Sunday, February 28, 2016

Winter Fun in Cypress Hills Provincial Park, Alberta

Cypress Hills Provincial Park is located 3.5 hours south east of Calgary near the City of Medicine Hat. From my house it's closer to a 4 hour drive as I circle the city first, but we are quickly discovering that some places are worth the effort to reach. Very worth the effort.

Cypress Hills forms an inter-provincial park sharing a border with both Alberta and Saskatchewan but our recent trip took us to the Alberta side of the park centered around the Town of Elkwater. We've camped here a couple of times in summer, always loving it and wishing it were just an hour or two closer, but this was our first winter visit to discover what's so special about the park in the off-season.

Winter in Cypress Hills Provincial Park along the Horseshoe Canyon Trail,

We visited Cypress Hills Provincial Park over the February long weekend so that we'd have lots of time to explore. What we discovered is perhaps the BEST provincial park that Alberta has in its collection for year-round family fun. Following are some of the many things you can do in Elkwater during the winter:

  • Cross country skiing with 30km of groomed trails (rentals available at the Visitor Centre)
  • Snowshoeing on all of the park's 4-season hiking trails
  • Luge Track for the kids in front of the Learning Centre (sleds and helmets available to borrow)
  • Skating on the Old Baldy Campground Loop (cleared with a 1.5 km long loop around the campground)
  • Downhill Skiing at the Hidden Valley Ski Resort
  • Ice Fishing on Elkwater Lake, Reesor Lake, and on the Spruce Coulee Reservoir
  • Kick Sledding (sleds available for rent at the Visitor Centre)
  • Fat Biking permitted on most trails (other than the groomed cross country trails at Spring Creek)
  • Camping at the Elkwater Campground (open year round)

I challenge you to find me another Alberta Park that has this many activities available to families in the winter. If there is, I want to go there next winter.

Skating on the Loop in the Old Baldy Campground, Cypress Hills Provincial Park

Backcountry Cabins in Cypress Hills Provincial Park 

Cypress Hills is the only provincial park in Alberta with a collection of backcountry cabins (three in fact!) We hiked into the Tom Trott Hut, located a short 5km from the Spring Creek Trailhead. In theory, we were supposed to be skiing into the hut on the park's groomed trails and we were excited to have found a hut that was accessible for families on cross country skis. This year however, there wasn't enough snow in the park and so we had to hike in on foot pulling our sleds on whatever snow we could find. We did manage to hike out on a lovely hiking trail though and followed the Beaver Creek Trail down to the Visitor Centre to reach our car, driven down by our friends.

The Tom Trott Backcountry Cabin in Cypress Hills Provincial Park

The Tom Trott Hut sleeps 8 people in two bedrooms. The one bedroom has bunks for 4 people, and the second bedroom has bunks for 2 people. There is also a double futon in front of the fireplace where I chose to sleep. The hut did not have a stove (so we had to bring our own with us) and had no water source (meaning again that we had to bring in our own water in big camping jugs pulled in on sleds.) The hut did however have all of the dishes we needed along with pots and cooking supplies.

Backcountry Camping in Comfort!

For more information on the Tom Trott Hut and its neighboring hut, the Medicine Lodge (which sleeps 10 people,) visit this link to Backcountry Huts in Cypress Hills Provincial Park.

Hiking into the Tom Trott Cabin in Cypress Hills Provincial Park

The third hut in the park is the Spruce Coulee Hut, which sleeps 6 people. It is located 4.5km from the Reesor Viewpoint or 9km from town. This hut has more of a backcountry feel as it's a bit more remote and is not accessible by road in summer. It's next on my list to stay at.

Hiking along the summer road to reach the Tom Trott Cabin and Medicine Lodge

These three huts are open year round but when the summer roads are open, you can drive right up to the Tom Trott Hut and the Medicine Lodge Hut. They would be great places to stay in shoulder season for bike-packing (even when the road is closed.) You would just have to pull water in with a Chariot or wagon of some sort. When the road is open, these huts would serve as a pleasant alternative to camping and would make things very comfortable if visiting the park in spring/fall when tenting is often chilly and damp.

Snuggling beside the fire in the Tom Trott Hot
The Simple Kitchen in the Tom Trott Hut

We had a fabulous weekend hiking around the hut, exploring the Horseshoe Canyon Trail (500 metres away from our cabin,) and then hiking back down into town. It was a surreal experience to hike out of the backcountry and into an actual town where coffee and chili cheese fries awaited us at the Cookhouse Restaurant beside the Visitor Centre.

Horseshoe Canyon viewpoint
Looking down from the Horseshoe Canyon Viewpoint
Great hiking trail 500 metres from our hut at Horseshoe Canyon
We loved the frosty trees in Cypress Hills
The kids thought the frosty trees were pretty awesome too!
Hiking down the Beaver Creek Trail to Town
Out of the Backcountry and Heading to Town

Weekend Highlights

Other highlights of the weekend were the skating in the Old Baldy Campground (half of the loop was downhill and you just had to stand and glide down the trail - so much fun!) My son also loved the luge track. And I would go back to Elkwater just to have lunch at the Cookhouse (did I mention the chili cheese fries??)

Elkwater Luge Track
Fun for adults too!
Skating in Elkwater
This was seriously a lot of fun skating around a campground!
A very good reason to return to Cypress Hills next winter!!!


Final Frost Photos of Cypress Hills Provincial Park


Horseshoe Canyon, Cypress Hills Provincial Park
LOVED the Frosty Trees
A little bit of snow and kids are entertained for hours

My new Role as an Alberta Parks Ambassador

I have been chosen to be an Alberta Parks Ambassador for the 2016 season and I'm thrilled with the opportunities that await me. Follow my journey on social media with the hashtag - #ABparksAmbassador

Discovering new places to explore as an Alberta Parks Ambassador

I look forward to exploring new parks, introducing a younger generation to our beautiful parks, and promoting the hidden gems of our province with my readers.

I can't wait to explore new parks this year as an Alberta Parks Ambassador


Luge Track Video 1 in Cypress Hills Provincial Park


Luge Track Video 2 

Friday, February 19, 2016

It's Still Winter at Lake Louise

For the second year in a row, it's February and I'm looking out my window to see spring like conditions in my backyard. The snow is melting rapidly and the grass is even starting to turn green. In February!! Conditions are no better in the mountains where you have to travel 2+ hours to find snow worth skiing or ice to skate on. Lakes are starting to melt and even the biggest lakes have a slush layer on top that prevents people from skiing or hiking across them.

Thank goodness for Lake Louise and the Icefields Parkway though! While it's a bit of a drive from Calgary to head out to Louise for a day of skiing with the kids (four hours round trip from Calgary,) it's still very doable to drive out for a weekend of winter fun and you'll easily reach your destination after work Friday.

Our home away from home at the HI Mosquito Creek Wilderness Hostel near Lake Louise

We recently had the fun opportunity to spend a weekend at a wilderness hostel on the Icefields Parkway approximately 20 minutes from Lake Louise. HI Mosquito Creek is one of our favourite wilderness hostels and is definitely the most family-friendly in Hostelling International's Canadian collection.

With a private cabin on site, we stayed in complete comfort with another family for the weekend. We each had our own bedroom (with sleeping for 5 people) and we had our own kitchen that we didn't have to share with other hostel users. Bathrooms were located outside (so perhaps that's not as cozy or comfortable) but other than that, it was a lovely facility that gave us a taste of winter camping in a  magical snowy setting.

Our Winter Wonderland at the Mosquito Creek Wilderness Hostel

For complete information on the Mosquito Creek Hostel, please visit the Hostelling International website or read my previous stories:

Five Reasons to Take your Family To Mosquito Creek this Winter

Winter Paradise at Mosquito Creek

Winter Camping - in Style

Beyond Lake Louise where the Real Ice Magic Begins

Winter Camping with Kids - Warmer than you Think 

The Family Cabin at Mosquito Creek with snow caves outside the door

Highlights from our recent trip to Mosquito Creek

Playing in the Snow outside the Hostel

The kids could have spent the whole weekend just playing outside of our cabin. Forget skiing, hiking, or driving anywhere - mostly they just wanted to build snow caves and forts. They found great amusement in jumping off of the wood pile and playing in tunnels built by previous families. This is a great spot to come and just hang out with the kids for a weekend.

Playing on the Wood Pile outside the Mosquito Creek Hostel
Hours of entertainment outside in the waist deep snow at Mosquito Creek

Hiking up Mosquito Creek to see the frozen waterfalls

If you cross the highway, you can hike up the creek opposite the hostel in search of some beautiful frozen waterfalls. It's a 2 km hike round trip at most and super easy. Just don't forget your snowshoes because the snow is deep. And make sure the creek is frozen if you're going to cross it on snow bridges.

Mosquito Creek Waterfalls (a five minute walk from the hostel)

Cross country skiing at Lake Louise

We've been enjoying ski trails close to Calgary since November but with the warmer weather we're having, Lake Louise is your best option for cross country skiing at the moment.  For our ski day, we first set up a car shuttle with one vehicle parked at Lake Louise and one parked at the Village below beside the old Train Station. Then we skied the Fairview Loop, a section of the Moraine Lake Road, and the lower half of the Tramline Trail in the downward direction for a big 9 km outing with our son and his two friends. The conditions were awesome and we were so happy to see good snow! It's definitely still a winter wonderland at Lake Louise (even if you can go biking in Calgary right now on the clear pathways.)

Skiing the Fairview Trail at Lake Louise
Easy skiing on the Fairview Trail, Lake Louise
The Scenic Bridge on the Tramline Trail at Lake Louise

Skiing across Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway

I've always wanted to try skiing across Bow Lake on the beautiful Icefields Parkway so this seemed as good a chance as any. It was perhaps 6 km round trip across the lake to the very back and we followed tracks created by backcountry skiers heading up to the Bow Hut. We had thoughts of trying to ski up to the Bow Glacier Falls but turned around when the trail through the trees became too steep. We also came across an avalanche path in the trees and hadn't come prepared for that! (Not to mention, kids + avalanche terrain do not mix.)

Skiing across Bow Lake, Icefields Parkway, Banff

Skiing across the lake was relatively easy until it became a bit slushy towards the middle. We also encountered gale forced winds near the back. Fortunately we were prepared with tow ropes for the kids and they proved to be invaluable with the wind.

Skiing at the back of Bow Lake, Banff National Park

If you are going to ski or hike across Bow Lake, make sure you stay in the middle of the lake (away from avalanche slide paths) and that you stop when you reach the trees at the end of the lake. The lake itself is safe (as long as it's frozen of course.)

Bow Lake - One of my favourite places in Banff National Park
Easy Introduction to Backcountry Skiing on Bow Lake, Banff

Seeing the Ice Sculptures at Lake Louise

We stopped off at Lake Louise on our way home to quickly run up to the lake and view the ice sculptures created during the recent Ice Magic Festival. My son also wanted to see the ice castle on the lake. Next time we head out there, we have to bring our skates so that we can skate around the ice castle.

Ice Sculptures at Lake Louise (this was my favourite)
Looking through a Window on the Ice Castle at Lake Louise

Reservations for the HI Mosquito Creek Hostel

To book spots in the private cabin at Mosquito Creek, contact Hostelling International and ask to book both private rooms. It is possible to just book one room in the cabin but I think you'd feel uncomfortable sharing such tight living quarters with strangers. It's nicer to have your own space when you have the kids with you.

Please note that you can book rooms a year in advance so you're going to to want to make your reservation now for next winter. The private cabin is extremely popular so don't plan on making a reservation next January. 

Playing on the huge snow bank beside the highway next to the hostel
Driving the Scenic Icefields Parkway, Banff National Park

The Mosquito Creek Hostel is also a great place to stay in spring, summer, or fall for hiking, biking, or exploring along the Icefields Parkway. It's a step up from camping in terms of comfort and you'll appreciate a bit of extra warmth if you want to travel to Lake Louise in early spring or late fall.

Mosquito Creek in Winter

Disclaimer: Our stay at Mosquito Creek was graciously provided for us by Hostelling International. As always, all words and opinions our my own and I wasn't paid to write this story.

Friday, February 12, 2016

100 Kilometres on Skis so far this Winter

My seven year old has just logged his 100th kilometre on cross country skis this winter (November through February) and I couldn't be prouder. It hasn't always been easy but like most things, the best stuff is worth fighting for. Learning a new sport is often challenging and there will always be a few tears, moments of frustration, and days when you just want to throw in the towel and give up. (many of those days in fact!)

Cross Country Ski Day #19 - Bow Lake in Banff National Park

Many of you have been following our family ski photos on Instagram and Facebook so I wanted to talk about the "experiences" behind the photos because I believe in transparency. God forbid you'd look at my photos and think we are this magical family that has it all together without struggle! It has not been all "roses" and for each awesome moment, there has probably been one (or ten) that did not feel so awesome at the time. Below are a few things you would have encountered if you had skied with us so far this winter:

Trail Experience #1 - My son screaming and wailing because one of his friends passed him on the trail, made it up or down a hill without falling - while Noah was lying on the ground struggling to stand up, or because one of his friends just skied better than him. (the first group ski trip was so horrific I nearly sold Noah's skis the next day.)

My son (in orange) is happy here because he's in the middle of the pack and everybody is skiing together

Trail Experience #2 - My son happily flying down hills, screaming, laughing, yelling "weeeee," and having the absolute time of his life. Noah no longer lets me choose flat trails and has been known to complain in complete misery when he sees a green trail marker indicating that the trail is suitable for beginners. The video below shows him happily skiing down the hill to Watridge Lake at Mount Shark in Kananaskis.

Trail Experience #3 - My son whining, complaining, and totally dragging his butt down the trail because it's "BORING!!"   - usually because we aren't going downhill or because the trail has been flat for too long. (and don't get me started on what happens when we go up hill for too long!!!)

Incidentally, yes, Noah loves downhill skiing and is a complete adrenaline junkie at the age of 7.

A trail my son will tolerate for small sections of time. (too flat, too easy, no challenge)

Trail Experience #4 - My son happily skiing alongside me, like the ideal ski companion I always dreamed he could be. We are in perfect sync, gliding down an easy trail, and we are both blissfully happy. And despite all the challenging moments, there were many moments like this too. (thank goodness.)

Skiing on one of our favourite trails at Lake Louise

Why Push so Hard?

I'm sure there are a lot of people now wondering why we push so hard. Why not just go out for a short little ski, stop to build a snowman, head for hot chocolate and call it a day?

Do kids have to be pushed to ski 100 km in 3 months?

Do kids have to ski long 7-9 km days? Wouldn't a shorter 5 km day be much more fun?

Was it worth it? The tears, the screaming, the frustration... - was it worth it in the long run?

Having fun on a very hilly trail at Panorama Mountain Resort

My answer to the last question above is that yes, for us, it has been worth it. We really haven't pushed that hard and the only reason we've skied so much this winter is because Noah actually LIKES it this year. Last winter he hated cross country skiing and so we spent the winter on snowshoes. And that was fine. There's no way I'm going to push a child to learn a sport that he hates. This winter however, Noah's become quite competent on skis and so we try to get out every chance we get.

Our first ski day of the season back in November - barely enough snow to ski on but we still got out

I also try really hard to choose trails that my son will enjoy. We do car shuttles when possible (starting higher and ending lower,) we choose trails with fun hills to fly down, and we often ski alone without friends so that Noah doesn't get intimidated by other kids who might be faster or stronger at skiing. We also use a tow rope when necessary. In the photo below, my husband towed Noah 6km up the Cascade Fire Road in Banff to the bridge we're standing on. It was uphill the whole time and we knew Noah would never make it on his own. He had a blast skiing down though and that's what it's all about - finding a way to make each trip fun and doable.

This was the day in November where I KNEW I had a kid who finally loved cross country skiing

Finally, we are big believers in "mixing it up" each weekend. If we go cross country skiing one weekend, we'll try to go downhill skiing the next weekend. We add a hike here and there, we go skating and we enjoy simple outdoor activities like sledding. The reason Noah has already logged 100 kilometres is purely because we get out a LOT. We are outside every weekend, on every PD day from school, on every half Friday when the kids get out early... - we're just always outside. And eventually the distance on skis adds up.

In December we skied into a backcountry cabin in Waterton Lakes National Park

Where We've Skied (so far) This Winter

Kananaskis Village - We love the Terrace, Kovach, Aspen Loop. It's roughly 5km in length and has some good introductory hills. For a shorter day we just ski the Terrace Loop which is only a few kilometres long.
West Bragg Creek

West Bragg Creek - Half an hour from my house give or take a few minutes, and there's been awesome snow here this winter (until recently when we lost all of our snow and now have to drive 2+ hours to find any.)

We have tried a few different loops but my proud moment was when Noah managed to ski the Sun Dog Trail (in the uphill direction most people ski down) to reach his favourite trail, East Crystal Line. East Crystal Line is a lovely trail in the downhill direction with tons of double poling and gentle hills. There's only one big hill near the bottom that Noah has yet to make it down without falling.

Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis - Since Noah likes skiing down hills so much, we decided to park at the highest parking lot in this park and ski down to one of the lower parking lots. We started at the Elk Pass Trailhead and climbed up to the junction with Boulton Creek. We then skied the "new" Boulton Creek Trail, which has some crazy hills on it since it's restoration post-flood, to the Boulton Creek Parking lot. From there we skied Wheeler and Meadow to reach the Visitor Centre.

This was a tough day (a very tough day) and the 9km felt like 20!! The Boulton Creek Trail went up as much as it went down (and the hills were very tricky,) Wheeler bored Noah to tears (literally) because it was so flat, and then Meadow had a lot of climbing before we got to ski down to the Visitor Centre. It wasn't the easy peasy day we had envisioned and I'm sure we skied up as much as we skied down (despite ending at a lower elevation.)

Skiing one of the easier sections of "Meadow" in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park

Cascade Fire Road, Banff - 12.8 km round trip and somehow we thought this was an appropriate ski trip for the end of November. To date it is still Noah's longest ski outing and he was towed for half of it. However, he LOVED skiing down this trail and it was the trip where I knew something had finally clicked and that we'd be doing a lot of cross country skiing this winter.

Skiing across the Cascade River in Banff

Lake Minnewanka Road to Upper Bankhead, Banff - This was one of those days where we should have turned around 5 minutes in to our ski. It was icy and the trail was not good for skiing at all! Lesson learned. No shame in turning around and heading off to do something else instead. (Skating would have been a good option on this particular day)

Castle Mountain Ski Trails, Banff - We skied approximately 10km from the Protection Mountain Campground on the Highway 1A back to the Castle Mountain Hostel where we were staying at Castle Junction. This was an awesome day and the scenery was unbelievably beautiful. The first section from Protection Mountain to Castle Mountain Lookout is now one of our favourite trails. The second part of the trail gave Noah a great workout and he really built confidence going down steep hills on this trail.

To read more on this one, read my story Winter at the HI Castle Mountain Hostel with Kids

Beautiful skiing near Castle Junction, Banff National Park

Calgary City Golf Courses - We haven't had a lot of snow in the city but we did get out a couple of times to ski at Confederation Park and at the Shaganappi Golf Course. These are great for after-school outings.

After school skiing in Calgary

Backcountry Skiing in Waterton Lakes National Park to the Cameron Lake Cabin - This was our first family backcountry ski trip where we all skied into a cabin on our own steam. Noah wasn't towed, he didn't ride in a sled, and we didn't have to snowshoe. We ALL skied. It was so glorious!!!

To read more on this trip, go to my story Winter at the Cameron Lakes Cabin, Waterton Lakes National Park. 

Skiing out of the Cameron Lake Cabin, Waterton Lakes National Park

Nipika Mountain Resort, BC - We spent New Year's in Radium Hot Springs and couldn't resist the short drive out to Nipika for a couple hours of skiing on their amazing trails. Noah made it all the way to the Natural Bridge and skied some impressive hills this day.

Nipika Mountain Resort

Panorama Mountain Resort, BC - While staying in Radium Hot Springs over New Years we also took a trip out to Panorama for a day to try out the trails. We particularly enjoyed the Valley Trail that took us from the golf course down to the main ski base area. It had some pretty sweet downhill sections (even if it was -20!!)

Skiing across the Golf Course at Panorama Mountain Resort

Mount Shark, Kananaskis - In an effort to find snow, we recently drove out to Mount Shark in Spray Valley Provincial Park, and skied to Watridge Lake. It was an easy 7.4 km round trip ski with a fun descent down to the lake. We normally bike this trail so it was Noah's first time skiing it. Unfortunately, I think he prefers biking it. I guess it's faster on a bike.

Watridge Lake, Mount Shark, Kananaskis

Lake Louise, Banff - We love skiing at Lake Louise and finally got to ski our favourite trail, the Tramline Trail, last week. We added to the trip this year though and skied the Fairview Loop (4.6 km) from the Chateau parking lot down to the Moraine Lake Road. We then skied 1.6 km on the Moraine Lake Road down to the junction with the Tramline Trail. From here it was an easy 3.1 ski down to the Village below. All in all it was a great 9.3km outing and we definitely ended lower than we started (always our goal when possible)

My boys Skiing down the Tramline Trail at Lake Louise

Bow Lake, Banff - Another awesome ski outing we did last weekend, we skied across scenic Bow Lake to the back of the lake. We had goals of making it to Bow Falls but turned around when we came to an avalanche slope. Without proper gear on us (and with three children) we didn't feel safe continuing. Regardless, it was a lovely ski across the lake (after a sketchy start wallowing in deep snow when we got stuck on a snowshoe trail out of the parking lot.) The lake itself was easy to ski across and we followed the tracks that backcountry skiers had made ahead of us.

Ski Day Number 19 - Skiing across Bow Lake last weekend

I realize that I ended on an odd number (19 days rather than 20) but we will hopefully hit days #20 and #21 as a family this weekend. #23 if lucky.  Myself meanwhile, I am at day 26 this winter which astonishes me!!

It's been a good winter so far, I have a child who genuinely loves skiing now, and we get outside a lot to play in the snow. Life is good and we are active. Now we just need the temperature to drop so that we can get more snow and continue skiing until April.

There's no bad day in the mountains. Add skis and they're even better