Friday, July 21, 2017

Find us in the River - Camp Life at Writing on Stone Provincial Park

We decided to plan a long weekend camping trip to Writing on Stone Provincial Park over the Canada Day weekend at the beginning of July. With a 3.5 to 4 hour drive from Calgary, it was an ideal destination for a three-night getaway, and we wanted to spend two days paddling on the Milk River.

Camp Life at Writing on Stone Provincial Park on the Milk River

Our plans for the weekend included two days kayaking and stand up paddleboarding on the Milk River, lots of hiking through the hoodoos and badlands scenery, and a guided tour to see the first nations rock art that has made this park a national historic site.

Hiking in Writing on Stone Provincial Park

Making the Most of a Summer Scorcher - IN the River

What we didn't know when we booked our trip was that it would be 30+ degrees Celsius the whole time we were at Writing on Stone, and that we'd pretty much spend our whole weekend IN the river. It was too hot to be on the river, to spend much time hiking through the badlands, or to take a walking tour. While we still tried to get out for some hikes, and we committed to the tour we'd booked, our favourite highlights were the hours we spent swimming in the river.

Beach life at Writing on Stone Provincial Park

We now know how awesome this campground is for those hot "summer scorchers," and the beach at Writing on Stone has become our new favourite beach in Alberta. We had swim noodles with us and spent a lot of time floating down the gentle river from one end of the beach to the other. The kids also loved the sand and mud at the beach.

Surviving a summer scorcher at the Writing on Stone Beach

While it would have been fun to have been able to spend more time hiking, we loved swimming and floating down the Milk River, playing in the mud, and chilling at the beach. This is how summer camping trips become GREAT and we'll be back for sure!

Floating from one end of the beach to the other with the gentle river current

Paddling the Milk River

We spent two half-days leisurely floating down the Milk River through spectacular sandstone cliffs. We watched cliff sparrows flying out of their nests along the rivers, we stopped to swim and to play in the mud, and we tested just how many different kinds of vessels we could send down the river.

Stand up paddleboarding down the Milk River past Sandstone cliffs

In two days of paddling, we used a combination of  stand up paddleboards, kayaks, canoes, and tubes. All worked well, but the tubes were definitely the slowest. Aim to have somebody towing kids in tubes if you want to go this route.

This is a great river for kids learning to paddle!

Writing on Stone Campground to Deer Creek Bridge

This was a short 8 km float and was well suited to novice paddlers. We had kids floating in tubes, one paddling his own sit on top kayak, and a mom navigating her first river on a stand up paddleboard. Nobody had any problems, and there were only a couple of "rough" sections where we passed over a few mild rapids/riffles. The tubes were fine and nobody tipped.

River life in Writing on Stone Provincial Park

Expect 3 hours on the river if you want to stop lots and if you aren't paddling much. (Especially if you have tubes with you.)

Relaxing  floating from camp to the Deer Creek Bridge on the Milk River

Weir Bridge to Writing on Stone Campground

This was a 10 km paddle according to maps in the campground and I can't really recommend doing this stretch in tubes. It's best done with an actual boat that you can steer. There were a few sweepers, one side channel you really wouldn't have wanted to go down by mistake, some rough sections with small rapids, and shallow patches with rocks.

Canoeing the Milk River from the Weir Bridge to Writing on Stone

 We did fine on stand up paddleboards but you couldn't just float blindly down the river. The kids also did fine in their own kayaks but a bit of experience paddling on a river would be recommended.  Still, it was a great river trip for novice paddlers wanting to try some easy moving water.

Kids kayaking down the Milk River to Writing on Stone Provincial Park

Both of our paddles took us roughly 3 to 4 hours because we stopped a lot. We also didn't hurry, and we floated a lot.

Weir Bridge to Writing on Stone Provincial Park

Floating the River through the Writing on Stone Campground 

When we weren't paddling down the river, we still enjoyed floating through camp in tubes. The camp store sells small tubes (or bring your own,) and you can jump in at the top of the campground by the playground. Float down to the beach in a leisurely 10 minute float, and then repeat. This could amuse kids ALL day long.

Floating down the river through the campground at Writing on Stone

Hiking through the Badlands in the Writing on Stone Campground

We hiked two trails while camping at Writing on Stone and tried to make sure we were on the trails early in the morning or later in the evening to avoid some of the heat.

Lookout over the Milk River Valley from the Hoodoo Trail in Writing on Stone Provincial Park

The Hoodoo Trail

This trail starts at the Group Campground by the playground and is 2.2 km in length (one way.)

"The Hoodoo Trail winds through various landscapes - hoodoos, sandstone cliffs and rock art, upland prairie grasslands, the Milk River valley and coulees. The trail has undulating terrain, stairs and steep sections. The trail can be very hot. Be sure to wear a hat and carry water. Please stay on the trail. This trail is NOT stroller or wheelchair accessible." (Alberta Parks)

The trail leads you to the Battle Scene viewpoint where you can see native rock art, protected behind a cage. To see more rock art, and to get closer to the petroglyphs and pictographs, you'll need to take a guided tour into the private reserve.

Fascinating scenery on the Hoodoo Trail in Writing on Stone Provincial Park

The Visitor Centre Trail

Scrambling around on the Visitor Centre Trail
This trail starts beside the campground store and takes you up to the visitor centre on a steep trail with plenty of opportunities for scrambling in the hoodoos.

We like this trail because families can climb and scramble all over the cliffs, play in secret little coulees, and explore the rugged terrain. I do encourage caution though with young kids because the rock is slippery. My son has taken a couple of falls while here.

Our Guided Rock Art Tour

This was the third hike that we took, and this one allowed us to go inside the private reserve. I'll be honest and say that we preferred our guided tour in Dinosaur Provincial Park, finding it to be more interesting for children. The rock art tour seemed to appeal to adults with an interest in history and ancient culture.

A friend took the tour and enjoyed it with her children, but they were the only people signed up for their tour, allowing the guide to move at a faster pace. Our tour group was larger and we stopped for at least 10 - 15 minutes at each wall to discuss the rock art, a pace that was too slow for the kids in our group.

I am happy that we got to see some of the ancient petroglyphs and pictographs though, and did find that we got a deeper appreciation for this fascinating park and it's rick history.

Ancient First Nations Rock Art in the Private Reserve


Want to Visit Writing on Stone Provincial Park with your Family?

Visit the Alberta Parks website for more information on camping, hiking, and exploring in Writing on Stone Provincial Park

You can also read my previous story from our last visit a few years ago:  Camping in Writing on Stone Provincial Park. 

Reservations for camping can be made on line. Guided Tours can also be booked on line.

Finally, the campground also offers comfort camping if you'd rather camp in a canvas wall tent.  Comfort campsites can be booked on the reservation site along with regular campsites.

There are also two group sites here if you'd like to camp with a group of 5+ families.

Playing in the hoodoos along the Visitor Centre Trail

Disclaimer: I am an Alberta Parks Ambassador and receive free camping and guided tours. As always, all opinions are my own.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Moms' Comfort Camping Adventure at Sundance Lodges

I've wanted to do an overnight "moms and kids trip" for a couple of years now but challenges have always gotten in the way. Backpacking was out because I don't have the strength to carry gear for two people into a backcountry campground, and while regular camping was the easier option, I've really come to like my trailer (which I can't tow on my own.)

Moms' Comfort Camping Adventure at Sundance Lodges (Rockies Family Adventures)
An overnight trip I can handle on my own at Sundance Lodges, Kananaskis

Sundance Lodges in Kananaskis - Solo "Mom Trip" Perfection

Moms' Comfort Camping Adventure at Sundance Lodges (Rockies Family Adventures)
One of the tipis at Sundance Lodges
I've always wanted to stay at Sundance Lodges in Kananaskis and decided it just might be the perfect overnight summer trip that I could do solo with my son. 

Sundance Lodges is a private campground offering comfort camping options in the form of canvas walled trappers tents and canvas tipis. I figured if we stayed in one of the trappers tents, it would make for a very easy camping experience. We'd still be camping without having to haul the trailer out on my own and we'd get to sleep in a tent (which my son would love as a change of pace from the trailer.)

I invited a girlfriend and her daughter to join us for a night at Sundance Lodges and our plan was set into motion for a moms and kids overnight mountain trip. We even planned a very ambitious hike for the following day and my friend lined up child care for her younger son.

As a bonus, we'd get this great camping experience from a campground we could drive up to in a short 45 minute trip from Calgary! We'd save our hiking adventures for the next day when we could travel light with day packs.

Sundance Lodges Takes Most of the Work out of Camping 

We showed up at Sundance Lodges late afternoon and brought a very simple dinner with us that would involve no cooking. My friend brought a rotisserie chicken with her and I brought wraps and some veggies. Chicken burritos were served in minutes and we never needed to pull out a camp stove.

We took "lazy" to a whole new level after that and packed up all of our dishes to take home and wash the next day. After all, it was only one night!

Entertainment was easy with the beaver ponds day use area next door. A short walk took us over to a creek where the kids happily played in the shallow water.

Moms' Comfort Camping Adventure at Sundance Lodges (Rockies Family Adventures)
Playing in the creek at the Beaver Ponds, Sundance Lodges

We went back to camp and made a small fire, roasted a few marshmallows, and went to bed - in our tent that was already set up for us when we arrived! My girlfriend is a regular tent-camper and said it was the easiest camping trip she'd ever done. No tent to set up, no mattresses to blow up, and no set up of any kind at all. You won't even need a screen tent because there's a lovely canvas awning in front of the tent with a picnic table underneath in case it rains.

Moms' Comfort Camping Adventure at Sundance Lodges (Rockies Family Adventures)
Camping at Sundance Lodges with our cozy trappers tent

Our tent had a double bed and two single beds in it (all with vinyl mattresses.) Bring sleeping bags and you're good to go. There was also a heater inside which we should have honestly used because it gets chilly in Kananaskis at night.

The next morning we built a small fire to warm up, had a simple breakfast of cinnamon buns and fruit (no cooking being a goal on our short trip,) packed up our dishes again to wash at home, and then headed out for our day hike.

Moms' Comfort Camping Adventure at Sundance Lodges (Rockies Family Adventures)
A look at the inside of our trappers tent at Sundance Lodges

It was the easiest camping trip ever.

And the kids have asked for a repeat trip next summer. Success!!

Moms' Comfort Camping Adventure at Sundance Lodges (Rockies Family Adventures)
Morning at camp. Experience EASY camping at Sundance Lodges in Kananaskis

A Beautiful Area for a Campground 

Whether you want to try comfort camping in a trappers tent or in a tipi, you want to bring your own tent, or you want to bring your trailer, Sundance Lodges has options for all styles of camping.

Sundance Lodges has over 20 trappers tents, over 10 tipis, and over 25 normal campsites.

Sundance Lodges is located in Evan Thomas Provincial Recreation Area along Highway 40, minutes away from Kananaskis Village.  It is set beside the Kananaskis River which is ideal for evening or morning walks!

Moms' Comfort Camping Adventure at Sundance Lodges (Rockies Family Adventures)
Sundance Lodges is located beside the scenic Kananaskis River

In the nearby vicinity you can find the following areas to explore:

Moms' Comfort Camping Adventure at Sundance Lodges (Rockies Family Adventures)
Beaver Ponds Day Use Area, Sundance Lodges

Moms' Comfort Camping Adventure at Sundance Lodges (Rockies Family Adventures)
Playing in the Beaver Ponds at Sundance Lodges

And if you want to read about the hike we did after staying overnight at Sundance Lodges, this is the epic trip report from our hike up Grizzly Peak

Moms' Comfort Camping Adventure at Sundance Lodges (Rockies Family Adventures)
Day hiking in Kananaskis up the Grizzly Peak Trail

For More Information 

Please visit the Sundance Lodges website for more information on camping, reservation, rates, and season dates.

Moms' Comfort Camping Adventure at Sundance Lodges (Rockies Family Adventures)
Wild children at play at Sundance Lodges

Disclaimer: We received complimentary camping for a night at Sundance Lodges. As always, all words and opinions are my own and I was not paid to write this review.

We would happily stay at Sundance Lodges again.

Thank you to Sundance Lodges for the great trip and for making a solo trip possible for two moms and our kids.

Moms' Comfort Camping Adventure at Sundance Lodges (Rockies Family Adventures)
Evening at Sundance Lodges, Kananaskis

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

First Summits - Grizzly Peak, Kananaskis

Last week my son and I headed out to Kananaskis to hike up Grizzly Peak with a girlfriend and her daughter. My friend lured me in with the claim that this was the most beautiful hike in Kananaskis, assured me that our 7 and 8 year olds should love it, and said that it was a relatively straight forward, (albeit steep,) hike.

Hiking up towards Grizzly Peak, Kananaskis Valley

I didn't do much research on the hike (mistake one,) took my friend's recommendation with blind faith (mistake number two,) and figured I could totally do it solo (without my husband coming along to help.) - And yes, that was mistake number three for this challenging outing.

I'm pretty sure I owe this summit's success to a second girlfriend who joined us for the day without kids (and ended up pulling/pushing my son up all the steep parts.) My other girlfriend (the one who initiated the hike) can also be credited with rescuing my son with a rope when he accidentally slid down a steep scree slope on the descent (and got stuck half way down.)

Sounds like a fun day, right??

Two mighty seven and eight year olds climbing up Grizzly Peak

 Bringing Kids on the Big Stuff 

I remember the "big stuff" that I used to do in the days before having a child.

- 30 km day hikes
- 3 day backpacking trips, done as single day epic long hikes so that we could travel light
- Scrambles and summits with 1700 metres of height gain
- Long ridge walks where we were lucky to make it back to the vehicles by dark

An average day in the mountains usually left me gashed, bruised, bleeding, blistered, soaked in sweat and dirt, and sore for days.

The crazy thing though is that I actually LIKED this. I liked pushing myself, challenging myself, and waking up exhausted (in true zombie mode) the next day. I can't say I always "liked" every part of an outing (and many trails were definitely one-timers that I will never repeat.) Overall though, I "liked" the adventure, and I had fun checking summits off in my local guide book.

Fast forward 8 years though and I have a child who also enjoys pushing himself, who likes a good challenge, and loves climbing mountains. And while we aren't doing 30 km days yet or tackling epic amounts of height gain, we are starting to have some pretty BIG days.

The apple did not fall far from the tree with this kid who loves climbing mountains

Like before, in the pre-kid days, my family hikes are now leaving me sore for days, they are leaving me gashed and bleeding on occasion, and we were so filthy after our Grizzly Peak summit day that my husband wouldn't let our son even sit down in the house until he'd taken a shower.

Our family hikes are entering the realm of the "big stuff" and it's making me reflect on how we do things. I can't take our outings lightly anymore. Mistakes can have serious consequences and a low-energy day is a pretty big deal now!

Hiking the BIG stuff with my 8-year old son

Grizzly Peak Stats for our Summit Hike

Height Gain: 900 metres (not 2535 metres as indicated in Alan Kane's newest guide book! That is the total height of the mountain.)

Distance: 7 km return according to one website I found.

Time it took us: 8 hours return (4 hours up, 4 hours down)

Age of kids we hiked with: a 7 year old girl and an 8 year old boy

Temperature: 30+ degrees!

Best Guide Book: Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies by Alan Kane

After 800 metres of relentless steep climbing, you reach this meadow below the summit of Grizzly Peak

Trailhead: The trail is located on Highway 40, just south of the Fortress Gas Station in Kananaskis. Drive past the gas station and look for the Ripple Rock Creek Drainage on your left. It is 1 km south of Grizzly Creek and is located between Grizzly Creek and Hood Creek.

If you are driving south you'll have to find a place to turn around so that you can park on the side of the highway (in the north bound direction.) There is no parking lot. We ended up going all the way to the King Creek parking lot, turning around there, and then driving back north until we found the right creek.

Scrambling a cliff band lower down on the Grizzly Peak trail

Overview of the Grizzly Peak Hike / Scramble

The trail is easily seen from the side of the highway where you park. It is also fairly straight forward all the way to the summit (just as my girlfriend had promised.) I would not say that exceptional route finding skills are required for this hike, and a strong hiker with a good background on unofficial trails would have few problems finding his/her way up the mountain.

The "straight forward hike" part aside though,I can NOT say that this hike is easy. It's not technical, a fall would never kill you, and there's no exposure. However, it is far from easy and is certainly no walk in the park. This hike kicked our butts and I feel like I grossly underestimated its difficulty.

The trail started off relatively easy but it soon became relentlessly steep and loose

The Trail up Grizzly Peak is STEEP as Heck!

The trail starts off steep right from the highway and this beast quickly let's you know that you are not messing around here. There are no switch backs, and the trail wastes no time with a warm up. You'll be breathing heavy within the first minute.

The first part of the trail climbs through forest on a reasonably good trail but is relentlessly steep and very slippery on the way down. My son did a full face plant on the descent (in good hiking boots) and slipped (landing on his bum) at least 15 times on this section alone. (There is a reason it took 4 hours to get up and another 4 to get down! This trail is every bit as challenging on the way down (if not more so.)

Nearing the first cliff band on the lower trail up Grizzly Peak

You'll be Using Your Hands. This is a Scramble

After climbing the forest for roughly an hour, we ended up at a small cliff band where people with acrophobia might be mildly scared for a moment or two. It would be hard to hold hands on this section so you have to trust that kids can climb up and traverse a narrow staircase of rock next to a cliff band. On the way down we did wrap a rope around the kids' waists as they descended so that if they fell, they wouldn't fall "as far."  I always vote for bruises over a broken arm or leg.

Scrambling up the cliff band on the lower slopes of the Grizzly Peak hike

This Hike is Stunningly Beautiful (which partly makes up for how steep it is!)

Cliff band scaled, you are in the second part of the hike. There are more trees, the trail gets steeper, and gets even looser. Again, it's not so bad on the way up but dreadful on the way down.

Eventually you get into the "pretty part" of the hike though (roughly 1.5 hours in if hiking at a slow to moderate pace,) and you'll be traversing grassy slopes with views of Mt. Evan Thomas to your right and the Royal Group across the valley with the Kananaskis Lakes.

This was one of my favourite parts of the hike and you actually get a chance to breathe again. At times, the trail is even flat!! Alas, the trail is still very narrow so you won't be sitting down for a prolonged snack.

Grassy slopes on the trail up Grizzly Peak (Mt. Evan Thomas to the right)

This Trail is LOOSE! Bring Band-Aids!!

The next part of the hike is dreadful on both the way up and down. A bit of route finding is required as there are multiple "sheep trails" through the scree and rock, the trail is very loose (in both directions,) and you start to leave the trees behind you.

You're into the land of rock and scree below the cliff face of Grizzly Peak to your left. We picked our way up the best we could, occasionally got off trail for a moment here or there (wondering why the heck the trail was so steep, yes, even steeper than before, and where our trail of sorts had gone to.) Then we'd round a corner and realize the trail was above or below us and that we'd been off route.

By this point we'd been hiking straight up for over 2 hours and there had been very few places to stop and rest. And then the trail got even worse!!

I have no idea if we were on the trail here. Probably not!

Hope you Enjoy Scree Bashing

Bashing our way up scree to the meadow on top
Now we were in the true "scree bashing" section and thank goodness for my friend Robin who practically pushed/pulled my son up sections (while I fought to get my own butt up the trail without falling.) This part of the hike went on forever and there was no shade. It was 30+ degrees out and I was starting to think that the gorgeous meadow we'd been promised would never come. The kids were asking for lunch by this point too but there was honestly nowhere to stop.

We finally pounded our way up the nasty slope, and found the beautiful meadow. This part had all taken about 3 hours but we still weren't at the summit. For one of the kids, this was the end, feeling mighty proud of herself for making it this far. To reach the meadow you'll already have climbed over 800 metres of height.

We spent half an hour or so in the meadow eating, airing out our feet, and trying to summon more energy for the summit.

Clawing our way up steep slopes to the meadow

Somebody needs to Build a Hut in the Meadow so we can Stay Overnight Next Time!

After all the work you'll go through climbing up to the gorgeous meadow below the summit of Grizzly Peak, it would be lovely to find an alpine club hut.

The meadow below the Grizzly Peak summit

I have never enjoyed a meadow so much in my life. It was stunningly beautiful and perfect for a good rest and lunch break before trudging further up to the summit.

How does a meadow like this end up on top of a mountain?

The Summit is Magnificent 

The final walk to the summit was actually the best part of the whole hike. We climbed up grassy slopes (that were not slippery in the slightest) to the ridge in approximately 15 to 20 minutes. Then it was just a short narrow ridge walk (airy in spots) to reach the summit.

Crossing the airy ridge to the summit of Grizzly Peak

And families can stop at any point if the ridge becomes too airy for comfort. Otherwise, I felt fine just holding my son's hand and walking close beside him, or letting my friend Robin walk across with him while I tried to get photos of him reaching the summit.

900 metres of height gain and 4 hours of hiking but we made it to the top of Grizzly Peak!

All in all, it took roughly 4 hours to reach the summit (including our break in the meadow.) 

This mountain kicked our butts but we made it to the top!

What Goes up, Eventually has to go Down!

I've been joking about the "demon hike" I did last week and it's 100% because of the descent! I can handle steep trails and a bit of route finding. Loose scree that causes a child to fall down 50+ times is another story entirely!

The descent took another 4 hours, and never had I done an out and back trip up a mountain where the descent took as long as the ascent. A short section of rope got pulled out numerous times to help the kids down the steepest sections of scree and I took a nasty wipe out, resulting in some ugly road rash down one leg.

This is the initial descent down from the meadow

Add the challenges that it was still dreadfully hot (30+ degrees most of the time,) that it was getting late and we wanted to get down quickly before husbands back home started worrying, we were all running out of water, and the trail required a lot of concentration (when everybody was getting tired.)

A brief section of easy hiking along grassy slopes on the way down

Things we Loved about this Hike

We are proud that we made the summit and Noah was very happy on top of the mountain

The meadow was gorgeous! It just needs a backcountry hut!

The summit really is pretty as is the ascent trail once you reach open grassy slopes and the flatter section of trail.

The rest of the steep,loose hike was miserable and I won't be doing this trail again. 

A very happy 8 year old on the summit of Grizzly Peak

Lessons Learned  on Grizzly Peak

  1. Pay attention to "bad omens" or signs that it might not be a good day to climb a mountain from the very beginning! For us, my son Noah really didn't seem to have a lot of energy from the get go. And I usually find that you can tell within the first 5 minutes if you're going to have a strong day (or if you should just call it a day and go for ice-cream.)

  2.  Climbing a mountain when there's an extreme heat warning for the area is kind of dumb. I admit this!

  3. I took a friend's suggestion for this hike and followed with blind faith. This was naive and careless on my part. She honestly does love this hike and her daughter liked it too. Had I have "tested" it out ahead of time, I would have known it would be too loose and steep to solo it with my son. I could have used my husband's help on the steep parts. I'm just not confident enough on steep loose terrain to help somebody else, and get my own butt up/down the trail

  4. My son was begging to turn around within the first hour - and I didn't listen. I encouraged him on and pushed him to continue. And while I'm "mostly" glad that I did, because he loved the summit and was very proud of himself, it would have been a lot easier had we just have turned around and come back with husband in tow on a stronger energy day (without a heat warning!)
A look at the easy summit of Grizzly Peak above the meadow


Overall Opinion of the Trail

Some kids would enjoy this hike but my son is used to more "scrambling," more hands on moments, and more interesting moments where he's traversing narrow ridges or climbing up and over boulders.

Climbing and descending a steep loose trail in 30 degree heat for 8 hours failed to impress in my family.

Am I glad we did this hike - YES.

Is Noah happy that he made the summit - YES.

Will we do it again - NO. Too steep, too loose, too relentless.

A beautiful hike with a lot of steep loose rock

Suggested Prerequisite Hikes

East End of  Mount Rundle - for steepness and loose rock. This is the most similar hike we've done to Grizzly Peak (and interestingly enough, my son didn't like this one either.)

Little Lougheed - purely for steepness

Heart Mountain- If you do the full horseshoe, you'll be looking at a 7 to 8 hour day.

Parting shot of the summit ridge on Grizzly Peak