Abraham Lake, Alberta: Wild Ice and Wildlife on the Eastern Slopes of the Canadian Rockies

If you’re planning a trip to Alberta in winter, visiting the frozen bubbles of Lake Abraham and its surrounding wildlife is well worth it. Whether you are planning to travel on a full day, or a multi-day trip, Carol Patterson outlines how to best experience the most exciting things to do in this region.

The ice bubbles of Abraham Lake. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

Many people visit Banff and Jasper National Parks in the midst of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. But few wander over to the eastern slopes outside of the national parks, where wildlife and wild adventures are plentiful, even in winter. I wanted to see one of the area’s most popular winter draws–walking over the ice bubbles of Abraham Lake.

This 32-kilometre-long manmade reservoir has an abundance of rotting vegetation on the lake bottom that releases methane gas. As winter temps freeze the water, bubbles are trapped under ice and the strong winds that often whistle past Mount Michener polish the surface to an icy-blue sheen that attracts bubble seekers from around the world.

The Journey to Abraham Lake

I was looking for wildlife and wild horses as well as wild ice as I approached Abraham Lake from the east, driving the David Thompson Highway (Highway 11) from Rocky Mountain House. I started my search for bubbles at the east end of the reservoir at the Abraham Lake Ice Bubbles Viewpoint. Looking out over the ice, much of it was snow covered, so I carried on to Abraham Slabs camping area. A parking lot built in 2021 offered easy access to the lake and a pit latrine, a welcome amenity in this remote region.

A snow-covered Highway 11. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson.

The weather hovered just below freezing and the wind–so often whipping across the lake–was
still. I grabbed a broom as well as ice cleats and headed towards the lake where dozens of ice enthusiasts were walking, running, and laying, many of them posing for selfies.

I’d checked the Explore Nordegg website for ice conditions before leaving home, and as I got to the lake’s edge I looked for cracks, open water and holes. I also checked to see if the ice was holding up the people already on the lake. Everything looked good, so I stepped onto the ice, sweeping the snow away from some bubbles for a better look.

Walking over the ice I could see into the inky blue depths and delighted at lighter-coloured aquamarine hues with pillars of bubbles stacked atop each other. There were frozen white ribbons that looked like tree rings. I walked and swept, enjoying the different patterns weather and water had created.

Carol Patterson getting up close and personal with the ice bubbles of Abraham Lake. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

Watching Wild Creatures and Wild Horses

After playing on the ice, I drove further west on Highway 11 to Kootenay Plains Ecological Reserve. It’s a 34-square-kilometer area of grasslands and montane forest with rare plants, and the home of 76 bird and 49 mammal species.

It’s always harder to find animals in winter, but I kept looking, driving slowly and scanning the roadsides. I was rewarded as I crested a hill, a herd of bighorn sheep sprinting across the road and leaping up a rocky cliff. They stopped to watch me watching them, their brown eyes assessing my rock jumping skills and finding me no threat, they foraged among the dead grasses.

Bighorn scales the cliff above Highway 11. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

With the winter sun quickly disappearing, I headed back towards Rocky Mountain House for the
night and to plan the next day’s activities. A search for wild horses in the grasslands and forests
of the eastern slopes west of Sundre, a town located a 45-minute drive south of Rocky
Mountain House.

Deep in this wilderness, Parks Canada winters horses used by park rangers at Ya Ha Tinda Government Ranch. The ranch can be reached by driving 85 kilometres west of Sundre along gravel roads, but I wanted to see wild horses on the hillsides and grassy slopes along the way. These feral horses descend from animals once used in mining, forestry or farming but are now without owners. Alberta has approximately 1,400 wild horses and many of them live in the foothills west of Sundre.

I got up early, hoping the overnight snowfall wouldn’t make driving difficult, but realized my journey was easy compared to that of the horses. They must traipse through deep snow and paw for forage. Many of the very young and old don’t make it through winter. I scanned the aspen forests for the rich brown of a horse’s mane, but saw nothing until I reached the meadows near the Red Deer River. There I spotted a small herd returning from a morning drink.

Wild horses licking salt from the road. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

These horses see people often; in warm weather campers and off-road-vehicle users flood the
area. The equines will tolerate polite observation, but getting too close will push them away. I took my pictures and kept driving.

It turned out to be a good day also for birdwatching. I spotted a bald eagle hunting for ducks along the mostly frozen river, and a large flock of snow buntings picked at the naked branches of an aspen grove. I nibbled on a bagel as I admired the frosty landscape and the hardy critters that live on the eastern slopes. With many tourism facilities closed in winter, I knew my hot meal would come later, but I’d got my fill of wild ice and wild life. I headed for home, content with new memories from a mountainous region and a season few venture out into.

How to Get to the Eastern Slopes of the Canadian Rockies

An Eagle takes flight. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

To reach Abraham Lake you can approach from the east, driving 115 kilometres from Rocky Mountain House. “Rocky,” as it’s known to locals, is 215 kilometres southwest from Edmonton, or 200 kilometres northwest of Calgary. You can also access the lake from the Icefields Parkway, driving north 110 kilometres from Lake Louise or south 185 kilometres from Jasper.

For the best chance to see wild horses, drive west from Sundre, turning south on Coal Camp
Road and following Township Road 320 towards Ya Ha Tinda Ranch.

There is limited to no cell service in these areas, so plan your route in advance and take a
printed map. Check road and weather conditions before you set out.

Where to Stay in and Around Abraham Lake

The lodge at Panther River. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

In winter there aren’t many facilities open near Abraham Lake, and those that are usually require a two-night minimum stay. Visitors often make a day trip from Lake Louise. Other options include staying in Rocky Mountain House, a town of 6,600, with several hotel choices. I opted for Rocky Mountain House because of its location between Abraham Lake and the wild horses west of Sundre.

There are also several hotels in Sundre, so it’s possible to spend one night in Rocky Mountain House for proximity to Abraham Lake, and then switch to Sundre to look for horses. The Lodge at Panther River offers year-round accommodation in log cabins alongside the Red Deer River and often wild horses are found nearby.

Tips for Viewing the Bubbles on Abraham Lake

Sweeping for ice bubbles. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

Park carefully. Some parking lots are accessed by steep roads off Highway 11. With icy conditions, it can be hard to get back to the highway. The parking lot at Abraham Slabs camping area offers gentle slopes for your car (to the parking lot) and for you (onto the lake).

Make sure the ice is thick enough to hold your weight. Start by checking ice conditions and look for open water, or cracks in the ice. Carry poles and ropes in case you or someone else goes through the ice and needs rescue. If you’re not comfortable exploring on your own, hire one of the local guides for an escorted trip.

Rent ice cleats. The winter boots or ice grippers you use on city sidewalks won’t be good enough on lake ice. Avoid a fall with the right equipment. Bring a broom to sweep away snow for better pictures.

Renting ice cleats is highly recommended to best explore the frozen lake. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

Tips for Viewing Wild Horses

Drive slowly and watch for logging trucks. The eastern slopes are a multi-use area, so you may see logging or oil and gas equipment. Give way to large vehicles.

Remain in your vehicle if you encounter horses on the road. Your car can be a good blind for photography, as the horses will be less afraid of you. If you see horses further away, you can get out of your vehicle, but watch the horses to see if you are stressing them. If they change what they are doing or start to walk away, it’s a sign you’re too close.

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