Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Spring Adventure on the Icefields Parkway, Banff National Park

Spring is here in the Canadian Rockies and that means new snow falling weekly, temperatures dropping down below -15C overnight, and prime conditions for skiing. Sounds a lot like winter doesn't it?

Spring Adventures on the Icefields Parkway, Banff National Park 

While I'm not sure what's up with "real" spring this year, I do know that we have at least a couple more weeks ahead of us to enjoy good skiing, ice skating, sledding, and playing in the snow. And if you venture out past Lake Louise on the Icefields Parkway, you could be enjoying the winter wonderland for another month (or more.)

Now for those of you who are officially DONE with snow and want nothing more of freezing temperatures, I'm of the opinion that you might as well enjoy every season you're in, cold or hot, because the only alternative is to sit inside and complain.

You can sit inside and complain, or you can get outside and make the most of the season

I'm a "seize the moment" kind of girl, and as long as there's still good snow for skiing, I'm going to take advantage of it and continue to get out each week to play in it.

Enjoying beautiful spring snow at Bow Summit in Banff 

Highlights from our Spring Break in Banff National Park 

We spent 6 nights in hostels across Banff over our recent spring break, spent 8 days skiing, went ice-skating, sledding, and snowshoeing, and spent 7 days playing in the Lake Louise area.

We explored gorgeous backcountry valleys on our skis, we visited the Lake Louise Ski Resort for a day, and we found some totally secret icefalls along a hidden canyon less than 20 minutes from the Village of Lake Louise. I'm also sure we skied almost every popular cross-country trail in the Lake Louise area over the 7 days that we were out there.

Icefalls we discovered on the Icefields Parkway near Lake Louise

I'll be writing about our adventures in 3 different stories as I share our adventures from the 3 hostels we stayed at.

HI Castle Mountain Hostel - Family Spring Ski Touring Weekend in Banff 

HI Mosquito Creek Hostel - The adventures I'm writing about in this story

HI Lake Louise Hostel - 5 Reasons to Visit Lake Louise this Spring 

Playing in the snow outside the Mosquito Creek Hostel

Spring at the HI Mosquito Creek Wilderness Hostel on the Icefields Parkway 

We spent 2 nights at the HI Castle Mountain Hostel, returned to Calgary for 3 nights, and then headed back out to Banff to spend 2 more nights at Mosquito Creek. We then moved on to Lake Louise for our final 2 nights.

HI Mosquito Creek is a wilderness hostel on the Icefields Parkway (the highway that connects Lake Louise and Jasper,) and gives you a soft introduction into the world of winter camping. Very soft.

While we were at the hostel, the only source of water was from the nearby creek (boiled for dishes and cooking, or filtered for drinking.) There are normally water taps inside the kitchens but it's been a long winter and the lines were frozen.

The hostel manager helped a lot with gathering water from the creek but guests were also encouraged to pitch in with this chore.

The kids loved playing in the snow outside the hostel

Other similarities with winter camping included using outdoor bathrooms (outhouse toilets,) and hauling all of our gear by sleds down a very snowy path to the cabins from the highway.

This is where the similarities with camping ended though because the cabins have heat, propane stoves, ovens, and fridges, and are equipped with lights. There is also a wood sauna, and a beautiful indoor fireplace in the main cabin.

The Moosequito private cabin with the main cabin beside us

We stayed in the private cabin which sleeps 10 people in two bedrooms (bunk beds accommodate 5 people per room.) We had our own private kitchen and small living area in our cabin. Sheets, blankets, and pillows were also provided so we didn't have to haul in sleeping bags.

We also had use of the main cabin with communal kitchen and fireside room. Other guests all use this cabin with separate sleeping cabins (each sleeps 12 people.)

The private cabin is extremely difficult to reserve, so if you want to get space here, book now for next winter. Otherwise, book a complete dorm and split it with other families to take up all 12 spaces. (something we've done before, and which works very well.)

It felt like a rugged wilderness expedition the day we checked out in a blinding snow storm

Three Moms and Five Kids

I've never stayed at Mosquito Creek without my husband before, but I figured this was a wilderness adventure I could tackle on my own with my son. To make sure I survived (because I'll admit I'm a tad bit dependent on my husband's wilderness skills,) I invited two other capable outdoor moms with their children, and we shared the meal prep so that we weren't all cooking individual breakfasts and dinners for the two days.

In the end, it worked out quite well and we had plenty of room for the 8 of us in the private cabin. The kids played outside ALL day, and they were easily convinced to take a drive into Lake Louise for a couple of hours so that we could take them ice skating (and so I could get a good cup of coffee from the bakery in the village.)

Our gang of kids at Bow Summit on the Icefields Parkway

Outdoor Fun Around the Mosquito Creek Hostel 

Outdoor fun is easy when you stay at Mosquito Creek. Bundle the kids up, throw them outside, and let them play.

The piles of snow were as high as the hostel roof, and the kids had fun sliding down every pile of snow they could find (bring sleds!)

There's also a swing behind the hostel (straight back behind the sauna) that was fun for the kids, though I think they preferred sliding down the hill behind it just as much.

Aside from playing outside the actual hostel, it's a very short walk to the campground next door where you can go exploring and snowshoeing down the creek as far as you feel like venturing.

The swing behind the Mosquito Creek Hostel

The Mosquito Creek Icefalls 

When you're done exploring on the hostel side of the highway, cross the road, and head up the creek on the other side to find the magical icefalls (totally secret but beautiful - and only a 2 minute walk up the creek.)

Walking up Mosquito Creek on the other side of the highway

This year the creek was frozen enough that we could hike to the end of the canyon up Mosquito Creek and see two different sets of frozen waterfalls.

The end of the canyon and second set of icefalls we'd never seen before 

Note you do not want to follow the actual Mosquito Creek Hiking Trail that goes towards Molar Pass. You won't find any waterfalls this way. You want to strap on a pair of snowshoes and hike up the actual creek. It's not a trail in the summer. And the waterfalls are seriously only 2 minutes up the creek (so if you hike longer than that and don't see them, you've gone wrong.)

The first set of icefalls that we'd never been able to hike past before
Mosquito Creek frozen waterfalls 

Day Trip to Bow Summit

Bow Summit will be more recognizable to most people as the parking lot where you begin the short walk to the Peyto Lake Viewpoint in summer (with hundreds of other tourists.)

Visit Bow Summit in winter and you might see one or two other groups hiking their way up to the viewpoint. Other than that, you might see backcountry skiers heading up the trail to the Bow Summit Lookout (very different from the path to Peyto Lake and with tons of very real avalanche risk.)

Hiking and skiing up the summer bus road  to the Peyto Lake Viewpoint 

Directions to the Peyto Lake Viewpoint:

Drive up the Icefields Parkway until you see a large sign saying "Bow Summit," This is after the Bow Lake parking lot - so don't stop at Bow Lake. Keep going.

Once you pull into the parking lot, look for the trail heading into the woods behind the outhouses. It links up to the summer road that tour busses are allowed to drive so that their guests have a 1 minute walk to the viewpoint (instead of the regular 15 minute walk up the hiking trail.)

Skiing up the summer road to the Peyto Lake viewpoint

While there is a snowshoe trail from the far end of the parking lot that leads up to the Peyto Lake Viewpoint, we chose to use the snowy summer road to reach the viewpoint because at least half of us were on skis.

We skied and hiked up the easy road (gradual uphill) until we reached a large open clearing (the summer bus parking lot) and saw a sign telling us to go right along a short little hiking trail to reach the viewpoint.

Playing in the summer bus parking lot below the Peyto Lake Viewpoint

The viewpoint is a spectacular sight with Peyto Lake down below you. Just be careful if you're on skis because the snow is at the same height as the railing that keeps tourists from falling off the observation deck in summer.

The Peyto Lake Observation Deck 

Beyond the Peyto Lake Viewpoint:

You can follow the summer interpretive trail away from the viewpoint (heading in the direction of Lake Louise,) but you won't be able to go too far before you get into avalanche terrain. If you have no idea what it looks like to be in avalanche terrain, it's best to go back to the road and spend some time playing in the bus parking area.

Our kids had a lot of fun playing in the large clearing below the lookout

We played around a little, explore the meadows by the bus parking loop, and hiked around part of the interpretive loop (until we started to get close to avalanche terrain.)

So much snow!

All in all it's a half day adventure at most so you'll have plenty of time to explore other areas along the Icefields Parkway after.

Skiing back down the summer road to the highway

Side Trip to Lake Louise

We spent a couple of hours at Bow Summit and then drove to Lake Louise for another couple of hours to fill our full day while staying at Mosquito Creek.

The kids wanted to go ice skating on the lake, and in late March it's pretty hard to find ice you can still skate on!

Showing off his figure skating moves on Lake Louise

The ice was still in fantastic condition and the kids had a blast climbing on all the gigantic snow piles at the lake as well.

And Lake Louise is only a 20 minute drive from the hostel. (Totally worth it for a good cup of coffee and cookies from Laggan's Bakery.)

Skating at Lake Louise 

Other Fun Winter Activities to Enjoy on the Icefields Parkway

Spend a couple of nights at the HI Hilda Creek Hostel (read about our last adventure here.)

HI Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel (and private cabin)

Spend a couple of nights at the HI Rampart Creek Hostel (read about our adventure here.)

HI Rampart Creek Wilderness Hostel 

Ski or hike across Bow Lake (don't go very far beyond the lake as that puts you in avalanche danger)

Skiing across Bow Lake 

Explore the area around the Columbia Icefields Centre, hike to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier, look for the ice cave (some years it's there near the toe of the glacier,) and consider signing up for a glacier adventure tour (opening weekend is April 13th, 2018)

Glacier Adventure at the Columbia Icefields Centre

Recommended Reading 

Experiencing the Icefields Parkway in Winter - Parks Canada

Final shot of Mosquito Creek

Disclaimer:  We received a complimentary stay at HI Mosquito Creek for our visit. 

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