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. Add this year's particular challenges with physical distancing, trying to avoid crowds, and wanting to "explore local," and it's really hard to come up with an idea for a weekend outing.

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 crowded. Please remember too that some parks won't have bathrooms open so be prepared for emergencies and pack everything out with you! 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:  

Ten Epic Bike Pathways in Calgary - Tourism Calgary

City of Calgary Pathways and Bikeways Map 

Top 12 Bike Rides in Calgary - This Mom Bikes 

Suggested Pathway Routes in Calgary - City of 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. They are open to vehicles as of May but they are very quiet. Cars will also be driving very slowly and will give cyclists plenty of space.

We like to bike to the Elk Flats Group Campground where you can have a picnic. 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.

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.

** Author's current trail report: All trails in the Bow Valley Campground are dry, snow free, and without mud.

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

  2. Hike the Prairie View Trail 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 until things dry up. Ice cleats are currently recommended as of mid-May.

For other suggestions read The Best Trails in Bow Valley Provincial Park from the All Trails Website. Note you'll want to choose trails that don't gain too much height. Anything big (Heart Mountain, Mount Yamnuska, Mount Baldy...) will be snow covered.

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 June 1st this year) 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.

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 it is still snow covered and ice cleats are recommended. This is also not a beginner hike. You'll gain 700 metres of height. The trail is also busy so go early or hike mid-week.

Read more here: First Summits: Prairie Mountain, Kananaskis 

We love the Prairie Mountain hike!

Four. Hike the Beaver Flats Interpretive Trail from the Beaver Lodge Day Use Area

The pull out for this small day use area is a 2 minute drive past the Elbow Falls parking lot. The short hiking trail takes you to the Beaver Flats campground and is a great hike with kids as you meander along beaver ponds (which are super fun to play in.) Bring sand toys. The full hike is less than 3 km return.

Alternately, the campground doesn't open until June 1st this year so you could park at the closed campground gate and hike down into the campground to reach the hiking trail.  You could even bring bikes to use around the campground. The roads are gravel, but easy to bike on. Kids usually enjoy biking on the Beaver Flats Trail too.

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.

This campground is closed until June 1st this year so it's 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 this year.)

I'd also bring bikes because this would be a great place to explore quiet roads while the campground is closed. 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. I believe the campground roads are also gravel.

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.)

Note that the Troll Falls Trail is currently closed but you can still hike the Hay Meadows Trail to have a picnic beside the Kananaskis River.

Last I heard the paved Bill Milne Trail still had snow on it, but you can definitely walk this easy trail.

The Pomeroy Kananaskis Lodge is reopening as of May 15th but services are limited and I understand the coffee shop will not be open yet.

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!

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 

If you choose to visit provincial parks, please follow the guidelines and information below:

  • You should be healthy if you are leaving your house to visit parks. If you have any Covid-19 symptoms please stay home.

  • Avoid the mountain towns of Canmore and Bragg Creek. Go straight to the trailhead and back home again. (Banff National Park is closed for hiking right now and they currently have check stops at all entrances to the Town of Banff where you'll be turned away if you try to access the town.)

  • There are not many bathrooms open in the provincial parks right now. Go to the bathroom before you leave home and bring emergency supplies with you in case somebody in your family needs them. This should include wipes, toilet paper, plastic bags, and hand sanitizer. You will be packing everything home with you (and that includes your used toilet paper, diapers or a pile of poo!!)

  • Pack your garbage home with you! Not all garbage cans are being emptied.

  • Wear gloves if filling up with gas before you go. Stock your vehicle with hand sanitizer as well in case you have to touch anything while away from home.

  • Have a plan A, B, C, and D! If you get to a trailhead and the parking lot is already full,  please consider choosing a different trailhead or hike. Yes, people do separate once they get on the trail, but Alberta Parks could shut everything down again if they see hundreds of cars in a parking lot on a Saturday afternoon!

  • Avoid popular trails on a weekend and try to hike outside of peak times. Get an early start or head out later in the afternoon.

  • Carpooling is NOT physical distancing. Hiking with a group of friends is also challenging with physical distancing unless you focus really hard on keeping the recommended 2-metre distance from one another or you restrict your group activities to one cohort family as recommended by our Alberta Chief Medical Officer.

  • Remember that bears are waking up and starting to move around for the spring. Bring bear spray with you and make lots of noise.

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