Monday, March 31, 2014

The Unwelcome House Guest - Dealing with Snow in April

I was going to mention "enjoying" the April snow in my story's title, but let's be realistic - We are all d.o.n.e with the snow!  At most right now we can learn how to make the most of these final snowy days where it feels like we're still shoveling every single morning. But, like the expression, "make hay while the sun shines," I think it's appropriate to say "go skiing while the snow falls."  I mean, what else are you gonna do besides crawl into a hole for the next few weeks and cry.  (and I don't think that's really an option.)

Fluffy spring powder day

This is how we spent the last few days:

Yesterday, a couple girlfriends and I spent 5.5 hours cross country skiing in Kananaskis through fluffy soft snow, we enjoyed warm weather, dealt with the occasional clumping on our skis, and embraced the snow.  Rather than fight with it, we made it our friend.  Snow = Fun.  Even in April.

Meanwhile, last Friday I took my son skiing for the day and he did his longest ski of the season at 6km.  It was warm and sunny, we had perfect conditions on trails groomed to perfection, we didn't have to worry about freezing our toes and fingers, and we could stop for breaks rather than skiing at a fast pace to stay warm.  THIS is the perfect weather for skiing with kids.  Even if it is April. 

Ski day at the end of March on perfect trails!


Need more inspiration that snow in April can still be enjoyable?

Check out this story I wrote last April:  Making the Most of the Late Season Snow 

Chances are, the kids aren't as tired of the snow as you are.

And, if you are truly done with the snow, check out this story I also wrote last April:  Waiting Patiently for Spring - No More Snow

No snow on the city pathways - so get riding!
I'll try to mix it up a bit but I still have a LOT of snow stories to share with you so I hope you'll bear with me.  :)

You can still have a spring picnic - even in the snow.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Does Adventure Have to be Fun?

Rain slowly fell around me in a steady drizzle as I made my way up to the pass, complaining miserably that this was not fun. What’s fun about backpacking through rain and snow (which we got the next day), setting up a tent in the cold, and then huddling under a small tarp eating freeze-dried chicken and rice—only to finally call it a day at 8 p.m. and go to bed?! I have many words that come to mind to describe our backpacking trip in Banff National Park last fall, but “fun” isn’t really one of them.

Fun?  Really? 
And with that introduction, the full story as published yesterday for Women's Adventure Magazine, proceeds to ask the question - Is Adventure Worth Pursuing Even WHEN It's Not Fun??

Brave Faces on a Cold Autumn Day
What is the real reason I embark on this kind of adventure in the backcountry? Is it for the fun? Do I carry a heavy backpack up a thousand metres to reach camp, placing myself entirely in Mother Nature’s hands and goodwill while suffering from blisters and bruised toes (I lost six toenails after this particular weekend), all because it’s just so much fun? Perhaps there is a different reason I choose to do this kind of trip. Something equally important to, or more important than, having fun.

Why do I do this again??

To read  the full story, go to Does Adventure Have to Be Fun at Women's Adventure Magazine. - and then leave a comment below with your thoughts.

Soggy Hiking above Shadow Lake

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Playing Tourist in Banff - Without the Crowds

A couple of summers ago I wrote a story called Playing Tourist in Banff National Park.  We did all of the "touristy" things from riding the Banff Gondola to taking the Lake Minnewanka boat cruise and hiking some of the busy summer trails.  What we discovered is that these tourist sites and trails are popular for a reason - They are beautiful, the busy trails are often the nicest hikes, and who doesn't like summiting a mountain via a gondola that can climb 700 metres in 8 minutes!  (To put that in perspective, the average adult can climb maybe 300-500 metres in an hour.  Add children and you're looking at maybe 200 metres in an hour.)

Peace and Tranquility on top of Sulphur Mountain in Spring

The key to playing tourist however, as I've learned over the past couple of years, is to do it in the off-season.  We rode the Banff Gondola this past weekend and I was blown away by how awesome the experience was without the summer crowds.  It was still a popular place to be on a warm Saturday afternoon but I could actually take photos without 50 other people in them!  The walkway to the top of the Sulphur Mountain summit was uncrowded and peaceful.  Imagine that!  (Anybody who's done the hike on a weekend in the middle of summer knows what a treat this would be.)

Climbing Sulphur Mountain from the Upper Gondola Station

The experience was also very beautiful with the winter snow on the mountains surrounding us.  In summer, the mountains don't look nearly as pretty but at this time of year, Cascade Mountain and the other surrounding peaks are absolutely spectacular!

Looking down on Banff and across to Cascade Mountain from the top of Sulphur Mt.
Enjoying a Quiet Walk at the Top of Sulphur Mountain

While the price of the Banff Gondola is a bit expensive for the average day trip, kids under 6 are free and there are some pretty fun package deals right now.  Visit on a Sunday for brunch and get your gondola ticket included with your meal on top of the beautiful Sulphur Mountain.  You can also take your sweetie up the gondola for a romantic date night on Fridays or Saturdays for the Banff Alpine Lights special.  Enjoy a fine dining experience on top of the mountain with gondola tickets included.  And if you are that family that does everything together, you can take the kids too.  (we would be that family.)

If you are an Alberta Resident, you are also entitled to further discounts , and there is a one-way  down price as well for those wishing to hike up Sulphur Mountain on their own and ride down.  The trail looked to be in good condition but I would still recommend bringing some ice cleats or snowshoes for slippery sections.

However you do it, the gondola is a special treat and a very memorable experience.

Romantic Gondola Ride with my Sweetie
For more information on the Banff Gondola, visit their website at
You'll find all the details on their current specials, pricing, and hours at the website.
There is a cafeteria open at the Upper Gondola Station through the winter and spring season and be prepared to shell out a few extra dollars for a photo of your family as you make your descent back to the bottom.  There is a professional photographer on site taking photos as you get into your gondola - and the photos are really good!  (still kicking myself that we didn't buy ours!)

The walkways were in great condition and not slippery at all

A big thank you to the great folks at Banff Lake Louise Tourism who made our visit possible last weekend.  I highly recommend taking the gondola before the crowds descend on Banff for the summer and we had a fabulous time on top of Sulphur Mountain. 

The Banff Penguin on his way up Sulphur Mountain

Disclaimer:  I wasn't compensated for writing this story beyond gondola tickets.  As always, all words and opinions are entirely my own. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Winter Escape to Jasper National Park

I'm from Northern Alberta originally and when we went to the mountains for the weekend, it was always to the small town of Jasper, 4 hour west of Edmonton.  We never travelled south to Banff or Lake Louise because they were just too far away.  Now, living in Calgary,  we seldom travel north to Jasper.  Few of us here would ever think of driving 5 hours north to Jasper for a weekend to go skiing when Banff is so much closer. (One hour Vs. five hours of driving.)  However, Jasper is awesome in winter and needs to be visited at least once.  After that, you'll want to go back every winter.  (and maybe stay for a week!)

Maligne Canyon in winter

We spent the February long weekend in Jasper this year, thinking that three nights would be long enough to see and do everything.  Man, was I wrong!  We could have spent a week in Jasper and still have trails left to explore next winter.  It didn't help that our son  got sick late in the afternoon on our first full day there.   After an epic ice walk in Maligne Canyon and a fairly long hike on  the Pyramid Bench, our poor little Pook was all done, and proceeded to throw up all over the back of our truck.  Blah!  (one of the great joys of parenthood.)  Sunday was hence, pretty chill, and Noah spent the day sleeping in his sled or on the sofa of our hostel.  We contemplated going home early but a 5 hour drive would not have been fun with a child glued to a bucket!  We decided to stay put and make the best of it.

Poor Pook Resting at our Hostel

Reasons to Visit Jasper in Winter


Cross Country Skiing 

Cross country ski trails are plentiful in Jasper and from our home base at the Athabasca Falls Wilderness Hostel, we only had to go across the highway to access the nearest trailhead for Leach Lake.

We skied on the closed 93A Highway until we reached the lake 4km away.  It was an easy ski and very well groomed.

While we skied straight back to the hostel after, our friends stopped at the picnic day use area at the lake and had a great half day outing.

Skiing to Leach Lake on Hwy 93A

If you decide to go to Jasper for a winter cross country ski trip, just stop in at the visitor centre in town to get a winter trails guide.  It lists all the trails and rates them by their difficulty.  Next time we go to Jasper we want to ski the Whistlers Campground Loop.  It's only 4.5km long and the highlight with kids would be the ski-in fire sites in Marmot Meadows.  The campground is also lit for night skiing on Thursdays through Saturdays until 9pm!  Super Cool!!  For more information on ski trails in Jasper, visit the Parks Canada website for access to all trail maps.

Picnic at Leach Lake

Ice Skating

There are two awesome places for ice skating in Jasper and we chose to try Pyramid Lake since  Pyramid Mountain is one of my absolute favourite mountains in the Rockies.   I've paddled the lake, hiked on the island, and now I wanted to skate it!  Classic lake skating doesn't get much better than Pyramid, and the staff at Pyramid Lake Resort maintain a lovely oval on the lake.

Skating the Oval on Pyramid Lake

The other place I recommend skating is at the Jasper Park Lodge on Lake Mildred and Lac Beauvert.  Lake Mildred offers the biggest skating oval in Jasper with rectangular rinks as well for hockey.  Meanwhile, scenic Lac Beauvert is lit for night skating should you find yourself out this way after dinner.  Skate rentals are also available at the lodge.  For more information on ice skating in Jasper, visit the Tourism Jasper website. 

Skating on Pyramid Lake


Winter Hiking and Snowshoeing

Hopefully you read my last story on our wild and crazy ice walk in Maligne Canyon because this is the top winter hike I recommend in Jasper.  The story can be read here at The Wildest Winter Canyon Hike in the Canadian Rockies.

Hiking in Maligne Canyon with 40 Metre Tall Waterfalls

If you want something a little less slippery, there are plenty of trails along the Pyramid Bench near Pyramid Lake.  We did a short loop from the far parking lot at Pyramid Lake looping around Katrine Lake.  It wasn't the most scenic loop so I would recommend following our exact loop, but Noah did have fun on his winter snow bike.

Bike Skiing on the Pyramid Bench
And here is where I put in a shameless plug for Strider Snow Bikes because I LOVE these little bikes. And, who wouldn't love skis on their bike??

He was having so much fun on his bike!

Other suggestions for family-friendly winter hikes or snowshoe trips in Jasper:
Athabasca Falls Hike

  • Patricia Lake Loop, Pyramid Bench
  • Hiking along the Athabasca River from the Wapiti Campground
  • Maligne Lake Trails (the Mary Schaffer Loop is easy and scenic)
  • Athabasca River Loop from Old Fort Point to Lac Beauvert
  • Valley of the Five Lakes
  • Jasper townsite to Mina Lakes
  • Athabasca Falls

For information on the trails above, visit the Information Centre in Jasper for a summer day hiking map.  All trails will be shown on the map with distances.  For an online map that you can print and use for planning before you go, visit the Parks Canada website.

To hike the Athabasca Falls trail, park outside the summer parking lot gate which will be locked and walk in.  This is a good option for families wanting to experience similar similar scenery to Maligne Canyon with less risk.

Hiking in the Lower Canyon at Athabasca Falls

Where to Stay

While there is no shortage of hotels and motels in Jasper, we chose to stay at the Athabasca Falls Wilderness Hostel instead for a taste of soft winter camping.  The bathrooms are located outside (hence my reference to winter camping) but that's where the camping ends.  We slept in a warm cabin with room for three families.  Our cabin was divided into two private rooms and we had both rooms booked.  We fit two families (6 people) in the one room, and another family of 4 in the second room.  While it was a bit cozy to have two families sharing one room, it was doable and allowed us to all go to Jasper together.

Athabasca Falls Wilderness Hostel

The hostel only has two private rooms but they do have shared dorm rooms as well for bigger groups or for families with children over 5 years of age.  All sleeping rooms are for just that - sleeping, but the rest of the time you'll  be hanging out in the main cabin which is equipped with a kitchen, living room, and fireplace.  It's a very big cabin and I'm pretty sure we were sharing it with at least 40 people on our final night in Jasper.  And yes, that was very crowded, but if you avoid long weekends I would imagine the hostel would be MUCH quieter.

Family-Friendly Athabasca Falls Hostel

We love hostelling and often choose to stay in wilderness hostels over hotels whenever we get the chance.  Why???

One - We get to stay together with our friends and hang out with them in a common cabin to play games, cook, and eat together.

Two - We get a winter wilderness experience which is great when it's still months to go before camping season begins.

Three - There's more room for the kids to run around and play together.  (very much impossible in a small hotel room.)

Four - The kids can play outside in the snow, build snow forts, build a snowman, etc.  (again, hard to do from a hotel in the middle of a city.)

Five - We save money by staying at an affordable hostel and can cook our own meals rather than having to eat out.

Communal Life at the Athabasca Falls Hostel

For more information on the Athabasca Falls Wilderness Hostel where we stayed, follow the link to their website. 

Exploring Athabasca Falls, across the highway from the hostel

To read my story on Spring in Jasper, go to Spring Adventures in Jasper.

Old Fort Point Hike in Spring

Disclaimer:  Our stay at the hostel was graciously taken care of for our trip to Jasper.  As always, all opinions and words are my own. 

Sunday, March 09, 2014

The Wildest Winter Canyon Hike in the Canadian Rockies

I love winter canyon hikes and the more ice the better!  So imagine how excited I was to finally hike the wild and crazy Maligne Canyon in Jasper this winter with frozen waterfalls over 30 metres tall!  While ice climbers love this canyon, you don't have to be a climber to strap on a pair of ice cleats, crawl through the summer fence, and make your way down into the canyon.  And, the canyon is only 10 minutes away from the town of Jasper on a good road.  Wait, what's that noise you say?  Oh, that's Spring Break calling and Jasper is less than a 5 hour drive from Calgary.

Hiking Maligne Canyon
Calgarians tend to flock to Banff on the weekends, leaving folks from Edmonton and Northern Alberta to explore Jasper on their own.  And while I get that, and agree that Banff is much closer, Jasper is just too beautiful not to visit at least once a year.  As a bonus, you get to drive the incredible Icefields Parkway en route to Jasper with places like Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, and the Athabasca Glacier available for short hikes to stretch the legs.

Bow Lake En Route to Jasper
Peyto Lake View Point En Route to Jasper
Hiking at the Athabasca Glacier En Route to Jasper

The incredible Maligne Canyon Ice Walk:  

We spent the weekend in Jasper and went skiing, skating, and snowshoeing.  What stood out to me though was the hike through Maligne Canyon.  We've done cute little canyon hikes near Calgary that were fun but had never done anything like this canyon before.  It was borderline sketchy with kids - I won't lie.  And I honestly don't think anybody without GOOD ice cleats should even be in that canyon at all!  And by good ice cleats, I mean microspikes (walking crampons) or full on climbing crampons.  Yak Trax and other icers aren't really good enough for the steep ice in Maligne Canyon.  Without some kind of crampons or spikes, you'll be sliding all of the steep pitches on your bum and you'd want to be wearing a helmet.

Spikes Vs. Icers -  Guess which won?

Where does this put kids on the danger scale when doing Maligne Canyon in winter?  Well, you pretty much need a one to one ratio of adults to children.  And it doesn't hurt to have extra adults on hand as well.  There were sections where we had to pass kids down sections with one adult at the top, and one at the bottom.   The adults responsible for the kids should also be wearing spikes.  I felt 100% comfortable in the canyon with our son because both my husband and I were wearing our microspikes.  I could have jumped off of a waterfall if I had wanted to.  We saw another family in the canyon carrying a baby and they were wearing full climbing crampons - pretty much necessary if you are carrying an infant or toddler.

Trying to demonstrate how good my spikes were - yes, I'm jumping!

Passing the kids down a slot
In the end, I won't judge your family for the decisions you make, and hope that goes both ways.  We are all responsible individually for the decisions we make.  We put a helmet on our son, and would wear helmets ourselves next time as well to prevent injuries from falling ice.  We had spikes on and we wouldn't do the trip with anything less.  We are definitely doing the canyon again next year, and will be doing it as a family trip again.

What else can you expect in the canyon along with ice and towering waterfalls?  Lots of water!  I'm not sure if it was abnormally wet this February when we hiked the canyon, but there was a LOT of water.  I'd actually consider wearing rubber boots next time instead of winter boots.  On the plus side, I did discover that my boots are 100% waterproof as my socks weren't the slightest bit wet at the end of our trip (and we were all ankle deep in cold water.)  I can't say the rest for the others in our group though.  We tried our best to lift the kids over deep water sections but it was inevitable that they'd get wet feet.

Thank you to whoever built the bridge through this section.  It was necessary!!
Finally, if you want to do the hike when the canyon is empty of people, go around noon.  Tour groups fill the canyon so that you rarely have a moment to stop or enjoy the scenery around you without having to keep moving or step to the side to let 50 people pass.  There's also a feeling like you shouldn't be down there without being on the tour!  (at least that's the impression I got from the guides.)   Meanwhile, if you go around noon, the morning tours are on their way back to their buses, and the afternoon tours are just leaving Jasper.  You'll have the canyon all to yourself at this time of day!

A rare moment where we had the canyon to ourselves


Directions to the canyon

From Jasper, head east on Hwy 16 for 2km until you reach the turnoff for Maligne Lake Road.  Turn right and follow the Maligne Lake Road until you reach the signed upper parking lot for Maligne Canyon, approximately 6km from Jasper.  Note, you can also start from 5th bridge, but we chose to start from 1st bridge at the top of the canyon.

Follow the popular tourist trail through the canyon past the second bridge on the summer trail that goes above the canyon  (You'll bypass the first bridge unless you start from the far end of the parking lot.)  The trail should be signed as trail #7.  Cross the second bridge and follow the trail until you find a good way to enter the canyon.  Here is where I leave route finding to you.  I'd rather not be held responsible for giving you inaccurate information and I honestly can't remember the exact spot we chose to get into the canyon.  I do know that we snuck through a summer fence that tour companies had taken apart.  We figured if they could do it, so could we. 

Ice Falls
Playing in an ice cave in the canyon
We hiked up the canyon a ways until we reached a sign that told us very clearly that we should proceed no further.  I like signs and warnings, so we turned around.  We hiked back to our starting point and decided to go down stream a ways to see if we could hike any further.  We did notice that the  tour companies weren't following us but it was actually a LOT easier than the previous part we had already done upstream. 

The photo at left shows the only challenge in going further down stream.  A small slot in the canyon required a bit of light scrambling.  Apparently the tour companies aren't allowed to do this section with their clients but we found it to be easy peasy - even with the kids.  And certainly safer than the previous section with huge chunks of ice threatening to drop on us.

The final waterfalls where we left the canyon
We exited the canyon and made our way back to our vehicles when we reached the beautiful waterfall in the photo above.  We did try to go a bit further but were turned around by open water flowing in the creek.  At this point it was extremely easy to get out of the canyon and many families were choosing to enter the canyon at this point to hike upstream.  The only challenge with that would be climbing UP the slot we slid down.  Much harder.

Beautiful Ice in the Canyon
Ice Cave Fun
Overall, it was a very exciting tour and I am SOOOO excited to go back again next year and repeat the tour.  We chose to do the hike ourselves to cut costs BUT if you don't feel 100% safe about doing the trip without a guide, there are several companies to choose from in Jasper who'd be more than happy to take your family into the canyon and ensure you are kept safe on your trip.  I can't endorse any specific company but Tourism Jasper has a list of companies you can choose from.  Some companies won't take children under 7 years of age but I can't speak for all of them.

Disclaimer:  There are risks associated with all sports in the mountains.  By choosing to do this trip with your family, you take those risks on yourself and I am merely sharing a story about our family's adventures.  I repeat again, that if you don't feel comfortable being in the canyon with your kids, please hire a guide.  Play safe everybody!

So cool to be IN the canyon
Finally, I want to say thanks to the tour companies who made it possible for us to be in the canyon.  I am positive that you are the wonderful people who placed the strategically located bridges throughout the canyon that helped keep our feet dry.  We also followed your example to get down into the canyon at the gap in the fence. While we might not have always been able to stay out of your way, we did try our best to keep moving so that your clients didn't have to wait on us.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Celebrating Spring Break in Banff

The exact timing of spring break varies from school to school, but most children in Alberta will have a week off from school sometime in March.  And while it would be awesome if we could all jet off to sunny Mexico or Hawaii, it may not be in the budget for all of us. No worries though - I've been spending a lot of time in Banff lately and I've got you covered with tons of fun family-friendly activities to try this spring.  And they won't break the bank.

Celebrate Spring Break in Beautiful Banff!

Resort Skiing for a Toonie anybody?

For just a Toonie per person, Alberta residents can ski at Mount Norquay on the first Wednesday of each month.  March's discount day is upon us today, but the next day falls on April 2nd so mark your calendars!

Want to go out to Mount Norquay during spring break?  Save your pennies by skiing at this unique hill that offers hourly ski rates.   Let beginner skiers practice their skills in the learning area and then buy a one or two hour lift ticket to access the beginner chairlift which accesses only green runs.  The ski hill also has a tube park that helps extend your time at the hill when kids are tired from skiing.

No better way to celebrate warm weather than on a sunny ski hill

Take your youngster on a FREE gondola ride to the top of the world

Good news for families with Children 5 and under! Toddlers and preschoolers get to ski and ride the gondola for free at Sunshine Village.  If you can't afford a family ski day, you can at least take a beautiful sightseeing trip on the Sunshine gondola, have lunch at the top, and even put the kids on the beginner hill for an hour or two.  You will still have to pay for your adult gondola ticket but we all need a special treat every once in a while, right?

The Ride to Paradise on the Sunshine Gondola

Visit the all new Cave and Basin National Historic Site 

The Cave and Basin National Historic Site in the town of Banff commemorates the birth of our national parks.  It was here that the first public hotsprings pool was opened for travelers to the Rockies.  Now of course, the Banff Upper Hotsprings has a much newer location, but you can still visit the pool and museum on the original site. 

The Cave and Basin site is open Wednesday through Sunday from 12 noon to 4 pm and open late until 10 pm on Saturday nights for Magic Winter Nights.  Families attending Magic Winter Saturday Nights can expect hot chocolate, skating on the original pool deck, bonfires, an ice palace and music.

If you'd prefer to visit in the day time, you can still bring your skates for Banff's newest skating rink, open until the end of April.  And while you're there, you absolutely must check out Paul Zizka's incredible night photography exhibit inside.  "Summits and Starlight:  The Canadian Rockies at Night" is  only on display until March 21st so don't wait too long to visit. 

Finally, be sure to come back for the Return of the Banff Winter Carnival from March 26-30th.  The theme is the roaring twenties complete with old time music and movies and even a mini ice palace and slide. 

A Preview of the Summits and Starlight exhibit (photo courtesy of Parks Canada and Paul Zizka Photography)

It's Toasty Warm at The Banff Upper Hotsprings

There may still be snow on the ground but at the Banff Upper Hotsprings, it's always toasty warm!  A trip to the hotsprings is the perfect way to top off a day of skiing, skating, or hiking in Banff.

The Banff Upper Hotsprings (photo courtesy of

Splurge and treat the family to brunch on top of Sulphur Mountain

When is the last time you had brunch on top of a mountain? Or, took a gondola to get to your restaurant for lunch?  Celebrate Spring Break in style with a ride on the Banff Gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain.   Take a short hike to the top of Sanson's Peak  from the upper gondola terminal and come back to the terminal for a Canadian inspired brunch, available every Sunday until May 11th. For more information, visit the Explore Rockies website. 

Note, your gondola ticket is INCLUDED with the brunch!  Now, that's a sweet deal!

Banff Gondola (Photo courtesy of Brewster Travel Canada)

Want to stay overnight?

You know you do, right?  And yes, you can afford it with a little help from our friends at the Banff Lodging Company.  If you go to their website, you'll find last minute deals with fabulous prices throughout the month of March.  For only $99, you can even try out the Rocky Mountain Resort's fully renovated Wolf Condos, complete with your own kitchen to further cut down on costs while in Banff.  Our family will be staying at the Rocky Mountain Resort later this month so I'll keep you posted on our experience.

Hot tubs at Hidden Ridge Resort, Banff Lodging Company

Disclaimer:  While I gave credit to many Banff businesses in this story, I was not compensated nor requested to write this story. As always, all opinions are my own.