Friday, April 10, 2015

Easter at the BEST Wilderness Hostel in the Canadian Rockies

It's spring in Calgary and we just did a 20 km family bike ride today on glorious snow-free pathways.  Leave the city and head into the mountains though and it's a slightly different picture. The front ranges near Kananaskis and Banff are starting to melt out and are becoming dry enough for spring hiking or biking, but go towards Lake Louise (or beyond) and it's still very much winter.

Spring in the Canadian Rockies still looks like this beyond Lake Louise

We spent the Easter long weekend at a small rustic cabin located on the border of Jasper National Park, just a short drive away from the Columbia Icefield Centre on hwy 93.  We were only an hour and a half north of Lake Louise but it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere (beautiful, blissful nowhere!)

Hilda Creek, Our Mountain Retreat on the Icefields Parkway

The Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel is our favourite property in the collection of hostels operated by Hostelling International because it only sleeps 6 and so we get a private mountain retreat every time we go.  We enjoy the privacy with another family and we don't have to worry about disturbing other hostel users who may (or may not) enjoy listening to our children running around screaming and playing loud games.

Playing in the snow outside the Hilda Creek Hostel

My Sales Pitch - Why You Have to Take your Kids to Hilda Creek

Nobody's paying me to tell you that you absolutely have to plan a trip to Hilda Creek.  But you do!  It's just too fabulous a place not to visit at least once if you live in (or plan to visit) the Alberta Rocky Mountains.  Below are just a few of the many reasons why we love Hilda Creek:

1.  Snow, snow everywhere!  The kids build snow houses and tunnels, we build giant luge tracks for sledding, we snowshoe up to the glacier moraines behind the hostel (before hitting avalanche terrain,) and we explore the nearby Athabasca Glacier (which had an ice cave this year!)

Sledding down the hill behind the Hilda Creek Hostel

2.  Kids get to see a magical world that is usually reserved to backcountry skiers.  I'm not a backcountry skier and am always slightly jealous of the places my husband gets to go when he's on his ski trips with friends.  At Hilda Creek though, we get to go play in Daddy's backcountry ski world.  We get to see glaciers, we can go sledding down glacier moraines, and we can go snowshoeing into the backcountry where the scenery is unlike anything I've ever seen on a family hike.  (See notes further down in this story about avalanche safety while at Hilda Creek.)

Climbing Glacier Moraines and Playing in the Backcountry above the Hilda Creek Hostel

3.  Winter Camping made Accessible for the Average Family.  There's no way I'm going to go sleep in a tent in winter, camp in the snow, or sit outside cooking a dehydrated meal in the cold over a small backpacking stove.  And while some families are up for that challenge, I believe I'm with the majority who is not!  Enter Hilda Creek where you can "pretend" you are camping but still have all the comforts of a heated cabin.  You can cook inside, sleep inside, and you get a real bed to sleep in (no hard cold snowy ground.)

Sledding down glacier moraines above the Hilda Creek Hostel

4.  Backcountry Accommodations with a Front Country Approach.  I love snowshoeing or skiing into backcountry huts in winter but it's hard to do a 12 km backcountry ski trip with kids.  Meanwhile, Hilda Creek requires 5 minutes of walking from highway to cabin door.  That's my kind of backpacking trip!  You still have to haul all of your stuff in, but bring a sled or two and it's a few relatively painless trips.

This scenery was found within a 30 minute hike from the Hilda Creek Hostel

5.  Hilda Creek Offers an Easy Way to get Kids into the Backcountry.  Rather than ski 12+ km into the backcountry, I prefer to just hike 5 minutes into my cabin that's already perched at the edge of some pretty spectacular backcountry terrain.  Then from the cabin, you can go explore with day packs and a sled or two.  That's family travel made EASY.

The Easy Hike up towards the Hilda Glacier from the Hilda Hostel

Spending Easter at the Hostel

What did we do to celebrate Easter?  We colored eggs and sent the kids searching for chocolate filled plastic eggs that we had hid around the hostel.  It was fun watching the kids go on a snowy winter wonderland Easter egg hunt.

Snowy Easter Egg Hunt
The Loot after the outdoor Easter Egg Hunt

We also hid their Easter bunnies with an avalanche transceiver and made the kids hunt for them with a second transceiver.  This was a lot of fun and I think we'll do more transceiver searches next year.  It's just like geocaching, but with something that beeps at you as you get closer.

Searching for Easter Bunnies with Avalanche Transceivers

Details You will Need to Know to Play Your Stay - Avalanche Safety

First, know that there is very real avalanche danger NEAR the hostel.  We stayed out of harm's way because we had experienced backcountry skiers in our group who have the training to know where to go and where not to go.  If you do not have avalanche training and significant winter backcountry experience you should not go hiking above the hostel to the moraines.  We felt very confident with how far we hiked but again, we had experience and training on our side.

For our primary hike from the hostel, we followed the creek (behind the bathrooms) and hiked up towards the Hilda Glacier.  We stopped at the first moraines, just outside of avalanche risk. 

Hiking towards the Hilda Glacier is a great family activity for those with backcountry training

If you do not have avalanche training, stay at the hostel, play in the snow in front of the hostel, build sled runs down the hill behind the hostel, and even climb up through the trees a ways behind the hostel.  As long as you don't go above tree line, you are safe right behind the hostel on the backcountry skiers "up track."  We hiked up to tree line on our last day at the hostel and it was beautiful up there.  Again, backcountry knowledge is incredibly useful on this hike too and if you don't know what "tree line" is, it's safe to say you should probably stay at the hostel down below.

Hiking up to tree line behind the hostel (this is as far as we went)

If you have ANY doubts as to how far you can hike around the hostel, where is safe to play, or are looking for ideas, please stop in at the Lake Louise Info. Centre en route to the hostel or play it safe and stick close to the cabins.  You are 100% safe from all avalanche harm at the hostel itself.

I'll be writing a follow up piece as well on hiking around the Athabasca Glacier because this is a safe trip that can be done from the hostel for all families regardless of experience in the backcountry.  The hike starts from the Icefield Centre further up the road and follows a very good hiking trail that is 100% family friendly.  Read the story here:  Jasper has an Ice Cave - For Real!

Hiking to the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier near the Hilda Hostel at the Columbia Icefield Centre

What to Expect From the Accommodations (and what to bring)

Hilda Creek is basically a backcountry cabin.  You will either need to haul water in with you, or collect it from the nearby stream (if not frozen.)  If the stream is frozen, you'll need to melt snow for drinking and cooking water (and it takes a lot of snow to make one bucket of water!)

Bathrooms are outside in the form of outhouses and midnight runs are neither convenient nor pleasant.  On the plus side though, at least you aren't digging a pit somewhere when nature calls.

There is a stove (no oven) and there are sinks in which to wash dishes.  Water from the sinks is collected in buckets underneath and then has to be taken outside to dump.  There is no indoor fireplace (or outdoor fire pits) but there are propane heaters inside both the kitchen and sleeping cabin.  Users do require knowledge to get the propane turned on though and to fiddle with the system which can be a bit touchy at times.  And finally, there are solar powered lights in the cabins but they are very dim and it's recommended you bring an LED lantern or two for extra light.

Our little cabin in paradise, Hilda Creek

Besides drinking water and extra lights, you should bring a sled to haul your gear into the cabin.  Bring a cooler for your perishable food and a plastic bin (with lid) for your non perishable food.  It's good if you can keep all your food covered at night because there are definitely mice in the kitchen.  Bring sleeping blankets and pillow cases (pillows are provided) but leave the mattresses at home (which are already there.)

Finally, you'll want to bring snowshoes for hiking, skis if you plan to do any backcountry skiing (and have the knowledge to do so with proper avalanche gear,) and any toys that will amuse the kids inside or outside of the hostel.  We find books to be a great source of entertainment for downtime along with a portable DVD player or tablet (kids can only play outside for so many hours in the cold after all.)

Hiking up to tree line behind the Hilda Creek Hostel


Book Your Own Trip to Hilda Creek (and check it out in the summer!)

To book your own trip at Hilda Creek, call Hostelling International or visit the website for more information.

Hiking on the Moraines above the Hilda Creek Hostel
Mountain Yoga anyone?
Who wouldn't love a weekend here?

Want to see what a stay at Hilda is like in the summer season?  Check out this story I wrote last fall:  Moving on to Big Adventures - and the Kids get to Come Along.  Summer is a lovely time on the Icefields Parkway and you'll be able to hike above the hostel free of avalanche danger.  This makes a stay a bit more reasonable for the average family.

Hiking above the Hilda Creek Hostel last Fall