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. 

Early Season Training Rides

2.  Do inventory and replace or buy new gear and clothing
  • Go through your footwear collection.  Do your children's hiking boots still fit?  Do they need new rubber boots?  Need a new pair of sandals for summer?
  • Go through the camping supplies.  Replace or fix that leaky tent.  Buy new dishes or upgrade the stove.  Look at photos from last year and try to remember what you wish you would have had
  • Buy that hammock you've been dreaming of
  • Go through the closets.  Do the kids' hiking clothes still fit?  Do they need a new rain jacket or rain pants?  Now is the time to hit up spring clothing swaps so make your list.  How many t-shirts do you need to buy?  Pairs of shorts? 
New sunglasses from MEC for this season - aren't they sweet?!

3.  Get your garden ready to go

We've planted our sunflower and pumpkin seeds already and they sit in a sunny spot beside the kitchen table slowly growing into little baby plants.  We planted them in recycled egg cartons so that when the snow melts, we can cut them apart and plant them straight into the garden.  Want some more creative ways to start plants indoors or need ideas for gardening with kids?  Check out my spring-themed Pinterest board for some great ideas from myself and other outdoor blogging experts. 

Planting Sunflower Seeds

4.  Make those reservations, bookings and plans

If you're lucky maybe you can just show up at a campground in your neck of the woods any day you want and find a great campground.  That is definitely not the case here however.  My calendar is full of booking reminders exactly 90 days before each planned camping trip this spring and summer.  To date, I've already made reservations through the September long weekend because Parks Canada is now accepting reservations for the whole summer season.  So what are you waiting for?  Making some exciting plans just might help you forget about the snow temporarily. 

And while we are on the topic of planning, it's not too early to start thinking about next winter.  I mean are you really going to feel like booking that wilderness hostel for the Family Day long weekend next February when it's hot and sunny in August?  Might as well think about next winter while it's still easy to do so.  I've already made three hostel bookings for next winter along with one hut booking with the Alpine Club of Canada.  On the ball?  Yes.  But I also know that if I wait till next fall, I won't get a weekend spot anywhere that I want to go.

Campsites like this require bookings in advance

5.  Take a weekend getaway and go looking for green grass

Last April we took a trip to Fairmont Hotsprings in the warm Columbia Valley of BC.  While Calgary was still blanketed in snow, I found green grass at Fairmont!  Actual green grass.  It was awesome!  We went hiking on dirt trails (no snow), found running water, and spent hours in the warm hotspring pools there.  Meanwhile, I know other friends that have had enough of this white business and are escaping to Arizona for a week.  Wherever your budget allows, go somewhere warm - even if it's just across the border into BC for a couple of days.  It might just help you hold on until the grass is green here too.

April at Fairmont Hotsprings (caution - this is a great way to pick up a tick in spring)

6.  Tackle those spring chores that gotta be done sometime

Yard work with Daddy
If you aren't going to be off in the mountains hiking or skiing, you might as well be productive.  Get the trailer ready to go so that you are ready to pounce on the first warm weekend in May. Tune up your bikes.  Start building the sand box you promised your kids last year.  Buy or build the new climber, tree house or swing set for the backyard.  Need some inspiration for turning your backyard into an adventure-friendly playground?  Check out my Outdoor Play Pinterest board for many cool ways to "playscape" your backyard. 

The beach that we built last spring in our yard

7.  Seize every nice moment!

  • Get the bikes out on those warm days when the snow temporarily melts (or search out pathways with snow removal)
  • Wait for the snow to start melting and plan a Puddle Fest with your family friends as you search out the biggest and baddest puddles for the big and little puddle-jumpers in your family
  • Enjoy ever nice afternoon and get outside!  Shopping or errands can wait.  This is the time of year where you drop everything on warm +15 days
  • Go hiking in the front ranges where you'll find little snow and many glimpses of spring
  • Again, for more great ideas from creating your own backyard mud bath to spring scavenger hunts, check out the two pinterest boards mentioned above.  You'll find it hard to stay bored for long
Bike rides on warm days are fabulous!

8.  Use this opportunity to visit popular tourist attractions - without the crowds

The Calgary Zoo in spring
The Calgary Zoo, Lake Louise, Banff, Kananaskis Village, Canmore... - all insanely busy come summer!  But right now?  Deserted, quiet and very peaceful.  In fact, we are planning a trip to Banff this weekend to stay overnight.  We look forward to seeing what this busy tourist town actually feels like for the locals when they have it to themselves.

This is also the time to start buying your summer attraction passes to places like the Zoo, Calaway Park, or Heritage Park.  Calaway Park passes for example are on sale on their website until May 21st and pay themselves off in approximately one visit.   Buy your passes now before April 20th and receive bonus discount coupons for your friends for  the whole season.  (and while I'm on that note - off to purchase mine right now...)

Canmore in April

9.   Start your summer reading

Below are a list of suggested books you may want to read as you prepare and get inspired for summer:
For a great list of camping and hiking themed picture books, check out the suggestions on my Christmas gift list I created last fall.  

Camp story time with themed picture books

10.  Assemble the troops

I created an outdoor playgroup in 2012 and now we have groups of 10+ families coming on our camping trips this summer. We've been skiing and hiking together all winter, tobogganing and skating, and meeting regularly.  We are ready to transition to hiking, backpacking trips, and many many group camping trips now.  To start your own outdoor playgroup or family hiking group, please read the story I recently wrote for Calgary's Child called, Take it Outside - Planning the Perfect Playgroup.  To join   a playgroup in Calgary, visit Calgary Outdoor Playgroups on Facebook for more information.

Spring hiking with our outdoor playgroup

Not sick of the snow yet?  Cool.  Then check out the story I just had published  in Snowshoe Magazine on spring camping at the Hilda Creek Hostel on the Icefields Parkway.  Lots of good snow for sledding, snowshoeing and building snowmen there for at least another month.

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

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.