Thursday, April 25, 2019

A Family Guide to the BEST Adventures on the Icefields Parkway (Lake Louise to Jasper)

The Icefields Parkway is one of the world's most beautiful driving tours, and with a bit of careful planning (and willingness to go for a short hike,) it's actually possible to escape the crowds!

Bow Summit Lookout, Icefields Parkway, Banff National Park

We love exploring and hiking on the Icefields Parkway because once you get a half hour past Lake Louise, the crowds start to thin out a bit, and the scenery is every bit as spectacular! Yes, it's still busy in the middle of summer, but we're talking 50 people at a popular viewpoint instead of 200! (Step into a pair of hiking boots and it's easy to leave the crowds behind completely!)

Quick Intro: Where I'm Sending you to Explore

The Icefields Parkway, Highway 93 North, connects the Village of Lake Louise in Banff National Park with the Town of Jasper in Jasper National Park to the north. 

The parkway is 232 kilometres in distance and without stops you can complete the drive in 2.5 to 3 hours from Lake Louise to Jasper. From Calgary, you can easily drive out to Louise, enjoy a stop or two along the Parkway, and still arrive in Jasper for dinner that night.

Precautionary notes before heading out:
Panther Falls, Icefields Parkway

  • This area sees a very long winter! Expect lingering snow on trails into early to mid July.

  • Bring a pair of gloves, a hat, and layers of clothing including a warm sweater and a jacket any time you travel through this area. It generally won't go above 20 C in the daytime and it can easily drop to 5 degrees Celsius at night (even in the middle of summer.)

  • You can hike to the toe of a glacier on this highway (without climbing!) Again, bring warm clothes and don't rely on a pair of sandals as your footwear of choice while out exploring.

  • There is ONE gas station located between Lake Louise and Jasper, at Saskatchewan River Crossing, and you shouldn't need me to tell you that the gas there is not cheap. Fill up before you start your drive!

  • There is no cell coverage for the entire duration of the drive between Louise and Jasper. Make sure you're prepared before you start out.

  • Services are limited and any food you'll find is expensive. Pack snacks and a lunch for your trip rather than relying on the busy cafeterias at the Saskatchewan River Crossing or at the Columbia Icefields Centre. - Also know that there are only services available in the summer (June - September.) Winter travel on the Parkway is a bigger adventure.

  • The speed limit is 90 Km/hour. Don't speed! Expect to encounter wildlife, hikers crossing the highway, or slow moving vehicles at any time. Chances are you'll be driving well under 90 at times. - And do not get outside your vehicle if you see an animal that you absolutely must take a photo of (or stop in the middle of the road!)

  • A park pass is required to drive this highway (even if you don't stop.) You can purchase a day pass at the gates as you leave either Lake Louise or Jasper if you don't have an annual Discovery Pass. 

Standing on the Athabasca Glacier, Icefields Parkway 

Our Favourite Adventures along the Icefields Parkway 

Below are our favourite adventures along the Icefields Parkway, starting in the south and working north towards Jasper.

This list will grow each year as we discover new things to do, so it won't always be a top ten list. And yes, you should save it for the future since I'll keep adding to it.

Finally, for driving locations, open Google Maps and you should be able to find each destination. There's also a good map here on the Parks Canada website

All links below provide more information on the hike or destination. 

Red Chairs on the Wilcox Pass Trail, Icefields Parkway

1. Hiking to Helen Lake 

We haven't done this hike since our son was a baby and we carried him up to the lake in a child carrier. Time to return! 

The hike is 6 km one way so save the adventure until your children can tackle a 12 km hike with 455 metres of height gain. You'll be rewarded with gorgeous views when you arrive at the lake and hopefully lots of marmots running around in the boulders.

Gorgeous scenery en route to Helen Lake along the Icefields Parkway 

2. Hiking around Bow Lake (with an extension to Bow Glacier Falls)

There's an easy trail around the shoreline of Bow Lake to the back of the lake. Escape the crowds by hiking further to Bow Glacier Falls (4.6 km one way.)

For a paddle-hike adventure, paddle across the lake and then continue on foot to Bow Glacier Falls. (This has been on our list of things to do for years. Hopefully this is the year!)

Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway 

Want a bigger adventure? Take the kids on an overnight backpacking trip up to the Bow Hut, one of the Alpine Club of Canada huts. The hut can be reached in an 8 km hike from the parking lot at Bow Lake. 

We spent a night at the Bow Hut in 2019. Read about the adventure here: Bow Hut Family Alpine Adventure 

Bow Glacier Falls above Bow Lake 

3. Hiking to the Bow Summit Lookout from Peyto Lake 

Enjoy a beautiful hike to the Peyto Lake Lookout.

Then, leave the crowds behind for the 2.9 km one way hike to the Bow Summit Lookout (where you'll get views of Bow Lake.)

And there are usually lots of marmots on this trail as an added bonus for the kids.

2021 UPDATE:  This area has been closed as of August 2019 for repairs to the parking lot. It will not open for the 2021 season. 

Hiking to the Bow Summit Lookout with views of Peyto Lake below 

4. Hiking to the bottom of Panther Falls at the Big Bend 

Between Saskatchewan River Crossing and the Columbia Icefields Centre you will drive up a big hill and around the "big bend" hairpin turn. There are two parking lots on the Big Bend, each provided for tourists to pull over and take photos. Pull over into the uppermost parking lot at the top of the Big Bend.

Escape the crowds in the parking lot by hiking down the signed trail (far right side of the parking lot) to the bottom of Panther Falls in an easy 0.5 km outing. (Just warn the kids in advance that they will be hiking down to the falls and that they'll have to climb back up after.)

Panther Falls, Icefields Parkway 

5. Hiking Parker Ridge to the Saskatchewan Glacier Viewpoint 

This is an easy hike and was one of my son's first big solo hikes without the child carrier. The Parker Ridge Hike is only 2.7 km one way and you'll gain 250 metres on the well switch-backed trail.

From the top of the ridge enjoy views of the Saskatchewan Glacier and off-trail rambling in either direction. If you're fortunate enough to be staying at the HI Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel, you can follow the ridge all the way towards the Hilda Glacier and descend a creek down to the hostel in a beautiful day trip.

Read More about our adventures here:

Hiking along Parker Ridge, Icefields Parkway 

6. Visiting the Columbia Icefields Centre and walking on the Athabasca Glacier 

We've visited the Columbia Icefields Centre many times and you can read all about our adventures in the following stories:

Standing on the Athabasca Glacier, Columbia Icefields Adventure 

Read more about tours offered here including the Icefield Glacier Adventure where you ride a snow coach out onto the glacier, and the Skywalk, a cliff-edged glass sidewalk and observation platform with fantastic views! 

Glacier Skywalk and Observation Platform with Mount Athabasca in the background 

And for those who'd rather hike across the glacier rather than riding a bus, check out the tours offered by the Athabasca Glacier Icewalks company. The full day tour takes you to the far end of the glacier and the base of the icefalls (much further than you'll go on the snowcoach bus tour.)

Take a guided tour on the Athabasca Glacier

7. Hiking the Wilcox Pass Trail in Jasper National Park

Reach the Columbia Icefields Centre and you're officially in Jasper National Park now.

Wilcox Pass is one of our favourite hikes along the Icefields Parkway for easy access to great views. It's only 2.4 km return if you want to reach the first viewpoint, which is ideal if you're traveling to Jasper and need a rest stop to stretch the legs (and let the kids burn off some energy.)

If you have more time and energy, you can hike all the way to the pass in an 8 km return hike. Elevation gain is only 390 metres as well so this is not a challenging hike.

Views from the Wilcox Pass Hike, Jasper National Park 

8. Visiting Sunwapta and Athabasca Falls 

Next up on the drive north to Jasper, you'll pass the day use areas for Sunwapta Falls and Athabasca Falls. If you only have time for one, stop at Athabasca Falls. If you have time for both, they are short walks and mostly a good excuse to get out of the car to stretch the legs. (Though Athabasca Falls are pretty spectacular.)

Prepare to be overwhelmed by tourists at both spots as they are very popular with tourist busses.

Athabasca Falls, Jasper National Park 

9. Jasper Sky Tram and Hiking to the top of Whistlers Summit

This one is not cheap, but it's 100% worth the expense! From the upper station of the sky tram, the summit is only 200 metres above you and the views are phenomenal as you leisurely hike through the alpine environment for 1.2 km (one way,) on the lookout for marmots.

I'll never get tired of this hike, and you'll leave two thirds of the crowds behind as soon as you start hiking towards the summit.

Read more about the Jasper Sky Tram here

Hiking through alpine meadows en route to the Whistlers Summit off the Jasper Sky Tram

And now that you've officially arrived in the Town of Jasper, you'll want to check out these stories below:

Our Top Ten Favourite Things to do in Jasper 

Where to Camp in the National Parks of Alberta 

Viewpoint above the Jasper Sky Tram on the hike to Whistlers Summit

Need accommodations and don't want to camp? Check out the accommodations offered by Hosteling International Canada. HI Canada operates and maintains many wilderness hostels across the Rockies, 6 of which are located along the Icefields Parkway!

HI Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel on the Icefields Parkway 

Below are wilderness hostels located on the Icefields Parkway (links go to the website or to a story I've written on that hostel:)

The hostels are in order as you'd pass them from south to north.

HI Mosquito Creek Wilderness Hostel

HI Rampart Creek Wilderness Hostel

HI Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel

HI Beauty Creek Wilderness Hostel

HI Edith Cavell Wilderness Hostel

HI Athabasca Falls Wilderness Hostel

And there is a great non-wilderness hostel in Jasper as well that's very comfortable with private rooms. Read more about it here:

Friday, April 05, 2019

Yurt Camping on top of a mountain at Radius Retreat

I never knew it was a dream of mine to camp on top of a mountain, until I did it. Now I've added the experience to my annual "summer cool list" - a very long list that grows by the year, and we look forward to discovering more unique places to camp.

Yurt Camping at Radius Retreat, Radium Hot Springs, BC

I should clarify that we didn't exactly camp "on top of a mountain" but rather, we camped on a scenic bench overlooking the Columbia Valley outside the Village of Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia.

Mountain summit or not, it certainly felt like a mountain, AND, our nearest neighbors were a kilometre away! This was the most private campsite we've ever had, and we enjoyed sitting around our campfire without having to listen to drunken neighbors partying around us at a noisy campground.

Just us on our bench overlooking the Columbia Valley - and no neighbors for a kilometre!

Introduction to the Radius Yurt Retreat

We recently spent a night camping at Radius Yurt Retreat, a short 5 minute drive outside Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia. Drive towards Golden and you'll see the sign for Radius as soon as you leave the Village. (It's close enough that we could see the lights of Radium from our yurt at night.)

From Calgary, it's a short 3 hour drive to reach Radium Hot Springs so you can easily reach Radius for a weekend getaway. (And come summer with the long daylight hours, you'll even have time to hike in Friday night.)

Our yurt, the Perch, at Radius Retreat

The Yurts at Radius Retreat

Radius has 7 yurts on their property and they all require at least a short hike to access. Most of them are well separated one from another so you should never feel as if you have neighbors (the Hollow and the Burrow aside since they share the same meadow.) 

Hike-in yurts at Radius Retreat in Radium Hot Springs

Below is a quick introduction to the yurts:

Yurts that require a 3 to 10 minute walk:

The Den - 100 metres from the parking lot with 50 metres of elevation gain. Very family-friendly, this yurt sleeps 5 people. Camp here and you'll be at your yurt in a three minute walk! (great for families who want to explore the area while camping here and will be coming and going a lot rather than staying at camp the whole time.)

The Drey - 300 metres from the parking lot with 10 metres of elevation gain. Very family-friendly, this yurt sleeps 5 people. Camp here and you can push toddlers to camp in a chariot or have the kids get to their yurt on balance bikes. (another great yurt for families who want to explore the area while camping here and will be coming and going a lot.)

The Roost - 400 metres from the parking lot with 40 metres of elevation gain. This yurt only sleeps 3 people but you can fit extra children on the floor if you bring some camping mattresses with you. (just keep your extra numbers within the family and don't plan to host a party.) This is another great yurt for families wanting to come and go a lot rather than spending their whole weekend at the yurt.

The Hollow and the Burrow - 700 metres from the parking lot with 42 metres of elevation gain. These two yurts share the same meadow and are ideal for families wanting to travel together. They sleep 3 people per yurt but you can fit extra children on the floor as I mentioned above with the Roost. As with the others, these yurts are ideal for families wanting to spend time exploring the valley during the daytime.

Hiking through the meadow where you'll find the Hollow and the Burrow yurts

Yurts that require a "bit more effort"

The Nest - 2.4 kilometres from the parking lot with 121 metres of elevation gain. This yurt sleeps 3 people and will require a bit of commitment and planning to reach. Stay here and you are officially "backpacking." You'll also be spending a lot more time at camp unless you want to spend an hour hiking out, and another hour hiking back in each time you want to go to town.

The Perch (where we stayed) - 2.5 kilometres from the parking lot with 216 metres of elevation gain (and trust me, I heard a lot of "why did you choose the furthest yurt with so much climbing?!!!" on the hike in!) This yurt also sleeps 3 people and requires a commitment to spend a lot of time at camp. It took us just over an hour to reach our yurt and so we weren't planning on repeating that multiple times a day to go down to the town.

Packed and ready to hike down to town for breakfast

And note that all yurts are pet-friendly at no extra charge. (so bring Fido with you.)

My boys hiking in to the Perch on easy-to-follow roads through the property

And don't get too excited by that road above - you still have to hike in!!

You can ski, snowshoe, bike, push a chariot, pull a wagon, or bring kids on balance bikes - but you can not drive to your yurt. 

Climbing to the upper yurts at Radius 

What's Included with your stay at Radius Yurt Retreat

Each yurt comes with the following:

How's this for a convenient bathroom!
  • 1 Custom Built Queen Bed with 1 Single Bunk overtop. The beds have Beautyrest Mattresses on them so this is a far cry from sleeping on the ground! - bring your own sleeping bags (and pillows if you want them)

  • IF you are in a yurt that sleeps 5 people you will also get an additional trundle bed with single mattresses

  • Indoor Wood Burning Fireplace

  • Chopped Wood, Fire Starter and Matches

  • An indoor Table and chairs or stools

  • Solar Lighting (with a USB charging system if you want to charge your phone and remembered to bring a charging cable)

  • 2 Burner Propane Stove (propane not provided)

  • 100% Recycled Outdoor Chairs

  • Picnic Table and Log Seats at the Fire Pit Area

  • Bear hangs near each site to protect your food from wild animals

    Beds and table inside our yurt

    I also want to mention that your vehicle will be perfectly safe while you stay at Radius Retreat. The company emails you a code to the front gate the day before your stay. Enter the code at the gate and you'll gain access to the property where your vehicle stays protected from break-ins or theft.

    The same code that you receive for the front gate is also the code you'll use to get into your yurt (each one has a key code on the door.) - there is no staff on site when you arrive so make sure you ask all your questions BEFORE you arrive.

    Table and wood  burning stove inside our yurt

    I also recommend having a copy of the Radius property map saved to your phone so you can find your way around the trails when you arrive. For the most part though, follow the sign with a picture of a yurt on it from the parking lot. There is one main road you'll follow the entire time and it has a sign for each yurt when it's time to turn off onto your individual path.

    The start of your journey at the parking lot! Follow the signs and you won't get lost

    What can you do while staying at Radius Yurt Retreat

    Radius Retreat has a two night minimum policy so you'll want to have some plans for what to do when you're staying here.

    If you're staying in one of the lower yurts you can easily drive to town and explore the Columbia Valley. 

    There are many beautiful places to explore across the Columbia Valley 

    If you're looking for activities to enjoy on the Radius property I recommend the following: 

    • There are almost 1000 acres to explore around the Radius property and you'll find 4 different signed trails around the yurts that you can hike, bike, and explore.

    • You can hike from the Nest Yurt over to the Radium Hot Springs pools in town. There were directions in our yurt that said to hike past the Nest on the left/upper side of the Raven Trail. When the trail curves hard at the Raven Sign, go straight and then over the boundary. It said you could get to the hot springs  by following this path. - see the map here

      (Note I'd also suggest you ask the folks who work at Radius Retreat for directions and the exact distance of the hike prior to your visit just to clarify what I've written out above.)

    • If you are camped in one of the yurts that sits on a meadow (the Hollow, the Burrow, or the Roost) you'll have lots of room to let the kids run around and you can even bring a soccer ball with you. The Drey also comes recommended for those wanting space to run around. Bring the bocce set, the frisbee, a football, or other activities for your family.

    • Bring board games and books in with you and spend some time chilling at your yurt. (Ideal if you are in the Den with the hammocks!)

    • The Nest has a spacious deck perfect for yoga mats! 

    We spent a lot of time hanging out at our fire pit on our gorgeous bench overlooking the valley

    Cooking, Water, and Logistics 

    This is where it gets a bit tricky at Radius. There are two non-potable (meaning you have to boil the water before drinking it) water stations on the property. The first is at the trailhead parking lot. This is fine if you're staying at one of the lower yurts. You'll just want to bring a wagon or chariot with you to transport the water to your yurt.

    The second water station is located at the upper junction between the Nest and the Perch. From this junction it is still half a kilometre to the yurts though (and ours was still very uphill from this junction.) Getting water to the upper yurts will be a challenge - especially because I don't know if you want to push/pull a chariot or wagon all the way up there.

    We got around this by just bringing water bottles in because we were only staying one night. The minimum stay though is usually two nights if you aren't a blogger doing a preview visit.

    Also note that in winter you won't find any water on site and you should be prepared to bring it all in with you. Fortunately you could bring a sled when there's enough snow.

    There was a water station here about half a kilometre from our yurt

    For cooking, each yurt comes with a propane two-burner stove but you'll have to bring your own propane canister with you. Cooking is also done outside (so you'll have to hope for nice weather.) 

    We chose not to cook at our yurt since we were only there one night. We hiked Subway sandwiches in for dinner and hiked out for breakfast.

    If you're in one of the lower yurts you should have no problems carrying in food + propane. Just think "backcountry" when you plan your meals because there are no refrigerators. (not a problem in winter, but definitely a problem in summer.)

    You can also cook over your fire pit if you want because they all have grates on them. I was wishing we'd brought hot dogs and marshmallows in with us. (Bring your own skewers for toasting wieners and marshmallows.)

    Other than that, bring all of your own cooking supplies, dishes, and utensils in. You'll also have to handle the dishwashing situation somehow as well with your limited water - or just don't wash your dishes.

    Each yurt comes with a propane stove and a fire pit for cooking

    Have other questions? Most of them can be answered here

    The happiest of campers at Radius Yurt Retreat 

    Disclaimer: Our stay at Radius was hosted for this review. We LOVED our stay and can't wait to go back for a winter visit next season.

    Our yurt, the Perch, at Radius Retreat in Radium Hot Springs, BC