Thursday, August 24, 2017

Backcountry Cabin Camping with Kids - Stanley Mitchell Hut, BC

We've been using backcountry huts for our summer backpacking trips for several years now, and it's become a fun family tradition. We usually stay at several different backcountry huts or cabins each year, throughout summer and winter, and we book the entire cabin whenever we can.

Backcountry Cabin Camping at the Stanley Mitchell Hut, Yoho National Park (photo: Jess Curren)

This Year's Backcountry Cabin Trip in Yoho National Park 

This summer we decided to stay at the Stanley Mitchell Hut in Yoho National Park, British Columbia. A short drive over the BC border from Lake Louise, it's a great destination for a weekend trip from Calgary.  The outing starts from the 385 metre tall Takakkaw Falls (some of the tallest falls in Canada.) From here, we hiked up the Little Yoho Valley Trail to the hut, returning via the world-famous Iceline Trail for a classic loop that is one of the premier hiking trails in the Canadian Rockies.

We booked the full hut, which sleeps 22 people, and travelled with 5 other families. In order to book all of the beds in this popular hut, we had to make our reservation close to a year in advance. And because I didn't jump on it quick enough, we had to hike in on a Sunday night rather than over a full weekend.

We stayed at the hut for two nights and enjoyed a day hike up to Kiwetinok Pass where we got to see Canada's highest lake.

Hiking the Iceline Trail, Yoho National Park

Hiking from Takakkaw Falls to Laughing Falls

Distance from Takakkaw Falls to Laughing Falls - 4.4 km
Height gain - 91 metres

Our group about to head out on the Little Yoho Valley Trail

This was the easiest part of the whole trip, and we once backpacked to the Laughing Falls backcountry campground when our son was only 2 years old, pushing a chariot. The trail is generally wide, smooth, and easy to follow.

The exception comes with one short steep hill (less than 100 metres of height gain) where you'll probably take a break or two on the way up. (And if you're crazy enough to be pushing a chariot, as we were many years ago, you'll have to push it up empty and work as a team to get it up the steepest part of the hill.)

The trail to Laughing Falls begins with a very easy start

We stopped at Laughing Falls for lunch, took the requisite photos in front of the beautiful waterfall, and then continued on, up towards the Stanley Mitchell Hut.

Laughing Falls, Little Yoho Valley

Hiking from Laughing Falls to the Stanley Mitchell Hut 

Distance from Laughing Falls to the Stanley Mitchell Hut - 5.2 km
Height gain - 465 metres

Five out of the six families had all hiked together up to Laughing Falls on the easy trail, but we split into smaller groups for the steeper hike up to the hut. And one family started hiking up later in the day.

The trail is well maintained, easy to follow, and well switch-backed whenever it gets steep. There are no relentless climbs and the hike is quite doable with kids if you take frequent breaks.

There aren't many views on this section of trail, no waterfalls or river to distract, no cute bridges, or other sights of interest. It's a good section of trail for games of 20 questions, and for hiking with friends who can keep your mind occupied with chatter and talk.

A few bridges in the valley have seen better days. (This was right before the hut)

Hiking time from parking lot to the hut: 4.5 hours for our family at a moderate pace and a lunch stop at Laughing Falls

Trip surprises so far: It was less than 5 degrees Celsius out when we arrived at the hut! We'd been expecting a hot sunny weekend so this was a bit of a surprise and I realized quite quickly that I hadn't packed enough warm clothing.

It also rained lightly as we climbed up to the hut. I hadn't expected this either! We finally stopped to put on rain jackets after we began to accept that it wasn't just a quick shower.

We'd also timed our visit for the beginning of "forest fire season" and this would be the start of smoky days, constant haze, and sore lungs for over a month. Much of BC is still on fire and we had to deal with smoke on our entire two week August vacation across British Columbia.

Arriving at the Stanley Mitchell Hut

Staying at the Stanley Mitchell Hut

This hut is maintained and operated by the Alpine Club of Canada and is one of the premier huts in their collection. It is easy to get to, family friendly, and set in a location where you can enjoy amazing day hikes. All of this combines to make the hut very popular in the summer months.

We arrived to find day hikers picnicking in the hut (a good reminder to make sure you lock both the main door and the kitchen door when leaving the hut for your hike out.) Fortunately, the group before us had also left us with several buckets of fresh water, so that redeemed the error in locking both doors quite quickly.

Group photo of all 6 families at the Stanley Mitchell Hut (photo: Jess Curren)

What to expect from a stay at an Alpine Club Hut:

 There is no water so you'll be taking frequent trips down to the creek to fill buckets of water to drink. All water must be boiled in large pots on the stove. We found it easier to bring a gravity filter for our family so that we didn't have to boil water for drinking. (a gravity filter is a bag that you fill with water. You hang it up high and then use the attached hose to fill your cups or water bottles. The water is filtered as it goes through the system so you don't have to sit at the river pumping.)

Most huts have a well equipped kitchen with propane stoves, dishes, basic cooking supplies, and propane lanterns for light. They do not have refrigerators so you still have to plan for backpacking-style meals. Some huts have ovens, but they are unreliable so make sure you don't bring something that must have an oven. (Baking cookies over the wood stove was tricky to say the least.)

Most huts have a wood stove which is great for chilly mornings, evenings, and surprise weather systems that leave the temperature in the low single digits.

Sleeping is communal and there are soft foam mattresses to sleep on. Some people bring sheets but we always just bring sleeping bags or down blankets.

Pit toilets are outside and you must bring your own toilet paper.

Morning at the Stanley Mitchell Hut

Why the Stanley Mitchell Hut is great for families:

Many huts require longer, more challenging hikes to access them. With roughly 500 metres of height gain over a 9.5 km hike, the trip to Stanley Mitchell is quite realistic for school aged kids.

Many of the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) huts and cabins are better suited to adult groups pursuing mountaineering ascents or technical climbs. The Stanley Mitchell Hut is one of the few true "hiking huts" where you'll never have to cross a glacier or scramble up a steep trail to reach your cabin.

Hut life at the Stanley Mitchell Hut (photo: Sean Strang)

This hut is fairly large and has a separate sleeping area on the second floor above the main living space. This makes it easier for young children to go to sleep while adults stay downstairs playing games and chatting.  There is also a private room (with a door) one the main floor that sleeps two families comfortably.

Playing games in the main room of the Stanley Mitchell Hut

Day Hiking to Kiwetinok Pass

The day hike to Kiwetinok Pass is 2.8 km one way from the hut with a height gain of 381 metres.

More interesting bridge crossings (this one just beside the campground near the hut)

The hike to Kiwetinok Pass was awesome but honestly, it felt longer than 2.8 km one way. It also felt steeper than 381 metres of height gain. I'd done this hike years ago (without kids) and had completely forgotten how scrambly and steep the trail was. A cute little maintained trail, this was not. It was definitely a challenging day trip and took us most of the day to complete.

Stream crossings en route to Kiwetinok Pass

We had thought we'd also tackle Mt. Kerr from the pass but one look at the steep climb told us that we'd be crazy! (Apparently I've blocked all memories from scrambling Mt. Kerr from my memories because I don't remember it being so steep.)

Steep hiking up the trail to Kiwetinok Pass from the Stanley Mitchell Hut

We had to cross a couple of streams en route to the pass and scrambled up some loose rock sections. We were always able to follow a rough trail though and never worried about getting lost. It was definitely a "route" though and not an official hiking trail. (I'm pretty sure I never saw a single trail sign while we were out.)

Rugged backcountry hiking to Kiwetinok Pass

What the kids liked about this hike:

We found snow which is always fun for kids in the middle of summer. They threw snowballs, slid down steep slopes on their bums, and amused themselves playing in big snow piles.

We got to cross several snow slopes en route to the pass
Snow slopes above Kiwetinok Pass

The kids liked throwing rocks into Kiwetinok Lake, the highest lake in Canada.

Kiwetinok Lake, the highest lake in Canada
Tranquility at Kiwetinok Lake

And us adults thought the views were pretty spectacular!

Kiwetinok Pass Group Shot

Kiwetinok Pass and not a single other group of people in sight
Family shot at Kiwetinok Pass

The hike back to the hut was relatively straight forward, a slip here and there, and we were all searching for our scavenger hunt items at this point for the day's Backcountry Olympics.

Hiking down from Kiwetinok Pass

First Annual Backcountry Olympics

One of the dads in our group wanted to do something special for the kids and decided to plan a Backcountry Olympics competition.

Everybody had to collect certain items while out on our day hike (pine cones, leaves, rocks, and playing cards that had been left in strategic locations.) Later, we'd need these items for our Olympics.

Game Number One: Rock Toss (harder than it looks)

We were split into teams of four people (two adults and two children, with families mixed up.) We made team names, signs, and all received a metal bowl from the kitchen for our team.

The games were simple but a lot of fun. In one game, we had to blow leaves across a stump into our metal bowl. Points were earned per leaf that made it into the bowl.

Game number two: Leaf blowing

In another game, we had to squeeze a pine cone between our butt cheeks and walk a short distance to squat and drop it into our metal bowl. This one was hilarious!!

And in another game, we had to throw rocks at our metal bowl. Points were won based on how many rocks you got into your bowl.

The final game was a simple card game of War where you challenged other people, presenting them with one of your cards. Highest card kept both cards and won points.

Backcountry Olympics: The pine cone game (yes, that is a pine cone coming out of my butt!) - photo: Sean Strang

Points were given by the Olympics leader with stickers placed on our posters  per point earned. We had a medal ceremony at the end with lanyards that had been made out of ribbon and pine cones. Each team won a medal and received a fresh baked cookie (baked on the hut's wood stove.)

It was a very creative idea for entertainment at the hut and definitely a  highlight for the weekend. 

The winning team (cause I'm really good at rock throwing and squeezing pine cones between my butt cheeks!)

Hiking out on the Iceline Trail

Distance from the hut to the parking lot via the Iceline Trail - 11.8 km
Height gain - 122 metres
Height loss - 564 metres

Trip time - 6.5 hours

Hiking out via the scenic Iceline Trail

I'm not sure what I was thinking, but I honestly didn't think this hike would take 6.5 hours! 4 hours maybe, but not 6.5.

It was quite the challenging hike and I'm very happy that my son had friends to hike with, to chat with, and to play games with. I'm pretty sure I listened to two of the boys talk about Minecraft for 2 straight hours, but I was just happy they were entertained and happy.

Thank goodness for new friends!

We split into two groups for the hike out which worked well to keep paces together, and to make sure we were in tight groups with nobody left behind. (always safest when hiking in the mountains.)

My hiking crew on the Iceline Trail

What we liked most about the hike:

The views were amazing!! We hiked on this amazing highline trail below glaciers, beside alpine tarns, and through a rocky landscape that made us feel as if we were on the moon at times.

Hiking below a land of ice, snow, and glaciers

We got to hike up to one of the glaciers, touch it, walk on the ice and snow, and see a very deep crevasse.

Glacier on the Iceline Trail
Yep, this is a glacier! Hiking the Iceline Trail

This is one of the most famous hikes in the Canadian Rockies so we were thrilled to be able to hike it with our kids. As a day hike, it would be too long with kids (as it was nearly 12 km one way,) but it was perfect when combined with a stay at the Alpine Club Hut.

Dad and son hiking the Iceline Trail
Family shot on the Iceline Trail

Suggestions if you are going to do the Iceline Trail with your kids:

Hike it one way out from the Stanley Mitchell Hut. Don't hike it in to the hut. Hike in via the Little Yoho Valley for a more gradual ascent, and then hike out via the Iceline Trail with lighter packs. If you hike in via the Iceline Trail, you are in for a looooooong slog up from the trailhead. It's much better to do this steep section down at the end.

A surreal landscape on the Iceline Trail

The one part of the hike we do not want to repeat, ever!

The hike was great, but at one point near the high point, my son tripped on a rock, face planted, and gashed his head open. The trip ended with a visit to the hospital to get his forehead glued back together.

We are very grateful that we were hiking with a strong group of supportive families, that we all had excellent first aid kits on us (with steri-strips for closing the gash up temporarily,) and that one of our members had just completed his backcountry emergency first aid. We had Noah patched up and ready to hike out (in reasonable good spirits,) and the hospital commended us on the job we'd done with the wound.

And lest you worry about hiking this trail with your kids, my son was just having a clumsy moment, and tripped on a rock. It could have happened to anybody.  The trail is amazingly maintained, easy to follow, and very well marked. It is a classic Parks Canada trail and you won't find a better hiking trail out there.

My mighty trooper on the Iceline Trail


Follow this link for more information on the Stanley Mitchell Hut.

Visit the Alpine Club of Canada website for information on all of their huts.

Check out this recent story for links to all of my stories on previous backcountry hut trips: Family Backcountry Cabin Camping in the Canadian Rockies.  

And, visit the 10 Adventures website to learn more about hiking in Yoho National Park

Looking out at Takakkaw Falls from the Iceline Trail

A big thank you to the families who joined us this year and special thanks to Sean and Jessie for coordinating the Backcountry Olympics.

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