Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Family Spring Ski Touring Weekend in Banff

We just spent a weekend in Banff based out of the HI Castle Mountain Wilderness Hostel and enjoyed the proximity to great ski trails from our location at Castle Junction in Banff. We've been building up to light ski touring as a family all winter, and from the hostel, had several great options of trails to choose from.

Ski Touring in Paradise Valley, Lake Louise

Introduction to Ski Touring (how is it different from cross-country skiing?)


Cross-country ski trails are usually groomed and track-set, making them enjoyable and relatively easy (with experience) on skinny skis designed for speed and glide. The hills have pretty corduroy grooming, and the trails are usually wide enough to accommodate two ski tracks (one for each direction.)

Cross-country trails also have a wide groomed area in the middle for skate skiing or for use when skiing up and down hills. The wide trails make it easy to herringbone climb up hills with a large "v" or to snowplow down hills in the traditional "pizza."

Skiing the Fairview Trail at Lake Louise (a traditional x-country trail)

When we head out for a day of light ski touring, we are choosing trails that are ungroomed and that are not track-set. The trails are either summer hiking trails, winter snowshoe trails, or all-season multi-use trails (sometimes even summer mountain biking trails.)

A ski touring trail is narrow (think of your average hiking trail,) and there is very little room to execute a good snowplow when going downhill. If the trail has been popular with snowshoers there could also be a good trench that you are skiing through (meaning that your skis have to go in a straight line and can't go out to the side when climbing or descending hills.)

Climbing narrow steep hills on cross-country skis is not an easy thing to do (Ross Lake Trail)


Ski touring requires incredible finesse if you choose to use cross-country skis. Below are just a few of the skills you'll need to master:

  • You must climb hills that are often too narrow for the traditional herringbone technique (as shown in the photo above.)

  • Hills are steep, twisty, winding, and again - narrow! It's often not possible to snowplow down them. The only way to stop is to either launch yourself into a soft pile of snow, or to drag a ski through soft snow beside the trail.

  • Skiers must be able to avoid natural hazards (tree stumps, logs down across the trail, tree wells that trap you with your skis high above your body so that you can't get out, small trees partially buried by fresh snow, etc.

  • If skiing near or across creeks, there are other risks associated which could include falling in the creek if not careful or trying to cross snow bridges (deciding if they are firm enough to hold you.)
Tree well on the Ross Lake Trail

Last weekend we encountered everything above (including logs or trees down across the steepest of hills out of sight around a sharp corner.) And we definitely navigated some sketchy snow bridges along Paradise Creek Saturday.

And note: skiers must also know if and when they are in avalanche terrain, and have the required skills to ski in this terrain if they choose to enter it. (We chose to stay out of avalanche terrain this past weekend and only skied as far as was safe.)

Skiing beside (and often across) Paradise Creek at Lake Louise

Trail Number One: Paradise Valley, Lake Louise 


Paradise Valley has always been one of my favourite ski tours. The trail is never overly narrow or steep and the scenery is stunning as you ski beside Paradise Creek between bridges. 

Skiing up the Paradise Valley Trail at Lake Louise 

Approach: There are two approaches for this one but both start off from groomed cross-country ski trails at Lake Louise. Approach one starts from the Moraine Lake Road which you'll ski for approximately a kilometre and a half before turning off onto the Fairview Loop. The Paradise Valley trail takes off from here at the top of a steep hill before the Fairview Trail starts turning right to head for Lake Louise. 

We prefer a different approach, starting from the Lake Louise parking lot up at the lake. We jumped onto the Fairview ski trail from here until we came to the junction with the Paradise Valley Trail. This saved us a bit of height gain and was more interesting than skiing up the Moraine Lake Road. When we finished our ski tour we just dropped down to the Moraine Lake Road and then continued on the Tramline Trail ending at the Village below. (My husband climbed back up to the lake for the car.) 

For complete directions please invest in the book Ski Trails in the Canadian Rockies. (Affiliate link to a book I swear by! It is my favourite ski reference guide.) 

One of the snowy bridges along the Paradise Valley Trail 

How far we skied: We skied up the Paradise Valley trail until we came to the first bridge (shown in the photo above.) Here we were able to follow the creek instead of the hiking trail. In the summer there is no trail up the creek, so it is a winter trail only and requires good snow coverage if you want to avoid swimming. (Right now it's perfect.)

Skiing up the valley beside Paradise Creek 

We were able to follow other ski tracks up the valley without having to break trail (thank goodness!) We chose the ski trail to the right of the creek on the way up the valley (mistake!) and had to cross several snow bridges. On the way back we chose the trail on the other side of the creek (left side if looking up the valley) and it was a much better choice. 

We stopped at the second bridge (I think there are four bridges total.) Beyond here, it starts to get steeper and you eventually enter avalanche terrain.

The Second Bridge on the Paradise Valley Trail

Highlights of this ski tour:


Off-Trail Ski Touring in a Winter Wonderland - Seriously look at the photo below. This is not a trail in summer. 



The Snow! Seriously, this is March - late March! And there is still this much snow. 



The creek is stunningly beautiful to ski alongside. And the mountains! This is a ski to save for those gorgeous bluebird days.

The bridges were a lot of fun and were so pretty 

We loved the bridges! They were so snowy and you could hardly see them. 

You can hardly tell that my boys are on a bridge here! 

We loved how easy it was to ski up the valley once you got there. The hiking trail is a bit challenging at the beginning up to the first bridge, but then you're just skiing up a valley that's relatively flat and easy to follow. And we've always had other ski tracks to follow, showing us the way.

This is one of the best ski tours in Banff

The Ski DOWN is so much fun! Check out the video below for a quick glimpse at the trail from the first bridge back down to the Fairview Ski Trail. (It's really short and just taken on from my phone so don't expect anything too awesome.)




Total Trip Distance: Roughly 16 km from Lake Louise with the Fairview Trail, Paradise Valley extension, Moraine Lake Road descent, and Tramline descent down to the Village of Lake Louise.

We  skied for about 3 km at the most (one way) on the Paradise Valley Trail.

Happy Skier in Paradise Valley 

Trail Number Two: Ross Lake Circuit, Yoho National Park 


Disclaimer: I know Yoho National Park is not exactly "Banff," but the trailhead is located just over the British Columbia border and is a 10 minute drive from Lake Louise.

As for the Ross Lake Trail, this was one of those decisions that you look back on and say, "Hmm, maybe we should have tried it without kids first, hey?"

It was challenging and I have to admit we won't be repeating the circuit anytime soon! The one-way up/down route we'd happily do again next winter.

Ross Lake, Yoho National Park 


Route One: The Ross Lake Circuit: We started at the Lake O'Hara parking lot and skied up the Lake O'Hara road for 2 kilometres (skiing on a wide snowy road that's often track set) At the 2km mark, we turned off to our left on the signed "Ross Lake Trail."

Trailhead off the Lake O'Hara Road
Once we got on the Ross Lake Trail, we climbed for 200 metres on a very narrow trail. I had climbing skins on my skis but my boys didn't. My sons skis are short enough that he was able to herringbone up the hills but I'm still not sure how my husband got up. The trail was steep enough that you definitely need climbing skins (or else might have to take your skis off and walk sections.)

We finally got to the high point above the lake and then had a terrifying descent down to the lake (only terrifying because snowshoers had carved a deep trench in the trail and you couldn't snowplow or do anything other than point your skis straight down and follow the steep twisty luge track with no way to stop.) My son used the "my body's still young" method of stopping which involved lots of falling and getting back up again, my husband used skill (he's a backcountry skier and used to trails like this,) and I tried dragging a ski through soft snow above the trail to slow down (somewhat successfully.)

We had lunch at the lake and then descended a different trail down to the Great Divide (an old highway that is now a groomed ski trail in winter.) The descent down to the Divide was actually a lot of fun and wasn't as steep as the previous trail. I was actually able to snowplow in spots and there were far less wipeouts.

The narrow climbing trail up to Ross Lake

From the Great Divide Trail we turned left and followed the road back to the Lake O'Hara Parking Lot. Total distance is 9km for the loop.


Trailhead sign from the Great Divide Trail

Route Two: The Ross Lake Circuit in Reverse: Do the loop as described above in reverse. This would mean a better climb to the lake on a trail that's far less steep from the Great Divide Trail. It would however involve a much steeper descent down to the Lake O'Hara Road.

Tree well crash after falling off the narrow hiking trail

Route Three: Up and Back from the Great Divide: This is the route you want to do with children!! It is a much more gradual climb, (and descent) and reduces the overall trip distance to roughly 5 km round trip. We'll be repeating this one next winter. The full circuit can wait until we get backcountry skis.

Access to the Ross Lake Trail via the Great Divide Trail

And again, For complete directions please invest in the book Ski Trails in the Canadian Rockies.

And for a fun look at a part of our descent from Ross Lake, check out the short video below. (again, just taken with my phone.) - Most of the time we were going way too fast to stop and take any videos.





Weekend Accommodations 


As much as I love my own bed, driving to Lake Louise and back two days in a row is a bit much. It's also a long drive for the day from Calgary (why this is the first time we've skied in the Louise area all winter.)

We chose to spend the weekend at the HI Castle Mountain Wilderness Hostel because of its central location between Banff and Lake Louise. From the hostel we could easily be at Louise in 15 minutes, or be back in Banff or Canmore even if conditions looked more favorable there. And when it comes to spring, you want the option of flexibility.

HI Castle Mountain Wilderness Hostel

I've written all about the HI Castle Mountain Hostel in a previous story here: Winter at the HI Castle Mountain Hostel with Kids.

In a nutshell though, what you need to know:


  • The Castle Mountain Hostel is OPEN. It was scheduled to close at the beginning of 2018 but I can assure you it is very much open (and will be through the end of this year for sure.)

  • From the hostel, you are 15-20 minutes from both Banff and Lake Louise. You're also close to Canmore and within easy reach of either Yoho National Park or trails along the Icefields Parkway. It's the perfect hostel in Banff for convenient access to everything!!

  • From the hostel you are a hop, skip, and a jump away from the Johnston Canyon Trailhead. There are also great cross-country ski trails right outside the door.

  • Children must be 6 years of age or older to stay at this hostel. Sleeping is in communal dorms separated by gender (so I got to sleep by myself in the women's dorm while my boys found bunks in the men's dorm.)

  • There is a communal kitchen complete with two ovens, a microwave, a toaster, all the dishes and cooking supplies you'll need (perhaps minus sharp knives,) and space for a large group of guests.

  • The hostel is very comfortable for a wilderness hostel. It has indoor plumbing, electricity, heat, and showers. There's also a lovely fireside room with fireplace, several games, a house guitar, and plenty of seating.

  • There is a manager on site in case you have questions, want trail suggestions, or need an introduction to hosteling. This is the perfect hostel for "first timers."

  • You can book the entire hostel (read the story here) if you want to stay at Castle Mt. with a group of other families (with kids of any age allowed.) 

Fireside room at the Castle Mountain Hostel 

Read more about our adventures in this area here: Ice Caves and Frozen Waterfalls in Banff National Park.



Other Recommended Reading 


Family X-Country Skiing at Lake Louise

Family Backcountry Ski Touring in Banff (Boom Lake Trail) 

Parting Shot: Ross Lake Ski Tour 

Disclaimer: Our stay at HI Castle Mountain Hostel was provided for us compliments of Hostelling International. 

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