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 05, 2016

Family Guide to Fernie Alpine Resort

Fernie Alpine Resort used to be our favourite ski hill back in the day before we became parents and had to "tone down" our adventurous weekends. My husband and I would leave Calgary after work Friday, check into an affordable hotel room downtown Fernie, and then spend two days skiing the intermediate/advanced terrain on the upper mountain before driving home Sunday night in the dark. The lower mountain didn't exist (in our minds) and the "Elk Quad" was just something you loaded en route to bigger and better things above. Meanwhile, I am positive I never once rode the "Deer Chair" and I honestly don't recall the resort grooming anything on the hill.  Fernie was not the hill you visited for groomed corduroy (we had Kimberley or Nakiska for that) and it wasn't exactly what I would call a "beginner hill." (70% of the ski terrain is still intermediate or advanced)

Fast forward 7 years (yes, our child is now 7 and time has definitely flown) and we finally made it back to Fernie Alpine Resort as a family. We braved the long drive from Calgary, we rode lifts we honestly didn't know existed before, and we discovered glorious beginner-friendly terrain that was perfectly groomed and easy to learn on. Fernie gave us a very pleasant surprise and we might have a new favourite hill on our hands.

Skiing the lower mountain at Fernie Alpine Resort

First Impressions of Fernie Alpine Resort as a Family

The drive really wasn't that long from Calgary. It took us roughly 3.5 hours to reach Fernie via  the Crowsnest Pass into British Columbia and we even made it home Sunday in daylight! (totally doable if you leave early afternoon)

While the hill might only have 30% of its terrain dedicated to beginners learning to ski, we never ran out of runs to do as a family. We were pleasantly surprised at how many chair lifts we could go up together, how many different runs we could do as a family, and how much fun we had! We needed another two days added on to our weekend to fully appreciate everything this hill has to offer families.

There is tons of groomed corduroy at Fernie Alpine Resort! (and I'm a huge fan of groomers I can race down without a mogul or bump in site.) You'll even find intermediate terrain that's groomed.

End of the first day and we were ready to tackle intermediate runs together

The longest run that I skied (Falling Star) was 5 km long!! And it was a pleasant intermediate run that my son even skied it by the end of the first day. It was also perfectly groomed with fresh corduroy when I skied it Sunday morning first thing.

Ready to ski down from the Timber Chair together on our second day at Fernie

Ski In / Ski Out Accommodations at Fernie Alpine Resort

My fireplace in the Lizard Creek Lodge
We stayed at Lizard Creek Lodge at the base of the Elk Quad and I don't know if I can ever go back to staying in town and sharing a crowded day lodge again. It was so decadent being able to return to our condo during the day for lunch, and the fireplace in the lobby of the Lizard Creek Lodge quickly became my favourite place on the entire hill.

We enjoyed having breakfast at the newly renovated "Cirque" restaurant at Lizard Creek one day and also chose to eat out at the Kelsey's Family Restaurant on the hill for dinner Saturday night. Our condo had a full kitchen though and we made use of it for lunches and for Sunday's breakfast. Families on a budget would definitely appreciate being able to make their own meals right from the comfort of their own kitchen.

The other thing we loved  about Lizard Creek was the outdoor swimming pool and hot tub, located right beside the ski hill. We could watch people ski by us from our cozy warm oasis at the end of the day. - and trust me, I could get used to a lifestyle like this!

Lizard Creek Lodge, Fernie Alpine Resort
Swimming in the slope-side pool at Lizard Creek
Hot tub anyone?
And a final note on Lizard Creek, make sure you check out the new ice bar if you visit Fernie this winter. We were pleased that they let us bring our son into the ice bar with us for our vodka tasting and they even let us split a tasting between my husband and I so that we could enjoy the experience without spending a fortune.

The Ice Bar Experience at Lizard Creek


Fernie Alpine Resort - A Winter Destination for the Whole Family

I really wanted to wrap up this review by mentioning that Fernie Alpine Resort is so much more than just a downhill ski resort! The resort maintains 14 km of cross country ski trails along with other trails dedicated to snowshoeing and fat biking. A family could spend a week at Fernie and never run out of things to do.

I went on a short snowshoe tour Sunday morning to get a feel for the trails near the resort and was very glad I did. The trail system was easy to follow and the trails were well packed down for easy hiking and biking. I saw several families out for a short morning walk with young children and I also saw many people out walking dogs on the trails. Having these extra trails right on the doorstep of your condo definitely adds to the resort experience and gives you more value for your money.

Both snowshoes and fat bikes can be rented at the resort as well so if you've been longing to try out this new "Fat bike" trend, Fernie will give you the opportunity.

Snowshoeing at Fernie Alpine Resort on the Multi-use Hiking and Biking Trails

We will definitely be back to Fernie next winter and we will have to stay longer than two nights! Next time I want to get up to Island Lake Lodge for some cat-accessed snowshoeing or cross country skiing. I also never did get the opportunity to try out the cross country ski trails at Fernie Alpine Resort. Just not enough time to do everything.

Family-friendly skiing at Fernie Alpine Resort (photo: C. Truman)

10 More Reasons for Families to Visit Fernie

Family-friendly Fernie Alpine Resort

The Fernie Alpine Resort website has a great list of reasons families should check out their resort this winter. Reasons include free night skiing for kids included with their day pass, $5 meals for the kids at Kelsey's, a kids' carnival in March, and a secret kids' ski area off the deer chair where the little ones can learn to ski trees just like mom and dad.

To read the full list, follow this list to 10 Kid Friendly Activities to Try this Season.

Exploring the Kids' Trails off the Deer Chair (photo: C. Truman)

For More Information...

For information on accommodations at Fernie Alpine Resort, please visit the Fernie Lodging Company website.

For information on the Ski Resort, please visit the Fernie Alpine Resort website.

For information on other activities and things to do in the Fernie area, please visit the Tourism Fernie website.