Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Camping in Dinosaur Provincial Park

Last weekend we did something rare for our family - we went camping outside the mountain parks!  Instead of heading west from Calgary ,we traveled to Dinosaur Provincial Park located near the town of Brooks in Southern Alberta.  Dinosaur Provincial Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site  because of the high concentration of dinosaur fossils found from 35 different species.  The park is located in the heart of Alberta's Badlands along with the town of  Drumheller, home to the world famous Royal Tyrrell Museum.  If you're planing a trip to Alberta and you have dinosaur fans in your family, you'll definitely want to take a driving tour on the Dinosaur Trail starting with the museum and canyons of Drumheller.

Dinosaur Provincial Park (Photo:  Cam Schaus)

 We didn't visit Drumheller this time but headed straight south to Dinosaur for two nights of fabulous camping.  I'm going to go as far as to actually say that Dinosaur Provincial Park just might be the best family campground in Alberta.  Bold statement I know.  Here's why I think it's so wonderful though:

 

Private beach

So this is where Park staff say, what?  There's no private beach.  And true - anybody can access the sand and mud found along the creek flowing through the campground.  However, if you choose your site carefully, most people won't feel comfortable walking through your camp to get to the creek and you'll have the beach to yourself. 

It is a fantastic place for kids to play and ours spent hours down there digging in the sand, playing in mud puddles, and wading in the shallow creek.  Getting in the creek involves getting muddy so make sure you bring lots of spare clothing for the kids.  There were signs further down warning against actual swimming in the creek but I think playing along the edge of it or jumping in the mud would be fine.  I should warn that this was my first visit to the park as a family and so I don't know what the creek looks like later in the season.   All I can safely say is that in late May there is an awesome beach with sand and mud!

Our sites above our little beach

Squishy mud!


Sand!
And water!

Dinosaur Themed playground

When the kids get tired of playing in the mud (or you run out of clothes for them after they've fallen in for the umpteenth time) you can head over to the nearby playground.  It was located across the creek from our campsites with access via a bridge.  It had a lot of fun features including a mini dinosaur climbing wall and slide.

Climbing the dinosaur

Awesome family hiking

We did two hikes while we were there on the Coulee Viewpoint Trail and the Badlands Trail.  They were very interesting trails and allowed us to get up close to hoodoos and other fascinating scenery typical of the Badlands.  Each of the hikes was under 2km and I'm happy to report that we saw no snakes.  Before starting out on any hiking trail in the park it's a good idea to read the literature provided when you check in so that you can teach your kids safe hiking practices for a place that has rattle snakes, black widow spiders, and scorpions.  We saw nothing but then again, we also didn't stick our hands in any small dark holes - something you shouldn't do according to the brochure we read.  Small kids will also need close parental supervision on the Coulee Trail due to some very steep drop-offs.  My son near gave us a heart attack when he went running towards the edge of one such drop-off.  A good rule of thumb should always be that you are within an arm's reach of small kids when hiking in unfamiliar terrain.  The Badlands Trail had no drop-offs and might make for a safer option if you are at all concerned.  It was also a lot easier with less height gain, no stairs, and no scrambling along the top of the coulee.  The only thing to watch out for on the Badlands Trail is the Cacti found everywhere off the main trail.

Hoodoos on the Badlands Trail

Scenery in the Badlands
Stairs on the Coulee Trail

Running towards a huge drop-off on the Coulee Trail (eek)

Additional family activities

While we didn't join any group tours or even look through the visitor centre, there were plenty of other activities for families with school aged children wanting to add an educational component to the trip.  Check the website when you make your reservation if you want to sign up for a guided hike in the Nature Reserve, a bus tour, or a family program.  There was also an amphitheater located close to our campsites which I imagine would be used in the summer season for nightly programs.  Programming was at a minimum since we visited the park outside of tourist season.

Though we didn't go on an official dinosaur bone dig, we did hide a bunch of plastic dinosaurs in the bank below our campsites.  It took the kids over an hour to dig them all out - and I still think we left one or two.  
They felt like brave explorers digging for buried treasure.  Thanks David for the great idea and for hiding all the dinosaurs. 

Digging for treasure
My favourite activity was trying to teach my son to jump in the creek.  Blowing bubbles was another weekend favourite and should you forget bubble mix, the store on site sells lots of it.  They also sell tons of dinosaur themed toys including the plastic ones we hid for the kids.

Jump!

Bubbles!

More information

To make a booking for Dinosaur Provincial Park, visit the Reserve Alberta Parks website.  Online bookings are permitted three months in advance of your day of travel.  There is also a group campground in the park that you can book through the website.  Group campsites can be booked in advance outside the 90 day window so book early if you want one.  The park also introduces comfort camping this season in luxurious camping cabins located along the Red Deer River.  If anybody from Travel Alberta wants a review of these new cabins, my family will happily visit again this summer.  :)

View above the visitor centre (Photo:  Cam Schaus)

What's your favourite family campground in Alberta? I'd love to hear about it. 







Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Spring adventures in Jasper

We took our annual May long weekend trip to Jasper  in the Northern Rocky Mountains and rather than stay at an expensive hotel, we chose to check out the Athabasca Falls Wilderness Hostel.  What an awesome surprise it was!

Arriving at the hostel Friday night

The hostel has shared sleeping cabins and one private cabin that is divided like a duplex into two bedrooms.  Each of the private rooms has a double bed and bunk beds to sleep six people.  We stayed in the private cabin which was warm, clean, and had linen provided.  If we had stayed at any of the other commercial cabins or bungalows in Jasper we would have been paying upwards of $200/night.  Hostelling International by comparison only charges $60/night for a private room.  The down side of choosing a hostel instead of a commercial hotel? - hmnnn, can't think of one really.  In addition to the sleeping cabins, there was a large communal cabin with a kitchen big enough for multiple groups.  We only had breakfast there each morning but it was cozy with a fireplace and living room area perfect for sharing a cup of coffee with fellow travelers.  In the evenings, our son played outside so we didn't really interact with the other guests much at all but they were very pleasant from the brief conversations we had.

The communal cabin at the Athabasca Hostel

We love camping and each time we stay at a hostel, we tell our son that we are sleeping in a camping house.  Indeed, the Athabasca Falls Hostel was very much like a camping experience.  The water was pumped from a well and brought in for filtering.  There was no indoor plumbing and bathrooms were located outside in the form of wooden outhouses.  There was however electricity and heat which made for a nice glamping experience.  In the evenings after our son had gone to bed we sat outside our cabin on the porch and played cards, shared a bottle of wine and enjoyed the fresh mountain air.  That was the part that felt most like camping and that I think I most enjoyed of the whole experience.  If you'd like to actually enjoy the communal cabin and sit around the fireplace in the evening, I'd recommend bringing baby monitors with you so that you can keep an ear on your sleeping tykes.  We hadn't thought of this so we stayed within close proximity to our cabin.

Our half of the private cabin

While you're in Jasper, you'll want to do some exploring and we've spent enough time there to have our favourite hiking trails, places to visit and restaurants that we wouldn't skip visiting.  Here are some of our favourite things to do with kids near the town of Jasper:

Hot Spring Soaking

Miette Hotsprings is the hottest hotsprings in the Canadian Rockies and in our opinion is the best of the commercial pools hands down over Banff and Radium.  We didn't visit this time because it takes approximately 45 minutes to reach the hotsprings which are located 60km east of town. 

Playgrounds

The Centennial Park Playground might just be the best playground in Alberta.  It's centrally located in the town of Jasper with giant slides, many opportunities for climbing, a sand box, a bouldering area, and a unique area featuring slides and a tunnel built into a hillside.  There are picnic tables and bathrooms on site so you can bring your lunch and have a picnic.

View of the playground with sand box to the left
How awesome is this place?

Lakes

The largest lake and possibly most scenic near Jasper is Maligne Lake but it takes about an hour to drive there from the town so we skipped the trip this year. We took our son out there last year and he had a great time hiking the shoreline trail as well as throwing rocks in the lake. For something closer to town this year, we chose Patricia and Pyramid Lake.  Both lakes have easy access to the shore - perfect for throwing rocks and there are canoe rentals nearby.  Pyramid Lake also has an island that we enjoy with a large bridge leading to it.  We got to watch a loon swim under the bridge on this visit and that was one of the coolest things I've seen in the mountains.

Orchids near Patricia Lake

Patricia Lake

Pyramid Lake

Hikes

Our favourite hike is the Old Fort Point trail.  We don't do the full loop but just take the stairs and steep hill straight up to the viewpoint.  It's the best view you'll find looking down over the town and surrounding lakes without having to fork out the $31 per adult to take the sky tram up Whistler's Mountain.  The trail up is steep with 130m of height gain but the good news is that since it goes straight up, you'll be on top in half an hour.  Smaller children might find it too tiring to hike on their own but most kids 5 and up would have no problems.  Read my last story:  The PiggyBack Rider saves the day, to see how we got our three year old up the trail. 

Noah and I on top of the Old Fort Point Trail

Daddy and Noah hiking down the trail using the PiggyBack Rider

The other hike we enjoy is Maligne Canyon.  Lots of bridges, waterfalls, rock slabs to climb on, and the loop around the first four bridges is under 2km.  I don't know any child who wouldn't find it an interesting place to explore.  Parks Canada has done a good job as well of ensuring your children won't fall into the canyon.  Fencing is plentiful!

One of the bridges over Maligne Canyon

Waterfalls

A visit to Jasper isn't complete without a visit to Athabasca  Falls, conveniently located across the road from the Hostel.  These falls are magnificent and it's a short walk to the different viewing areas - perfect for small legs.  Again, Parks Canada has done a great job at protecting children from falling in as long as you don't let them climb up on the railings.


Dining

Our favourite place to eat  is the Jasper Brewing Company.  What parent doesn't like a family friendly brewery?  They make all their own beer on site and the facility is divided into a restaurant and bar.  Kids of course are welcome in the restaurant only.  We go here every time we visit Jasper.  The service is fabulous and this time our waiter went above and beyond in an effort to find me something I'd like as I usually prefer wine to beer. 

If you want something above pub food, the L&W Restaurant is a family favourite.  Arrive early in summer because every family seems to know of the place.  Though it is a Greek restaurant, their pizza and pasta are to die for.  I highly recommend the baked lasagna.  Many a backpacking trip has ended here purely for the lasagna.


I want to thank Hostelling International, Canada for the complimentary stay at the Athabasca Falls Hostel while we were in Jasper.  Hosteling International has been very supportive of our family's adventures and I can honestly recommend stays at any of their facilities with your family.

Other great hostels to check out with your family:

  • Mosquito Creek, Banff National Park (private cabin with two bedrooms)
  • Kananaskis, Located at Ribbon Creek (three private rooms)
  • Hilda Creek, Banff National Park (you'll have to book the whole hostel but it only sleeps 6 so that's not hard to do)
  • Shunda Creek, Nordegg (private room)

 

What would you recommend families visit or do while in Jasper?

Have you had a great hostelling experience with your family?



Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The PiggyBack Rider saves the day

The PiggyBack Rider won't give you the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound but if you've ever tried hiking with a toddler or preschooler, the freedom this simple child carrier provides might make you feel like you can hike faster than a speeding bullet.  It will certainly make your child feel like Superman or Superwoman as they ride high up in the air racing along a trail they were moments earlier dragging their feet on. 

The PiggyBack Rider in use

 What is the PiggyBack Rider?  It's a lightweight child carrier designed specifically for toddlers and preschoolers two and a half years of age and up.  It can carry kids weighing up to 60 lbs (27kgs).  It's a God-send for us because our son at three years already weighs 40lbs and has outgrown his Baby Backpack Carrier that we've been using the last couple of years.  We've dialed back our adventures significantly but still, we occasionally want to hike something that is longer than 3km and our son tires out on steep hills.  Thanks to the PiggyBack Rider we are able to go out on any hike of reasonable length, knowing we have a backup plan.  Our goal is always that our son will walk but in the event he starts to get miserable, whiny and grumpy - up he goes on Daddy's back and we continue along the trail until he's had a bit of a rest and can hike some more.

Not your average flat walk along a creek

The PiggyBack Rider features a shoulder-strap mounted bar with a safety tether for ensuring Junior doesn't fall off your back.  The child stands on the bar rather than sitting on your shoulders or in a backpack.  Kids love the height advantage and bonding time with Mom or Dad.  My son wraps his arms around Dad and the two of them hike along the trail with those chubby little arms encircling Daddy in a nice cozy hug.  While the pack is very simple and you won't be carrying anything else in it other than your child, this also means it's light - a plus when your child weighs more than 40lbs.  The Rider also comes with its own little carrying bag so when it's not in use you can either stow it in a second backpack that a second parent or older sibling is carrying, or you can just carry it across your body with the straps designed for that.  You won't even know you're carrying it.  On many of our hikes, my husband carries it the whole time slung across his shoulders and we feel secure in knowing it's along - just in case.

You can barely even tell that my husband is carrying the PiggyBack Rider right now in this urban hiking photo

Think of the PiggyBack rider as part of your emergency kit.  Granted, the most expensive part of your emergency kit at roughly $100, but still - fairly important in salvaging a walk, hike, or journey around town.  I'd say that 99% of the time, we pack our emergency kit on trips and never use it.  I'm still glad we  bring it because you just never know.  Our emergency kit could save somebody's life.  The PiggyBack Rider though it likely won't actually save a life, is an integral part of our kit.  We bring it along and 60% of the time (perhaps more) it doesn't get used.  This makes me happy though.  I mean, do you really want an excuse to use your first-aid kit?  I'd rather bring it home unopened.  It's the same with the Rider.  We hope that our son will be walking most or all of the time.  However, kids are unpredictable and there is no book out there than can teach you how to know when your child will have a good hiking day Vs. a bad hiking day.  If there is, somebody please send it my way!!

A good hiking day thanks to the PiggyBack Rider

 We've used our PiggyBack Rider around town and out in the mountains on short easy flat little walks.  It worked well but I wanted to really test it before I could honestly recommend it to you.  Last weekend we finally had the opportunity.  We were in Jasper and wanted to hike up to the Old Fort Point.  If you know the viewpoint, you are aware of how steep the trail is.  Most adults are winded while making their way up (I know I am).  It's a beautiful, short little hike though so we wanted to do it.  My husband put our son in the PiggyBack Rider and off they climbed.  Up, up, and then more up as we reached a small cliff band at the top.  I think it's possible to go around but honestly, where's the fun in that?  Never did my son come close to falling off the bar, never was there a moment of danger, and both Dad and Son felt secure the whole time.  I thought maybe the Rider would be best used while walking around Disney Land or the Zoo but it is perfectly suited for short rugged hikes too - something very important to us.

Climbing up to the Old Fort Point Lookout in Jasper

The view we got in Jasper last weekend thanks to the PiggyBack Rider

Now, I should mention that you don't have to be mountain folk to get a PiggyBack Rider.  It would work super well if you were touring a city on vacation, exploring your local zoo or theme park, or taking a walk around the pathways in your town.  Anytime your child needs a five minute break you can pull out the Rider and continue right on going.  We use our Chariot a lot and I was honestly uncertain how much we'd use the PiggyBack Rider in the city because we've always loved our Chariot so much.  I'm learning though that most toddlers and preschoolers either don't want to ride in a stroller anymore or else if you bring it, they won't get out and walk!  We've stopped bringing our stroller when we go out because it's just an invitation to be lazy and sit down the whole time.  If my son knows he can just ride in his comfy stroller, there's no way he's walking.  Meanwhile, I have friends who can't bring a stroller because their 3 or 4 year old would think they were a baby.  Either way, the PiggyBack Rider is a good alternative.

Out for a walk around our neighborhood shortly after receiving the PiggyBack Rider

If you are thinking of getting a PiggyBack Rider there a few things you will want to consider:
  • You will need a second parent, friend, or older sibling along to help carry things on your outing.  The PiggyBack Rider doesn't have room for carrying water, snacks, or other gear.  You could put a few things in the bag that's used to hold the Rider, but not much more than a few granola bars or a light jacket.  For us, this isn't a problem because we are always together as a family.  My husband carries the boy and I carry the rest of the gear for our outing.
  • You'll also want a second person along to help get your child onto the bar and strapped in.  After using the Rider for a while I'm sure you'd get familiar with  the product enough to do it all by yourself but we find it's easier with two.  My husband also likes having me right behind him on the trail in case my son's feet slip off the bar and I can make quick adjustments.
  • The PiggyBack Rider doesn't have the waist support that a normal backpack has.  You will feel the weight of your child on your shoulders if you go out for a long hike.  It's best used for ten-fifteen minute periods while your child rests or else for short hikes.  That being said, it's not meant to be a full child carrier.  You wouldn't put a three or four year old in it for a two hour hike and expect them to ride the whole time.
  • If your child wants up and down every two minutes, it would honestly just be simpler to put them on your shoulders and give them an original piggyback ride rather than strapping them onto the PiggyBack Rider.  Otherwise, if your child is content to ride for at least ten-fifteen minutes at a time, the Rider works well.  Some kids will need time to adjust to the PiggyBack Rider as well.  Our son had to use it a good five times before he figured out that it was pretty cool and he wanted to be using it rather than having Daddy just carry him in his arms.  Therefore, I recommend starting on short walks around your neighborhood first rather than taking it on a vacation right off the bat where you'll need your child to be comfortable with it.
Our son is very comfortable with the PiggyBack Rider now and asks to use it with excitement.

For more information about the PiggyBack Rider, visit the official website.  
If you live in Canada and would like to order one, please visit the Adventure Gear Canada Website.

We were given a PiggyBack Rider to use and review but all comments, opinions and suggestions in this story are my own along with those of my husband who has been the true user of the Rider along with my son.

If you are a member of my Outdoor Adventures Playgroup and would like to try out our PiggyBack Rider, let me know and I will bring it for you to demo on a Friday morning.

Freedom on the trails

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Family Camping Made Easy - Backcountry adventures

This is the final story in my Family Camping Made Easy Series and I thought I'd tackle something a little different - backcountry camping.  It seemed intimidating when we set off on our first family backcountry trip when our son was just one year old, but we quickly discovered that it was a lot of fun.  It doesn't have to be a crazy epic adventure and there are ways for the most novice of families to get out into the wild with very little gear necessary.  I'm going to outline the various styles of backcountry camping below with some practical suggestions for those traveling with small children.  I'll also list our favourite places in the Canadian Rockies to get into the wild with your kids. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Family Camping Made Easy - Siestas for the junior camper

If you are just joining us in the series on Family Camping Made Easy, you can click on the links below to see the other topics already covered:  Warm sleepers are happy sleepers, Baby adventuresPreschool adventures, and Bathing in the woods.

Today I want to discuss another topic related to babies, toddlers, and preschoolers - the mid day siesta.
How do you work around your child's daily routine if he or she still desperately needs a nap?  Do you just abandon the idea of napping while camping and give the kid a grace day?  What if your child goes crazy without a nap and is unbearable to be around?

My son was relatively easy to deal with when it came to napping.  When he was young, he'd nap anywhere and everywhere.  We could go sit in a park and he would nap curled up between my legs.  As he got older, he'd nap in the car, in the child carrier or in the Chariot.  The key was to go for a walk or a drive and there was his nap.  We took a vacation to Hawaii and never once returned to the condo in 10 days for a mid-day nap.  My son would just nap en route to the next beach or destination.  He was extremely easy to travel with.  Even today, Noah doesn't nap in his bed.  He will play, scream, cry, or quietly read until you finally open the bedroom door.  However, he will fall asleep on a 5 minute drive to the grocery store - something that brings its own problems!

This child could sleep anywhere!

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Family Camping Made Easy - Bathing in the woods

If you are just joining us in the series on Family Camping Made Easy, you can click on the links below to see the other topics already covered:  Warm sleepers are happy sleepers, Baby adventures, and Preschool adventures.  Otherwise, moving right along - on to bathing, hygiene, and getting the sand out of your child's hair.

Honestly, until we had a child, the issue of getting clean after a day of camping was the furthest thing from my mind.  We'd go hiking and get all sweaty, dirty, and dusty - didn't matter.  It was nothing a wet-wipe couldn't fix.  I've been known to wipe my face, legs and arms down with wet-wipes in the car before going into restaurants post hiking and it always made me clean enough that at least people didn't stare or move their table further away.  I know that most modern campgrounds have showers but every time I walk in to a public shower I recoil in horror at the hair on the floor (that isn't mine), the dirt everywhere, and the general filth.  Better to just stay dusty until I get back to the city and can use my own dirty shower (at least it's my own hair filling the drain).

Having a child changes things though.  Last summer we took a two week vacation down to Washington and camped most of the time.  Part of the time was spent camping on the Olympic Peninsula where there are gorgeous beaches to be explored.  There's also sand to be played with, eaten, rubbed all over your nose that just happens to be covered in snot, rubbed on your face that's still sticky from lunch - you get the picture.  In case you need a visual, look at the photo below.

Why we had to figure out a bathing system

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Family Camping Made Easy - Preschool Adventures

Continuing with my series on Family Camping Made easy, I now bring you - camping with toddlers and preschoolers.
To read the first two stories in the series, click on the following links for Warm sleepers are happy sleepers and Baby Adventures.

I'm not sure I'll be able to go any higher than toddler and preschool adventures because that's kinda where our experience ends.  We are in full on preschooler mode right now with a three year old who loves the outdoors.  Most of the suggestions below come from our own adventures camping with our son.  Friends have also been generous with additional advice that I'll share.  If you have older children, many of the following suggestions will be practical for you as well.  Otherwise, I encourage you to check out Tiffany's blog at A Little Campy.  The name of her blog says it all - she is a true camping mom with years of experience.  I also encourage you to follow Alyssa's series on camping over at The Kid Project.  I know she plans to cover the topic of potty training while camping and I definitely need to check that one out!  I won't be offering much advice there - sorry.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Family Camping Made Easy - Baby Adventures

Continuing with my series on Family Camping Made Easy, we move on from the night time hours where I discussed warm sleepers are happy sleepers, to the daylight hours where I'll discuss everything from naps to entertainment, safety, packing, hygiene and backcountry travel.

Today I'm going to start with the youngest member of your family - your infant or baby - possibly out for his or her first camping trip. How do you plan for that epic return to camping (it sure feels epic anyway) - this time with a baby on board?


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