Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Winter at the Cameron Lake Cabin, Waterton Lakes National Park

The Cameron Lake Cabin is the newest addition to the Alpine Club of Canada's collection of backcountry cabins and huts, and with a 2 km approach, is one of the EASIEST cabins for families to reach in winter. The trail is packed and track-set allowing for easy cross country skiing or hiking with a flat level surface for towing sleds. Arriving at the cabin you might even be tempted to proclaim: "What? We're here already? But I'm not tired yet!" - I know I did.

Easy peasy skiing into the Cameron Lake Cabin, Waterton Lake National Park

We visited this newly restored warden cabin in Waterton Lake National Park at the end of December, just a few weeks after it saw its first guests. My husband said it was so new, the frying pans still had their Teflon coating on them. (And the knives were still sharp!)

We were very excited to visit a new backcountry cabin and even more thrilled to be giving our seven year old son his first backcountry ski experience where he'd ski into a cabin for a night - 100% on his own steam. We've visited other huts and cabins in the winter but have always had to snowshoe in due to distance or lack of a good ski trail. The Cameron Lake Cabin changes all of that, and at 2 km, most families will have few problems reaching their destination.

The Alpine Club of Canada's Cameron Lake Cabin

Families with toddlers and babies will find Cameron Lake easy to reach with the assistance of a sled or Chariot on skis. Friends of mine have already hiked in with a toddler and two babies (the toddler walked while the babies rode in sleds) and other friends put their daughter on touring skis to introduce her to backcountry ski touring.

Beautiful Cameron Lake on a sunny day (photo: M. Schulze)

Regardless of how you reach the hut though, it's an easy peasy backcountry trip and offers families the opportunity to take children for their first winter camping experience at a very young age with little difficulties or challenges.

The perfect backcountry location for families with young kids (photo: R. Yourex)

Location and Logistics

Waterton Lake National Park is located approximately 2.5 hours south of Calgary. The Cameron Lake Hut is reached via the Akamina Parkway, open as far as the Little Prairie Day Use Area. In summer you can drive all the way to Cameron Lake at the end of the Parkway but in winter you must ski or hike the final 2.5 km to the popular tourist area. This is good news for families who want to get off the beaten path in winter without the normal summer crowds. The cabin is located roughly 500 metres away from the lake.


For more information please visit the Alpine Club of Canada Website

Skiing the Akamina Parkway from Little Prairie Day Use Area to Cameron Lake

The Cameron Lake Cabin

This small cabin sleeps 8 people which is perfect for two families to share the space. It's recommended that you book the full cabin because there is no separate sleeping area. Cooking, eating, hanging out, and sleeping is all done in the same room. Our son goes to bed around 8:00pm and I can't imagine encouraging other adult guests to dim the lights and whisper quietly at this early hour if you were to share the cabin.

Kitchen area in the Cameron Lake Cabin

The cabin is equipped with a propane heater, propane lanterns, and a small propane stove. There are basic dishes and cooking supplies (bring your own food and wine glasses.) The sleeping area is comfortable with foam mattress supplied so that you can bring just sleeping bags and leave the other camping gear at home.

Living and Sleeping space side by side at the Cameron Lake Cabin

What to bring with you:

  • Sleeping bags

  • Food (and note that there is no refrigerator so plan accordingly)

  • Drinking water if you don't want to have to boil snow (which gets very tedious)

  • Head lamps or flash lights for trips out to the pit toilets at night

  • A sled to haul your gear in with (and for creating an awesome luge track behind the cabin)

  • Skis or snowshoes (we brought both)

  • Games, books, and indoor activities to occupy the kids

  • Hut booties or indoor shoes that can get wet on the bottom (we found that we were always tracking water into the small cabin)
The final descent off the Akamina Parkway down to the cabin (ignore the sign)

Special note RE cabin temperature - when we were there it was extremely hot on the upper bunk making it near impossible to sleep up there. We had turned the heater down earlier in the evening but it was still tropical as you climbed up the ladder to sleep or play. (Think sauna)

This is another reason I recommend booking the full cabin with another family. Each lower sleeping room is actually big enough for a family of 4 to sleep should you also find it too warm up top.

Comfortable sleeping/playing areas in the Cameron Lake Cabin (photo: R. Yourex)

 Places to Explore near the Cameron Lake Cabin

We took a short hike to Cameron Lake, located roughly 500 metres further up the Parkway. It was also nice for a night ski. We didn't see much of the lake but on a clear day, it would be lovely to hike or ski across the lake (just make sure it's frozen.)

Cameron Lake on a snowy December day
This is as far as we hiked across the "almost frozen" Cameron lake in December

We also took a short hike to Little Akamina Lake, located roughly 500 metres in the opposite direction from Cameron Lake. There was a trail leading there from behind the bathrooms at the cabin.
This trail would not be ski-friendly and is best on snowshoes.

Playing at Little Akamina Lake

Families could also ski or hike back down the Parkway towards the parking lot and hike up to Akamina Pass. I'd recommend hiking with young children rather than skiing.

For more information on Winter in Waterton Lakes National Park, please visit the Parks Canada website

Skiing out from the Cameron Lake Cabin

Additional Reading

Waterton Lakes National Park in Winter - A Whole Different Experience!

Off the Beaten Path in Waterton Lakes National Park - A Family Winter Adventure

Home Sweet home

Final Photos

Sledding at the Cameron Lake Cabin
Family-friendly Cameron Lake Cabin
Having fun on the hill down to the Cameron Lake Cabin
Young Children LOVE this new Cabin (photo: R. Yourex)

Melting snow (tedious but we neglected to bring water and the creek wasn't very close) - photo: S. Burgman

Snowshoeing to Little Akamina Lake (photo: S. Burgman)
Hike, Ski, Tow the Kids - lots of options for getting into Cameron Lake (photo: S. Burgman)
The hill down to the cabin was a lot of fun! (photo: S. Burgman)
Night at the Cameron Lake Cabin

Special thanks to the Alpine Club for taking care of our stay in exchange for writing and promoting this great new cabin. As always, all words and opinions are my own.

For more information on other cabins and huts with the Alpine Club of Canada, please check out their website.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Winter at the HI Castle Mountain Hostel with Kids

We are slowly traveling our way across Banff and Jasper in winter, one wilderness hostel at a time. We love hosteling because it gives families an affordable way to stay and play in the mountains year round without having to camp (something I enjoy in summer but don't really relish doing in winter.) 

We still feel like we've gone camping and my son refers to the hostels as "camping cabins" which is a fairly accurate description given the rustic nature of many wilderness hostels and their location set back in the woods away from the highway.

Skiing on the Castle Mountain Ski Trails

One wilderness hostel that I've always enjoyed as an adult is the HI Castle Mountain Hostel. I rented the entire hostel last winter for a girls' trip with 28 ladies and we had a fabulous weekend skiing, eating, and hanging out in the comfortable hostel. It got me thinking that it would be a great location for a family trip too despite the lack of private rooms that some hostels have.

Castle Mountain Girls' Trip 2015

The HI Castle Mountain with Kids

The HI Castle Mountain Hostel is located at the junction of the TransCanada Highway (between the towns of Banff and Lake Louise) and Highway 93 which goes into Kootenay National Park. It sleeps 28 people in two dorm rooms that are set up with bunk beds. 

The rooms are split into male and female dorms which I appreciated staying here as a family. While I have a boy, I know many families with girls and I would feel uncomfortable having a female child sharing a room with a bunch of strange men. 

The fireside room is stocked with fun games at the HI Castle Mountain Hostel

Families who don't want to share the dorm rooms with strangers can always rent out the whole hostel for an affordable group weekend. Five families would be able to share the space nicely and there is plenty of living space to never feel crowded. Note that families with children under the age of 6 will have to book the full hostel because kids must be 6+ years old to share a dorm room.

Apart from the dorms, the hostel features a large fireside room with plenty of space to sit, play games, drink a cup of tea, and chat with fellow guests. There is also a spacious kitchen, fully stocked with all dishes and cooking supplies, with two long tables for eating at.

Overall, the HI Castle Mountain Hostel is a very comfortable place to spend the night with indoor plumbing (something rare in a wilderness hostel,) electricity, and showers. There is even cell coverage at the hostel! Linen, blankets, and towels are included with your booking so you don't have to pack a lot for your stay.

Playing in the fireside room at the HI Castle Mountain Hostel

Top 5 Things to Do While at the HI Castle Mountain Hostel

1. Hike Johnston Canyon

Disclaimer for 2021 - the highway is closed to Johnston Canyon this winter.

Located a short 10 minute drive away, this is the top hike in the Castle Mountain area. This is a premier winter hike in Banff National Park and visitors can hike to two large waterfalls, crawl through a cave to view the first set of falls, and hike down into the canyon to discover other hidden waterfalls and ice caves.

For more information on this hike, please read my previous story: Ice Caves and Frozen Waterfalls in Banff National Park.

Johnston Canyon on our previous visit before Christmas

2. Ski the Castle Mountain Cross Country Ski Trails  

I had never skied in the Castle Mountain area of Banff until our recent trip last December and wow, have I been missing out!! We drove towards Lake Louise on Hwy 1A and parked near the Protection Mountain Campground. 

It is very easy to ski from the Castle Mountain Lookout Parking lot to the Protection Mountain Campground and back. Alternately, start at Baker Creek Resort and ski one way to Castle Mountain Lookout.

Skiing from Protection Mountain to Castle Mountain Lookout, Banff

The section of trail between the Castle Mountain Lookout parking lot and Castle Junction (where the hostel is) is much more difficult with some intermediate hills. It's also less scenic. It is however fun to set up a shuttle and to ski one way from Baker Creek to Castle Junction.

The pretty part of the trail from Protection Mountain to Castle Mountain Lookout

For information on the Castle Mountain Trails, visit the Parks Canada website.

And here is a link to download the trail maps for the ski trails. (There's a winter brochure for both Banff and Lake Louise.)

Trail map of the Castle Junction area 

3. Spend the day at Lake Louise 

There is no shortage of things to do at Lake Louise, located a short 20 minute drive away. Skate on the lake, ski across the lake, ski the Moraine Lake Road or the Great Divide Trail, Ski the Tramline Trail downhill with a car shuttle (our favourite trail with kids,) go snowshoeing in the area, or spend the day at the Lake Louise ski resort. There is something for everybody here.

Skiing on the Tramline Trail at Lake Louise

For more information on cross country skiing at Lake Louise, check out my previous stories: Family X-Country Skiing at Lake Louise

Skiing the Bow River Trail at Lake Louise

For information on skating and the Ice Magic Festival at Lake Louise (complete with ice sculptures and an ice castle,) read my previous story: 20 Years of Ice Magic at Lake Louise

Disclaimer for 2021: The ice castle is up at the lake but there are no ice sculptures this winter.

Skating at Lake Louise, Banff National Park

4. Spend the day in the Banff Townsite 

In the opposite direction from Castle Mountain is the Town of Banff, also located a short 20 minute drive away. The Castle Mountain Hostel is right in the middle of everything! 20 minutes to Banff and 20 minutes to Louise! How could you be more ideally situated?!

Drive to Banff and take a hike to Stewart Canyon at Lake Minnewanka, go skiing on the Cascade Fire Road from Lake Minnewanka, or look for ice to skate on (sometimes wind blows the lake clear in the middle of winter.)

Hiking the Stewart Canyon Trail at Lake Minnewanka, Banff

Alternately, there are many other cross country ski trails, skating rinks, hiking trails, and there are two ski resorts for downhill skiing. There is no shortage of activities for every interest.

Skiing on the Cascade Fire Road, Banff

For more information on Banff in winter, visit the Banff Lake Louise Tourism website.

5. Ski or snowshoe to Boom Lake


This is one of my personal favourite things to do from the Castle Mountain Hostel but it's best suited for families with older children. The trail to nearby Boom Lake on Hwy 93 (located just before you cross into Kootenay National Park) is 10 km round trip and it is not track set or groomed for skiing. To ski this trail falls into the realm of ski touring and it's best to stop as soon as you get to the lakeshore. (It's much easier to snowshoe to Boom Lake but it is still 10 km round trip.)

If you want to ski or hike across the lake, do so at your own risk because there are slide paths that touch the lake. In times of high avalanche risk, there have been slides that have reached the ice, cracking the ice! You don't want to be wiped out by an avalanche and then end up in the lake!

Read more here: Family Backcountry Ski Touring in Banff, Boom Lake 


Who's booking a weekend at Castle Mountain now? To reserve beds at the HI Castle Mountain Hostel please visit Hostelling International's Website.

Please know that children must be 6 years old to share a dorm room at this hostel.

If you have younger children, consider booking the full hostel with a group of friends. Information on booking a hostel can be found here.   

Ice Cave in Johnston Canyon near the Castle Mountain Hostel