Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Summer Planning: Where to Camp in the National Parks of Alberta

My previous Alberta camping story on the best provincial park campgrounds in Southern Alberta has been immensely popular but it was missing the beautiful national park campgrounds along with one very sweet private campground we love outside of Waterton Lakes National Park. 

Without further introduction, below are the best places to camp in (or near) Alberta's mountain parks.

Camping in Waterton Lakes National Park

Waterton Lakes National Park


Waterton Lakes has to be one of our favourite places to go camping and it's an easy drive of under 3 hours. Go for a long weekend and make sure to read the following stories as you plan out your trip:

Camping in Waterton Lakes National Park

Family Fun in Waterton Lakes National Park

Paddling in Waterton Lakes National Park

Ten Awesome Things to Do with Kids in Waterton Lakes National Park

Hiking at the Waterton Springs Campground

Our favourite campground in Waterton is the private Waterton Springs Campground.  Reservations are accepted starting May 1st each year by phone call. The campground is located just outside the park gates and we stay here because it's a quiet little retreat outside the tourist zone that is Waterton.  We also love hiking in the nature reserve above the campground. 

Biking the Kootenai Brown Trail in Waterton Lakes National Park

Two Jack Lake, Banff National Park


This is our favourite place to camp in Banff National Park and probably the best campground located within an hour's drive from the Calgary city limits. The campground you want to stay at is called Two Jack Lakeside (not Two Jack Main) and it offers premier lakeside campsites for those on the ball early enough to book the best sites.

Paddling on Two Jack Lake, Banff National Park

What's to love about Two Jack Lakeside:
  • Lakeside camping
  • Walk-in tenting at lakeside sites
  • Warm heated bathrooms with showers
  • Comfort camping in O'TENTiks
  • Close to the town of Banff
  • Family-friendly paddling on Two Jack Lake
Canoeing on Two Jack Lake, Banff National Park

To read more on this campground, read my story:  Banff Campground Review - The Good, the Bad, and the Awesome

For more information on Comfort Camping at Two Jack Lake, read Comfort Camping in Banff National Park  and Comfort Camping in Banff - the Experience

The reservation date for Banff campsites this year is April 2nd and you can book for the whole summer.  More information can be found here on the Parks Canada website.  

Lakeside site and O'TENTik at Two Jack Lake in Banff

Tunnel Mountain Campgrounds, Banff National Park


These aren't the most scenic, remote, or private of campgrounds.  What you're getting here though is convenience (camping right in the town of Banff,) serviced sites with power if you desire this amenity, and enough space for a large RV if that's what you bring camping. 

There are three campgrounds on Tunnel Mountain and The Village I campground is where tenters or families with small trailers will want to be.  It's the most natural of the campgrounds and you will not be camped on pavement.  At Village II you'll be camping on pavement but you'll also have power for your trailer or RV (great for chilly spring camping.)  Finally, the Tunnel Mountain Trailer campground is where you'll find space for a large RV or motorhome with service at every site. 

Camping at Tunnel Mt. Village II

For our family, the main reason to camp on Tunnel Mountain is for the mountain biking. The Tunnel Campground loop goes around the three campgrounds and is a great intro to children wanting to learn to bike off pavement. It's a great family ride with compact gravel and dirt.  It's also wide enough for parents pulling Chariots. 

Mountain biking on Tunnel Mountain, Banff

There are also dozens of other mountain bike trails on Tunnel Mountain for riders of all abilities.  We are working on the intermediate Tunnel Bench Loop and have done about 50% of it.  We hope to finish it this year. 

More information on biking in Banff can be found here on the Banff NP website.

I've also written about biking in Banff here:   

The Best Family Bike Trails in Banff National Park

Mountain Biking the Tunnel Bench Loop in Banff with Kids.

Trying to conquer the Tunnel Bench Loop

For more information on camping at Tunnel Mountain, visit the Banff NP website or read my story:   Banff Campground Review - The Good, the Bad, and the Awesome

Reservations follow the same process as for Two Jack Lakeside above and can be made on April 2nd this year.

The bike trails are why you camp on Tunnel Mountain in Banff

The Icefields Parkway, Banff and Jasper National Parks


There's no "one" campground here that is best.  All of the campgrounds along the scenic Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper are awesome. They are primitive (so don't expect showers,) and most of them don't accept reservations (so aim for camping mid-week during summer peak season,) but this is premier camping in Banff with views to die for.

Scenery of the Athabasca Glacier from the Wilcox Pass Hiking Trail, Icefields Parkway

If I were to pick my favourite campground along this scenic highway, I would choose Mosquito Creek.  It's located close to Bow Lake for hiking and paddling, close to Bow Summit and Peyto Lake (for more hiking and classic tourist views,) and it's only a half hour drive from Lake Louise.

Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway

For more information on the Icefields Parkway, visit this link to the Jasper National Park website.  A map can be viewed here and information on camping can be viewed at the Banff National Park website or the Jasper NP website.  

Campground choices on the Parkway:

Mosquito Creek, Silverhorn Creek, Waterfowl Lakes or Rampart Creek - Banff
And most of the campgrounds listed for Jasper are located on the Icefields Parkway.  (exceptions, Pocahontas and Snaring River)

Hiking on Parker Ridge, Icefields Parkway

Top Attractions on the Icefields Parkway for Families:
Information on the hikes mentioned above can be found on the Banff Lake Louise Tourism website.


The Majestic Icefields Parkway from Bow Summit

Recommended Reading:

Experiencing Awesome in Jasper National Park

Tots on Ice (our glacier tour experience)

Glacier Skywalk Tour in Jasper National Park


Jasper National Park


After exploring the Icefields Parkway, you should definitely continue on to the town of Jasper and camp nearby for a few nights at least.  Our favourite campground is the Wapiti Campground  because it's at the end of the Wapiti bike trail and we can bike to town and back from camp. 

The other popular campground is Whistlers which offers comfort camping and proximity to the Jasper Tramway.  You really can't go wrong with either campground and they both offer serviced sites if you have a trailer or RV and want power.

Hiking up Whistler's Mountain in Jasper

Top attractions and Activities in Jasper for Families:
Paddling on Pyramid Lake, Jasper

Recommended reading:

Experiencing Awesome in Jasper National Park

Family-friendly Summits in Jasper National Park

The Best Family Bike Trails in Jasper

Biking along the Athabasca River in Jasper

For more information on Jasper, visit the Jasper NP website or Tourism Jasper website.


Campsites in Jasper can be booked for the whole summer season as of April 1st this year.  More information is on the Parks Canada website.

My beautiful Jasper as seen from Whistler's Mountain

Questions?  Missed your favourite campground? Leave a comment below.

All information on booking these great campgrounds can be found HERE

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Most Popular Hike in Banff - Without the Crowds

I've said before that there must be photos of Banff's Johnston Canyon hiking trail on billboards across the world advertising the Canadian Rockies.  Come summer, you'd be hard pressed to get a photo on this popular trail without at least two dozen tourists in the shot, and you could be parking a mile down  the road in order to get near the place.

Hike Johnston Canyon in winter, spring or fall though and you'll find solitude in abundance, you'll get your quiet moments on the trail, and you might even have the whole place to yourself as we did last winter.  (of course it was -30C at the time, but we still had the trail to ourselves.)

I don't need to write much about Banff's number one hiking trail and a quick Google search will honestly tell you absolutely everything you need to know anyway.  I just want to share some photos, show you why this hike is awesome at this time of year, and maybe encourage you to hike the canyon NOW before the tourists and crowds arrive in another few months.

Catwalks, a Cave, and the Lower Waterfalls of Johnston Canyon

 

Hiking on the Johnston Canyon Catwalks
Hiking through the canyon en route to the Lower Falls
The Cave and the Lower Falls
Popular shot for photos on the bridge in front of the Lower Falls

 

Hiking to the Upper Falls

 

Ice appears everywhere as you reach the Upper Falls
The Upper Falls and ice climbers on them (photo taken from the canyon below the trail)

The BEST Part of the hike (going off trail into the canyon before the Upper Falls)


This one needs a disclaimer:  Do not walk on thin ice, do not go try to climb the falls without proper equipment, stick to official or at least unofficial trails that take you into the canyon, etc.  We found a lovely little side trail that took us down into the canyon right before the Upper Falls.  We played for a bit, enjoyed the view, and left again on the main trail.  We did not try to descend or hike down the canyon because that would be too dangerous (and dumb.)

Down in the canyon near the Upper Falls
The kids had a lot of fun playing down in the canyon
I love the Upper Falls as seen from down in the canyon
This was as far as we descended in the canyon - before returning on the main trail
This part of the trail was the highlight for us

The Hike Out


Another disclaimer:  Bring ice cleats or something for grip.  You'll notice them on our feet in the photo above.  I swear by micro spikes but my son wears yak trax which are much cheaper.  A small pair of yak trax is supposed to fit ladies with feet sized 6.5 - 10, but my son fits them and he isn't even a size 1 yet.   XS micro spikes are designed for kids with feet size 1 and bigger and that will be what my son gets for next winter.

This is what the trail looks like in spring when it's icy
This is how you'll descend the trail if you don't have ice cleats (be warned)
Looking down on the Lower Falls and the cave

And a fun video to end things off

 






For more information:


Visit the Town of Banff's website for detailed information on the trail.   It is 2.7 km one way to the Upper Falls but much shorter to the Lower Falls.  Most children aged 3+ should be able to make it to at least the Lower Falls and the cave with no difficulty.  

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Top 10 Spring Family Hikes in Kananaskis

I got the following email message a couple weeks ago: 
"I am a mom of 4 kids. I really want to start family hiking - but am a complete novice.  Scared I might be eaten by a bear or fall into ice!!!  Have you written a post about getting kids and families started - best hikes to start with?"

Then last week I received this following message:
"I would like to take my 18 month old daughter out to the mountains this weekend and was hoping that you might have a trail suggestion or two.  Ideally within 1 hour or hour and a half drive."

While I did respond to both moms, I figure there are at least a few more of you with the same questions.  And since it's spring in the Rockies, I'm going to start with Spring Hiking.  I'm also going to focus on Kananaskis because it's close to Calgary with trails that lose their snow quickly in the warm spring sun.

Spring Hiking in the Bow Valley on the Flowing Water Trail


The Top Ten Spring Family Hikes in Kananaskis 


The First Five Hikes for Young Children


In my story, Spring Hiking with your Family in Kananaskis, I write about the following five hikes that are awesome for families with young children. 
  • Beaver Flats Interpretive Trail, Elbow Valley
  • Paddy's Flat Interpretive Trail, Elbow Valley
  • Troll Falls, Kananaskis Valley
  • Heart Creek, Kananaskis Valley
  • Widow Maker Trail, Kananaskis Valley
Playing on the Beaver Flats Trail, Elbow Valley

I encourage you to read the story Spring Hiking with your Family in Kananaskis because honestly, I don't want to retype it all out. You'll find full route information for each of the hikes above in the story.

The Beaver Flats Trail is a lot of fun with balance bikes

More Hikes in the Elbow Valley


The Fullerton Loop is the next little hike that comes to mind and it's the perfect next step for children that are able to hike a 5km loop.  The trailhead has a brand new start post-flood so if you've done this one before, you'll find the new trail starts across the highway from the Allen Bill Pond Day Use Area.  Also, there is no more pond at this day use area.  The river has reclaimed the whole area.  It's still a fun little spot though for the kids to play by the river and for the family to have a picnic.

Resting on the Fullerton Loop, Elbow Valley
 
The next hike in the Elbow Valley that I LOVE in spring is the Prairie Mountain trail.  This one is great for the older kids because you'll be climbing 700 m to get to the summit.  There's no cute little creek on this one but the feeling of reaching a summit is incomparable.  And the trail is already in great condition this year so we just did it last weekend.

Standing on the summit of Prairie Mountain, March 8th

For more information on this trail, please read the story I wrote last September, More First Summits:  Prairie Mountain, Kananaskis.   

Hiking down the summit ridge on Prairie Mountain
 

Hikes in the Bow Valley


I've written a lot about spring hiking and biking in the Bow Valley on the Flowing Water Interpretive Trail and the Many Springs Interpretive Trail.  Therefore, I refer you to those stories:

Hiking on the Many Springs Trail, Bow Valley Provincial Park
Biking the closed campground roads of Bow Valley Provincial Park in April

The final hike - Prairie View Trail


This one isn't last for any reason other than that the link to this hike leads you to many other hikes you can do with your family this spring.  You may not have noticed, but there is an entire page on my blog devoted to the topic of Spring/Fall Hiking.  Really there is.  It's at the top of the website beside other tabs on best hikes, day trips, picnic sites, and city hikes.

Barrier Lake from the Prairie View Trail, Kananaskis Valley


Here's the link to the page so you can save it for later - Spring and Fall Hiking.   There is info. on the Prairie View Trail along with a dozen or more other trails not mentioned already.

Spring Hiking in Kananaskis on the Paddy's Flat Trail


Bonus Number 11 - Because it's my Favourite Spring Hike


I can't write about the best spring hikes and not include the climb up Ha Ling Peak in Canmore.  It is highly recommended you wait until the ice is gone off the trail (or that you wear micro spikes) but we did it last weekend on March 7th.  We even got 3 kids to the ridge and the youngest was four years old.

A very early ascent of Ha Ling Peak in Canmore

Warning:  The advanced hike up Ha Ling is for experienced scramblers and advanced hikers only, competent in their abilities guiding children up a steep trail and across an exposed ridge.  If you haven't done Ha Ling without the kids, you should not do it as a family trip until you've solo climbed it first. 

To see more photos and read my story from last summer, go to Ha Ling:  My Baby Climbed his first real Summit

My March summit shot on Ha Ling Peak

I hope I've given you tons of suggestions now.  There is life beyond Elbow Falls!  I promise.  So get out there and explore.  Happy Hiking!!

Rest Break on the Heart Creek Trail



Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Our Favourite Family-friendly Backcountry Ski Lodge

Shadow Lake is one of the most beautiful destinations in backcountry Banff National Park that is easily reached year round on the Red Earth Creek Trail.  We set out a couple weeks ago to see just how "easy" it would be to get to this magical spot with a six year old child in winter.

Beautiful Shadow Lake, Backcountry Banff National Park

The photo above shows why we wanted to get here as a family for a weekend.  Scenery like this isn't found on any old  stroll or ski trip.  BUT, we worked our butts off to get these views.

It took us over 5 hours to get to this destination on foot

The Journey to Shadow Lake - and more adventures in "Raising Tough Kids"


I've written a few stories now on the theme of "raising tough kids" and this trip definitely falls under the category of pushing children to new limits, out of their comfort zones, and setting out to see just how far they can go.

In order to get to Shadow Lake, and to the backcountry lodge where we'd spend the weekend, we first had to ski or hike 14 km (9 miles) on a moderate trail abundant in big hills.   And while I'm sure many older kids could do this, my son had never skied more than 7 km.  And he's only 6 years old.


Hiking up the Red Earth Creek Trail to Shadow Lake

How we managed to get to Shadow Lake:
  1. We hiked the first part of the Red Earth Creek Trail that was the steepest while carrying skis and pulling ski boots in a sled (next time we'd carry all extra boots as the sled was a huge pain in the butt to pull.)
  2. We skied the next 8 km while pulling Noah with a tow rope. 
  3. Finally, we hiked the last 3 km from the junction to Shadow Lake Lodge at the end of the Red Earth Creek Trail.  This section was not track set or even skier tracked and started off with a very steep icy hill.  We figured we might as well just switch back into hiking mode and allow Noah to use different muscles for a bit.

Skiing along the Red Earth Creek Trail en route to Shadow Lake


How other families get to Shadow Lake:

There are three basic options:  Ski, Hike, or Pull the kids in a Chariot or Pulk.  You do what works best for your family.  And in summer you can bike if the children are strong enough to do the hills on the way in.  We used Noah's balance bike last September when we went in and he had a super fun ride out.

Nearing Shadow Lake Lodge after a very loooong ski and hike

On the way out from Shadow Lake, we basically repeated our steps from the way in.  We walked the top part, skied the middle, and walked the bottom part again.  Noah skied more on his own on the way out but he was still towed a lot too.  For the biggest hills, he had to ski between Dad's legs since he hasn't quite figured out how to do a snow plough on cross country skis yet.

Skiing around Shadow Lake on our free day at the lodge
Skiing out from Shadow Lake Lodge

Brewster's Shadow Lake Lodge - Our Favourite Family Backcountry Ski Lodge


I could easily post a dozen gorgeous photos of Shadow Lake and leave it at that.  However, there's more to Shadow Lake Lodge than scenery.


BIG Reasons for Families to LOVE Brewster's Shadow Lake Lodge

Individual cabins.  Each couple or family gets their own cabin to sleep in.  No other backcountry ski lodge offers this unless you pay extra (a lot extra.)  At Shadow Lake though, everybody gets a cabin rather than sharing a crowded lodge.

Cabins at Shadow Lake Lodge

Family-friendly Food.   The food at Shadow Lake Lodge is great (pork tenderloin, chicken, fresh vegetables, hearty soups, and breakfasts so big you'll be full most of the day.)  However, it's not so over-the-top fancy that kids will turn their noses up at it either.

The Kitchen and the Fireside Cabins

The staff like kids.  This is important.  You want kitchen staff that will help and go out of their way to make your child's stay happy.  At Shadow Lake, Noah was able to get cookies any time he wanted instead of the more adult-focused desserts and was even sent on his way home with a bag of candy.  Our "family table" with us and another family also got to go first at each meal so that we could get the kids eating more quickly.

Little boys need lots of cookies after playing in the snow


Heated bathrooms with showers.  I know it's backcountry and all but there's some comfort in knowing there is running water and showers - just in case. Evening bathroom runs are also more pleasant when the bathrooms have heat and lights.

The heated washrooms are right beside the kitchen cabin


The trail is well maintained and easy to follow.  You'd be seriously hard pressed to get lost going into Shadow Lake Lodge.  It would be quite the challenge to get off the main snowmobile tracked trail.

I dare you to get lost on this well maintained trail


There's a lot of easy exploring to do from the lodge.  We stayed at another backcountry ski lodge years ago as a family that was super easy to get to, but there was nothing to do once we arrived at the lodge.  No trails to explore, nowhere to really go.  At Shadow Lake Lodge you can hike or ski across Shadow Lake in a very easy family-friendly outing.  We spent half a day playing on the lake and felt safe at all times.  When we finished snowshoeing on the lake we came back to the lodge, played in the meadow and enjoyed afternoon tea.


Hiking along the creek from Shadow Lake Lodge
Taking a rest on the summer bridge at Shadow Lake

The lodge has snowshoes for guests to borrow.  Families will want to bring small snowshoes for the kids but the lodge has a dozen or so pairs of adult snowshoes so that you can just hike around on your rest day.  We appreciated this and it saved us bringing in three pairs of snowshoes.  Just remember to bring winter boots with you.

Snowshoeing across Shadow Lake, Banff National Park
Not many kids get to snowshoe in paradise like this
Daddy tracks, Mommy tracks, and Baby tracks






Want to visit Shadow Lake or stay at Shadow Lake Lodge?

Playing around on Shadow Lake

All information on Brewster's Shadow Lake Lodge can be found on their website at Shadow Lake Lodge.  


Information on the location and route can be found here with a map.

To be inspired for summer season at Shadow Lake, read the story I wrote here:  Family Backpacking in Banff National Park - no tent required

You can also see the amazing photos from our magical hiking trip at Shadow Lake last fall here:  Magical Autumn Hiking on the Bow Valley Highline Trail

And finally, check out my recent story for Snowshoe Magazine:  My Quest to find the most Beautiful Destination in Backcountry Banff

Special thanks to the great folks at Brewster's Shadow Lake Lodge for supporting and arranging our stay at this amazing lodge.


Shadow Lake, the Most Beautiful Lake in Backcountry Banff


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