Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Road Trip to Bike the Route of the Hiawatha in Northern Idaho

Not exactly the "Canadian Rockies," but we are a family who LOVES biking, so we travelled to Northern Idaho this past summer to ride one of the best family trails in North America. The Route of the Hiawatha is also one of the most popular rail trails in the United States which further intrigued us.

Biking on the Route of the Hiawatha, Idaho

The Nuts and Bolts for the Route of the Hiawatha Trail 

Distance to the trailhead from Calgary, Alberta 

Roughly 7.5 hours (~ 700 km)

Nearest City to the trailhead 

Coeur D'Alene, Idaho

Riding out of a tunnel that was almost 3 kilometres long!

Why you want to bike this trail 

The Route of the Hiawatha Trail is a 14 mile long rail trail (22.5 km) that you ride one-way with a shuttle back to your vehicle at the end. The trail is relatively flat or downhill the entire time and you get to bike through 9 tunnels! There are also 7 trestle bridges that you'll ride over.

Also, the longest tunnel is 1.7 miles long (2.7 km!) And you get to ride it both ways on the way out, and back.

And cool fact: The trail actually starts in Montana, crossing into Idaho as you ride through the first tunnel.

It should be noted too that you don't have to set up your own return shuttle! (Always a struggle when on vacation with just one vehicle.) Most people pay to ride one of the shuttle busses that leaves every 15 minutes or so from the final parking lot.

Recommended Camping near the trail 

We camped at Farragut State Park (just over an hour and a half away and conveniently located near Silverwood Amusement Park.

- and a tip for those planning to visit Silverwood, buy tickets in advance. I bought tickets months early at early bird pricing.

West Portal Trailhead of the Hiawatha Trail

Cost to ride the trail 

The trail is operated by the Lookout Pass Ski Area

One of the many tunnels on the Hiawatha Trail
There is a trail fee required to ride this trail. This does not include the shuttle fee, and you must pay it even if you have your own bike. 

Adult Trail Passes - $11

Children's Trail Passes - $7 (ages 6-13)

Adult Shuttle Tickets - $9

Children's Shuttle Tickets - $6 (ages 6-13)

You can also rent bikes and lights for the tunnels if you need. 

All information on fees and rentals can be found here. 

We stopped in at the ski area first to purchase our trail fees and return shuttle tickets. Then we drove to the nearby trailhead, 7 miles away (11 km.) 

One of the many steel trestle bridges on the Hiawatha Trail

Our Experience on the Route of the Hiawatha 

After purchasing our tickets at the Lookout Pass Ski Area, we drove the 7 miles to the trailhead which was already packed! We discovered quickly that you want to arrive early for this one if you want to find parking. 

Fortunately, once we started, the other bikers all spread out and the trail never felt crowded. It was very hot though (30+ degrees) so an early start is good for that reason alone. (though the tunnels do cool you off quite quickly.)

The trail never felt busy as the crowds spread out along the route

Riding from the East Portal to the West Portal through the Taft Tunnel 

You immediately start your journey by biking through the 1.7 mile long St. Paul Pass (Taft) Tunnel which was the highlight of the trip for us. It never felt crowded in the tunnel and once inside, our world turned pitch black! There are no lights in the tunnels and the only thing keeping you on the path through the middle is whatever light shines down from your headlamp or bike light.

We only had headlamps and they felt a bit dim at times. I'd recommend going with the strongest/brightest headlamps you have (or renting lights from the ski area.) It was a tad scary riding through the tunnel without good visibility, but it was also a LOT of fun! My husband and son had a blast making zombie sounds the entire time (yes, for over 2 straight kilometres!!)

Starting off through the Taft Tunnel 

West Portal to the official Route of the Hiawatha 

When you get out of the tunnel, you'll be on a shared road with shuttle bus traffic for the next 2.3 miles (3.7 km.)

Fortunately the road is wide and the busses drive very slowly. You're also riding downhill. 

On the way back, the bus will drop you off at the end of this road, right at the entrance to the Taft Tunnel for one final ride through and back to the parking lot. (adding an extra 2 miles to your total bike distance.)

There is also one tunnel on this stretch of road (that again is shared with bus traffic) but the busses will honk their horns before driving through the tunnel so you have time to get over to the side, or to get out quickly.

The tunnels were a big highlight of this bike ride!

Riding the Route of the Hiawatha

Now that we were on the actual trail, we got to enjoy wide easy riding, mostly downhill or flat at a nice gentle rail grade, as we passed through numerous tunnels and rode over beautiful steel trestle bridges.

The longest tunnel on this stretch was 1516 feet long (0.4 km) and it was the first one (so keep your headlamps handy.) Most of the others were short enough that we didn't really need our lights.

From the first tunnel to tunnel #28 we rode 5.8 miles (9.3 km.) And this was definitely the "fun" part. In this stretch, we rode through 6 tunnels and across 7 bridges.

Endless tunnels on the Hiawatha Trail

The Final Part of the Hiawatha Trail to the Parking Lot 

After tunnel #28 we still had 4.5 miles (7 km) to ride before we reached the final parking lot (and there was only one tunnel on this stretch, right at the very end.) 

This section was quite boring to be honest and my son was far from a happy camper here. The trail was very bumpy with a washboard surface and lacked views or anything of real interest.

Bring candy and snacks for this part and try to think of fun ways to help the kilometres go by quickly.

We would have turned around at tunnel 28, but then we would have been riding back uphill to the West Portal and that didn't seem terribly appealing at the time.

We really enjoyed all of the tunnels and bridges on the Route of the Hiawatha

The Shuttle Ride Back

Make sure you get your bikes in the lineup as soon as you arrive in the parking lot as you may have to wait for a few busses before you can get on one. 

When you do get on a bus, they will load all of the bikes in the back, and then the passengers up front for the ride back to the West Portal (And Taft Tunnel entrance.) 

And yes, they will take Chariots or bike trailers on the bus.

The shuttle ride back to the start of the Hiawatha

Additional Tips for Riding the Route of the Hiawatha

I've included suggestions throughout this guide, but here are a few extra that come to mind.

  • A light pair of mittens or gloves would be beneficial for the Taft Tunnel. My hands were frozen by the time we got out.

  • Bring a light sweater or long sleeve shirt for the Taft Tunnel. It's very chilly inside.

  • As already mentioned, you want bright lights for the Taft Tunnel! Rent lights from the ski hill if your headlamps aren't very powerful (or if you don't have good headlamps.)

  • Keep your lights handy throughout the ride. We needed them several times for the various tunnels

  • As already mentioned, you'll want motivation of some sort for the final push back to the parking lot.

  • Start early in the day to get parking, to have a more peaceful experience on the trail, and to reduce wait times for the shuttle bus at the end.

  • Dogs are NOT allowed on the trail (even in a Chariot or bike trailer.) Sorry, not my rule.

  • Bicycle helmets must be worn at all times on the trail.

  • Adult supervision is required for all children under the age of 14.

  • You can buy trail passes at the trailhead if you don't want to stop in at the ski area. You must have cash though if buying trail passes on the trail. Credit cards are only accepted for payment at the ski area.

  • Do not stop in the middle of the tunnels (common sense, right?)

  • Use restrooms at the trailheads! (They are fairly strict about not turning the trail into a giant toilet.) - and there are a few trailheads along the way.

  • Pack out your garbage! There are no garbage cans on the trail.

  • Bring cash to buy cold beverages at the end if you want something while waiting for the next bus.
And another tunnel on the Route of the Hiawatha

Season for the Route of the Hiawatha 

The trail opens late May (May 25th for 2019) for weekend use with shuttles.

Shuttles start to run weekdays starting the second weekend in June (June 8th for 2019.)

Hours are reduced in September with the trail closing after the third weekend of September (the 22nd would be the last day for 2019.)

For full information on schedules, visit the Route of the Hiawatha website. 

Classic Rail Trail through Northern Idaho and Montana

Disclaimer: This story was not sponsored and we did not partner with the Lookout Ski Area. We visited Idaho like normal tourists and I am simply writing about our adventures to inspire other families to enjoy this trail.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The BEST of Autumn in the Canadian Rockies - updated 2022

Continuing with my "Gotta do THIS" seasonal series, here is my "BEST of Autumn Guide" for the Canadian Rockies (and beyond.) I encourage you to save this post because I will be updating it annually.

Hiking through a golden larch forest in the Canadian Rockies

Autumn is an exciting time for us because it means we get to enjoy all of our favourite sports and outdoor activities in the same season! We'll seize the warm fall days to get out for some final biking, hiking, or climbing days, we'll wrap up the season with one or two final camping trips, and we'll get the skis and skates out for our first cold weather adventures! And maybe we'll even squeeze in one more backcountry trip or river paddling day.

As with my other guides, this list is in no particular order (though I did try to go from warm to cold.) Follow the links to read stories I've already written on each topic.

Autumn colors at Sunshine Village, Banff 

The BEST of Autumn in the Canadian Rockies 

1. Enjoy one last picnic, day trip, or hike in the mountains

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Our Favourite Autumn Hikes for Golden Larch Trees

A larch tree looks like a normal evergreen tree until mid September when the needles turn bright golden yellow and begin to slowly fall off for the winter. New needles come back the following spring, making this a very unusual "evergreen tree" since it's definitely not green year round. In winter, you'd just see a bare trunk and branches (like any deciduous tree.)

Hiking through golden larch trees, Kananaskis

Golden fall hiking at Highwood Pass, Kananaskis

When and Where to See Golden Larch Trees in the Canadian Rockies 

The peak time to see larch trees in all their autumn splendor is from mid to late September here in the Canadian Rockies. (And in my experience, they're absolutely magical around the third weekend of the month. Aim for the 22nd - 27th.

Golden larch trees in Banff National Park 

Want to do a fall hike and see golden larch trees? The trails I've featured below are the most popular trails (for very good reason.) They are also the busiest so if you can go mid-week, do it!! If you have to go on Saturday or Sunday, start crazy early!!

Larch Valley, Moraine Lake, Banff National Park 

Access for Moraine Lake and Lake Louise

If you want to hike in the Moraine Lake area of Banff, you will have to take a shuttle bus to Moraine Lake from the Lake Louise Ski Resort. The road has been closed to public vehicles.

You can also take a bus to Lake Louise from the ski hill to save the hassle of trying to find parking (and avoid having to pay for parking at the lake.)

Shuttles must be booked ahead of time at the link above. 

Top Day Hikes to see Larch Trees across the Canadian Rockies 

Larch Valley, Moraine Lake (Lake Louise area of Banff National Park)

It's a 7 km return hike to reach the most magical valley at Lake Louise. Larch Valley is also referred to as "Valley of the Ten Peaks," and you'll quickly see why when you reach the first meadow. It is 11.6 km return if you go all the way to Sentinel Pass (which you should if you have the stamina for the 700 metres of height gain.) From the top of the pass, it's larch trees as far as the eyes can see in every direction.

You'll also see good routes on the popular All Trails app.

And to escape the crowds, consider hiking up the Eiffel Lakes valley from the same trailhead. (5.6 km one way with 370 metres of climbing.)

For a beautiful one-way traverse, check out this hike below:

Read: Hike Moraine Lake to Lake Louise (via Sentinel and Saddleback Pass)

Glorious golden colors in Larch Valley at Lake Louise

Saddleback Pass and Mount Fairview, Lake Louise (Banff National Park)

Not as popular as Larch Valley, this can be a great option on a busy weekend. It is 3.7 km to the pass from where you have two options. 

Option one: scramble an extra 100 metres up to the summit of Saddle Mountain (to your left) for a total of roughly 700 metres of height gain. 

Saddle Mountain Summit looking down on Saddleback Pass

Option two: hike to the summit of Fairview Mountain in a total height gain of 1000 metres. It takes a big push at the end but the views are worth it!! And don't worry about not seeing enough larch trees because that's all you'll see in every direction from either summit.

Recommended Reading: 

Read: Hike Moraine Lake to Lake Louise (via Sentinel and Saddleback Pass)

Mount Fairview Summit, Lake Louise

Lake Agnes Tea House, Lake Louise (Banff National Park)

While maybe not "as incredible" as Larch Valley or Saddleback Pass, this hike is much easier and better with young children. The hike is 6.8 km round trip to a beautiful tea house, small lake, and gorgeous little larch forest en route to the Big Beehive viewpoint above the lake. 

It is an extra 3.2 km round trip to reach the Big Beehive viewpoint above Lake Agnes with an extra 100 metres of height gain. (520 metres total)

Lake Agnes in late September

Follow this link for information on all hiking trails at Moraine Lake and Lake Louise on the Banff Lake Louise Tourism website.

- and note that there is sometimes a restriction for trails at Moraine Lake requiring you to hike in a tight group of 4 people. See trail reports here.

No filter, no editing required. This is why people hike at Lake Louise in September

Mount St. Piran, Lake Louise (Banff National Park)

This summit is reached via the trail to the Lake Agnes Tea House. The hike requires gaining 900 metres of elevation spread out over 12+km round trip (if you do the full loop off the back side as we did.)

Hiking up the slopes of Mount St. Piran with larch trees around us

The hike can be dangerous if there is too much snow on the slopes, but the larch trees along the way are magical. (Check in at the Visitor Centre for conditions before starting this hike.)

Read about our adventures on this hike here:  First Summits - Mount St. Piran, Lake Louise

And see the route on All Trails here

Mount St. Piran Summit in Late September

The Big Beehive and the Devil's Thumb, Lake Louise (Banff National Park)

We haven't done this hike in the fall yet, but we recently did it in the summer. The views are incredible as you look down on both Lake Agnes (above) and Lake Louise. 

First hike to Lake Agnes and then continue around the lake where you'll start to see larch trees. Climb up switchbacks to the Big Beehive lookout over Lake Louise. 

If you still have energy continue up another viewpoint, the Devil's Thumb where you'll be looking down on larch trees as far as you can see.

Devil's Thumb, Lake Louise (and most of those trees below are larch trees)

The entire hike is 12 km round trip with over 1000 metres of height gain.

For more information please read my previous story below.

Mirror Lake below the Big Beehive (you can hike to the very top!)

Ptarmigan Cirque, Kananaskis 

Located at Highwood Pass in Kananaskis, this is a 4.5 km loop hike with a gorgeous alpine basin and a small larch forest. It sees less traffic than the Banff/Lake Louise hikes, but is still exceptionally busy. Try to hike mid-week.

Larch trees on the Ptarmigan Cirque Trail

Read more about the hike on the Alberta Parks website. And I highly recommend checking the trail report because the trail is often closed for bears. 

See the route on all trails here

Autumn at Highwood Pass: Ptarmigan Cirque

Pocaterra Cirque, Kananaskis 

A lesser known alternative to Ptarmigan Cirque, this hike starts from the same parking lot. It is a favourite for us with more larch trees than Ptarmigan Cirque, a gorgeous pond, and fewer crowds.

Trail directions for this unofficial trail: Start from the same parking lot as for Ptarmigan Cirque at Highwood Pass on Highway 40. Head down the trail towards the Highwood Meadows interpretive trail (and don't cross the highway as you would for Ptarmigan Cirque.) 

Pocaterra Cirque in late September with Pocaterra Ridge in the background

Follow the interpretive trail until you reach a sign that mentions staying on the official trail and respecting the environment. There is a smaller dirt trail heading left here off of the interpretive trail. That is your trail. (And yes, you are allowed to hike it.)

Follow the unofficial trail into the cirque, heading for the pond shown in the photo above. The trail is relatively easy to follow for those who have good route finding skills. If you are inexperienced with hiking, please choose the well marked Ptarmigan Cirque trail instead.

The trail is roughly 7 km return to the pond and the cirque.

Larch trees in the upper Pocaterra Cirque 

Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis

This is an extension from the Pocaterra Cirque hike above. Total hiking distance from Highwood Pass to Little Highwood Pass along the ridge is approximately 11 km long. You'll also be gaining roughly 900 metres of height (and losing 600 metres.)

Glorious ridge walking on Pocaterra Ridge 

You can read about our adventure hiking this trail here: Pocaterra Ridge, Family Hiking in Kananaskis 

There are many larch trees along the Pocaterra Ridge hike

Arethusa Cirque, Kananaskis 

This is a quieter trail option than the Ptarmigan and Pocaterra Cirque trails. You'll still encounter a large number of hikers on a weekend though so get an early start.

The hike is 4.5 km in length (as a loop) with 378 metres of height gain. 

September snowball fight in Arethusa Cirque (it was an early winter!)

To add to your outing, consider hiking up to the summit of Little Arethusa.

Arethusa Cirque with Little Arethusa in the background

And read about our adventures here:

Little Arethusa Summit above Arethusa Cirque, Kananaskis

Chester Lake, Kananaskis

Chester Lake is a popular family day hike from Calgary and there is a beautiful larch forest if you hike above the lake to the Elephant Rocks. There are also larch trees beside the lake if that's as far as you get.

Chester Lake late fall 

We always hike above the lake to visit the Elephant rocks because they are super fun to scramble on. (why my son is wearing a helmet in the photos below!)

The hike is 9 km return with 400 metres of climbing. 

Views from the Elephant Rocks above Chester Lake

Bring helmets if you have crazy kids like mine!

Overnight Trips to see Larch Trees in the Canadian Rockies

Check out the following stories to read about a couple of amazing backcountry trips we've taken in late September.

Magical Autumn Hiking on the Bow Valley Highline Trail  - Shadow Lake to Gibbon Pass

Family Backpacking in Banff (no tent required) - Shadow Lake Lodge

Copper Mountain above Shadow Lake (larch trees in every direction below us)

Backcountry Banff with Kids - Egypt Lake  - Sunshine Village to Egypt Lake

Note that for the 2022 season you can not access Sunshine Village by shuttle bus or gondola so if you want to reach Egypt Lake, you'll have to hike the Healy Creek Trail from the Sunshine Village parking lot (rather than starting from the top of the gondola.)

Healy Pass on our Egypt Lake backpacking trip

And there's little point mentioning the magical Lake O'Hara area in Yoho National Park (since you need incredible luck to get spots at either the backcountry cabin or in the backcountry campground here,) but if you want to add this trip to your list of "places I'd like to see in my lifetime," you can find more information on the Yoho National Park website

You can also try to reserve spots on the bus to visit Lake O'Hara as a day trip but you'll need to get spots in the spring or luck out with a cancelation later in the season.

If you did manage to get in to Lake O'Hara, read my guide below:

Read: The Best of Lake O'Hara in a Day 

Opabin Basin, Lake O'Hara, Yoho National Park 

More Suggestions for Larch Hikes in the Canadian Rockies

Check out these guides for more hiking suggestions:

Golden Larch Hikes - Parks Canada

8 Larch Hikes in the Canadian Rockies - Crowfoot Media

Best Larch Hikes in Kananaskis - Kananaskis Trails

Autumn hiking at Lake O'Hara, Yoho National Park

Save this story for future reference because I will add to it annually as my family discovers new favourite hikes each autumn.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Family Adventure in Rat's Nest Cave, Canmore Cave Tours

My son and I are always looking for fun adventures to fill our days, and so I jumped at the opportunity to take a cave tour in nearby Canmore. It had been years since I'd last explored Rat's Nest Cave under Grotto Mountain, and I couldn't wait to get back down there again - this time as a family trip.

Rat's Nest Cave Tour, Canmore

Introduction to Rat's Nest Cave

Canmore Cave Tours guides groups into Rat's Nest Cave, a large undeveloped cave under Grotto Mountain in Canmore, Alberta. The company has been introducing visitors to this cave since 1992 with the goal of "offering our guests the most extraordinary, unforgettable experience possible."

The people who work for Canmore Cave Tours describe themselves as the "custodians" of this provincial historic site. They are passionate cavers and cave advocates and they control entrance to the cave (for its protection.)

There is no way for the public to access the cave without joining a guided tour, and there is a locked gate across the cave entrance to ensure nobody sneaks in after hours.

Climbing up to the Rat's Nest Cave entrance

Directly from the Canmore Cave Tours Website:
"Rat’s Nest Cave is a special place. In 1987 it was designated a Provincial Historic Resource because of its incredible archaeological significance. It is home to ancient pictographs, 7000 year old bones, and beautiful cave formations. At over 4km long, Rat’s Nest Cave is one of the longest caves in Canada.
The water-sculpted passages of the cave offer us seemingly endless opportunities to learn and explore. At 5 degrees celsius, the cave is a cool but comfortable destination every day of the year, a trait enjoyed by cave residents like bushy-tailed wood rats, and North America’s smallest mammal - the pigmy shrew."
With no lights, handrails or walkways, we are left to enjoy the cave in its natural state, just as the original explorers did."

Visit the Canmore Cave tours website to look at a map of the cave system.

Helmets with bright lights help to guide explorers through the cave

What to Expect from Tours in the Rat's Nest Cave

This is a wild and natural, authentic cave tour. There are no handrails, no lights other than the ones you wear on your helmets, and the cave floor has not been changed or altered for easy walking. There are no staircases, no easy ramps to follow down to lower rooms in the cave, and you will be crawling on your hands and knees!

Remember the bum scoot that toddlers do while learning to walking? You'll get good at this move during your cave tour! You'll also perfect your crab walking and test the health of your knees as you crawl around on the cave floor (fortunately you'll be wearing knee pads!)

Also, know that it helps if you have some experience with rock climbing! You will be wearing a harness and clipping yourself to a safety line with a short length of rope through much of the cave. This is to protect you from falling into the giant pit that's right beside the tunnel entrance (filled with animal bones,) and protects you from taking a tumble down the steep pitches you must climb down (and back up) in the cave.

You'll be given an introduction at the beginning on how to clip and unclip from the safety lines, but it does help if you have some experience using carabiners and working with a rope.

Clipping and unclipping from safety lines in the cave

Introduction to The Explorer Tour that we did

We chose to do the 4.5 hour long Explorer Tour (roughly 2 hours spent inside the cave.) This tour is recommended for children 10 years of age and over.

The youngest person on our tour was my son, and the oldest person was 80! In between, we had three teenagers, myself, and one other adult.

Our tour ended up taking 5.5 hours (I think we were underground longer than 2 hours, and our group was slow on the hike as well.)

The Adventure Tour requires an 18m rappel (recommended only for youth 12+) but our tour involved just basic scrambling with the safety ropes.

Outline of Our Caving Day Schedule

11am: We met at the caving office in Canmore for 11am and I'm pretty sure we were at the office until noon. One family was having challenges with their credit card (which delayed the registration process) and we all had to fill out waivers. We also had to try on our red jumpsuits, helmets, and gloves, and get our bags ready to go.

One in two people would carry a backpack with two sets of coveralls, helmets, harnesses, ropes, gloves, and personal items. (If you want to make your pack lighter and split gear into two packs, or if you want to use your own backpack, bring a backpack with you.)

Noon: Around noon we convoyed our way to the trailhead roughly 10 minutes away, following our guide. (We'd be with the one guide all day.) And note, you need to drive to the trailhead in your own vehicle. (Shuttles can be arranged though for an additional fee.)

We got to the cave, packed last minute items into our packs (water, extra layers, and snacks) and headed up the steep hiking trail to the cave. It took us probably 30 to 40 minutes to hike up to the cave with many breaks. Overall, we were on a good trail until we reached the canyon below the cave. Here we put on our helmets and could use a fixed rope that had been placed along the edge of the trail to pull ourselves up.

1:30pm: By 1:30 we were heading into the cave after hanging and leaving our packs behind under a tarp near the cave entrance. We took nothing into the cave with us other than safety gear and the items on our bodies.

4:00pm: By 4:00 we were back outside and ready to hike down to the parking lot where we'd end our tour.

4:30pm: Back at the parking lot and ready to drive back to Calgary.

Times are all a rough estimate. 

Our caving group in Rat's Nest Cave

Is the Explorer Tour Family-Friendly? 

Yes, BUT....

Below are the basic requirements (and words of caution I'd give) before you sign up for the tour with your children:

Ready for action outside the cave!

  1. There are no bathroom breaks in the cave (though the guide can help you with this in the case of an emergency, hello pee bottle or squatting over a bag!)

  2. Every member of your group should be comfortable scrambling, and climbing up and down steep terrain while pulling themselves up and lowering themselves down with a rope.

  3. You need to be comfortable in confined, tight spaces. There are a few optional squeezes you can try, but even without these sections, there are tight spaces (including the box you need to climb up and down.)

  4. Fear of the dark would not be a good thing here! Even with the headlamps, it's still pretty dark in the cave. (Hence why most of my photos are a little blurry and lack the usual quality I strive for.)

  5. You'll carry nothing with you (and you have to be ok with this.) I was a bit worried about going into a cave for 2+ hours with no food, no water, no extra layers of clothes... - as a mom I'm used to always being prepared for every single thing that could ever happen on an outing (even to the playground!)

  6. Every member of your group should be in good physical shape and accustomed to regular exercise. A high amount of exertion is required on the hike up alone. My son did fine here because we regularly go for long bike rides, spend 7 hour days hiking, and enjoy rock climbing as a family.

  7. Fear of heights would also be a bad thing for this tour. There are many steep climbs/descents in the cave (and it was extremely hard to climb out at the end.) My son was in tears at the end because he couldn't pull himself up the final polished rock section and required help. Myself, I was certainly nervous at times lowering myself down the safety ropes, knowing the rock I was sliding down was polished with few holds - and that a fall would hurt. (And nobody is belaying you down each steep pitch. You are sliding down the polished rock on your bum while using the safety rope as a brake with your hands to slow down your slippery descent to the cave floor below.)

One of the tight spaces my son squeezed through in our tour

Tips and Suggestions for Doing the Explorer Tour with Your Children

Below are just a few additional tips and suggestions:

  • Bring snacks inside the cave!! Kids can not be told "it's ok, we'll be out soon." When they're hungry, they're hungry NOW. My son was upset near the end because he was hungry and I hadn't packed a granola bar into one of my pockets. (Totally my mistake on that one!)

  • Wear something with good pockets underneath your overalls. Fortunately I had a light vest underneath with a good pocket for my cell phone. I also could have carried a granola bar or two.

  • Make sure you all go to the bathroom before entering the cave! I made my son eat high fibre cereal the whole drive out so that he'd go to the bathroom before we got to the cave (and success, he did!) - We also tried not to drink a lot before entering the cave.

  • Wear good grippy shoes! We had hiking shoes on and they were necessary for the hike up/down, along with the scrambling inside the cave.

  • Dress for the temperature in the cave. It is only 5 degrees Celsius inside the cave. We both had fleece sweaters on underneath our overalls, and I also had a light vest on. - And you can carry extra layers with you (that you'll leave in your backpack outside the cave) if you don't want to hike up wearing everything.

  • Bring lunch with you. You can eat it in the office while signing waivers and getting your introduction, or eat it right before you enter the cave. (I recommend a snack before entering the cave too.)

  • Discuss anything particular to your children with your guide before starting your tour.  I was nervous about the bathroom situation so discussed this with our guide. In hindsight I should have also discussed food.

  • Explain to your children the "group factor" before your tour. The tour might not always go as fast as your kids would like. You will move at the pace of the slowest person. They might have to take breaks on the hiking trail (when they don't need one) and they might get stuck behind somebody having problems in the cave (and will have to be ok with that.) The reality is that you are with a group, and you'll be going at the pace of the group.

  • Bring enough adults to supervise/keep your kids safe. The guide is not going to spot your kids from below when they are climbing down the steep sections. He's not going to pull them up the steep climbs either on the way out. You are the one that is responsible for protecting your kids (beyond what the safety ropes can do,) helping them if they struggle, and for offering extra support. For me, I wish in hindsight that my husband had done the tour with us. I would have appreciated his help on the steep sections (and it freaked me out that my son was always ahead of me with nobody spotting him from a fall from below.)

Crawling through one of the tighter sections of the cave

Final Recommendation

We had a great day, and ended our tour exhausted and starving (usually a sign of a day well spent in the mountains.) I was also very sore the next day, which for me, means I got my workout and that this wasn't some cute little "tourist tour."

Our tour definitely felt like the "real deal" for caving, and I'd recommend it to other families or groups looking for an adventurous way to spend a day in Canmore.

The tour was also the perfect activity for a rainy overcast day, and made for an enjoyable way to spend a chilly day in the mountains - especially since it's always the same temperature in the cave year round.

The Rat's Nest Cave Tour is fabulous for families with older youth or teens

Please visit the Canmore Cave Tours website for full information on the tours they offer, cost of each tour, and minimum age requirements.

Our tour was offered to us in exchange for this review, but as always, all opinions and words are my own.