Wednesday, January 27, 2021

10 Winter Walks and Hikes to Enjoy with your Family in Kananaskis

It's a beautiful Saturday morning and you want to head out to the mountains for an easy winter walk with the kids. You'd love to bring sleds along, you want some pretty views along the way, and you'd ideally like a trail that has something unique or interesting to see (beyond trees and forest.)

In this story I've chosen to focus on ten trails that my family has enjoyed for a pleasant day trip from Calgary. I've included a wide variety of options from easy walks you can do with preschoolers while pulling a sled to intermediate snowshoe or ice adventures for families with older children.

Get outside and take a hike with your family in Kananaskis this winter! (Photo: Troll Falls hike)

I've also tried to include several "lesser known" trails that won't see hundreds of people on a weekend.

Consider investing in snowshoes for those days when there's been fresh snow overnight or pick up some ice cleats for days when the trails are well packed down.

Ice is fun! (Playing around in Grotto Canyon)

10 Winter Walks and Hikes to Enjoy with your Family in Kananaskis

One. Paddy's Flat Interpretive Trail, Elbow Valley 

The Paddy’s Flat Interpretive Trail is located off Highway 66 in the Elbow Valley outside Bragg Creek. In summer you can drive through the Paddy’s Flat Campground to access the trail which starts from the C loop by the playground. In winter, park at the gate by the entrance to the campground and hike down towards the river. The loop is less than 3km long but allow for additional distance in winter when starting from the highway. 

The Paddy's Flat Trail follows the Elbow River

Consider bringing a sled for young children as you hike the closed campground roads down to the river and bring snowshoes if you want an easy place to practice this cool winter activity (or if it's recently snowed.)

Visit this trail in winter and you’ll get to explore a deserted campground where you’ll often be the only family for miles. (Great for physical distancing this year!) The trail is very scenic along the Elbow River and the playground is an added bonus.

Campgrounds are great for exploring in winter!

Two. Beaver Flats Interpretive Trail, Elbow Valley 

The Beaver Flats Interpretive Trail  is located further down the highway from the Paddy's Flat Trail above. Drive to the gate on Highway 66 where the road is closed during the winter months. Park on the side of the road above Elbow Falls. From here you have to hike the closed highway a short distance until you reach the Beaver Flats Trailhead (approximately a 10-15 minute walk down the road.)

Beaver ponds are fun to explore year round

The trail is 1.4 km one way and ends at the Beaver Flats Campground. Return the same way. You shouldn't need snowshoes but this is a great trail to practice using them if you want a beginner hike with no elevation gain. After a fresh snowfall you'll likely appreciate snowshoes.

This is another quiet trail where you likely won't see many other people. (Great for busy weekends!) Kids always have fun exploring the beaver ponds along the trail as well and you can easily use a sled on the highway (possibly on the trail as well.)

The Beaver Flats Trail has been a family favourite of ours close to home.

Three. Troll Falls and the Upper Falls, Highway 40

The Troll Falls hike is located below Kananaskis Village off Highway 40. A 4 km loop follows the Troll Falls and Hay Meadows Trails. (See the loop on All Trails.) These multi-use trails are very wide and are perfect for a group hike with extended family or friends. They're also perfect for sleds if you have young children.

Families with older children can extend their hike to the Upper Falls on a relatively new trail that takes you to a frozen waterfall that you can walk behind, and then climbs further to a beautiful set of two-tiered waterfalls. The trail junction is located along the Troll Falls trail and is signed. 

Hike to these gorgeous waterfalls above Troll Falls

On our most recent trip, we hiked to the Upper Falls and returned via the Hay Meadows trail for a total distance of 5.3 km and 178 metres of height gain. Our trip took us just under 2 hours. 

Access to the trails is from the Stoney Parking lot (the first parking lot on your right hand side as you head up to Nakiska from Highway 40.)

Safety Disclaimer: You shouldn't need much more than a pair of winter boots to reach Troll Falls but you will need ice cleats to reach the Upper Falls. The trail is steep and there are several sets of slippery stairs.

The Upper Falls are easily reached in a short steep hike from Troll Falls

And note, you'll want to arrive early to find parking for this popular hike (or visit mid-week.) If the parking lot is full, there is an overflow lot across the road at the Kovach Day Use Area.

Read more about the hike here: Chasing Frozen Waterfalls in Kananaskis! Troll Falls and beyond to the Upper Falls

Troll Falls is a magical destination!

Four. Ribbon Creek, Highway 40 

Can't find parking for Troll Falls or just don't want to deal with the crowds on a weekend? Ribbon Creek is a beautiful hike in the same area, and the trail sees a third of the traffic that Troll Falls does. 

The Ribbon Creek Snowshoe Trail crosses several bridges (always a highlight for children) and there's no height gain making for an easy walk. You shouldn't usually need snowshoes unless there was fresh snow the night before. The trail is 3.7 km one way until the end of the winter section of trail. Beyond this there is avalanche danger so please turn around at the end of the signed winter trail.

The Ribbon Creek snowshoe trail follows the creek the entire time, so make sure you don't accidentally start hiking up towards the Ribbon Creek Ski Trail. (If you're climbing and you see corduroy, you're on the wrong trail!)

The snowshoe and ski trails do eventually join up along the creek though, so when you start to see ski tracks, please make sure to stay off them while walking.

There's lots of awesome bridges to cross on the Ribbon Creek Trail

You can also make a 5.3 km loop out of this hike by returning on the Link, Shinrin, and Studless Trails. See a map of the loop hereThe Link trail is shared with skiers so please make sure to stay off the ski tracks. Shinrin and Studless are shared with fat bikers and are groomed for easy travel (so you shouldn't need snowshoes.)

Note that there is a small amount of height gain if you choose to do the loop.

Safety Disclaimer: Stay on the official trail and don't hike in the creek bed unless you see a well packed trail going down the creek where others have hiked.

You can hike or ski right down the creek when it's frozen (super fun!)

Five. Rawson Lake, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park (Highway 40)

The popular Rawson Lake trail starts from the Upper Kananaskis Lake Day Use Area in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park off Highway 40. The hike is 8 km round trip and you’ll gain 300 metres of height. It’s a beautiful trail as you hike along the lakeshore of Upper Kananaskis Lake past a set of waterfalls before climbing up to Rawson Lake.

The trail provides a great introduction to snowshoeing as it is wide and easy to follow. It’s usually very well packed down as well so much of the time you’ll be fine in winter boots with ice cleats unless there's been fresh snow overnight.

Safety Disclaimer: When you reach Rawson Lake, please stop and do not hike to the back of the lake or above the lake to avoid entering avalanche terrain.

Rawson Lake is a beautiful hike in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park

Alternate options for easy hikes in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park:

For an easier winter hike in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park check out the snowshoeing brochure where you'll see several options. I personally like the 3.4 km Elkwood Loop Trail which circles around Marl Lake. The Lower Lake Trail is also beautiful for an out and back hike.

The Lower Lake Snowshoe Trail is a beautiful easy hike

Six. Chester Lake, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park (Spray Lakes Trail)

The Chester Lake hike is also located in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park but is accessed from the Smith-Dorrien / Spray Lakes Trail. From Calgary it’s usually easiest to drive south on Highway 40 before turning on to the rough gravel road heading north towards Canmore. Alternately if you’re spending the weekend in Canmore, you can head south from here, driving past the Nordic Centre. 

Chester Lake is an easy family hike in the summer but in winter this is a more “advanced” trip. The snowshoe trail feels steep at times and you'll gain 300 metres of height over 6.8 km. 

There's no better scenery than this on the Chester Lake Snowshoe Trail

In previous years we’ve brought a sled for the return trip down from the lake and my husband guided the sled in front of him with a rope. (Helmets are highly recommended for this.) 

Disclaimer: If visiting the lake in winter, please use the snowshoe trail (and not the wider ski trail.) Snowshoes are highly recommended/necessary and you should not hike any further than the lake or you will enter avalanche terrain.

If you're not sure which trail you should be following, look for the orange snowshoe symbols on the trees. - The Summer hiking trail is NOT the winter snowshoe trail. It is the winter ski trail (so don't just blindly follow All Trails.)

A sled is always fun for the hike down (and see the orange snowshoe marker in the photo!)

Seven. Yamnuska Natural Area, Bow Valley (Highway 1A)

We recently visited the Yamnuska Nature Area several times to go ice skating on the frozen lakes spread out below the slopes of Mount Yamnuska and to explore quiet trails where we rarely met any other people. 

This is a beautiful place for escaping the crowds on a busy weekend and the area doesn't get a lot of snow so you should never need snowshoes.

Skating on Loon Lake in the Yamnuska Nature Area

You can see a map of the area with distances in this story from the Kananaskis Trails Blog.

We either park near the Yamnuska Day Use Area (Google maps link) to access the area around Loon Lake, or we park at a small pull out right off the Highway 1A (Google maps link) to access the area around Reed Lake. 

You can also see a great loop on All Trails for this area. 

Safety Disclaimer: Do not walk on ice unless you know it's thick enough to support your weight. 

Mt. Yamnuska is often in the background as you hike around this peaceful natural area

The lakes are fun to explore and play on when frozen

Eight. Jura Creek, Bow Valley (Highway 1A)

The Jura Creek hike is an adventure for families who don’t need signs or official trails. Start from a large parking lot off the Highway 1A east of the hamlet of Exshaw. Begin your hike by following random trails from the parking lot until you reach a rocky dry creek (less than 15 minutes away.) Drop down into the creek and continue to a canyon entrance. Here’s where the fun begins as you spend the next half hour exploring the narrow canyon filled with ice and snow.

You'll want ice cleats for the Jura Creek hike!

This is a glorious ice adventure and you should prepare to get wet in any season, to climb on logs or scramble over rocks, and to wear ice cleats in winter. The hike is very short (a couple of kilometres at most to the end of the canyon.) Hike as far as you want before returning. The canyon is the highlight and it’s at the beginning of the creek.

Kids will have a blast playing in the creek or exploring the ice filled canyon. Gather a group of friends for this one and head out for a half day adventure.

I don't really recommend sleds for this one because there are too many obstacles, too many rocks, and you'll end up carrying the sleds half the time.

Note this hike is very popular so either visit mid week or arrive early to find parking.

Safety Disclaimer: Ice cleats required. 

Read more about this hike here: The Best Ice Hikes in Kananaskis and Banff 

Jura Creek is a playful fun hike

Nine. Grotto Canyon, Bow Valley (Highway 1A)

Grotto Canyon is another awesome ice hike along the Highway 1A east of Canmore. The hike is 4.2 km return and there is minimal height gain from the Grotto Pond Day Use Area. This is one of the best ice hikes near Calgary as the entire canyon floor freezes into a giant slab of frozen slippery fun! There are two beautiful waterfalls that make a good turnaround point. Ice cleats are necessary in winter.

There's no shortage of fun in the Grotto Creek Canyon

This is one of our favourite winter hikes for ice exploring and the waterfalls are gorgeous when frozen. Bring helmets if you have crazy kids who like to climb the ice (like my son in the photo above!)

Note this hike is very popular so either visit mid week or arrive early to find parking.

Safety Disclaimer: Ice cleats required. 

Read more about this hike here: The Best Ice Hikes in Kananaskis and Banff 

You'll visit two frozen waterfalls on this hike up Grotto Canyon

Ten. The Heart Creek Bunker, Bow Valley (Trans-Canada Hwy)

The Heart Creek Bunker Hike starts from the Heart Creek Trailhead but the trail goes the opposite direction from the large parking lot, heading towards Canmore along the TransCanada Trail rather than heading east towards Heart Creek.

Follow the All Trails map (link above) and you should easily find your way to this very fun cave that kids will love visiting multiple times.  The hike is only 4 km return with minimal elevation gain. The cave is full of creepy drawings and we visited it last year for a Halloween Hike in costumes.

The cave is full of creepy fun drawings

The Heart Creek Bunker is a fun hike for kids!

If you want to extend your outing, you can also hike the Heart Creek trail as well from the same parking lot for another 4.7 km round trip. Just return to the parking lot and then keep hiking along the TransCanada Trail heading east towards Calgary until you come to the junction with the Heart Creek Trail.

Safety Disclaimer: There is potential for avalanche risk near the mouth of the cave so avoid hiking this trail when avalanche conditions are high or when the area has had a lot of snow. (This is a hike for dry periods when the Bow Valley hasn't seen much new snow.)

The Heart Creek Bunker is a great place to explore with kids!

Happy Hiking! 

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