Wednesday, October 28, 2015

First Summits - Yates Mountain and the Barrier Lake Lookout, Kananaskis

This is one of the prettiest spring hikes in Kananaskis with several options for a "choose your own adventure" outing.

The hike starts with a gradual climb to the Prairie View Lookout on a beautiful ridge overlooking Barrier Lake. Continue and you'll reach a rock outcropping for even greater views. And finally, continue to the summit of Yates Mountain where you'll find the Barrier Lake Fire Lookout, a working lookout site in the summer season.

Kids will feel pretty victorious reaching this viewpoint

Quick Stats

Elevation Gain: ~ 700 metres to the fire lookout site

Trail Distance: 13 km return to the fire lookout site

Starting Point and Access: Barrier Dam day-use area on Highway 40, Kananaskis

Best Season: Spring through fall

Average time it should take to complete this hike: ~ 4 hours at a leisurely pace with breaks

Note that the distances above are approximate and I've used my personal stats from my last hike. Several websites all differ slightly on exact distance/height gain.

It took my family 4 hours to do the hike with a 6-year old. It also took me 4 hours when I did the hike with friends at a relaxed pace (so it's a good estimate for time.)

This guide has received fresh updates and photos from 2024.

Prairie View Ridge Lookout (updated photo 2024)

Hike Section One: Prairie View Trail from Barrier Dam

The hike starts at the Barrier Dam day use area and you'll begin by hiking around the nearest side of Barrier Lake until you come to a junction with the Stoney Trail at approximately 1.3 km. From here, you follow the Prairie View Trail for the next 4 km until you reach a ridge overlooking Barrier Lake. 

The trail is basically an old fire road, very wide, and popular with both mountain biking and hiking. There are several switchbacks and the grade is never terribly steep.

You'll climb approximately 450 metres of height on this section.

My son's first time hiking this trail at age 6

Hike Section Two: Continuing to the Rock Outcropping

You can either choose to have lunch on the scenic ridge overlooking Barrier Lake, or continue on for another 20 minutes to the rock outcropping viewpoint.

If you continue, the trail is much steeper and will feel "scrambly" as you climb up a short headwall / rock cliff to reach the next viewpoint. The trail has become quite braided here and it's often muddy in spring. Choose the easiest path up and bring poles if you want for assistance. In early spring you'll also want to bring ice cleats.

Rock outcropping overlooking Barrier Lake (updated photo 2024)

If you continue to the viewpoint, the view is spectacular overlooking the lake. Watch young children carefully if you decide to approach the edge of  the cliff where the large rocks are.

At this point you've hiked approximately 5 km according to the All Trails map (and only gained ~ 50 metres height from the Prairie View Trail below.)

Return the same way, or continue on to the summit and fire lookout.

Most youth should have few problems reaching this point at a relaxed pace

Hike Section Three: Yates Mountain Summit and Fire Lookout

From here, the trail becomes steeper, less official, and you'll need some basic route finding skills to find the summit and fire lookout.

The lookout road ends at the first ridge, so now you are on a narrow unofficial dirt trail which climbs to the lookout without wasting time on switchbacks.

If you continue, it's an additional kilometre to reach the lookout site from the boulders (one way) with an additional 100 metres of height gain.

The Yates Mountain Summit and Fire Lookout

Notes RE the Fire Lookout: This lookout is actively maintained and it is a real working fire lookout. This means that if you visit when the attendant is on duty (June onwards) you should keep your distance from the house, approach only if invited, and avoid using the outhouse which is private.

We've always been welcomed with a friendly greeting and allowed to have lunch on the heli-pad platform, but this could change year to year depending on who's working at the lookout. It's always best to obey all signage, and ask permission to approach the heli-pad.

It's always best to ask permission to eat lunch on the heli-pad (updated photo 2024)

For a detailed route description I highly recommend picking up a good guide book for Kananaskis. My recommended book for this area of Kananaskis is the Kananaskis Country Trail Guide, Volume 1 by Gillean Daffern. The book covers the top 35 popular day hikes in Kananskis and is a great reference guide for families.

One of the best spring hikes in Kananaskis (updated photo 2024)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Ten Reasons to Travel into the Backcountry

Hopefully you've read my recent story on our fall backcountry trip to Egypt Lake in Banff and are now thinking about whether you'd dare to take the kids on a similar, albeit maybe shorter, trip. If so, this story today is for you.

On the flip side, maybe you think traveling into the backcountry is crazy, dangerous, inappropriate with kids, or entirely outside your comfort zone. Well, this story today is for you too then!

2023 edit: The Egypt Lake Shelter has been removed by Parks Canada. All other content in this story is still relevant and up to date.

Ten Reasons to Travel into the Backcountry

One - To cleanse, clear the mind, and re-focus

When your only thoughts are of comfort, warmth, survival, and hopefully the beauty or company surrounding you, your mind tends to forget about the zillion things you should be doing. That meeting you have at work bright and early Monday morning - forgotten. That parent teacher conference you have next week (or perhaps just had) - long forgotten. The fight you had with your mother, spouse, sister, friend... - forgotten. The list of chores waiting for you at home - forgotten. The ten million things you should be doing right now at work, home, school - forgotten. It is all forgotten.

Traveling into the backcountry clears the mind, creates peace, and re-focuses everything to the here and now. And nothing else matters.

I go backpacking to refocus and clear my mind

Two - To escape society

Do you remember that movie, "Into the Wild" based on the true story where Christopher McCandless leaves everything and takes off into backcountry Alaska to live off the grid? Well, that is quite possibly my favourite movie and definitely my favourite movie sound track. And while I don't want to die of starvation squatting in a dirty old bus, I do want to disappear from time to time. Backpacking lets me do that.

Life in the backcountry is simple.

No people
No noise
No music
No technology

That is the life I need and crave from time to time (probably at least once a month truth be told.)

We go into the backcountry to escape

Three - Simplicity

Do you find life complicated? I do!
In the backcountry though it comes down to staying warm, staying fed, staying hydrated, and staying comfortable.  It’s that simple.

Life in the backcountry is simple

Four - You learn to just "BE"

You drive back home at the end of the weekend wondering what happened while you were gone – and surprisingly enough, you don’t really care.  You learn to live in the moment and to just “be.”

Life in the backcountry - Learning to "BE"

Five - You learn to be minimalist

You learn just how few things you can survive on when you have to carry everything you’ll need on your back!  Paddling trips are easier but you can still only carry so much in a kayak or canoe.  

Do you really need to play cards, read books or watch movies for entertainment - or can you just talk and hang out?  Can you create games without bringing any toys?  Can you entertain yourselves with nothing but creativity at your disposal?

Backcountry trips teach you to be minimalist

Six - You learn gratitude

You learn to appreciate the finer things of life that we all take for granted (warmth, heat, indoor plumbing, showers, electricity, a bed…) I know for myself, I don't normally look around me and thank God for my indoor toilet. After a backpacking trip I do!!

Gratitude is born in the backcountry


Seven - You test your character

Hiking for several hours while carrying a heavy backpack shows you just how strong you are, what your body is capable of, and what your kids are capable of for that matter (even if they are carrying nothing.)  You learn just how far you can push yourself and where your breaking point is. And of course none of that is comfortable, but building strength and character is vital if we are to deal with daily stress and challenges that arise.

Backpacking tests character

Eight - You learn who your “real” friends are.  

They are the ones who take over in a moment of crisis and tell you to step back when you are too overwhelmed, scared, or in over your head.

They are the ones who encourage you to go further without ever making you feel like you should be going faster or stronger.

They are the ones who see you struggling and offer to carry stuff for you when you know their pack is already heavy enough (and yours is already lighter than theirs.)

They are the ones who make you laugh when all you can think about is your sore feet, shoulders, hips, etc, And they would never look down on your for complaining or whining when you're tired, it starts snowing, or it just won't stop raining after hours of soggy wetness.

They remind you why you are doing this.  They shout out that this is glorious when your body wants to scream everything but that. They encourage you, they encourage your kids, and they make life better!

Friends are born in the backcountry


Nine -  To bond with family and friends

Tell me if this typical daily schedule sounds familiar:
  • Get up, get ready for school and work, say goodbye to one another while rushing out the door
  • Spend the day apart at work, home, and school
  • After school hours spent in clubs, extra-curricular activities, doing home work, and preparing for dinner
  • Dad (and or mom) comes home in time to eat dinner
  • Evening is spent in more extra-curricular activities, in doing more home work, doing chores, cleaning, and maybe sitting in front of the TV
  • The kids go to bed
  • The TV is looking real attractive!
  • Bed
Now, while that might be exaggerated, there's a lot of truth to it and it's hard to find time to spend together as a family. Friendships are also hard to maintain on a weekly or monthly basis. (I know that I have good friends I haven't seen in a year - and we live in the same city.)

Take a weekend backpacking trip with friends and family and suddenly, you get to spend two or three whole days together in uninterrupted time walking the trails together. You cook together, you sleep together in the same room/tent/cabin, there's no TV to provide diversion so you must actually talk with one another, and you reconnect.

Social Time in the Backcountry


Ten - To reverse Nature Deficit Disorder

The term "Nature deficit disorder" refers to the phrase coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods.  In the book, Louv describes a condition where we, especially children, are spending less time outdoors and failing to have a meaningful relationship with our environment. Louv believes that this results in a wide range of behavioral problems and health issues (including that of our community and environment.)

Well, I don't know about you, but my son has to spend 5 days in school a week and there just isn't a whole lot of time to interact with nature each day before it gets dark. Fortunately, there's nothing like a long weekend spent in the woods to reverse the symptoms and to get us back in touch with nature.

Backcountry experiences reconnect us with nature

I wrote this story on the note pad of my phone while driving home from a recent backcountry trip. This story captures what I was feeling in the first hours upon coming face to face with civilization again after three days spent walking through backcountry Banff. I hope you've enjoyed it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Fall Hiking 101: Expect the Unexpected

One day you’re hiking in a tank top and shorts, and then the very next day you’re putting on a down jacket and digging out your winter boots. All I can say is welcome to autumn in the Canadian Rockies and in the words of my favourite reality TV show: Always Expect the Unexpected!

An autumn day hike can lead you through three different seasons in the course of a day with temperatures plummeting the higher you go. Weather is hard to predict and you will often encounter snow as you go further into the backcountry or climb above tree line. With this kind of uncertainty it can be challenging to pack in the morning and one has to “up their game” in order to stay safe on the trails.

November in the Canadian Rockies

Dressing for Autumn Hiking

You may be tempted to go for the “hiker chic” look with leggings, light trail runners, and a cute little sweater with perhaps a thin wind breaker; but to be truly ready for the unexpected and avoid a costly helicopter rescue when things go south, you need to be prepared with more layers, substantial footwear, and better packing overall. Below are essential items you’ll want to wear when hiking this fall:
  • Consider long underwear for cool morning starts. (Worst case scenario, you get too hot later on in the day and you have to duck behind a tree to pull it off)
  • Wear real hiking pants that are water repellent at the very least (and this means no leggings unless you have rain pants in your pack to go over them should it start to snow or rain)
  • Layers, layers, layers! Think t-shirt, long sleeved shirt, fleece sweater, rain jacket or similar waterproof layer, and a light puffy that you’ll keep in your pack for rest stops. (Again, you can always carry what you aren’t wearing).
  • No cotton, No denim, and no shorts unless you have warmer pants in your pack to put on over top.
  • Wear water proof hiking shoes rather than light trail runners that will get soaked if you encounter snow (and it doesn’t hurt to throw some ice cleats or micro spikes in your pack in case the trail gets slippery).
  • Always bring mittens, a warm hat, and even a buff or something similar to protect your face from the wind.

Dressed for success in the mountains

This story was first published by Campers Village and appears in its entirety on their website.

To continue reading, please go to the Campers Village website to read the next paragraph of this story on  Special Precautions for Autumn Hiking. In this paragraph, I cover important items to bring with you when hiking in fall along with safety precautions to take into consideration. I hope you will read the full story and share it with your friends so that we can all continue to be safe out there this fall.

This is around the corner in less than a month!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Backcountry Banff with Kids - Egypt Lake

We always save our biggest backcountry trips for fall because we like to hike into backcountry Banff to see the golden larch trees. This year was no exception and we took a spectacular trip into Egypt Lake with our son and and another family. Together we had three kids ages 4-6 and the kids hiked 30 Kilometres over the course of a three day weekend.

The kids walked through rain, they pushed through blisters, and they marched on with sore feet that were perhaps a wee bit small to hike for 7.5 hours on the first day. They survived challenging cross country terrain with multiple ups and downs, crossed two passes just to reach our destination, and one survived near head trauma.

2023 edit: The Egypt Lake Shelter has been removed by Parks Canada. There is still a backcountry campground at Egypt Lake, but no shelter.  

My opening paragraph makes our recent backpacking trip to Egypt Lake sound positively grueling and torturous but consider the following:

If you were to have met us on the trail to Egypt Lake, you would have seen three happy kids running and screaming down the trail with glee, playing games of roller coaster (a game where you run down every dip in the trail screaming with volume to scare away every bear in a 20 km radius,) and generally having the time of their life.

The boys were running so fast here, we couldn't keep up
The kids rarely complained, hardly even noticed their small blisters, and only truly conked out once we had reached the 12 km mark on the hike in/out. Up to that point, it felt like they could have hiked forever.

The kids were HAPPY
The kids were beyond excited to reach the cabin that they'd be sleeping in for the night. And ask every one of them if they'd like to go back, and the answer would be a deafening YES!

Home Sweet Home at Egypt Lake

The only injury sustained happened when my child (of course it had to be mine) fell off one of the top bunks in the cabin and nearly cracked his head open. One can hardly fault a backpacking trip though for this injury that could have happened in the city at a sleepover at a friend's house.

We all hiked out in high spirits and nobody had to be rescued

Each child trained for the trip and the youngest at 4 years old proved she had the chops to come along by hiking up 700 metres to the top of Prairie Mountain in Kananaskis (a hike that would defeat many adults.) 

Our mighty 4 year old!

The kids carried very small day packs and were fully supported by four adults on the trip

Backpacking with kids looks a lot like this

We chose to stay at the Egypt Lake shelter rather than camp in tents so that we'd have an escape from rain, possible snow (this is the Rockies after all,) and freezing temperatures overnight. So while everybody in the campground was walking around in down jackets freezing their butts off, we were toasty warm in front of our fireplace enjoying our private cabin that we'd fully reserved months ago.

Toasty warm in our shelter at Egypt Lake

 Now the trip doesn't sound so bad, right? Now who's coming next year?

Morning at Egypt Lake


The Hike to Egypt Lake

Disclaimer: Note that for the 2019 season you can no longer hike at Sunshine Village past September 8th so if you want to reach Egypt Lake, you'll have to hike the Healy Creek Trail from the Sunshine Village parking lot (rather than starting from the top of the gondola as we did on this trip.) 

There are multiple ways to reach Egypt Lake but we chose what we thought would be the most scenic and fun for the kids which meant taking a bus up to Sunshine Village and hiking over Simpson Pass to reach Healy Pass. From Healy Pass, it was a short hike down a bunch of switch backs to reach the shelter.

We caught a bus from White Mountain Adventures up to the base area of the Sunshine Village Ski Resort because the gondola does not run in summer. Thanks to the bus we saved ourselves a few hours of walking up the ski-out road and the kids liked the bus ride. Note - make sure you buy tickets in advance or make a reservation because it was a very full bus and we would not have gotten on without our reservation.

Cross country hiking from Sunshine Village (with plenty of ups and downs)

From Sunshine Village, we had a 5.6 km walk ahead of us to reach Simpson Pass. We started by hiking up a ski run to take us to the top of the Wawa Chair and the junction with the Twin Cairns - Meadow Park Trail. It was fairly steep hiking until we reached this junction but the kids were in high spirits.

From the Wawa Ridge summit at 1.9 km it was mostly flat and downhill to Simpson Pass. It was raining lightly (as it would be the whole hike in) but we were dressed for the weather and nobody was cold.

Backcountry hiking in Banff

It's always easier when you hold hands

We reached Simpson Pass and the kids enjoyed the marker that said they were in both Alberta and British Columbia - at the same time!!

Marker near Simspon Pass - Standing in two provinces at the same time

From Simpson pass, we had a lot of uphill climbing to do to reach Healy Pass at 9.1 km. By the time we reached the second pass, we would have climbed 160 m to reach the top of Wawa Ridge, descended 225 m to reach Simpson Pass, and then gained another 226 m to reach Healy Pass.

Hiking across meadows filled with golden larch trees

Healy Pass was gorgeous (even in the rain) and we were excited to see it again on our hike out (when we hoped it would be sunny.) From the top of the pass we could see Egypt Lake below us and we just had to hike down the final 361 m to reach the shelter.

Healy Pass on the hike out

Egypt Lake Hike by the Numbers

To summarize the above paragraph:

Total distance hiked on the way in: Approximately 13 kilometres from the Sunshine Village base area (after the bus ride) to Egypt Lake

Total elevation gained:  386 metres

Total elevation lost:  586 metres

Descending to Simpson Pass in Backcountry Banff

On the way out, we climbed back up to Healy Pass (gaining back the 361 metres we'd lost on the first day) and then we hiked out via the Healy Creek Trail to the Sunshine Village parking area (skipping the bus ride down from the village.)

Total Distance hiked on the way out: Approximately 12 kilometres from Egypt Lake to the Sunshine Village parking area

Total elevation gained: 361 metres

 Total elevation lost along Healy Creek:  689 metres

Healy Pass on the way out

Staying at the Egypt Lake Shelter

As the Banff National Park website phrases well, "The Key Word is Shelter."

Staying at the Egypt Lake shelter is one small step above camping and you'll still be packing everything in with you that you would require were you to camp at the campground next door. The only thing you can leave out of your pack is the tent.

The main room of our simple shelter at Egypt Lake

What you'll find at the Egypt Lake Shelter: The shelter provides two wooden tables, two bedrooms with wooden platforms to sleep on (no mattresses provided,) and a wood stove with firewood. That's it. Water comes from the creek nearby (and must be filtered or boiled) and pit toilets are outside. There is no kitchen, stove, or cooking supplies so you must bring your own stove, fuel, dishes, and pots. There are no lights or propane lanterns so bring head lamps and LED lights for evening. And finally, don't expect much privacy in the shelter. There are no doors separating the sleeping areas from the main cooking area so you'll have to be quiet once the kids go to bed. (Reserving the whole shelter with kids is likely best.)

Simple bedrooms in the Egypt Lake Shelter

Beds and Cost: The shelter sleeps 12 people and we originally had 11 people coming on our trip. We therefore reserved all 12 beds so that we could ensure the shelter would be quiet for our kids at night. The cost is $9.80 per adult per night for the backcountry wilderness permit (which you'd need to stay at the campground as well.) On top of that, you must pay an additional $6.80 per adult per night for use of the shelter. The kids didn't have to pay anything.

The Kids LOVED the Shelter at Egypt Lake

Reservations Required: The shelter must be reserved in advance and you can not just drop in and make sure of it if you are at the campground and it gets cold or wet.

More information on the shelter can be found on the Parks Canada website here: Egypt Lake Shelter.

Home sweet home at Egypt Lake

Day Trips from Egypt Lake 


Egypt Lake

From the shelter, the easiest day trip is to Egypt Lake itself. It is a short 20 minute walk (0.8 km) to the lake and a pretty spot to explore once you arrive at the shelter or campground.

Egypt Lake

Scarab Lake

From Egypt Lake, you can hike up to Scarab Lake which is the upper lake you'll see from Healy Pass. We expected a short little hike but it was surprisingly long and very up hill! The trail was quite rough and scrambly too. It was 2.5 km to Scarab Lake with approximately 300 metres of height gain but we had to lose a bit of height to get to the lake shore so we didn't quite make it that far with the kids. (Remember, they had already hiked 13 km the day before!)

Hiking through larch trees en route to Scarab Lake
Larch Meadows above Egypt Lake
At 5 km round trip, the hike to Scarab Lake is a pleasant outing from the shelter and with kids, makes for a good day hike. Scramblers and families with older kids can continue past Scarab Lake to Mummy Lake which is set in a basin above Scarab.

I love the old trail signs

Whistling Pass

This was the hike I most wanted to do from Egypt Lake but the kids just weren't quite up for it. I went alone with the other mom on our trip and it was gorgeous!!! Highly recommend this hike in fall with all the golden larch trees.

Views from the Whistling Pass Trail
Whistling Pass looking down at Haiduk Lake

The total distance to Whistling Pass from Egypt Lake is 6.6 km round trip and there's only perhaps an extra 100 metres of height to gain (at most) from the junction with Scarab Lake. When I look at the numbers, it seems so easy to reach Whistling Pass, but the trail to the junction with Scarab was relentlessly uphill and very steep. It tired the kids out and they just didn't have it in them to go any further after the big adventure getting to the shelter the day before.

Whistling Pass with Mount Ball in the background
Looking back towards Scarab Lake from Whistling Pass

Other Backcountry Trips along the Bow Valley Highline Trail in Banff

The Bow Valley Highline Trail runs through wild and beautiful backcountry Banff from Sunshine Village to Egypt Lake (the portion we did on this trip), and then climbs up and over Whistling Pass to reach Shadow Lake. From there, it climbs over Gibbon Pass and down to Twin Lakes, Arnica, and Vista Lakes where you end up on Highway 93. It is a distance of 40+ kilometres and some day we'll do the entire thing in one trip. Until then, we are breaking the trail down into manageable sections for our family.

Healy Pass on the Bow Valley Highline Trail

Last year we spent two nights at Shadow Lake Lodge, staying in the fabulous backcountry Shadow Lake Lodge, and we climbed up to Gibbon Pass to see the larch trees. That story can be read here at Magical Autumn Hiking on the Bow Valley Highline Trail and at Family Backpacking in Banff National Park - No Tent Required.

The Bow Valley Highline Trail as seen from Copper Mountain above Shadow Lake

In closing, I want to give a big thank You to some very helpful people in Parks Canada for their assistance with this trip and the writing of this story. We didn't ask for any financial help with the trip, but we did get assistance in making our booking so that we could reserve the full shelter for our group that was originally going to consist of 11 people until sickness hit a couple families.

Group shot at Healy Pass above Egypt Lake