Thursday, May 28, 2020

Easy Family Paddling Day Trip on the Bow River through Banff

The Bow River can be challenging for novice paddlers, but there is a great beginner section upriver of the Town of Banff heading back into town. It's a beautiful day trip and a shuttle is easy to set up. Largely a float trip, you can even use a stand up paddleboard on this section of the river if you have experience with gentle moving water.

Easy floating down the Bow River in Banff National Park

Let's Talk "Beginner-friendly"

Before I get to the big questions you'll have on where to put in and take out, I want to quickly start with a safety disclaimer.

When I say that this is an "easy" paddling day trip, I mean that this is an easy river trip compared to other sections of the Bow River that are much more challenging. I don't mean that this should be your very first paddling trip ever.

You'll enjoy this trip if:

  • You have some experience on gentle moving water. (There are no rapids and it's class 1 paddling, but it's still moving water.)

  • You know how to launch a boat and steer to shore in moving water.

  • You know how to navigate corners, bends, and twists in a river, you know how to avoid the occasional sweeper, and you can avoid the pillars on a bridge while passing under.

  • You have previous river experience in a canoe or kayak, and want to try using a stand up paddleboard on moving water (and you are not new to stand up paddle boarding.)

  • You are a novice paddler going in a group of stronger paddlers willing to assist and guide you on the river.

Children should either be in a canoe or kayak with an adult, or else they should be strong paddlers on flat water if they're going to use their own kayak or stand up paddleboard. When in doubt, paddle this section of the Bow River as adults first before bringing your kids. 

My son first did this trip in a tandem kayak while building his skills in a sit on top kayak (which he used on lakes and very gentle moving water.) We were in a large supportive group the first time he tried paddling the river on his own in his kayak. Now at age 12, he uses a stand up paddleboard (which he learned to use on flat water first.)

Strong youth can use stand up paddleboards with previous experience 

The Shuttle:  Where to park for the put in and take out

The put in location is located approximately 6 km west of the Town of Banff. Continue on the TransCanada Highway past the Mount Norquay/Banff Townsite turnoff in the direction of Lake Louise.

You will come to the junction for the Hwy 1A (Bow Valley Parkway) and this is where you start paying attention. Shortly after this junction, you will cross the Bow River on the TransCanada Hwy bridge and then see a pull out on the right hand side of the highway. This is where you park and access the river via a gate in the wildlife fence.

It's very straight forward and as long as you are going westbound on the TransCanada Hwy, the parking pullout is easy to find as soon as you cross the bridge over the river.

This is the link to the put in spot on Google Maps.

Paddling near the put in spot, just past the TransCanada Highway Bridge

For the take out, there are a few options:

  1. Leave a second vehicle wherever you can find a spot near the Banff Canoe Club on Bow Ave in the Town of Banff or near Central Park in the large parking lot there. You can also park at the Banff Recreation Grounds which is a great spot to take your boat out of the water (with a large parking lot.) Just make sure you take out before going under the Banff Ave bridge in town lest you go over Bow Falls!

  2. Leave a second vehicle parked beside the First Vermilion Lake on Vermilion Lakes Road in the Town of Banff. (This is the first lake you'll come to.) If you're parking here, you'll be able to extend your paddle from the Bow River to Vermilion Lake via Echo and 40 Mile Creeks. (more information below.)

  3. Leave a bike at either option above and have an adult bike back for the vehicle. If doing this, I'd recommend leaving the bike on Vermilion Lakes Road. From here you continue biking to the end of the road, and hop on the Legacy Trail which ends at the junction with the Highway 1A. There's a short 0.5 km section of highway riding from there to reach your put in spot. (So send an adult ahead for this part and leave the kids with a second adult in town.)

This is the take out spot at the Banff Recreation Grounds near the Banff Avenue Bridge in town

Paddling the Bow River into the Town of Banff 

There are a few tricky spots in the first 15 minutes as you navigate a few tight corners with sweepers (logs that stick out from the corners) before passing under the TransCanada Highway bridge. This first part of the trip actually has fast moving water and can be scary for novice paddlers. You also have to be able to steer around the bridge pillars and then make a sharp turn.

After that it is a fun little float back into town and we've had lots of children use sit on top kayaks or even stand up paddleboards.

The trip is easy enough for kids in sit on top kayaks 

After you clear the first few corners, you pretty much have to paddle the entire time or the trip will take many hours.  It's one of those float trips where you could actually paddle upstream from the Canoe Club in town and then float back down afterwards. (Something people do all the time!)

My son has said this paddle is "boring" in the past which is good news for novice paddlers. It means there are no rapids and there's no fast moving water.

For more excitement, try it with a tail wind from the west. Our fastest time was 90 minutes when we were surfing down the river on our paddle boards. (We didn't have to do much actual paddling this time.) 

The river also upgrades to "moderate" when the river is high. Pay attention to river advisories because the first 15 minutes can be tricky when the water is moving quickly.

Stand up paddling down the Bow River into the town of Banff 

I love that we can do this trip as a family and nobody is worried about falling in the river. It's a good stretch for children to try their first solo river paddle (provided they have plenty of lake experience) and you'll have lots of time to just chill and float along. When you get tired of floating, pick up your paddles and slowly move towards town.

Opportunities are plentiful for wildlife sightings on the river as well. We've seen both moose and elk along this stretch.

Floating down the Bow River into the Town of Banff 

Notes for choosing which kind of boat to use:

  • If you try to use a raft you'll have to paddle most of the time or else plan for a full day. Even then, I don't think you'll make it into town without using your paddles. If you want to use a raft, consider doing the next section from Banff to Canmore instead because it is much faster.

  • Sit on top kayaks are great for kids that have previous paddling experience. I'd recommend bringing a rope though because most children will get tired of paddling before they reach town. You'll end up towing them for sure!!

    Also, make sure your child knows how to steer and navigate a kayak before sending them down the river. They'll have to get around the bridge pillars passing under the highway bridge and they'll have to steer to shore to get off the river.

    And make sure you keep in mind that the water is glacial in temperature. I suggest the kids wear rain pants or wetsuits if using a sit on top kayak. And bring a change of clothes in case they fall in.

  • Stand up paddleboards are great for older youth or adults who have experience with gentle moving water. Again, remember that the water is glacial in temperature. Pack spare clothes, towels, and a rope in case you end up needing to tow a child.

  • Canoes or tandem kayaks are perfect for this trip.

This is a great family outing with friends 

Extending the trip to the First Vermilion Lake 

As you enter the Town of Banff, you'll see the boat docks along Bow Avenue where the Banff Canoe Club rents boats. Either head right towards the Banff Recreation Grounds to take out, take out at the canoe club, or continue past the canoe club where you'll be following a gentle creek.

Paddling up Echo Creek towards the First Vermilion Lake 

Echo Creek heads up stream at this point, connecting with 40 Mile Creek further up. The current is relatively gentle so you'll usually have no problems making your way up the creek. The exception would be if there is a head wind on the creek. 

I strongly recommend checking the wind direction before planning to paddle up the creek. We've had challenging times trying to get up the creek on paddleboards in the past when the wind was in our faces. It can also be hard to try to get into Vermilion Lake with a head wind.

Choose a calm day if you're going to do this extension.

We love paddling along peaceful Echo Creek towards the Vermilion Lakes 

Pass under the train bridge and you'll see 40 Mile Creek coming in from your right within 15 - 20 minutes. Head left as the creek empties you out into the First Vermilion Lake (where hopefully you have a car or a bike waiting.)

This channel takes you from the creek into Vermilion Lake 

Once you reach the lake, you can paddle around on the lake enjoying the views of Mount Rundle behind you. You can also follow a channel beside the road that takes you to the second lake. There is no way I've ever found to connect to the third lake.

The Vermilion Lakes are a great place to paddle with children

Safety Notes

  • While I've focused on this paddling adventure being "beginner friendly" I would advise practicing on calm lakes before heading out on moving water.

  • The Bow River is glacial fed and as such is freezing cold if you fall in. Be prepared with a change of clothes for each person in a dry bag. I also recommend bringing some warm socks in the dry bag in case anybody gets cold feet (especially those on paddleboards.)

  • Kids using sit on top kayaks should be dressed in rain pants and waterproof clothing (rain jackets, polyester pants and shirts, etc.) These boats tend to pool with water causing kids to get cold quickly. While this might not be necessary if it's 30 degrees outside, you'll appreciate the warm clothing on cool days.

  • Bring a rope for towing if you have children paddling in their own boats. (Don't use a rope until you're past the first bridge.)

  • Bring the normal safety gear required by the government (a throw rope, bailing device, and whistle is technically required in each vessel.)

  • Life jackets or PFDs should be worn by each person.

  • Paddle in a group so you can help one another in the event of an emergency.

  • Make sure any pets that come along feel comfortable in a boat! You don't want Fido to jump overboard.

  • Choose warm weather. I've done this paddle on a cold day before, and it's much more pleasant when you don't have to float down the river wearing a toque!

  • I always pack rain jackets in a dry bag just in case somebody falls in and needs to warm up - even if it's 30 degrees outside.

  • Watch the wind!!! This river has many twists and turns so you'll almost always have a head wind for one or two sections. On our last trip the wind was from the west which is about as good as you can get. We flew and felt like we were surfing on our boards. By contrast, we've had a wicked head wind in the past that was miserable to paddle against. 

Disclaimer: As of 2021 there are new restrictions for non-motorized vessels on all lakes and rivers in Banff National Park. Find more information on self-certification before your trip here. 

First SUP paddle down the Bow, age 11 

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Ten Day Trips for Spring Adventures Close to Calgary

We all want to get outside, but spring is always challenging with lingering snow on trails in Kananaskis, some still snowy enough that you could probably ski. 

Spring is a great time to explore Bow Valley Provincial Park 

Start with the day trips below, my family's annual favorites for early spring hiking and exploring.

1. Start Local and Explore a New City Park or Natural Area

If everybody's healthy and you're not being asked to self-isolate, this is a great way to get outside close to home. Drive to a natural area  in a neighboring community. Maybe explore a park you've never visited before.

Check out some of my personal favourites in Calgary here: Calgary Urban Hikes  

Go for a walk on Nose Hill and find the First Nations Medicine Wheel

As with any hike at this time, please practice physical distancing and have a backup plan if the parking lot for your chosen park appears to be over crowded.  Finally, you'll find much more solitude if you grab your hiking boots and get off the paved pathways!!

Recommended reading: Calgary's Best Walks 35 Brand New Urban Jaunts And Nature Strolls

Go for a walk or bike ride and discover the Split Rock in Confluence Park 

2. Explore the City Pathways on your Bikes

My son and I biked all the way from Tuscany in the far NW corner of Calgary all the way down to the Highway 22X below Fish Creek Provincial Park following the paved Bow River Pathway. It took us two days using Carburn Park in the SE as an ending/re-starting point but it gave us a goal for a weekend, and we discovered several new sections of the pathway system we'd never biked before.

I've created a giant list of paved pathways we want to bike in the city this summer and I suspect it'll actually take us till September to finish the list.

We've discovered many new parks and natural areas by biking across the city 

Recommended reading:  

Read: Epic Family Bike Rides: The Best Spring Rides near Calgary

We love biking the Bow River Pathway through Calgary 

3. Explore Glenbow Ranch or Fish Creek Provincial Park 

You don't have to go far to access a provincial park. Fish Creek Provincial Park is located in South Calgary and  is one of the largest urban green spaces in North America. You'll find over 80 km of trails here including paved pathways, singletrack mountain bike trails, and wide gravel trails for walking or biking.

Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park is located just outside NW Calgary on the way to Cochrane along the Highway 1A. It's a beautiful park with a scenic paved pathway that follows the north bank of the Bow River. There's a long hill down to the river from the parking lot but once you reach the bottom, it's relatively flat as your ride out and back towards Calgary.

There are also many hiking trails in Glenbow Ranch. Our favourite is the Tiger Lilly Loop, a short 1.4 km loop that starts from the Visitor Centre by the parking lot.

Early spring hiking in Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park 

4. Discover the Trails and Pathways in Cochrane

We live in NW Calgary so we've been exploring the trails in Cochrane this spring. For hiking, we absolutely fell in love with the trails at the Cochrane Ranche. You can view the Cochrane Ranche Trail guide here and I recommend looking for the Grandfather Tree (number 9 on the map.)

We always start at the parking lot off the Highway 1A and hike a loop up towards the ranch house. From the ranch house you can continue further to complete the Cochrane Ranch Trail as shown on Trail Forks. It's a 6km loop and note that you'll be on private property once you start the back loop. Treat the trail with respect and do not bike this loop. We also did the back loop as an out and back on the right side of the creek. (We couldn't find a trail on the left side other than the gravel road.)

Go for an easy hike and discover the Grandfather Tree at Cochrane Ranche 

For biking, check out the beautiful paved trail through Riverfront Park. My suggestion would be to park at the large Spray Lake Sawmills Family Sports Centre, biking carefully through the off leash dog park heading west, or to park at the small parking lot at the bottom of River Ave (north side of the river) at the far side of the dog park.

From the River Avenue Bridge, it's a beautiful 12km return bike ride along a paved pathway through Riverfront Park, past Mitford Pond (there's a big climb here,) and on to the Glen Boles Trail which ends at a beautiful viewpoint. The entire ride is paved and there are only a couple of big hills.

Most of the trail is quite flat. For the easiest ride with young children, just ride through Riverfront Park where there are no hills. There's a parking lot by the Highway 22 bridge north of the river.

You can get more information on the Cochrane Parks and Pathways page. Google maps also shows a dotted line along the entire route that you'll be biking.

Cochrane is a beautiful place to go for a bike ride along the Bow River 

 5. Spend a Day in Bow Valley Provincial Park

We love biking or hiking around the Bow Valley Campground off the TransCanada Hwy and Highway 1X. Park at the Middle Lake day use area and bike around on the quiet paved campground roads. The campground doesn't open until the end of April so until then the roads will be vehicle-free. 

We like to bike to the Elk Flats Group Campground where you can have a picnic at the playground. We then continue on to the Many Springs Trailhead (bring a bike lock if you want to go for a short hike,) and then we head down to the river. From there we return through the campground where you'll find more playgrounds.

Biking the quiet campground roads through the Bow Valley Campground 

You can also hike around the park, completing a loop with the Elk Flats, Bow River, and Moraine Trails. Add on the Middle Lake or Many Springs Loop to extend the distance. See the map here.

We love hiking the Moraine Trail in Bow Valley Provincial Park 

Finally there is a paved bike trail that connects the Visitor Centre near the Highway 1X with the camp store. We like to bike around the campground from Middle Lake and then hop on the bike trail at the end to extend our ride. We return to Middle Lake on the road. This can all be done in a big loop of 12km. Alternately, park at the Visitor Centre and bike on the paved trail to the campground and over to the river for a picnic.

Note the bike path is very hilly and would not be appropriate for beginner riders.

The paved bike path in Bow Valley Provincial Park is a very scenic trail

Other places to explore in Bow Valley Provincial Park:

  1. Hike the Flowing Waters Trail in the Willow Rock Campground off the Highway 1X across from the Bow Valley Campground. The Flowing Water Trail is a short 2.5 km interpretive loop. The campground doesn't open until the end of April so if it's closed, just park at the campground gate.

  2. Hike the Prairie View Trail to the Barrier Fire Lookout and Yates Mt. Summit above Barrier Lake off Highway 40. The Prairie View Trail climbs to a beautiful viewpoint over the lake and then continues on to a fire lookout. Expect some snow on this trail early season.

Read: Bike and Hike Closed Campgrounds near Calgary this Spring

Read: First Summits - Yates Mountain and the Barrier Lake Lookout, Kananaskis

The Prairie View Trail takes you to this beautiful viewpoint over Barrier Lake

6. Spend a Day in the Elbow Valley

There are several great day use areas and hiking trails outside Bragg Creek. Below are my current recommendations:

One.  Hike the Fullerton Loop from the Allen Bill Day Use Area.

This trail is very popular but it's also nice and wide to allow for safe passing. It's an easy trail for young children and has a nice viewpoint over the valley. You can also have a picnic down by the Elbow River after.

We've always loved the Fullerton Loop in the Elbow Valley

Two. Hike the Paddy's Flat Interpretive Trail from the Paddy's Flat Campground.

Park at the closed campground gate (It doesn't open until May 15th) and hike down to the river. Hike along the Paddy's Flat Interpretive Trail until it joins the Riverview Trail. This is a great place to practice physical distancing because you'll have a large campground to spread out in.

This is also a great place to bring the kids' bikes for some easy campground riding on gravel roads before it opens, and there are secret beaches along the river with beautiful sand. There is also a playground in the loop near the river.

We loved the Paddy's Flat Trail when my son was young

Three. Hike the Prairie Mountain Trail from the Elbow Falls parking lot.

Note this is not a beginner hike. You'll gain 700 metres of height. The trail is also busy so go early or hike mid-week. Expect snow on the trail until mid April.

Read more here: First Summits: Prairie Mountain, Kananaskis 

We love the Prairie Mountain hike!

Four. Hike the Beaver Flats Interpretive Trail from the Winter Gate on Highway 66 at Elbow Falls.

This trail is either accessed from the Beaver Flats Campground or from the Beaver Lodge Day Use Area just past the winter gate on Highway 66.

The campground is a hike-in campground until Highway 66 opens on May 15th. Park at the winter gate by Elbow Falls and walk down the closed highway. (It's also a fabulous bike ride when the snow is gone!!) 

Either hike/bike all the way to the campground (30 minutes at most on a bike) or stop at the Beaver Lodge Day Use area (about a 5 minute walk from the winter gate) and hop on the Beaver Flats Interpretive Trail.

The hiking trail takes you to the campground and is a great hike with kids as you meander along beaver ponds (which are super fun to play in.)

The hike is only 3 km return + a short distance on the highway. It is best enjoyed on foot so bring bike locks if you want to access the trail via the campground at the far end of the trail.

We often bring sand and water toys to play with at the beaver ponds. (And expect the kids to get wet!) 

The Beaver Flats Trail has many small ponds that are fun to play in

Five Have a picnic at Forgetmenot Pond in the Little Elbow Campground.

Highway 66 opens on May 15th past the winter gate at Elbow Falls. After that you can drive to the Little Elbow Campground and it is a great place to explore and have a picnic. Go for a walk along the river, play in the sand underneath the suspension bridge, or head towards the Nihahi Ridge Trailhead at the back of the E loop (which might still have snow along the ridge until early June.)

You can also go for a short out and back ride on the Big Elbow Trail, a wide gravel road, until you reach a beautiful open area along the Elbow River.

Discover more great hikes in this area:

We love playing along the river in the Little Elbow Campground 

7. Go for a Walk around Kananaskis Village or Ribbon Creek

Kananaskis Village is a beautiful place to walk around with many trails in the area. You can also start from the Ribbon Creek parking lot below the Village for a nice walk along Ribbon Creek. There are lots of bridges in the first couple of kilometres until you reach the junction with the Kovach Trail. You can make a 5.5 km loop as well with the Ribbon Creek, Kovach, and Terrace Trails. (See the loop here on All Trails.)

The Troll Falls trail is very popular and you can hike the Hay Meadows Trail to have a picnic beside the Kananaskis River.

Troll Falls melting out for beautiful spring hiking

The  Bill Milne Trail is also a great spring bike trail and is paved. Just wait until the snow melts off, usually by May.

We also like walking around the Kananaskis Lodge where there's a pretty walking path that loops the property.

We like exploring along the Hay Meadows Trail from Ribbon Creek

8. Bike Highway 40 in South Kananaskis before the Highway opens

We love biking on closed highways and roads in spring. It's a great way to self-distance yourself from others too when you're on a big road with space for miles! (Much easier than on a narrow bike path in the city!)

Highway 40 west of Longview doesn't open to vehicles until June 15th. Park at the winter gate at Highwood Junction and ride as far as you get, returning when the kids get tired. You'll have some very big hills in both directions so save energy for the return ride. We like to ride as far as the Cat Creek day use area where we then hike in to see the falls.

Read: Biking to Cat Creek Falls on Highway 40

Biking closed highways is always a favourite spring activity for us

9. Take a Day Trip to Sheep River Provincial Park south of Calgary

For families who live in South Calgary, this is a beautiful corner of Kananaskis. It's similar in vibe to the Elbow Valley but sees a third of the traffic and crowds.

Take a drive along the scenic Sheep River Road heading west from Turner Valley, and find a new favourite day use area. We love the Sheep River Falls Day Use Area and these waterfalls are way more spectacular than Elbow Falls!

You can have a picnic by the Sheep River as well from numerous day use areas along this highway.

Sheep River Falls is beautiful in spring!

Recommended spring hikes in this area include the Dyson Falls Trail and the Foran Grade Loop

Dyson Falls in Spring is a great hike!

The Foran Grade Ridge Loop is a nice shoulder season hike

10. Explore the Sibbald Creek Region of Kananaskis

This is a lesser-known area of Kananaskis and there are a few nice little hiking trails out this way. The turnoff for the Sibbald Creek Trail (Highway 68) is also a short drive for Calgary, 20 minutes west of Calaway Park. We like the Sibbald Lake Day Use Area located beside a quiet campground that will be closed until June.

From Sibbald Lake you can either hike the Sibbald Flat Interpretive Trail or continue on to the Deer Ridge Trail where you climb up to a pretty viewpoint along the ridge.

Deer Ridge is a lovely hike in a quiet corner of Kananaskis 

Other recommended reading for spring adventures