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. Single-gender dorms also ensure you aren't going to be sharing a room with a young couple who fails to realize that they are in a shared sleeping space with other people (yes, that has happened to friends of mine.)

The only downside to sharing dorms is that it's much better to be a lady in these situations. My husband and son slept in the crowded male dorm at Castle with a group of ice climbers while I got to sleep in the princess suite with a small handful of ladies. Number of people snoring in the male dorm - many. Number in the female dorm - zero. Life is good as a woman! Our dorm also smelled a whole lot prettier. :)

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

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. There was a little access road leading down to the train tracks and that was where we parked. From there, we jumped on the groomed ski trail and skied to the Castle Mountain Lookout parking area. The skiing was easy, family-friendly, and definitely not the "blue intermediate trail" that Parks Canada describes on their website. It was easy peasy beginner skiing. And we were doing the trail in the downhill direction (on purpose.)

Skiing from Protection Mountain to Castle Mountain Lookout, Banff

From the Castle Mountain Lookout parking lot the trail got a lot harder, which is interesting because we were now on the "easy" part of the trail according to Parks Canada. I think they have their trails confused because we were definitely on an intermediate trail now and it was no longer beginner friendly. The kids struggled but did awesome on the rolling terrain, steep hills, and tight trail through the trees near the end. We skied out of the trees right at Castle Junction, steps away from our hostel. It was a great one-way ski trip (despite the challenging second half of the trail) and we sent the dads back for the vehicle so that the kids got to do the whole trail in the downhill direction.

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 or read Skier Bob's trip report on the Castle Mountain Lookout to Baker Creek section (which could be done in reverse with a car shuttle for easier skiing in the downhill direction.)

The second half of the trail from Castle Mountain Lookout to the Hostel and Castle Junction

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 upcoming 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

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

Also, if you time your visit right, you can check out the Snow Days activities happening between January 15th and February 7th. There's even an ice slide downtown for the kids.

Skating on Lake Minnewanka during Snow Days in January last year

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

Snow Days in Banff

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 hike 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 there is at least one avalanche path near the lake that you must take care to cross quickly. If you want to ski across the lake, you do so at your own risk because there are slide paths that touch the lake. (why we were in the middle of the lake while avalanche conditions were low.)

Skiing Across Boom Lake

My son has not skied this trail yet and we personally find it too much fun on skis to ever consider hiking it, but it is a very popular trail with snowshoers. And while our son hasn't skied the trail on his own skis yet, he's been to the lake in winter before in a ski pulk. It was a challenging ski pulling a sled but it's doable for strong skiers.

The scenery makes this trip a "must do" outing in the area for experienced cross country skiers, families who can tackle a 10 km hike, or for adults venturing out solo.

Challenging but doable skiing to Boom Lake with kids

We are hoping that our son Noah will be skiing this trail as his first ski touring trip next year. (This year if we get ambitious.) If you are going to try to do this trail with kids on skis, know that trail does gain 200 metres so when we do it, we'll be pulling our son up with a tow rope and my husband will likely use climbing skins while towing. 

Ice Falls at the far end of Boom Lake

For a great trail description visit the Hike Bike Travel website where Leigh has written about her experience skiing this trail.

Scenic skiing to Boom Lake in Banff National Park


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


  1. I had no idea about the Castle Mountain ski trails so will try and check out it out this winter. The "great room' at the hostel looks pretty darned nice. A super way to get out in winter with your family. Thanks for linking to me. I love the Boom Lake trail - also nearby Chickadee Valley in BC though it would be harder with kids.

  2. sledding, skiing and skating!! you're kids certainly seem to be having a ton of fun in the snow