Friday, January 31, 2014

Waterton Lakes National Park - In Winter (a whole different experience!!)

We go camping in Waterton Lakes National Park every summer and it's one of our favourite places to visit near Calgary.  When we go in July, we are always able to go biking, hiking, paddling, and explore this lovely park full of wild flowers, waterfalls, and wildlife in abundance.  On the down side though, there is little solitude unless you go for a long day hike or overnight backpacking trip, the popular tourist places are crawling with people, and you'd be hard pressed to get a family photo without at least 5 other families in it.

Summer - Winter in Waterton Lakes National Park

Since we've always loved Waterton so much, we wondered what it would look like in winter.  With no tourists, very few people at all, (the town has about 40 permanent year-round residents), and very few amenities.  We decided to head down for a visit in January this year, one of the coldest months in the Rockies, and see what life is like in this sleepy winter town.

Waterton Landmark - Boarded up for Winter (no gas, ice cream or bike rentals)

 Winter in Waterton

In a nutshell, these are the first things we discovered about winter in Waterton - and you'll need to know this before you go:
  • There are no gas stations open past Pincher Creek (56km away from Waterton) - so top up as you drive through PC.
  • There are very few eating establishments open (when we were there, the only place to eat was the small cafe in the lobby of our hotel at the Glacier Suites.)
  • There is no fast food (so bring your own groceries for making lunches and use the small fridge in your hotel room.)
  • There is no grocery store open! (so bring everything with you!!)
  • There is no liquor store open (bring your own wine/beer...)
  • There's no entertainment - the movie theatre is closed and when we were there I think the swimming pool at the Waterton Lakes Lodge was also closed.
  • There are no church services (if that's important to you) - see the photo below.
  • And finally, there's no shopping of any kind.  If you need it, bring it!  Expect to buy nothing in the town of Waterton in winter.  
No church services till spring
Mabel, where did all those tourists go?
The quietest I've EVER seen this playground and spray park
Moved to Arizona for the winter!  Be back in May.
No cars, no bikes, no people - just lots of snow!
If you need it, bring it!  No groceries, no shopping - Waterton will open up again in May.
What, no ice cream?? No coffee shop?  And no chocolate??
Guess we didn't need to bring the kayak or canoe...

Parks Canada has a good list of things to do in Waterton in winter.  For families though, there are pretty much two main things to do in Waterton in winter;  You can go cross country skiing, and you can go snowshoeing.  Fortunately for us, we like both.  And we are always looking for new places to explore.  And on this particular trip, we just might have discovered one of the loveliest family-friendly snowshoe trails in the Canadian Rockies.  It's worth going to Waterton in winter just to snowshoe to Crandell Lake from the Akamina Parkway!

Winter at Crandell Lake

Winter Activities in Waterton


We had hoped to do some cross country skiing  and snowshoeing in Waterton but apparently, the park has recently lost its four season designation.  This means, the park won't receive as much attention in winter going forward.  For skiers this means there might not always be grooming or track-setting on the Cameron Lake Road - the main ski trail families would be able to do in Waterton.  Check out my photo below to see how deep the snow was on the road the further we hiked:

While, snow like this is great for alpine touring, it's hard for people on skinny skis - or for kids learning to ski;  My son definitely needs grooming and tracks.  Without that, we need to snowshoe.  Thank God we had brought snowshoes. 

A few brave families chose to ski on the first part of the trail - snow wasn't as deep here

Note, that the current trail report for Waterton has the Cameron Lake Road listed as trackset classic - so check before you go.  We might have just had an unlucky day with fresh snow.  Perhaps the trail will be gloriously tracked and groomed next time we visit (yes, there will be a next time.)

We chose to snowshoe the road to Cameron Lake


Snowshoeing to Cameron Lake

Cameron Lake is one of the main tourist attractions in Waterton in summer so we were very eager to see it in winter. It's an easy 5km round trip hike or ski to Cameron Lake from the Little Prairie Picnic Shelter on the Akamina Parkway and there's little height gain.  In summer you would normally drive right up to the lake so you'll be skiing or snowshoeing on the closed road for the last 2.5 kilometres to reach the lake.  For more information on the trip, check out the Waterton Park Website

Cameron Lake in Summer Vs. Winter (first photo courtesy of

As you can see from my collage above, we didn't have the best day to see the lake.  It was actually hard to tell there was a lake at all!  Which, was a huge disappointment after hiking the 2.5km to get there through wind gusts that reached 80km/hour during our visit. My son hates wind with a vehement passion so he was less than thrilled by the hike.

This was all Noah saw of the lake, huddled from the wind by a tiny shelter

Would I return to ski or snowshoe to Cameron Lake?   I'd have to say no.  The weather is too variable in winter and the trip isn't worth it if you have no views.  You spend the whole time hiking a boring road (let's be honest, who likes skiing or hiking a road?) and if you don't see anything pretty at the end or enjoy the journey is there a point?  If I happened to be in Waterton on a beautiful clear winter day and the road was tracked, I would definitely ski it to the lake.  Snowshoe - meh.  Probably not.

Thank goodness for the sled - it saved the trip on the way back down the road

Snowshoeing to Crandell Lake - For the Win

Now, this is the trail you go to Waterton for in winter.  This is the trip you plan to repeat.  It's a fabulous snowshoe destination and also popular with backcountry skiers.  We obviously chose to snowshoe it with our son.  We had fresh powder and Noah wanted to break trail much of the way.  The trail was easy at 2.4km return from the Akamina Parkway and elevation gain was under 200m.

Snowshoeing to Crandell Lake
A trip the whole family can do!
Easy Snowshoeing

What I liked most about this trail was that it was a real hiking trail as opposed to a road I could drive in summer.  We hiked through trees with occasional scenic views to the surrounding mountains.  Little dips and rolling hills on the trail provided interest, and we had something scenic at the half way point. 

Crandell Lake
Beautiful spot for lunch
The way down was quick and easy because we had promised Noah he could ride in the sled down if he hiked up by himself.  Always bring a sled!

The easy way to get kids back to the parking lot
Finally getting a workout at adult paced hiking
Would I snowshoe to Crandell Lake again - Heck ya!  And return to Waterton just for the hike - yes.  I'd also consider doing the trip on light touring skis.  That would be a lot of fun in good conditions.

The trailhead sign is barely visible from the road

Special Acknowledgements


I'd like to say thank you to the Waterton Glacier Suites for putting our family up for the two nights we were in Waterton.  There are few options for accommodations in winter in Waterton so we were very fortunate to have a warm cozy place to spend our time.  We had a one bedroom suite which worked very well for us.  Noah slept on the pull out couch in the main room while we enjoyed our large bedroom with fireplace in the back.  The room was basic with no kitchen beyond a small fridge and coffee maker but we enjoyed complimentary breakfast each day in the hotel's cafe, located in their front lobby.  We enjoyed dinner in the evening at the hotel's cafe as well and Noah was thrilled that they had lasagne on the menu. 

More thanks go out to the staff of the Waterton Glacier Suites as well!  If you want to see hard working staff, you have got to see these guys in action!  The lady on duty was there when we arrived late to show us into our room, was there when we had a problem around midnight with noise from the next room, was still there at breakfast the next morning, serving and cooking for us, and then was there again for dinner that night, serving and cooking again!  The next day, yep, still there at breakfast.  WOW!  I honestly don't know if she slept all weekend. 

Finally, without the incredible support I received from Parks Canada, this trip would not have been possible.  Thanks Christy! 

Upper Waterton Lake in Winter

Planning Your Next Winter Trip to Waterton

For more information on Winter in Waterton, visit the Parks Canada website for comprehensive information.  And, definitely consider visiting for Waterton's family-friendly Winter Fest this coming March. 

Discover Waterton in Winter

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Jura Creek - The Best Winter Hike in Kananaskis

Best?  Really, the absolute best?... - Yes.  The very very absolute best, most fun for all ages hike in Kananaskis award goes to Jura Creek!

Having Fun in Jura Canyon

While there are other good hikes in Kananaskis that can be done in winter, Jura Creek is something special because it's a hike that can not really be done in summer.  The canyon through Jura Creek can only be tackled in winter when the water is well frozen under a layer of ice and snow.

In summer you could be wearing hip waders here

I imagine that some hardy folks could attempt the canyon in summer, but you'd get seriously wet and cold, and would need either hip waders or sandals with strong tough feet.  And although there is a hiking trail that goes up and around the canyon, I've never found it to be that much fun.  Who wants to look down on a narrow canyon when you could be running through it instead?

Much more fun to be IN the canyon than walking around in summer

Sliding on ice in the canyon
The hike to Jura Creek starts from the Graymont Plant outside the tiny town of Exshaw.  (about a 45 min. drive from the west end of Calgary)  For a full description on how to get to the trailhead and how to find the canyon, read through to the end of this post where I have directions copied from last year's story that I wrote on Jura Creek, Ice Ice Baby - Winter Canyon Hiking.


Why do we love this hike so much?

One - The Canyon is Close to the Highway!  You'll hike a kilometre at most (return) to get to and from the canyon.  Many other local canyons require a much longer approach.  

Two - The hike is close to Calgary! You don't always have time to drive far for a short day hike.  At 45 min. away from the city, it's perfect for a half day outing.

Three - It's Fun! - Kids can slide down frozen waterfalls on their bums, slide around on the ice, play hide and seek behind boulders, and chase each other around the twists and turns of the canyon walls.

Playing on the ice in the canyon
What kid wouldn't like this hike?

Four - It's a Short Hike!  The most exciting part of the canyon is accomplished in a short 3km return hike.  In that short distance, you can hike the narrowest parts of the canyon, have a snack, and head back before the kids get tired.

Lots of fun in Jura Canyon

Five - No crowds!  Few families in Calgary have ever hiked this canyon.  Chances are good you'll have the trail and canyon to yourself. 

Solitude guaranteed!

Trail Directions:

Follow the Trans-Canada Hwy from Calgary to the turnoff for Bow Valley Provincial Park and the town of Exshaw. (This will be just after the turnoff for Hwy 40 and is about 70km from the west end of Calgary.) When you get to Hwy 1A, head west towards Exshaw.  Just before the tiny hamlet, you'll see the Graymont Plant entrance.  This is where we always park and I've attached a photo so you know where to park.  Note that you might also see cars parked on the highway a few metres back as well and you could park there too.  However, there's no way I can accurately describe where to pull off the road.  Parking at the Plant is easier.  

Parking for Jura Creek

Once you have parked, walk across the highway and up a tiny slope into the trees.  Follow a worn path through the trees until you reach the creek bed.  You'll head east or right at the creek bed, descending to walk on the rocks, and follow it to the mouth of the canyon.  From there, make your way through the canyon as far as you want to go.    

Approaching the canyon from Jura Creek


I was testing out a new pair of snowshoes from Colorado based company, Crescent Moon, for this hike.  To read the review on my Crescent Moon Gold 13 Women's Trail Snowshoes, follow this link to my gear review for Snowshoe Magazine.

Snowshoes with good grip made this hike a lot of fun

Final Notes:

Snowshoes or ice cleats are recommended for this hike so that you can walk safely on the ice.  At some times of the year, they won't be necessary if large amounts of snow cover the canyon ice.  For this reason, cleats would be easier than snowshoes to bring along and leave in your backpack if not needed.  Sleds can be used sometimes as well if there is enough snow on the hike to the canyon.  This year we definitely did not need a sled - - and really did not need snowshoes.  

Lots of snow in the canyon this year!
Ice Cleats were very helpful

What's your favourite winter hike in Kananaskis?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Affordable Family Ski Vacations in the Canadian Rockies

Downhill resort skiing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, sledding and tubing, ice skating, playing in the snow, and spending time with friends - How does that sound for a fun weekend getaway this winter?  Add affordable accommodations close enough to Calgary so you can drive out Friday after work, and I'm sure I can sign you up, right?

Winter Fun at Nakiska Mountain Resort

Affordable Ski Accommodations in Kananaskis

Every winter we spend at least one weekend at the HI Kananaskis Hostel  located a very short drive from Kananaskis Village and Nakiska Mountain Resort.   Most recently, we spent the weekend before Christmas at the hostel where we stayed with 3 other families.   We made use of the 3 private rooms in the hostel and fortunately the fourth family was able to use an empty dorm room since it was quiet over the weekend.  We even had the hostel completely to ourselves the second night!

Story time before bed at the HI Kananaskis Hostel

Private Rooms at the HI Kananaskis Hostel

Each private room at the Kananaskis Hostel sleeps 3 with a single/double bunk bed arrangement and all linens are provided so that you don't have to bring sleeping bags.  Mattresses can also be provided for a fourth person so that the whole family can fit in one room.  While the sleeping arrangement isn't glamorous by any means, it's pretty hard to beat the affordable room rates at the hostel (a room is under $70 per night,) and it's a heck of a lot warmer than camping.  Personally, I'd rather save money on the hotel if it means I can actually afford to go skiing!

One of the private rooms at the hostel

Kitchen Facilities On Site

Thanks to a fully stocked kitchen, we are always able to make our own meals at the hostel which cuts down further on expenses for the weekend.  On this trip, we divided up meals so that each family cooked for one breakfast or dinner, and we took turns with dishes.  This was definitely the way to do it and we all enjoyed only having to cook once over the trip. Our meals were nothing fancy, but the kids liked them and we saved a heap on not having to eat out at the Village.

Dinner at the hostel with plenty of room for 4 families

And, FUN, Fun, Fun

Savings aside, the main reason we love to stay at the HI Kananaskis Hostel (and return every year) is for the myriad of activities we can do outside without ever having to get in our cars.  This year we chose to drive a bit more than in previous years to reach the Village and nearby trailheads, but you certainly don't have to.

Without ever getting into your car, you can easily:

  • Ski, snowshoe, or hike up to Kananaskis Village on the on maintained winter trails (and if you bring your skates you can go ice skating on the village pond.)

  • Snowshoe, ski, or hike to nearby Troll Falls (trails are maintained for skiing but snowshoers can hike on the sides of the trails)

  • Play in the snow outside the hostel, build a snowman, have a snowball fight, or make a snow fort

  • Roast marshmallows or hot dogs in the fire pit outside the hostel 
Ski in, Ski out - right from your door at the HI Kananaskis Hostel
Not a bad way to spend a cold afternoon at the hostel

We chose to drive up to the Village to go skating since it was an easier option with our young kids this year and we also drove to the nearby Stoney Trailhead to ski to Troll Falls because it cut off a couple of kilometres. 

Skating at Kananaskis Village on the pond
Skiing to Troll Falls
Troll Falls

Downhill Skiing and Tubing at Nakiska Mountain Resort

We go skiing or hiking every year when we stay at the HI Kananaskis Hostel but this year we decided to check out the Nakiska Mountain Resort as well.  Located a short drive from the hostel, it's an ideal place to spend the day!  The children are now of the age that they enjoy spending time on the beginner hill, and our family was eager to try out the new Tube Park. 

To read my review that I recently wrote on Nakiska, please follow this link to Nakiska Mountain Resort - Raising the Bar in Family Excellence.

Skiing at Nakiska Mountain Resort

We actually spent an entire day at Nakiska (something I never dreamed possible with a 4 year old) and had a blast.  We will definitely be adding downhill skiing and tubing to the mix of activities we do at the hostel each year from now on.

Tubing at Nakiska Mountain Resort

Final Photos from our recent trip to the HI Kananaskis Hostel

Below are a few final photos of our kids having fun at the hostel as we made gingerbread houses, read Christmas stories, and tried to keep them busy when we weren't outside in the snow.

Story time at the hostel
Playing by the fireplace
Making gingerbread houses
This was a great way to spend a morning!

He was very proud of his gingerbread house!

I want to say thank you to Hostelling International Canada for graciously putting all of us up at the hostel for our two night stay.  We had a fabulous time and I highly recommend this hostel for your family's next ski vacation!

An easy hike or ski to Troll Falls - Right outside the door of the hostel

 Plan Your Next Ski Vacation

HI Kananaskis now offers ski packages for Nakiska Mountain Resort from $79 per adult.  Private room upgrades may be done as well.  For more information, contact Hostelling International.  

To check out other family-friendly wilderness hostels in the Canadian Rockies and to start planning your next ski vacation, follow the links below to previous hostels we've stayed at.

The HI Mosquito Creek Hostel is located in Banff National Park, 29km from Lake Louise where you'll find a world class ski resort and many great cross country trails.  The hostel has a private cabin with two rooms, living area, and kitchen.  It's a pretty sweet hostel for families!  Book both private rooms in the cabin with another family and enjoy the whole cabin to yourselves.

To read the story from our first trip go to:  Winter Paradise at Mosquito Creek

The HI Mosquito Creek Hostel in winter

The HI Athabasca Falls Hostel is located in Jasper National Park, and is a very short drive away from the popular Marmot Basin ski hill. Other opportunities abound near the Town of Jasper for ice skating, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing. The hostel is great for families with two private rooms sharing a cabin.

We haven't stayed here in winter yet but are planning our first trip in February.  To read the story I wrote after our spring trip a couple of years ago though, follow this link to:  Spring Adventures in Jasper

HI Athabasca Falls Hostel in Spring

The HI Hilda Creek Hostel  is not located near any ski hill or resort but if you're looking for something more rugged, backcountry-esque, and wild - this is the place for you!  It's also easy to book the whole hostel for your family because it only sleeps 6. 

Check out the photos in my story, Making the Most of Late Season  Snow , or in my story for Snowshoe Magazine, Spring Adventures on Alberta's Icefields Parkway. There is no shortage of snow well into April for snowshoeing or skiing here.  In fact, we had to snowshoe from the highway just to reach the hostel!

Pulling kids and gear into the HI Hilda Creek Hostel in Spring

Have a favourite place you like to stay when you go skiing?  I'd love to hear about it.