Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Snowy adventures in Elk Lakes Provincial Park

Snow caves, propane lanterns, outhouses with ice cold toilet seats, ice fishing for water, and a budding romance - just another weekend in the backcountry!  Add sore muscles, bruised hips, blisters, broken snowshoes, and small children -  Now you have an adventurous weekend in the backcountry.  We could have left the kids with grandparents and we certainly could have waited until Summer to visit the Elk Lakes Cabin but what kind of adventure would that have been?

Playing in the snow at the cabin  (Photo - John Koob)

The Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) maintains a cabin deep in the wilderness of Elk Lakes Provincial Park.  In the Summer you can drive within 500 metres of  the cabin's front door from back-roads in British Columbia but in the Winter there is only one approach and that's on foot from Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis Country.  You start at Kananaskis Lakes from the Elk Pass parking lot and travel 5km to the top of Elk Pass.  From there it's another 4.2km down the power line into British Columbia.  We've always skied to the Elk Lakes Cabin in the past since the first 5km is on Peter Lougheed's perfectly groomed cross-country ski trails. This time though we figured we might have an easier time of it on snowshoes since we were taking two toddlers and a baby in to the cabin.  The journey down the power line is best done on backcountry skis and we were worried about making the trek while pulling small kids in sleds.

The Elk Lakes Cabin

Our group composition was one of the more interesting assemblies we've managed to put together thus far for a backcountry adventure.  First of all we had  four single adults from Edmonton who hadn't ever spent much (if any) time in the backcountry.  The group of four included our son's favourite Uncle John along with friends and co-workers of his.  Second, we had our backcountry friends Patricia and Jorge from Argentina along for the journey.  They typically join us on our adult mountaineering, scrambling or ski touring adventures and had never joined us on a family trip before.  Third, we had a family of four that we've shared many adventures with.  Their toddler is one of our son's best friends and potential girlfriend after this trip.

The brave explorers who were willing to spend a night in a  remote cabin with three small kids
Patricia and Jorge - note that we thought it would be warm and sunny, being April after all!
Greta and Ian with their Chariot weighing at least 70lbs including kids

Think maybe these two kids are spending a little too much time together
The trip in to the cabin was a lot longer on snowshoes than I had remembered it being on skis.  Not surprising I suppose since we had to walk both up and down the hills.  Silly sport!  The trip was even more challenging for me than expected because one of my snowshoes broke before even reaching the pass.  The nuts and bolts seriously just fell off of the snowshoe, leaving it behind as I walked forward - the binding still attached to my foot.  These weren't new snowshoes but had always served me well in the past.  Thank God the trail was hard packed and I had minimal problems hiking down from the pass to reach the cabin.  My poor calves got a bit of a work-out though as each of my steps sunk further below the surface of the snow than those of my companions on snowshoes.

Winter or Summer, you'll follow the Elk Pass Ski Trail for at least three quarters of the way to Elk Pass.  It's a wide open trail lacking much in the way of excitement but fortunately it does meander beside a scenic creek for a good kilometre or more.  There are also two fabulous picnic tables - one at the junction with the Blueberry Hill Trail and one at Elk Pass.  We took full advantage of these rest areas to feed the kids snacks and catch our breath. 

The scenic portion of the trip along the Elk Pass Ski Trail

One of our rest stops at Elk Pass
Once you leave Elk Pass and cross into British Columbia you leave the official ski trails behind.  At this point it's just another 4km of plodding under a power line.  We followed old ski doo tracks that occasionally left the power line to loop through the trees.  It was a pleasant diversion and a bit more scenic than following the power line the whole way.   Note that you can access the power line 2km from the Elk Pass parking lot and follow it all the way to Elk Pass, continuing as mentioned above into BC, but we chose to follow the Elk Pass Ski Trail for scenic reasons and only picked up the power line at the pass.  I think most people do this but if you are planning your own journey to the cabin you can consult the ACC on which way they recommend for your group.

My husband and I with our son in his ski pulk (Photo - John Koob)
A beautiful sight after 4 hours of traveling

Lots of snow at the entrance to Elk Lakes Provincial Park
We rented the full cabin which is easy to do when it only sleeps 14.  Many of the ACC Huts sleep as many as 20 or more people in Winter.  If you've been to the Elk Lakes Cabin in the past you'll be surprised at the renovations that have recently taken place.  The cabin used to sleep 10 and had only one table for eating.  There are now two eating areas and the kitchen is bigger.  One of the private rooms in the back was removed to make more room for the kitchen and living area.  There is still one private room but it only has a single bunk bed for two people so we gave it to the one child-less couple on our trip, calling it the honeymoon suite. 

The cabin is great for families because everybody sleeps upstairs in a big loft which now has sleeping platforms since the renovations.  In the past there were just mattresses upstairs and you threw them on the floor wherever you could find a free space in sleepover fashion.  There is ample room for sleeping and we felt that 20 people could have easily fit in the loft.  This means you can spread your stuff out and you are not sleeping on top of strangers - as is the case in some of the other huts.  The kids had a great time playing in the loft and chasing each other around.  They thought it was their own private playground as they took turns jumping off the platforms onto the floor with a loud bang, making those of us downstairs fear that they would soon come through the ceiling.

In typical ACC fashion, the cabin has propane stoves with an oven (which I can't really recommend for much more than maybe a batch of cookies), propane lanterns, and a wood burning stove for heat.  If you are sleeping upstairs you'll want to make sure you stop loading that stove with wood a couple hours before bed or nobody will be getting much sleep - heat rises!  The outhouse is close by and please use it!  I know many men think they don't need to use them for a quick pee in the middle of the night but yellow snow just isn't cool.

Fetching water from the nearby creek
Cooking dinner for the group in the spacious kitchen (Photo - John Koob)

We love staying in ACC cabins because you don't need the whole collection of camping gear typically required in the backcountry.  You can leave the stove, dishes, pots and pans, sleeping mattress and tent all behind.  When you are taking children into the wild, it is by far the easiest method of spending the night.

We also love staying in the backcountry because of the opportunities it provides our children to play outside and to experience nature.  Previous visitors had obviously been very busy building snow caves and tunnels because the kids spent a lot of time exploring the snowy wonderland outside the cabin.  Our son wasn't exactly a fan of snow or Winter at the beginning of the season  but after many months now of riding in his sled, heading out on the ski trails with us, and having opportunities like this to see how cool snow can be, I think he's become a little more comfortable with the whole idea of embracing each season and its uniqueness.

Winter is for sledding, snow angels, skating, skiing, playing in the snow and even hiking.  It's a great season and we were grateful to have one final weekend to enjoy it.

Don't you love my son's pink mittens?  Yep, actually forgot his mittens!  He had to wear the baby's spare mittens.

How awesome are snow tunnels!
Even the youngest child got out to play in the snow (Photo:  Greta Duncan)

The trip out was uneventful and we retraced our steps back up the power line, down Elk Pass, and out to the waiting cars.  It was just as long out - dumb snowshoes again I say!  We packed the kids up and headed to Kananaskis Village for lunch and well deserved coffee before heading back to the city.

Snack at Elk Pass

The Whiskey Jacks are always friendly (Photo:  John Koob)

Our toddlers playing at the pass

Kids have a LOT of energy when you let them out of their sleds.
Had to get a photo in here of our youngest group member climbing the rocks at Kananaskis Village

Have you ever stayed in an ACC Hut or a backcountry cabin?  I'd love to hear about your adventures. 


  1. So much fun!! I love snow, being born and raised and still living in florida its a sight to see snow!! The kiddies are adorable!! Thanks for sharing

    1. Thanks Debbie. We do love our snow - most of the time.

  2. How Cute :) I wish I could be there. Have a great day!

    1. Thanks Shuichi. Some day you'll have to come visit.

  3. Love the pictures of all that snow. It looks like so much fun. But I am like Debbie and coming from the southern U.S., and I have to ask-- When does your snow start to melt? When is your summer season? Here in Georgia, we are already in shorts and sandals.

    1. It starts to melt in June and returns in August, lol.

  4. Hi Tanya, who old was the baby on this trip? We are thinking of bringing a 5 month old to this cabin and looking for some advice :) We've done Bryant Creek shelter with a two year old but are hesitating about bringing such a young infant...

    1. I think the youngest in these photos was 2. She rode into the Elk Lakes cabin in a chariot. Elk Lakes is much easier in terms of comfort with children than Bryant Creek. Warmer, cozier, you have your stove already there with all dishes, and you have soft mattresses to sleep on. However, you still have to share sleeping space in one big room and most people wouldn't be happy to be woken up by a baby in the middle of the night. I'd rent out the whole thing and go with a supportive group who understand/share you needs/challenges.

  5. Did you do much exploring out and about around the cabin? I am trying to find more information about the safety of trails in the winter around the lakes themselves and am just trying to assess the terrain with a topo map... Thanks in advance!

    1. It's safe to ski to the Lower Lake. Beyond that I think you can safely go to the Upper Lake but I'd maybe check with a visitor centre first, or check a topo map to look for dangerous slopes. With kids, we just go to the first Lower Lake, play around on the snowy lake, and play outside in the snow outside the cabin.