Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Staying overnight in the Rockies on a budget

My last story was about Exploring the Rockies on a budget .  In that story I focused on the experiences you could have during a day trip to the mountains.  I wanted to do a separate story highlighting the amazing places you can stay in the Rockies on a budget.  I haven't personally stayed at all of the places I'm recommending below but have talked to other families that have wonderful things to say about them and thus am including these huts or hostels in my list.

I could easily have titled this story, "extreme family adventures" or "winter camping in the Rockies"  because you will need a fair bit of courage to make it into many of  the destinations I'm going to share with you.  You'll need back-country survival skills for most of the places and many of them are barely a step up from winter camping.  If you need water, you'll have to melt snow.  If you have to go to the bathroom at night, you'll have to put on your boots and walk outside to find the outhouse.  If you need heat, you might have to chop wood for the fire.  Just to reach the cabin might require skis or snow shoes.  Sound fun?  Then read on.

Back-country huts and cabins
The Alpine Club of Canada has many back-country huts that are accessible in winter on skis or snow shoes.  A few of the huts are even easy enough to get to as a family.  They are much more affordable to stay at than a visit to a premier back-country lodge and provide a wilderness experience that most families will never get to appreciate in winter.  You will need back-country camping skills for all of the ACC huts.  They provide fully stocked kitchens and sleeping pads but you'll need to bring all of your food along with your sleeping bag.  Please read the description for each hut below for a full list of what to bring and skills that you will need to possess. 

There are three Alpine Club of Canada Huts that I would recommend for families:

The Elizabeth Parker Hut at Lake O'Hara, Yoho National Park, BC
This hut is accessible by a 12km ski up a snow covered road and sleeps 20 in winter.  It is an easy ski tour and the road sees plenty of ski traffic so you won't be alone.  The road is not groomed or track-set but it is one of the easiest huts to ski into and most people use cross-country skis unless they want to do more touring above the hut.  Touring above the hut would likely require back-country skis, avalanche beacons and training depending on how far you go.

I love skiing into the Elizabeth Parker Hut in winter because it feels safe.  There is no avalanche danger on the road, there is a back-country lodge within a kilometre of the hut in case of emergency, and it is a fairly easy ski trip for skiers of all abilities.  Every time I've been into Lake O'Hara in winter I've seen groups of families making their way in.  They have kids riding in sleds, they have other kids on little skis shuffling up the trail, and they have more sleds pulling their gear.  For families it is a full day event to reach the hut but that's part of the adventure.

Note that it is always smart to check with local park staff on current avalanche conditions and safety before setting out on your trip even if you don't anticipate being in any danger.

The Elizabeth Parker Hut in winter

 The  A.O. Wheeler Hut at Roger's Pass, Glacier National Park, BC
This hut is accessible by a 2km ski or snow shoe on a fairly even trail and sleeps 24 in winter. It is very popular with families wanting a back-country home from where they can build snowmen, snow forts, have snowball fights, and play as a family in the meadow outside the hut.  It's difficult for families to go much further than the hut on skis but small kids could shuffle around the hut and be quite content.

I have never visited this hut before but it does come highly recommended by other families I've talked to. One of the best things about the hut is that you can make multiple trips in due to the short distance from the highway.  This ensures you can bring that mini keg  for the adults, toys for the kids, and everything but the kitchen sink to provide for a comfortable visit.

The Elk Lakes Cabin, Elk Lakes Provincial Park, BC
This hut is accessible by a 9km trail, partly on the groomed track-set ski trails of Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis.  From Elk Pass where the maintained trail ends, it's a 4km ski across the BC border and down to the hut.  This is the most difficult ski trip of the three mentioned here.  I've always found I need light touring skis and skins to make the journey.  If you aren't confident at back-country skiing, you can always snow shoe into this hut and have the same wilderness experience.  The hut sleeps 10 in winter and is very popular on weekends due to its size.  Many families like to rent the whole cabin and go as a group with other families.  There are short day trips that can be made from the cabin to the Lower and Upper Elk Lakes.

The Elk Lakes cabin is my favorite of all the winter destinations.  I like to go closer to spring and spend the afternoon sitting on the sunny front deck drinking hot chocolate and Baileys.    

Spring at the Elk Lakes Cabin

Wilderness Hostels
Hostelling International has many wilderness hostels that aren't widely advertised but make for an amazing family weekend away.  They are very affordable compared to hotels and they provide a more adventurous experience for the kids.  They are similar to the ACC huts above in that you will need back-country camping experience. 

The Mosquito Creek Hostel, Banff National Park
This hostel is located close enough to Lake Louise to use it as a base camp for many adventures from downhill skiing to cross country skiing to snow shoeing.  It is much cheaper than the Lake Louise Hostel and what you won't find any information on, is that there is a family cabin.  I won't put all the information about the cabin here because I've never actually stayed there but if you call Hostelling International they can give you all the details.  It's on my list of places to stay.  I do know that it is very popular so book far in advance if you want to take your family here.  I believe the cabin is big enough for two families to share with common cooking facilities in between two sleeping rooms.   The sleeping arrangement is simple with bunk-beds and you need to bring your own bedding. It is a very similar experience to staying in one of the ACC huts with the exception that you can drive right up to the door and there is a staff member on site to help you with any questions you might have.

Hilda Creek Hostel , Banff National Park
Right now back-country skiers are cursing me for telling the world about their secret hostel.  I figure, it's easy enough for families to get into so they just might have to share with us.  You'll need a true sense of adventure to make it into Hilda Creek.  In fact the first time we stayed here as a family we received a very long precautionary speech on the phone.  Below is information about the hut copied from HI hostels' website:
"This hostel is not staffed, has limited services (no running water, electricity or telecommunications) and is accessible only by key access system. Not for the faint of heart, hostelling here requires knowledge and application of backcountry hut procedures and ethics."
The hostel is located within 500m of your parked car and although it does require back-country hut knowledge, it is no different than staying in one of the Alpine Club's huts above.  What sets this hostel apart is that it only sleeps six so is perfect for a family or two small families.  When we stayed there they required us to book the whole hostel since we'd have children in shared dorm space.  Again, not likely a problem for most families since it is so small.  You just might have to pay for an extra bed or two.

While the hostel is located beside the highway, you will have to pack your gear across the highway and down a steep hill.  Alternately, you can park at the locked caretaker's gate and walk down the access road 500m to the hostel.  This is easier but you should have your gear in backpacks or on sleds.   You'll also need sleds to pull small kids in.  The hostel is also tricky to see from the highway and the sign often says that it's closed.  Make sure you get good directions from the Lake Louise Hostel when picking up the key.

Inside the Hilda Creek Hostel's Kitchen

Kananaskis Wilderness Hostel, Kananaskis 
This is another hostel we've yet to stay at but we are looking forward to a weekend of toddlers in the mountains this February at the hostel.  The hostel sleeps 38 and has three private rooms for families.  Each private room sleeps three but could sleep four if you brought a playpen with you.  You can drive right up to the door of the hostel and it's in a great location to ski right from the doorstep. There are cross country trails winding along Ribbon Creek and all the way up to Kananaskis Village.  If cross country skiing isn't your thing, you can snowshoe the trails instead and head up towards Skogan Pass or Starburst Lookout.  Alternately, there is a toboggan hill and a skating rink at the Village above.  Nakiska Ski Resort is also just above the Village making this truly a rewarding destination for every winter sport imaginable. 
I'd love to hear about any great back-country places you've stayed in the Rockies or local mountains near your home.

To participate in great conversations about winter sports, join the Outdoor Baby Network and become a member of the winter sports community.  There is currently a discussion going about winter camping.


  1. Pre-Baby, I spent a very cold (sub-zero) Christmas camping and ice climbing in Banff. It was beautiful and I so wish that I had known about the hostel! (It took me forever to figure out how to get the ice out of my contact lens case that was in my sleeping bag with me!)

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