Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Best Beginner Cross-Country Ski Trails near Calgary

Cross-country skiing is an amazing sport that the whole family can enjoy together. It's affordable, easy to learn, and is as gentle or as strenuous as you want it to be depending on the trail you choose.

There are many great ski trails in Kananaskis and Banff, but I'm sharing my family's favourite beginner-friendly trails. These are the trails my son learned to ski on, the trails we take our novice friends on, and the ones I always recommend to families with young children.

The Best Beginner Cross-Country Ski Trails near Calgary (Bill Milne Trail, Kananaskis)

I've organized the trails by proximity to Calgary, starting with those at West Bragg Creek, and finishing with those at Lake Louise and Emerald Lake.

The Best Beginner Cross-Country Ski Trails near Calgary

West Crystal Line Loop with Mountain Road, West Bragg Creek 

The West Bragg Creek Recreation Area is the closest area where you'll find groomed trails for cross-country skiing near Calgary. You'll also find multi-use trails for snowshoeing, winter hiking, or fat biking, and a couple of trails dedicated to just hiking or snowshoeing (no bikes allowed.) The ski trails are designated for skiing only and you shouldn't meet hikers or cyclists on them.

If you look at the trail map for West Bragg Creek, you'll see that there are not many green beginner trails here. That being said, some of the blue intermediate trails are a soft shade of blue with gentle hills, great for practicing on before progressing to more advanced trails. 

Beginner skiing on the West Crystal Line Trail at West Bragg Creek

The West Crystal Line / Mountain Road Loop was the first outing that we were able to complete as a family. West Crystal starts off as a green beginner trail once you cross the bridge, but then becomes more intermediate in nature with a few gentle hills after the first few hundred metres. We connect West Crystal Line to the Mountain Road with the Moose Connector Trail, a relatively easy trail with one steep hill down to Mountain Road (which you could walk if you had to.)

Once you reach Mountain Road, the going is relatively flat and you're back in beginner-friendly terrain. (In fact, many novice skiers just ski the wide Mountain Road out and back as far as they have energy for and return the same way.)

Mountain Road is a multi-use beginner trail at West Bragg Creek

The West Crystal Line / Moose Connector / Mountain Road Loop is less than 4 km long so if you want a longer ski, just continue up Mountain Road further before turning around.

And find the latest trail reports for West Bragg Creek here.  - Pay attention to the "Last trackset date." Skiing is very challenging for a beginner if the trail has only been groomed with no tracks. 

The Groomers report also has important information at the link above. (If it says "rock skis recommended" you likely want to wait.)

You can also read the recent trip reports on the Skier Roger website. (If nobody has reported anything for the area you want to ski, there's often a good reason for it.)

Find more trip reports on the Cross-country Skiing YYC Facebook Group. 

West Bragg Creek has a great trail system with a few beginner options

The Terrace Loop, Kananaskis Village (Ribbon Creek Trails)

My son learned to ski on this short easy trail and it's perfect for beginners who don't know how to climb or descend hills yet. The 4.1 km loop starts from the back parking lot of the Pomeroy Kananaskis Lodge (by Woody's Pub and the Mount Kidd Manor.) See a map of the Village and the Terrace Trail here. 

Start on the Terrace Trail by the hockey rink and make a loop using the Terrace Link Trail. (There are maps at every junction on the trail so you won't get lost.)

The loop is 90% flat with gentle hills that shouldn't scare a beginner skier. (You'll never have to snow plow.) 

The Terrace Trail is perfect for families with young children

Extend your outing: If you want to add a bit of excitement and start working on your hills, you can create a bigger loop using the Terrace, Kovach, and Aspen trails.

You can see the map here of the Village Trails (You'll be skiing the south trails) and we usually do this loop in a counter clockwise direction, descending the s-turns on Kovach at the end of the loop. The full Terrace Loop with extension is 6.7 km.

Note that there are a few short punchy climbs on Aspen, and the final descent on Kovach is quite steep for a beginner. You will need to know how to perform a good snow plow. When my son was young I had to pull him up several of the hills with one of my ski poles and then he had to descend the final part by skiing between an adult's legs.

Follow this link for up to date trail conditions

The Terrace Loop is a great beginner-friendly ski trail

The Bill Milne Trail, Ribbon Creek

This gorgeous trail is great for adults or families who want a nice long ski without any technical challenges. The trail is relatively flat and you can turn around anytime you start to feel tired.

We always start from the Kovach Day Use Area below the Village and ski towards Wedge Pond from here. If you start from the Village, there's a long descent down to the highway which the rest of the trail parallels. (Fun to go down, less fun to climb back up at the end of the day.)

From the Kovach Day Use Area, it is roughly 4 km to the Kananaskis Golf Course for a perfect beginner outing of 8 km round trip (completely flat.) This is also the most scenic part where you ski across a long beautiful meadow surrounded by big mountains. (all of my photos were taken from this section.)

Note if the Kovach parking lot has not been plowed, park at Ribbon Creek where you can connect to the Bill Milne Trail. (There's a link to the area map below)

There is also a small parking lot at the golf course where you can then ski out and back towards Ribbon Creek or towards Wedge Pond.

The Bill Milne Trail is an easy but very scenic trail in Kananaskis

From the Golf Course, it is another 1.6 km to the Mount Kidd RV Park. Round trip you're now looking at just over 11 km which should be enough for most novice skiers. If you want to go further, it's 1.9 km to Wedge Pond from the RV Park where the trail ends.

Round trip distance from the Kovach Day Use Area to Wedge Pond is roughly 15 km. Note that if you go all the way to Wedge Pond, there is a short intermediate hilly section that beginners may find challenging. (Walk it if you have to.) You'll also have to cross the highway before reaching the pond so be careful with kids. The hilly intermediate section starts right after you cross  the highway.

For those new to skate skiing, this is also a great beginner trail for that as well. The trail is typically only single track set for classic skiing with a wide skating lane. (You can also expect to see fat bikes as they are permitted on this trail.)

You can see the map here of the Village Trails (You'll be skiing the south trails) 

Follow this link for up to date trail conditions

Winter wonderland skiing on the Bill Milne Trail

Wedge Connector Loop, Ribbon Creek

This is an extension to the Bill Milne Trail or you can do this short 7 km loop by itself. Read the description below and then scroll to the bottom of this section where there's a map.

We like parking at the Kananaskis Golf Course where there's a small parking area. My route here starts from the golf course. There are two other parking lots along the loop though so just follow this route from whichever parking lot you start from.

From the golf course it's an easy 1.6 km flat ski along the Bill Milne Trail to the Mount Kidd RV Park. You'll pass a highway crossing, connecting you to the Evan Thomas Fireroad (which you'll be coming back on.) Continue on past the RV Park until you come to the second highway crossing for Wedge Pond. Carefully cross the highway and ski a short distance on a hilly intermediate section of  trail (you'll be climbing the biggest hill.) 

Skiing along the scenic Bill Milne Trail towards Wedge Pond

After 3.1 km (total distance from the golf course) you arrive at the junction with Wedge Pond and the Wedge Connector Trail. There's no real reason to go to Wedge Pond (unless you need to use the bathroom or you want to use this parking lot and start here) so turn left onto the Wedge Connector Trail.

The Wedge Connector is an easy trail with a few gentle hills that you'll climb. It's 2.4 km long and it ends at Evan Thomas Creek where there is no bridge. Fortunately the creek is generally frozen over in winter and it's easy to remove your skis and walk across. Climb up the bank on the far side of the creek and the track setting resumes at the top of the hill.

Here you'll be skiing on the Evan Thomas Fireroad as you make your way back to the highway. The fireroad is 1.7 km long and there's a parking lot at the end should you wish to start here (where there's usually plenty of parking.) 

Evan Thomas Creek at the end of the Wedge Connector 

While you could do this loop the opposite direction, I prefer skiing down the Evan Thomas Fireroad towards the highway because it's a gentle glide the whole way. Climbing it just feels tedious. It's never steep and you'll never have to leave the tracks, but it's more fun to double pole your way happily down the trail than to plod up it.

Once you get to the parking lot, cross the highway and you'll be back on the Bill Milne Trail. Turn right to head back to your vehicle. It'll take you less than 10 minutes to reach the golf course.

 You can see the map here of the Village Trails (You'll be skiing the south trails) 

Follow this link for up to date trail conditions

Evan Thomas Creek Bridge on the Bill Milne Trail

Wheeler / Amos Loop, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis

There are over 70 kilometres of groomed ski trails in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and you'll find some great beginner-friendly trails starting from the Elkwood Amphitheatre parking lot.

All of the trails around the Elkwood Campground have rolling terrain so you'll have a few hills to contend with no matter which loop you choose to ski. Fortunately the hills are short and never too big.

Our favourite trail in this area is the Wheeler Trail which traverses along a scenic bench with picnic tables. Ski this trail out and back for a gentle 7 km outing to the Boulton Creek Campground.

Easy skiing on the Wheeler Trail in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park

For a good 5 km loop, try skiing the Amos Trail around Marl Lake until it meets up with Wheeler. Return on Wheeler back to your starting point.

If you've been successful with the trails above, try the trails on the other side of the road including Spruce Road, Braille, Lodgepole, and Sinclair. (Returning back to Elkwood.) You can also try following the Meadow Trail to the Visitor Centre and back.

Read more here about the beginner-friendly Spruce Road Loop

Finally, if you want to try skiing in another area of Peter Lougheed, Park at the Pocaterra parking lot (the first one you'll come to after turning off Highway 40) and ski the Pocaterra Trail until you get tired and return the same way. This is a popular trail and families always flock to it. (Personally I prefer the area around Elkwood.)

See a map of the Peter Lougheed ski trails here. (You'll be skiing the north trails.)

Follow this link for up to date trail conditions

Easy skiing on trails around the Elkwood Campground in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park

Watridge Lake, Mount Shark, Kananaskis

This is a great beginner trail with a lovely objective of reaching a scenic lake. You'll be following an old exploration road for 3.7 km one way, and it is relatively flat.

Note that the final 200 metre descent down to the lake is very steep so beginners will likely want to walk down to the lake from the junction.

Extend your outing: there are additional loops you can ski off the Watridge Lake road. Try the 2 km blue loop (which is a beginner loop despite the color.) The "green" loop is actually a difficult trail.

Skiing the easy trail to Watridge Lake in Kananaskis

And to stay overnight in the area, consider a decadent stay at nearby Mount Engadine Lodge where you have options that include cabins, winterized glamping tents (with indoor plumbing,) beautiful suites or lodge rooms. All meals are included with your stay including afternoon tea, dinner, breakfast the next day, and a packed lunch for the road.

One of the cozy glamping tents at Mount Engadine Lodge 

Banff Trail, Canmore Nordic Centre

The Canmore Nordic Centre is a fabulous place to ski for all abilities with over 40 kilometres of trails. The Centre is located just outside the Town of Canmore and you can see it here on Google maps.

You can rent skis and pulk sleds should you need to tow a young child from Trail Sports on site. (Book your equipment ahead of time on their website.)

Trail fees are in effect to ski here. ($15 for adults, $11.25 for youth, and $9 for children.)

Skiing with  Grandma at the Canmore Nordic Centre on Banff Trail

The best beginner trail here is Banff Trail, a lovely relatively flat outing. You can ski up to 5.5 km one way before turning around. During non Covid times, there's also a large warming hut in the meadow along this trail where you can stop and have snacks or lunch. I wouldn't expect it to open this year.

In addition to the ski trails, you'll also find a sledding hill and skating rink (both of which are free to use.) 

Skiing through the meadow  by the warming hut on Banff Trail

Normally, you can also use the day lodge at the Centre as well. As of the moment, there is access to the Visitor Information Centre, Cornerstone CafĂ© for take out, and Washrooms. No sitting is allowed at present however due to Covid protocols. 

See a map of the Canmore Nordic Centre Trails here. - And you can extend your outing with the 11 km green loop shown on the trail map.

Follow this link for up to date trail conditions

Bring the sleds as a reward for a good ski day

Cascade Valley to the Cascade River Bridge

Most people wouldn't consider this a true beginner trail, but if you've already skied some of the other trails in this guide, my family has always liked the Cascade Valley Trail. What I like best is that it's not a cute little 4 km outing for young children. This is a real ski day for novice adults looking for some solid exercise on a trail that climbs gently to a scenic bridge. And then the descent is a ton of fun!

This is what you can expect for most of the trip to the Cascade River bridge 

The trail starts from the Lake Minnewanka parking lot outside the Town of Banff. The first kilometre follows the snow covered Lake Minnewanka Loop Road (You'll drive the east side of the loop to reach the lake.) You'll then ski an additional 5.3 km to the Cascade Valley Bridge, always a great objective. Beginners will feel quite victorious upon reaching the bridge. There is an elevation gain of 135 metres but it's quite gradual and you should be able to stay in the ski tracks the whole time. The complete outing is 12.6 km return.

Cascade River Bridge at 6.3 km from Lake Minnewanka 

When my son was young, we towed him up to the bridge and then he had a blast skiing back down. The trail is steep enough that a novice skier will get a good thrill on descent, but you shouldn't have to snow plow too much unless the trail is icy. 

The most challenging hill is at the very end, leading back down to the Minnewanka Loop Road. Just walk the hill if you have to.

If you're looking for an easier outing with young kids, you can always stick to the snow covered road for a 4 km return trip. It is groomed and track set to the Upper Bankhead site.

Getting a a bit of a tow on the snow covered Lake Minnewanka road

You can find the winter brochures for Banff National Park here. (The Cascade Valley is on the "Winter Trails in the Banff Area" brochure.)

Follow this link for up to date trail conditions. 

The Cascade Valley Trail is a great reward for novice adult skiers wanting some good exercise

Castle Mountain Lookout to Baker Creek on the Highway 1A

This is another trail that isn't normally considered a beginner trail, but it is as novice as they come for ski trails. There's one steep hill at the beginning which can be walked or skipped entirely with a walk down to the road from the parking lot.

Start from the Castle Mountain Lookout parking lot on the Highway 1A and ski as far as you want towards the Protection Mountain Campground and Baker Creek Mountain Resort. The full trip is approximately 20 km round trip but you don't have to ski the full distance. Turn around early at Protection Mountain to greatly shorten the outing. It is only 12 km round trip from the lookout to the campground return. (And this is the prettiest part.)

Note you'll be skiing on an actual groomed ski trail and not on the road itself.

Find a complete description of this ski trail in the story below:

There's great scenery between Castle Lookout and Protection Mountain

I highly recommend skiing this trail on a sunny day to take advantage of the gorgeous scenery.

The trail has two hills (like a double hump) that you must ski up and over. Neither is especially big and you'll never have to leave the ski tracks.

Ski as far as you can and then return the same way. You can also set up a shuttle if you have younger children for a pleasant 10 km one-way trip from Baker Creek to Castle Mountain Lookout. 

You can find the winter brochures for Banff National Park here. (This trail is on the "Winter Trails in the Lake Louise" brochure.)

Follow this link for up to date trail conditions. 

Beautiful scenery along the Highway 1A

Stay overnight for easy access to the trails along the 1A at the Baker Creek Mountain ResortThe resort has cozy cabins and suites, many with kitchenettes and all with fireplaces (including wood burning fireplaces in the cabins.) The largest cabins fit up to 5 people.

By staying at Baker Creek, you'll also be very close to either the trails at Lake Louise or the trails near the Town of Banff. 

Beautiful skiing near Baker Creek

The Great Divide Trail, Lake Louise

If you're going to ski a road, I personally prefer this one over the Moraine Lake Road. I'm not big on just skiing as far as I can make it, and then turning around. I like to have an end goal with an objective - and reaching the big arch at the Divide is a great objective!!

There are two ways to ski the Great Divide Trail depending on how far you want to ski.

Skiing to the Divide from Lake Louise: Start from the Lake Louise trailhead and ski to the Divide and back in 14 km return. Unfortunately the trail trends gradually downhill to the Divide so you have to climb on the way back (which is never fun.) The trail is relatively flat, but it will feel more difficult on the way back. There's also a big hill down to the Divide that might require snow plow skills depending on how icy the trail is. (Last time I skied this trail, I was able to double pole down the hill in the ski tracks.)

Skiing to the Divide from the Lake O'Hara parking lot: Drive across the border into Yoho National Park and start at the Lake O'Hara Parking lot. From here it is a flat easy 7 km round trip ski to the Divide and back. This part receives less regular grooming and track setting, but it's much shorter.

Everybody feels victorious when they reach the big arch at the Great Divide

Skiing the Divide one-way with a shuttle: This is my absolute favourite way to ski the Great Divide Trail! My son and I get dropped off at the Lake Louise Trailhead and ski towards the Divide. My husband drives to Yoho and starts from the other end. We ski towards each other and then he turns around when he meets up with us, and we all ski back to the car together. It means we're not skiing together for much of the time, but if you have young children, it's a great way to help them ski the entire trail one way, a distance of roughly 10 km. 

You can find the winter brochures for Banff National Park here. (This trail is on the "Winter Trails in the Lake Louise" brochure.)

Follow this link for up to date trail conditions. 

Early season skiing on the Great Divide Trail

The Tramline Trail, Lake Louise

This is the absolute BEST ski trail for families with young children because you can ski it one-way from the lake down to the village, and it's relatively all downhill. And except for one hill, it's all very gentle, double polling, stay in the tracks, skiing. You won't be descending crazy hills or having to snow plow for kilometres on end. The entire trail is basically rail grade and perfect for teaching kick and glide with a bit of gravity in your favor.

There is one steep hill (on a slope that always feels exposed because the road is far below you at this point.) Just walk it if you have to. 

Easy skiing on the Tramline Trail at Lake Louise

My family always skis this as a shuttle. My husband drops us off at the top and then drives down to the train station parking lot in the Village. He skis up to meet us (getting a good workout) and we benefit from a family-friendly outing that my son loves.

Tramline is only 4.8 km one way and you'll lose 195 metres of height on your descent down to the Village. 

The  bridge over Louise Creek is a highlight on this trail

For a longer ski, add on the Bow River Loop (which starts from the same parking lot.) 

You can find the winter brochures for Banff National Park here. (This trail is on the "Winter Trails in the Lake Louise" brochure.)

Follow this link for up to date trail conditions. 

The one steep hill on the Tramline Trail

The Bow River Loop, Lake Louise

This is one of my favourite beginner-friendly trails for scenery, diversity, and general easy skiing with no hills to speak of (other than one descent down to a bridge, which could be walked.)

The trail map says that the complete loop is only 4.1 km, but it always feels longer. (Maybe that's because we often combine it with a descent down the Tramline Tail first.)

We always start at the train station parking lot in the Village where there's ample space for parking. From here we follow the trail along the village-side of the river (not crossing the bridge from the parking lot.) You have a couple of unpleasant road crossings near the Village Centre (take your skis off and carefully cross the roads) but then you get into the Lake Louise campground area where there are no more road crossings.

Bridge crossing on the Bow River Loop at Lake Louise

Follow the river through the trailer campground until you reach two beautiful bridges at the far end. This is your turnaround spot as you ski back on the other side of the river, skiing through the tenting campground. One more road crossing returns you to the first section of trail (on the other side of the river.) Cross the final bridge and you're back at your car.

For a shorter ski, you can start at the Village Centre and just loop the campground (trail 10 on the map.) There's also another parking lot near the campground which shows up on the map below. This would eliminate the need to cross any roads (something I might consider for my next visit here!)

If you like snowy bridges, you'll love this ski trail!

You can find the winter brochures for Banff National Park here. (This trail is on the "Winter Trails in the Lake Louise" brochure.)

Follow this link for up to date trail conditions. 

The Bow River Loop is magical in every way!

The Lake Louise Loop

Skiing could not get any easier than this one! You'll be skiing straight across Lake Louise, on the frozen lake itself. There is absolutely no height gain, not a single hill, and you'll enjoy grooming with tracks to ski in.

You can follow the tracks across the lake until you reach Louise Falls, a beautiful set of frozen waterfalls, approximately 2 km down the lake.

Skiing across Lake Louise should be on every skier's bucket list

For your return trip, either retrace your steps and ski back across the lake, or climb up to the forested trail above the lake for a 4 km loop. The forest trail starts by the waterfall.

The forest trail is not overly technical,  but it is more narrow than the wide open lake. Regardless, it is definitely considered a beginner trail.

Save this outing for a sunny day for the best experience! And to extend your outing, bring sleds and skates for the Lake Louise skating rink and sledding hill (both located at the lakeshore.)

You can find the winter brochures for Banff National Park here. (This trail is on the "Winter Trails in the Lake Louise" brochure.)

Follow this link for up to date trail conditions. 

One of the most beautiful ski trails (and the easiest) in the Rockies!

Emerald Lake Trails, Yoho National Park

The ski trails at Emerald Lake rarely show up in beginner-friendly ski stories, but I honestly don't know why. Emerald Lake is my absolute favourite place to ski in all of the Canadian Rockies and the trails are virtually flat with very few hills.

Start from the lakeshore below Emerald Lake Lodge and ski across the lake for approximately 2 km. The Kicking Horse Ski Club does grooming and tracksetting here and obviously this trail is perfectly flat. There is a trail that follows the lake shore above through the trees as well, but unless the lake isn't fully frozen, I'm not sure why you'd ski through the trees and miss out on the views down below.

Wait until at least January if you plan to ski across the lake. 

Skiing across Emerald Lake on a beautiful sunny day

Upon reaching the end of the lake, you can continue on the Alluvial Fan Trail, a gorgeous 4 km loop. It is also trackset and is relatively flat. The scenery on this loop is unparalleled and I recommend visiting on a sunny day.

If you're in the area for a couple of nights and looking for other trails to ski, consider skiing the Kicking Horse Trail which follows an old road beside the Kicking Horse River. This trail starts from the Natural Bridge parking lot at the bottom of the Emerald Lake Road and it is a 7 km ski one way. Ski as far as you want and return the same way.

The Kicking Horse Trail trends downhill for the first 2.5 km to a small bridge over the Emerald River and then crosses the Amiskwi River in another 100 metres. So if you like rivers, this is your ski loop. The entire trail is relatively flat and great for novice skiers.

Skiing the Alluvial Fan Trail at Emerald Lake

Beginner Options South of Calgary - Sandy McNabb Ski Trails

My family recently traveled south to Turner Valley for the day to check out the ski trails at the Sandy McNabb Campground in Sheep River Provincial Park. The trails on the north side of the highway were quite challenging, but the south trails were beautiful, well groomed, and very beginner-friendly.

Recommended loops include Meadow, Loggers, and Sandy McNabb. And if you park at the Winter Day Use area, there's also a skating rink (and you won't have to cross the highway on your skis at all.)

See the recent grooming report here. (which you really want to pay attention to for this area.)

Cross-country skiing at Sandy McNabb in South Kananaskis

Beginner-friendly Skiing in the City of Calgary

There are several places to cross-country ski in the City of Calgary where you'll find grooming and track set trails.

Visit the City of Calgary's website for a list of parks and golf courses where you can ski. Donations are also appreciated to the ski clubs that maintain the trails on the golf courses.

Get grooming updates for skiing at the Shaganappi Point Golf Course here. 

Get grooming updates for skiing at the Confederation Park Golf Course here. 

Cross-country skiing in Bowness Park, NW Calgary

Resources for Beginner Skiers

At the end of this story you'll find a resource section with information on renting and buying new + used ski equipment near Calgary.

Sometimes young kids need a little bit of help on the big hills

Get Social with Other Skiers in the Calgary Area!

Join the Cross-Country Skiing YYC Group on Facebook and join interesting chats, ask questions, and maybe even meet some new ski buddies. 

You'll also find valuable information to get you started skiing in the announcements pinned to the top of the Cross-Country Skiing YYC Facebook group.

Get social and meet other skiers near Calgary

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