Monday, June 23, 2014

Banff Campground Review - The Good, the Bad, and the AWESOME!

We camped in Banff National Park twice over the months of May and June, staying at two different campgrounds near the townsite of Banff.  We also spent a couple of nights in the park close to town last summer at a third campground.  Each campground was VERY different but only one can be the winner in this comparison review.

The Banff Campground Review - The Good, the Bad, and the Awesome

The Bad - Two Jack Main

We camped at Two Jack Main near the town of Banff and had few positive words to say for this campground.  No playground, few amenities, no views from any of the sites, no service or power at sites for RVs, sites that weren't leveled for trailers, and garbage left on our site when we arrived.

Add the fact that people were cooking in the bathrooms,  and I was less than impressed.  Oh, and the mosquitoes!! - which yes, can be bad anywhere, but sure didn't help with an already bad stay.

And, I actually don't have a single photo of the Two Jack Main Campground.  There was nothing to take a photo of.  The photo below is of Two Jack Lake across the road, where there is a better campground.

Paddling across gorgeous Two Jack Lake

In defence of Two Jack Main, there's nothing truly wrong with this campground, and it serves its purpose as a place to sleep in Banff.   It's just that there's nothing awesome about it either.  There's no views from the campground, no lake, no hiking trail or bike trail in the campground itself, and there's honestly just nothing special about it. 

On the bright side, the campground has 349 sites so if you haven't made a reservation and can't get a site anywhere else, there's a good chance you'll at least get into Two Jack Main.  You're also very close to the town of Banff, Two Jack Lake across the road, Lake Minnewanka, and Banff's only beach at Johnson Lake.  If you have to camp here, use your campsite as a base camp and spend your days exploring.  You're still in Banff and it's still one of the most beautiful places in the world. (as soon as you leave camp.)

And also helping redeem this campground,  Parks Canada has set up 32 equipped campsites allowing you to show up and find your tent and basic camping equipment waiting for you at your site.  Check the Parks Canada website at the above link for more information on this fabulous service.

Camp at Two Jack Main and spend the day exploring (photo: Johnson Lake Beach)

The Good - Tunnel Mountain Village

We camped in Tunnel Mt Village II in the town of Banff and it's basically a parking lot for trailers with a few trees behind your site if you're lucky.  You camp on pavement and there's virtually zero privacy from your neighbors.  Somehow though we liked it here.  We had power, we were close to all of the amenities in town (the campground is within 5km of downtown Banff), and we had great mountain biking trails that started right from our campground.

We also met some of the friendliest people we've ever met while camping.  The open feeling of the campground lends itself to getting cozy with your neighbors.  (which is good when you forget the ketchup.)

Tunnel Mt. Village II

Tunnel Mt Village I is an amazing campground though!!  Less of a parking lot for trailers and it feels more natural for tenters or families not requiring a serviced site.  In fact, after camping here, I'd almost move this campground up to the "awesome" rather than the "good."

Natural camping at Tunnel Village I (lots of trees, privacy, shade, and close to amazing  trails)

There's also an actual trailer court campground for those with large RVs up to 50' long and all sites in this campground are fully serviced.

Top reasons to camp at Tunnel Mt Village:
  • Serviced sites for those wishing to have power (most campgrounds in Banff are more natural and do not have serviced sites.)

  • Bathrooms with running water, showers, and electricity at all three campgrounds

  • You are within 5 km of downtown Banff from any of the Tunnel Mt campgrounds

  • You are within close proximity to the Banff hostel (with restaurant on site) should you wish to
    eat out rather than cooking

  • The Banff Roam bus has stops beside the campgrounds so that you can go downtown for shopping or dining without having to drive

  • Hiking and biking trails are located right at your doorstep (no driving to access the beautiful trails on the Tunnel Bench)

  • Urban camping at its finest!  Perfect for beginners wanting a few extra comforts or looking to be close to town

  • All three campgrounds in Tunnel mt Village accept reservations in advance

  • There are over 1000 sites in the three campgrounds combined which almost guarantees you'll find a site last minute if you haven't booked. 
Trails like this near the campground are perfect for hiking or biking

**One thing to note when booking a site at Tunnel Mt. Village is that not all sites have fire pits.  If this is important to you, choose your site wisely.  (and there are still no playgrounds - same as Two Jack Main.)

Read more about camping at Tunnel Mountain here: Our New Favourite Campground in Banff 

Biking on the Tunnel Mountain Bench 

The AWESOME - Two Jack Lakeside

The Two Jack Lakeside campground is a paradise of a campground that takes reservations. Unfortunately you'll have to be on the ball in January to get a site here because that's when sites can be booked for the entire summer season. If you didn't make it work this year, put a reminder on your calendar to try for next year.

Paddling on Two Jack Lake - walking distance from all campsites!

This is another campground that is close to the town of Banff and also within close proximity to Lake Minnewanka, Johnson Lake, and great hiking/biking trails.  All campsites are metres away from Two Jack Lake and our site even had a trail leading down to the water.

Paddling on the calm waters of Two Jack Lake in Banff

Another draw for this campground is the O'TENTiks located at the water's edge.  Comfort camping in Banff never got so fine!  Tenters will also love the 23 walk-in tenting sites that sit right beside the shore of Two Jack Lake.  They are some of the best waterfront sites you'll find in the Rockies.

This campground has no services or power for trailers, but the bathrooms do have flush toilets and showers so it isn't completely primitive.

Lack of playground and services aside, the only true downside to this campground is its size.  There are only 64 sites and you'd better believe you'll need a reservation to get a spot here.

O'TENTiks at the Two Jack Lakeside Campground 

Other Banff Campgrounds

I have only covered the campgrounds near the Town of Banff in this review.

For information on camping at Lake Louise or on the Icefields Parkway in Banff, visit the Parks Canada website.

The best bet for finding a campsite outside the Banff Townsite area, is to camp at the Lake Louise (trailer) or Lake Louise Tent Campground  because it is 100% reservable and offers safe camping for tenters inside an electric fence to keep out bears. While the campgrounds at Louise can be busy and crowded, at least you'll be close to awesome hiking and biking trails, lakes to paddle, and scenery that will knock your socks off around every bend.

Hiking at Lake Louise 

For camping on the Icefields Parkway, check out Rampart Creek, which now accepts reservations as of 2019! And if you don't have a reservation, the good news is that the rest of the campgrounds between Lake Louise and Jasper do not take reservations - so show up early and you'll have a chance of getting a site. (and when I say early, I mean 10am.)

Camp on the Icefields Parkway and you can explore sites like this!

Other Recommended Reading 

Summer Planning - Where to Camp in the National Parks of Alberta

Camping Super Guide (with reviews for everywhere we've camped across Alberta and BC!)

Family Guide to Banff National Park - Top Ten Places to Explore with Kids 

Locals Guide to Exploring the Best of Banff and Jasper 

A Family Guide to the Best Adventures on the Icefields Parkway (Lake Louise to Jasper)

The Best Family Bike Trails in Banff National Park 

2020 Campground Reservation Guide for Alberta and BC 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

So, you love the outdoors but don't want to camp...

Love hiking, biking, being outside and enjoying warm summer nights outside on your patio?  Hate (or strongly dislike ) camping though?  You aren't alone.  Not everybody likes camping and it doesn't mean you aren't outdoorsy or that you're soft.  I admit that I wasn't enthralled with the idea of camping for "fun" until it became a family activity.  Before that, it was just something we did when we needed a base camp for bigger and better adventures.

Comfort Camping at Shadow Lake Lodge, Banff

Things have changed for me though and I can now say I LOVE camping.  But it comes down to discovering your style and preferences.  I wrote about Learning to Love Camping:  It's all About Style last summer and in the story I talk about my need for friends, comfort, and warm weather (among other things) when I go camping. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Family Canoeing and Kayaking in the Canadian Rockies

Before becoming a mom I pretty much lived for one sport, and one sport alone - hiking!  I liked skiing in winter and dabbled in mountaineering as well, but hiking was my passion and I was out climbing mountains every weekend from May through October with my husband and friends.

Now, go forward five years to present day, and I would never in a million years have guessed that paddling would be one of our top favourite outdoor activities to do as a family with a preschool-aged child.  We went on one overnight canoeing trip as an experiment of sorts, and a new passion was born.  We realized that transporting a child into the wilds in a canoe was a whole lot easier than carrying, pushing, or pulling said child.  (especially when overnight gear enters the picture for backcountry trips.)

Our first canoeing trip on Upper Kananaskis Lake

We've done two overnight lake paddling trips now as a family with an overnight river trip planned for this summer, and we pretty much plan our whole summer around where we can camp and paddle from the same location.  And while I don't proclaim to be an expert by any means, I've learned a few things about paddling with kids.

Last year's overnight paddling trip to the Point, Upper Kananaskis Lake

Recreational Kayaking with Kids

We started out as a family of three with a canoe but recently sold our canoe after one of us fell in love with stand up paddleboarding (yes, me!!) and it just wasn't realistic for my husband to paddle a giant canoe solo with our son.  We invested in a tandem recreational kayak and we LOVE it!  It's sturdy, has never tipped, can carry enough gear for an overnight trip, AND most importantly, can be easily maneuvered by one adult with a child sitting in the front.  (allowing me to ride my board.)

Our Old Town recreational kayak on its first overnight trip last summer in Kananaskis

What is recreational kayaking?  Check out the story I recently wrote for Campers Village titled:  Top Things To Know about Recreational Kayaking.  While nothing can replace taking an introductory lesson, this story seeks to at least get you pointed in the right direction towards becoming a paddling family that chooses to kayak instead of canoe.

Teaching our preschooler to paddle in the kayak

In reality, it doesn't matter whether you canoe or kayak.  You do what works for your family and what you are comfortable with.  I personally feel very unsafe in a canoe.  Others feel incredibly tippy in a kayak.  To each his own.  BUT, you do need to know where to go paddling in whatever vessel you choose to use.

Paddling on Echo Creek in Banff

The Best Places to Paddle as a Family in Banff and Kananaskis


Vermillion Lakes and Echo Creek - Banff

You can rent boats from the Banff Canoe Club on Bow Avenue downtown Banff.  A season membership costs you $40 with your first hour of canoeing included, and then you can rent for the rest of the summer and autumn for $15 per hour.

Traffic on Echo Creek near the Canoe Club docks

 If you have your own boat, you can still put in near the Canoe Club docks and paddle up Echo Creek to Forty Mile Creek and on to the First Vermillion Lake.  Paddle around the lake as long as you want or even follow the small channel to the Second Lake which runs parallel Vermillion Lakes Drive.  Returning down Echo Creek is easy going down stream all the way back to town.

Paddling under the train bridge on Echo Creek

You can also park on Vermillion Lakes Drive by the public docks at First or Second Lake and paddle down 40 Mile Creek and Echo Creek to town and back.  Either way you do it, the current is minimal and easily negotiated in the up stream direction (even on a stand up paddle board if you have your own board.)

To see a map of the area and where you'll be paddling, go to the Parks Canada website and open the PDF document for the Town of Banff Area Map

Canoeing on the Vermillion Lakes
Father Son Kayaking on Vermillion Lakes


Johnson Lake and Two Jack Lake - Banff

Johnson Lake is another good family paddle in warmish water (warmer than the other mountain lakes anyway) and it's the only lake in Banff with a good sandy beach.

Paddling on Johnson Lake, Banff

Johnson Lake is located on the Lake Minnewanka Loop Road and is close to Two Jack Lakeside Campground should you want to camp.  And, Two Jack Lake is another good lake to paddle with kids.  It's colder and doesn't have a sandy beach, but it does have a rocky beach kids could play at.

Family Kayaking on Two Jack Lake

For more information on paddling in Banff, visit the Banff National Parks website

Paddling Vermillion Lakes, Banff

Barrier Lake - Kananaskis

Barrier Lake is one the smaller lakes in Kananaskis and thus safer with children because it doesn't get as windy as the larger lakes.  Kananaskis Outfitters is your source for rentals in the area and can be found at Kananaskis Village nearby.  Lakeside rentals are available on weekends in summer but check with the company first to inquire about their schedule.  Last year they even rented stand up paddleboards at Barrier Lake!

Paddling on Barrier Lake, Kananaskis

 Easy Overnight Paddle Trips for the Whole Family

A couple of years ago we did our first overnight paddling trip as a family and I learned a couple of valuable lessons: One, you don’t have to actually carry your gear to get into the backcountry if you use a boat, and Two, you don’t have to carry small children either! Canoeing or kayaking into a backcountry campground is by far one of the easiest ways to access beautiful wilderness locations as a family. No backpacks, no child carriers, no strollers – and you can do the trip in sandals!

Two adults, two kids AND a dog!  Now that's a full canoe!

 I wrote a story titled Easy Overnight Paddle Trips for the Whole Family, and in this story I talk about what kind of boat to use, how to pack, and where to go in the Canadian Rockies with children for that first trip.  Even if you're not new to paddling, check out the story for my favourite water accessible campgrounds.  I've listed some of my favourite lake and river campgrounds in Southern Alberta that you'll want to check out.

Backcountry Camping at the Point in Kananaskis

See you on the water this summer!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Best Family Bike Trails in Canmore

Canmore is only an hour away from Calgary and depending on where you live, it takes less time to drive to Canmore than it does to cross the city.  For that reason, we spend a lot of time biking the river pathways in this beautiful mountain town, and as soon as we can afford a house there, I'm moving.

Biking the Canmore Pathways Through Town

We like to drive out to Canmore mid-week when it's quiet and then we have the pathways and bike park to ourselves.  The town definitely gets busier once school is out, but it's still a treat to spend a day out of the city and to dream about which house you're going to buy near the big playground on the river.

My future backyard in Canmore from the West Canmore Playground

Without ever leaving the town limits, you can bike over 20 kilometres of beautiful maintained pathways and trails.  Most of them are gravel but there are a few paved sections.  You don't have to worry about the trails being bumpy though, and they are very Chariot or stroller friendly. 

The trails are very family-friendly and serve as a great introduction to mountain biking for children used to paved streets and sidewalks.

Biking along the Bow River in Canmore

Below are our favourite loops and trails that we usually bike in Canmore:


The Bow River Loop Trail - 2 km distance

Park near the river at the Mineside Trailhead by the river.  (From main street downtown, turn left onto 8th avenue and drive toward the Canmore Nordic Centre.  Cross the river and pull into your first parking lot on your left.)  - where Bridge Road turns into Rundle Drive.

From the parking lot, cross the bridge and bike towards Engine Bridge on the gravel pathway.  (See it all on this map of the Bow Valley West Side.) 

NOTE: the Mineside parking lot is small and finding a spot can be challenge. If you're up for a longer ride, we often start our ride at the Canmore Recreation Centre and bike towards Engine Bridge from here. - See this route on Google maps here. 

Engine Bridge

Cross Engine Bridge (which kids will LOVE) and bike around the hydro plant.  Bike down the other side of the river to get back to your car in a total distance of 3.1km.  The trail is flat with no height gain. Park benches can be found along the way for rest stops. 

Easy Biking along the Bow River

Bow River Loop to Larch Island (and beyond)  - 5+ km distance round trip

Consider extending your trip by riding past Engine Bridge towards Larch Island, around the Canmore Golf and Curling Club (where you'll find the Canmore Recreation Centre and Skatepark,) and back to the river via one of two different options of trails (See it all on this map of the Bow Valley West Side.)

- You can also do this ride in reverse, starting at the Canmore Recreation Centre where this is lots of parking. Enjoy the skatepark (kids can use bikes on it) and then bike towards Engine Bridge on the riverside pathway. - see the route on Google Maps 

Biking Towards Larch  Island along the river in Canmore

Expect a few more roots on the trails past Engine Bridge, dirt with pine needles in spots, and some occasional loose gravel.  Otherwise, it's pretty easy and most children would have no problems on it.  Just take the training wheels off first.

Bridge to Larch Island (hiking only on the island)

You can also stop at a cute little playground along the way.  It is called the Larch Park Playground and it even has swings. 

Larch Park Playground
Crossing Policeman's Creek on one of the many bridges

Millenium Park to the West Canmore Playground - 1.5 km one way

This short bike ride connects the two greatest playgrounds in Canmore.  One of a more traditional nature, and one for bikes! 

Playing at the Millennium Park Pump Track

For more information on the Millennium Park Pump Track, visit my other blog post:  Pump Tracks and Mountain Bike Parks.  We love playing at the bike parks in Canmore and this one is super easy for young kids on balance bikes even.  Millennium Park is located at 5th Ave and 1st Street and there's a big parking lot here.  It's also a good back-up parking plan should the Mineside Trailhead be full (very possible in summer!!)

Playing at the Millenium Park Bike Park 

After playing at the pump track it's approximately 1 km to the bridge by the Mineside parking lot and then it's another 0.5 km to the big West Canmore Playground on the other side of the river directly opposite Millennium Park. The kids love it here and always spend a long time at the playground. There are even bathrooms and picnic tables!  Score!

See the route on google maps.  - and stick to the river pathway to access Millennium Park (not the city streets.)

West Canmore Park Playground

Three Sisters Pathway add on  - 4+ km return

Start from the West Canmore Playground and bike as far as the big wide open meadow where you'll find an old coal mine car, a gated mine entrance and an abundance of space to run around in.  I am guessing that it's about 2 km one way to the meadow but you can turn around whenever you want or extend your ride all the way to the Three Sisters Mountain Village.

Riding across the Meadow on the Three Sisters Pathway 

The best part about this trail (other than that it has the best views) is that parts of it are paved.  This helps with some of the bigger hills you'll find on this route.  Of all the paths and loops described here, this is the most difficult due to the hilly nature of it and the modest climb required to reach the meadow.

Playing in an old coal car
Biking across the beautiful meadow on the Three Sisters Pathway

See it all on this map of the Bow Valley West Side.

All of the trails above can be combined in one big 13-15 km ride, and with plenty of playground stops it would take half a day to ride around Canmore and visit the pump track.

Crossing the River by the West Canmore Playground on the Three Sisters Pathway 

Our Favourite Loop - Tour de Canmore,  from the Skatepark to West Canmore Park (and beyond) - 12+ km 

We like to park at the Canmore Recreation Centre and play on the skatepark to begin. Then we hop on the pathway system by the Canmore Golf and Curling Club. We bike towards Larch Island until we reach Engine Bridge. We cross the bridge and continue on the far side of the river, heading for West Canmore Park.

See the route on google maps here. 

Canmore skatepark

We stop at the playground and then bike up to the meadow on the Three Sisters Pathway. Sometimes we continue but most days we turn around here and head for the pump track in Millenium Park on the other side of the river.

From Millenium Park we head downtown into Canmore and ride towards Spring Creek where the kids like to play at the bridge crossing. We then head for ice-cream downtown. - see the route on google maps here with the bridge crossing shown.

To finish, follow one of the trails back towards the river, heading back to the skatepark where we started. - See this part on google maps here. 

And again, it's all on this map of the Bow Valley West Side Trails

Playing in Spring Creek, Canmore 

Still have energy for more biking??

The Benchlands Skill Park is another pump track like the one in Millennium Park and can be visited before heading back to Calgary.  It's located on the other side of the TransCanada Hwy and features more jumps than the tamer skills park downtown.

Playing at the Benchlands Skills Park

For more information on biking in the Canadian Rockies with kids, read my most recent stories:  The Best Family Bike Trails in Banff National Park and Biking the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail with Kids

Biking across Engine Bridge