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.

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. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Family-Friendly White Water Rafting in the Canadian Rockies

Our family loves water sports but we have yet to try white water rafting as a family. I think I thought my five-year old son would be too young, that the sport would be too dangerous, or that we should maybe wait a few years.  I've since been "corrected" and want to tell you about a local company that is making the sport of white water rafting friendly and fun for the whole family!

Alpine Rafting offers family-friendly white water rafting trips on the Kicking Horse River, one of the wildest rivers we have in the Canadian Rockies.  The company is based out of Golden, BC which is only 265km away from Calgary and perfect for a weekend trip with the kids.  The town is also conveniently located on your way to other summertime destinations including Shuswap Lake, the Okanagan, and Vancouver.  I'm starting to think that spending a half day rafting in Golden would be a fantastic way of breaking up any trip headed west this summer!

Rafting the Kicking Horse River in Yoho National Park with Alpine Rafting

Alpine Rafting's Family White Water trip is perfect for families wanting a gentle river adventure. The tour tackles three friendly sections of rapids on the Kicking Horse River in Yoho National Park outside the town of Golden.  You'll raft down the 13km Upper Canyon stretch of the river on your half day adventure, and everything is included from necessary gear to keep you safe and warm, to snacks and lunch.  The riverside BBQ lunch features your choice of Steak, Chicken Breast or Vegetarian Option, Veggie Platters, Potato Wedges, Salad, and Cookies for Desert along with freshly squeezed lemonade.

Check out this video for an example of what the Family White Water trip looks like:

How old do children have to be to participate?

Four years old!! That's it.  Children as young as four can participate in the family white water trip.  No experience is required and  you can bring the whole gang.  I'm thinking this would be crazy-fun  for a family reunion, family camping trip, or large group outing. And it's definitely going on my own calendar for next summer!!  Who's coming with me??

Family-Friendly Adventures with Alpine Rafting

Will we have to sell the car to finance the trip?

No!  Absolutely not.  I double checked the prices because I was almost shocked.  The price for the family trip starts at $29 per person.  And the family tour is only a half day outing which includes a lunch break, so you won't have to worry about the kids getting bored sitting in a boat for hours on end.  This is the perfect introduction to rafting as a family and the price is matched accordingly.

Alpine Rafting - Bring the Whole Family!

For more information on Alpine Rafting, their tours, their adventure packages, and to book your own tour, visit their website by clicking on the above link, or call 1-888-599-5299.

For information on where to camp or stay near Golden, check out Alpine Rafting's Summer Camping Guide.   Rafting and Camping packages are available for groups as well as raft n'stay packages at local hotels. 

Camping in nearby Yoho National Park

See you on the water this summer! 

Disclaimer:  This post was sponsored by Alpine Rafting and my family has not done a tour with the company yet. All rafting photos were provided by the company for use in this story.

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 pump tracks to ourselves.  I expect the town to get 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 I'm going to buy near the big playground on the river.

My future backyard in Canmore from the West Canmore Playground

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Best Family Bike Trails in Banff National Park

Every time we visit Banff, we find something new to do or see!  And this is quite incredible to me given that we live an hour away from the park gates and that we should have run out of family-friendly trails and activities a long time ago.  Somehow though, we always find a new trail that I honestly never knew existed and just begs to be explored.

The Best Family Bike Trails in Banff National Park

This spring has been especially fun for us in Banff because we're on a mission to ride all the family-friendly paths and trails in the park, and to conquer Banff on our bikes.  We spent the last two weekends camping in the park and we tried to knock as many rides off our list as possible.

Biking the Fenland Trail in the Town of Banff

 In hopes that you'll all benefit from our research and "testing" of these trails for you, here are our favourite family bike rides in Banff, with a few listed that we still have yet to do later this summer.


Paved Bike Rides

The Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail

This is one of the classic rides in the Banff area and connects the mountain towns of Banff and Canmore. It is approximately 20km one way depending on how much of the full trail you ride, but there are plenty of options for shortening the route.  For more information on this trail, read my last story:  Biking the rocky Mountain Legacy Trail - WITH KIDS

The Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail

Vermillion Lakes Drive

This ride shares the road with vehicle traffic but the speed limit is 30km per hour and cars tends to give you wide birth - especially when they see children.  We felt safe riding this road last weekend and it's a lovely tour with little height gain.  We even had a 3 year old bike to the Second Vermillion Lake on a balance bike!

Biking Vermillion Lakes Drive

The road starts from the edge of the Banff Townsite at the Mount Norquay entrance off the TransCanada Hwy.  Vermillion Lakes Drive leads you past three beautiful lakes popular with paddlers and families stopping to play on the docks.  Watch carefully and there's a very good chance for wildlife sightings and marsh birds that you won't see in many other parts of Banff.

Family Biking on Vermillion Lakes Drive
Viewpoint along Vermillion Lakes Drive

The Full ride is 4.3km one way to the Third Lake but you can turn around at any spot.  Parking is available on the side of the road at the beginning of Vermillion Lakes Drive.  You'll know you've found the spot because it is a very popular ride!!

Easy Biking on Vermillion Lakes Drive

Bow River Trail

This is a lovely flat paved walking path that follows the Bow River through the town of Banff.  It's perfect for small children and families pushing strollers.  From Central Park downtown to the Fenland Trail, it is only 0.9km and training wheel or balance bike friendly!  See the description further below for the Fenland Trail if you want some easy mountain biking or want to continue your walk for an additional 2km.

Biking the Bow River Trail downtown Banff

The Bow River Trail can also be used to access the Recreation Grounds and Banff Bike Park from downtown Central Park.  See Map here

Banff Recreation Grounds - Reached Via the Bow River Trail


The Sundance Trail is 3.6km one way from the Cave and Basin parking lot to the Sundance Canyon trailhead (where you can continue on for a short 1.2km loop on foot through the canyon.)  The trail is paved but expect a climb of 145 metres on the way in that may frustrate small children.  On the way down though it is a lot of fun!!  It is a good trail for parents with strollers or Chariots.

The Sundance Trail with gorgeous scenery and plenty of opportunities for resting

Easy biking on the Sundance Trail

Easy Mountain Bike Trails


The Fenland Trail

This short 2km loop hiking trail in the town of Banff is perfect for children wanting to try some easy mountain biking.  Expect a few roots but otherwise there are no technical difficulties (unless you count the bridges small kids may have to push their bikes up and over) on this dirt and gravel trail.  And it's a wide double track trail that's Chariot friendly if you want to pull younger children.

Family Biking on the Fenland Trail

For a really fun bike loop, start at Cascade Park downtown and bike the paved Bow River Trail heading towards Fenland.  Bike the Fenland Trail (left at the first trail junction) and cross the big bridge over 40 Mile Creek to gain access to Vermillion Lakes Drive.  Bike Vermillion Lakes Drive as far as you want (we went to the Second Lake) and turn around.  Get back on the Fenland Trail, finish the loop and head back down the Bow River Trail to your car.  The total distance of our ride was 7km and it was doable by kids on balance bikes as well as pedal bikes.  The youngest was 3 and just needed a bit of help on the way back.

If I lost you, check out this GREAT MAP of Banff.  It has all of the trails marked so you can figure out the route you want to take.

Rest Break on the Fenland Trail

Cascade Ponds to Bankhead

This is a lovely introduction to single track riding for young kids wanting to try mountain biking.  The trail only gains 50 metres from the Cascade Ponds Day Use Area to Bankhead and is relatively straight forward.  Gears are not necessary and you can ride it on a balance bike. My five year old had few problems on it whatsoever and he enjoyed the old coal train and ghost town at Bankhead.

Note that there is one creek crossing on the trail if you start right at the Cascade Ponds area but we walked across it easily.

Bankhead Ghost Town

The old train at Bankhead

We thought we'd start at Bankhead and ride one-way (2.4km) to the Cascade Ponds Day Use Area since that was in the downhill direction and promised to be easier.  What we didn't realize though is that the bike path travels along the valley bottom and never climbs up to the highway at Bankhead.  To get on the trail, we had to carry our bikes down three flights of stairs on the Bankhead Interpretive Trail.  Hence, it explains why Parks Canada says this is an out and back ride from Cascade Ponds. 

Easy Single Track Riding on the Cascade Ponds to Bankhead Trail

Meadow right before Cascade Ponds (the start of the trail)

Trail update for 2016: Skip the Cascade Ponds section of the trail. Drive past the day use area and turn right on the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive road . You'll reach a gravel pull out on your left hand side within a few kilometres. Start here for quick access to the trail heading to Bankhead. This skips the whole rocky creek crossing section and avoids the route finding problems I know families have had. The trail shows up on Google Maps and you'll be able to see where the trail crosses the road on the Scenic Drive for easy jumping on.

Easy riding on the Bankhead trail

The Tunnel Campground Loop

This 3.5km loop circles the Tunnel Mountain Campground in the Banff townsite and is an easy entry-level trail for families.  It's also a good loop to jump on and off of while doing the harder Tunnel Bench Loop below.  Both trails follow the same circle on the bench and can be done as a mix and match.  For more information on this loop, see the story I wrote:  Mountain Biking the Tunnel Bench Loop in Banff

Easy biking on the Tunnel Campground Trail

The Tunnel Bench Loop

This 9.7 km loop would be best suited for school-aged children who have done the other trails mentioned here with ease, and are looking for the next step up! The Parks Canada website describes the loop as "entry-level single track with minimal elevation gain," which would be fairly accurate.  My 5 year old did a short section of it and wasn't scared in the slightest. Basic bike requirements for a child biking the trail should be a 20" bike with gears and hand brakes.  It was a little bumpy and challenging on our smaller 16" bike. Note that there are also a few exposed sections that could be walked by novice riders.

For more information and a full review of this loop read my story: Tour de Banff - The Ultimate Family Mountain Bike Loop.

An easier version can be found here on the Junior Tunnel Bench Loop Ride combined with the easier Tunnel Campground Loop.

Riding the Tunnel Bench Loop from the Hoodoos Lookout Parking Lot
An easy section of the Tunnel Bench Loop near the Tunnel Mountain Campground
Narrow section along the Coastline on the Tunnel Bench Loop

The Spray River Loop

We haven't finished the whole loop yet but we did the East side of the loop after riding out from the Goat Creek Trail.  This loop starts at the Banff Springs Hotel (west side) and finishes at Bow Falls (east side) for a 11.3km loop ride on a good double track trail.  The trail can be biked in either direction but it's generally done from the hotel to the falls.

While there is little elevation gain on this trail, there are still some pretty big hills and it's recommended that kids have bikes with gears.  Otherwise, I fear it could be a frustrating experience.  (even with gears, my child was less than thrilled with the up hill sections we encountered on the east side.)

For information on where to park, read the description on the Town of Banff website.  Note, if you are doing the full loop and plan to finish at Bow Falls, you will end up below the Banff Springs Hotel.  It's easiest at this point to send somebody up to the hotel on foot to fetch the vehicle.  You'll be climbing a set of stairs to get back up to the hotel and it's not overly fun while carrying bikes. Alternately, take the connector trail located before the last hill down to the golf course.  This takes you back to the west side trail and back to the hotel.  You'll see what I mean on this map.

Biking over the big bridge on the Spray river Loop

Want to bike further on the Spray River Loop and go all the way to Canmore? The Goat Creek Trail is a popular mountain bike trail that connects the towns of Canmore and Banff in a 19km ride typically done one-way, heading towards Banff.  More information can be found on my Kananaskis Trails story:  The Best Family Bike Trails in Kananaskis.

Biking the Goat Creek Trail from Canmore to Banff (extension to the Spray River Loop)

Bow Falls - Hoodoos Trail

Number 11 on the Banff Biking Brochure, This trail is best done from north to south, ending at the Surprise Corner viewpoint overlooking Bow Falls and the Banff Springs Hotel.  It is one of the most beautiful trails located on the Tunnel Bench in the townsite of Banff and is surprisingly easy for a "blue" intermediate trail.  Our philosophy of course:  "walk the hard stuff, and bike the rest."  We walked the occasional hill up, had to carry our bikes down a short flight of stairs, and took care near the river near the end.  Other than that, it was a beautiful family ride and it was only 4km long with approximately 60m of height loss/gain.

Note that there are two steep hills that could be walked by novice riders. The first descends down from the bench and is quite loose. (I myself fell off my bike on the loose gravel.) The second is a steep rough hill with a bit of erosion you have to work around. If in doubt when you get to a hill, send an adult down first, dump your bike at the bottom, and come back up to guide/help kids down. (Or just have kids walk down the hill.)

Meadow on the Bow Falls - Hoodoos Trail

Being an intermediate mountain biking trail, this ride is recommended for children on 20" bikes (or larger) with hand brakes and gears.  The trail would officially be labeled as "single track" but it was never very narrow or tight.

Note, the trail does not begin right from the main Hoodoo parking lot on the brochure above but from a trail junction that you will come to as you bike parallel to Tunnel Mountain Road.  Follow signs for the Hoodoo Trail and you'll be fine. And unless you want to bike back up to get the vehicle, arrange a shuttle with a second vehicle parked at the Surprise Corner Viewpoint.

For more information and a full review of this trail combined with the Tunnel Bench Loop above, read my story: Tour de Banff - The Ultimate Family Mountain Bike Loop.

Bridge crossing on the Bow Falls - Hoodoo Trail

The Water Tower Trail

The Water Tower isn't exactly an "easy" mountain bike trail, but it's great for older kids looking for a bit of challenge.  And the riding still isn't what I would call hard.  This is my newest fav. bike trail in Banff for the views over the valley and for the fun swoopy single track.

For a complete trail description, read the Bike Pirate review here.

Easy single track riding on the Water Tower Trail in Banff

Riding on the bench above the Water Tower in Banff
I've done this trail twice now and have figured out my favourite way to do it.   First, drive to Johnson Lake on the Minnewanka Lake Loop Road and park in the main parking lot.  Bike down to the lake and you'll see an old road heading off to the right of the lake (just before a little bridge and bench.) Follow the old road uphill to the Water Tower.  From here it is relatively easy single track riding with plenty of ups and downs to ensure you don't get bored.

The first time we did the trail as a family, we rode all the way to Cascade Ponds, where we'd stashed a vehicle.  I wouldn't recommend this though because the trail is gradually uphill most of the way and doesn't go down until you reach a hill that's too steep to ride (with stairs!) Then you have to pick your way through flood damaged trails to reach the pond.

The best way to do this ride is as an out and back from Johnson Lake.  Ride until you see Cascade Ponds below you and turn around before the big final hill down.  It's a fast easy ride back to Johnson Lake.

Fun Riding on the Water Tower Trail

Healy Creek (newly added)

The bridge is finally back in on this trail from the last flood and it's a great family-friendly ride. The trail is double track and relatively easy. Expect a few bigger hills that novice riders could walk. Gears recommended if you want your child to make it up the hills. We rode this trail one way from the Healy Creek Trailhead on the Sunshine Village road and there were hills in both directions, up and down. We rode the trail to the junction with the Sundance Trail and finished on an easy paved trail as we rode back into the Banff Town.

Easy riding on the Healy Creek Trail

This is a great trail if you can set up a shuttle so that you only have to ride one way back into town. Alternately, finish at the bike park and playground at the Banff Recreation Grounds while an adult bikes back for the vehicle.

To read about the loop we did from Healy Creek back into Banff (and beyond) read Tour de Banff: The Ultimate Family Bike Tour

Typical terrain on the Healy Creek Trail

Biking at Lake Louise

Bow River Loop (Newly Added)

This 7.1 km loop circles the village and campground area of Lake Louise. It would fall under the category of "very easy single track mountain biking" but is definitely not challenging or super narrow. The full loop is relatively flat and kids will enjoy the occasional roots and flowy sections, the bridges, and opportunities to get close to the Bow River.

After riding the Bow River Loop once, I think it will become an annual favourite for our family and I can see us camping at Lake Louise next summer so that we can spend the weekend biking.

Easy biking on the Bow River Loop

The Tramline Trail (newly added)

The Tramline Trail is 5 km in length and loses 186 metres in height, all on a good double wide trail that is tracked and groomed for cross country skiing in the winter. The trail is a bit bumpy in spots and I advise having hand brakes for it. That being said, our youngest group rider on a recent trip had coaster brakes and was riding a small 14" bike - and did just fine.

It is a thrill of a ride and I advise families to send an adult back up for the vehicle while a second adult hangs out at the Village with the kids (rather than making the kids bike back up to the lake.)

Easy downhill riding on the Tramline Trail at Lake Louise


Additional Resources

Tour de Banff - The Ultimate Family Bike Tour
Bike Shredders in Banff
 - Healy Creek to Sundance, The Bow River Trail, Fenland Loop, Vermillion Lakes Drive, the Legacy Trail, and over to the 1A junction. (20 km loop)

Tour de Banff - The Ultimate Family Mountain Bike Loop - Tunnel Bench Loop and the Hoodoo Trail

Banff Lake Louise Tourism - Information on trails in both Banff and Lake Louise with interactive trail maps!!

Bike Pirate - A great website with information on mountain bike trails across the mountain parks. Maps are shown for each trail with a good trail description and rating.

Maps of all Banff and Lake Louise Bike Trails - Brochures can be downloaded off the Parks Canada website or picked up in person at an info. centre.

The Best Family Bike Trails in Kananaskis

The Best Family Bike Trails in Canmore

Camping and Biking in Banff - Our Favourite Campground