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?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Family Fun in Glacier of the North

When we stayed in Glacier National Park, it was love at first sight. Glacier of the North, I mean, just east of Revelstoke, British Columbia. We had passed through dozens of times on our way to the Okanagan, done some of the interpretive trails over the years, and popped in to the Rogers Pass Discovery Centre, but had never stayed the night. Since the scenery is beautiful and our kids can't handle more than a few hours in the car, we set up camp in Glacier on our way to and from Shuswap Lake Provincial Park and are so happy we did. Rich in beauty and history, Glacier offers a rare opportunity to camp in a national historic site as well as several kid-friendly trails!

Why hug a tree when you can hug your sister and BFF?
A hugging spot in Loop Brook Campground
As you drive in to Loop Brook Campground (one of three campgrounds in Glacier with 20 first come-first serve campsites), you are greeted by stone pillars that supported railway tracks in days gone by, and towering hemlocks and cedars. Take in the cool, moist air; the music of rushing water; and golden, dappled sunlight filtering through the trees. It is easy to find a perfect campsite at Loop Brook: all are shaded and level, and washrooms and firewood are close by. Although there are no showers at Loop Brook, there are flush toilets, a dishwashing sink, beautiful cook shelter, and firewood (available with purchase of a Fire Permit). We expected a lot of road noise at night being close to the highway, but the creek drowned it out, so everyone had a pleasant sleep. 

Loop Brook Campground Cook Shelter
If you stay at Loop Brook, the self-guided Loop Brook Trail, departing from the campground, is a must! As you climb up and away from the brook, you pass by tall stone pillars - some of the oldest manmade structures in western Canada - and can read the interpretive signs. Where the trail flattens out, you tread on the old railway surface. The wooden ties are still there peeking through the dirt! Typically, the trail is a 1.6 km loop, but as of July 2014, when we were there, the last section of the trail was covered by a mudslide and closed, so we had to go back the way we came. Although Parks Canada describes the trail as having "short, steep sections", our 3 year old and 5 year old had no trouble completing the hike on foot.

The next day we headed to Hemlock Grove Boardwalk Trail for a "hike". I had been to Hemlock Grove before, but the huge trees - up to 350 years old - never fail to amaze me. This trail is barrier-free and suitable for strollers and wheelchairs, but if your kids are like mine, they'll run the whole 400 metres. Since they were done in minutes, we went through a second time to take some photos, then had a little snack near the parking lot and watched the ground squirrels. Some people must feed them, for the cheeky little critters were so bold as to dash under our table for crumbs!

Racing on the Hemlock Grove Boardwalk
Still Running!
Five days later, we returned to Glacier and stayed at Illecillewaet Campground. Illecillewaet is larger than Loop Brook with 60 sites, so it's a good option if you pull in late in the evening since all of the campgrounds in Glacier are first come, first served. If you have time to do some real hiking in Glacier, Illecillewaet is the best place to camp as eight trails start from there. The amenities were identical to Loop Brook, with the addition of a staffed Welcome Station at the centre of the campground. Again, it was quiet considering the location, the sites were shaded, and it was comfortable since there were hardly any mosquitoes.

To learn more about local rail history, be sure to stop at the Rogers Pass Discovery Centre. While you're there, you can hike to Balu Pass (6.4 km one way)! Enjoy lush vegetation and mountain views. Be sure to bring lots of water as there isn't much tree cover after the first 1.5 kilometres.

Balu Pass Trail
Glacier offers beautiful scenery, well appointed campgrounds, and a variety of trails to suit different ages and abilities, but without the crowds of other areas in the Rockies. The glaciers against blue skies are stunning! It's a great destination on its own, or stopping spot en route to the Okanagan or Vancouver.

Important Note: A National Park Pass is required to stay in Glacier National Park. 

For More Information

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

TRIP REPORT: Cypress Hills Provincial Park (Elkwater, AB Area)

After hearing from various people what a family-friendly place Cypress Hills is, we decided to drive down and check it out for ourselves.  Using Firerock Campground as our home base, we enjoyed a variety of "towny" and outdoorsy activities. Our kids are three and five, and our friends' kids are two and five years old and we had plenty to do. If you go with older children, longer hikes are available, and paddling/boating would be great. It was quite windy and wet for much of our stay, so we opted to stay off of the water. Here's how we spent 4 days at Elkwater. (A summary of things to do is at the end.)

Day 1
Shoreline Trail
  • Rode our bikes along the Shoreline Trail (2.4 km one way). The trail is paved / boardwalk and flat, so it is suitable for young riders - my daughter is 5 - or pulling a Chariot.
  • Played at West End Day Use Area (beach and playground). The playground was new, had a picnic table in the shade of a tree beside it, and was near a small beach and swimming area. We spent a bit of time here each day. Best of all, the water was warm enough for swimming (shallow and perfect for little kids - go to the Marina for deeper water)!
West End Day Use Area

Day 2
  • Walked the Lakeshore Trail from the Marina to East End Day Use Area (approx. 500 m one way). There were lots of wildflowers in bloom and ripe wild raspberries and saskatoons along the trail.
  • Played at playground
  • Did two rounds of mini golf (the kids couldn't get enough!)
  • Walked back to Marina and played at the beach for the afternoon
  • Dinner and evening campfire with friends
Mini Putt at East End Day Use Area (Did I mention it is free?!)
 Day 3
  • Rode our bikes to West Central Day Use Area; visited the biologists who were catching, identifying, and tagging birds. Both of our daughters had the amazing opportunity to release a bird (see video below)! The biologists are at this location most of the summer and don't mind visitors, but ask that people watch for the nets that are set up in the area (to catch the birds). 
M releasing a White Crowned Sparrow
  • Drove up to Horseshoe Mountain Viewpoint for a hike. The view was nice and would be particularly lovely at sunset on a clear day. We could not find Plateau Trail (I think it is closed/overgrown, no one at the Visitor Centre knew about it either), so we hiked to the Tom Trott Memorial Forestry Museum.  The exhibits were pretty neat and would have been a lot more interesting with the interpretive brochure, but there were none left, so we used our imaginations. It was a pleasant lunch spot with picnic tables and washrooms.
Horseshoe Canyon Viewpoint
Fire Lookout at Tom Trott Memorial Forestry Museum
  • As we finished our hike, the rain came down in buckets, so we escaped to the Visitor Centre. Admission is free and there are some interesting displays/exhibits on the local history, geography, and Dark Sky conservation. There is also a great children's area including play room, coloring station, (magnetic) fishing, play house/puppet theater, floor puzzles. If you need to heat up some baby food or water, there is a microwave in the playroom that the public is free to use.
Visitor Centre Play Area
Visitor Centre Fishing
Visitor Centre Coloring
  •  Had dinner at Elkwater Landing (next to the Visitor Centre) - limited menu, but good portion sizes and reasonable prices. Excellent BBQ chicken for only $10!
BBQ chicken with braised cabbage at Elkwater Landing
Elkwater Landing
  • Got an ice cream bar from the Elkwater Landing Grocery Store. All the essentials are here (camp fuel, bread, milk), but there was no produce or gluten-free products.
  • Drove up to Head of the Mountain Viewpoint. On a clear day, you can see the Sweetgrass Hills in Montana. Note: Cows grazing in the area. Keep kids and dogs close. This would be a great place to bike in better weather.
Head of the Mountain Viewpoint on a rainy day
Other Activities
  • Boating: Powered and non-powered boats are allowed on the lake. Canoe, paddleboat, and stand up paddle boats are available for rent. Inquire at the Visitor Centre. Note: There is a free lifejacket loaner program at the Marina if you want to save space packing and only bring your boat!
  • Camping: There are several great campgrounds and group sites in Cypress Hills. More info here. We enjoyed Firerock Campground. My friend, Tanya Koob, has stayed at two of the group campsites and has a great writeup here.
  • Cycling: Various trails, more info here.The Shoreline Trail, paved & boardwalk, is excellent for young cyclists.The Firerock Trail is an excellent (blue) mountain biking trail.
  • Fishing: There are perch and pike in Elkwater Lake and trout in nearby Reesor and Lake and Spruce Coulee Reservoir. I plan to bring my fishing rod next time so I can fish while the kids play on the beach!
  • Hiking: various trails, more info here. Note: Inquire about Plateau Trail before attempting (the person we spoke to at the Visitor Centre was not aware of it. We tried twice to find it, but couldn't.) Also, be advised there are cougars in the area.
  • Mini Golf: There is free mini golf at the East End Day Use area! 
  • Playgrounds: at Marina, West End Day Use, and East End Day Use Area. Note: play structure at East End not for younger children
  • Sunbathing/Swimming: There are sandy beaches at West End Day Use area (second largest) and Elkwater Marina (largest). For actual swimming, the only place would be at the Marina; West End is too shallow. There is also a small beach at West Central Day Use area (no swimming).
  • Tom Trott Memorial Forestry Museum: An interesting stop on the way to/from the Horseshoe Canyon or Head of the Mountain Viewpoints. Picnic tables and washrooms available.
The Elkwater area is really family-friendly with all the beaches and playgrounds along the lake. The park doesn't get as busy as the mountain parks, so we had a pleasant and relaxing stay.

Have you ever been to Cypress Hills?


REVIEW: Firerock Campground, Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park (Elkwater Area)

Sculpted hills, dramatic skies, a pretty lake with sandy beaches, and a paved bike trail along the shore make Firerock Campground at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park an appealing and pleasant place to camp with children. As if that weren't enough, there is also a Visitor Centre with interesting displays and kids' activities, free mini golf, playgrounds along the lake (three in total!), fishing, birding, boating, and hiking. To top it all off, there were no mosquitoes!
Firerock Campground, Loop A
Of the five campgrounds in the Elkwater area, we selected Firerock based on positive TripAdvisor reviews. Located at the west end of the lake, it is quiet (the townsite and other campgrounds are to the east) and there are great campsites right beside the lake. Since we stayed in Loops D & A, walked through Loop B (our original reserved site was there, but we didn't like it), visited friends in Loop E, and drove through Loop C to get to E, we saw the whole campground. A rundown of each loop is below:
  • Loop A: closest to the lake and showers, beautiful view of the lake and hills, sites are large and flat, no shade, breezy. Peg your tent down well and bring a screen house or sun shade. We liked being able to ride or walk to the showers, beach, and playground at West End Day Use Area. From West End, we could get on to the Shoreline Trail and ride to the Marina and Visitor Centre. Note: You will have to pay $6 extra per night for power to get the large sites in Loop A. Having a view and not having to get in our cars to go anywhere made it worth every penny!
  • Loop B: offers quick access to the lake; sites are smaller and many are unshaded. Do NOT book B38 (what we had reserved, then moved from)- I think it's the smallest site in the campground!
  • Loops C, D & E: located 0.6-1.0 km up the hill from Loop B. Loops C & D have some very nice, forested sites of a decent size. Loop E sites were not as nice so they would be my last choice (many sites were unshaded and lumpy). Check when reserving to see if your site has trees and keep in mind that these loops are a bit far to the showers and lake. 
Showers/Washrooms at West End Day Use Area (beside Firerock Loop A)
What We Liked
  • No mosquitoes!
  • Proximity to West End Day Use Area (beach, playground, showers) and Shoreline Trail from Loops A & B
  • Clean washrooms and showers
  • $1 gets you a hot 4 minute shower (showers take $1 coins only, obtain at Registration)
  • Cheap firewood ($8 for a Costco yard waste bag - fill it up as much as you can!) - purchase at Registration
  • No waits for showers 
  • No traffic
  • Cell phone reception
  • The campsite host was responsive when a large group made noise past 11 PM. S/he gave the group a warning and they were quiet for the rest of the night and the next. 
  • Reservations are not required mid-week (but recommended for weekend stays so you get a good site).
The BIG bag of firewood (only $8)
What We Didn't Like
  • No temperature control on the showers, a little too hot for small children
  • There is no path from Loops C, D or E directly to the showers; you can a) walk down on the side of the road, b) take the Firerock Trail* down to West Central Day Use area then backtrack on the Shoreline Trail to the showers, or c) drive down. *I heard the Firerock Trail is an excellent mountain biking trail, but didn't get the chance to ride it, so am not sure if young riders would be able to handle it. I imagine adults would be fine getting from camp to the lake as it is rated a blue (moderate) trail.
  • This said, none of the above are dealbreakers; we would happily camp at Firerock again and are already thinking about our next trip.
We thoroughly enjoyed our stay and will definitely be back! Next year we would like to stay in the AA Loop, do some hiking, rent a canoe, and do some fishing.

*To see what we did on this trip, please click here.

What is your favorite campground in Cypress Hills, Alberta?


Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park Trip Report
Alberta Parks - Cypress Hills Provincial Park
Alberta Parks - Cypress Hills - Campsites & Vacancy Calendar
Reserve an Alberta Parks Campsite

Friday, August 8, 2014

REVIEW: Shuswap Lake Provincial Park Campground (aka My Favorite North Okanagan Campground)

We recently got back from beautiful British Columbia, where we stayed at five different campgrounds in three different regions, all with different geography and amenities. As a backpacker at heart, I am extremely picky when it comes to car camping locales. Basically, if I am going to be crammed in with a whole bunch of other people and deprived the chance to really "leave it all behind" as RV televisions blare, there had better be some tradeoffs. Of all the places we stayed, our favorite was Shuswap Lake Provincial Park campground (Shuswap Lake). Before I tell you why we loved this campground so much, you have to promise not to book it for two weeks every year; it is already hard enough to get a spot there without booking three months in advance!

Lazing on Shuswap Lake Beach
Besides a lovely, sandy/pebbly beach, Shuswap Lake boasts several amenities making it a dream location for family getaways:
  • large, semi-private, shaded campsites; double sites and a group site are also available
  • a bike-friendly campground - everyone rode their bikes everywhere
  • playground
  • amphitheater with great programming including a "Learn to Fish" session (more details below)
  • Nature Hut that has some neat exhibits and offers free activities for the kids on weekend afternoons (games, Jerry's Rangers program where kids can earn badges) as well as t-shirt painting for $15 (a good activity on a rainy day)
  • short, interpretive nature hike perfect for families with small children to complete in less than one hour
  • warm weather and no mosquitoes (Herald Provincial Park on the other arm of the Shuswap Lakes was considerably cooler as it is in the lee of Bastion Mountain for a good part of the day.)
  • a huge number of picnic tables near the beach, many are shaded by large trees
  • walking distance to a small, general store; short drive to grocery store
  • free, hot showers and flush toilets
We were happy just walking, exploring the trails around the campground, and going to the beach, but on Saturday morning, we were invited to a "Learn to Fish" presentation at the amphitheater. Appreciative of the invite, I politely declined, explaining we had left our fishing equipment at home and were from out of province so didn't have valid fishing licenses. The GoFishBC staffer told us she had loaner rods on hand and reminded us that kids under 16 don't need a license, so we put away our breakfast dishes and tagged along. We learned to identify different kinds of fish, how to hold a fish if you catch one, how to release and resuscitate a fish, and finally, how to tie a clinch knot, and cast! After the presentation, kids were allowed to borrow a rod and reel for an hour and try their luck. We didn't catch anything, but it was wonderful way to spend the morning.

Exploring the Nature Hut
The surprises kept coming. Not only was there fishing class in the morning, but children's activities in the afternoon. Older kids could play games such as Red Rover on the field. My girls joined the Jerry's Rangers group (suitable for 5-12 years old, though my 3 year old was allowed to join and loved it): Parks staff led the kids on a scavenger hunt through the interpretive trail and taught them about the area's history, plants and animals; how to protect the environment; and how to be bear aware. At the end of the scavenger hunt, every child was presented with a certificate, and was allowed to stick her earned sticker badges on her certificate. Goody bags complete with lollipop, pin and coloring book were handed out and of course, graduation antlers were donned. The scavenger hunt took about one hour in total and was a nice way to break up the day.

The Nature Trail at Shuswap Lake Provincial Park
Shuswap Lake Provincial Park, you are doing it right! Educating children in a fun way is the best way to get them to appreciate nature and hopefully work to protect it as they get older. For the rest of the trip, my girls remembered to stay on trails to protect plants and prevent soil erosion (and they are only 3 & 5 years old!), they (mostly) did not pick plants or wildflowers because "that's what Jerry's Rangers do", and asked about doing more fishing when we got home. We can't wait to go again.

The Littlest Ranger
What is your favorite family-friendly campground?


For more information, visit BC Parks' page for Shuswap Lake Provincial Park.
Campground reservations must be made through Discover Camping.
To discover other places that offer "Learn to Fish" sessions or free fishing equipment rentals, visit GoFishBC.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Birding with Kids and the Merlin Bird ID App

Have you ever taken your kids birding? It's a fun and inexpensive activity you can do almost anywhere! Although I usually shun electronics in the wilderness, I highly recommend the Merlin Bird ID App, available on Google Play for Android or on iTunes for iPhone. Last night we went for a walk in a nearby marsh, identified 3 kinds of birds (using the app), and "talked" to them! How did we chat with our feathered friends, you ask? We played the bird calls for the species we identified! It was pretty cool to get the birds' attention and then have them swim/fly closer to see who was "talking" to them. The app is free, so try it out! The kids can even help with bird identification by helping you enter info such as the bird's size (e.g. bigger/smaller than a robin) and color.

Merlin Bird ID offers a bird identification tool (Bird ID) as well as a bird guide (Browse All Birds) from the main screen. Below, I will walk you through the very easy to use Bird ID tool.

Step 1) Select "Start Bird ID" to start.

Step 2) Type in your city or ZIP/postal code OR click current location to provide your location by GPS. You will also be asked to enter the date you saw the bird.

Step 3) Indicate the bird's approximate size. Clicking on a silhouette will tell you what kind of bird it is.

Step 4) Let the kids choose up to 3 of the bird's main colors.
Step 5) Provide some information regarding where you saw the bird.

Step 6) Scroll through the "Best Matches" until you find your bird. Our bird was second on the list, a Red-winged Blackbird. Pressing the sound icon will play the bird's song. Clicking on Details will give you more information about the bird.

All in all, I have been very pleased with the app. The bird guide works anywhere, which is handy if you are birding in the country. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to use the Bird ID feature without Wifi and am not sure if it was a temporary glitch or not. I will try it again next time I'm out of range and provide an update.

On our walk, we saw Mallard Ducks, Red Winged Blackbirds, and American Coots. What birds live near you? Would you like to find out?