The Best Short Hikes Near Calgary

These scenic hikes are all 4 km or less round trip and less than 1 hr from Calgary.

The Ultimate Car Camping Pack List

Everything you need for an awesome camping trip!

Tips for Fun Family Backpacking

Family Backpacking 101 - what to pack, where to go...

Discover Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site

Go back in time and live like a trapper at Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site, only 2 hours from Calgary.

Why you should visit Writing on Stone Provincial Park

Hoodoos, beaches, and paddling! Need I say more?

Friday, September 26, 2014

Playing Safe in Winter. How Cold is Too Cold?

First time parents often ask, "I want to take my baby outside in the winter, but how cold is too cold?" Do a Google search, look on Outdoor group forums, and you will be advised that 0C or -10C is the absolute coldest you should take kids out in, while hard core folks tout -30C (-22F) as safe.  For the majority of people, up to -15C (5F) is manageable, provided you are dressed appropriately (exceptions: babies, people whose airways are affected by cold air). Why do I say this? If I remembered one thing from one of the Climatology courses I took years back, -18C (-0.4F) is the temperature at which flesh freezes. I like my nose and digits, so I pay close attention to the weather in the winter. Even with mild frostbite, damage is permanent. Once you've frozen your nose, cheeks tips, and/or fingertips, the frostbitten parts hurt when mildly cold and they are excruciatingly painful in extreme cold. Not worth the risk if you want a lifetime of winter sports enjoyment.

Winter is Wonderful When You're Warm
If it is a perfectly calm day and you are going out for a short time (1 hour) mid-day and don't expect the weather to change while shovelling the walk, sledding, or walking to Starbucks, -15C is probably ok to take your kids out in. Since we don't usually get those ideal conditions in the middle of winter, besides temperature, you need to consider windchill, precipitation, time of day, and duration and location of your outing:
  1. Windchill: If it is -10C, or warmer with high windchill index, and windy, you might have to take precautions against frostbite (see below).
  2. Precipitation: If wet snow or sleet is falling, or the kids want to play in the slush, limit your time outside. I let the kids get wet making a snowman in our yard or park across the street, but would not let them do this when we are in the mountains for a half day ski or snowshoe because they will get too cold too fast and could get hypothermia. "Your body temperature can drop to a low level at temperatures of 50°F (10°C) or higher in wet and windy weather, or if you are in 60°F (16°C) to 70°F (21°C) water." Source:
  3. Time of day: If your kids are late risers like mine and you don't tend to head out until the afternoon, be aware of when the sun will set and be prepared for it to set a bit earlier if you are in the mountains. As the day goes on, the temperature will drop, so you should plan to be back at your shelter/home/vehicle before it gets too cold. Conversely, for you folks with early risers, don't head out too early. A couple hours can make a big difference in temperature and comfort level.
  4. Duration: The colder it is, the shorter your outside playtime should be. I have taken my kids outside in -20C and colder, but I take frostbite precautions (see below) and limit playtime depending on how they're doing. In milder temperatures, half-day outings may be feasible, but take regular breaks so kids can warm up. This not only ensures everyone's safety, but ensures the kids have fun and want to go out and play in the cold again. : ) We played 20-30 minutes in -20 when they were toddlers, and 2-4 hours when they were 3 & up. 
  5.  Location: Stay out of the backcountry when it gets too cold. You may plan to only be out for an hour, and aren't worried about your baby because she's bundled up in the Chariot, but what if you come back to a car that won't start? This happened to my hubby in our pre-kids days. (They had to light a fire under the car to warm the oil pan.) Or, what if you hurt yourself? My friend's friend broke her arm cross country skiing, was in too much pain to ski out and had to wait a few hours in -20C for a helicopter. Those are challenging enough situations for the toughest of us, but being outside for hours in extreme cold could be dangerous for small children.
  6. Pre-existing health conditions: If you have Raynaud's, you will have to take extra care to dress warmly to avoid Raynaud's spasms. See Surviving Winter with Raynaud's for my tips on keeping warm and pain free. Asthma can also be triggered by dry, cold air. Be sure to carry your rescue inhaler, don't over do it, and protect your airway (a mask with breathing vents is recommended). More tips in Staying Active With Exercise Induced Asthma.
Although activity level can increase your body temperature, it does not reduce your risk of frostbite when the mercury dips low. Please take the precautions below to avoid frostbite if you must head out in temperatures below -18C (-0.4F).

A scarf / neck warmer doubles as face protection when the weather changes

 Frostbite Precautions

  1. Cover all exposed skin: wear ski goggles to cover the top of your face, and a balaclava, scarf, or neck warmer to cover the rest of your face. If not wearing a balaclava, a hat with earflaps will help protect your ears. Mitts are better than gloves at keeping hands warm; get waterproof mitts for your kids since they always want to play in the snow.
  2. Do hand checks every half hour (feel their fingers and make sure they're not red) to make sure your child's hands are warm and dry. 
  3. Check your child's body and feet regularly to ensure she is warm and dry. Change any wet articles of clothing immediately.
  4. Carry hand and foot warmers for very cold weather and use them before pain sets in. A hot water bottle or rice/wheat pack in the stroller bag (not too hot or full) is an affordable, reusable heat pack.
  5. If the temperature or wind is severe, take shelter. Go indoors if possible. Otherwise, get out of the wind, then set up a tarp or build a snow shelter if necessary. If you are towing a Chariot, close it up completely to protect your little one.
  6. Bring extra clothes: mitts, hats, fleece layers for the kids, heavy down jacket (I usually wear a light down jacket for activity and pack the heavy down for break time). We always carry extra mitts and socks in case they get wet.
  7. Keep matches and candles handy in case you get stranded. They can keep a car or snow shelter slightly warmer but be sure to make an air vent or crack the window slightly to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
More info at:

By now, I'm sure you think I'm the most paranoid parent ever, but keep in mind that I used to be an outdoor club coordinator for groups of adults, experienced all sorts of weather/trail conditions, and am pleased to say no one needed medical assistance or an emergency evacuation on my watch.

Winter is wonderful if you are dressed for it. Play safe!

For recommendations on keeping kids warm in winter (what to wear), see this post. Some of our favorite children's snowsuits are in this post. For more tips on keeping warm (keep moving, stay hydrated and fueled, dress appropriately), see this post.

More Winter Fun

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola - Great for All Ages

View from the top of the Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola
Last weekend, the larches had turned and the mercury was in the double digits; a little higher than average for the last days of summer. We were pumped to go to the mountains, but after hitting the sickness jackpot (ALL of us were ill), we contemplated cancelling our trip. After a quick discussion, we decided it would be better to be sick in the mountains than at home, packed our bags and left.

We quickly scrapped all plans of Larch Valley or the Tea House. If the kids couldn't hike, it would be too hard to carry them both (and besides, strollers weren't permitted on the shuttle bus to Moraine Lake). Eager to see some larches, we made our way to the less busy side of Lake Louise (at this time of year anyways): the ski hill! We got rock star parking steps from the door, and purchased the Gondola & Gourmet package since I had been too spaced on cold meds to pack lunches for us. It was only $7 to upgrade each adult ticket and get a gourmet appy valued at $24/$26 (game platter/cheese fondue) plus a beer or glass of wine! Dining options are also available at the base of the gondola, but you must go up for the incredible views.

View from the Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola
The sightseeing gondola is set up with lift chairs and enclosed gondolas. If you are travelling with small children, or have large backpacks, I recommend taking the gondola. That way you don't worry about losing anyone or anything. The 14-minute ride was comfortable and the views increased rapidly. We didn't see any wildlife, but it was still fantastic.

Our first stop was lunch at Whitehorn Lodge, a two minute walk from the gondola. We ordered the cheese fondue, game platter, and gluten free pasta off the kids' menu for me. The kids' menu items were $10 including a beverage and cookie. We felt the cost was reasonable given the size of meal and venue, and the food and service were fantastic. Again, I can't stress how incredible the views are just from the restaurant! From your seat on the patio, you can see Mount Temple, Victoria Glacier, and Lake Louise.

After lunch, we popped downstairs to the Wildlife Interpretive Centre to get some hiking info.There were some interesting displays and a presentation was due to start in half an hour, but we were keen to do a hike before the gondola closed. Since all three trails had been recommended as "Fall Larch Hikes", and we were now sleepy, we chose the shortest one: Kicking Horse Viewpoint, 1.7 km return.

Lake Louise Gondola Hiking Trails
To access the trails, you leave the electric bear fence so hiking in a group of at least 4 people is recommended. We carried bear spray and had 40 lb noisemakers with us, so we didn't see anything except a herd of mountain sheep.

The Kicking Horse Viewpoint Trail goes steadily up to a magnificent viewpoint. There is an open area on the way to the top that affords a view, but the rest of the way your view is obstructed by trees. No bother as it is a very short way to the viewpoint, or "heaven" as Play Outside Guy called it. The good thing about the trees, is that you get a bit of shade on a hot day! The last section of the trail is through lovely larch forest. We could have stayed here all afternoon; it was a perfect, uncrowded photo spot. Despite the beauty of the spot and short distance, there was only one other group there at the same time as us.

Almost at the Viewpoint!
The last wee climb
We did it!
Kicking Horse Viewpoint


If you are unable to hike for any reason (sick, very pregnant, newly postpartum, bad joints, on crutches), but want to experience the views an all-day hike would give you, I highly recommend the gondola trip. I noticed a pregnant woman, a family with a new baby, and many elderly folks making use of the free van shuttle between the gondola and restaurant. 

Efforts have been made to accommodate wheelchair users; more info available here: 

Fare Saving Tips

  • Check discount sites such as Groupon and Travelzoo for discounts; both were offering 50% off in late August.
  • Some hotels offer Stay and Ride (gondola) packages: Great Divide Hotel, Lake Louise Inn, Mountaineer Lodge, Banff Caribou Lodge & Spa, Paradise Lodge & Bungalows
  • Gourmet package not available in hotel packages; you may upgrade at the mountain for $7/adult.
  • Go while your kids are little. The gondola is free for children 5 and under.

For More Information 

All in all, a great, easy day. Which Rocky Mountain gondola do you like best?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Check out Autumn in All Her Splendor... near or far

Fall has always been my favorite season. The temperatures are comfortable; the bugs are mostly gone; and as the leaves turn, the scenery is spectacular.

Kicking Horse Viewpoint Trail, Lake Louise (right before the lookout)
Temperate areas are treated to a variety of trees thereby winning the "How Many Colours of Leaves Can You See?" contest, but do not discount places close to home. There are some stunning locations in and around Calgary and in the neighboring Rockies; maybe even in your own backyard!

Leaf Fun in Our Backyard


In town, there are many places to see colorful leaves. Here are a few to visit:
Confederation Park
  • Edworthy Park: great because you can get shots of the leaves and river without going far from the parking lot (if you have wee ones in tow).
  • Confederation Park: beautiful, large balsam poplars and a few larches here and there (a treat as larches are usually only seen at high elevations) make for great photos. It is a popular wedding photo spot.
  • Prince's Island Park: a colorful oasis in the city due to the variety of plants. You can get "nature" shots on the interpretive trail, or get pictures with bridges or skyscrapers in the background.
  • North Glenmore / Weaselhead: many stands of aspen trees around Glenmore Reservoir are pretty any time of year, but prettiest in the fall. Weaselhead is a less visited area that has a wilder feel, lots of deciduous trees and some shrubs that change colour.
  • Fish Creek Park: a nice getaway within the city, with lots of trees, and seemingly endless bike trails. 


One of the best places to see beautiful autumn leaves near Calgary, is Glenbow Provincial Park. Located just a couple kilometres east of Cochrane, in the foothills, this hidden gem boasts 25 km of hiking and cycling trails, rolling hills, and lovely views of the mountains. There are beautiful aspen forests, and towering cottonwoods by the (Bow) river.

For more information on Glenbow Ranch, please see this post.

Colorful Foothills at Glenbow Ranch

Fall Aspens in Glenbow Ranch
  • Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola: Ride the gondola for 14 minutes, enjoy the view from 2088 m (6850 ft), enjoy some gourmet dining, visit the Wildlife Interpretive Centre (free with gondola ticket) and do a short or long hike on top of the world! The gondola tickets are a bit pricey ($29.95 - adult, $15.95 - child, 5 & under - free), but can be combined with buffet or gourmet dining packages or bundled with hotel stays; either option makes the cost more reasonable. Try the Kicking Horse Viewpoint Trail (1.7 km return) to see larches and amazing vistas. If you'd like to hike further, go for the Pika Trail (2.5 km round trip) or Ptarmigan Valley Viewpoint (3.4 km round trip)! Please note that all the trails are beyond the electric fence, so you need to hike in a group of 4 and make lots of noise. The latter was no problem with my children!
    Kicking Horse Viewpoint
  • Lake Agnes Teahouse: hike from Lake Louise. It is 6.8 km return to the Teahouse. Hot chocolate is a nice reward and mirror-like Lake Agnes with its lovely larches never disappoints.
  • Golden Larches at Lake Agnes 
  • Ptarmigan Cirque: allows you to get into the alpine quickly since you start at Highwood Pass, the highest paved pass in Canada. This 4.5 km hike is stunning in any season, but wildflower and larch seasons allow it to truly shine. For more information, see this post.
  • Lake O'Hara: one of the most beautiful spots in the Rockies, but access is limited. Reserve your spot on the bus ($15 per person) in advance to ensure you get to hike there. The great thing about Lake O'Hara is that you get a lot of bang for your buck/effort. There are several hikes less than 8 km round trip that are nontechnical and appropriate for (fit) children aged 5 and up. We liked the trails to Lake Oesa and Opabin Prospect.
  • Larch Valley: hike from Moraine Lake (11.6 km return). I've done this one several times, but recommend arriving early to get a parking spot. Otherwise, you will have to take a shuttle bus to Moraine Lake. If you can go on a weekday, even better! It is worth the hullaballoo, but we prefer to hike without crowds.
  • Healy Pass: a long hike (18 km return) but worth it if you have the legs for it. Make it an overnighter and camp at Egypt Lake! 
    Healy Pass Trail, Banff
  • If you're feeling rich, helicopter in to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park for some stunning scenery. Mt. Assiniboine is also known as the Matterhorn of the Rockies. Once there, you can walk down to Lake Magog to gaze upon Mount Assiniboine, or venture up Nub Peak. Go to the top or stop at the Nublet. The view isn't much different, so if your kids are happy at the Nublet, call a snack break and get your camera clicking.
Where is your favorite place to see autumn leaves?


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Beyond Car Camping... With Kids (Walk-in Camping Near Calgary)

When my hubby and I had my first child, friends were betting on how long it would take for us to take the wee one backpacking. We had, afterall, met on a backpacking trip, so it seemed natural that we would continue with our favorite mountain pastime, but we'd seen intrepid parents suffering on the trail with 50 pound packs plus their 20 pound baby and knew it wasn't for us. It is possible, and I salute those folks, but it wasn't for us because it didn't look fun. We decided to start with car camping and graduate to walk-in camping when the kids could handle it.


Why Walk-In Camping? 

Walk-in camping is as close as you're going to get to the backcountry experience without having to pack your kids and gear over far distances. You sacrifice some comforts of car camping in exchange for peace and quiet; no partiers, RVs, or barking dogs; and the chance to rekindle memories of your glory days when you hiked hours off the highway to bag summits, sleep in the rain, and capture sunrise photos of grizzly bears.

How Old is Old Enough? 

The Camping Readiness Test below will determine your family's (walk-in/backcountry) Camping Readiness Score. Good Luck!
  1. Can your child sleep through the night?  1 point
  2. Can your child sleep through the night in a strange place? 5 points 
  3. Do you know how to set up your tent properly? 10 points 
    • If you've never set up your tent, practice before you go. Read the manual or watch a video so you know how to peg the fly down properly. This is the most important step - so many people complain that their tents leak, when in fact, the tent is fine. Read the instructions! Soaked sleeping bags make for cold and cranky campers.
  4. Has your child successfully (i.e. without waking and screaming and waking up the whole campground) slept in a tent several times? 10 points 
    • "Camping" at the cabin or in a trailer does not count. You need to cram yourselves into a small tent in the pouring rain or at high elevation where it's -8C at night.   
Troubleshooting: Most kids who sleep through the night but can't sleep in a tent are either frightened or cold. This is why practice camping - even in your yard - is valuable. It is better to put your kid(s)and gear to the test when the car/home are not far away before venturing into the wilderness.

Unless you despise sleep and enjoy having obscenities screamed at you in the night, you need to score a minimum of 20 points to venture beyond car camping with your kids. If you scored less than 20, stop reading now.

Did you pass?? Hurrah! Now you can check out where to go! Tips for walk-in camping with kids follow.

Walk-In Campgrounds in BC and Alberta

Elbow LakePeter Lougheed Provincial Park
  • backcountry campground 1.4 km from parking lot
  • reservable; 
  • fires permitted. 
  • Dayhikes: hike to Edworthy Falls or Rae Glacier. Fishing is permitted here, check Bikes are allowed on the trail, but it's a very steep climb up to the campground, especially if you're towing kids and gear.
Elbow Lake, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
Lake O'Hara, Yoho National Park

  • technically a bus-in campground; campsites are less than 100 m from the bus stop; 
  • reservations required 3 months in advance, but totally worth it; 
  • several amazing dayhikes; Trip Report Coming Soon.
Opabin Prospect, above Lake O'Hara, Yoho National Park
Lower Elk Lake Campground, Elk Lakes Provincial Park, BC

  • 1 km hike from the BC side (9 km backpack from Elk Pass Parking Lot, Peter Lougheed Park, AB); 
  • many dayhikes in the area - if you're feeling ambitious, Petain Falls is beautiful (8 km return from camp). A shorter day hike is Upper Elk Lake.
Lower Elk Lake, Elk Lakes Provincial Park, BC

Mount Sarrail Walk-In Campground, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park 

  • 44 sites with convenient parking super close to campsites; some sites are in the open with no shade, some are forested; 
  • first come, first served;  onsite firewood sales; 
  • dayhikes: various, consider Lower Lake Interpretive (1 km), Lower Lake (7 km), or Rawson Lake (7.8 km). There are also lots of paved bike trails in the area. We like biking to Boulton Creek Trading Post for ice cream!
  • For more information, please see my Camping and Activity Guide for Peter Lougheed Provincial Park.
Rawson Lake, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
Takakkaw Falls Campground, Yoho National Park

  • 35 lovely walk-in sites near the stunning Tak Falls; 300 metre walk
  • first come, first served; 
  • dayhikes: various; shortest dayhike: Laughing Falls (5 km); do as much or as little of the Iceline Trail as you like (it is ~20 km, so best for parents with babies they can pack or teenagers).
Takakkaw Falls Walk-In Campground

Tunnel Mountain Village II, Banff National Park

Tunnel Mountain Village II has 34 walk-in sites available. This is the most civilized walk-in camping you can do as the campground has flush toilets and showers and is minutes from the town of Banff!

Two Jack Lakeside, Banff National Park

Two Jack Lakeside has a 23-site walk-in tenting area. Camp lakeside with beautiful views! Washrooms have cold, running water, flush toilets and showers. There are picnic shelters and food lockers too.

Tips for Walk-In Camping with Kids

  • Pack as if you are backpacking since your car will not be that close in most cases.
  • Let the kids carry their own jacket, snack, and water.

  • Coolers are not allowed; bring food in a large, waterproof stuff sack to place in a food locker or hang from a bear wire. (Bring an extra stuff sack for cookware, dishes, and toiletries.)
  • If your kids cannot be parted from technology, and you don't mind indulging them, bring along walkie talkies and/or a portable GPS unit.
  • When planning your trip, check if fires are allowed since you don't want to deprive your kids of their favorite part of camping (roasting marshmallows!). Most walk-in campgrounds will allow campfires unless there is a fire ban, some have a communal fire pit near the cooking area, and some do not have any fire pits. Don't forget to pack marshmallows and hot dog sticks!
  • Consider the distance from parking lot to campground. The distance will determine, most importantly, if you can make it to camp before dark if you plan to arrive Friday after work.
  • Check if the campground has wheelbarrows/carts to haul gear. These are great if you can't leave car camping comforts like camp chairs behind. (I have seen it, but haven't done it!)  Ensure you have plenty of clothing appropriate for the weather before bringing "extras". 
  • Please, no pets and no stereos (again, have seen it but haven't done that sacrilege).
If sites are reservable, I recommend making a reservation in advance.

Where is your favorite walk-in campground? And when did you take your kids camping for the first time?

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