Tuesday, April 11, 2017

An Australian Family's Adventures in the Canadian Rockies

It was March of 2015 when I received Amanda's first email reaching out in preparation of her family moving to Canada for a year from Australia.

"I am an Australian/Canadian who lives in South Australia, but was born in Toronto. In July our two children turn two and four, and in December my husband, children and I are hoping to move to Calgary. Our biggest goal is to have a year of as much quality time together and outdoors as possible before our son starts school in January 2017."

Amanda and her family in Banff National Park

Amanda is back home in Australia now but we spent a lot of time together while she was living in Calgary with her family. We went hiking, climbed a mountain, went camping, and toured about on our bikes together. As she was preparing to go home at the end of 2017 I asked her if she'd be willing to write about her adventures in Canada.

Below is Amanda's story and her highlights from a year spent living like locals with her family in Calgary. It is my hope that her story will inspire others planning trips to Canada this summer or in the future.

What would your trip to the Canadian Rockies look like?

 An Australian Family's Adventures in the Canadian Rockies

We have been fortunate enough to have spent a year in Calgary, Canada with our two children (now 5 and 3). Before we left Australia, we did our research, and were completely inspired by Tanya's blog, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies. It helped us decide that our goal for our time in Canada was to have as many outdoor adventures as possible. Many of them have been in the mountains, so I offered to share our thoughts and adventures with Tanya.

On the summit of Prairie Mountain, Kananaskis

Highlight One: Hiking

Although my husband and I had considerable hiking experience before we met, we had not hiked as much with our kids. Since arriving in Calgary it became our most regular activity as a family, and an amazing way to appreciate the diversity of the Canadian Rockies.

In winter we put on our ice cleats to explore Johnston Canyon (Banff) and Grotto Canyon (Kananaskis,) and marveled at frozen water falls.

Winter hiking in in Banff

In spring we summitted Prairie Mountain (Kananaskis) and wandered through Marble Canyon (Kootenay National Park.)

In summer we took gondolas up to Sunshine Meadows (Banff) and Whistler Mountain (Jasper), hiked around Johnson Lake (Banff,) admired the wildflowers at Ptarmigan Cirque (Kananaskis,) and took the grandparents hiking in Jasper to Maligne Canyon and the Walk of the Five Lakes.

Hiking in Jasper on top of Whistler Mountain

In fall we hiked around Kananaskis, going to Arethusa Cirque to spot some golden larch trees, to Pocaterra Cirque where the snow arrived early, and up West Wind Pass where the kids rocked their new hiking boots.

There’s always more to see, but we found that using local knowledge helped us to pick the right trail for the time of year, to be prepared, to stay safe and to get the most out of our adventures.

Fall hiking in Kananaskis with golden larch trees

Highlight Two: Biking on Closed Highways

We’ve always loved getting out on our bikes, but found it a little more challenging in terms of gear, weather and logistics (having a chariot, bike and trail gator stolen over the year didn’t help!)

We joined the Calgary Outdoor Playgroup on two annual biking events in Kananaskis, one in Bow Valley Provincial Park and one to Cat Creek Falls from the southern road closure along Highway 40. 

Biking closed roads in Bow Valley Provincial Park

We also biked Highway 66 beyond Elbow Falls in Kananaskis before it opened to traffic The kids loved being able to ride (or be towed) freely, and we loved not having to watch them so closely. Although we did some great urban rides along the river and some mountain biking without kids, the highway rides were my favorite.

(Editor's note: The Bow Valley Provincial Park Campground doesn't open for the season until the end of April, Highway 66 past Elbow Falls doesn't open until mid May, and Highway 40 doesn't open past Highwood Pass until the middle of June. These roads can be cycled without traffic on them before these times.)

Spring in the Elbow Valley of Kananaskis

Highlight Three: Camping at Two Jack Lake in Banff

We managed just over two weeks camping in Alberta and Montana, and loved the chance to explore at a more leisurely pace without as much driving.

In January when the National Parks camping opened up for reservations, we booked 3 nights at Two Jack Lake in Banff and 3 nights at Wapiti in Jasper. The scenery and facilities at Two Jack Lake made it our pick; it was such a peaceful and beautiful place to be. We used it as a base for exploring, and the shared eating huts (with combustion wood stoves) made it a great trip in June despite some heavy rain. We didn’t have anything to paddle on the lake, but still enjoyed taking walks, letting the kids ride their bikes and spotting elk on the water’s edge. 

Camping at Two Jack Lake, Banff National Park

Highlight Four: Wildlife Spotting

Seeing and learning about animals was my son’s highlight of our time in Canada, and something that formed part of all our other activities. He loved the many interpretive centres, junior ranger programs and any opportunity to see animals in the wild. Whether it was the grizzlies (preferably at a safe distance!), deer, hoary marmots and numerous others, we loved being able to see them while out exploring.

Summer exploring in the Canadian Rockies

Highlight Five: Celebrating Holidays in the Rockies

Our first Christmas together in Canada was only a few weeks after we arrived in Calgary, so we decided to spend a few nights at the Delta Lodge at Kananaskis. Patting reindeer, sledding, hot chocolate, seeing Santa, and some solo skiing at Nakiska for my husband and I (as well as a taste for the kids) made for a memorable holiday.

This recent Christmas season we enjoyed the Santa Claus Parade in Banff, and I skied at Sunshine Village Resort while the rest of the family went up the Banff Gondola and enjoyed the 12 animals of Christmas scavenger hunt. 

The Banff Santa Claus Parade

At Easter we took part in the Easter Egg hunt at the Mt Norquay Ski Resort in Banff followed by brunch.

We also joined the Calgary Outdoor Playgroup's annual Halloween hike and bonfire in Kananaskis Country. All of these events were special, and many will become part of our family traditions in the future.

Spending Halloween in the Canadian Rockies

Highlight Six: Downhill Skiing

Downhill skiing has been one of my favorite sports since I was a kid, and think I’ve now converted my husband. Although we generally only managed a day here or there, between us we tried Nakiska Ski Area in Kananaskis, Mt Norquay, Sunshine, and Lake Louise in Banff. My son took lessons over the Family Day weekend in February, and this season is keen to get out and try again.

With kids ages 2 and 4, we found that it was easier for one of us to stay home or in Banff/Canmore (especially if staying somewhere with a pool) while the other skied, rather than trying to entertain them at the day lodge.

Family Ski Day in Banff

Highlight Seven: Visiting Lake Louise 

We took my brother to the Lake Louise Ice Magic Festival when he visited, and I fell in love. I’d never walked on a lake that big, let alone one with an ice castle. It was busy and cold, but well worth the visit. On one of our trips we walked to the back of the lake where our kids wandered barefoot in the muddy shallows. We didn’t need to convince them again to walk the whole way to the back of the lake because they led the way the next time.

The Lake Louise Ice Castle and Ice Magic Festival

Highlight Eight: Rafting down the Bow River in Banff 

Although most of our list could be done by anyone, we lucked out with this one! Tanya was heading out for the day with a local rafting guide, and she offered to take us with her and her son. It was a magical way to see the mountains and Bow River from another angle, and only makes us more determined to explore in kayaks or canoes. There were far fewer people, amazing views and many animals to spot. It also gave us a better appreciation for early explorers without the luxury of cars, roads or trains. And the real lesson for me was the value in accepting any opportunity for an adventure!

Rafting on the Bow River in Banff

Highlight Nine: Walking on a Glacier

We booked a weekend camping in Jasper National Park, and stopped on our way up along the Icefields Parkway at the Columbia Icefields. I thought it was worth doing because I wanted our kids to see what a glacier is like while they are still around. But once we got on the ‘monster bus’, we were all hooked. It was a fun experience, a great way to feel tiny, and a reminder of the importance of living lightly.

Snow Coach Tours on the Athabasca Glacier, Columbia Icefields

Highlight Ten: Staying in a Yurt at Mount Engadine Lodge in Kananaskis

We entered to win a night at Mount Engadine Lodge in a contest on Tanya's blog. We didn't win but we decided that it was still worth doing while we were here. It became one of our most special adventures, and we highly recommend it. The drive in along from Highway 40 was beautiful, and the lodge is in an incredible location. The tasty food and fun company at the family style dinner and breakfast were appreciated by all of us, and we all kept warm in our yurt. We’re very glad we were able to fit this in!

Mount Engadine Lodge Yurt, Kananaskis


Phone a friend

Although both my husband and I had outdoor experience, most of it was in Australia. Joining the Canadian Wildlife Federation's Wild Family Nature Club, following local blogs and making friends helped us to find the best activity each season. It also gave us more confidence with what we were choosing to do.

Local friends show you the cool things to do

Pick the right activity for the right time

The Rockies were even more seasonal than we expected, and places changed drastically at different times of the year. Having a whole year meant that we could choose what we did each weekend, and make it appropriate for the weather and conditions. Some places were worth multiple visits at different times of the year. Safety was an issue for some activities (especially with kids), and where we found Tanya’s Gotta Do THIS monthly articles invaluable.

Lake Louise was worth multiple visits in both winter and summer

Listen out for any local deals or great events

Through our networks (Tanya in particular) we often heard about good deals or things happening. One of the best we found was the Epic Pass we bought for the Brewster Travel Canada Tours, and while it wasn’t cheap we definitely got our value from it. We enjoyed the Banff Gondola, Banff Lake Cruise, Glacier Adventure and Glacier Skywalk.  Only the Maligne Lake Boat Cruise eluded us. Hopefully next time!

(Editor's Note: I haven't heard of any combo deals with Brewster Tours for the 2017 season.)

Columbia Icefields Glacier Adventure

Be selective

We knew we couldn’t do everything, so we concentrated on only a couple of activities that felt right for the four of us. Downhill skiing, biking and camping were the three we invested in second hand gear for, but hiking became our most common activity.

Skiing was a priority for Amanda and her family

Leave something for next time

Cycling the Icefield Parkway was one of my husband’s goals when we were in Australia, and the canoeing looks amazing. We’d still love to do both, but they will happen when our kids are older. We have no doubt that we’ll be back!

A year in the Canadian Rockies!

Your Turn

Have you recently visited the Canadian Rockies with your family? Want to share your travel story with thousands of other readers who can be inspired from your adventures? I'd love to hear from you. Go to the Contact Me tab at the top of this page and send me an email.

What would your highlights be if you spent a year in the Canadian Rockies?

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