Friday, April 26, 2013

Spring Energy Shot in Banff

If you're like us, this shoulder season is getting really OLD and you want spring to arrive with green grass, buds on the trees, and running water.  Ok, so maybe the last part was just me as I watch my paddleboard collect dust in the garage.  But seriously, I'm tried of ice and snow.  And so with Spring on our minds, we went in search of a change of scenery in Banff last weekend, hoping to find dry ground for hiking and biking.

Tunnel Mountain Summit, Banff

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Waiting Patiently For Spring - No More Snow!

In my last post I focused on how you can make the most of the late season snow when it feels like spring will never arrive.  If however, you are absolutely done with winter, snow, and all things white and fluffy, don't despair!  I have tons of other great suggestions for waiting out this shoulder season that don't involve snow.  Spring will eventually come but there's lots of preparation that can be done now so that you'll be ready for both spring and summer when they arrive.  There's skills to learn, new gear to buy, plans to make, and maybe even a new sport that you can start inside so that you'll be ready to take it outside in a couple of months.  Below are some of our favourite things to do while we wait patiently for spring:

Waiting for Spring

1.  Choose a new summer sport, get equipped, and start learning now

Climbing class at the Calgary Climbing Centre
Last year we took up biking and paddling as a family.  This year we plan to introduce our son to rock climbing and we want to start making the switch from his Strider balance bike to a real pedal  bike.  Taking up a new sport however can require months of prep work.  With biking, we've been researching bikes and trying to figure out which one will give our son the best fighting chance to learn to ride (key word - light weight!).  For rock climbing, we've enrolled Noah in indoor climbing classes at a local gym.  A month of classes and we hope we'll be able to transition to outdoor crags once the rock warms up.  We've also had to search out a harness that fits a 4 year old.  We finally decided on the Black Diamond Wiz Kid harness from MEC.

Spring is the perfect time to start getting excited about summer and make plans to get out and enjoy the new skills you are building now.  I've started creating my trail list of paths we want to bike this summer as a family which will include the Millennium Trail from Banff to Canmore and the Troll Falls trail in Kananskis.  I've also been working on a very long list of Rocky Mountain lakes I want to SUP this summer from Lake Louise in Banff to Maligne Lake in Jasper.   Every time I get depressed about the snow, I just go back to my lists and start dreaming more about warm weather that will eventually arrive. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Making the Most of the Late Season Snow

The current weather forecast for Calgary and the Canadian Rockies reads as such:   Snowfall Warning:  10 to 25 cm of snow expected by Sunday afternoon.  Were this February I'm sure we'd all be excited and possibly even willing to brave icy roads to reach the nearest ski resort.  February though it is not;  It's April, and we want spring!  We put our skis away last week and want to start hiking.  We want green grass and buds on the trees.  We want to start thinking about our garden.  We want...

The list of "what we want" could go on and on couldn't it?  So how do you wait patiently for spring when it  feels like it will NEVER get here?  How do you make the most of this challenging shoulder season when it feels like spring has decided to skip your country this year?  Below are a few ideas on how to beat the late winter blues while you wait patiently (or not so patiently) for spring to arrive.

1.  Go in Search of Good Snow
Why fight it?  It's still snowing so you might as well enjoy the snow.  The challenge is to find fluffy snow you can actually play in rather than the ice/slush combo you'll find in the front ranges or on cross country ski trails.  We chose to visit the Icefields Parkway last weekend in Banff knowing we would find tons of snow for sledding, snowshoeing, and all-out winter fun!  We stayed at the Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel for a taste of winter camping and even had to snowshoe to the door of our cabin.  Spring was the furthest thing from our minds as we played in the snow all weekend.  We were caught up in the moment of our snowy winter wonderland and making the most of the season at hand.

Hiking to the Peyto Lake Viewpoint, Banff National Park

2.  Make a Snowman
Spring temperatures create the perfect snow for making snowmen so grab your friends and see if you can make the biggest snowman ever!  We tried this out at the hostel last weekend and it was a LOT of fun.  We stopped grumbling about the snow for at least a half hour while working on our creation.

Making a snowman with perfect spring snow!

Our masterpiece

3.  Enjoy Sledding - One Last Time
Kids love sledding and tobogganing so you might as well get out and enjoy this great winter sport one last time.  I mean, it's still snowing outside so what else were you planning to do besides hibernate or buy a plane ticket to Florida?

Sledding at the hostel last weekend

4.  Get Away Someplace New and Different
This year we chose to visit a wilderness hostel to get our minds off the never to arrive spring season.  Last year we took a trip over the border into BC in search of green grass at Fairmont Hotsprings. Whether you choose to embrace the lingering snow or go looking for spring - just go somewhere.   Plan a fun weekend getaway and escape the same old views out your kitchen window.  (the views out mine are pretty bleak right now!)  

Our Mountain Paradise at Hilda Creek

5.  Try Snowshoeing
Skiing in April is challenging to say the least with the morning ice slick and afternoon slush fest. Meanwhile snowshoeing can still be enjoyable if you get out in the morning before the snow goes isothermal.  The warmer weather in spring makes for a great time to try this sport with young kids and you'll be able to stay out longer without worrying over frozen fingers and toes.

Snowshoeing on the Icefields Parkway
Peyto Lake Viewpoint

Really sick of the snow and don't want to build a snowman, go sledding, snowshoeing, or try winter camping?  I have a sequel to this post coming soon that will focus on the not so snowy ways you can wait patiently for spring.  I also have a story in Snowshoe Magazine that talks more about our adventures at Hilda Creek, complete with more photos.

Below are a couple more photos from our travels last weekend.

Snow Cave at the Hostel
Hiking to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier

Are you done with the snow as in D.O.N.E. or are you still making the most of it? 

Friday, April 05, 2013

Summer Planning: The Best Provincial Park Campgrounds in Southern Alberta

We're on the doorstep of spring here and we've been thinking about camping for months now!  If you like camping as a family you know that the May long weekend has long been booked solid for campsites across the province and that we are now booking for the beginning of July in provincial park campgrounds.  It's pretty crazy when you think about it.  I mean it's hard to think about campground reservations when you are still skiing.  That aside though, reservations must be made now whether you like to plan ahead or not, so I'm going to give you a list of our favourite provincial park campgrounds to help you out a bit.  I've already got my Dinosaur booking made so I'm no longer worried you'll steal my spots.  ;) 

The campgrounds I'm about to list are not ranked by order.  I like all of the campgrounds on the list below for various reasons.  Also, it should be noted that while we may have had a fabulous time at one of these campgrounds, camping experiences can vary depending on the season, weather, bugs, and even noise around your site. I've also focused on Southern Alberta and the Rockies because that is where I live and it's what I write about.  I have very limited experience with camping in Central or Northern Alberta.

Camping along the creek in Dinosaur Provincial Park

Dinosaur Campground, Dinosaur Provincial Park

This is one of those early season campgrounds for May and June when snow still blankets the ground in the mountains.  Avoid summer months when mosquitoes will suck you dry and hot temperatures will leave you wishing for an air conditioned trailer.  The May long weekend is always crazy busy here but if you choose any other weekend in spring, you will have few problems getting a power or non power site in this campground.  

Dinosaur Provincial Park Badlands (Photo:  Cam Schaus)

Reasons to camp here:
  • Hiking trails through the campground that wind their way through the hoodoos and badlands of Southern Alberta. 

  • I personally think it's prettier than Drumheller but you'll find the same badlands landscape

  • There's a creek that runs through the campground and if you camp near it you'll have a small  beach for your children to play at

  • Cool dinosaur themed playground

  • Interpretive programs, guided fossil hikes, and dinosaur themed family activities that you can sign up for along with an educational museum on site

  • It's an UNESCO world heritage site

  • There's enough to do that you don't have to get into your car and drive anywhere while camped here

  • Paddling opportunities on the Red Deer River

  • Early season camping (and if you time it right, there will be no bugs yet)

There's nothing that we've ever disliked about camping here.  We've honestly found it to be the best place ever!  That being said, I have heard different stories from families who went in the summer and couldn't hike or do anything for the heat.  I've heard of bugs so thick, families had to hide in their trailers.  And I've heard of giant bull snakes hanging out in campsites.  Go in spring and hopefully you'll have the a great experience like we always have.  (and we've never seen a single snake)

To read some stories I've written from our May camping trips at Dinosaur, follow these links to Camping in Dinosaur Provincial Park or Camping in the Alberta Badlands  They have a LOT more photos.

You can also find more here at Hiking in Dinosaur Provincial Park and  Wild about Dinosaur Provincial Park. 

Hiking on one of the Hoodoo Trails

Little Bow Campground, Little Bow Provincial Park

This is another popular campground in Southern Alberta that we visited in 2012 for the first time.  Situated on the Travers Reservoir, this campground is beach and water paradise.  While the beach may not be as great as the sandy beaches of the Okanagan in BC, it's a good beach for Alberta and your children will be quite content with the swimming area and sandy play area.

Campsites are very open with little separation or privacy between them so long weekends will feel very crowded.  Go with a group of friends though and you'll appreciate how close the sites are together.  We rented two double sites back to back last year on the September long weekend and felt as if we had booked a huge group site.  We managed to fit 8 families on the two double sites.

Paddling on the Travers Reservoir in the morning (Photo:  Cam Schaus)

Reasons to camp here:
  • Camping near a lake with a beach and roped off swimming area provides hours of entertainment every day

  • Opportunities for boating, paddling, and even wake-boarding or other water sports if you have a motor boat

  • You aren't in the mountains so you won't need mittens on while you cook breakfast or a a down jacket on to sit by the campfire at night

What we don't like about Little Bow:
  • The amount of motor traffic on the lake.  We did find however that the morning and evening hours were quieter for paddling

  • The playground was old and needed a serious upgrade

  • Lack of privacy between sites and general noise in the campground
To read the story I wrote after our first stay at Little Bow, follow the link to Two Campsites and Eight Families.  There are more photos there as well.

Playing at the beach

Boulton Creek  and Elkwood Campgrounds, Peter Lougheed Provincial Provincial Park

I have no personal opinion over which of these campgrounds is better, Boulton Creek or Elkwood.  They are both awesome and insanely popular!!  If you don't book a site in advance it is highly unlikely that you will get a spot during the summer season at either campground..

Hiking along the edge of the Lower Lake

Reasons to camp in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park:
  • The Marl Lake hiking trail leaves right from the Elkwood campground and is a great 1.5km loop for families

  • The 4.5km Boulton Creek trail can be accessed from Boulton Bridge, just a short bike ride or walk from the Boulton Creek campground

  • Many other short interpretive hikes can be found throughout the park and if you have a bike, you can access all of them for a great bike and hike combo trip.  Our favourite ones are along the Lower Lake from Canyon Day Use Area or the William Watson Lodge

  • There are 12km of paved bike trails along the Lodgepole, Wheeler and Lakeside trails

  • Paddling on both the Upper and Lower Lakes

  • Interpretive programs at the Visitor Centre and evening amphitheater shows for families

  • The Boulton Creek Trading Post sells snacks, basic groceries, and ice cream!  It's a popular stop on any hike or bike ride
There isn't really anything we dislike about Peter Lougheed but be prepared for mountain camping.  There may still be snow on the ground until early June and it gets cold at night even in July or August.  You also won't be swimming in the lakes here unless you fancy swimming in glacier fed water.  

To read the stories I wrote after our camping trip in 2012, follow the links to Camping in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and Peter Lougheed Provincial Park for Families.  You'll find a lot more photos from the area than I could include here.

Also read The Best Place to Bike and Camp in Kananaskis, written in 2013. 

Canoeing on Upper Kananaskis Lake (Photo:  Jen Sollid)


Canyon Campground, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park 

Peter Lougheed Provincial Park is so awesome (and close to Calgary) that it deserves a second mention.  We camped at the Canyon Campground in 2014 and it quickly became our favourite campground in ALL of Kananaskis.

To read the full review and story, go to The Best Campground in Kananaskis

Playing in the canyon at Peter Lougheed's Canyon Campground


Bow Valley Campground, Bow Valley Provincial Park

Bow Valley Provincial Park is popular for a few reasons, location being at the top.  Your child has a bad night and you just want to go home in the morning?  No worries.  45 minutes and you're back in city limits.  Sick family member?  Bad bugs?  First camping trip with a baby?  It all doesn't matter because you are so close to home you could pack up in the middle of the night if you really had to and be back in your beds in an hour.  For many families this is a strong incentive to try camping.  We've camped here a couple of times now and it's a great place for early season camping, opening in early May every year. 

You need to book ahead for Bow Valley - and don't miss the 90 day booking window or you might not get a spot at this popular campground.

Biking in Bow Valley Provincial Park

Reasons to camp at the Bow Valley Campground: 
  • There's a great 5km hiking loop that circumnavigates the Bow Valley Campground made up of the Bow River Trail, Moraine Trail and Elk Flats Trail.  Add on the Middle Lake Trail or the Many Springs Trail and you have a LOT of hiking options for families

  • There's a 4km paved bike trail that runs through the campground

  • Across the highway in the Willow Rock Campground you have the Flowing Water Trail, a 1.5km loop that is awesome for kids!

  • Great interpretive programs and evening amphitheater shows at both campgrounds

  • Sites are well surrounded by trees, private, and spacious.

  • The campground is clean, well run, and quiet

  • There are two playgrounds

What we don't like about Bow Valley:
  • It can be very windyMake sure you choose a spot that's sheltered.

  • There are not enough bathrooms.  Choose a site near the bathrooms or else you'll have to bike/drive to them. 

To read the story I wrote in 2012 after camping in the Bow Valley Group campground, follow the link to Bow Valley Provincial Park - Where the Wild Winds Blow.

You can also read about our adventures camping with 17 other families in Group Camping - The Chaos and the Glory.  As always, you'll find lots of photos there and more information.

You can also find out more information on the Flowing Water Trail and Willow Rock Campground in this story from 2013:  Spring in Bow Valley Provincial Park.

And finally, check out this fun little piece on spring biking in Bow Valley Provincial Park:  The Bow Valley Biker Gang.

AND new for 2017: April Camping in Bow Valley Provincial Park 

Hiking on the Many Springs Trail in Bow Valley Provincial Park

Writing on Stone Campground, Writing on Stone Provincial Park

Located in Southern Alberta, You'll get the same badlands experience here as at Dinosaur. Hike the Hoodoos Trail, Canoe the Milk River, Play at the beach, visit the interpretive centre, and look for ancient petroglyphs on the sandstone walls along the hiking trails. 

Hiking in Writing on Stone Provincial Park

Reasons to camp in Writing on Stone Provincial Park:

  • Great early season camping as early as May.

  • This isn't mountain camping.  You won't be wearing mittens to cook breakfast.

  • Great hiking trails that are fun for the whole family.

  • Paddling and floating on the Milk River when water levels are high enough early season

  • Guided tours and interpretive programs through the hoodoos and badlands

  • A river beach that's fun for the kids

And we liked everything about this park!

To read about our adventures camping here, visit this link to Camping in Writing on Stone Provincial Park

Exploring in Writing on Stone Provincial Park


Cypress Hills Provincial Park 

We've camped here a couple of times now and we had so much fun biking around Elkwater that I'm adding the park (and collective campgrounds) to this "best of" guide.

I don't have "one" campground that I recommend because we always camp in a group area.  However, there is no bad campground here and they are all close to hiking trails, bike paths, Elkwater Lake, and the amenities of the town of Elkwater (including a marina, visitor centre and mini-golf.)

Hiking on the Shoreline Trail, Cypress Hills Provincial Park

Reasons to camp in Cypress Hill Provincial Park:

  • There's a great sandy beach, swimming area in Elkwater Lake, and shoreline trail for biking or hiking

  • There is a fabulous trail system that is open to both hikers or bikers

  • Mini-golf, boat rentals, playgrounds, disc golf, an interpretive centre, and a restaurant all wait for you in the town of Elkwater

  • The campgrounds are all linked to the town of Elkwater and the lake by bike trails and hiking paths

  • The amenities in the town centre are all close together so you can bike or walk everywhere

  • Because of the park location on the border of Saskatchewan, the drive is a bit further from Calgary and thus it is easier to get a campsite
In summary, take the beach and lake of Little Bow Provincial Park, add the trail network of Peter Lougheed or Bow Valley Provincial Park, and add the sunshine that you'll find in either Dinosaur or Writing on Stone Provincial Park - that's Cypress Hills.  It's the best of all worlds.

To read my full trip report, please go to my new camping story:  Our New Favourite Alberta Camping Destination.

Mountain biking in Cypress Hills Provincial Park

For information on reserving campsites in any of these campgrounds please go to the Alberta Parks Reservation website.  You can also find more information about camping in Alberta Provincial Parks at the Alberta Parks website.  

Have a favourite provincial park that I missed?  Please leave a comment below.  I'd love to hear about a new campground to check out this summer.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Spring in Bow Valley Provincial Park

Bow Valley Provincial Park is our favourite place for spring hiking for one big reason - NO SNOW!  In fact, usually you could hike here year round and never need a sled or pair of snowshoes.  The winds tend to whip through the area blowing any snow far away before it could ever really settle into drifts.  This is great news for spring hikers desperate to get outside on a sunny March afternoon in the mountains.  And while I'm as eager as the next skier to get as many ski days in per winter as possible, it's really hard to think about skiing when it's between 5 to 10 degrees Celsius and you know you'll do nothing but slog up icy hills on your skis, taking your life into your hands each time you have to descend one of the same hills on the way out. 

The Flowing Water Trail, Bow Valley Provincial Park

Such was the case for us last weekend.  I went cross country skiing in Peter Lougheed Park on Friday and spent the day battling a mixture of ice and slush as temperatures climbed well above Zero.  I put my skis away and said I was done for the year unless the temperatures seriously dropped again.  Saturday was another lovely warm spring day and we knew skiing was out of the question.  We rounded up a couple of other families eager to unleash the kids for some outdoor fun and off we went to Bow Valley.

Puddle Jumpers in Bow Valley Provincial Park

We chose to spend the day at the Willow Rock Campground which we discovered had just opened for the season.  We kicked ourselves for not knowing this because it would have been an excellent weekend to take the trailer out for its first trip of the season.  Note to self:  Stay at Willow Rock next Easter which falls in late April, 2014.  

Junior Hikers ready to explore

The Willow Rock Campground is home to one of our favourite little hiking trails, the Flowing Water Trail.  At 1.5 km, this fun loop is a guaranteed crowd pleaser for the 5 and under crowd.  Older kids would love the trail as well but you would want something else to do after the hike because it wouldn't take you much more than 45 minutes to complete the loop.  Our children ran the entire loop with us adults chasing after them out of breath to keep up.  Guess we aren't the only ones happy for spring!

The trailhead - snow free!

The trail starts off paralleling the Kananaskis River and then climbs a short flight of stairs to a bench above the river.  This is the only section that makes the trail non-Chariot friendly.  If you are willing to lift your Chariot up the stairs, you'll find the trail quite easy for the younger kids in your group.  I did it with a single Chariot the first time I did the hike when we were camping at Willow Rock years ago.  

The crux of the trail
Viewpoint above the Kananaskis River
From the bench above the river, you hike a short distance out in the open with full exposure to the wild Bow Valley winds.  Within a minute though you are back in the trees and it warms up again.  The next highlight of the trail is the beaver pond complete with an abandoned beaver lodge near the trail that you can explore.  There's a lookout here with benches and it's a nice spot for snacks.  

Running, Running Running

Back down to the trees

The Beaver Pond

From the beaver pond, you head next to a boardwalk section over a marsh.  This is always the best part for kids who LOVE boardwalks.  You'll be back in the campground here and steps away from some of the campsites bordering the marsh.  We chose to have a picnic lunch in one of the sites since the campground was very quiet and regretted not having brought marshmallows and hotdogs.  

The Boardwalk
Final section of boardwalk beside the campground
We finished off our visit with a stop at the playground near the campground gates.  While windy out in the open, it was a huge hit with the kids and we stayed there for a good hour.  

Natural playground on the hiking trail

Directions and more information:  

Take Hwy 1 towards Banff and look for the sign for Bow Valley Provincial Park shortly after the turnoff for Hwy 40.  You'll be turning on to Hwy 1X towards Exshaw.  The tiny hamlet of Exshaw is approximately 15 minutes from Canmore.  As soon as you turn on to Hwy 1X, you'll see a sign for the Willow Rock Campground on your right.  

There is no official parking for the Flowing Water Trail but if you park near the playground you'll see a trail heading through the campground that is signed for the hike.   Note that there is also no official day use area at this campground and all campsites are designated for the exclusive use of registered campers.  For day use areas in Bow Valley Provincial Park should you want to have a wiener roast or picnic after your hike, visit the following link to the Alberta Parks website.  Middle Lake across Hwy 1X is the closest day use area but does not have fire pits.

Exploring the Beaver Pond

Monday, April 01, 2013

Paradise at Mount Engadine Lodge

Last month my husband and I were completely and totally blessed to be able to spend a night at Mount Engadine Lodge as I composed a story for Travel Alberta and Snowshoe Magazine out of Colorado.  Located way off the beaten path in the Spray Lakes region of Kananaskis, it's very hard to believe you are at a front country lodge when you stay at Mount Engadine.  And while I travelled a lot this past winter, I have to say that Engadine is definitely one of my new favourite places to stay in the Rockies!  The lodge will go on my list as a place I absolutely MUST visit again and I can't wait to take my son with me next time.

Mount Engadine Lodge

To read the full story I wrote for Snowshoe Magazine, please follow this link to Escape to Snow Paradise in Kananaskis.  We chose winter hiking as our activity during the stay and explored nearby Chester Lake during our stay.  We found ourselves in a beautiful winter wonderland and I'd encourage you to explore Chester Lake in winter if you haven't already.  It is both ski and snowshoe friendly with individual trails for each sport.  The ski trail even has a separate up and down track to make sure that nobody gets taken out by an out of control downhill skier on their way up to the lake.

Snowshoeing to Chester Lake

Mount Engadine Lodge has now closed for the 2013 winter season as of last weekend but if you would like to experience the lodge with your family this summer or next winter there are a few options.  First you can smash your piggy bank open and book one of the rooms for a couple nights.  While not exactly cheap, the experience is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing that I would seriously recommend trying at least once. The lodge has king and twin bed configurations that could accommodate up to 6 guests.  Sofa beds in some rooms can also be used for families travelling with small children.  Each room has its own private bathroom making the lodge very family friendly for those who don't want to share bathrooms or traipse outside to an outhouse.  There is also a large cabin on site with a family suite.  This suite has a private bedroom with a king bed and also includes two twin beds for the children.  It features a private balcony overlooking the meadow as well.  I took one look at the cabin and pretty much put it at the top of my Rocky Mountain Travel Wish List.  (if anybody from Mount Engadine is reading this - hint, hint....)

The Family Suite at Mount Engadine Lodge

The second way to enjoy Mount Engadine Lodge is as a day user.  The lodge is open for afternoon tea on weekends and from my experience, I can tell you that their afternoon tea is more of a feast than a simple tea and cookies affair.  While I can't remember the exact cost to drop in for tea, the lodge can be contacted directly at if you would like to inquire about this service.  I do remember that I found it to be quite affordable for the amount of sweets provided with your tea or coffee.  I definitely plan to visit Chester Lake this summer with my family and then drop in on the lodge for tea after.  It is an affordable way for any family to experience the magic of Engadine if you aren't quite able to finance a stay at the lodge.

Playing in the snow at Mount Engadine Lodge

The third way to enjoy Mount Engadine Lodge is as a dinner guest.  The lodge is open for dinner reservations and at $45 per person, it's very reasonable for the quality of food the lodge provides.  I would compare their gourmet food and dessert to any of the top restaurants in Canmore or Calgary.  I actually had the best lamb of my life at this lodge in fact!  To make reservations, call Call 403-678-4080 and allow for 24 hours advance notice. If you'd like an extra special treat, book your dinner reservation during the Music in the Meadow Summer Concert Series.  You'll enjoy a private concert by award winning Canadian song writers and musicians along with your fabulous meal.  Personally, I'm thinking that us girls should all head out to Engadine for dinner one night while we are camping in Kananaskis.  The guys and kids won't miss us, right?

Evening at Mount Engadine Lodge

For more information on Mount Engadine Lodge, please visit their website and check out the photo gallery while there.  The lodge opens up again on June 14th for the upcoming season.  Reservations for dinner during the Music in the Meadow series must be made NOW however and room reservations should be made sooner than later as well, especially if you want to stay on a night that a concert is offered.