Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015 in Review and Top Ten Highlights

2015 was an amazing year filled with more adventures than I would have ever dreamed possible. It has been a year of discovery as well as we watched our son (soon to be 7 years old) rise to become a very competent member on our adventures. Long gone are the days where he had to stay home while we went out to do the "big stuff." He now out-bikes me, rips down hills I'd never ride, and is close to matching my pace at both hiking and skiing. I give it another month before he's ski touring with us as a family in the backcountry and I know that I will be relegated to shuttle driver next summer when my boys go mountain biking. Life is crazy but it is good and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Another Crazy Awesome Year of Adventures in the Canadian Rockies

2015 in Review

Backcountry and Wilderness Trips: We completed 13 wilderness and backcountry trips in cabins, huts, and hostels. We visited 2 new hostels we'd never been to before and we got to stay at a couple of very beautiful backcountry lodges as well.

We have two more trips planned to the Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel this coming year

Camping: We spent 33 nights camping between May and September across Alberta and British Columbia. Our longest trip took us across BC for two weeks in August and we hope to repeat it again this coming year.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Ice Caves and Frozen Waterfalls in Banff National Park

We got out for a pre-Christmas hike in Johnston Canyon and this beautiful hike did not disappoint. We crawled behind frozen waterfalls, explored hidden caves, and ventured off trail to find the secret gems of this popular tourist trail.

Follow me on a photo tour of Banff's best winter hiking trail!

Exploring Ice Caves in Banff National Park

Hiking the Catwalks to the Lower Falls in Johnston Canyon

It's a short 1.1 km walk to the Lower Falls from the Johnston Canyon Resort. The trail is relatively flat with a slight uphill grade and the going is easy. Most people can make it to the first set of waterfalls regardless of fitness or age and I've seen people do the short outing in everything from leather dress shoes to simple sneakers.

Kids love these catwalks
This fun section takes you under a big overhanging rock

The Lower Falls and the Cave

The Lower Falls are best seen by crawling through a small cave where you'll be met with the view below. And while the falls are beautiful all year long, I prefer them in winter when they are frozen with water flowing underneath and out into a pool at the bottom.

The Lower Falls of Johnston Canyon, Banff National Park
The viewing platform on the other side of the cave
Sliding down out of the cave
Popular Photo Opp in front of the frozen Lower Falls

Hiking to the Upper Falls

The hike to the Upper Falls is 2.7 km total from the parking lot and the trail starts to climb more steeply past the Lower Falls. Many people turn around at the Lower Falls, but the best is yet to come! (especially in winter)

We hiked about three quarters of the way to the Upper Falls and then started looking for footprints leading off of the main trail to the right, down into the creek. In summer it's harder to find the secret trail I was looking for but in winter it's pretty easy to see the wide packed trail heading down into the canyon. (for locals, it's not exactly a secret so the trail you are looking for is pretty well traveled)

We followed our side trail down into the canyon and the photos below show us playing on and behind a beautiful frozen waterfall.

Note that as of 2020 you can not hike down into the canyon. All photos in the canyon are from 2019 or earlier.

If you want to hike behind a frozen waterfall, visit Troll Falls in Kananaskis where you can hike to the Upper Falls and walk behind a frozen ice curtain.

Down in the canyon a short distance before the Upper Falls

These beautiful frozen waterfalls can't be seen from the main trail

We crawled behind the waterfall and discovered this super cool cave

My son and his friend playing in the cave behind the waterfall

The kids thought this ice cave was pretty cool!

Next year's family Christmas Card

The Upper Falls and More Exploring in the Canyon

Back on the main trail, we hiked for half a kilometre at most to reach the Upper Falls. The best photos though are again taken off of the main trail, down in the canyon.

Right before you reach the Upper Falls, you'll see another very well packed trail leading down to the creek. From here, you can follow the creek (if it's frozen) right up to the Upper Falls where hopefully you'll get to watch ice climbers in action.

Obviously if the creek is not frozen, exploring in the canyon would not be a smart idea and you should stick to the main trail. And as another note of caution, don't stand beside the Upper Falls for too long! Get your photos and get out of there. You'll see large blocks of ice around you on the ground and they definitely fell from above!

Standing in front of the Upper Falls of Johnston Canyon
The official viewing platform for the Upper Falls

Johnston Canyon is a great winter hike and at 5.4 km round trip, the hike is doable by most children ages four and up. For younger children, bring a child carrier because the hike is not stroller or sled friendly.

It's advised as well that you wear ice cleats or some kind of traction device for your boots as the path can get slippery. My family wears Kahtoola Micro Spikes

Kahtoola Micro Spikes let you walk straight up ice

Additional Reading

The Most Popular Hike in Banff - Without the Crowds

Johnston Canyon Hike (Banff Town website)

Guided Ice Walks in Johnston Canyon with Discover Banff Tours

Winter Wonderland in Johnston Canyon at the Upper Falls

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Ten Reasons to Spend Time at Kananaskis Village This Winter

We recently spent a weekend at the Pomeroy Kananaskis Mountain Lodge and I was reminded of how much I LOVE Kananaskis Village. Whether you can afford to stay overnight or not matters little because most of our favourite things are accessible to day users (including the fancy pool and spa at the lodge!)

Below are our top ten favourite things to do in winter at Kananaskis Village as a day user or as a guest of the Pomeroy Lodge.

1. Go Skiing or Boarding at Nakiska Mountain Resort

Nakiska Resort is a great ski hill and is the one we feel most comfortable at as a family. Not only is it the closest hill to Calgary for day trips, it's also small and easy to navigate. Lift lines are generally short and the beginner learning area is free for all users. This is where my son learned to ski and we've enjoyed blending a few hours of skiing with an hour at the tube park. When we get tired of the crowds at the hill, we make our way down to Kananaskis Village for a cup of Starbucks coffee in the Lodge and some time spent in front of the fireplace relaxing.

Check out my newest ski story: Off to a Great Start at Nakiska Ski Resort

Nakiska Mountain Resort

2. Visit the Pomeroy Lodge for Brunch on Sundays (with access to the Summit Spa)

This is something that isn't really advertised anywhere, but the staff at the Summit Spa confirmed for me that Sunday brunch reservations include access to the lodge swimming pool, indoor/outdoor hot tub, and steam rooms  (my favourite one is infused with eucalyptus oil.)

To make a reservation, call the front desk at the lodge. (and it's always a good idea to verify spa and pool access in case policies should change at some point.)

Indoor/outdoor hot tub at the Pomeroy Lodge
Not a bad place to spend an hour or two at Kananaskis Village
The Lodge Swimming Pool

3. Go Shopping at Kananaskis Outfitters

Known primarily as an outfitter for tours and rentals, this small shop also carries an amazing collection of outdoor gear and clothing. So far this season I have found a new favourite pair of cross country ski pants at the store along with a new tuque that matches my light puffy jacket to perfection. Safe to say it is not wise for me to spend too much time at this store!

While you're at the shop, book a  moonlight snowshoe tour or rent a pair of cross country skis for the trails around the Village. They also rent fat bikes, skates, and pretty much anything you'd need to enjoy outdoor time in Kananaskis.

More info. can be found on the Kananaskis Outfitters website. They are located in the Kananaskis Village Centre, tucked in behind a gift shop.

Kananaskis Outfitters has everything to get you out on the trails

4. Go Skating on the Village Pond

The Village skating pond is groomed and ready to go for the season. It is located right beside Kananaskis Outfitters (where you can rent skates should you need) and is a fun little place for kids to skate. It's also a great spot for a small family hockey game with sticks permitted on the ice. For a real game though, there is also a hockey rink at the village so save the slap sticks for the rink please.

Skating on the Pond at Kananaskis Village

5. Go Cross country skiing on the Village Trails

There are approximately 12 km of trails in the immediate Village area, all groomed and track set. Descend to Ribbon Creek and you have another 20+ km of trails.

Our favourite short loop is the 3 km Terrace Loop which is relatively flat and great for beginner skiers. Once the kids can do this loop, try lengthening it with a climb up Kovach and Aspen to the meadow on the Aspen trail for a 6 km loop. There is a very exciting descent down to the village at the end on the Kovach Trail.

Easy skiing near Kananaskis Village

For another easy option, try skiing the Bill Milne Trail which is another great family-friendly option free of any large hills as long as you stay close to the highway. The best section with kids goes from Kovach Pond to the Mount Kidd RV Park. Set up a shuttle and ski it one way from Mount Kidd for an easy glide in the downhill direction.

All trails can be seen on this trail map

Learning to ski at Kananaskis Village

6. Go for a Hike and Explore the New Ribbon Creek Trail or Hike to Troll Falls

The hike to Troll Falls has long been a family favourite in the Kananaskis Village area. The hike is short at 3 km round trip and when there's enough snow you can even ski to the falls for those who prefer cross country skiing to hiking. One never needs snowshoes for this hike as the trail is always well packed down and easy to walk on. (note that if you are walking, please stay off of the ski tracks and move to the side if you see skiers coming down a hill towards you.)

Troll Falls in Winter

The other hike that I recommend is the trail up Ribbon Creek below the Village. This trail has been fixed since the flood and is great for snowshoeing. The ski trail climbs up above the creek but the hiking and fat biking trail follows the creek and travels through a winter wonderland of snow covered bridges.

Both trails can be seen on this trail map.

Skiing along the Hay Meadow Trail near Ribbon Creek and Troll Falls

7. Try a Full Moon Snowshoe Tour

Kananaskis Outfitters runs an evening snowshoe tour on nights where there is a full moon. It's a fun easy tour which includes snowshoe rentals and a chocolate fondue at the end. For full details and dates, visit the Kananaskis Outfitters website. The company also runs fat bike waterfall tours to Troll Falls along with numerous other guided winter tours.

Moonlight Snowshoe Tours at Kananaskis Outfitters

8. Go For Coffee at the Lodge and Hang out by the Fireplace

I feel like I've been living at Kananaskis Village because I've been hanging out at the lodge a LOT this winter.  I love the fireplace room inside the Lodge and it's a great place to warm up after skiing or snowshoeing. The new Market Cafe serves Starbucks Coffee along with delectable pastries, goodies, and light snacks. No matter where we go play in Kananaskis, we always stop off at the Village on the way home to grab a coffee and hang out by the fireplace in the lodge. There's also enough room for the kids to run around a bit (provided they aren't too wild) before the drive back to the city.

Hanging out by the fireplace in the Pomeroy Lodge at Kananaskis

9. Go Sledding in the Village

There is a small sledding hill at Kananaskis Village tucked back in beside the hockey rink and the playground. Combined with an hour or so on the skating rink, it's a great way to spend half a day at the village.

Sizing up the sledding hill at Kananaskis Village

10. Go for Dinner at the new Forte Restaurant

The lodge has undergone recent renovations and the new family restaurant is open.

"Forte Restaurant features a partial open kitchen with two wood-fire ovens used to prepare delicious handmade pizzas, roasted meats, fish & seasonal vegetables. It is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Reservations recommended for dinner. "

Combine your evening with some night-skating on the moonlit pond or a full moon snowshoe tour.

Dinner and a little moonlit skating at Kananaskis Village

For full information on the Pomeroy Kananaskis Mountain Lodge, Kananaskis Village, and all amenities or services please visit the Pomeroy Kananaskis Mountain Lodge website.

Disclaimer: This story was not paid for or sponsored. All words and opinions are my own.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Off to a Great Start at Nakiska Ski Resort

We spent two days skiing at the Nakiska Ski Resort while staying at the Delta Kananaskis Lodge last weekend and it's safe to say that my son would prefer we do a LOT more downhill skiing and much less x-country skiing or winter hiking.

Our first day at Nakiska looked like this:
My Mighty Skier
First run down the hill - 6 year old crying and wailing upon seeing the first steep pitch off of the Silver Chair. (Normally we would have started off on the easier Bronze Chair but it was not open yet for the season so we had to start on intermediate terrain.) There was much falling, many tears, and we almost headed back to the hotel.
Second run down the hill - tentative skiing but less falling, no tears, and we sighed a breath of relief that the day was going to improve.
Third run down the hill - I actually stopped at one point and exclaimed "My gosh, the kid is almost as fast as me! How did this happen?" - and he definitely wasn't falling anymore.
 Fourth and Fifth runs down the hill - I stopped trying to keep up. My 6 year old was definitely flying down the intermediate runs at a much faster pace than I was (without falling and in complete control.)

Obligatory Family Chairlift Selfie at Nakiska

The second day skiing at Nakiska continued where the first left off with more speed and confidence. My son even progressed to the Olympic and Gold Chairs, and successfully skied his first black run after we discovered that the intermediate runs were all closed for a race. I won't say that it was a graceful run, but he made it down in one piece and there were no tears.

All in all it was a very successful first ski weekend of the season and we are excited to go back to Nakiska over the holidays.

Perfectly Groomed Ski Terrain at Nakiska

There are a lot of ski resorts near Calgary but we like Nakiska for a variety of reasons.

My 6 year old that was doing black runs on day two!
  • Nakiska's hashtag says it all - #SkiClose (the resort is only a 45 minute drive from the NW Calgary city limits.)
  • As evidenced by my son's improvement over the first day out this season, people can learn to ski quickly and with great confidence at Nakiska. It's a small hill, the runs are immaculately groomed, and it's great learning terrain
  • My husband went off to do some skiing in the new Glades off the Gold Chair and came back with a huge smile on his face. (This from somebody who normally prefers skiing in the backcountry)
  • Mama who is normally quite terrified on downhill skis (yes, me) had a lot of fun and I felt very confident on the groomed terrain at Nakiska. And then when I got tired of downhill skiing I had other nearby options including x-country skiing and snowshoeing.
  • Show up at noon and there is still parking relatively close to the lodge (find that at a larger hill!)
  • There's always space to drop family members and skis off in the 5 minute loading zone (which means we don't have to carry skis all the way from the car.)
  • Small resorts are easier to find your way around at. My 6 year old is already quite familiar with the hill, knows all of the runs by name, and would be able to ski by himself in another few years with zero risk of getting lost.
  • Nakiska is family-friendly!! The hard core skiers tend to go to the bigger resorts leaving Nakiska for families and for those of us who want a relaxing day close to home.
  • Beginners of all ages ski for free with a special pass for the learning area and magic carpet. (and this includes adults)
  • Seasons Passes are affordable. We all have passes and this means we can show up at 9, and leave at noon when the rest of Calgary shows up. We get the best snow and leave when the runs start to get icy. We'll be skiing at Nakiska a lot this winter and we'll have the freedom to ski as long or as little as we want based on conditions, weather, and crowds. (And with a 45 minute drive, we don't mind coming out for just a few hours.)

Bluebird Day at Nakiska

It's going to be a great winter and we are very grateful to Resorts of the Canadian Rockies for their support this winter. They graciously arranged our stay at the Delta Kananskis Lodge last weekend and have provided me with a seasons pass so that I can help promote this great ski hill.

I'll be writing a few pieces on the Nakiska website this winter as well and will make sure to share them when they are published.

Finally, we'll be visiting a couple of other RCR ski resorts this winter as well and I can't wait to tell you all about our adventures.

Disclaimer: As always, all words in this story are my own and I was not paid to write this story.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Launching a Winter of Adventure at Rogers Pass, Glacier National Park

If you would have asked me about our winter plans a month or two ago, I would have said that we planned to visit a couple of wilderness hostels, ski into one backcountry hut, and go downhill skiing a few times. Fast forward to the beginning of December and we now have 10 confirmed wilderness or backcountry trips over the next 4 months. 10!! That's a lot of trips pulling sleds piled high with gear for a weekend.

Fortunately, three of the trips are adults-only trips (two backcountry ski weekends for my husband, and a girls' ski weekend for myself,) but that still means we'll be doing 7 of the trips with our six-year old son and we'll be spending a lot of weekends in remote cabins or huts throughout Alberta and British Columbia.

Many of the trips will be spent at wilderness hostels where we'll be able to drive up to (or close to) the door of our cabin but three of the huts will require backcountry travel, the first of which we just traveled to last weekend.

Launching a winter of adventure at Rogers Pass, Glacier National Park

Backcountry Trip #1 for the 2015-2016 Season - Rogers Pass, British Columbia

Rogers Pass Overview

Last weekend we traveled to Rogers Pass, located in Glacier National Park between the towns of Golden and Revelstoke in British Columbia. General opinions when we told friends about the trip were that "Rogers Pass was waaaay too far away," that the trip was "not doable for a normal two day weekend," and I'm pretty sure some people thought we were "kind of crazy" for going so far to find snow. In all honesty though, it only takes 3.5 hours of straight non-interrupted driving to reach Rogers Pass and it's MUCH closer than Jasper National Park (where we've spent many a winter weekend.)

We left Calgary mid-afternoon on Friday, stopped briefly in Golden for dinner, and arrived at Rogers Pass in time to snowshoe to our backcountry hut that evening. Yes, it was dark for the hike in, but it was only a 1.5 km hike to the hut and the trail was perfectly flat once we climbed the first short hill out of the parking lot. We arrived at the hut by 7pm and our son still had a good hour or more to play before going to bed.

Early season snow worth driving for at Rogers Pass

Saturday was spent snowshoeing around the area, did a lot of sledding outside the hut, and played games inside. Families can only explore a small area around the hut before entering avalanche danger, so we were able to explore all available terrain in a day and didn't really feel like we needed a longer weekend.

We left to come home mid-morning on Sunday after cleaning up and spending some more time sledding, but we easily could have gone for a short ski or done some more snowshoeing before leaving. As it was, we got to Golden in time for lunch and arrived back in Calgary mid-afternoon so that we could get the grocery shopping done and prepare for the upcoming week.

All in all, a two-day weekend was perfect for a family trip to Rogers Pass and we'd definitely repeat the trip.

You don't find snow like this around Calgary at the end of November

Our Accommodations at the Alpine Club of Canada's Wheeler Hut

The A. O. Wheeler Hut is one of the easiest backcountry huts to reach in the Canadian Rockies. In summer you can drive right to the door, and in winter it is a short 1.5 km ski or snowshoe. The trail is easy to follow and you can pull a sled for young feet that can't walk that far.

The hut is quite luxurious for an ACC hut with two wood stoves, three rooms on the main floor, and three sleeping rooms on the upper floor. The kitchen is equipped with propane stoves, an oven, and all the cooking supplies you'll need. Just bring your own food and don't expect a fridge.

The two common areas have tables for eating and hanging out at, propane lanterns, and book shelves lined with games and reading material. There are drying racks aplenty for wet clothes, and one never feels too crowded at the hut with the three individual rooms on the main floor.

Playing games in the main living room at the Wheeler Hut

The hut sleeps 24 in winter (30 in summer) and you'll want to go mid-week if you hope to have the place to yourself. It gets very busy on weekends in winter and is in a prime location for backcountry skiers who travel here from all over North America to ski the famous powder of Rogers Pass. The area gets some of the best snow on the continent and January through early March are peak months for this hut.

We chose to visit the Wheeler Hut at the end of November, hoping that it wouldn't be as busy. The hut was still fully booked the entire time we were there and I suspect there won't be a vacant spot on a weekend until mid-March at least.

Our Winter Wonderland at the Wheeler Hut, Rogers Pass

Visiting Rogers Pass in Winter as a Family

Search "snowshoeing Rogers Pass" on the internet and you'll find nothing (unless it's another story I've recently written.) Search "Rogers Pass with children" and you'll also find nothing (until now that is.)

This is not an area that is typically visited by families for several reasons. First, large areas of Glacier National Park are closed or restricted to the public in winter with a permit system in place for backcountry skiers (allowing them to only ski slopes not currently being blasted for avalanche control.) Second, a quick search of the national park's website will tell you that there are no hiking trails open in winter. All trails require the winter permit to access (if they are even open) and require full avalanche training and gear.

We discovered that this is not entirely true though and that there is one small area that families can explore. It is conveniently located behind the Wheeler Hut on the Asulkan Valley Trail and is a fun place to explore with kids.

This is the little known family-friendly side of  "Rogers Pass"

Families can hike approximately 3km up the Asulkan Valley before entering avalanche danger and can play in the ruins of the historic Glacier House Lodge, located perhaps 20 minutes from the hut. Our kids had great fun jumping off the stone pillars and rocks, playing in the foundation of the lodge, and exploring the winter wonderland around the ruins.

Exploring the Ruins of Glacier House at Rogers Pass

Playing in the Glacier House Ruins in Glacier National Park

We also hiked part of the "Meeting of the Waters" trail up to the bridge and got to see where the Asulkan Brook and the Illecillewaet River meet. It was extremely beautiful and was only an hour return from the hut at most on snowshoes.

We chose to snowshoe but other families were staying at the hut with us and some of them chose to ski up the Asulkan Valley with their kids. The adults in those families used backcountry skis with skins and either towed the kids up the valley with ropes or had them snowshoe up and ski down. Next time we visit, we'll bring out skis too and see how far we get towards the first bridge on the Asulkan Valley trail.

Snowshoeing on the "Meeting of the Waters" Trail
Winter Wonderland at Rogers Pass for Families

Precautions if Visiting Rogers Pass in Winter

It is highly recommended that at least one adult in your party have avalanche training if you are going to go exploring up the Asulkan Valley. Not that you are going to go in avalanche terrain with the kids, but if you don't have any training it's pretty hard to know "how far is too far." Adults with training will know where to safely turn around.

If you don't have avalanche training, go sledding at the hut, build a snowman, play at the ruins of the Glacier House Lodge, and Hike the "Meeting of the Waters" Trail to the river crossing. That is as much as we did on this trip and it was sufficient for our two-day weekend.

The Glacier House Ruins (a 20 minute walk from the Wheeler Hut)

Families will also want to check road reports before heading into Glacier National Park in winter and will want to ensure that the highway is open. The TransCanada Hwy is occasionally closed between Golden and Revelstoke in winter when avalanche danger gets too high or when blasting is in progress to protect the highway.

Other safety precautions:
  • Pack a shovel in your vehicle in case it snows a lot while you are at the hut and you need to dig your vehicle out. (It's happened before)
  • Bring extra food in case the highway gets closed while you are at the hut and you have to spend an extra night
  • Make sure you tell family,friends, and probably your boss of your plans for the weekend and alert them to the fact of possible road closures in case you don't show up back in town by Monday morning
  • Winter tires are a MUST if driving the Rockies in winter
  • If possible drive out together with friends and plan to meet up at regular intervals if you get separated
  • Allow for much longer than 3.5 hours from Calgary if roads are bad

We didn't have to worry about any of these precautions too much because we visited the hut in November. Winter will be in full swing shortly though and trips into the backcountry need to be taken seriously (even if you are only staying a kilometre and a half off the highway.)

Looking out one of the windows at the Wheeler Hut


Our Upcoming Backcountry Trips for the 2015-2016 Season

Wilderness Hostels in Banff National Park:
  • Castle Mountain (Family)
  • Castle Mountain (Girls' Ski Trip)
  • Mosquito Creek (Family)
  • Hilda Creek (Family)
  • Hilda Creek (My husband's backcountry ski weekend)

Alpine Club of Canada Backcountry Hut Trips:
  • Cameron Lake Hut, Waterton Lakes National Park (Family)
  • Wheeler Hut, Glacier National Park (My husband's backcountry ski weekend)
  • Elizabeth Parker Hut at Lake O'Hara, Yoho National Park (Family)

Other Backcountry Trips:
  • Cypress Hills Provincial Park, Alberta - skiing into a backcountry cabin in the park

Adding our recent trip to the Wheeler Hut as a family, that equals 10 trips in total.

It's going to be a busy winter because that's only the backcountry and wilderness stuff! There's still three other downhill ski weekends planned and at least one other weekend planned with friends.

Morning at the Wheeler Hut, Rogers Pass

For More Information on the places we'll  be staying this winter:

Please visit the Alpine Club of Canada's website for info. on all of their backcountry huts.

Visit the Hostelling International website for information on their wilderness hostels.

Visit the Cypress Hills Provincial Park website for information on their backcountry huts.

How can you not spend the winter in the backcountry??