Crimson Lake

Basic Info
Map Sheets83B/6
Lat / Long52.4500000, -115.0333333
52°27'N, 115°1'W
Area2.32 km2
Max depth9.1 m
Mean depth2.2 m
Dr. Basin Area1.75 km2
Dam, WeirNone
Drainage BasinNorth Saskatchewan River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishNone
Trophic StatusMesotrophic
TP x18 µg/L
CHLORO x4.8 µg/L
TDS x144 mg/L
Photo credit: unknown


Crimson Lake is a small, clear, shallow lake attractively set in rolling, pine-covered hills; in the fall, the scenery is further enhanced by blazing orange tamaracks in low-lying areas. The lake can be reached by travelling 8 km west of Rocky Mountain House on Highway 11, then 7 km north on Secondary Road 756. A short access road leads to Crimson Lake Provincial Park (FIGURE 1). Crimson Lake was named by an early trapper for the spectacular sunsets he saw reflected in the water (Finlay and Finlay 1987).

Crimson Lake is located in the Municipal District of Clearwater, within the drainage basin of the North Saskatchewan River. This river, which flows 3 km east of the lake, was navigable by canoes and York boats as far as Rocky Mountain House and was the route that brought the fur trade to the area. Anthony Henday of the Hudson's Bay Company explored the area for its potential for furs in 1754; forty years later, nearby Rocky Mountain House was established as the most westerly fur-trading post in Canada at the time. Settlers arrived in the early 1900s, and in 1912, the Canadian Northern Railway crossed the area. By 1917, a small community and school had been established near Crimson Lake (Long 1977; Finlay and Finlay 1987).

In 1945, land surrounding Crimson Lake was reserved for a provincial park. A few years later, Pioneer Ranch Camp was established on the northeast shore (Long 1977). Crimson Lake Provincial Park, which was officially established in 1955, completely surrounds the lake. Facilities are open year-round and include a campground with 161 sites, a day-use area, tap water, public telephones, sewage disposal facilities and change houses (Alta. Hotel Assoc. 1988). There are two boat launches, one for canoes and hand-launched boats in the southeast corner of the lake and one with a concrete ramp farther north along the east shore (FIGURE 2). Very clear water and a clean natural sand beach make the area attractive for recreational use; up to 1,500 people have visited the lake on July weekends (Mitchell 1978). The lake is used for power boating, but propellers may become tangled in the dense aquatic vegetation growing in some areas. All boats are restricted from some posted areas and power boats are limited to speeds less than 12 km/hour in other posted areas (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988). The beach is popular and so are swimming and hiking. A large skating rink is kept cleared in the winter and a network of cross-country ski trails is maintained. There are no sport fish in the lake, as they would winterkill in most years. Some provincial park land along the southwest shore is leased for cottages (FIGURE 1); six cottages had been built by 1947, 102 had been built by 1977 (Long 1977) and none have been added since.

Drainage Basin Characteristics

The Crimson Lake drainage basin is a narrow band surrounding the lake (FIGURE 1). The basin is very small and covers less area than the lake itself (Tables 1, 2). The watershed is part of the Boreal Foothills Ecoregion, the ecoregion with the most diverse tree cover in Alberta (Strong and Leggat 1981). This diversity is typified in the Crimson Lake area, where trembling aspen, balsam poplar, paper birch, lodgepole pine, white spruce, black spruce and fir all occur on moderately well-drained sites. Both white and black spruce are successful in this area and both are potential climax species on the same site. Luvisolic soils have typically developed on moderately well-drained sites. Low or depressional areas are poorly drained and form Sphagnum bogs ringed with tamarack and black spruce, or sedge bogs ringed with willows. Soils in these poorly drained areas are Organics and Gleysols. This mix of vegetation creates a great variety of habitats; 266 species of vascular plants, including 13 orchid species, have been reported in the provincial park (Finlay and Finlay 1987).

Pockets of sand are common in the drainage basin and throughout the park. One natural-sand area occurs along the southeast shore of the lake and makes an attractive beach (Greenlee 1974).

There are no permanent inflowing or outflowing streams. Groundwater plays a significant role to maintain the water balance of Crimson Lake.

The drainage basin is entirely Crown land and lies entirely within Crimson Lake Provincial Park. Residential and recreational developments consist of the park campground and day-use areas, cottages on the southwest shore and Pioneer Ranch Camp on the northeast shore. There are a few active oil wells within the park.

Lake Basin Characteristics

Crimson Lake lies in a shallow, gently-sloping depression (FIGURE 2). Approximately 95% of the lake is less than 3-m deep; there is only one small area, about 0.5 ha, that extends to 9 m (FIGURE 3). Except for the sandy beach in the south portion, and some areas along the east shore, the bottom of the lake is covered by a deep layer of organic material. With most of the lake bottom in the littoral zone, macrophytes flourish and each year's growth adds another layer to the bottom ooze (Mitchell 1978).

It was noted in 1952 that the water level of Crimson Lake was relatively stable (Miller and Paetz 1953), but more recent records indicate a drop of about 0.9 m between 1965 and the late 1970s. Since then, the lake level has been relatively stable, with annual fluctuations of less than 0.25 m (FIGURE 4).

Water Quality

Crimson Lake has been monitored since 1982 under a joint sampling program between Alberta Environment and Alberta Recreation and Parks designed to document long-term patterns in lakes associated with provincial parks (Alta. Envir. n.d.fa]). The lake was also studied by Alberta Environment in 1978 to address the concerns of cottagers (Mitchell 1978).

Crimson Lake has excellent water quality. The water is fresh (total dissolved solids = 137 mg/L, TABLE 3) and clear and the Secchi depth frequently extends to the lake bottom-that is, to more than 3 m. The dominant ions are bicarbonate, calcium and magnesium.

During the open-water period, the water temperature is usually uniform from the lake surface to a depth of 4 m (FIGURE 5). Temperature profiles of the "deep hole" (9 m) were taken five times in the summer of 1978; in early May, late June and late July it was thermally stratified. Dissolved oxygen concentrations remained high all summer, with occasional depletion near depths of 4 m (FIGURE 5). In 1978, water in the deepest area was low in dissolved oxygen in May and June, anoxic in late July and partially reoxygenated by late August. Under ice cover, decay of organic debris on the lake bottom consumes oxygen, and the lake is often anoxic by late winter, as in March 1986 (FIGURE 5) and February 1978. In other years, however, such as 1987, there was still sufficient oxygen for fish survival in the top 3 m of the water column.

Algal growth in Crimson Lake is not conspicuous and does not create a problem for recreation. The low phosphorus and chlorophyll a concentrations throughout the summer (FIGURE 6) indicate the lake is mesotrophic. Data from 1984 and 1986 (TABLE 4) indicate that nutrient and chlorophyll a concentrations are fairly consistent from year to year.

A water quality study was conducted by Alberta Environment in 1978 to address concerns expressed by recreational users of the lake (Mitchell 1978). The main complaints regarded the abundance of leeches, the soft oozy bottom and the prolific growth of rooted aquatic plants. One solution proposed by cottagers was to divert a nearby creek to flush the lake. The report concluded that high nutrient levels in the diverted creek water would increase phosphorus loading to the lake and could result in blue-green algal blooms and a shift in the trophic status of the lake to eutrophic. Therefore, a decision was made to maintain the lake in its present state.

Biological Characteristics


There are no data available on phytoplankton species in Crimson Lake.

Most of Crimson Lake supports luxuriant macrophyte growth. A survey by Alberta Environment in 1978 found that white-stem pondweed (Potamogeton praelongus), the most widespread species, dominated most of the lake (TABLE 5, FIGURE 7).


During a brief survey in 1952, Miller and Paetz found almost no benthic invertebrates to a depth of 2 m; slightly more were found at 3.5 m and 6.5 m (Miller and Paetz 1953). A single plankton haul collected rotifers (Keratella [= Anuraea sp.], Polyarthra sp. and Asplanchna sp.) and crustaceans (Diacyclops bicuspidatus thomasi, Diaptomus sp., Daphnia pulex and Bosmina sp.). Free-swimming macroinvertebrates were abundant, including Gammarus lacustris and horsehair worms (Gordius sp.) in "tremendous numbers". Large clams (Anodonta sp.) were found in the sand.

Crimson Lake is notorious for its leech population. In 1952 there were "thousands everywhere in the lake, swimming between surface and bottom" (Miller and Paetz 1953). Other large species burrow in the sand at the water's edge. Most species in the lake feed on other invertebrates or detritus and are harmless to man, but there are some blood-sucking varieties (Mitchell 1978).


The only fish in Crimson Lake are two species noted for their tolerance of low dissolved oxygen concentrations: brook sticklebacks and fathead minnows (Miller and Paetz 1953; Kraft 1988).

Yellow perch were introduced into Crimson Lake in 1950. They did not establish a reproducing population and probably succumbed to winterkill (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). In 1952, Miller and Paetz (1953) concluded that Crimson Lake was "useless for fish", except possibly as a put-and-take fishery, where fairly large sport fish are introduced in the spring and harvested before freeze-up. This approach to a managed fishery was tried by Alberta Fish and Wildlife from 1952 to 1957. Rainbow trout fingerlings were introduced each spring and grew well over the summer. However, catch rates were low and most of the fish remained uncaught and died in the winter (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). The lake is too large to stock with trout of catchable size-many fish would be required to ensure a reasonable catch rate, and losses from winterkill would be substantial.


At Crimson Lake, lodgepole pine forests typical of the lower foothills are interspersed with bog vegetation typical of boreal forests to the north and with aspen woodlands typical of the aspen parkland. With this variety of habitats, the wildlife is also diverse. Over 100 species of birds have been seen in the provincial park, including nesting Sandhill Cranes, Mourning Doves, Pygmy Owls and Boreal Owls. Common Loons nest on Crimson Lake, as do Mallards, teal, and Common Goldeneye.

Thirty-one species of mammals inhabit the park, including wolves, black bears and mink. The loud songs of frogs can be heard in the spring; amphibian species include western and Dakota toads and chorus, wood and leopard frogs. The two reptile species present are western and common garter snakes (Finlay and Finlay 1987).

J.M. Crosby


Alberta Environment. n.d.[a]. Envir. Assess. Div., Envir. Qlty. Monit. Br. Unpubl. data, Edmonton.

-----. n.d.[b]. Tech. Serv. Div., Hydrol. Br. Unpubl. data, Edmonton.

-----. n.d.[c]. Tech. Serv. Div., Surv. Br. Unpubl. data, Edmonton.

Alberta Forestry, Lands and Wildlife. n.d. Fish Wild. Div. Unpubl. data, Edmonton.

-----. 1988. Boating in Alberta. Fish Wild. Div., Edmonton.

Alberta Hotel Association. 1988. 1988 Alberta campground guide. Prep. for Travel Alta., Edmonton.

Alberta Research Council. 1972. Geological map of Alberta. Nat. Resour. Div., Alta. Geol. Surv., Edmonton.

Energy, Mines and Resources Canada. 1979. National topographic series 1:50 000 83B/6 (1979). Surv. Map. Br., Ottawa.

Environment Canada. 1982. Canadian climate normals, Vol. 7: Bright sunshine (1951-1980). Prep. by Atm. Envir. Serv. Supply Serv. Can., Ottawa.

Finlay, J. and C. Finlay. 1987. Parks in Alberta: A guide to peaks, ponds, parklands & prairies. Hurtig Publ., Edmonton.

Greenlee, G.M. 1974. Soil survey of Crimson Lake Provincial Park and interpretation for use. Alta. Inst. Pedol. Rep. No. M-74-15. Alta. Res. Counc., Edmonton.

Kraft, M. 1988. Alta. For. Ld. Wild., Fish Wild. Div., Rocky Mountain House. Pers. comm.

Long, L. 1977. The Atwaters, p. 312. In F. Fleming [ed.] The days before yesterday - History of Rocky Mountain House district. Rocky Mountain House Reunion Hist. Soc., Rocky Mountain House.

Miller, R.B. and M. Paetz. 1953. Preliminary biological surveys of Alberta watersheds 1950-1952. Alta. Ld. For., Fish Wild. Div., Edmonton.

Mitchell, P.A. 1978. Assessment of the potential for improving water quality in Crimson Lake. Alta. Envir., Poll. Control. Div., Water Qlty. Contr. Br., Edmonton.

Strong, W.L. and K.R. Leggat. 1981. Ecoregions of Alberta. Alta. En. Nat. Resour., Resour. Eval. Plan. Div., Edmonton.