Thursday, January 8, 2015

Falling for Winter: Winter Activity Guide for Calgary & Area

When you live in a place where it snows from October until June, you can either hibernate, migrate, or embrace the cold. I confess I was not a winter lover my first few years in Calgary, but as I took up more winter sports, I had a change of heart and found myself falling for winter. If you haven't tried winter sports or have reluctant winter adventurers in your midst, try something new. You may discover you DO love winter after all! Here are some family-friendly winter activities and local trip recommendations.


1. Check out a local Winter Festival 

From Winterfest to the Glow Festival Downtown, CALGARY has lots of fun offerings. See 15 Things to Do in Calgary This Winter for more information.

CANMORE has several winter festivals! Check out the Rotary Festival of Trees - December 2-31, 2016; Re/Max Skate with Santa - December 22, 2016; New Year's Eve Party on the Pond; FIS World Snow Day at Canmore Nordic Centre - January 15, 2017; Winter Carnival Dates TBA. For more information, see 14 Things to Do in Canmore This Winter.

In BRAGG CREEK, be sure to check out The Spirit of Christmas Festival Dec 3, 4, 10 & 11, 2016. More info here. There are lots of free family events!

BANFF's winter festivals include Snow Days - January 13-February 4, 2017; Lake Louise Alpine Ski World Cup, Craft Beer Market, and more. For full details, see Banff-Lake Louise Events.

From January 19-29, 2017, check out the Ice Magic Festival at Lake Louise in Banff National Park. There are free activities at Lake Louise Ski Resort, Deer Lodge, and Chateau Lake Louise. Some highlights of what you can expect follow:
  • Skate around an ice castle on world famous Lake Louise. You can even meet and skate with Mother Nature and Old Man Winter! Skate rentals available onsite until 7 pm. 
  • Skate, ski, walk, and snowshoe on world famous Lake Louise
  • There's a great toboggan hill behind the Chateau too. 
  • Watch the International Ice Carving Competition. Tickets required.

Skating on Lake Louise.
Ice Magic Festival, Lake Louise

2. Snowshoeing

Tobogganing aside, snowshoeing is easiest winter activity to learn.  Just strap your snowshoes to your winter boots, and head out into the snow. The deeper the snow, the better! Kids as young as two years old can snowshoe, but be prepared to carry or tow them in a sled after a while because snowshoeing is hard work, especially if you're breaking trail! If you plan on bringing your Chariot, put on the ski attachments for flotation and easy travel. For a unique experience, grab your headlamp and try night snowshoeing! My kids haven't stopped talking about the full moon snowshoe we did last winter!

Check out Where to Snowshoe Near Calgary for trip ideas.

Some easy snowshoe trails to try include the following:
  • Kananaskis
    • Troll Falls and Hay Meadow is short and flat, with a frozen waterfall at the end! We like that it's a short drive from Calgary and Chariot friendly too. Only 3 km return and virtually flat. You may not need snowshoes if there hasn't been much snow or the snow has been packed down (it's a popular trail). If you don't have snowshoes, bring ice cleats just in case. See this post for an alternate sled/stroller-friendly route to Troll Falls.
    • Village Loop at Kananaskis Village is a nice one if you're staying at the Delta Kananaskis Lodge. Only 2.5 km and rolly. It has a tendency to get packed and icy, so bring ice cleats just in case. 
    • Hogarth Lakes Loop is another family-friendly snowshoe trail (3.9 km loop, 30 m elevation gain) but a further drive.
    • Elkwood Loop Trail is pretty and not too long! 3.4 km, 23 m elevation gain. Stop at the Peter Lougheed Visitor Centre before or after to warm up or use the washrooms. There's a microwave and kettle in there if you need to prepare a hot drink or warm up food too! 
  • Johnson Lake, Banff: Take the flat and pretty trail around the lake (2.8 km), or snowshoe right on the lake once it's frozen. Chariot friendly. For ice safety tips, please see this post.
  • Lake Louise, Banff: Snowshoe across Lake Louise or take the Lake Louise Lakeshore Trail (4 km return). Both are Chariot friendly. Other options include Fairview Lookout (2 km return, 100 m elevation gain) or the Lake Agnes Trail to Mirror Lake (5.4  km return). Do not go past Mirror Lake as it is avalanche terrain! 
  • Mount Norquay, Banff: Stoney Squaw Loop Trail and Stoney Squaw Summit Trail (4.2 km round trip) are fun trails that get a lot of snow. Chariot friendly.
  • West Bragg Creek: The Snowy Owl Trail is great on a calm day as it's quite open and gets lots of sun. It parallels the Mountain Road ski trail and is quite flat for the first couple kilometres. Option 1: Make the blue bridge your destination (1.3 km) and turn back for a 2.6 km snowshoe. Option 2: Do a 5.4 km loop by continuing on Snowy Owl 1.8 km past the bridge and returning on Snowy Shortcut, a 1.0 km connector that rejoins Snowy Owl. There is some elevation gain on the section between the bridge and the connector trail, so it may be a bit much for the littlest snowshoers.
To see my reviews of three makes of children's snowshoes, please see this post.

Snowshoeing and babypacking at Troll Falls, Kananaskis
Snowshoeing on Johnson Lake, Banff National Park
Snowshoeing on Mount Norquay, Banff NP
Night snowshoeing at Mosquito Creek, Banff
3. Cross country (Nordic) skiing: Nordic skiing is more fun than people think! You don't just walk on your skis; you glide, and can get some serious speed on the hills! To ensure everyone has fun, take a lesson, go out with someone experienced, or watch some YouTube videos before heading out for your first ski. With a few pointers, you will have a good kick and glide in no time! Best of all, when cross country skiing, no ski passes are required (unless you ski at a resort) and you get away from the crowds. Our favorite places to ski follow:
  • Calgary: 
    • Confederation Golf Course: Where else can you ski by a huge Christmas Lights display? Go during the holidays for a magical night ski. Don't forget your headlamp! New in 2016 - There will be snow making at Confederation Golf Course!
    • Shaganappi Point Golf Course: This is the largest golf course groomed for xc skiing. The course is pretty and you get great views of downtown! Terrain is flat and beginner friendly.
    • Maple Ridge Golf Course: Your second largest option. I plan to ski there soon. 
  • Canmore Nordic Centre has beautiful groomed trails in a gorgeous setting. There is a fee, but it is well worth it for the quality of the trails and amenities. Onsite rentals are available from TrailSports, but call first to confirm availability or make a reservation. Fatbike rentals are also available! Click here for our trip report!
  • West Bragg Creek, Kananaskis: Most of the trails here are rated intermediate (blue), but there are also some short beginner trails: Bunny Loop, Chickadee Loop, part of West Crystal Line. There is a warming hut and washrooms at the parking lot.
  • Kananaskis Village: Terrace Trail & Terrace Link make a 2.7 km loop that is great for children. Elevation gain is minimal, you get intermittent panoramic views of the mountains, and you can go in to Delta Kananaskis Lodge or the Village Cafe for a hot beverage, snack, or meal at the end. There is also skating and a Fire and Ice Bar at Kananaskis Lodge! 
  • Lake Minnewanka, Banff National Park: Lake Minnewanka Day Use Area to Upper Bankhead (2.6 km return) has a bit of elevation gain, so is a good option once kids have skied a few times. Another option is to tow your kids via towrope, pulk or Chariot as far as you wish through Cascade Valley, then let them ski back to the car (mostly downhill on the return). You can make your day as short or long as you wish; it is 13 km return to the campground and 30 km round-trip to Stoney Creek bridge. 
  • Peter Lougheed Provincial Park: Pocaterra has a 10.5 km green run and large warming hut with washrooms near the parking lot, which makes it a great family ski spot. We like skiing to Pocaterra campground and back with the kids (about 5 km return).
  • Lake Louise, Banff National Park: 
    • Ski the Bow River Loop (6.6 km) from the village. It is beautiful and flat! 
    • For more of our favorite beginner cross country ski trails in Lake Louise, please see this post. 
    • If you are skiing in a group, do a car shuttle and ski the Tramline Trail (4.8 km). The steady downhill meant my 5 year old could happily ski the whole trail on her own. 
    • For more challenging trails, try the Pipestone Loops: Pipestone is a fun intermediate level trail that connects to Hector, Merlin and Drummond Trails.
Bow River Loop, Lake Louise
Tramline Trail, Lake Louise
Mountain Road, West Bragg Creek
Pipestone Loop, Lake Louise
XC Skiing Terrace Trail, Kananaskis.
Night skiing at Confederation Park / Lion's Festival of Lights
Cross country skiing at Canmore Nordic Centre
Looking for reasons to love cross country skiing? Check out this post.

4. Canyon Ice Walks: Walk on ice to frozen waterfalls, see ancient pictographs, and slide on ice slides. You can only experience ice walks in winter, so try one soon! Three great ice walks near Calgary are Jura Canyon, Grotto Canyon, and Johnston Canyon. Learn where and when to go, and what gear you need at: http://www.playoutsideguide.com/2014/12/diy-ice-walks-near-calgary.html

Jura Canyon, near Exshaw
5. Ice Skating: We are blessed with an abundance of beautiful places to skate in Alberta.
  • Banff townsite - on the Bow River, Banff Springs Hotel, Johnson Lake, Cave & Basin, Carrot Creek. For more information, see 8 Memorable Places to Skate in Banff.
  • Calgary - Bowness Lagoon, Carburn Ponds, Olympic Plaza, Prince's Island Park, community rinks. For more information, see Calgary's Best Outdoor Skating Rinks.
  • Canmore - The Pond
  • Exshaw - Gap Pond, Lac des Arcs, Grotto Pond
  • Kananaskis Village - Pond, rinks
  • Lake LouiseLake Louise
Skating on Lake Louise
Ice skating at Bowness Lagoon, Calgary
Pond at Kananaskis Village
Skating at Rosemont Rinks, Confederation Park, Calgary

 6. Skiing/Snowboarding: Winsport Canada Olympic Park (COP), Nakiska, and Norquay are great family ski hills.

Both of our kids have been skiing at COP since they were two. With four carpets, two chair lifts, and a snow park, there are several options for those just learning how to ski/board or those who are ready for rails, jumps, moguls and half pipes. We love being able to ski after school or on the weekend for a couple hours without driving far.

About an hour away, Nakiska has reasonable rates, free skiing for kids 6 and under, and great green and easy blue runs for early skiers. There are also more advanced runs and a new tree park for more advanced skiers. We got season's passes this year and got our money's worth over Christmas break. My 5 year old is doing blue runs already and can't get enough! To see why we love Nakiska, see this post.

Mount Norquay is minutes from Banff with fun runs for everyone in the family, a great ski school and tasty on-hill dining. See Fun Family Skiing at Mount Norquay for more information.

With skiing and snowboarding, I highly recommend enrolling your children in lessons unless you are an intermediate skier with a lot of patience. So far, we have been teaching our kids ourselves, with help from Youtube. There are a lot of skills drills online that help with developing balance, learning to initiate turns, and more.

See this story for information on Family Season's Passes at Nakiska & The Big 3 (Mount Norquay, Sunshin Village and Lake Louise).

Sunset skiing at Canada Olympic Park
Young skiers may feel more secure in a harness.
Skiing at Nakiska.
Magic Carpet at COP
7. Tobogganing: Who doesn't love tobogganing? Speed, snow, and screams! Just be sure to don a helmet and look out for obstacles before you head down the hill. Sledding is our go-to winter activity when we're short on time or it's too cold to spend an afternoon outside. Get a big sled so the kids can share with their friends; the more the merrier! For sledding safety tips, please see this post. 
Tobogganning in -25C
8. Tubing is super fun and offered at all of our local ski hills (Winsport, Nakiska, Norquay, Sunhine, Lake Louise). 


If you're dressed right and having fun, you will keep warm! Have I sold you on fun in the cold yet? 

Remember eye protection when on the snow!

More Winter Fun

For More Information

6 comments :

Winter = FUN! Some day I'm going to visit you and play at all these great places!

As a southerner from Georgia, I don't know if I could hack a northern winter. We get cold, but it's usually short lived. The one thing about our winters that makes me feel like we get the short end of the stick is that the ice usually outnumbers the snow :( LOL

You're welcome! I always enjoy your trip recommendations, so happy to share the info with others. : )

AKBrady, I hope you do!! I'll be your guide and then come bug you in Alaska. ; )

Candy, I'm with you on that! Snow makes winter SO wonderful. Ice just makes for sketchy hiking unless it's cold enough to freeze creeks for ice walks!

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