Thursday, August 23, 2018

Family Downhill Mountain Biking at Fernie Alpine Resort

We travel to Fernie Alpine Resort every winter for ski vacations, and we've visited in summer for lift-accessed hiking. Recently though, we got the opportunity to return, this time to try the lift-accessed mountain biking so popular at the resort.


The Timber Chair will be closed for the 2019 summer season. Most families will be riding off the easier Elk Chair anyway, so it's not a big deal, but if you were looking for some advanced runs off Timber (as adults,) that won't be happening. 
The biggest complication for families will be that you won't be able to go up to the Lost Boys Cafe at the top of Timber (mentioned below as a good spot to hang out if family members finish biking early.) Fortunately, there are coffee shops and other places to wait at the bottom of the Elk Chair (you just won't be on top of a mountain.)

Fernie is an amazing mountain town in  the East Kootenay region of southeastern British Columbia, and is an easy three hour drive from Calgary. (I'm not sure why we don't spend more weekends here, actually!)

We discovered the incredible mountain bike trail network around Fernie years ago and my son is a huge fan of the town bike park. We also love camping at nearby Surveyors Lake were we can paddle around the lake looking for painted turtles.

Read more about Fernie and the surrounding area here:

The Best Family Bike Trails in Fernie, British Columbia 

First Summits - Polar Peak, Fernie Alpine Resort

Camping in British Columbia: Kikomun Creek Provincial Park (Surveyors Lake)

Another Great Camping Trip to Surveyors Lake, BC 

Fernie is an Adventure Meca for Outdoor Enthusiasts

Family Downhill Mountain Biking at Fernie Alpine Resort 

I wasn't sure what to expect from Fernie Alpine Resort as a destination for "family" downhill mountain biking. I'd been told to stay away from the Timber Chair (and to use it purely for sightseeing or hiking,) but beyond that, we didn't know if the downhill trails would be suitable for families (or if it was crazy to think about biking down a big ski hill!)

What we discovered was that there are progressions for all levels of skill and ability. I could have happily spent the entire day doing laps on "Deer Trail," my favourite run of the day, and my boys quickly fell in love with "Duff Dynasty."

Riding along the Cedar Trail to access some of the single track trails lower down

What You Need to Know Before You Visit 

Below are just some of my recommendations (things I wish we would have done differently) and general thoughts on how to make the most of your day at the resort (and how to stay safe!)

  • Rent the padding!!! I took a bad fall on one of the gravel connector roads and banged myself up pretty good. Padding might not have saved my chest, but it would have protected my knees (one of which took a big hit.) My son was wearing protective gear, but both my husband and I should have rented for the day.  I also recommend renting full face helmets if you don't have them.

  • Know that children must be at least 6 years old to bike at Fernie Alpine Resort. All children between 6-12 years of age must also be accompanied by a parent / legal guardian (18 years of age or older) or be registered in a Mountain Biking program.

  • Children must have a mountain bike with front suspension and a minimum of 20" wheels.

  • Make sure you have good downhill bikes with full suspension. Again, the hill rents downhill bikes and I recommend taking advantage of this service if you only have cross-country bikes or don't have full suspension. - Note: kids will do fine with just front shocks unless they are doing big jumps and getting a lot of air. They do need a good mountain bike though with disc brakes. (definitely no coaster brakes!!)

  • "Green" doesn't mean "easy." It just means "easier than the blue intermediate runs." Start off on the green beginner runs (even if you normally ride harder trails at home.) My son spends a lot of time biking at our local ski hill in Calgary, and does well on the intermediate/advanced trails. At Fernie though, my boys only tried one intermediate (blue) run the entire day. The green beginner runs were sufficiently challenging enough that they never had to progress to the next stage up.

  • Have a plan in case members of your family finish biking early. I knew I wouldn't last as long as my boys, so I had packed a book, had my credit card in my backpack, and was fully prepared to spend an hour or two on top of the Timber Chair at the Lost Boys Cafe.

  • Be very careful on the gravel connector roads. Several gravel roads connect you from the top of the Elk Chair to various runs (and have loose rocky sections.) This is where I fell (and where my son took a fall as well.) Take it slow on these roads and walk your bike if they ever get too loose for you.

  • Reconsider the recommended "easiest trail." The "Boom/Cedar Trail Traverse" is recommended as the first trail progression for beginners. Know in advance that these are gravel roads, and that there is an uphill section on the Boom Trail (my son freaked out that he was riding uphill after riding up a chairlift to avoid all climbing.) Also, know that there is a very sketchy section of steep, loose, singletrack riding that connects the Boom and Cedar Trails. I had to walk most of it and wouldn't call it a "typical beginner" trail at all (for that one section.) The only reason I'd recommend doing this traverse is for connecting to other runs such as "Eville" and "Honey Bee" lower down.

  • Prepare for long rides on the Elk Chair. This is not the fastest chair, and my son got a little bored riding it so many times. I'd think about bringing a book for him next time to read while on the lift.

  • Carry a small backpack with you while riding. You'll want water with you, and you might even want some granola bars or other small snacks in case energy levels crash. Carrying your lunch will also save you a trip back to the car between rides. I'd also recommend  bringing your own personal first aid kit. (You'll want band-aids at the very least in case somebody falls.)
Great views from the top of the Elk Chair at Fernie 

Our Recommended Progression of Trails to Ride

One. Warm up and test your skills on the Deer Trail

Take the Elk Chair up (all runs mentioned here will be off Elk) and head straight for "Deer Trail," the easiest trail at the resort - and a lot of fun!!

Fernie winter visitors will recognize parts of this trail because you'll actually be biking down the Minute Maid Kids' Ski Trails!!

Lots of flowy berms and banked corners on "Deer Trail"

Biking down the Minute Maid Kids Trails on "Deer Trail"
To get to "Deer Trail" from the top of the Elk Chair, you'll have to first brave the top of "Ben's Big Rig" (which for a beginner is a steep trail with tricky bermed corners - I had to walk it.)

This was the one place where I'd really recommend some changes because the Deer Trail was fully within my ability (and a lot of fun) but I was terrified to ride down the first part of "Ben's Big Rig" (as I imagine other novice riders would be.) It would be great if there was an easier way to connect to Deer Trail from the top of the chair.

Once you arrive on the actual Deer Trail though, you follow a wide easy gravel road (a bit loose in spots) until you reach the easy single track section of this trail.

The section through the Minute Maid Kids Trails was a lot of fun and I was able to improve my riding down an easy, smooth, flowy, trail with gentle banked corners. I could have ridden this trail all day.

Easy riding on a wide road en route to the Deer Trail

My son liked the extra trail features he found off the Deer Trail as well (that were totally optional.) - I didn't even touch them.

Fun trail features on the Deer Trail 

Two. Take Ben's Big Rig down to Duff Dynasty 

These are both rated "green" beginner runs but they will feel challenging if you're more used to "cross-country style" trails. My boys loved these flowy trails though, abundant with berms and banked corners. They found them to be smooth and fun to ride. 

My boys said Duff Dynasty was their favourite trail on the hill. 

After you've tried these two trails, you might want to try some of the other recommended green beginner trails (Eville is a good one that you can access from the Cedar Traverse or from Duff Dynasty.) 

Playing on some fun jumps at the bottom of Duff Dynasty 

Three. Try one or two of the blue intermediate trails 

The Fernie Resort trail map is very helpful in that it lists the trails in order of most difficult down to easiest. The easiest blue/intermediate run is Mr. Berms, and my boys liked it. My son was begging to ride it from his first ride up the Elk Chair (since you can see most of the run weaving its way down the slope beneath you.) And true to its name, it's full of berms and banked corners.

Beyond that, you can try Top Gun, Black Forest or Ewok, as time (and skill) allows. 

There's no shortage of trails to try at Fernie Alpine Resort

For the Non-Riders in your Group 


Non-riders, or families with young children where one parent might choose not to bike, will find plenty of hiking trails at Fernie Alpine Resort to enjoy. You can read about the various hiking trails here

You can also enjoy scenic chairlift rides on either the Elk Chair or the Timber Chair (with casual dining and drinks available at the Lost Boys Cafe at the top of Timber.)

You may also want to check out the free kids' aerial park near the base of the resort. (For more information, ask at customer service when buying your lift passes.)

Patio of the Lost Boys Cafe on top of the Timber Chair

And, regardless of whether you bike or not, you can take a scenic ride up the Timber Chair at the end of your day (both chairs are included in a day pass to bike or hike.) We appreciated this since the terrain for biking off the Timber Chair was too difficult for children. It was nice to go up to the cafe though.

Riding up the Timber Chair 

Please visit the Fernie Alpine Resort website for more information on biking at the resort (along with prices and hours.)

Information on everything else in the surrounding area can be found on the Tourism Fernie website

Disclaimer: Our lift tickets to bike at Fernie Alpine Resort were supplied for us by the resort. As always, all words and opinions are my own and I was not compensated in any other way. 

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Day Trip to the Columbia Icefields Centre to Walk on a Glacier

Back in my more adventurous days I used to wake up at ungodly hours to trudge up glaciers for what's known in the mountaineering world as an "alpine start." Fast forward several years, and an alpine start becomes a more respectable 6am for a family glacier day.

Day Trip to the Columbia Icefields Centre to Walk on a Glacier

Day Trip to the Columbia Icefields Centre

We took an overnight trip to the Columbia Icefields Centre back in April but got snowed out for our glacier adventure tour (and as it turns out, visibility is highly desirable for glacier walks.)

We still wanted to do the tour and to get out on the Athabasca Glacier this year, so we decided to make a "power trip" up to Jasper, leaving at 6am the morning of our tour, and returning later that afternoon (after stopping a few times to explore on the way home.)

Power Day Trip to walk on the Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park 

Is it Really Possible to Visit the Icefields Centre as a Day Trip from Calgary?? 

From Calgary, it is roughly a 3.5 hour drive to the Columbia Icefields Centre on the border of Banff and Jasper National Parks. We had a glacier adventure tour booked for 10:00 am, so for us, that meant leaving Calgary around 6:00 am so that we'd have time to check in and get ready for our tour.

So, yes, it's doable to make it to the Icefields Centre from Calgary as a day trip, but I would recommend booking a later tour time so you don't have to speed! (and so you have time to enjoy the drive along the Icefields Parkway without stressing out over slow drivers in front of you, that you can never seem to pass.)

With views like this, you want to take your time on the drive (photo: Glacier Skywalk Viewpoint)

Our Glacier Adventure Tour

We'd booked our tour ahead of time and already had our tour time selected for us. This made it very easy to show up 10-15 minutes early, walk straight up to the loading area, and wait for the staff to call our tour time. (You do not have to go anywhere near the crowded tour desk.)

We then loaded a tour bus which drove us to the staging area for the Athabasca Glacier. From the staging area, we stepped onto a giant snow coach ice explorer which would drive us up the glacier to a safe cleared area, free of crevasses, and relatively flat for walking around on.

Walking on the Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park 

We had half an hour on the glacier (which is plenty of time) to take photos, walk around, check out the interpretive displays, and examine the giant ice explorers (You've got to try fitting inside one of the bus tires just for fun.)

Our Glacier Transportation on a giant Ice Explorer

After our glacier adventure, we drove back down to the staging area, boarded the tour bus again, and then headed for the Skywalk Adventure, next up on our itinerary.

Read more about the Glacier Adventure here on the Pursuit Banff Jasper Collection website. 

A very BIG Ice Explorer to travel on the glacier 

Our Glacier Skywalk Tour 

Our tour bus drove us a short ways up the highway to a viewpoint where we could walk out on a glass sidewalk over the edge of a cliff. The views from here are amazing and the experience has a high education component for those who want to borrow a set of headphones and listen to the interpretive tour as they walk the sidewalk up to the viewpoint.

Hanging out on the glass sidewalk of the Glacier Skywalk 

With high energy boys, we didn't really stop to read any of the interpretive signs (and didn't use the headphones,) but we still had a lot of fun on the glass sidewalk.

And as with all visitors, the boys had to sit and lie down on the sidewalk, staring at the ground far below.

Views from the Glacier Skywalk 

5 Reasons we LOVE the Columbia Icefields Glacier Adventure 

The easiest way for a family to walk on a glacier
  1. When was the last time you walked on a glacier? This is the easiest chance you'll get in the Canadian Rockies unless you want to sign up for a mountaineering expedition to go climb something.

  2. You could wake up at 4am and spend hours trudging your way up a glacier, or you can show up at a time that suits your schedule and let a giant bus climb the glacier for you! This is a family-win in my books.

  3. The scenery at the Columbia Icefields Centre is some of the most beautiful in all of Banff and Jasper National Parks. I highly recommend taking family and friends here if they're visiting you this summer.

  4. There are interpretive signs on the glacier explaining different parts of a glacier and hazards for those who dare to venture out across them. The staff are very knowledgeable and they point out all the surrounding mountains, talk about the different kinds of moraines around the glacier, and explain why the landscape looks the way it does. Honestly, it's all very fascinating.

  5. We love stopping here as a rest stop en route to Jasper if we're heading up there for a long weekend. By booking your tour online ahead of time, you can be in and out in less than 2 hours.
Glacier Adventure with my Boo 

Other Fun Hikes, Attractions, and Activities to Enjoy on the Icefields Parkway 

Panther Falls, Banff National Park 
  • Hike the Wilcox Pass Trail, right up above the Icefields Centre (2.4 km return to the first viewpoint)

  • Hike the Parker Ridge Trail, 5.4 km return

  • Stop in for a short hike down to Panther Falls, 1.6 km return from the uppermost parking lot on the big bend

  • Hike Mistaya Canyon, 1.5 km return

  • Hike the Bow Summit Lookout Trail from the Peyto Lake Viewpoint, 5.8 km return

  • Hike around Bow Lake to Bow Glacier Falls, 9.2 km return

  • Stop in for some swimming at Herbert Lake 

Herbert Lake, Banff National Park 

Recommended Reading 

Wilcox Pass Hike, Icefields Parkway, Jasper National Park 

Bow Summit Lookout Hike, Banff National Park 

Tips for Visiting the Columbia Icefields Centre 

- Always book a tour time ahead of your visit. Otherwise, you risk showing up to find a 3 hour wait ahead of you (or all tour times sold out for the day.)

- Dress for snow and ice! Pack a light pair of gloves, a warm hat, a sweater, and maybe even an insulated jacket. We lucked out and it was warm the day of our visit. This is not always the case.

- Expect wind. It is always windy at the Icefields Centre

- Pack a cooler with food, snacks, and lunch. The cafeteria gets very overcrowded. I also recommend bringing drinks and a large thermos with coffee so you don't have to wait in line for that either.

- Make a day of it! Plan a hike after your tour, stop at a viewpoint or two, or even bring the swimsuits and stop in at Herbert Lake on your way home (everybody's favourite swimming lake on the Icefields Parkway.)

Peyto Lake, Icefields Parkway 

Disclaimer: Our tour was provided for us by Pursuit. As always, all words and opinions are my own.