Where would you rather ski?

-Upper yellow of the Chester-Sawmill trails-

Chester-Sawmill vs Mt Shark

Chester-Sawmill trails

Chester-Sawmill trails

I don’t know how many of you have had the pleasure of skiing on the Chester-Sawmill trails when they were groomed and trackset. The last time any tracksetting was completed there was back in early 2008.

Skiing on the Chester-Sawmill trails in 2003

Skiing on the Chester-Sawmill trails in 2003

The 15K perimeter loop(consisting of the Yellow and Blue trails on the map) would easily be in my top 5 favourite places to ski. You can access them from Sawmill or Chester Lake parking lots. The drive from Calgary to Sawmill is about the same distance as Calgary to Elk Pass.

A couple years ago I posted my lament about the end of grooming on these trails, and received this comment from Steve Riggs:

“It was a favourite due to the long season, great views, and interesting fun skiing. Far more enjoyable for the recreational tourer than the fairly boring Shark system, which nobody that I know ever goes to.”

You can read the entire post and see more photos Smith-Dorrien trails. They were known as the Smith-Dorrien trails, but I think my present-day readers will have a better idea of their location by referring to them as Chester-Sawmill. 

The meadow on the upper yellow of the Smith-orrien trails

The meadow on the upper yellow of the Smith-Dorrien trails

In this era of budget cutbacks I can only fantasize that we may one day be able to ski on the Smith-Dorrien system. On the other hand, if climate change creates fewer skiing opportunities in places like Ribbon Creek and Pocaterra, wouldn’t it be nice to have this area, with its mega snowfall rejuvenated for track skiing?

Michael, Kathy and their dog Peyto

Mt Shark is dog-friendly

Ideally, it would be the best of both worlds to have both venues available to us, but I’d gladly trade the Mt Shark system for this one if I had to make the choice.

I realize that Mt Shark is one of the few places where the trails are groomed for skating, and where we can take our dogs. I’d miss the dog aspect.


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  1. As Chair of the Calgary Coalition of Seniors Outdoor Clubs and as an enthusiastic xc-skier I have 3 reasons for promoting a return of xc-skiing to the Sawmill / Chester Area.

    1st, the exceptionally warm winter we have just experienced will likely be repeated, so this high snowfall area is too valuable to be excluded from our limited xc-ski options.

    2nd, as with winter users in general, our clubs are now an even mix of skiers and snowshoers. We need to be able to accommodate BOTH user groups in the Sawmill / Chester Area. Fortunately this area can easily accommodate both types of trails — for implementation think West Bragg Creek ! This would also attract tourists via both Canmore and Mt. Engadine Lodge.

    3rd, this is a beautiful winter destination; I, like many others, have very fond memories of xc-skiing on the Sawmill trails with my family. A winter outing in the Sawmill / Chester Area evokes the same passion as does the Elk Pass / Blueberry / Tyrwitt area that we all love.

    Despite the rapid emergence of spring and the hiking / biking season, it is important that we collectively work to promote this initiative so that by next winter both xc-skiers as well as snowshoers can enjoy this area. Please tell your friends.

  2. I too miss skiing the Sawmill Trail System. It would of course require a lot of trail maintenance to trim back the trees and shrubs growing back along the old trails before grooming could start.

    • If you get enough volunteers and old farts (like me) going at it, then perhaps anything is possible (for better or worse ?).
      All I would need is a comfortable place to throw my sleeping bag and fire up the stove.

  3. This would have been the winter for a Sawmill revival, given the poor season at Ribbon, where there was no grooming for long periods. As I understand it though, the Sawmill system suffered in places from the 2013 deluge, and would also likely need some brushing out before it would be viable to run a groomer around the loops.

  4. I would love to volunteer to groom these trails, as Alf suggested. It has been on my To Do list to accompany a pisten bully driver sometime/somewhere and can only imagine the wild life one would see. Where can we enroll in “Groomer School”? CNC had a few “green” groomers this season and am sure they learned a ton about doing “more with less”. Up there, we’d have to learn how to do less with more. Maybe Yoho volunteer groomers have set us a great example. I’ll vote for Smith-Dorrien. I still covet my map from those great skiing days. p.s. Diana, I’d love to ski that Shark recreational loop with you sometime.

  5. Wow… you hit the nail on the head about the character and snow benefits of the Smith-Dorrien Trails. They came into being as groomed XC ski trails in response to a series of particularly poor snow years at places like Sandy McNabb, West Bragg Creek, Ribbon Creek and the Pocaterra-Elkwood half of the PLPP trails. The grooming there came to an end after a protracted period of cutbacks to Alberta Parks funding.
    The snowshoe designation of these trails came about in response to protests from trail users about the removal of the old colour coded trail markers. The idea was to at least keep the trails open and marked until Alberta Parks finally realized the value of this trail network.
    Perhaps it’s time to consider something like the West Bragg Creek model, where volunteers maintain and groom an entire trail system?
    One other piece of the puzzle is that the “High Rockies” portion of the Trans-Canada trail is being built through this area over the next 2 summers. The trail will link Goat Creek to Elk Pass, so conceivably it could come pretty close to linking Mt. Shark / Engadine Lodge / Rummel Lake / Chester Lake and even the PLPP trails together. Will the builders have the foresight to design the trail for 4-season use, given that the area is snow covered for 7 months of the year? We can only hope. It would be a waste of money to design it only for use in the short summer season.

  6. Smith-Dorrien-Chester-Sawmill-etc!
    These trails were the greatest!! So sad to lose them……. they have been given to the snowshoers, so there may be no going back. We skied the old blue loop last May, and found all the old colour-coded signs had vanished and been replaced by snowshoe trail signs.
    Mount Shark trails are for a completely different population of skiers – skaters should go there instead of PLPP! We do enjoy the old 15 km loop on occasion, with its brief “backcountry” excursion.

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