Spring and Fall Hiking

Our family believes in making the most of every season and it isn’t hard to do that when spring is around the corner or warm autumn weather beckons us to get outside and bask in the sun.  Our favorite place to be on a lovely spring or fall day is exploring one of the many family-friendly trails in Kananaskis or Banff.   Below are my top choices for a family day hike.   

Scroll to the bottom of this page for links to more detailed trail information, driving instructions, and trailheads for all hikes. 



The Fullerton Loop, Elbow Valley 
This hike starts from the Allen Bill day use area past Bragg Creek on Hwy 66.  It’s a 7km return loop that takes a couple of hours at a moderate pace.  Your lungs will get a good work-out on the way up to the look-out (150m of height gain) but it’s a beautiful place to have lunch and gaze out across the Elbow Valley.  This hike is an annual spring ritual for many Calgarians.  If you wait until late June, the hills are orange with wood lilies but we’ve enjoyed this hike as early as March.  This area is also great in fall right through until November when snow arrives. 

Combine this hike with a wiener roast at the day use area.  Picnic sites can be found all around the pond that has a paved path circling it.  No better picnic area can be found in the Elbow Valley, including Elbow Falls.  Bring sand toys for playing at the pond.  

Early Spring on the Fullerton Loop

The Riverview/Sulphur Springs Loop, Elbow Valley 
This loop starts from the Paddy’s Flat Campground located further along Hwy 66.  We always hike here before the campground opens for the season mid May and you park at the gate beside the highway.  The loop is 10km and takes a few hours at a moderate pace.  You’ll climb 200m but the hills are mostly gradual and the views from the lower slopes of the Moose Mountain Road are stunning. If you want a slightly easier hike, you can combine the Riverview trail with the Elbow Valley trail or you can just hike the Riverview Trail as far as you want and go back the same way.  The Riverview Trail follows the Paddy’s Flat interpretive trail for the first kilometre and for a great toddler stroll, it’s hard to beat this gentle walk along the river.  

With younger children, stick to the Paddy's Flat Interpretive Trail for a short loop that even toddlers and preschoolers can do.  Bike the closed campground roads down to the river's edge to the trailhead early season before the May long weekend when the campground is not open.  Great secret beach found along the trail!  This trail is also very bike-friendly for families.



Biking the Paddy's Flat Trail
Secret Beach along the Paddy's Flat Interpretive Trail
The Paddy's Flat Interpretive Trail

Powderface Ridge, Elbow Valley
This is a great shoulder season hike and we particularly love it in spring.  Highway 66 past Elbow Falls is closed from December 1st through May 14th each year so go anytime before or after that.  The Powderface Ridge trail head is located at the end of the pavement as you are about to turn into the Little Elbow Campground.  This hike is a longer one but perfect for school-aged kids or youngsters being carried.  It's 10km return to the summit and back from Highway 66.  We always do it with a car shuttle though starting from the Sacramento Pass parking lot on Powderface Trail for an 8km one way hike.  (For a great trail description, get Gillean Daffern's "Popular Day Hikes in Kananaskis Country" book)


Powderface Ridge

Beaver Flats Interpretive Trail, Elbow Valley
Park at the Beaver Lodge parking lot between Elbow Falls and the Little Elbow Campground once the highway opens for the season on May 15th for a short 1.3km stroll beside a pleasant creek to the Beaver Flats Campground.  At 2.6km return, most toddlers and small children should have no problems with the easy hike.  On the walk you'll have plenty of opportunities to look for beavers or at least witness their work along the creek as you pass a series of beaver ponds with dams and lodges.  The road closes again December 1st until the following spring.

Note - when the highway is closed, park at the Elbow Falls Day use area and walk less than 500m to the Beaver Lodge Trailhead.  This is a great time to bike the road with young kids as well and the Beaver Flats Trail is quite bike friendly. 


Beaver Flats Interpretive Trail
Biking the Closed highway to the Beaver Flats Trail before it opens in spring
Biking the Beaver Flats Trail

Bow Valley Provincial Park Trails
Bow Valley Provincial Park is located off the Trans-Canada Hwy at the Seebe interchange where you turn onto Hwy 1X.  The Campground is open from May 1st through October 8th so if you go outside this time, you will have to park at the Middle Lake Parking Lot but you will have the whole park to yourself - which is great for family biking!  From Middle Lake there is a very pleasant and mostly flat 8.7km loop around the park that includes the Elk Flats Trail, Many Springs Trail, Bow River Trail, and Moraine Trail.
Our favorite trail in the park is the Many Springs Trail located at the far end of the park.  If the campground is open, you can park right at the trail head.  The Many Springs loop is 1.6km and perfect in distance for small children.  The park has day use areas for picnics if you visit when the campground is open and fires are permitted at the Whitefish day use area. 

The other hike I love in the park is the Flowing Water Trail which is approx. 2km return.  The hike begins inside the Willow Rock Campground and features the perfect habitat for beavers and other pond animals. This campground is open from March 30th until October 29th.  To hike the trail when the campground is closed, park at the campground gates and walk through.

For another hike in the area, check out Raven's End - The name given to the east ridge of Yamnuska.  The parking lot is located off the Hwy 1A and you'll start off on the same trail climbers use to ascend the cliff face or scramblers use to reach the summit.  This hike is best geared towards school-aged kids as you'll be gaining 500m of elevation gain over 3.5 km.  The official hiking trail ends before any scrambling begins but experienced hikers can scramble up the first gully to gain the top of the ridge for a fabulous view down over the valley. 



Bow Valley Provincial Park on the Many Springs Trail
The Flowing Water Trail in Spring

Prairie View Trail, Kananaskis
This trail starts from the Barrier Lake Dam day use area and switch-backs up to an open ridge top with views out over Mt. Baldy and Barrier Lake.  It's a beautiful spot to have lunch.  If you want to continue all the way to the top of the Barrier Lake Fire Lookout, it's a 10.6km return hike with 616m of height gain.  School aged kids would have few problems with the hike as there are no technical sections en route to the summit of Barrier Mt.  It's cool to see a working fire lookout and worth a visit for that alone.  (Please respect the privacy of the attendant at the lookout and only pay a visit if approached)  Most families with small children will be content to have lunch on the ridge or to continue to the rocky outcropping a little higher up and return back.




Prairie View ridge top


Hikes around Kananaskis Village
Ribbon Creek is located along highway 40 below Kananaskis Village and the Nakiska Ski Hill.  You can walk along the creek as far as you want and have a picnic when you return.  Alternatively, you can also hike to a pretty little waterfall called Troll Falls in just under 4km return.  It’s a great family destination and easy for young children with wide gentle trails.  It is also bike and chariot friendly.

If you prefer paved trails, the Evan Thomas trail goes from Ribbon Creek to the Village and makes for a nice family bike ride or hike with a stroller.  (Note that it is uphill to the village and you will get a good work-out)
At the Village you will find a playground, coffee shop in the Delta Kananaskis and ice-cream in the general store.  The Village Rim Trail is a pleasant walk with wild flowers in summer.  There is also a pond in the centre of the Village with a little waterfall and fabulous rock pile to climb.

Troll Falls Hike
Climbing the waterfall at the Village
Kananaskis Village
Flowers on the Village Rim Trail

Heart Creek, Kananaskis
If you've always thought that Heart Creek was just for climbers or scramblers heading up Heart Mountain you're missing out on the best kid-friendly hike out there!  This just might be my favourite hike for toddlers and small children.  The return distance of the hike is 4km and my son hiked almost the whole trail when he was only 2.5.   He was completely captivated the entire time by all the boulders he had to climb around and over, the narrow bridges he got to cross in the canyon, the climbers he watched, and the flowing creek.  It is Disneyland for outdoor kids - seriously!  The trail is located right beside the Trans-Canada Highway en route to Banff.  You can either park at the official parking lot or on the road with the climbers who don't want to hike the extra 500m.  Personally, I'm with the climbers.  An extra kilometre I don't have to do with a child is a big deal! 

If you like canyons, I'd also recommend Grotto Canyon just outside of Canmore.  It's also 4km return and has similar features to Heart Creek.  You won't be scrambling over as many boulders and it feels a lot longer but it's an interesting jaunt to the end of the canyon.  You'll also be entertained by climbers in this canyon on a warm day.  Be prepared for water in the canyon if there's been a heavy run-off from the mountains.



Heart Creek
Grotto Canyon

Foran Grade Loop, Sheep River
It's a bit of a drive to get down to the Sheep River area of Kananaskis but it's a great place to explore for those living in South Calgary.  The Foran Grade Loop is 7km and very pleasant for school-aged kids or younger children who can hitch a ride in a child carrier.  It's a fabulous hike in spring or fall that combines the popular Foran  Grade Ridge Trail and the Windy Point Trail.  The trail head starts on Hwy 546 (The Sheep River Trail) 1.6 km west of the winter gate at Sandy McNabb Recreation Area.  The highway opens on May 15th so if you go before then you'll have to park at the gate and hike along the highway to reach the trail head.  Alternately, the Sheep Trail follows the highway and can be used to reach the trail head if you prefer a more natural walk.  The road closes again in fall on December 1st.

If you visit the area when Hwy 546 is open past Sandy McNabb, make sure you plan a picnic for the Sheep Falls Day use area.  The falls are beautiful and much bigger than the popular Elbow Falls. There are picnic tables and fire pits at the day use area.  Tiger Jaw falls below are also worth checking out.




The Foran Grade Loop
Tiger Jaw Falls in the Sheep River area

Cat Creek Interpretive Trail, Kananaskis
This is a beautiful hike to Cat Creek Falls from the Cat Creek Day Use Area on Hwy 40 over Highwood Pass.  It's 4km return on an easy trail that most children will find interesting.  I like the hike in fall because the waterfalls are located in a canyon.  It doesn't matter if there are flowers or leaves on the trees.  The highlight is the waterfall.  Note that Hwy 40 over Highwood Pass is closed between December 1st and June 14th. 


Cat Creek Falls


Canmore River Trails
Many people overlook downtown Canmore as a hiking destination but there are lovely trails that follow the river out towards the Three Sisters Resort, up to Quarry Lake and the Nordic Centre, or  towards Larch Island.  Pick up a map at the Visitor Info Centre and head out next time you're driving by and need to stretch your legs.  There are even a couple of playgrounds along the pathway for the kids to run off some energy.  The paths are a combination of pavement and gravel but most outdoor strollers would have no problem on them.

After hiking there are many family-friendly pubs with awesome patios to enjoy in downtown Canmore.  Our favourites are the Grizzly Paw, The Drake, and the Rose and Crown (which has a playground on the patio)



Hiking along the Bow River in Canmore

Fenland Trail, Banff townsite

This hike can often be done year round when snow lingers higher up in the mountains.  It's a short loop trail of 2km through an old-growth forest and perfect for toddlers or young kids.  Squirrels, bridges and benches along 40 Mile Creek will provide interest for tots who tire quickly on hikes.  We often do this hike while driving back to Calgary on a Sunday afternoon or on a day when we get a late start and need something short yet interesting.  It is also bike friendly for families.


Enjoying a rest on the Fenland Trail
Biking on the Fenland Trail

Sundance Canyon, Banff townsite

This is the perfect Spring hike when higher trails are still snow covered.  The first 4km is paved so you can bring strollers if necessary.  The paved trail ends at a lovely picnic area with tables and washrooms.  This is where we ditch our Chariot and continue on foot for the 1km loop through Sundance Canyon.  It's a magical canyon with bridges, running water and narrow rock walls.  Note that if you go in fall and there is snow in the canyon the stairs get very slippery and you will need cleats or icers for your shoes.  Otherwise, the paved trail is often hiked year round.  (just stay off ski tracks please)



Hiking the paved trail to Sundance Canyon
 
Tunnel Mountain, Banff Townsite
Another shoulder season hike that most children 4+ should be able to hike with no assistance.  Younger children may need to be carried for portions of the trail (especially on the way up).  The trail is on the steep side but it's quick and relatively painless at 2.4 km one way and 260 m elevation gain.  The views from the top are breathtaking for such a small summit and your children will be able to boast that they've bagged their first peak.  Tunnel Mountain is also a great hike when driving through Banff or if you've gotten a late start to the day.


Summit of Tunnel Mountain

Stewart Canyon, Lake Minnewanka, Banff

This is a great early season hike that loses snow early.  At 3km round trip, this is a well maintained trail that you can even push a Chariot on.  It is mostly flat and very family friendly.  As a bonus, you'll reach the bridge over Stewart Canyon at the halfway mark providing kids a goal and incentive to keep walking.

Late spring snow on the Stewart Canyon trail

 Johnson Lake, Lake Minnewanka Loop, Banff
This 3km loop has no elevation gain and is very well maintained.  Families will find this an ideal spring or fall hike.  The trail also loses its snow early in the year.  If you go in late fall bring your skates in case the lake has frozen over for skating.  Note, it is mostly Chariot friendly.  There is one narrow section however that was a bit tricky when I did it.
 
Johnson Lake, Banff

Johnston Canyon
You won't find me recommending this hike too often because it is a tourist magnet and crazy busy beyond belief in summer.  However, in spring and fall it's a great hike to the Lower and Upper Falls and you won't see many people on the trail.  It's just under 5km return to the Upper Falls, and just over 2km return to the Lower Falls.  Make sure you bring ice cleats if you go early spring or late fall because the trail gets slippery.
 
Catwalks in the Canyon

The Upper Falls


Special Fall Hikes for Autumn Colours

Lake Agnes Tea House, Lake Louise

At 7km return with almost 400m height gain this barely qualifies as a hike for small kids but the trail is pretty gradual with awesome switchbacks so if you carry smaller children up parts of the trail, they will definitely be able to run down the whole thing.  They will also find the tea house at the lake fascinating along with the boulders and bridge over a little creek that flows down to a waterfall below the lake.  It's a very pretty setting.

The biggest problem with this trail though is how busy it gets in tourist season.  Want to solve that problem?  Go in September or October.  You'll have the whole lake to yourself, it will be quiet, and there are golden larch trees by the third week of September.



A Quiet Fall Day at the Lake Agnes Tea House
Looking down on Lake Louise from the Big Beehive above Lake Agnes

Larch Valley, Moraine Lake, Lake Louise
This is another hike that is well beyond the ability of most toddlers and preschoolers but it's so beautiful I can't leave it out.  If you have the means to get your child up into the Valley - go, go, go!  Give them candy, bribe them, carry them, whatever.  It's worth it.  It's 4.3km one way to the Minnestimma Lakes below Sentinel Pass with 535m of height gain but you don't have to go that far.  Take the trail up the switch backs until you enter the valley.  You'll come to a little bridge and a boulder where you'll get your first glimpse of the Ten Peaks this hike is famous for.  If that's as far as you want to go it will still have been worth it.  It's a meadow worthy of a memory card full of photos.  It's past here that the trail gets more interesting though and smaller kids will likely enjoy walking.  It's still uphill but it's breathtakingly beautiful and even small children will likely be motivated to see what's around the next corner.

Do this hike in the third week of September and see why it's called Larch Valley.  The whole valley will be golden as far as you can see.  It is hands down the most popular hike for viewing Larch Trees in fall.  Just don't go on a weekend!  The road is often closed by local authorities as too many cars try to fill the parking lot. Go on a Monday or mid-week for success.



Larch Valley in September with early snow


Larch Valley in the third week of September


Saddleback Pass, Lake Louise
This is a long one and probably not recommended unless you have school aged kids or are carrying small children.  It's 3.7 km to the pass with 595 m elevation gain.  If you want to go further, this is also the starting point for the scramble up Mt. Fairview.  For information on that, check out the book Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies by Alan Kain.  It is one of the easier scrambles you'll find and we carried our son up there when he was under 2 years old.  Even if you stop at Saddleback Pass, the larch trees are spectacular and it's a popular alternative to the busy Larch Valley Trail.  Alternatively, take a quick run up to the top of Saddleback Mountain from the pass.  It will be the hill to your left as you climb up to the pass.  It's a short 200m scramble on loose rock.


Hiking up to Saddleback Pass
On top of Mt. Fairview, 2744 m
Looking down on Saddleback Pass from lower slopes of Mt. Fairview
Looking down on Saddleback Pass from the top of Saddleback Mountain

Sunshine Meadows to Rock Isle Lake, Sunshine Village Ski Hill, Banff 

This one is a bit more tricky because you have to take a bus to get up to the base of the ski hill before you can start your hike.  The advantage to taking the bus though - very little height gain to reach beautiful alpine meadows that you can lose yourself in. Go in the third week of September and you'll be in a golden paradise of Larch Trees.

White Mountain Adventures runs the bus operation from the Sunshine Village Parking Lot so contact them for schedules and current rates.  Prices get greatly reduced in fall so it's worth waiting to go up.  If you wait until Thanksgiving Weekend, it's only $10/person.   It's 4km return to Rock Isle Lake but if you have older children there's a myriad of trails you can spend all day hiking on.  You'll get a good map when you get on the bus so that you can plot out your day.



Sunshine Meadows and Rock Isle Lake in September


Rock Isle Lake in October

Lake O'Hara, Yoho National Park
Located just across the border from Lake Louise in British Columbia, we try to get into Lake O'Hara every fall to go hiking because in my opinion, it's the most beautiful place on the planet in September.  Hike the Opabin Basin area in the magical third week of September to see golden larch trees reflecting in beautiful ponds and pools all over the plateau.  It's indescribable really so I'm just going to put a link here to a story I wrote last year after our annual fall trip:  Autumn Family Trip to Lake O'Hara.  Also, if you follow this link to Yoho National Park, You'll find all the information you'll need for catching a bus into Lake O'Hara.  If you want to stay overnight at the Elizabeth Parker Hut, go to the Alpine Club of Canada's website


The Opabin Basin Area at Lake O'Hara


Lake O'Hara in Autumn


For Kananaskis trail information go to the Alberta Parks website.
Note that I have tried my hardest to provide accurate information on distances and height gain but it would seem that every website and book has different numbers.   

Best guide books for Kananaskis:  Popular Day hikes in Kananaskis Country or Short walks for inquiring minds - Canmore and Kananaskis Country by Gillean Daffern


For Banff trail information go to the Parks Canada website.   

You'll also find trail reports with accurate conditions for each popular trail.

Another great website for trail information is the Hike Alberta websiteMost popular hikes will be listed on this site. 



For more information on shoulder season hiking, how to dress, where to hike, and why you should continue to get out there - visit these two links


Life After Summer in the Mountains


Life After Summer in the Mountains, Part Two



Note:  Because of recent flooding in Banff and Kananaskis, some of these day use areas are currently inaccessible or not recommended.  To find current conditions, please visit the Kananaskis parks website.  For current conditions in Banff, visit the Parks Canada website




9 comments:

  1. Wow, great trails! Hubby and I have done the Fullerton Loop many times pre-baby, it would be cool to bring her out here for the first time. And I would *love* to check out the other trails. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks. Keep checking back because I plan to add more hikes to this list.

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  2. Tunnel Mountain is a fun one. We were just up there this weekend and saw a ton of families with kids. I've taken my mom up as well and she did love the feeling of being able to get to the top of something.

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    1. Love Tunnel. I just added it. I can't wait to do it with my son where hopefully he'll hike the whole thing. Might have to wait a year though. It's quite up hill.

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  3. You have included many of our favourite hikes to do with our kids, and more that we haven't tried yet and are looking forward to doing now! Thanks so much for the kid-friendly info.

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    1. Thanks Joy. Let me know if I've missed any of your favourites. The list isn't done yet.

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  4. What a fantastic collection of family hikes! Just did Grassi Lakes with our boys yesterday, my youngest (4) wasn't thrilled with the incline, but loved the lakes, caves and watching the mountain climbers when we got there. My husband and I loved the Prairie View Trail, made it to the spot you photographed, and on to the rocky area above, but never did find where the fire lookout was. Not sure our boys are up to that yet, but husband and I keep meaning to do it again to find the fire tower! My boys haven't fallen in love with hiking yet, and we don't do it nearly as much as we'd like, but I look forward to checking off many of your suggestions. It helps to have ideas of good ones to take them on!

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    1. Thanks Jen. To get to the fire lookout, go to that rocky area you mentioned reaching where there's that big reflector. Follow a trail heading off to the right. It goes steadily uphill and is a good trail. I can't remember if there's a sign for it or not but it leaves right from the rocky outcrop.

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    2. Thanks! I'll make sure we find it next time!

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