Monday, October 20, 2014

Family Camping Made Easy - Always Bring Friends

I haven't written a whole lot about our camping adventures this summer because most of the time we spent our days biking or paddling rather than hanging out at camp.  Our campsites were often "basecamps" for these day trips away from camp and we'd play hard from morning to late afternoon, trying to do as many fun things as we could at each destination.

A typical day "camping"

While we didn't spend a ton of time at each campsite this summer, we still enjoyed camping with friends where our hours at camp were always a lot of fun.  The kids would run wild around the campground, the adults would enjoy afternoon "happy hour," and we'd often cook meals together or hold margarita parties with Mexican Fiesta dinners. We even had a disco dance party one afternoon before the evening meal.

Crazy Afternoons at Camp
Margarita Parties were always a hit!  (with juice for the kids)
Nothing like a camp disco dance party.  YMCA! 

We even celebrated one birthday while camping and had a very special pinata for the birthday girl (me) - who, is still working her way through all the bottles contained inside the pinata!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Another Season of Banff Awesomeness! #mybanff

We've always loved playing and exploring in Banff, but oddly enough, we had never camped much in this national park until this year.   We spent four weekends camping in Banff this summer and fall which is the most time we've ever spent camping in the same spot in one season.

June Camping at Two Jack Lakeside

Add a couple other day trips, a weekend at a wilderness hostel and another weekend spent in a backcountry lodge, and we spent a LOT of time in Banff this summer and fall season!! 15 days total I think between May and October.

Biking the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail in Banff

Our Favourite Campgrounds in Banff

Two Jack Lakeside has become our favourite lakeside campground and we grew pretty fond of Tunnel Mountain over the summer too.  We plan to spend lots of time at both again next year.

Paddling on Two Jack Lake in Banff

We loved paddling on Two Jack Lake and enjoyed our comfort camping experience in an o'TENTik.  Meanwhile, Tunnel Mountain offers prime real estate for mountain bikers and we can't wait to plan another spring biking weekend next year.

Mountain Biking on Tunnel Mountain

For more information on the campgrounds we've camped at in Banff, read my story:  The Banff Campground Review - The Good, the Bad, and the Awesome!.

And to read about our comfort camping experience at Two Jack Lakeside, check out this story:  Comfort Camping in Banff National Park - The Experience

Comfort Camping in Banff


Our Favourite Bike Rides in Banff

I can't even begin to choose our fav. trail from this summer because we spent the whole summer trying to ride every easy trail in Banff. And we liked them all!  To read about our adventures, check out these stories:

Biking the Fenland Trail in Banff

The Best Summer Adventure in Banff - Hands Down!

This one is easy!  The award for best summer adventure goes to Mount Norquay's new Via Ferrata Tour which was the highlight of my entire 2014 year so far (and that's from January!!)

On top of Mt. Norquay - after climbing my way up the Via Ferrata system

To read the full story of my experience, check out the story:  My First Via Ferrata Tour - And it was Awesome!!

Crossing the Mt. Norquay Suspension Bridge

Our Best Hike in Banff National Park this Summer/Fall Season

This one is a tie between Gibbon Pass and Parker Ridge.  We spent a weekend in September at the Hilda Creek Hostel on the Icefields Parkway and enjoyed the most fabulous day hiking across Parker Ridge to the Hilda Glacier. 

Hiking Parker Ridge on the Icefields Parkway

Later in September, we hiked into Shadow Lake Lodge for a weekend and hiked up to Gibbon Pass.  From the Pass, we climbed up to a summit on Copper Mountain.  The photo below says it all.  I mean, how many 5 year olds get to stand on a mountain like this after hiking for two days to reach the summit??

Copper Mountain above Gibbon Pass and Shadow Lake, Banff National Park

To read about our adventures at Hilda Creek, check out the story:  Moving on to Big Adventures - and the Kids Get to Come Along 

Hiking Parker Ridge above the Hilda Creek Hostel

To read about our weekend at Shadow Lake Lodge and our hike to Gibbon Pass and Copper Mountain, check out these stories:  Magical Autumn Hiking on the Bow Valley Highline Trail  and Family Backpacking in Banff National Park - No Tent Required  

Larch Trees at Gibbon Pass above Shadow Lake Lodge

The Easiest Little Adventure in Banff

We try to make it up to Sunshine Meadows at least once a year and it had been a couple years since Noah's last fall hike up here.   Time to remedy that so we spent a lovely day up at the meadows in late September and hiked around the three lakes near the Continental Divide.

Rock Isle Lake, Sunshine Meadows

This hike was quite a bit easier than some of the other crazy stuff we'd done this summer and I recommended it to many friends as an easy way to see the golden larch trees.  If you didn't get up there this year, add it to your list for next fall. And to read the full story, find it here at Sunshine Meadows - One of Canada's Top Hikes.

Hiking Across the Continental Divide at Sunshine Village

Winter is coming and we already have 8 days marked down on the calendar for Banff adventures over the next season.  Can't wait!!  Now we just need the snow to hold off and the lakes to freeze for skating season.  Freeze lakes, freeze.  Pretty please!

Another month and this will be Banff in November.

Did you spend time in Banff this summer? Leave a comment with your favourite trip, campground or experience.  We'll add it to our list for next summer.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Comfort Camping in Banff National Park - The Experience!

Earlier this summer I wrote a story about comfort camping in Banff and it's been extremely popular which makes me think a lot of you don't really like traditional tenting all that much.  And I don't blame you one bit.  We bought a trailer a couple years ago and I have not looked back.  For those without trailers though,  what are you going to do when autumn arrives and it drops below zero at night in the mountains?  You have two choices at this time of year:  Stop camping and stay at hotels, OR stay in a cozy cabin and call it "comfort camping."

Comfort Camping in Banff National Park

We recently had the opportunity to stay in one of the new o'TENTiks in Banff at Two Jack Lake and it was a great way to stay warm on a cool weekend.  Friday night was drizzly with light rain but we slept dry and toasty inside our tent-cabin which included a very warm heater.  (in fact, we had to turn it down the next night so that we could actually sleep under our blankets we'd brought.)

Home away from home in Banff National Park

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Mountain Biking the Tunnel Bench Loop in Banff - WITH KIDS

If you would have told me a few years ago that I'd be mountain biking on the Tunnel Mountain Bench in Banff, I would have said you were crazy. Add WITH a 5 year old child, and I'd have laughed at you. You see, the Tunnel Mountain area of Banff has some pretty sick mountain biking trails that I will probably never be able to ride.  I had no idea that there was a lovely little green loop on the bench or that the blue loop was actually pretty good for novice bikers.

Riding the Tunnel Bench Loop in Banff

Earlier this summer, we picked up the "Biking Trails in the Banff Area" brochure from the Banff Info. Centre and I quickly decided that I wanted to bike all of the easy green trails in the little pamphlet this summer, as a family.  And we've done pretty good!  Check out the story I wrote earlier this summer on the Best Family Bike Trails in Banff National Park

Biking on the Tunnel Mountain Bench in Banff

We'd biked most of the green trails this summer but had failed to complete the one I most wanted to do - The Tunnel Bench Loop.  Mostly because it wasn't actually a green trail.  It's rated as a solid blue and is really not something you do on a tiny bike with 16" wheels.  Regardless, I wanted to at least give it a shot this summer.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Moving on To Big Adventures - and the Kids Get to Come Along!

I've enjoyed the past 5 years of baby adventures, the toddler hikes, chariot backpacking trips, and ski trips with the trusty pulk.  However, I am VERY glad to also be moving on to bigger and grander things!  Such as this hiking trip below:

Hiking along Parker Ridge, Banff National Park

This is one of my favourite photos above from a recent backcountry hiking trip along one of Canada's most beautiful highways, the Icefields Parkway. The Parkway connects the Village of Lake Louise in Banff National Park with neighboring Jasper National Park, and you don't need to worry about choosing the best hike in the area - because they're all amazing!

Incredible Scenery in Backcountry Banff National Park

When I look  at the photo above I feel like we're in the Himalayas of Nepal.  And I've been to Nepal so I'm not just basing this on photographs or movies I've seen.  We honestly could be on some remote pass in the Himalayas in this photo.  And we only had to drive a couple hours to get here! 

Noah usually gets to bring a friend on his big adventures

Noah almost always gets to bring a friend along on his big adventures (hence the mention of kids plural in the title of this story)  and most of the time they come with happy spirits like the sweet girl in the photo above.

Mountain Buddies - for life I hope


Hiking Parker Ridge

Want to get the views above with your own family?  Good news!  It's super easy.  And the hike is really very short if you just hit the ridge and go back down. Park at the trailhead for Parker Ridge on the Icefields Parkway, just before the Icefields Centre where they do snow coach tours on the Athabasca Glacier (which you should totally do if in the area.)  The route description and trailhead is found here at the following link for the Parks Canada website.

Easy Hike up the Parker Ridge Trail

The ridge trail is super short at only 2.7 km one way and with only 250 metres of elevation gain.  My son did the hike by himself when he was 3 so it was easy peasy as a 5 year old.  The trail is also well switch-backed so you aren't slogging up a steep hill or anything.

Early winter snow on the hiking trail to Parker Ridge

Once you get to the top of the ridge, you will get views down to the Saskatchewan Glacier and over to the Hilda Horn and Mount Athabasca.  The best views of the glacier are down the ridge to the left.  Meanwhile, we went right and headed off trail in the direction of the Hilda Glacier.

The kids heading off to the right along the ridge top
Mount Athabasca is seen to the right of us in this photo

Hiking Parker Ridge to the Hilda Glacier

I love hiking up the Parker Ridge trail but the scenery really gets spectacular as you go further towards Mount Athabasca in the Jasper direction (to the right along the ridge top.)  From here, it is wide open backcountry hiking with no real trail.  Ramble anywhere you want and enjoy the solitude.

Mount Athabasca looms over us in the background (and I climbed that back in the day!)
Parker Ridge stretching out behind us as we hike

If you hike far enough (I'd say approximately 2-3 km), you'll reach great viewing of the Hilda Glacier and you'll be in the high alpine well above tree line the whole time.  AND this hike seriously isn't described anywhere that I've ever seen!  Really!

Mount Athabasca (left) and the Hilda Horn (right) in the background
The Hilda Glacier starting to show up at far left below Mt. Athabasca
My Backcountry Explorers heading towards the Hilda Glacier

We stopped often for candy, breaks, and to take photos.  Eventually we got close to the moraines surrounding the Hilda Glacier and the kids had fun climbing them.  We considered going to the toe of the glacier to touch it but as you can see from the photo above, it's a loooong way away.  And the kids were getting tired.

Climbing the Moraines below the Hilda Glacier
Walking on the Glacier Moraines
Tired but happy
Our Happy Family
The view we hiked to get of the Hilda Glacier
I am Strong, I am Mighty!

Hiking from the Hilda Glacier to the Hilda Creek Hostel

At this point you're probably wondering where to now?  And we certainly weren't going back the whole way we just came from.  This was a traverse from A to B, and now it was time to finish up the hike and get back to our end point, the Hilda Creek Hostel (and lodging for the weekend.)

Creek crossing on the way back out
Back at our Hostel to rest (or play)

I didn't really take many photos of the final section as you can see above.  We pretty much just descended the moraines, found a trail along the creek, and followed it right down to the hostel pictured above.  For a description of the hike from the hostel to the glacier, check out this one that I found on the Alberta Wow website. It doesn't mention going further to Parker Ridge but it's all open country once you get up there so it's pretty hard to get lost.

Paradise at the Hilda Creek Hostel


Putting the Shuttle Together

The easiest way to do this shuttle and whole traverse is to stay at the Hilda Creek Hostel.  From the hostel you have a cozy base camp for your adventure and you end the hike right at your door.  From the hostel, just drive or walk up the road to the Parker Ridge trailhead (a 10 minute walk) and then go get your car later on if you chose to drive as we did. And we figure the whole traverse plus hike up Parker Ridge was about 7km one way.

Parker Ridge as seen from the Icefields Parkway
Mount Athabasca, the Hilda Glacier, and the Hilda Horn as seen from the highway

Want to stay at the Hilda Creek Hostel?

Your response here should be "heck ya" because it's truly our favourite hostel in the collection of wilderness hostels run by Hostelling International.  We stay here at least a couple of times a year and it's awesome in every season! 

The view from the hostel deck at sunrise

For more information on the Hilda Creek Hostel and to make a reservation, visit the Hostelling International Website.  (link goes straight to HI Hilda Creek.) The hostel sleeps 6 so we usually just book the whole hostel and go with another family.  One of the bunks is a double bed as well so you could fit 7 people if an adult and small child shared a bed.

To read a couple stories on our past winter stays at Hilda Creek (and to see photos of the hostel covered in snow,) follow the links below to these stories:

Raising Tough Kids - Hilda Creek Wilderness Trip

Spring Adventures on Alberta's Icefields Parkway

This is what Hilda Creek will look like next time we visit!

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Family Backpacking in Banff National Park - No Tent Required!

Last month our family had an incredible opportunity to go backpacking in Banff without a tent or sleeping bags.  We carried nothing other than our clothing, lunch for the first day and some emergency supplies such as peanut butter, candy, and snacks.  Other than that, we had a couple of head lamps and Noah got to bring some toys, books, and his beloved Gymbo the clown. We also let Noah bring his old balance bike because we figured he could bike down the whole trail on the way home.  We knew it would be too steep for him to bike up though and we definitely didn't want to carry his pedal bike 14km to camp.

Backpacking - in Style!

We started our journey to Brewster's Shadow Lake Lodge on the Red Earth Creek Trail which is a wide gravel and dirt path that was used as a backcountry service road many years ago.  Now, the trail is used by mountain bikers, cross country skiers, and hikers looking to access Shadow Lake and the Bow Valley Highline Trail which runs all the way from Sunshine Village in Banff to Twin Lakes on the border with Kootenay National Park.

Biking and Hiking up the Red Earth Creek Trail

The Red Earth Creek Trail isn't the most interesting trail in the Rockies but it provides the shortest and easiest way to get to Shadow Lake, our destination for the weekend.  We hiked the old road for 11km to the junction with Pharaoh Creek and then continued a final 3km on a narrower trail to the lodge.  We brought Noah's old (way too small) balance bike and my husband pushed him much of the way up the trail once we discovered that Noah's legs were actually too long to run with it uphill.  Right, so that's why he has a pedal bike now! 

The reason we brought the bike - downhill sections were FAST!

It took us 3 hours to travel along the 14km long trail to reach the Shadow Lake backcountry campground and lodge.  We, lucky us, were staying in the lodge!!

Shadow Lake Lodge - and our home for the weekend!

Family Backpacking Made VERY Easy

We've done proper backcountry trips as a family and let me tell you, there's a LOT of stuff to bring!  Fortunately we're done with diapers and bottles, but backpacking with kids is still a fine art that takes years to master (if you ever do) and the more children you have, the more gear you're going to have to carry.  If you have young children you're going to be carrying ever more of the overnight gear because little ones can't carry that much (if anything.)

Backpacking with a light day pack is a treat!

On our trip into Shadow Lake Lodge, our son Noah carried some snacks, a water bottle, and... - that's about it.  My pack was also incredibly light with our lunch, a couple bottles of water and more snacks.  My husband's pack was the heaviest but that's only because we chose to bring luxury items like books, a portable DVD player for early morning wake up, and other items to occupy Noah who had no friends joining him on the trip.  Without luxury items, my husband would have been carrying clothing and not much more.

No Tents = Paradise for this Mama!

Camping at the Shadow Lake Lodge made our trip so very much easier than if we had chosen to camp at the campground.

Below are just a few examples of how we lived in absolute luxury and comfort:

  • After hiking in the rain to reach the lodge, we had a warm cabin to retreat to and hot drinks waiting for us.
  • Tea Time!  After hiking for 3 hours, we arrived at Shadow Lake in time for treats, fresh baking, appies, and goodies aplenty! And there "may" have been a bit of motivation in knowing that cookies were waiting at the end of the hike for Noah!
  • Gourmet meals made for us each day of our trip!  We didn't have to hunch over a camp stove boiling our freeze dried chicken and rice while sitting on rocks.  We didn't have to huddle under a tarp eating in the rain.  We didn't have to cook oatmeal in the morning with frozen fingers too cold to move.  We just showed up at the dining cabin, sat down, and feasted on some of the best food I've ever eaten in the backcountry.  The cook even knew how to make broccoli yummy enough for a non-veggie eating child to eat. (p.s. I want the recipe.)
  • We slept in warm beds with sheets and blankets.  We didn't freeze our butts off in a tent and I didn't have to sleep with a knit hat on my head.  We even had pillows!  (and I truly hate sleeping on my rolled up jacket as a pillow.)
  • Cozy evenings inside!  One of my pet peeves when backpacking is having to go to bed at 8pm because it's cold and dark outside.  At Shadow Lake Lodge, we could stay up late drinking wine and chatting with other guests in the warm fireside cabin.  We even had live music one night provided by a visiting musician from Edmonton. 

All in all, it was a decadent weekend in the mountains and very different from last year's backpacking trip to Shadow Lake.  Last year, we spent two days hiking through rain and snow with no reprieve at the end of the day.  We ate freeze dried food under a tarp while sitting on logs, went to bed early, and woke up cold the next morning - just to hike through more rain and snow.  It was a low point in backpacking history for me.  This year however was a major high point!

Sunrise at Shadow Lake

What to Expect from a Family Trip to Shadow Lake Lodge

I confess that I was a bit worried before our trip and wasn't sure the whole experience would be very "family friendly."  I imagined gourmet food with fancy French names I couldn't pronounce and I wondered what the other lodge guests would think of my boisterous and slightly spirited 5 year old.  Most guests go to these places after all to get away from their kids.  And most people don't bring the children with them on what would seem to be a perfect chance for a romantic weekend away.  However, we are not most people and we wanted to go away as a family.  Fortunately for us, Shadow Lake Lodge was completely family-friendly and we had no need to worry.

Biking the final section to the lodge

What we discovered first was that the guests loved Noah, thought he was awesome for making it all the way in, and supported us for making the journey as a family.  Noah even out-hiked most of the other guests at the lodge and was the only person (along with Mom and Dad)  to actually climb a mountain during our stay.

While other guests went fishing, we climbed a mountain

Second, we discovered that while the meals were very tasty and could easily have come out of a gourmet cookbook, Noah liked them.  The pork loin even came with pasta!  And  breakfast came with pancakes on at least one of the mornings so what's not to like there for a 5 year old? We brought a fair bit of supplemental food with us - just in case, and found that we didn't need any of it.  The only thing we did find useful to have with us was a jar of peanut butter for Noah's lunch sandwiches.

Having fun on the bridge at Shadow Lake

Finally, we found that we felt very comfortable at the lodge and in no way did we feel out of place for having a child.  Having our own sleeping cabin was a huge help because we could spend time there by ourselves when Noah needed down time.  We also appreciated that our cabin was very close to the fireside cabin and so we left Noah sleeping while we went in search of adult company in the evenings. (a baby monitor would work well if you were worried about leaving the kids alone at night.)

Day Hike to Gibbon Pass above the lodge

Shadow Lake Lodge with Babies and Toddlers

Want to plan a trip here with little ones?  Here are a few suggestions to make the journey smooth:
  1. Bring a balance bike for 2-4 year olds.  We feared it could take us up to 6 hours to get in to the lodge at a hiking pace of 2.5 km per hour.  Thanks to Noah's small bike, it only took us 3 hours to get there.  And on the way out - 2 hours!!  All downhill.  Next time, we're all bringing our bikes.  Just need to get gears on Noah's next bike.
  2. Bring a chariot or stroller for the first 11km of the trail.  Then lock it up to the bike rack at the junction with Red Earth Creek and Pharaoh Creek.  The trail is 100% Chariot-friendly up until this point.  After this point, you still might be able to get your Chariot through with a bit of effort.  It just gets really steep for a bit.  But I imagine if you pulled it up backwards, (without kids inside) you could do it.
  3. As mentioned earlier, bring baby monitors if you want to retreat to the fireside cabin while kids are sleeping in the evening.
  4. Bring snacks and emergency food in case your child decides he or she doesn't like what's on the dinner menu.  We brought peanut butter and cheerios which were both well appreciated by Noah over the course of the weekend.
  5. Bring "quiet time" activities for your child/children so that if you choose to hang out in the fireside cabin together as a family, your kid(s) won't be running around like crazy disturbing everybody.  Fortunately, the lodge does have some children's games such as a beginner version of scrabble that we enjoyed. 
Biking on the easy chariot-friendly Red Earth Creek Trail

Read more about our adventures at Shadow Lake!

Check out the recent story I just wrote, Magical Autumn Hiking on the Bow Valley Highline Trail.  We had the most amazing day of hiking while staying at the lodge and I think you'll agree when you see the photos in the previous story.

Hiking above Gibbon Pass on our day hike from the lodge

Hiking with younger kids?  The Shadow Lake trail is a good choice and the lake can be reached in 0.5 km from the lodge.  There's a bridge and it would be a great place to spend a few hours playing on the rocks.

Shadow Lake

Want to Take Your Family to Shadow Lake Lodge?  The lodge is just wrapping up its 2014 hiking season BUT you can start planning for next year and it's never too early to choose a weekend for your 2015 Shadow Lake Lodge trip and put it on the calendar.  You can contact Shadow Lake Lodge as well to find out when you can begin making reservations for next summer.

Our First Trip to Shadow Lake Lodge - MANY years ago.
The lodge is also open in winter for cross country skiing and I can say from experience that it is amazing with snow!  The Red Earth Creek Trail is an easy ski trail for novice to intermediate skiers and most of it would be chariot-friendly if you had a ski attachment.  The final 3km has steep sections though and would have to be walked or negotiated more carefully. It's also more narrow so skiing it with a chariot would be trickier.  Not impossible, just more challenging.

Overall Opinion

Shadow Lake is family-friendly and one of the easiest backcountry lodges in Banff to get to with kids.  It is easier than backpacking with a tent and far more enjoyable (in my opinion.)  I think I could quite easily move in to Shadow Lake in fact (and my husband wants to work there when we retire.)

Happy Dad, Happy Mom, Happy Child

Disclaimer:  Our stay at Shadow Lake Lodge was graciously provided for by Brewster's in partnership with Banff Lake Louise Tourism.  As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own and I wasn't compensated beyond the stay.