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??