Thursday, October 12, 2017

First Summits - Little Arethusa, Highwood Pass

I'm going to have to start a series on "winter summits" because our September hikes often end up as intro mountaineering ascents. At least this year I got smart, and dressed my son in real winter boots (and brought enough clothing to keep a bus-load of kids warm.)

First Summits - Little Arethusa, Highwood Pass (Rockies Family Adventures)
Little Arethusa Summit, Highwood Pass, Kananaskis

We wanted to see golden larch trees at the end of September but instead, we had a snowball fight, climbed a very snowy mountain, and enjoyed some interesting hiking along a narrow icy ridge. Somehow though, it was a lot of fun, and I actually think the snow made our ascent easier without the scree we normally pound our way through in the Rockies.

First Summits - Little Arethusa, Highwood Pass (Rockies Family Adventures)
Ridge walking on Little Arethusa

Introduction to Arethusa Cirque and Little Arethusa & Trailhead

To ascend Little Arethusa, you first have to hike up to Arethusa Cirque, the next cirque over from popular Ptarmigan Cirque on the same side of the highway.

Arethusa Cirque is located just over Highwood Pass on Highway 40 (and the highway is open through the end of November. Then it doesn't open again until mid-June.)

To reach the Arethusa Cirque parking area, follow highway 40 until you reach the main parking area for Highwood Pass at Highwood Meadows. Use the bathrooms here because you won't find any at the Arethusa Cirque parking area.

Drive past Highwood Meadows for approximately 1 km, and park in an unofficial parking lot on the left hand (east) side of the highway. It will be the next parking area you come to after the official Highwood Meadows one.

From the parking area, you'll follow an unofficial trail through the trees, climbing 120 metres in 1.5 km to reach the cirque. Beyond that, you have the option of hiking up to the summit of "Little Arethusa," the name given for the easy peak to the southwest of main Mt Arethusa.

Hiking up Little Arethusa with the Cirque below us in this photo

Stats for our Summit Ascent of Little Arethusa

Height Gain - 576 metres to the top of Little Arethusa from the highway (roughly 450 metres above the Cirque)

Distance - 2.7 km one way from the highway

Time that it took us - 4.5 hours return

Age of kids we hiked with - We reached the summit with two boys, ages 8 and 10.

Best Guide Book - Kananaskis Country Trail Guide, Volume 5 by Gillean Daffern

On top of the world above Highwood Pass on the Summit Ridge of Little Arethusa

Hiking to Arethusa Cirque

This is an easy peasy 1.5 km hike, but I would recommend previous hiking experience on unofficial rough trails. There is no sign at the trailhead, and there are no signs along the trail. If you want something more "official," neighboring Ptarmigan Cirque is a better choice.

We stopped often to throw snowballs and play along the trail

We were lucky that other hikers had gone ahead of us because otherwise, we might have had route finding challenges on the unofficial trail up to the cirque. Nobody in our group had ever hiked up to Arethusa Cirque before so we were all in unfamiliar territory.

There was one creek crossing that we helped the kids across, but otherwise, the hike was very straight forward and we stopped often to throw snowballs.

Creek crossing on the Arethusa Cirque Trail

Hiking up Little Arethusa

We took a break in meadows (at least I think they were meadows under all the snow) and then headed towards the summit in the distance. See photo below so that you know what you're aiming for. If you're looking straight towards the Cirque, Little Arethusa is to your left.

Little Arethusa as seen from Arethusa Cirque

From the Cirque, we hiked cross country, heading for the lower slopes of Little Arethusa (shown in the photo above.)

Hiking up from Arethusa Cirque to the Lower Slopes of Little Arethusa

It was a very straight forward climb up to the ridge of Little Arethusa and I'm sure the snow helped us because it didn't feel as steep as I'd anticipated it to be. I had heard that we should be expecting a steep slog, but the ascent went by quite quickly and painlessly.

Hiking up snow and grass to reach the Little Arethusa Ridge

In normal conditions there may be a trail of sorts up Little Arethusa, but for us, we just headed straight up the grassy (now snowy hillside,) following the path made by others ahead of us. Thankfully, it did switchback its way up and we've done a lot of steeper hikes this summer. (nearby Pocaterra Ridge felt much steeper.)

Steep but very beautiful ascent up Little Arethusa
So, maybe it was a "little bit" steep and slog-ish

Little Arethusa Ridge Walk and Summit

We topped out on the false summit and took a short break while we contemplated the ridge ahead of us. Fortunately the trail does not travel along the top of the narrow ridge but traverses below it to the left. It was never especially scary, and with ice cleats on, we had good traction on the slippery trail.

Traversing along the left side of the summit ridge

A very short walk led us to the first cairn, and a small rocky area large enough for a handful of people. It's still not very big though so this isn't where you stop to have lunch. And it wasn't the true summit yet. The true summit was just beyond, accessed via the narrowest section of ridge we had to walk on. Fortunately, it was only 5 steps across this narrow section and we were at the official summit.

Hiking up the ridge to the staging area before the true summit
The Summit of Little Arethusa - with just enough space for two to three people

The summit is very small with room for a few people at most. Take your photos and then hike back along the ridge if you're going to have lunch up here. There's just not room for crowds on the summit or on the ridge at all.

Boys on the summit of Little Arethusa
Resting on the summit ridge of Little Arethusa, Highwood Pass and the highway below us

Hiking Back Down the Ridge

The hike back down the ridge was short and within 5 minutes, we were back at the plateau, looking down on the slope we'd climbed up from the cirque.

Hiking along the narrowest part of the ridge off of the summit

And if you want to "see" how narrow the short section is between the final rocky area at the end of the ridge, and the official summit, just look at the photo above. My foot is at the edge of the ridge - and it drops off there.

Resting on the summit ridge of Little Arethusa
Hiking down the ridge top of Little Arethusa

Safety Tips! Climbing Snowy Mountains with Kids

Below are a few guidelines/suggestions to keep in mind if you want to attempt a winter summit or snow hike with your kids.

  • Waterproof hiking boots (or even winter boots) are imperative. Last year my son was wearing low cut hiking shoes on a snow hike, and his feet got very cold/wet. This year, he wore his actual winter snow boots (the same kind you'd wear snowshoeing) and he was much happier!

  • Bring layers of clothing, mittens or gloves, extra mittens/gloves, and warm hats. We also had Buffs to keep our necks and faces warm. And then make sure you have backpacks large enough to fit all of these extra layers and clothing items. With winter hikes, more is definitely best! So don't skimp on the warm clothes.

  • Think emergency and ask yourself if you'd have enough warm clothing/supplies if you had to spend the night outside waiting for a rescue. We carried an emergency blanket and a small bivy sack with us. Other essentials would be extra food and supplies to start a fire.

  • I recommend choosing a trail you've actually done before in summer so that you know where the trail is supposed to go. We figured we wouldn't get lost since it was only a 1.5 km hike to the cirque, but for a longer hike, I'd want to make sure we were experienced with the trail before attempting it in snowy conditions.

  • Ice cleats or Kahtoola Microspikes are vital. And if you can find an XS pair of Microspikes for the kids, they are truly the best product for traction on the market. We are lucky that my son has a pair, and so he can climb snowy mountains as well as we can.

  • Make sure there is no avalanche danger for the summit you are climbing, or for the area you will be hiking through. If you're not sure, check with a visitor centre. We always do our snow hikes in late September or early October before there is avalanche risk.

  • Allow yourself extra time and plan for reduced daylight hours. A hike that might regularly take 5 hours, could take 7 if there's snow on the trail. And as it gets later in the season, days get shorter.
I highly recommend ice cleats or spikes if you're going to do this

And, in the end, we saw a few larch trees.

Hiking back down out of Arethusa Cirque

Overall Opinion of this Hike 

We have done a lot of summit hikes this summer that I called "Oncers." Too steep, too rugged, too much scree, too loose... - or we had perfect conditions and I don't feel like we need to go back up again.

Little Arethusa is a mountain I'd happily do again though. I'd love to compare our winter hike with a summer hike. And I'd love to go mid-week when we could have the summit ridge to ourselves (and maybe have lunch on the ridge.)

This was an easy outing (for us) and we'll definitely be back.

Very happy camper on top of Little Arethusa
Parting shot on Little Arethusa

Disclaimer: There are a few links in this story, all meant to help you with additional resources and information. I am not sponsored by Kahtoola and received no financial support for linking to their website. I also get no money if you choose to buy a guidebook for Kananaskis off Amazon. If you want to buy a hiking book for the Kananaskis area, buy it wherever you'd like.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

5 Reasons to Make Nakiska your Local Ski Hill this Winter

While many hear the "s word" with dread, my family loves snow and we are very excited to get back on skis - and to have a very snowy winter! My son has even decided that winter is his favourite season!

Just over a month till we're back on skis!

5 Reasons to Make Nakiska your Local Ski Hill this Winter

My son has a gigantic list of ski hills that he wants to visit this winter but we always choose Nakiska Ski Area as our "local ski hill" (and have for 8 years now.) We'll take several road trips to visit other resorts, but we plan to spend our home weekends out at Nakiska, our chosen "close to home" mountain ski resort for another year. I might even brave the slopes mid-week on my own while my son is at school.

Winter wonderland at Nakiska Ski Area, Kananaskis

Read on below to find out why we choose Nakiska for a local Calgary hill

1. Affordable Skiing

Ski as a family for  ~ $1000.00 (approximate price per year if you take advantage of fall pricing) for the entire ski season with a family season pass at Nakiska. 

This kid skied for $20 last winter!
You'll have to visit Nakiska approximately 4 times to have fully paid for your season pass. After that you are saving money. Ski once a month from December through March and that's already 4 times. Ski more, and you're really saving.

Don't want to buy a season pass? You'll still find Nakiska to be one of the most affordable ski resorts near Calgary with lift tickets costing roughly $20.00 less than at most other resorts.

You can also buy an RCR Rockies discount card (or ask for one as a Christmas present) which gives you your first, fourth, and seventh ski day free at any of the four RCR (Resorts of the Canadian Rockies) hills. 

This would include Nakiska Ski Area, Fernie Alpine Resort, Kimberley Alpine Resort, or Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. 

The other days are highly discounted (up to $30 savings per day,) and you typically receive other deals with your card at local hotels and restaurants.

The discount cards are usually available for purchase at stores around the city by late October.

My boys cruising down the easy groomers at Nakiska


Other affordable perks at Nakiska

For families with kids in grade 2 - here's what you'll want to know: Your child can ski at any of RCR's four resorts for $20.00 all winter long! The Grade 2 Fun Pass is available on the RCR website.

Children 5 and under can ski all winter long at all four RCR resorts for $20.00 with an RCR Rockies Tiger Pass, available for purchase on the RCR website. Families can also buy the Super Pass Tiger (which includes Lake Louise) for the same price.

Note as well in case you've heard that it's actually free to ski if you're 5 and under:
"Kids 5 and under are technically free at all RCR ski resorts. To get them on the lift they need to have a lift ticket to be picked up at the ticket window for free each day they are there.  The Tiger pass however allows parents to skip going to the ticket window each day to get a free ticket and allows them to go straight to the lift all season like a regular pass."  

Students and seniors also receive discounts. 

And, FREE skiing in the Beginner Area at Nakiska!

Children and adults alike have generally been allowed to ski for free in the beginner area at Nakiska serviced by the magic carpet. (Note you will still have to get a magic carpet pass from guest services but there has been no cost for this beginner pass in previous years.)

For all other passes and for full information, visit the Nakiska website.

Practicing in the Beginner Area at Nakiska (which is free for adults and kids)

Also, Did you Know about The RCR Advantage?   

"As a season pass holder at any of the RCR resorts – Receive free skiing at any RCR resort when your resort is closed! Which means, come December and your home resort isn't open, head to one of the other 3 resorts and still get those ski days in! Receive $20 daily discounts ($15 at Nakiska) on lift tickets at other RCR resorts when your resort is open."

And while Nakiska is generally one of the first RCR resorts open, we did have the opportunity to ski for free at Kimberley one winter when Nakiska was having problems with one of their chairlifts. It's also good to know that if we visit Fernie, Kimberley, or even Kicking Horse, we will receive $20 in daily discounts per person - just for having a Nakiska season pass.

Other Winter Member Benefits (including discounted friends and family lift tickets) can be found here.

November skiing at Nakiska

2. Nakiska is GREAT for beginners

If you didn't see it in the previous paragraph, it bears repeating: Children and adults alike have generally been allowed to ski for free in the beginner area at Nakiska serviced by the magic carpet.

You will still have to get a magic carpet pass from guest services but there has been no cost for this pass in previous years.

Hopefully beginners will always be allowed to ski for free in the learning area because if you've ever tried running alongside your child on the bunny hill (not wanting to buy a lift ticket just to help a 2 or 3 year old learn to ski off the magic carpet run,) it's a lot of work. It's much easier to chase after a child if you, the adult, also have skis on rather than running down the hill in your boots.

Also, most kids who are just learning to ski will have a very short attention span and will only last at the hill for an hour or two. It's nice if you don't have to pay for skiing until they can manage half a day of skiing off the chair lifts.

My husband teaching our son to ski in the beginner area at Nakiska

Other Great Features at Nakiska for Families with Beginner Skiers 

One. The Nakiska Tube Park is conveniently located right next to the beginner ski area. Yes, the kids will beg to go tubing, yes, it's a lot of fun, and yes, you should try it at least once. If you think you'll be doing a lot of tubing, you can purchase a family tube park pass as well for the season. (Note that children must be 42" tall or 3+ years old with an Adult. Also, kids under 5 can get a free ticket with a paying adult)

Two. The hill is easy to find your way around on. There is no back side and the resort is small. You'll feel quite comfortable your first visit. (which I wouldn't say for bigger resorts)

Three. The Bronze chair is a great place to start with novice skiers who are ready to progress past the beginner area. Every run off this chair is green and the runs are short so little legs won't get tired half way down. As an adult who's spent many days skiing with a young child, I've always found it comforting to know that we can't ever get into trouble on this chair. There's no "accidentally ending up on a blue run," or "getting lost and having to guide a child down a black run."

Know in advance however that the Bronze Chair is not always open in November when the resort officially opens for the season. It is often one of the last chair lifts to open as the lower runs don't get as much snow as the ones higher up do. Also, once kids progress past the Bronze Chair, they will have to be ready to ski intermediate terrain. 59% of the hill is intermediate terrain with only 13% dedicated to beginner runs.

Four. New skiers will appreciate the quality and amount of grooming at Nakiska. For me, an intermediate skier, I love Nakiska's smooth groomers and am often scared at resorts that focus on more "natural" terrain. Moguls and powder may be awesome for more advanced skiers, but beginners will appreciate the perfect Nakiska corduroy. 

First visit to the Nakiska Tube Park -and it was a blast!

3. Location, location, location!

Nakiska is Calgary's closest mountain resort and I can be parking my car in front of the day lodge within 45 minutes of leaving my house. This is great news for families who don't want to wake up at the crack of dawn to get to Banff, find parking at a big ski resort, get on a gondola before the resort opens, and be ready for first lifts - by 9:00!!

This winter I'm also looking forward to getting out to Nakiska on PD Days or school holidays. And I just might start visiting the hill mid-week with a girlfriend or two while my son has to go to school! (fresh untouched corduroy for mom on a quiet hill!)

We can't wait to get out skiing LOTS this winter!

Other perks for having a mountain that's close to the city:

  • It's easy to return home for a mid to late afternoon nap if you have younger kids

  • You can master the art of the "relaxed start" - especially if you have a seasons pass

  • You'll never spend more time in the car than you will skiing

  • You'll definitely be home for dinner (even if you leave after the chairs close for the day) and won't be driving in the dark

  • It's easier to justify a half day of skiing with younger kids (something you wouldn't do if you had to spend 3+ hours driving to and from the hill)

  • You'll appreciate the proximity of Nakiska on snow days when roads are icy and you wonder if you should even be out on the highways
Learning to ski at Nakiska Ski Area

4. Nakiska is EASY

Access and Parking:

There is no gondola that you must first ride to get to the ski area.

You'll never struggle to find parking. And no matter where you park, you're never far from the day lodge and the lifts.

The Day Lodge: 

The day lodge at Nakiska is cozy and comfortable. It feels like home and we often just throw our hockey bag of gear/lunch/extra clothes under a table in the lodge. It's that casual!

Skiing with Young Children:

Kananaskis Village is conveniently located just down the road and is a great place to spend time after skiing or to hang out with younger kids who tire easily while the rest of the family is still at the hill. We like to get a coffee at the cafe in the Pomeroy Kananaskis Lodge and then we go hang out by the fireplace in the main lobby. (and they never seem to mind our crazy kids running around there)

Snow School: 

The kids snow school at Nakiska is fabulous! And it's a great way to ease into your day. Drop the kids off at their lessons, go hang out in the lodge and grab a coffee, slowly bring all of your adult gear in from the vehicle, go out for a warm up run, and just relax for an hour or so. (or maybe that's just me as my husband would be out on the hill as soon as our son was dropped off at his lessons.)

This is the "peaceful way to start the day at Nakiska - kids in snow school!

Equipment Rentals:

Save time by reserving rental equipment ahead of time online.

Rent ski equipment for the kids for the season for $209.99 – $ 274.99 and then return the gear at the end of the season with the Wings Leased Ski Program. For this price, you'd be hard pressed to find new gear for the kids for a season. (And you know that their feet are going to grow again for the following year or that they'll need longer skis.) Avoid the hassle of buying new skis each year with this program aimed at kids 12 and under.

Non Skiers in the Group: 

Finally, there are plenty of options nearby for the non-skier in your family. There are cross country ski trails that leave right from the Nakiska parking lot, there are snowshoe trails located at Kananaskis Village or at the Ribbon Creek Trailhead down the road, and there's an ice skating pond at the Village along with a small sledding hill. You can also rent cross country skis, snowshoes, and skates at the Village. With all these options, you just might have to spent the weekend!

Cross country skiing at Kananaskis Village below Nakiska

5. A Family Can Plan an Affordable Ski Weekend at Nakiska

My husband would be the first to tell you that "affordable" is a relative term but if you compare options, a weekend in Kananaskis doesn't have to break the bank. There are three main options that families can look into if you'd like to make a mini-vacation out of your ski day at Nakiska.

The Super Affordable Option: The HI Kananaskis Hostel is located down the road from Nakiska and offers reasonable rates in either private rooms or dorm rooms (divided by gender.) Kids have to be 6+ to stay in a shared dorm room but can be younger in the private rooms. For more information, check out the HI Kananaskis Hostel's website or read my previous blog post: Affordable Family Ski Vacations in the Canadian Rockies.

The "affordable" option: Not as cheap as the hostel above, but you get your own hotel room with this one.  The Stoney Nakoda Resort and Casino is more family-friendly than one would think given that there is a casino on site. It's also less than a 15 minute drive away from Nakiska and has an indoor pool with waterslide. There are often great deals on the RCR website that include lodging at the Stoney Nakoda along with lift tickets for Nakiska.

The "fancy" option:  For those with a larger budget (or if you just really want to treat yourselves to a nice weekend away) there's the Pomeroy Kananaskis Lodge. We love staying here and relaxing in the pool with outdoor hot tub after a day on the slopes. And even if we don't stay overnight, most of our ski days end up here for at least coffee, drinks, or dinner.

Visit the RCR website for more on ski vacations, packages, and hot deals.

Winter at the Delta Kananaskis Lodge

Additional Reading

To read about one of our early season ski weekends at Nakiska while staying at the Delta Kananaskis Lodge, read my post: Off to a Great Start at Nakiska Ski Resort.

To read about one of our first experiences skiing at Nakiska, and why we fell in love with this small resort, read: Nakiska Mountain Resort - Raising the Bar in Family Excellence

To read about our experiences with ski school at Nakiska, read: In Support of Ski School - Quality Training and Fun 

Tips and Tricks for Downhill Skiing with Kids

Looking forward to the start of ski season in just over a month!

Visiting other RCR Ski Resorts this Winter

We love the  Fernie and Kimberley Alpine Resorts and can't say enough good things about these two resorts for families.

Read about our First Family Ski Trip to Fernie Alpine Resort here.

And read about our First Family Ski Trip to Kimberley Alpine Resort here.

You can also read this story from last winter: The Ultimate Family Ski Weekend at Kimberley Alpine Resort.  

And, 5 Reasons for Families to Love Fernie Alpine Resort

Kimberley Alpine Resort has awesome tree runs for kids

Want to visit one of RCR's other resorts this winter?

Purchase a Nakiska season pass and choose the Ski BC add on option.  You'll receive 2 Ski Days at either Fernie, Kicking Horse or Kimberley. The option is valid all season long but you must purchase the pass at the same time as your Nakiska Seasons Pass.

Alternately, buy a RCR Rockies Discount Card and you'll get your 1st, 4th, and 7th day free at any RCR resort. I've found that these make great Christmas gifts!

And when the time comes to book your vacation with accommodation, you can search for packages, deals, and vacations on the RCR website. You can also sign up for last minute deals that you'll receive via email.

Fernie was our first big mountain resort that we skied at as a family in 2015

Tentative Opening Weekend for Nakiska is usually early to mid November. 

Disclaimer: I have partnered with RCR over the past several years.