Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Experience Family-friendly Ice Climbing in Jasper National Park

I used to joke that we enjoy nearly every outdoor activity as a family, with the exception of fishing and ice climbing. Then a few years ago friends introduced us to fishing on a backcountry camping trip, and it wasn't so bad. Fast forward to this year, and now we've tried ice climbing as a family - and absolutely loved it!! 

Ice climbing in Jasper National Park (And that's me!)

My husband has already been ice climbing for a few years now, but for my son and I, our recent adventure in Jasper was brand new! Terrifyingly and awesomely new.

My 12 year old high up on the frozen waterfall we climbed

Experience Ice Climbing with Rockaboo Mountain Adventures in Jasper 

We recently participated in a hosted trip to Jasper, partnering with Tourism Jasper, and I was asked if we wanted to join an ice climbing tour. I immediately said yes because I knew my husband was wanting to find a way to introduce the sport to our son (but as we all know, teaching your own kids how to do a brand new sport is very challenging!)

Me, I just wanted to go along for the ride and watch my son try ice climbing. In no way was I planning on actually climbing a frozen waterfall myself! (I was prepared with every excuse under the sun for why current injuries wouldn't allow me to climb.)

How the heck did I get all the way up here?

We joined an "Experience Ice Climbing Tour" with Rockaboo Mountain Adventures and the requirements for signing up were pretty simple.

You can join an introductory ice climbing tour with Rockaboo if...

  • You have a reasonable fitness level. (You can climb a ladder, go for a short hike, etc.)

  • You are over the age of 12! (Youth are welcome to join the tour but children will have to wait a few years.)

  • You have suitable winter clothing to spend up to 4 hours outside. You'll want a pair of waterproof pants and jacket (even your downhill ski pants and jacket will work,) warm mittens or gloves (again, as waterproof as possible,) and something to cover your head (a toque or buff that will fit under a helmet.)

  • You're willing and excited to try something new, even if you find it scary at first. (The guides will never pressure you to go higher than you want.)

  • You aren't scared of heights. (That's not an actual Rockaboo requirement but it kind of makes sense.)

I'll also say that if you've tried rock climbing, you'll find ice climbing MUCH easier. You'll already be comfortable with being lowered on a rope and will have worked out your fear of heights.

Getting started on the ice and learning how to use  crampons

What to Expect from a Beginner Ice Climbing Tour with Rockaboo

We met at the Rockaboo office downtown Jasper and were given the choice to drive to the waterfall we'd be climbing or to ride in a large van with the guides. We chose to drive our own vehicle (partially because of Covid and partially just for our own comfort.) 

We were then suited up with sturdy climbing boots, crampons, a helmet, and a harness. We transported this equipment to the parking lot where we got dressed.

My husband showing us how it's done!

Rockaboo lent us everything we needed for personal gear and then brought everything else with them to the trailhead (ice tools, ropes, climbing equipment, etc.)

I know my husband has wanted to introduce our son to ice climbing for a while but it's hard to just go out and "try" something when you don't have the gear. We appreciated that Rockaboo not only had the gear for all of us to borrow, but they had GOOD gear. (My husband was jealous of their top of the line ice tools.)

My boys both ice climbing together.

The other thing we appreciated was having professional guides and teachers with us for our first time trying this brand new sport. Again, my husband is not new to ice climbing, but it's hard to take two beginners out to a frozen waterfall by yourself and just teach them to climb (especially when you need a second experienced adult to belay you while you climb!)

The Rockaboo guides set up the ropes, belayed us while we climbed, gave us instruction in how to use our crampons and ice tools, and kept the ropes nice and tight so we always felt secure. I knew if I slipped that I wasn't going anywhere! (And trust me, I slipped a lot.)

Talk about helping a new climber! Our guide was right there beside my son.

One of our guides even climbed up beside my son to help him when he encountered some really hard ice that wasn't soft enough to get good placements with the ice tools. He coached my son to keep going and helped him reach the top of the climb.

All in all, our guides gave us the confidence we needed to try this terrifying new sport (and to do reasonably well at it!) 

Remember, I wasn't planning on climbing either! Somehow between arriving at the tour office and receiving our initial instructions I had decided to at least try it. And at some point, I realized I was comfortable enough to really give it a go and climb a long ways up the frozen ice.

First time ice climbing! My 12 year old crushed it!

Ice climbing is one heck of a mother and son bonding activity!

Preparing for your First Ice Climbing Tour with Rockaboo Mountain Adventures

Below are some suggestions if you're considering booking a tour with Rockaboo.

  1. Decide ahead of time if you'll want to take your own vehicle. We didn't know it was an option so had parked a few blocks away from the office and hadn't filled up on gas. Fortunately we had enough gas for the 2-hour return drive. 

  2. Be prepared for a drive of up to one hour in distance each way. Rockaboo likes to use Maligne Canyon when possible (which is close to the Town of Jasper) but when it's not in condition they choose Tangle Falls which is an hour from Jasper along the Icefields Parkway. 

    We were taken to Tangle Falls which I was very excited about. We've often admired this beautiful frozen waterfall while driving the Parkway and I was amazed we'd get to climb it! It's also a warm sunny location so you'll be taken here on cold days.

    Again, I didn't know that we'd be driving so far, so we weren't prepared with a book for our son (which we would have wanted for two hours in the car.) - Fortunately we had time to return to our hotel to grab some books.

  3. Bring your lunch, snacks, and water with you. The tour doesn't include any food or beverages. We stopped at a great café in Jasper and bought both breakfast and lunch at the same time.

  4. Have at least one or two backpacks with you to transport gear to the base of the climb. You'll be carrying your own lunch and water, your harness (if not wearing it,) and you'll want extra layers of clothing. Extra mitts or gloves would be a good idea too and you'll want to bring hand warmers on cold days. (Toe warmers wouldn't be a bad idea as well.)

  5. Be prepared to learn to belay on the spot (if you're willing) so more people can climb at the same time. We were lucky in our group because we had two guides with us. Often they only have one guide for a small group of 6 clients. My husband also helped out with belaying on our tour which allowed one guide to pay more attention to coaching the new climbers.

The tour is 6 hours long but that allows for driving time so you'll be back at the office in town by 4:00pm. That being said, the Icefields Parkway is always unpredictable so I would suggest you don't make dinner reservations for 5:00.

You'll be started on nice gentle ice! (No overhanging waterfall.)

For more information, visit the Rockaboo Mountain Adventures website.

Disclaimer: Our tour was hosted through Tourism Jasper and Rockaboo Mountain Adventures. However, all words are my own and we honestly LOVED our experience. This will not be our last time ice climbing as a family and I suspect we'll be buying more gear next winter for our entire family to get into this new sport.

Monday, March 01, 2021

Spend Spring Break with your Family at a Wilderness Hostel

Spring Break is coming along with the Easter long weekend and we always love spending a few nights at one of the wilderness hostels in Kananaskis, Banff, or Jasper. The hostels provide the perfect combination of drive-up access blended with a backcountry experience (with way more comfort than winter camping!)

This cabin could  be yours for a Spring Break getaway! (HI Hilda Creek)

I had dismissed winter hosteling this year due to Covid restrictions, but suddenly my family is booked into one of our favourite hostels for a weekend in March and I couldn't be more thrilled! (And we'll have the entire hostel to ourselves!)

How does hosteling work with Covid restrictions?

Right now all wilderness hostels are technically "closed" in that you can't just show up for a night or make a reservation for a handful of beds.

Several wilderness hostels do however have "rent-a-hostel" availability and it's not as expensive as you'd imagine. Hosteling International realizes that current restrictions prohibit families from sharing indoor spaces with other groups, so they've adjusted their pricing based on private bookings for one family unit per hostel. (Meaning you get an entire hostel to yourselves and you won't be sharing it with anyone else.)

This entire wilderness hostel could be yours for Easter! (HI Athabasca Falls)

Follow this link to see a full list of  wilderness hostels that are open for rent-a-hostel bookings.

And this link will take you to the Rent-a-Hostel page for Hosteling International for all information.

Take your children on a wilderness getaway for Easter this year! (HI Kananaskis)

Do the hostels still have space for spring break or Easter?

I can't speak for every hostel, but my family is booked into the very popular HI Mosquito Creek Hostel for a weekend in March, and the reservation was just made. We're staying on a weekend and there was space for us (meaning the hostel was empty.)

Families with flexibility to stay mid-week should definitely have no problems finding a hostel with availability in the next month.

And, you don't have to wait until spring break. You can check for bookings for this coming weekend if you want. 

Playing in giant snow banks outside the HI Mosquito Creek Hostel in spring

How do I make a booking and how much will I pay to rent an entire hostel?

Now that there are single family restrictions in Alberta, Hostelling International has lowered the price to $195.00 per night to rent a hostel . For that you get any available wilderness hostel, the whole place, for your immediate family to use. Each hostel comes with kitchen facilities and may have an indoor fireplace depending on the hostel. (Check with the individual hostel to find out what amenities you'll have.)

Bookings must be made over the phone and you can get more information on the booking process here.

Imagine spending a few days here with your family! (HI Rampart Creek)

Why Stay at a Wilderness Hostel instead of a Hotel

There are a few main reasons why we love staying at wilderness hostels:

  • Each hostel has kitchen facilities so we can cook our own meals and save money on not having to eat out. (And they're significantly cheaper than fully equipped condos.)

  • We appreciate the space! Hotel rooms generally have one room (unless you splurge on a 2-bedroom condo.) Meanwhile, a hostel will usually have a separate kitchen and living area (sometimes with a fireplace) and separate rooms or cabins for sleeping. This is great if you want to stay up past the kids' bedtime! (No hiding in the bathroom while the kids sleep in the hotel room.)

  • The kids can go sledding, play in the snow, build a snowman, or just run around - right outside the hostel! (This doesn't usually happen when you stay at a hotel.) Bring some lawn chairs and you can just hang out and watch the kids play - without having to drive anywhere! Every hostel is located in a wilderness setting so you'll have space for the kids to run around for miles.

  • By March we usually miss camping and staying at a wilderness hostel gives us that "nature fix" that we've been craving. Lest you worry that the hostels will be too "rustic" though, many of them have indoor plumbing with showers, and some even have full electricity with microwaves.

  • Spring is a great time to stay at one of the hostels along the Icefields Parkway or near Lake Louise. There's still awesome skating, sledding, and skiing (while everything is starting to melt closer to Calgary.)

This could be your children if you spend a few nights on the Icefields Parkway this spring!

Wilderness Hostels as a base camp for Skiing

The HI Kananaskis Hostel is the closest facility to Calgary and is located just below Kananaskis Village off Highway 40. Stay in Kananaskis and you'll be a 5 minute drive from the Nakiska Ski Hill.

There are also groomed cross-country ski trails right outside the door from the hostel and around the Kananaskis Village area.

HI Castle Mountain is located at Castle Junction in Banff and is centrally located to ski at either Sunshine Village, Mount Norquay, or at the Lake Louise Ski Resort.

There are also groomed cross-country ski trails right outside the door.

HI Mosquito Creek is another great option for downhill skiing. This hostel is located approximately 30 minutes away from the Lake Louise Ski Resort on the Icefields Parkway (a heck of a lot closer than the ski hill is from Calgary for a day trip!)

Stay at Mosquito Creek and you'll have plenty of options for cross-country skiing as well near Lake Louise.

Finally, HI Athabasca Falls is located near the Marmot Basin Ski Resort in Jasper, and from the hostel the ski hill is only a 30 minute drive.

There are also groomed cross-country ski trails right across the highway from this hostel.

There are several wilderness hostels near downhill ski resorts

Wilderness Hostels as a base camp for snowshoeing, hiking, and adventure

We love staying at the hostels along the Icefields Parkway where you can walk out the door and generally go rambling wherever you want (within reason.) I'm not saying you should just start walking up any random hiking trail in winter (avalanche terrain is very real out along the Parkway) but we've had a lot of fun over the years exploring the terrain near each hostel we've stayed at.

Below are highlights from each wilderness hostel along the Icefields Parkway.

HI Mosquito Creek  - Explore the Mosquito Creek campground or cross the highway and hike up the creek to find frozen waterfalls. Note you'll be going up the actual creek and not up the summer hiking trail. (Though we did try cross-country skiing the summer hiking trail and it was quite beautiful - though challenging.) From Mosquito Creek you're also near Lake Louise where there are many safe designated winter hiking trails.

We found these frozen waterfalls right across the highway from the HI Mosquito Creek Hostel

From Mosquito Creek we also like to hike or cross-country ski to the Peyto Lake Viewpoint at Bow Summit. The viewpoint is closed this winter 2021 for construction, but keep it in mind if you're traveling here next winter. The hike or ski is an easy one up a wide summer road with no avalanche danger. Once you get to the viewpoint though you should return. Do not attempt to hike the Bow Summit Lookout Trail where backcountry skiers will be touring with avalanche gear and training.

The Peyto Lake Viewpoint is always a fun destination on skis or snowshoes (add to your list for 2022)

Finally we have also cross-country skied across Bow Lake (sticking to the middle of the lake to avoid avalanche slopes) and you could also hike across the lake. It's a beautiful lake even if you just stop by the lodge to take photos and play around.

Do not go past the end of the lake towards Bow Glacier Falls as this puts you in avalanche terrain.

Skiing across Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway

HI Rampart Creek - Further north along the Icefields Parkway near the Saskatchewan River Crossing, this hostel is conveniently located to explore the Mistaya Canyon Trail. We've also enjoyed hiking in the meadows across the highway from the hostel and there's a small canyon behind the hostel. 

From Rampart Creek you're also a short 30 minute drive from the Columbia Icefields Centre where you can snowshoe the moraines below the Athabasca Glacier and hike to the toe of the glacier. (It's not safe to walk on the glacier itself.) And just past the Icefields Centre, make sure you drive a short distance further to view the frozen Tangle Falls (right hand side of the road.)

Playing in the snow outside the Rampart Creek Hostel 

HI Hilda Creek
- Families wanting a true backcountry experience will find it here! This is a hike-in hostel and you'll have to load all of your gear into a sled, and use snowshoes to access the hostel (even though it's only a 5 minute hike to the cabin.) - Read more below where I've listed stories from our previous trips.

From Hilda Creek families with backcountry experience and avalanche training can snowshoe up to the moraines behind the hostel to try some epic sledding. The trail we follow starts behind the outhouse by the creek where the terrain is generally safe if you have the training to know where to go (and where not to go.) You should not hike directly up from the hostel as this will put you into direct avalanche terrain.

Sledding down glacier moraines above the Hilda Creek Hostel 

If you want to drive from Hilda Creek you are a very short distance away from the Columbia Icefields Centre where you can play on the moraines at the toe of the Athabasca Glacier. 

Hiking to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier at the Columbia Icefields Centre

We've also hiked down to the base of Panther Falls which was an amazing hike nearby. I'd avoid this area in times of high avalanche hazard and the trail is not suitable for young children. It is also imperative that you have spikes or good ice cleats.

Panther Falls near the HI Hilda Creek Hostel

The basic appeal of Hilda Creek is that you'll get to experience true winter camping without having to sleep in a tent. This hostel does not have a manager on site and you'll be fully responsible for your own needs.

Note you should not hike the popular Parker Ridge or Wilcox Pass Trails in winter with children. Both trails enter avalanche terrain.

Create memories on the Icefields Parkway!

HI Beauty Creek - We haven't stayed here as a family yet, but this hostel is similar to Hilda Creek in that you'll be on your own without a manager to assist you. You get a key code in advance to access the hostel. Access is much simpler though and you won't have to hike in to the cabin. 

From Beauty Creek you can either drive back to the Columbia Icefields Centre (20 minute drive) or you can drive further to the Town of Jasper (which is only an hour north.) You're quite close to both the Sunwapta Falls and the Athabasca Falls Trails from this hostel as well (both very safe in winter.)

The "beauty" about this hostel is that you can explore Jasper as a day trip without having to drive the full distance to Jasper. You'll save an hour of driving if you're heading out Friday night but can still go skiing, hiking, or exploring around the Town of Jasper the next day.

Ice climbing at Tangle Falls near the Columbia Icefields Centre

The hostel is also conveniently located near Tangle Falls for families who have experience with ice climbing. This is one of the best places to try ice climbing as a family because you can set up a top rope from above without having to lead.

If you'd like to try ice climbing but don't have experience, contact Rockaboo Mountain Adventures in Jasper. They often use Tangle Falls for their "Experience Ice Climbing" Tour. And while they normally meet in Jasper, you might be able to convince them to meet you at Tangle Falls (especially if you booked a private tour.) Youth must be 12+ to join this tour.

Ice climbing at Tangle Falls on the Icefields Parkway 

HI Athabasca Falls - This hostel is located 25 minutes from the Town of Jasper and is perfectly situated for downhill skiing at Marmot Basin, cross-country skiing on groomed trails across the road, or hiking to Athabasca Falls across the road. You can also drive into Jasper to go ice skating or explore Maligne Canyon. If ice is starting to melt, there are many nice hiking trails around Jasper as well. I recommend the Old Fort Point Trail.

This is one of your best choices for an affordable stay in Jasper if you want to travel north for spring break or Easter. And the hostel has a beautiful cabin with kitchen, fireplace, and living room in addition to the sleeping cabins.

Day trip to Maligne Canyon in Jasper

Read more here about winter on the Icefields Parkway. This Parks Canada page gives very important information on driving the highway in winter and general safety.

Hiking through the Mosquito Creek Campground beside the hostel

Additional Reading (read about our previous hosteling adventures!)

Wilderness Hosteling in Kananaskis

Cross-country skiing at Castle Junction in Banff 

Wilderness Hosteling at HI Mosquito Creek and HI Rampart Creek

Playing in a snow quincy we found in the Mosquito Creek Campground

Wilderness Hosteling at HI Hilda Creek

Playing in snow caves outside the HI Hilda Creek Hostel 

Winter Hosteling at HI Athabasca Falls

Cross-country skiing near the HI Athabasca Falls Hostel

Disclaimer: This story has been written in partnership with Hosteling International. We have received many complimentary stays over the years in exchange for writing and sharing.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Discover the BEST Cross-Country Ski Trails around Calgary this Winter

While skiing for the sake of skiing is great, I'm partial to choosing trails that offer beautiful views, fun hills, cool landmarks, or even picturesque snowy bridges.

Below is a fun challenge that should motivate cross-country skiers of all abilities to get out there and discover the best trails near Calgary this winter.

Skiing across the Spray River on the Goat Creek Trail from Canmore to Banff 

Cross-Country Ski Challenge to Discover the Best Trails around Calgary

Challenge One. Ski from Canmore to Banff 

The Goat Creek Trail is an intermediate/advanced trail and it is approximately 18.5 km in length one way. Most people start on the Canmore side from the Goat Creek Trailhead where you'll lose more height than you gain (435 m lost to 160 m gained) skiing to Banff. 

There are three spectacular bridges along this trail and you'll want to stop for photos at each one. If you have novice skiers in your group consider walking down to the Goat Creek Bridge. This is the crux of the trip with a sharp turn right before you reach the bridge.

Goat Creek Bridge on the Goat Creek Trail

Most people ski this trail one direction with a car shuttle. We like to leave a vehicle at the Bow Falls parking lot in Banff because the Spray East Trail is more downhill than the Spray West Trail (and you have to finish on one of the two trails to reach Banff.) 

If you don't want to set up a shuttle, strong skiers can start in Banff and ski to the Goat Creek bridge and back.

Beauty of  day on the Goat Creek Trail near the Goat Creek Trailhead 

Make sure you check the recent grooming report for this trail. I've skied it when it was recently trackset (and lightning fast) and I've also skied it when it felt like we were backcountry ski touring. 

You can also see a map of the trail on All Trails

Disclaimer: Due to Covid restrictions, it is not recommended to carpool with friends living outside your household at this time for setting up ski shuttles. Should you choose to do so, it is your own responsibility. 

Crossing the Spray River on the Spray East Trail in Banff

Challenge Two. Ski across the border into British Columbia 

It's pretty cool when you can ski across the border into the next province and we have two trails here that allow you to do so.

Skiing to the Great Divide at Lake Louise (beginner-friendly)

The Great Divide Trail starts at Lake Louise in Banff National Park and ends at the Lake O'Hara Parking lot in Yoho National Park, BC. You'll know when you cross the border at the Great Divide because you'll ski under a giant arch welcoming you to BC.

The trail is 14 km return if you ski to the arch and back. If you were to go all the way to the far parking lot, you'd be skiing 20 km return.

My son and I like to ski the trail one-way from Lake Louise to Yoho. My husband drives to the far end and skis back to meet us. 

Follow this link to download a map of the winter trails in the Lake Louise area.

Check the recent grooming report for Banff and Lake Louise here

The Alberta - British Columbia  Border at the Great Divide 

Skiing to Elk Pass in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis (Intermediate)

The Elk Pass Trail follows a beautiful creek and you'll end at the border of AB and BC, again with a big arch welcoming you to the Elk Valley of BC.

The trail is just under 6 km one way and climbs 200 metres. Novice skiers will find a few of the hills challenging, and you definitely need to know how to snow plow coming down. (If any of the hills are icy, it's always acceptable and safe to walk them.)

See a map of the trails in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park here. 

See the grooming report for PLPP here. 

For variety, we like to take the Fox Creek Trail on descent. It eliminates two of the big hills as you go around them instead of up and over.

The Alberta - British Columbia Border at Elk Pass

Challenge Three. Ski to the top of a fire lookout

Skiers not afraid of a good climb will be rewarded with amazing views over the Kananaskis Lakes from the top of the Lookout Trail in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis. 

This is an intermediate/advanced ski trail with steep climbs and descents.

Climbing to the Site of the Kananaskis Fire Lookout

To reach the site of the fire lookout (which is still active in summer months) you'll park at the Boulton Creek Parking Lot and climb up the Whisky Jack Trail. At the top turn right and continue to the junction with the Lookout Trail. The trip is approximately 12 km return and you'll gain 400 metres of height. 

Looking down on the Kananaskis Lakes from the Fire Lookout Site

See a map of the trails in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park here. 

See the grooming report for PLPP here. 

It's always a Winter Wonderland on the Kananaskis Lookout Trail

Former Lookout Site: The Sunburst Trail at Ribbon Creek, below Kananaskis Village, provides access to the former Hummingbird Plume Lookout Site where you'll find the remains of a small cabin.

This is another intermediate/advanced ski trail and you'll need to be strong at climbing and descending steep hills. 

Start from the Stoney (Troll Falls) Trailhead and make your way to the Skogan Pass Trail. Alternately, start from the Nakiska Ski Area where you'll find a connector trail starting from the Bronze Chair. (We park at the last overflow parking lot, north lot number four, and walk up the road towards the maintenance area to reach the bronze chair.)

Hummingbird Plume Lookout Site

Once you're on the Skogan Pass Trail you'll climb to the junction with the Sunburst Trail. For a loop, continue to the High Level Trail and descend the Sunburst Trail after visiting the lookout site.

The shortest access to the lookout from Nakiska is approximately 4.5 km one way. You'll climb 400 metres from Ribbon Creek (less if you start from the ski hill.)

See a map of the Ribbon Creek Trails here. (You'll want the north map.)

See a grooming report for the trails here. 

Views over the Kananaskis Valley from the former Humminbird Plume Lookout site

Challenge Four. Find a hidden snow couch 

You're skiing across a snowy meadow when suddenly you spot a complete living room, made entirely out of blocks of snow! It's always a magical discovery and worth stopping for at least a snack break.

Couch Headquarters at West Elk Pass has been the most heavily visited couch site over the past couple of winters. To reach the site follow the trail to Elk Pass as described earlier in this story. Just after the junction with the Blueberry Hill Trail (before the big climb up to Elk Pass) start looking for a skier-set trail heading off to the right, down into the meadow. Follow the tracks south to a large meadow. Couch HQ is located at the beginning of the meadow (left hand side.)

Finding West Elk Pass requires easy ski touring so you'll want to wait until other users have created a trail through the meadow if you're on skinny skis. Trail breaking could be quite challenging if nobody has gone ahead of you for a month. 

Note that while you are off trail here, there is no avalanche danger and West Elk Pass is safe to visit. It's a beautiful place, even if you don't find the couches.

How's this for a lunch spot! (West Elk Pass Couch HQ)

Disclaimer:  Recently when I was at West Elk Pass in February the furniture had been buried under a good month of snow. Bring a shovel if you want to dig it out. Alternately, ski down the meadow (heading further south) where you'll come to a second couch, called the Fork and Meadow Couch.

Stopping to visit the Fork and Meadow Couch further south from West Elk Pass 

Other couches to search for:

East Elk Pass - I haven't been here yet, but apparently you should look for ski tracks heading south from the Tyrwhitt Trail in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park (at the bottom of the last climb up to Elk Pass.) If you follow the tracks, they will lead to East Elk Pass and a newly built snow couch. 

Last time we tried to find this trail it was buried under snow and nobody had been there recently. We weren't up for a trail breaking challenge on skinny skis. This would be considered ski touring to reach the pass and will be much easier if you have other tracks to follow.

Fairview Loop - I've heard that a couch was built in the beautiful meadow along this groomed ski trail at Lake Louise. I haven't been out to find it yet. If you see it let me know.

Pipestone Pond - There is at least one snow couch located on the Pipestone Trail network at Lake Louise. I've seen photos of the one at Pipestone Pond though haven't been there yet to see it. You should be able to follow groomed ski trails to the pond. After that you'll have to explore a bit around the pond.

Couch HQ at West Elk Pass 

Follow this link to download a map of the winter trails in the Lake Louise area.

See a map of the trails in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park here. 

At the time of writing most couches are located on trails for intermediate level skiers. The Pipestone Pond couch though can be accessed via a beginner-friendly ski trail.

Disclaimer: A lot of work goes into creating this masterpiece works of art. Please leave them in the same condition as you found them (or better if they need digging out and re-shaping.) Please don't let your children trample or destroy them.

Couch hunting at West Elk Pass (there are two couches as you follow this meadow south)

Challenge Five. Ski across a frozen lake 

Once lakes are well frozen, there are two that I love skiing across. Wait until January for both and check trail reports to make sure they are in condition. If they are ready to go, you'll see ski tracks across them. Both lakes have a shoreline trail as well through the trees when the lake is not frozen.

Skiing across Lake Louise (beginner-friendly)

There is an official groomed trackset ski trail that crosses Lake Louise to the far end where you'll get to see frozen Louise Falls.

From the falls you can climb up to the shoreline trail and return on that trail for a loop of 4 km. The forested trail above the lake is also groomed and trackset.

Read more about the Lake Louise Loop here

Skiing across Lake Louise 

For more of a challenge start at the Village and climb 200 metres up the Tramline Trail to reach the lake. The trail is 4.8 km one way and follows a 3% grade. It'll feel like work going up, but it's a ton of fun coming down. (My son and I often ski down with my husband meeting us at the bottom.)

Check the recent grooming report for Banff and Lake Louise here

Tramline Trail, Lake Louise 

Skiing across Emerald Lake to the Alluvial Fan Trail (beginner/intermediate)

This one's a little farther from Calgary for a day trip past Lake Louise into Yoho National Park, but the location is spectacular. You can either follow the forested "Horse Trail" along the shoreline of Emerald Lake, or when frozen, you can ski directly across the lake (which is what I like to do.) The Horse Trail is groomed and trackset but the lake is often skier tracked.

At the end of the lake you can ski the 4 km  groomed Alluvial Fan Loop (clockwise) and then return back across the lake for an 8 km return ski. The trail is never technically difficult although there are a couple of creek crossings on snow bridges that could be interesting for a true beginner skier. (That being said, the scenery is so beautiful I encourage everybody to try this loop.)

Skiing across Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park 

I also suggest lunch at the Emerald Lake Lodge while you're here. If you're up for more of a challenge, you can also ski the Connector Trail from the Natural Bridge up to Emerald Lake. This would add on an additional 18 km round trip (unless you have two vehicles and can ski down the Connector Trail one way.) Alternately, it's a pretty trail as an out and back to the meadow after you've had lunch at the lodge.

The trails are groomed by the Kicking Horse Ski Club. See a map of the trails here

You can find trail grooming information here. 

For information on accommodations or lunch at Emerald Lake Lodge, visit their website.

Skiing the Alluvial Fan Trail at Emerald Lake

Challenge Six. Ski across a large snowy meadow

A meadow looks very similar to a lake when it's snow covered and these two trails below have beautiful meadows you'll want to ski across. Both are beginner-friendly and you'll want to time your visit for a sunny day.

Bill Milne Trail, Kananaskis

Start at the Kovach Pond parking lot and ski the Bill Milne Trail out and back as far as you want to go. The full trail is just under 10 km one way but the prettiest part is between Kovach Pond and the golf course. It climbs every so gradually on the way out from the pond towards Wedge Pond and then it's a fun glide back. (You won't notice the climbing, but you may notice you have less glide than normal on the ski out.)

See a map of the Ribbon Creek Trails here. (You'll want the south map.)

See a grooming report for the trails here. 

Skiing across the gorgeous meadow on the Bill Milne Trail in Kananaskis 

Banff Avenue, Canmore Nordic Centre 

This beginner-friendly trail is 3 km one way from the day lodge to the beautiful meadow. Normally there's a lovely hut here where you can warm up and have lunch. (It's closed right now due to Covid restrictions.)

If you want to ski beyond the meadow, the trail continues for another 2.5 km. It is generally groomed and trackset daily. Trail fees are required to ski here.

Skiing across the meadow at the Canmore Nordic Centre on Banff Avenue

When you're done skiing, there's also a skating rink and sledding hill (both free to use.)

For intermediate skiers, you can return on the Meadowview Trail for an 8 - 10 km loop. Beginner skiers can also return on the Banff Loop which doesn't add much extra distance but provides variety.

You'll find the daily trail report here and find information on trail fees here. 

Skiing across the meadow at the Canmore Nordic Centre

Challenge Seven. Find a new favourite loop to ski 

Most skiers generally find loops more interesting than out and back trails. They're also a great motivator because you're committed to finishing the loop if you want to get back to the parking lot. (Otherwise it can be tempting to turn around early.)

Below are some of my favourite loops:

Loop 1: Bow River Loop, Lake Louise (beginner-friendly)

The 6.6 km Bow River Loop is great for skiers of all abilities and is too beautiful to dismiss (even if you normally ski longer distances.) You'll cross two beautiful snowy bridges at the far end of the campgrounds and I love the peacefulness once you get away from the village.

Bow River Loop, Lake Louise

The last time my family skied this loop we started at the lake and skied the Fairview Trail down to the Moraine Lake Road. From here, my husband climbed back up to the lake on Tramline, and my son and I skied down Tramline to the Station Restaurant parking lot. My husband met us at the Station where we had lunch, and then we all skied the Bow River Loop together. It made for a pleasant day of connecting trails around Lake Louise.

Check the recent grooming report for Banff and Lake Louise here

Follow this link to download a map of the winter trails in the Lake Louise area.

Snowy day on the Bow River Loop at Lake Louise

Loop 2: Skier Bob Special, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park (Intermediate)

This is an 18 km loop combining 5 different ski trails. Starting from the Boulton Creek parking lot you begin with a 200 metre climb up the Whisky Jack Trail. Once you get to the top things begin to improve and you're rewarded with a gorgeous ski across the Tyrwhitt Trail, one of the prettiest ski trails in the park. 

You'll reach the top of Elk Pass after 8.4 km of skiing. After this, it's mostly all flat or downhill on the Elk Pass Ski Trail to the junction with Fox Creek. You finish the loop on two single track trails, Fox Creek and either Moraine or Boulton Creek.

The Tyrwhitt Trail is one of the prettiest in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park

There are several picnic tables spread out along this loop so breaks are easy if you're feeling tired. Signage is also clear at every junction so you should never have to worry about getting lost.

See a map of the trails in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park here. 

See the grooming report for PLPP here. 

The top of the Elk Pass Trail on the Alberta/British Columbia border

Loop 3: Moose Loop, West Bragg Creek (Intermediate)

For a great ski near Calgary, head out to West Bragg Creek where you'll find a large trail network. There are many popular loops here but the Moose Loop has always been one of my favourites.

The loop can be accessed via a few different trails but the shortest version is made with the Mountain Road and the Moose Connector for a 10 km outing. And it's best skied counterclockwise. 

Stronger skiers can create a bigger loop with West Crystal Line - Moose Connector - Moose Loop - Mountain View West - Mountain View - West Crystal Line. This loop is approximately 14 km.

You can read about the West Bragg Creek Trails here and download a map.

See the latest trail report here.

Cross country skiing close to Calgary at West Bragg Creek

Loop 4: Ribbon Creek - Kananaskis Village (Intermediate)

I love the Ribbon Creek Trail for the views and for the fun downhill section to the creek in all its steep twisty goodness! You'll need to be able to snowplow around steep switchback turns.

The loop that I always ski is 10 km in length and includes the following trails which you can see on the map below: Hidden - Coal Mine - Ribbon Creek - Link - Kovach - Terrace.

Viewpoint on the Ribbon Creek Trail

This loop climbs up to Kananaskis Village if you're inclined to go inside for lunch or coffee, and then it's a fun rip back down to the creek.

See a map of the Ribbon Creek Trails here. (You'll be using the north and south maps.)

See a grooming report for the trails here. 

Descending the Ribbon Creek Trail is a blast!

Skiing along Ribbon Creek on the Link Trail

Challenge Eight. Ski from Baker Creek to Castle Junction on the Highway 1A

This has been an extremely popular trail this winter and many skiers have expressed confusion over how to piece it together and where to park. I became obsessed with the trail as well and have skied parts of it three times so far this season.

Most of the trail is beginner-friendly other than the section from Castle Junction to Castle Mountain Lookout which should be rated as intermediate because of several hilly sections (one hill is especially steep and narrow on descent skiing towards Castle Junction with several twisty turns.)

Baker Creek to Castle Junction

As you can see from the map above, the full traverse is 15.7 km. I recommend trying to set up a shuttle so you can ski it one way, and if you do so, you want to ski from Baker Creek to Castle Junction because the trail trends downhill in that direction.

Castle Lookout to Baker Creek - If you're just skiing out and back, I recommend starting at the lookout in the middle and skiing to Baker Creek and back (unless you're skiing the full thing round trip for a 30+ km day.) You can always turn around early as well around the Protection Mountain Campground. After the campground it's not very exciting for the final 3.5 km to Baker Creek.

From Castle Lookout , the trail is generally easy heading towards Baker Creek. There's one steep hill out of the parking lot but honestly you just have to take your skis off at the bottom anyway to cross the highway, so walk the hill if you don't want to ski down it. (I never ski up it at the end of the trip.)

Once you're on the other side of the highway, the trail is relatively flat other than the double humps you'll climb up and over. Each one is gentle enough that you can usually stay in the tracks going both up and down.

Skiing across a beautiful meadow between Castle Lookout and Baker Creek

Turn around at Protection Mountain after 6.4 km or continue to Baker Creek where you can have lunch in the red chairs outside the resort.

The 6.4 km section from the Lookout to Protection Mountain is the prettiest part of the whole trail.

High above the Bow River between Castle Lookout and Baker Creek

Castle Junction to Castle Lookout - If you want some fun hills, try starting at Castle Junction and ski to the lookout and back. This way you'll do more climbing on the way out. There aren't as many views on this section but the descent down to the junction is a lot of fun at the end.

Disclaimer: Due to Covid restrictions, it is not recommended to carpool with friends living outside your household at this time for setting up ski shuttles. Should you choose to do so, it is your own responsibility. 

Skiing under the powerline between the Lookout and Castle Junction 

Challenge Nine. Test your speed and skill on the Skogan Screamer

Nobody "loves" climbing the 600 metres up to the top of Skogan Pass in Kananaskis but intermediate/Advanced skiers will definitely enjoy the descent! It's as close to downhill skiing as you'll get on skinny skis and what can take 3 hours to climb up usually takes an hour at most to ski down.

Depending on which route you take (or where you start) the trip to the top of Skogan Pass is at least 17 km return but you won't really be exerting much effort on the way down, so it's more 8+ km of climbing and then an hour of snow plowing back down.

My favourite part of the trail is a 1 km long section known as the Skogan Screamer where you'll fly down a narrow twisty section of trail screaming all the way. (Hopefully happy screams.)

Skogan Pass and the end of the groomed ski trail

Start from the Stoney (Troll Falls) Trailhead and make your way to the Skogan Pass Trail on connector trails heavily trampled from hikers heading for Troll Falls.  Alternately, start from the Nakiska Ski Area where you'll find a connector trail starting from the Bronze Chair. (We park at the last overflow parking lot, north lot number four, and walk up the road towards the maintenance area to reach the bronze chair.)

Regardless of where you start, you'll reach the junction of the Hidden and Ruthie's Trails (See the map below) and the beginning of the Skogan Screamer. En route to the top of the pass you'll also pass the Sunburst Trail junction (mentioned earlier as the trail you'd take to reach the Hummingbird Plume lookout.)

After the junctions with the Sunburst and High Level Trails, you have another option: go straight for Skogan Pass, or take the Skogan Loop (a longer, much hillier trail.) I never have the energy to take the loop and just go straight on the Skogan Pass Trail. It's usually all I can do just to make it to the top of the pass.

See a map of the Ribbon Creek Trails here. (You'll want the north map.)

See a grooming report for the trails here. 

My son first skied the Skogan Pass Tail at age 9

Challenge Ten. Pick a "big for you" distance, height, or difficulty challenge

I've been obsessed with trying to reach 30 km this winter and it's become my personal goal. I have another friend working her way up to 15 km (and it's her first winter on cross-country skis.) Some of you are intrigued by a certain trail and are determined to check it off your list this winter.

Whatever the goal, pick a challenge that's right for you and set out to make it happen before spring arrives. 

Need inspiration? Make sure you've joined the Cross-Country Skiing YYC Facebook group. 

Pick a challenge and get out there this winter! (Photo: Blueberry Hill, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park)

Additional Resources 

The Best Beginner Cross-Country Ski Trails near Calgary 

Family Cross-country Ski Trips - Our Favourite Destinations near Calgary

Support Trail Grooming in Kananaskis

Support Trail Grooming at West Bragg Creek