitation in 2020 of 5.4 million visits — up 70 per cent since 2017.

"That's 1 million more than Banff," Nixon said in 2021.

It was both a blessing and a curse.

"It has increased pressures on the land in a very big way," said Nixon.

While there are plans to connect Canmore's transit system to Grassi Lakes and nearby trailheads in 2024, there are currently no public transit options in the rest of the Kananaskis region. The province hasn't announced any transit plans or funding along Highway 40, which is described as the park's backbone.

"Effectively, a private vehicle is the only way to access what is Alberta's birthright," said Kananaskis Improvement District (KID) councillor Darren Enns. "I think that we have got a transportation issue in Kananaskis right now and I think it's important to get ahead of that."

This winter, councillors with KID have taken steps to start a conversation around public transit in the region by creating a transit committee. While some around the table wanted to move ahead with a summer transit pilot, Enns said the advice was to take a step back and begin with a feasibility study.

"Looking at levels of service, destinations," Enns said. "Funding is absolutely part of the feasibility study and a big question mark, quite frankly."

Mike Seehagel/Travel Alberta
Mike Seehagel/Travel Alberta

In other regions, like Banff and Canmore, transit is funded through public and private dollars. But the tax base in Kananaskis is small, according to the province's regional dashboard, about 280 people live there.

But those people play a key role in running Kananaskis attractions and businesses. Tourism Canmore Kananaskis CEO Rachel Ludwig said employers are having staffing issues, just like in Banff and Canmore.

"They are struggling to attract staff because of the remoteness of the location, so having transit there would definitely help," Ludwig said.

Alberta Parks has taken a look at Highwood Pass, one region in Kananaskis that has exploded over the past few years because of its fall attraction: larch hikes.

Helen Pike/CBC
Helen Pike/CBC

Tracking visitor patterns there, an official told CBC, will help inform future visitor management strategies for that ecologically sensitive destination.

"During larch season, thousands of Albertans head to trails in the area to experience the scenery and enjoy the outdoors," read a statement from the department of Forestry, Parks, and Tourism.

"Last fall, a number of measures were in place to support public safety including reduced speed limits, additional parking controls, and more staff deployed in the area."

In a presentation to KID councillors back in November, Alberta Parks outlined there are insufficient facilities for the current use in the Highwood Pass area.

Management plans outdated, tourism group says

Ludwig said many of the park's management plans need a refresh. A browse of the province's publicly-available documents shows many of the area plans were drafted more than 10 years ago.

"We would love to see a management plan for Kananaskis to give us a bit of direction in where we can sustainably enhance the visitor experience," Ludwig said. "Currently all of the Kananaskis Management plans are outdated."

These are early-day conversations, but are items councillors and tourism partners want to move on quickly.

Serving this region with transit will be a challenge, Enns said, one that may take partnership with the private sector and provincial government.