Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Jasper Has an Ice Cave - For Real!

I love following local photographers, hikers, and bloggers on Instagram because I get new ideas for places I should check out close to home.  This winter, one of those places was the Athabasca Glacier at the Columbia Icefield Centre.  As I looked at photograph after photograph of the new ice cave at the toe of the glacier, I knew I had to see it for myself - and take my son to see it of course.

The Ice Cave at the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park

I don't know that we would have taken the long 3.5 hour drive from Calgary to see the ice cave in a day trip but we were staying at the nearby Hilda Wilderness Hostel for Easter and the Icefield Centre was a short 5 minute drive from where we were staying!  Hello glacier hike!!

In summer you'd drive this road to get closer to the Athabasca  Glacier
Hiking across Glacier Moraines towards the toe of the Athabasca Glacier

What and Where is the Columbia Icefield Centre? This is a big tourist hub from where you can take the big snow coach bus tours onto the Athabasca Glacier in summer.  It's located roughly half way between Lake Louise and Jasper. More information can be found on the Brewster Travel Canada website. 

Approaching the Athabasca Glacier

Family-Friendly Glacier Hike

From either the winter or summer parking lot, it's a short hike to the toe of the glacier or to the moraines overlooking it.  It's perfectly safe for families because you don't step ON the glacier.  You stay safely in front of it on the rock and you don't cross fences that tell you to stay back.  If you want to actually go on the glacier itself, you need to take a Glacier Adventure Tour with Brewster Travel Canada (who did not sponsor this story but deserve a shout out for their great tours.)

This is the start of the hiking trail in summer

The hiking trail is only 1.8km long to the toe of the glacier (add half a kilometre in winter) and is feasible by most families.  For more information, follow this link to the Parks Canada website where you'll find a detailed description of the hike for the "Toe of the Athabasca Glacier."

You can also find a map of the Icefields on the Icefields Parkway Travel Guide

Hiking across the glacier Moraines to the Ice Cave

Finding the Ice Cave

To find the ice cave, hike towards the toe of the glacier and then hike off to your right across the rocks and moraines.  You should see it in the distance.  In the photos you can see us hiking towards it.

Getting closer to the cave
Found the Ice Cave
We found the ice cave - and that's as far as my son got to go

Is it Safe? No.  Not really anyway.  I went inside but I would not let my son go inside.  And I don't know anybody else who has let their kids go inside this winter either.  In theory, it could crash down at any second.  So, if you're going under for a photo, do it quick and get out.

Standing in the Ice Cave
View from within the Ice Cave

From the cave, we meandered our way back down to the parking lot and it felt like Noah was learning basic glacier travel as he descended the snowy moraines kicking steps and sliding on his bum when safe.  It was a lot of fun and a great outing.

Descending our way back to the parking lot

If you want to visit the ice cave, I recommend going now because I don't think it's always there.  I've never seen it before anyway, and have only started hearing about it this winter.  Glaciers change every year so who knows what you might find next year.

Further Recommended Reading:

Easter at the BEST Wilderness Hostel in the Canadian Rockies (Hilda Creek near the Columbia Icefield Centre)

Experiencing Awesome in Jasper National Park (Summer adventures on the Icefields Parkway)

Moving on to Big Adventures - and the Kids get to Come Along (Fall adventures at Hilda Creek)

Tots on Ice (Athabasca Glacier Snow Coach Tour)

Spring Adventures on Alberta's Icefields Parkway

Spring on the Icefields Parkway from the Hilda Creek Hostel

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Best Early Season Biking at Nipika Mountain Resort

It’s spring in the Kootenay Rockies across the border in BC, and Nipika Mountain Resort is the place you want to head for spectacular early season riding.  With over 100 kms of trails with difficulty suitable for all levels of riders, Nipika offers something for everybody from novice riders to experienced mountain bikers seeking a challenge.  And yes, there are options for families too on wide winter ski trails that take you to two spectacular bridges and a natural bridge.

Biking at Nipika Mountain Resort


Go for the Riding and Stay for the Weekend

Nipika offers the perfect opportunity to put on big kilometres of technically challenging riding while staying in the comforts of cozy hand built log cabins.  Planning a girls’ weekend or want to gather up your best friends for a mountain getaway?  Nipika’s cabins can accommodate up to 6-8 guests per cabin and have cooking facilities so you don’t have to run into town after your day of biking.  Relax on your private patio or deck with a cold beer and enjoy the sun in Nipika’s open meadow.  There’s also a wood fired hot tub and pond for cooling off in after.

Want to plan a big weekend at Nipika with a few other families (or even host a family reunion here?)  The Rocky Mountain Cabin can sleep 13 comfortably and features a large living area, kitchen and deck overlooking the pond.  Mountain living doesn’t get sweeter than this!

Riding for all levels at Nipika Mountain Resort

Learn to Ride at Nipika with some of the Best Mountain Bike Coaches in the Country

Nipika will host a mountain bike camp from May 1st through the 3rd this year.  Register for this program and get great early season riding under the guidance of some of the best Mountain Bike Coaches in the country.

The details:

Spend 2½ days riding the best, early-season single track in the area.

Do you want to get in some early season trail riding on dirt?
Do you want to ride with mountain bikers who are passionate about riding and improving their skills?

If you are an enthusiastic mountain biker who can ride for 2.0 to 4.5 hours per day, at a moderate to fast pace and can handle intermediate to advanced technical terrain, then this weekend is for YOU!

The cost:  $450.00 per adult

What’s included:

•    Two nights of luxury accommodations at Nipika
•    BBQ on Friday night
•    Local trail guides and coaches on all rides
•    Small groups based on skills/speed/duration
•    Skill sessions with certified coaches, a bike maintenance clinic, and post-ride stretching sessions
•    Demo bikes and massages available all weekend

Reserve by contacting Nipika Resort at 1-877-647-4525 or

Biking along the Cross River at Nipika Mountain Resort

Summer at Nipika Mountain Resort

Come for the spring riding and return for a week of summer adventure!  The Paddle & Hike Adventure Weeks run Sundays thru Fridays with a mix of beautiful paddling days on the Kootenay River and alpine hikes into the heart of the Rockies. 

The Week of Rockies Rivers is a whitewater paddling experience in grades 1 - 3 water with instruction from experts.  Guests will also enjoy great camping along the rivers.

For more information on these programs, visit the Nipika Resort website where all theme weeks are described in detail at

Great Single Track Riding at Nipika Mountain Resort


Nipika for Families

We are planning a weekend at Nipika in May and are super excited to spend two days biking the gentle ski trails with our kids, taking turns as adults to try the more challenging trails, and then relaxing in the meadow in front of the cabins.  I imagine the kids will even want to go for a quick splash in the pond if it is warm enough and I hear that there's a mountain bike terrain park!! (if it includes a pump track, my son will never want to come home.)

Small kids can only bike for a couple hours before they tire out, so spending the weekend at Nipika will allow us to go for multiple small rides each day with down time in between playing or resting in our cabin.

Spring Riding in the Columbia Valley of BC last year

All information for this story was provided by Nipika Mountain Resort along with all photos from the Nipika trails. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Easter at the BEST Wilderness Hostel in the Canadian Rockies

It's spring in Calgary and we just did a 20 km family bike ride today on glorious snow-free pathways.  Leave the city and head into the mountains though and it's a slightly different picture. The front ranges near Kananaskis and Banff are starting to melt out and are becoming dry enough for spring hiking or biking, but go towards Lake Louise (or beyond) and it's still very much winter.

Spring in the Canadian Rockies still looks like this beyond Lake Louise

We spent the Easter long weekend at a small rustic cabin located on the border of Jasper National Park, just a short drive away from the Columbia Icefield Centre on hwy 93.  We were only an hour and a half north of Lake Louise but it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere (beautiful, blissful nowhere!)

Hilda Creek, Our Mountain Retreat on the Icefields Parkway

The Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel is our favourite property in the collection of hostels operated by Hostelling International because it only sleeps 6 and so we get a private mountain retreat every time we go.  We enjoy the privacy with another family and we don't have to worry about disturbing other hostel users who may (or may not) enjoy listening to our children running around screaming and playing loud games.

Playing in the snow outside the Hilda Creek Hostel

My Sales Pitch - Why You Have to Take your Kids to Hilda Creek

Nobody's paying me to tell you that you absolutely have to plan a trip to Hilda Creek.  But you do!  It's just too fabulous a place not to visit at least once if you live in (or plan to visit) the Alberta Rocky Mountains.  Below are just a few of the many reasons why we love Hilda Creek:

1.  Snow, snow everywhere!  The kids build snow houses and tunnels, we build giant luge tracks for sledding, we snowshoe up to the glacier moraines behind the hostel (before hitting avalanche terrain,) and we explore the nearby Athabasca Glacier (which had an ice cave this year!)

Sledding down the hill behind the Hilda Creek Hostel

2.  Kids get to see a magical world that is usually reserved to backcountry skiers.  I'm not a backcountry skier and am always slightly jealous of the places my husband gets to go when he's on his ski trips with friends.  At Hilda Creek though, we get to go play in Daddy's backcountry ski world.  We get to see glaciers, we can go sledding down glacier moraines, and we can go snowshoeing into the backcountry where the scenery is unlike anything I've ever seen on a family hike.  (See notes further down in this story about avalanche safety while at Hilda Creek.)

Climbing Glacier Moraines and Playing in the Backcountry above the Hilda Creek Hostel

3.  Winter Camping made Accessible for the Average Family.  There's no way I'm going to go sleep in a tent in winter, camp in the snow, or sit outside cooking a dehydrated meal in the cold over a small backpacking stove.  And while some families are up for that challenge, I believe I'm with the majority who is not!  Enter Hilda Creek where you can "pretend" you are camping but still have all the comforts of a heated cabin.  You can cook inside, sleep inside, and you get a real bed to sleep in (no hard cold snowy ground.)

Sledding down glacier moraines above the Hilda Creek Hostel

4.  Backcountry Accommodations with a Front Country Approach.  I love snowshoeing or skiing into backcountry huts in winter but it's hard to do a 12 km backcountry ski trip with kids.  Meanwhile, Hilda Creek requires 5 minutes of walking from highway to cabin door.  That's my kind of backpacking trip!  You still have to haul all of your stuff in, but bring a sled or two and it's a few relatively painless trips.

This scenery was found within a 30 minute hike from the Hilda Creek Hostel

5.  Hilda Creek Offers an Easy Way to get Kids into the Backcountry.  Rather than ski 12+ km into the backcountry, I prefer to just hike 5 minutes into my cabin that's already perched at the edge of some pretty spectacular backcountry terrain.  Then from the cabin, you can go explore with day packs and a sled or two.  That's family travel made EASY.

The Easy Hike up towards the Hilda Glacier from the Hilda Hostel

Spending Easter at the Hostel

What did we do to celebrate Easter?  We colored eggs and sent the kids searching for chocolate filled plastic eggs that we had hid around the hostel.  It was fun watching the kids go on a snowy winter wonderland Easter egg hunt.

Snowy Easter Egg Hunt
The Loot after the outdoor Easter Egg Hunt

We also hid their Easter bunnies with an avalanche transceiver and made the kids hunt for them with a second transceiver.  This was a lot of fun and I think we'll do more transceiver searches next year.  It's just like geocaching, but with something that beeps at you as you get closer.

Searching for Easter Bunnies with Avalanche Transceivers

Details You will Need to Know to Play Your Stay - Avalanche Safety

First, know that there is very real avalanche danger NEAR the hostel.  We stayed out of harm's way because we had experienced backcountry skiers in our group who have the training to know where to go and where not to go.  If you do not have avalanche training and significant winter backcountry experience you should not go hiking above the hostel to the moraines.  We felt very confident with how far we hiked but again, we had experience and training on our side.

For our primary hike from the hostel, we followed the creek (behind the bathrooms) and hiked up towards the Hilda Glacier.  We stopped at the first moraines, just outside of avalanche risk. 

Hiking towards the Hilda Glacier is a great family activity for those with backcountry training

If you do not have avalanche training, stay at the hostel, play in the snow in front of the hostel, build sled runs down the hill behind the hostel, and even climb up through the trees a ways behind the hostel.  As long as you don't go above tree line, you are safe right behind the hostel on the backcountry skiers "up track."  We hiked up to tree line on our last day at the hostel and it was beautiful up there.  Again, backcountry knowledge is incredibly useful on this hike too and if you don't know what "tree line" is, it's safe to say you should probably stay at the hostel down below.

Hiking up to tree line behind the hostel (this is as far as we went)

If you have ANY doubts as to how far you can hike around the hostel, where is safe to play, or are looking for ideas, please stop in at the Lake Louise Info. Centre en route to the hostel or play it safe and stick close to the cabins.  You are 100% safe from all avalanche harm at the hostel itself.

I'll be writing a follow up piece as well on hiking around the Athabasca Glacier because this is a safe trip that can be done from the hostel for all families regardless of experience in the backcountry.  The hike starts from the Icefield Centre further up the road and follows a very good hiking trail that is 100% family friendly.  Read the story here:  Jasper has an Ice Cave - For Real!

Hiking to the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier near the Hilda Hostel at the Columbia Icefield Centre

What to Expect From the Accommodations (and what to bring)

Hilda Creek is basically a backcountry cabin.  You will either need to haul water in with you, or collect it from the nearby stream (if not frozen.)  If the stream is frozen, you'll need to melt snow for drinking and cooking water (and it takes a lot of snow to make one bucket of water!)

Bathrooms are outside in the form of outhouses and midnight runs are neither convenient nor pleasant.  On the plus side though, at least you aren't digging a pit somewhere when nature calls.

There is a stove (no oven) and there are sinks in which to wash dishes.  Water from the sinks is collected in buckets underneath and then has to be taken outside to dump.  There is no indoor fireplace (or outdoor fire pits) but there are propane heaters inside both the kitchen and sleeping cabin.  Users do require knowledge to get the propane turned on though and to fiddle with the system which can be a bit touchy at times.  And finally, there are solar powered lights in the cabins but they are very dim and it's recommended you bring an LED lantern or two for extra light.

Our little cabin in paradise, Hilda Creek

Besides drinking water and extra lights, you should bring a sled to haul your gear into the cabin.  Bring a cooler for your perishable food and a plastic bin (with lid) for your non perishable food.  It's good if you can keep all your food covered at night because there are definitely mice in the kitchen.  Bring sleeping blankets and pillow cases (pillows are provided) but leave the mattresses at home (which are already there.)

Finally, you'll want to bring snowshoes for hiking, skis if you plan to do any backcountry skiing (and have the knowledge to do so with proper avalanche gear,) and any toys that will amuse the kids inside or outside of the hostel.  We find books to be a great source of entertainment for downtime along with a portable DVD player or tablet (kids can only play outside for so many hours in the cold after all.)

Hiking up to tree line behind the Hilda Creek Hostel


Book Your Own Trip to Hilda Creek (and check it out in the summer!)

To book your own trip at Hilda Creek, call Hostelling International or visit the website for more information.

Hiking on the Moraines above the Hilda Creek Hostel
Mountain Yoga anyone?
Who wouldn't love a weekend here?

Want to see what a stay at Hilda is like in the summer season?  Check out this story I wrote last fall:  Moving on to Big Adventures - and the Kids get to Come Along.  Summer is a lovely time on the Icefields Parkway and you'll be able to hike above the hostel free of avalanche danger.  This makes a stay a bit more reasonable for the average family.

Hiking above the Hilda Creek Hostel last Fall

Monday, March 30, 2015

Spring Skiing at Nakiska Mountain Resort

Spring is here but the ski season isn't quite over yet.  Calgary's closest mountain, Nakiska Mountain Resort, is open until April 19th this year. With live entertainment, family activities, and warm weather, it's a great time to gather up the kids and head out for one last ski weekend (or two) of the season.

Spring Skiing at Nakiska Mountain Resort

Easter At Nakiska Mountain Resort

Easter is a fun time to come out to Nakiska for a day with games and activities for the whole family.  Join Telus Winter Sports School for the Nakiska Spring Olympics this Saturday and Sunday, April 4th and 5th.  Two sessions run from 11:30-12:30pm and from 1pm-2:30pm.   There are prizes to be won and all you have to do to register is to meet in front of the BBQ tent before one of the two sessions.
Spring Skiing at Nakiska

If relaxing is more your speed, there is also live music on the hill this weekend on Sunday, April 5th.  There will be a live DJ on the Finish Line Patio playing great music while you enjoy a drink on the patio while soaking up the warm spring sun.

Other Spring Promotions at Nakiska

There will also be a live DJ at Nakiska on both Saturday and Sunday, April 11th and 12th, and on the following Saturday, April 18th. This is great for families who may want to come out for the weekend to stay at the Delta Lodge at Kananaskis.

Spend the morning skiing, spend the afternoon hanging out in the sun on the patio, and then retreat to the lodge for dinner and some time at the hot tub and pool.

All special offers for the Delta Lodge can be found on their website if I've just given you a brilliant idea for a fun spring weekend away.

Plan Ahead for Next Year

The early bird sale for next year's season passes will begin in May with all information on pricing released at this time. For more information, visit the Nakiska website.

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