Sylvan Lake

The contents of this online version has not been altered or modified from the original 1990 publication. It is reasonable to assume that much of the data e.g. water levels, camp grounds/boat launches, etc. is out of date. For updated or additional information on any of the lakes in this atlas please go to Environment Alberta's water web site.

Basic Info
Map Sheets83B/8
Lat / Long52.3000000, -114.1000000
52°17'N, 114°5'W
Area42.8 km2
Max depth18.3 m
Mean depth9.6 m
Dr. Basin Area102 km2
Dam, WeirNone
Drainage BasinRed Deer River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishLake Whitefish, Northern Pike, Walleye, Yellow Perch
Trophic StatusMesotrophic
TP x20 µg/L
CHLORO x3.8 µg/L
TDS x357 mg/L
Photo credit: unknown


Sylvan Lake is a large, beautiful lake lying in a shallow basin just west of the city of Red Deer. Its clear water, sandy beaches and proximity to Edmonton, Red Deer and Calgary make it one of the most popular recreational lakes in Alberta. To reach the east end of the lake, the town of Sylvan Lake and Sylvan Lake Provincial Park, travel west from Red Deer on Highway 11A for 15 km. Highway 11A continues westward on the south side of the lake and Highway 20 provides access to Jarvis Bay Provincial Park on the northeast shore (FIGURE 1). Sylvan Lake includes portions of the counties of Lacombe and Red Deer.

When the first settlers arrived at Sylvan Lake in 1899, the lake was named Snake Lake from the Indian name Kinabik, which referred to the numerous garter snakes in the area. The name was officially changed to Sylvan Lake in 1903 (Gaetz 1948). "Sylvan" is from the Latin sylvanus, which means "of a forest".

By 1904, the first cottages, a hotel, a store and a post office had been built at the southeast end of the lake and the area started to become a summer resort (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.; Gaetz 1948). A lumber mill operated near the lake in the early 1900s and the forest gradually disappeared as trees were cut for lumber. By 1923, there were 185 permanent residents in the village of Sylvan Lake; this number had grown to 700 by 1934 (Dawe n.d.) and 3,937 in 1988 (T. Sylvan L. 1988). The first cottage subdivision was started in 1932 (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.). The same year, Sylvan Lake Provincial Park was established on the shore of the lake near the town. Provincial park status was removed in 1966 and the park was operated by the municipality until 1980, when it was reinstated as a provincial park (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.). A second area, Jarvis Bay Provincial Park, was established in 1965 to provide camping facilities on the lake.

Sylvan Lake Provincial Park covers 85 ha and includes a portion of the lake and a narrow strip of beautiful sandy beach between the lake and Highway 11A, which borders the town of Sylvan Lake (FIGURE 2). Picnic tables, tap water, change houses, public telephones, playgrounds and a pier are all provided. Boat traffic is prohibited along most of the sand beach and along the northern portion of the park, boat speed is restricted to 12 km/hour (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988). Jarvis Bay Provincial Park is located on Highway 20, 7 km north of the town of Sylvan Lake. It provides 167 campsites, tap water, showers, hiking trails and a public telephone, but there is no beach or boat launch. Access on the north shore is provided at a day-use area operated by a group of citizens, the North Sylvan Public Access Association. Facilities include a concrete boat launch and picnic tables. There are seven privately owned campgrounds within 2 km of the town of Sylvan Lake. The town includes a marina, boat rental businesses, a waterslide and numerous hotels and restaurants. There is a boat launch at the marina, for which a fee is charged, and there are several access points for small boats around the lakeshore.

The shore of Sylvan Lake is quite intensively developed. There are four summer villages, the town of Sylvan Lake and six subdivisions on the lake. In 1977, the cottage density was estimated to be 33 cottages per km of shoreline (MTB Consult. Ltd. 1982). Approximately 16% of the shoreline, including road allowances, is Crown land (FIGURE 2), 11% is occupied by 9 institutional camps and 73% is private land (Red Deer Reg. Plan. Commis. 1985). Sylvan Lake Natural Area is an 11-ha area on the northwest shore of the lake where a small portion of the shore is protected in its natural state (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1987).

Sylvan Lake has clear water, little algal growth and few areas of dense aquatic macrophytes. Although summerkills occur occasionally, the lake supports a popular year-round sport fishery for pike, perch and, in recent years, walleye. Provincial sport fishing regulations apply to Sylvan Lake; no fishing is permitted in the lake or any tributaries or the outlet stream for a designated period in April and May (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989).

Drainage Basin Characteristics

The drainage basin of Sylvan Lake is only 2.5 times the area of the lake (Tables 1, 2). The basin includes an area of rolling hills to the northwest that decline gently to undulating to flat terrain at the east end of the lake. The lake lies in a preglacial valley, which slopes toward the southeast. Bedrock, of the Paskapoo Formation (TABLE 1), is less than 15 m below the surface over most of the area and strongly influences landforms north of the lake, where it is often within 1 m of the surface. The glacial till southeast of the lake is up to 60-m deep (Pedocan Ld. Eval. Ltd. 1985). The dominant soils in the watershed are Orthic Gray Luvisols developed on weakly calcareous glacial till. The soils around Sylvan Lake are in a transitional zone from Black Chernozemics south of the lake to Gray Luvisols north of the lake. There is a small area of Chernozemic soils off the northwest end of the lake and a pocket of Organic soils and peat in the Sylvan Lake Natural Area (Peters and Bowser 1960; Pedocan Ld. Eval. Ltd. 1985).

Most of the drainage basin was originally forested with trembling aspen (Strong and Leggat 1981). Now, some forest areas remain close to the lake, but approximately 90% of the drainage basin has been cleared for agriculture (FIGURE 1). Cereal grain, canola production and mixed farming are the main land uses.

Lake Basin Characteristics

Sylvan Lake is a single rectangular basin that is 13.2-km long and 3.2-km wide (FIGURE 2). The lake bottom slopes very gently at the southeast end but more steeply along the northeast and southwest sides. The lake bottom is generally flat, with a small area at the centre declining to the lake's maximum depth of 18.3 m (FIGURE 2). At an elevation of 936.5 m, 20% of the lake is occupied by the littoral zone (FIGURE 3), which is less than 3.5-m deep.

The lake's shoreline is mostly sand or a mixture of rock and gravel (Jones et al. 1976), but the bottom is soft in sheltered bays. Vertical sandstone banks rise to a height of 20 m along the northeast shore (Strome 1978). As with most Alberta lakes, the substrate in deeper water is soft organic-based ooze.

The inflowing streams flow only intermittently. The outlet stream flowed during part of only three years between 1955 and 1976; it enters Cygnet Lake (FIGURE 1), then flows southeast to the Red Deer River. Sylvan Lake is also supplied by numerous submerged springs (Red Deer Reg. Plan. Commis. 1977; Stolte and Herrington 1980).

The water level of Sylvan Lake is quite stable; from 1957 to 1987 the range was only 0.7 m. The present water levels are similar to levels recorded between 1918 and 1941 (FIGURE 4).

Water Quality

The water quality in Sylvan Lake is monitored jointly by Alberta Environment and Alberta Recreation and Parks. As well, temperature profiles were taken on 10 dates between May and October in 1973 and 1974 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]).

Sylvan Lake is a well-buffered, freshwater lake; its dominant ions are bicarbonate, sodium and magnesium (TABLE 3). The high sodium and magnesium concentrations support the concept of substantial groundwater inflow. The lake, which is large and exposed to winds, was well-mixed when sampled in August of 1984 and 1985 (FIGURE 5). In 1974, the lake was weakly thermally stratified on 11 June and 2 and 30 July, but was well mixed on all other dates. In 1974, dissolved oxygen was measured only on 30 July; at this time the concentration from the surface to a depth of 12 m was greater than 8 mg/L; at 15 m (bottom) it was 1.5 mg/L. In winter, dissolved oxygen depletion is apparent below a depth of about 8 m; in March 1986, the water was anoxic within 1 m of the substrate at a depth of 16 m (FIGURE 5).

Sylvan Lake is mesotrophic. Changes in phosphorus and chlorophyll a concentrations in Sylvan Lake over the summer are similar to those in other well-mixed lakes in Alberta. The phosphorus concentration peaks in August and the chlorophyll a concentration peaks in late August or September (FIGURE 6). The average concentrations of phosphorus and chlorophyll a are relatively low (TABLE 4) and the water is clear (Secchi depths are rarely less than 4 m).

Biological Characteristics


The composition and abundance of phytoplankton in Sylvan Lake were studied in July and August 1976 during an Alberta Environment planning study (TABLE 5). Seventy-four species were identified. Throughout July and early August the phytoplankton community was dominated by golden-brown algae (Chrysophyta). In late August, blue-green algae (Cyanophyta), particularly Aphanizomenon flos-aquae, were very abundant. Colonies of the blue-green alga Nostoc sp. were commonly observed rolling in shallow water like green grapes on the sand.

Aquatic macrophytes were surveyed in July and August 1976 during a fisheries study for Alberta Environment (Jones et al. 1976). Macrophytes occurred in patches in sheltered areas around the lake and grew densely in the northwest end. The most common emergent species were bulrush (Scirpus sp.) and common cattail (Typha latifolia). Submergent macrophytes, which grew to a depth of 3.5 m, included pondweeds (Potamogeton spp.), water buttercup (Ranunculus circinata), Canada waterweed (Elodea canadensis) and the macroalga stonewort (Chara sp.). Aquatic vegetation is not a problem for lake users in most areas; in fact, the lack of cover has been thought to limit spawning areas for pike (Miller 1942; Jones et al. 1976).


There are no data on the zooplankton in Sylvan Lake.

Benthic invertebrates were sampled in July 1976 by a consultant for Alberta Environment (TABLE 6). The dominant organism in the littoral zone was the amphipod Hyalella azteca; in some vegetated areas it reached densities of up to 12,000 animals/m2 and represented 92% of the invertebrate community. The dominant invertebrates in the profundal zone were midge larvae (Chironomidae), which made up over half of the community. Sphaeriid clams (Pelecypoda) were abundant in both the profundal and littoral regions. Earlier accounts from 1939 and 1942 mentioned the abundance of both clams and snails in Sylvan Lake (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.; Miller 1942). In 1946, the snails Lymnaea stagnalis and Physa sp. from the Sylvan Lake pier area were infected with tiny immature forms of a parasitic worm, called cercaria, which can cause "swimmer's itch" (Miller 1946). Blue-green algae can also cause skin irritation in some people. Swimmer's itch occurs periodically in Sylvan Lake, particularly during warm, sunny summers (Smith 1988).


There are at least seven species of fish in Sylvan Lake. Northern pike are indigenous to the lake and support an active year-round sport fishery. Yellow perch were introduced annually to the lake by Fish and Wildlife Division from 1940 to 1945 (Hunt 1978). They are now a self-sustaining population; individuals grow to an admirable size and are a very popular target for anglers, particularly during winter (TABLE 7). In 1986, Alberta angling records reported that an exceptionally large perch of 53 cm and 1.6 kg was taken from Sylvan Lake. Walleye were stocked in 1926, 1929, 1934, 1938, 1943, 1945 and from 1960 to 1963. They have now established a self-sustaining population and contribute to the sport fishery (Lowe 1988). Burbot are also caught by anglers. Lake trout were stocked in 1943 and 1944 but none survived. Spottail shiners were stocked from 1942 to 1945 to increase the forage fish population. Native forage species likely include brook stickleback and fathead minnows (Lowe 1988). In 1987 and 1988, a total of 3,445 adult lake whitefish from Pigeon Lake were stocked in Sylvan Lake to provide a forage species for walleye and northern pike and eventually to contribute to winter sport fishing. It will be the early 1990s before it is known whether they have become successfully established (Lowe 1988). There is no commercial or domestic fishery on Sylvan Lake.

Summerkills of young perch occasionally occur in the shallow bays of Sylvan Lake (Smith 1988). In 1976, 100 to 200 dead young-of-the-year perch were found along a portion of the north shore of the lake; it was estimated that a total of 100,000 were killed at that time (Jones et al. 1976). No winterkills have been reported.

The abundance of fish in Sylvan Lake is thought to be limited by a shortage of weed beds, a lack of cover and a shortage of spawning grounds (Miller 1942; Jones et al. 1976). In the early 1940s, projects to improve habitat included building underwater brush shelters (Miller 1942).


Sylvan Lake has few areas that are suitable for breeding or nesting waterfowl or for other aquatic wildlife (Red Deer Reg. Plan. Commis. 1977; Strome 1978). In most areas the shore is too steep or has been altered by human use. However, Cygnet Lake, 2 km downstream of Sylvan Lake, provides excellent waterfowl habitat. A control structure was built on Cygnet Lake in 1975/76 and habitat improvement was undertaken by Ducks Unlimited (Canada). An agreement was made in 1976 between Alberta Environment and Alberta Recreation, Parks and Wildlife to maintain the water level of Cygnet Lake with necessary deficits to be made up with water from Sylvan Lake. A 1978 study concluded that release of water from Sylvan Lake to Cygnet Lake could compromise recreational use of Sylvan Lake, so no releases have been made (Strome 1978). The Sylvan Lake Natural Area, at the northwest end of the lake, provides excellent birdwatching in upland habitat, along the shoreline and in marshes.

J.M. Crosby


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

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

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Dawe, R.W. n.d. History of Red Deer, Alberta. Kiwanis Club of Red Deer, Red Deer.

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

Gaetz, A.L. 1948. The Park Country: A history of Red Deer and district. A.L. Gaetz, Red Deer.

Hunt, C. 1978. Evaluation of walleye planting: Sylvan Lake. Alta. Rec. Parks Wild., Fish Wild. Div., Red Deer.

Jones, M.L., J.D. Beste and P.T. Tsui. 1976. Sylvan Lake stabilization study: Fisheries report. Prep. by Aquat. Envir. Ltd. for Alta. Envir., Plan. Div., Edmonton.

Lowe, D. 1988. Alta. For. Ld. Wild., Fish Wild. Div., Red Deer. Pers. comm.

Miller, R.B. 1942. Biological survey of Sylvan Lake, Alberta. Alta. Ld. Mines, Fish Game Admin., Edmonton.

-----. 1946. Swimmers itch at Sylvan Lake, Alberta. Alta. Ld. Mines, Fish Game Admin., Edmonton.

MTB Consultants Ltd. 1982. Dickson Reservoir: Recreation planning study. Prep. for Alta. Envir., Plan. Br., Edmonton.

Pedocan Land Evaluation Ltd. 1985. Soil survey and land suitability evaluation of the Sylvan Lake area. Prep. for Alta. Envir., Envir. Assess. Div., Edmonton.

Peters, T.W. and W.E. Bowser. 1960. Soil survey of the Rocky Mountain House sheet. Alta. Soil Surv. Rep. No. 19, Univ. Alta. Bull. No. SS-1. Univ. Alta., Edmonton.

Red Deer Regional Planning Commission. 1977. Sylvan Lake management plan: A summary statement. Reg. Plan. Res. Sec., Red Deer.

-----. 1985. Sylvan Lake shoreline access study: Background information. Reg. Plan. Res. Sec., Red Deer.

Smith, T. 1988. Alta. For. Ld. Wild., Fish Wild. Div., Red Deer. Pers. comm.

Stolte, W.1. and R. Herrington. 1980. A study of the hydrologic regime of the Battle River Basin. Rep. No. RMD-80/4. Prep. for Alta. Envir., Res. Mgt. Div., Edmonton by Dept. Civil Eng., Univ. Sask., Saskatoon.

Strome, A.R. 1978. Sylvan Lake regulation study. Alta. Envir., Plan. Div., Edmonton.

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

Town of Sylvan Lake. 1988. Town office, Sylvan L. Pers. comm.