Big Elbow Provincial Recreation Area

Sleep in a secluded mountain valley


A little tougher


Let’s face it – we all want to steal away for a weekend in the mountains. Big Elbow Provincial Recreation Area is just a short drive from Calgary, which makes it prime for your next backcountry camping spot. Chase the Elbow River upstream into a secluded mountain valley and sleep out under the stars to snap an envy-inducing Instagram pic. You know the one.

Big Elbow Provincial Recreation Area

Big Elbow Provincial Recreation Area

Get Directions

Driving time from Calgary

1 hour



Hiking trails


Planning your trip

Everything you need to navigate the trails

Make your reservation

Space is limited at backcountry campsites, and there’s nothing worse than coming in hard-worn from the trail to find there’s nowhere decent to pitch your tent. So before you even start packing your gear, book your site in advance.


The reservation fee at the Big Elbow Backcountry Campground is $12 and you can book over the phone. Don’t forget your backcountry permit, which you can request in person at the Elbow Valley Visitor Centre or obtain online. And since you’re heading into the backcountry, brush up on the 7 tips for hiking and camping responsibly.

Hit the trail

The most common starting point for the Elbow Loop Trail is Little Elbow Campground. Park in the campground parking lot and look for the trailhead a short distance to the west. This trail is popular for both hikers and mountain bikers; if you’re hiking, give yourself at least two days to complete the loop. Follow the old fireroad upstream along the Elbow River. You’ll come to a fork at about 4km in – continue straight along the west side of the river.

Hunker down for the night

After about two hours of hiking, you’ll reach Big Elbow Backcountry Campground. Find your site and set up camp. Get a campfire burning, prep some river water for drinking and relax in the shadow of Banded Peak. Listen to the wildlife as the forest goes to sleep (and you too).

Pack up and move out

If you’re content with a shorter expedition, you can hike back out to civilization along the Big Elbow Trail. But if you’re up a challenge, you can push on to tackle the remainder of the loop. From Big Elbow Campground, the trail continues up the Elbow River to a junction at Tombstone Backcountry Campground, where you could spend another night to break up the trek. From here, hike to join the Little Elbow Trail and wind your way back to Little Elbow Campground.

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