Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Winter camping in Kananaskis

If you saw the title and thought, wow, winter camping with a toddler!, let me clarify that we were not sleeping outside.  We spent the weekend camping with friends and their two children at the Kananaskis Wilderness Hostel at Ribbon Creek. 

Normally I wouldn't call it "camping", but my son thinks that any overnight trip to the mountains is a camping trip.  We referred to the hostel as a camping house for his benefit.  We did attempt to make the experience at least a little reminiscent of camping and made use of the fire pit outside the hostel to create a nice little bonfire for the kids.

Our winter campfire

The Kananaskis Hostel is labeled as a wilderness hostel but the word "wilderness" is up for debate in my mind.  It is certainly the most cushy wilderness experience that I've ever had.  The hostel had electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, showers, a microwave and a telephone.  There was even cell coverage so you could keep up with facebook and e-mails from your smart phone.  The HI Canada website does a good job of describing the balance between the  rustic and  the comfortable :

Located west of Calgary, Kananaskis Country is an all-season recreation area on the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies. The HI-Kananaskis Wilderness Hostel is close to over 60 mountain biking, hiking and cross-country ski trails. Kananaskis Country is known for its plethora of mountain activities by day, while the Kananaskis Hostel is renowned for its relaxing rustic atmosphere by night.  This is an ideal hostel experience for those who enjoy hot showers and clean indoor facilities as part of their "Rustic" atmosphere adventure. Get out of the city and get back to nature! 

Here are some photos I took of the hostel.

The Girl  Guide Trex Group we shared the hostel with on Friday night. 
The hostel's large kitchen area
One of the three private bedrooms

The living room area of the hostel (with wood fireplace)

Hostelling International Canada has ten wilderness hostels in the Canadian Rockies.  Nine of them are in Alberta (Kananaskis, Banff and Jasper) with the 10th located in Yoho National Park, BC.  To date I've stayed in eight of the wilderness hostels and my son has already been to three of them including the Kananaskis Hostel.  

We've always been grateful for the abundance of hostels located throughout the Rockies and have used them as base camps for hiking, skiing, and backcountry adventures.  My husband and I fell in love at the Whiskey Jack Hostel in Yoho, hiked by the light of a full moon on Parker Ridge from the Hilda Creek Hostel in Banff, and skied up to the Edith Cavel Hostel in Jasper twice as part of our journey into the Tonquin Valley.  Now we are adding our son to our hosteling adventures.

Our experience at the Kananaskis Hostel was very different from our last two family trips.  We loved our family stay at both the Hilda Creek and Mosquito Creek Hostels in Banff because of the remoteness of each location.  We felt like we were in the backcountry when we stayed at these hostels and even had to make a short hike into Hilda Creek.  

It was only ten minutes at most but when are carrying gear for a family that includes a play pen, booster seat and toys along with your giant cooler of food and duffels of clothing, ten minutes is enough.  Even Mosquito Creek is set far enough back from the highway that we needed to use sleds to haul our gear in this winter.  

Arriving at the Kananaskis hostel though, we realized we'd be able to park the truck and casually walk up to the front door of the hostel.   From the living room you could look out the window and easily monitor the ski traffic going into the Ribbon Creek parking lot or watch guests come and go.

These photos should give you a better idea of the differences between our hosteling experiences.

HI Kananaskis (notice the car parked beside the door and the power lines top left)
HI Mosquito Creek (much more rustic feeling and snowy!)

Hiking in to Mosquito Creek (no parking lot in sight)
This is what you experience when you go for a hike from HI Hilda Creek.  It doesn't get more remote than this!

Kananaskis is a paradise for cross country skiing, alpine resort skiing at nearby Nakiska, biking, hiking, horseback riding and paddling or rafting.  The cross country ski trails are great when there is enough snow and you can easily make the distance to lovely Troll Falls, just 2km from Kananaskis Hostel.     The hostel is also conveniently located near Kananaskis Village.  

We skied up to the Village with the kids to go skating while staying at the hostel.  There's also a toboggan hill, walking and snowshoe trails as well as playground at the Village.

Skating at the Village 

Skiing to Troll Falls on the Ribbon Creek Trails

Troll Falls

The Kananaskis hostel might not be one of the more rustic hostels, but getting away for a weekend in the mountains with children can be challenging so I think it's perfectly justifiable to seek out a location that has a few modern comforts (or a parking lot beside the door as you're hauling in your tenth load of gear).

Overall, we've found that traveling with kids changes the whole "day trip" idea of exploring the mountains.  You start to appreciate having a base camp so that you don't have to drive for an hour just to do a 4km hike.  The Kananaskis Hostel is the perfect jumping off point for a myriad of family adventures. Add the comfort features and it would be the idea place for most families looking for a soft wilderness adventure. 

Want to stay at the HI Kananaskis?  Here are a few more details regarding the hostel and amenities:

Most hostels can't accommodate children in the common dorm rooms but the HI Kananaskis has three private rooms for families.  Each room features a double bed with a single bunk over top.  There's also a mattress stored under the bed for a second child to sleep on.  The private rooms are conveniently located in the same hallway if you are planning a multi-family trip (or have a large family and need more than one room).  There's also a private bathroom for the three rooms located in the same hallway.

The HI Kananaskis is located within an hour's drive of Calgary so you can easily get there after work.  (When we stayed at Mosquito Creek we didn't arrive until it was dark and nearing bedtime for the kids.)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Spring's coming 2012

It's a little hard to think about spring when I look out my window and see a yard full of snow.  That doesn't mean however that spring isn't around the corner.  March is typically the month that we start to think about hiking again after four months of skiing.  I'm sure we'll try to stretch the ski season out as long as possible this year because I'm still working on my goal of 20 cross country ski days (four days left), but I've already started to make many reservations for campgrounds, huts, and resorts we plan to stay at this spring.  I've even started planning our summer trips and I've got the calendar beside my computer to prove it.

A very warm March in Kananaskis

Every time I start making plans for the future I get a lot of feedback from friends on how organized I am and how it's far too early to start thinking about the next season yet.  I thought it was a little early too this year until I phoned a campground one day to find out when they'd start accepting reservations for spring and found out it was that exact day!  It was a very important booking because I wanted to reserve a very popular group campground and knew I'd have to phone the same day reservations went live.  Thank God for the decision to make the call that day!  Since then I've been on a mission to make sure I don't miss any other key reservation dates, and to make sure I'm organized in advance.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Secret Backcountry Ski Lodge in the Canadian Rockies

The word "Secret" can be defined with the following phrases:  Kept from the knowledge of any but the initiated or privileged; Designed or working to escape notice, knowledge, or observation; Secluded, sheltered, or withdrawn: a secret hiding place.

Those phrases certainly describe Holiday on Horseback's Sundance Lodge in beautiful Banff National Park.  Located a short 10km ski from the Healy Creek Trail-head just outside the town of Banff, it's barely remote but yet somehow manages to stay under the radar of places to visit in the Rockies.  I understand that it's very popular in the summer with groups arriving at the lodge on horseback, but the ski crowd has yet to discover this lodge.  

Sundance Lodge

We've made it a priority to leave our son with Grandma for the weekend at least a couple times per year since he turned one.  When we go away, we often choose an adventure that will rekindle the relationship we had post-children, which always means heading to the mountains for some hiking, climbing, backpacking or skiing.   

Skiing out from Sundance Lodge

My favorite overnight ski adventure always involves staying in a backcountry lodge.  Last winter we skied into another backcountry lodge, Skoki Lodge, near Lake Louise.  If it sounds familiar, it's because the Royals; William and Kate, stayed there on their 2011 Canada tour.  In the past we've also visited Brewster's Shadow Lake Lodge in Banff National Park.  Both lodges are very popular and will see full bookings most weekends in winter.  Their prices reflect this as well as does the policy that you need to stay for two nights.  To its Credit, Skoki Lodge has many specials through the year making it possible to stay at a reduced rate for one night only.  I have yet to see a special for Shadow Lake Lodge though!  (hence why I have only been there once in winter and am likely not going to be going again anytime soon.)  Those on a budget will definitely be ruling out Shadow Lake Lodge.  

We've stayed at Skoki Lodge at number of times and honestly, I'm always willing to jump on a one night special and make the trek in there, but it's not for the faint of heart.  It's a challenging ski that for most people requires light touring skis with metal edges and climbing skins for the hills.  Others just take their AT backcountry skis  that behave like downhill skis on the down sections and like xc skis on the flat and up sections.  Then a good portion of visitors to the lodge arrive by snowshoes since it is by far the easiest option.  

Enter a very different experience with Sundance Lodge!
  • It's an easy to moderate ski in to the lodge on an actual track-set and packed trail. 
  • Those seeking solitude have a good chance of finding it here.  We shared the lodge with one other couple!
  • You are allowed to stay for one night! Backcountry lodges will never be considered budget friendly and are always a splurge but it's like going for half price when you only have to pay for one night.
  • Indoor plumbing!  The only backcountry lodge I've stayed at yet to feature flush toilets in the main lodge where you sleep.
  • Electricity!  The lodge primarily uses candles and lanterns for atmosphere but if you are hunting for something in your room at night, there are lights you can turn on.  
  • Sadly, there is still no cell reception so you can't update your facebook status to tell everybody that you have found paradise.

The facilities at Sundance Lodge can best be described with the following words off the Holiday on Horseback website:   
For those seeking a remote getaway from the norm, Sundance Lodge is the perfect retreat! Powered by solar power and kept warm by wood heat, this cozy lodge adds a touch of home to the backcountry. Sitting on a gentle bend of Brewster Creek with the massive Sundance Range as a backdrop, this lodge is one you soon won’t forget.
The lodge has 10 sleeping rooms, a large country kitchen, and a cozy living room area where you can curl up by the woodstove and lose yourself in a good book. And after a day spent hiking or skiing in the fresh mountain air, you'll appreciate an added comfort - - hot showers! Mealtime is always an event - you'll delight in hearty, home-cooked meals and fresh-from-the-oven baked goods - no one ever leaves Sundance hungry!
Viewpoint a little further up the trail from the lodge

The website is very clear that the ski trail is open dependent on snow conditions and at present conditions are a little less than optimal.  The Healy Creek trail was very icy and the Brewster Creek trail, though much better, was still very crusty with many deep grooves in the trail from skis, footprints, ski poles and snowmobile tracks.  Fortunately the Healy Creek trail is flat so other than fighting with your wax if you don't have wax-less skis, it's not too hard to ski.  It's also a very short portion of the trip.  Brewster Creek was fine on uphill sections and the flats.  It was only the downhill sections that posed certain challenges.  We fought to keep our skis out of the grooves all over the trail when snowplowing down the steeper hills.  That being said, the other couple staying at the lodge with us made it there and out on 30 year old skis and their ski ability was admittedly novice.  You just have to accept that you might have to walk the odd hill or pick yourself up when you fall.  It's all part of the adventure.  In a good snow year, the trail would be fabulous and definitely easy to moderate for xc skiers of all abilities.  In the meantime, snowshoeing is an option.

Our new friends about to take the journey out from the lodge

Enjoying a small hill on the way down

The last thing I want to mention about Sundance Lodge since this blog is geared towards family adventure is how awesome the place would be with your family!  We did our first visit solo without our little Pook as a bit of a reconnaissance trip.  Now that we've been there we definitely plan to go back as a family. Most rooms in the lodge features a double bed for mom and dad along with a set of bunks for  two kids.  If you have more than two children, you could always get the kids a room of their own I'm sure if the lodge wasn't very busy.
A typical room at Sundance Lodge

The website says that the lodge can't accommodate children under the age of 6 but when I asked the staff at the lodge about that, they seemed to think it might only apply to children that want to ride in on horseback.  At present with the lodge seeing so few guests in winter, I would think you could maybe talk the company into accepting younger children if you wanted to pull them in to the lodge in a sled.  The staff were certainly amenable to seeing more families in the future when I talked to them.  (note that if you do take small children in, please set a positive path for future families.  Maybe offer to help sweep or mop the floor after dinner, clean up after your kids, and don't let them run around the lodge screaming if they are going to disturb other guests.  Sundance Lodge isn't run by a large staff.  There is one cook and one outfitter/trail setter.  If you want to bring small kids you might need to help out a bit.)

Other than the bedroom configuration and a trail that would be easily skied by most school-aged kids who have experience with xc skiing, the best reason I have for recommending this lodge to families is the food.  Many lodges focus on gourmet food that might not appeal to all children.  Sundance Lodge however is a family environment through and through.  You all eat in the kitchen at a big long table.  The staff eat with you and the atmosphere is very casual.  For dinner we had lasagna, yummy and simple.  I don't know a child alive that wouldn't eat lasagna.  
Some views of the fireside room

I want to say thank you to the amazing staff at Sundance Lodge for making us feel so at home there. Both Cindy and Greg were full of laughter, jokes and stories the whole time we were there.  It didn't matter if we wanted to hang out in the fireside room or just keep them company in the kitchen over a cup of hot tea.  And Greg entertained us for hours with his guitar.  Hard to beat hospitality like that.

Thanks also to Rebecca and Amanda in the Banff office for all their assistance with our booking.  They even offered to have a bottle of our favorite wine picked up and delivered to the lodge for us.  Now that's service!  Other ski lodges could learn a lot from Holiday on Horseback.