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?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

DIY Ice Walks Near Calgary

What do you do when it isn't snowy enough to snowshoe or ski, and it's too icy to hike?  Go for a canyon ice walk!  While there are many excellent tour companies offering ice walks, with the right equipment, you can do it yourself. The experience of walking on a frozen creek is special as you can only do it in the winter and you get to see canyons from a different perspective. Instead of looking down on the creek, you get to look up. Best of all, you get to see ice falls! 

Where to Go

Three great ice walks near Calgary are Grotto Canyon, Exshaw; Johnston Canyon, Banff National Park; and Jura Canyon, Exshaw.

Jura Canyon is only 3 kilometres round trip and closest to Calgary. A sculpted canyon located only one kilometre from the road, Jura is unique in that it is very narrow.  The trail is level and serene, the latter because few people know of this canyon. When we went, in late November, we didn't run into anyone all afternoon!

Expect to walk about 2 kilometres on trail and 1 kilometre on ice. The trail is stroller friendly up to the canyon, but a child carrier would be easier since there is a short, steep hill from the car to the trail.

From Calgary, take Highway 1 to the Seebe exit, get on to Highway 1A and continue approximately 8 kilometres to the Graymont Exshaw Plant. The plant will be on the left side of the street and the trailhead is on the right of the street, near a large sign. If you enter the hamlet of Exshaw, you have gone too far.

Map to Jura Canyon - the marker shows the plant location where you should park
For more information, please check out the trip reports by Tanya Koob and Barry Taylor, respectively.
Jura Canyon
Little POG trying out her new Atlas Sprout 17 snowshoes
Kids may need help climbing over boulders and trees in the creekbed.
Walking on the ice is so fun!
Jura Canyon is very narrow!
Playing in the snow by Jura Canyon
Grotto Canyon is a longer ice walk (4.2 km round trip) that has pictographs and frozen waterfalls. The falls at the end of the canyon are high enough to climb, so you may get to see ice climbers in action! While Jura is unique for being so narrow, the advantage of a wider canyon such as Grotto Canyon is that there are fewer obstructions to climb over or around. Plus, it is possible to pull your kids in a sled most of the way! Expect to walk 2.2 km on trail and 2 km on ice in the creekbed. 

From Calgary, take Highway 1 to the Seebe exit, get on to Highway 1A and continue 11 kilometres to Grotto Lake Parking lot. Take the Grotto Creek trail until you come to a park bench, then head into the creek (do NOT enter the creek until you are past the magnesium carbonate plant or you will have to climb over a lot of deadfall/driftwood). Also, do not proceed beyond the falls at the end of the creek unless you are an experienced ice climber with proper ice climbing gear.

Grotto Canyon Ice Walk (Photo: Brent Stephens)
Grotto Canyon Pictographs (Photo: Brent Stephens)
Ice Climber on Grotto Canyon Ice Falls (Photo: Brent Stephens)
Christmas Eve 2015 at Grotto Canyon

Johnston Canyon, located in Banff National Park, is stunning any time of year. Don't be turned off by the tour buses and crammed parking lot. This many people cannot be wrong; Johnston Canyon is a beautiful, must-stop spot. Although you will not be walking on the frozen creek for the majority of the hike, icewalk gear is vital to safely traverse the icy catwalks and pavement.

Johnston Canyon Catwalk
It is 2.2 kilometres round trip to the Lower Falls or 5.4 kilometres round trip to the Upper Falls. Lower Falls is a beautiful destination in itself, but if you can make it to Upper Falls, you will be rewarded by higher, even lovelier falls. While you can access the creek between Lower and Upper Falls, you should stay off the ice as the snow/ice bridges may not be as solid as they appear and water is still flowing beneath the ice. For more ice safety tips, please see this post.

Lower Falls, Johnston Canyon
Upper Falls is a popular ice climbing spot
Upper Falls, Johnston Canyon
Heading back
Since the catwalks are narrow, the best mode of transport for little ones would be a single sports stroller or child carrier (a double stroller is too wide for others to pass you). If your children are hiking without assistance, keep them close, as the catwalks are very high! 

To get to Johnston Canyon from Calgary, take Highway 1 westbound to Castle Junction (about 157 km). Take the exit to Bow Valley Parkway East / Hwy AB 1A East. Continue east on Bow Valley Parkway for 6.2 kilometres to the Johnston Canyon parking lot (on the left side of the street). The other option is to take the Bow Valley Parkway/Johnston Canyon turnoff just past Banff, but be warned that the road is extremely icy in the winter and the speed limit (if you can go that fast) is only 60 km/hr.

What To Bring

Tour operators provide ice cleats and hiking poles for ice walks because ice cleats are cheap, light, and easy to hike in, but I recommend microspikes or snowshoes. High quality snowshoes offer better grip than ice cleats as they can handle uneven terrain. I also tend not to use poles when hiking with children as I need to keep my hands free to help my little ones climb over obstacles such as rocks and logs. (If you are carrying children in carriers/backpacks, you should use poles!) 

Ice Walk Gear Options
  • Microspikes - Microspikes are more aggressive than ice cleats, less dangeous than crampons, and a lot lighter than snowshoes. Kahtoola Microspikes are a popular, high quality make.

  • Snowshoes - If you bring snowshoes, ensure they have metal crampons on all sides (not just the front). An excellent choice is MSR's Lightning Ascent snowshoes. They are light and have great crampons and binding straps. A disadvantage of snowshoes is that they are heavier than microspikes/ice cleats and require you to walk slightly wider so you don't step on your snowshoes. For children's snowshoes, I recommend the MSR Tykers. They provide the best grip - my kids don't slip like they do when they are wearing Snow Trek or Atlas snowshoes.
  • Ice Cleats - If you choose to wear ice cleats, keep in mind, that they offer great traction on flat surfaces (sidewalks), but poor traction on sloped surfaces (such as ungroomed canyon ice). I attended an ice hike with an experienced hiker who walked up a slight slope with ice cleats and busted his nose open requiring six stitches. The folks in crampons / snowshoes were able to traverse the same section without incident. When choosing an ice cleat, select a pair with metal studs at least 2 mm long for the best traction (Source: Chain ice cleats would be my second choice, followed by coil ice cleats. 
  • Instep Crampons - You can also use instep crampons (not ice climbing crampons) that attach to your boots. Check that they attach well to your boots and that the fasteners are easy to open and close. 
Other Essentials
  • Footwear - Wear warm socks and winter boots as you will not be travelling fast on the ice. Slow travel is safe travel. 
  • Extra clothing - Extra mitts and socks are most important as little explorers may get wet.
  • Warm beverages and snacks
  • First Aid Kit, hand warmers, foot warmers
  • Optional items: A foam pad to sit upon (diaper change pads work well!); ski/skating helmets for the kids; stove, fuel, pot and hot chocolate mix to make hot chocolate on the trail; hand and foot warmers; trekking/ski poles.

When to Go

Mid December until the March is usually the best time to go on an ice walk in the Alberta Rockies. Be prepared for slush or patches of open water if the weather has been unseasonably warm.

General Ice Walk Safety Tips

  • Wear snowshoes / ice cleats / crampons. 
  • Walk, don't run! 
  • Let an adult take the lead to ensure the way is safe.
  • Be on the lookout for open water, obstacles (logs/boulders), and falling ice. 
  • Stay on level ground. The steeper or bumpier the ice, the more likely someone will slip and fall.
An ice walk is a great way to experience winter, especially if there isn't enough snow for skiing and snowshoeing. If you gear up appropriately, you can do it safely and inexpensively. Have fun and let me know which ice walk was your favorite!

More Winter Fun

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

How to Weather a Wilderness Hostel with Kids in Winter

Wilderness hostels are an attractive accommodation option for families who enjoy being active in the mountains, especially in winter. What is the difference between a hostel and wilderness hostel? The wild variety is short on electricity and plumbing, but huge on location. You get a backcountry experience without having to pack your gear long distances, and in most cases, have more creature comforts than what you would get in a backcountry hut. (Note that some wilderness hostels have electricity and hot water, but others are "off the grid" and have neither power nor water.)

HI Mosquito Creek Wilderness Hostel, Banff National Park
Last weekend, I stayed at Hostelling International's Mosquito Creek Wilderness Hostel with Tanya Koob of Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies, Suzanne Burgman of RunBikesYYC, and their families. There were six adults and five kids in one dorm. It was my first time staying in a hostel dorm with kids and it went better than expected! The mountain air must have made the kids sleep well! To read more about the hostel, please visit Five Reasons to Take Your Family to Mosquito Creek this Winter by Tanya Koob.

HI Mosquito Creek Wilderness Hostel, Banff National Park
Preparing for a wilderness hostel trip is not much more work than a hotel stay, but learn from my mistakes for a fun and comfortable stay! (We actually did well, but I really missed my hut booties.)

How to winter wilderness hostel with kids and have fun

  1. Before booking, confirm hostel amenities. Many wilderness hostels have appliances and solar powered lights, so you don't need to bring a camp stove or lantern.
  2. Bring hut booties. The hostel floors are very cold! If you don't have booties, bring warm slippers.  
  3. Plan activities your kids will enjoy. Pick trails that suit their skill level, bring treats, play games, and bring a sled. Some ideas for snow fun are here.
  4. Bring a headlamp for each person and pack extra batteries. If there is no electricity at the hostel, you will also need a lantern and extra batteries.
    Kids love having their own headlamp for evening exploring!
  5. If anyone in your family is a light sleeper, a) bring earplugs, b) commit to only one-night in a dorm (one sleepless night won't kill you, but two will make you feel like the walking dead), or c) book a family room/cabin
  6. Pack simple meals that the kids will eat. Full kids are happy kids, and simple meals mean less dishes. Do as much meal prep as you can at home as hostel kitchens can be very crowded on weekends and holidays. I pre-washed our fruits and veggies and brought homemade meat sauce for pasta; it made for a quick and healthy supper!
  7. Bring thermoses and your favorite cocoa/tea/coffee for your daytrips. Most people, especially children, tend to dislike cold drinks on a cold day and won't drink much if that's all they're offered. A warm bevvy will not only warm you up, but keep you hydrated, and being hydrated helps with temperature regulation, so it's a win-win. If you're doing a big ski or snowshoe day and don't want to pack a lot of water, bring a light camp stove, waterproof matches, hot chocolate mix, and a small pot so you can melt snow and make hot chocolate on the go. Don't forget cups for sharing and stay away from yellow snow!
  8. Pack plenty of warm clothes and ensure you have extra mitts, socks, base layers, and footwear
  9. Bring a fleece toque (not the same one you skied in!), warm pajamas or base layers, and thick socks to sleep in. Even if your cabin is heated, heaters can malfunction (ours didn't work the first night), or your roommates may set the thermostat lower than you'd like.
  10. If articles of clothing get wet, change them immediately. Check your child's gaiters regularly to ensure that they are keeping snow out of your child's boots. Dry wet clothes and footwear as soon as you come indoors. 
    Snow + Kids = Happy Kids (and wet clothes)
  11. Pack fun stuff for the kids. Books, coloring books and crayons, and some favorite toys are good for when you are inside preparing dinner or winding down for bed. For outside, a sled with a tow rope is a must! My trip companions also brought Strider bikes with ski attachments. So much fun!
    Ski biking on a Strider balance bike!
  12. Don't drink too much before bedtime. It's hard to warm up if you have a full bladder (fact!), and I know from experience that it takes a while to warm up after a late night walk to the outhouse.
  13. Stay on schedule. If your kids usually go to sleep at 8 pm, put them to bed at 8 pm because they will wake up at their usual time no matter what. Getting enough rest ensures they will be refreshed for whatever adventures you have planned. Bedtime tip: If your child needs a nightlight, a headlamp on low will work well (just remember extra batteries!). 
  14. For comfort and warmth, sleep on top of a folded blanket and keep an extra blanket close to you in case you get cold in the night. 
    My oldest tucked in snug as a bug
Would I do it again? Yes, if I could get a family room or cabin. I am too light a sleeper for dorm rooms, but loved sleeping in a prime location in the mountains!

For More Information

 Five Reasons to Take Your Family to Mosquito Creek this Winter by Tanya Koob, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies

Winter Camping With Kids Part Two (no tent!!) by Tanya Koob, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies

Hostelling International - Canada Wilderness Hostels along the Icefields Parkway

More Winter Fun

Monday, December 8, 2014

About Me

To celebrate a few milestones for my growing blog - 100+ likes on Facebook, 100+ likes on Instagram, and 400+ followers on Twitter - in keeping with social media tradition, I will be sharing some info about me and doing my first giveaway (contest closed Dec 2014).

THANK YOU so much for reading, commenting, and sharing my posts and tweets!

Q&A with PlayOutsideGal (Karen Ung)

  1. What is your favorite hike? For mountain hikes, I love Snowbird Pass in Mount Robson Provincial Park, Cirque Peak in Banff National Park, and Nub Peak in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. I also love beach walks and the amazing terrain in the Grand Canyon and Arches National Park. My favorite kid-friendly hikes close to Calgary are Rawson Lake and Grassi Lakes.
    Mount Assiniboine and LakeMagog at Sunrise
  2. What is your favorite backpacking trip? The Berg Lake Trail. There is a pretty lake, several stunning waterfalls on the hike in, and a great dayhike (Snowbird Pass) from Berg Lake. Listening to icebergs crashing into Berg Lake at the foot of Mount Robson was incredible. I woke up seconds too late to see it happen, but hope to see it with my kids in the near future. Mount Assiniboine is a close second favorite. 
    Reef Ice Field seen from Snowbird Pass, Mount Robson Provincial Park
  3. What is your favorite scramble? Mount Redoubt in Skoki. The views were great and I was in great company. I think your hiking companions really make your day.
  4. What is the longest backpacking trip you've ever done? The West Coast Trail. Sure, it was 75 km, but it was easy because it was pretty flat and we went at a leisurely pace.  We spent a whole week on the trail! I highly recommend taking your time if the weather's good. My group loved lazy lunches on the beach while watching seals frolic in the tide. Oh, and did I mention an 87 year old did the trip with us?! 'Twas an epic adventure! 
    Carmanah Lighthouse, West Coast Trail
  5. How did you meet your husband? I used to lead events for the Calgary Outdoor Club and my hubby signed up for my backpacking trip to Egypt Lake in Banff National Park. We hit it off right away and I was overjoyed because he liked every outdoor activity as much or more than me. I love cycling; he had ridden his bike all over France for 8 months. I like kayaking; he was building a kayak. I was planning on the doing the West Coast Trail; he had already done it and had advice for me. My hubby has gotten me into winter sports and just made my life better in so many ways. 
    Our Chesterman Beach, Tofino Wedding. Modelling Helly Hansen Rain Gear. Photo by Chris Pouget.
  6. How do you get your kids outside every day? I do things they like, at their pace, until the little one conks out and then we continue at my 5 year old's pace. I usually bring the Chariot or a baby backpack to transport my little one (3 yrs old), but we still bring skis/snowshoes/a scooter/a balance bike for my youngest so she can try what the rest of the family is doing. For short trips, we suck it up and move slowly so the little one can build some endurance. Getting both kids to walk slowly is better than not walking at all! 
    The Chariot in Action - carrying my 3 year old AND her balance bike
  7. Dream vacation? I would love to spend a month in Hawaii near a beach. We spent 10 days in Oahu in 2009 and it was heaven. My other favorite places are on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands in British Columbia. Even though I went there all the time growing up, I never get sick of the scenery. 
    Kahala Beach, Oahu
  8. Biggest pet peeve? People who throw caution to the wind when venturing out with their kids. While we will go sledding or build a snowman in extreme temperatures (for less than an hour), we will not tent camp in it or drag our kids to the mountains to ski all day in it. Too many things can go wrong (As former VP and President for an outdoor club with 4,000+ members, I have seen and heard it all!). We wear helmets for cycling and all winter sports, even sledding. We do not skate on thin ice (makes me think of Jack Frost in Rise of the Guardians). Finally, we do not pack ultra light and are not ashamed of it (we bring extra clothes, mitts, food, and water). Pack well, observe and respect the conditions of both weather and terrain; then you can have fun for many years to come.
  9. What's on your Bucket List for the next few years? Berg Lake Trail*, Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park*, Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands*, Grand Canyon*, Colorado, Maui, Okanagan*, and Jasper. *I have already been, but want to take the kids there.
    Malaspina Galleries, Gabriola Island
  10. What's your favorite play outside gear?  In this season, I am loving our Cougar2 Chariot with ski attachments*, Littlelife Freedom Child Carrier, Oakley prescription sunglasses*, Arc'teryx Fission SV jacket*, Helly Hansen Legendary ski pants*, Black Diamond Mercury Mitts*, MEC Storm Degree jacket, Salomon Nytro winter boots, Teko midweight hiking socks*, MEC Toaster Parka & Bib Pants (for the kids)*, and MEC Toasty Mitts (for the kids)*. In summer, I wear Vasque Breeze 2.0 hiking boots and my Outdoor Research Alibi soft shell jacket - with shorts and a shirt, of course. (* shown in photo below.)
    Cross Country Skiing in Lake Louise. Photo by Tanya Koob.
Please let me know what activities you are interested in and would like to read more about! 


I have 1 itFitBand sports headband up for grabs.  They are marketed as the only non-slip headband and seem to work well. You can wear it wide or narrow and the colors and patterns are beautiful. It would definitely make a nice stocking stuffer. : ) Enter below. Good luck!

*Eligibility: The giveaway is open to Canadian and US Residents only.

My itFitBand - not just for jogging or yoga. Works with a bike helmet to keep ears warm.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, December 1, 2014

How to Have a Stress Free (and Active!) Holiday Season

Our Christmas tradition involves a mountain mini-break for a few days before Christmas. It's a special time before the relatives descend on us, when we get away from it all. The mountain towns are virtually empty, hotels are cheap, and best of all, the trails and ski runs are covered with snow but free of crowds. How do you do it? You just need to plan. For many, plan is a 4-letter word, but it doesn't have to be that way. If you plan ahead, you can have the best Christmas ever and spend more time playing outside. Truly, any time in the great outdoors, is "the most wonderful time of the year."

Check out the Christmas decorations at the Banff Springs Hotel, then go skating!

Tips for a Stress Free and Active Holiday Season

  1. Shop for Christmas presents throughout the year. This way you get the best deals and aren't stuck in the malls at the start of ski season. Don't forget gifts of adventure for your family like a Family Season's Pass to your favorite ski hill. Super Early Bird Specials are available in the April/May and can often be 50% off or more.
  2. Shop less. a) Instead of buying for each relative, draw a name from a hat, or buy gifts only for the children. b) Buy one gift per family member instead of several. c) Don't be afraid to make a wish list of things you need. We got a few relatives to pitch in for cross country skis for the kids. By buying less, we save time and money; time and money we can spend in the mountains. 
  3. Decorate in November. The kids will love it, you can enjoy the decorations longer, and it's one less thing to do before company comes calling. We put our tree up at the beginning of November!
    Oh Christmas Tree!
  4. Write your Christmas cards in November so they'll be ready to mail in early December. To save money, make your own! We get our blank cards at Walmart and accoutrements at the Dollar Store.
    DIY Christmas Cards
  5. Start your Christmas baking in late November and freeze it. We put together tins of gingerbread, sugar cookies, and shortbread for our favorite people. It's an inexpensive, but well anticipated gift. Here is a great gingerbread recipe. 
    Homemade Gingerbread Cookies
  6. Buy all your holiday entertaining non-perishables (and freezables) in early December so you don't need to do a big shopping right before Christmas. This also ensures you get what you need before it's sold out. Remember that year you drove to three grocery stores on the 24th looking for cranberry sauce? Fresh cranberries freeze well and make the best sauce! 
  7. Plan some outdoor adventures. They can be microadventures - sledding in a nearby park or a neighborhood Christmas lights walk - or out of town adventures like skiing / snowshoeing trips. We love going to Canmore, Banff, and Lake Louise. *Sign up for email alerts from your favorite places to stay. They often have last-minute price reductions.
    Canmore Christmas Lights
My wish for you this Christmas is that you can play outside over the holidays, stress less, and spend less. Your kids will remember the fun they had more than any gift.

Jura Canyon Ice Walk
Skiing at Canada Olympic Park