Thursday, December 08, 2011

Exploring The Rockies on a Budget

There are many great tours in the Canadian Rockies that promise to take you to see majestic mountains, ancient glaciers, alpine meadows, lakes, rivers and waterfalls.  Add canyon tours, caving, dog-sledding, snow shoeing, skiing, climbing trips, caving, visits to natural hot springs, and wildlife sightings.  For further enjoyment you have horse drawn sleigh rides or back-country trips into historic lodges.  Have lots of money and you could add heli-skiing to your list or a helicopter tour over the Columbia Icefields.  If you are truly adventurous you could try ice climbing or a ski glacier traverse of the Wapta Ice field.  There is no lack of awe-inspiring activities to do in the Rockies.  Even for those not quite as adventurous, there are the luxurious spas and resorts many of us dream of visiting.

What can you do though if you want to visit the Rockies on a smaller budget?   Gas and  basic travel expenses aside, there are many amazing experiences to be had this winter that are affordable for the average family and often free if you have the proper equipment already.

Go Cross Country Skiing
Kananaskis has some of the best ski trails I've ever found and they are completely user-free.  All you need is equipment.  There are many places to rent skis and you can even rent ski sleds to pull small children in.  Now is also a great time to put skis on your Christmas list.
The following paragraph is copied from my story,  My Winter Bucket List

Our favorite place to ski when we are looking for perfect grooming and track-set trails is in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park.  It's free to ski there with almost 100km of maintained ski trails and there's lots of variety from narrow trails following creeks still flowing with water, to big hills leading up to amazing viewpoints over Upper Kananaskis Lake.  I also like that you can start skiing from either the Pocaterra Warming Hut or the Visitor Information Centre.  Both options are great for kids because you can have a snack before heading out, dress the kids, change diapers and go to the bathroom all from the warmth of a cabin or beautiful visitor centre complete with fireplace and picture windows looking out over the mountains.  Many families set up home base at one of the two facilities and take turns doing short loops while one parent skis or plays with the kids.  It's a good idea for groups of families that want the kids to play/ski together while the adults also take turns on the trails.
Kananaskis trail report
Kananaskis Outfitters - ski rentals

Skiing in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park

Go Snowshoeing
Again, we have another sport that equipment aside, is free.  There is a great book that has just been published called Snowshoeing in the Canadian Rockies by Andrew Nugara.  It is on my Christmas list for sure!  There's also several websites describing popular snow shoe trails in Kananaskis and Banff. 
Snow shoe trails in Banff National Park
Snowshoe trails in Kananaskis
You can rent snowshoes from a number of places including Kananaskis Outfitters, link above.

I love snowshoeing because you don't need experience and most official snowshoe trails are relatively flat and easy for beginners.  You can also get into some incredibly beautiful places that few people see in winter.

Snowshoeing in Kananaskis

Take a Winter Hike
100% free.  No equipment required other than good  boots, warm clothes, and possibly a pair of cleats.  The Parks Canada Website has great trail descriptions for Banff and many trails are good for hiking year round.
Banff trail report

Winter hiking, like snowshoeing, is something that requires little experience if you stick to the official signed trails around Banff.  These trails see plenty of traffic so you should have no problems staying on the trail.
If you are interested in winter hiking and want to see photos, you can read my story, November in Banff.

Winter hiking in Banff

Go ice skating
There are many great places to go ice skating outdoors in the mountains and it's always free.  Most families own skates and you can rent them too at most resorts.  Small kids can be pulled around the ice on a sled or pushed in a stroller making it a great activity for all families regardless of the children's ages.  Some of the best places to go for a skate are listed below.
  • Kananaskis Village (pond and hockey rink)
  • Lake Louise (cleared area on the lake)
  • Behind the Banff Springs Hotel in the town of Banff (cleared rink)
  • There are many outdoor ponds and skating rinks in Canmore, some for hockey and some just for skating Canmore Recreation
Skating in Banff on Johnson Lake before it was covered in snow this November

Go sledding
Again, always free and most kids love sledding.  There are a number of good places to head for a day of sledding.  Some of the popular ones are below.
  • Kananaskis Village toboggan hill
  • Town of Banff:  Toboggan hill located behind the Banff Springs Hotel beside Bow Falls
  • Canmore:  Riverside Park and Cemetery Hill 
Sledding at Kananaskis Village

Spend the day at one of the many resorts in the Canadian Rockies
I love spending the day at a fancy upscale resorts in the Rockies even if I can't afford to stay overnight.  You can still enjoy many of the resort amenities while using the resort as a base camp for the day.  My favorite resorts to crash are The Delta Kananaskis Lodge and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Resort.

The Delta Kananaskis 
Delta Kananaskis Lodge
  • X-country ski trails right outside the door linking the Village to Ribbon Creek below
  • Groomed ski trails are also great for snowshoeing or winter hiking while pulling kids in sleds (stay off the ski tracks please)
  • Toboggan hill
  • Skating pond and hockey rink
  • Playground
  • Walking trails around the village
  • Huge fireside room with wood burning fireplace, Christmas tree (in season), couches, free wi-fi, and coffee shop/deli
  • Mountain themed gift shops that are super fun to browse through (especially at Christmas)
Going for a walk on the trails around Ribbon Creek below Kananaskis Village

The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Resort
  • X-country ski trails right outside the door along the lake shore, on the Moraine Lake summer road, or  around the village below
  • Skating on a cleared section of the lake
  • Coffee shop/deli
  • Glacier saloon in the basement that takes kids
  • Lakeview lounge that serves lunch, afternoon tea and desserts with amazing views over the lake
  • Horse drawn sleigh rides across the lake (cost involved) Brewsters Adventures - sleigh rides
Cross country skiing at Lake Louise
Winter hiking at Lake Louise
      I am always looking for more great resorts to use as a base camp for our day trips so let me know if you have a favorite. Also, if you are visiting one of the resorts, please give guests the privacy that they have paid for and deserve.  Letting your children run up and down the hotel corridors isn't cool and you should respect signs that say "guests only beyond this point." 
      We make it a point to at least visit a coffee shop or restaurant as well when at a resort so that we aren't taking advantage of the resort's hospitality.

      Attend a winter festival
      For free family entertainment and winter fun in the Rockies you have to attend one of the many festivals being held this winter.  WinterStart in Banff just finished (it happens early December every year) and it was amazing.  For a full review of the fun we had during this festival read my last story: The makings of a polar bear kid
      There are many other great festivals coming up where you will be able to go skating, skiing, take a horse drawn sleigh ride, watch ice carving, see Santa, go tobogganing, and play in the snow together as a family.  

      Spirit of Christmas in Bragg Creek 
      Visit Bragg Creek
      Weekends December 3, 4, 10, 17
      Horse drawn wagon rides, visit with Santa and his reindeer, carols, crafts, ice sculpting

      New Year's Eve Party on the Pond, Canmore
      December 31
      Canmore Events 
      Skating on the 10th Street Pond, horse and wagon rides, hot chocolate, music and more

      Winter Snow Day at the Canmore Nordic Centre
      January 22
      Tourism Canmore
      Skiing, skating and tobogganing
      Children 17 and under can ski for  free
      For info: Canmore Nordic Centre at 403-678-2400 

      Ice Magic Festival:
      "Now in its 18th year, this Banff National Park classic is more popular than ever. Experience Lake Louise at its winter finest during the Ice Magic Festival. Centerpiece to SnowDays, a new month-long celebration of winter in Banff National Park."  Banff and Lake Louise Festivals

      January 20 - 22 , International Ice Carving Competition Weekend
      34 hour competition with professional ice carvers, horse drawn wagon rides and ice skating at Lake Louise
      January 28 & 29 , Little Chippers Weekend
      View the finished ice carvings at Lake Louise and visit the Ice Playground

      "The "NEW" Ice Playground is where your kids - and you - can learn the art and science of ice carving first-hand, play ice mini golf, crawl through an ice tunnel and cruise down an ice slide. You can skate with the Ice Queen on Lake Louise, witness the 10-block ice carving event and spend time in the Cozy Corner Kids Indoor Activity Centre.  All kids activities are free. "  Banff and Lake Louise Festivals

      Kids love trips to the mountains

      What is your favorite thing to do in the Rockies on a budget?
      If you are interested  in winter sports, consider joining the Winter Sports Group on the Outdoor Baby Network.  Outdoor Baby Network, Winter Sports


      1. Okay, I totally LOVE this post. It's not quite as cold here in Colorado, but these are AWESOME ideas. It makes me excited!

      2. Thanks Jessica. Hope you can enjoy many of these activities this winter in Colorado. We have friends down there and need to come visit sometime.

      3. A big bonus at Kananaskis Village is that kids (under 8, I think) eat free in the Grill, which makes an excellent lunch so much more affordable.

      4. Did not know that. Thanks Frances.

      5. Excellent ideas - great information and stories. My family and I enjoy doing these little adventures too! Cheers!