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, July 18, 2015

Attack of the Wildflowers (Healy Pass, Banff)

"Wow....   wow.... this is crazy! I don't even know where to shoot! Wow! They're everywhere! Whoaaa!!" This may sound like the opening scene of an alien invasion horror movie, but it's what I said to my friend about the surreal wildflowers at Healy Pass, Banff National Park (18 km return, 655 m elevation gain). Everything was in bloom at the same time and we couldn't believe it! Blame it on the rain or the hotter than usual summer, or forget all that and just get out and see them before they're gone. 

Healy Pass Trail
Not familiar with this hike? It's adjacent to Sunshine Meadows which was voted the #1 hike in North America by the Lonely Planet! The views are stunning and the alpine meadows are some of the most extensive in the Rockies. A straightforward out and back trail, Healy Pass can be turned into a backpacking trip (with a campground en route and another on the other side of the pass) if you'd like to stay longer and explore further. Since we were only visiting for the day, we did the pass with a small side trip to a beautiful lunch spot on the ridge. The elevation gain is gradual and the trail is well maintained (there are no streams to ford), so you can make time quickly. We completed 19 kilometres in 6 hours including a snack break, lunch break and several photo stops. 

Healy Pass is truly a feast for the senses! Words cannot do it justice, so please enjoy this photo tour!

Arnica (yellow) and Yarrow (white) on Healy Pass Trail
A Fairy Garden near the pass
Smooth blue asters, arnica and red paintbrush - lovely even in the rain.
Healy Pass Trail
Healy Pass Trail
Red and pink paintbrush and arnica lit up the meadows!
Image Credit: Carolyn Fisher
Image Credit: Carolyn Fisher
Smooth blue aster
Western Anemone (aka Fraggle Rock Heads in my family)
Healy Pass Trail
I spy something furry! Did you find it? It's a marmot!
When the "hills are alive",  pack a European lunch.
For more wildflower hikes in the Canadian Rockies, please check out this post.

Happy Trails! 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

How Geocaching Improves Your Moral Compass

Geocaching is a useful tool in developing your children's moral compass as it teaches them the importance of following rules in the absence of oversight. When I took up geocaching with my children, I was impressed to see how eager they were to learn and follow the rules. They quickly grasped the concept of playing fairly and honorably in order to keep it fun for others and passed on this knowledge to their friends. If you are a muggle - a non-geocacher - you may not know the rules (and joy!) of seeking caches and trading treasures, but I like to believe that most people who come across a geocache would do the right thing and trade up, even, or not at all. 

Not a moral compass, but it might point you in the right direction.
On a recent camping trip, our new friends discovered a geocache and we observed how things can go wrong when people don't play by the rules. Since we didn't have any treasures to trade (we were on a bike ride and hadn't planned on geocaching), I instructed the kids not to take anything from the cache, but encouraged them to sign the log book if they wished. When one child took something anyways, his mom told him it was ok. When another child popped a hair elastic in the cache in exchange for what was taken, I informed her that it was important to trade items of equal value so there will be fun treasures for the next kids to find. Instead of concurring with me, the mother retorted "People leave things like that all the time in the cache near our house!" Wow... so we should we do it too and then jump off a bridge? To my dismay, the child kept the treasure, his sibling took back what she had traded, so they basically stole from the geocache. A teachable moment was missed. 

How can geocaching develop one's moral compass?

Rule Compliance 

As in any sport, geocaching has rules. Before you play, it is important to learn the rules so you don't ruin the game for your teammates - who incidentally, are all over the globe! Following the rules ensures that the cache will be around for a long time for others to enjoy and that there will be ample, fun treasures to trade. It is heartbreaking to find empty caches or caches full of garbage. Since when is a broken crayon, decapitated doll, or business card a treasure? 

An example of trading treasures gone wrong. 

Conscience (What do you do when no one is watching?)

The whole trading treasures thing is an honor system. No one is watching you, so no one will know if you stole from a cache or made a crappy trade. Ultimately, a geocacher has to decide what she will do - trade up (leave something of higher value than what she took), trade even, or not at all. This is where parents can guide their children to make the right choice in the hopes that they will do this all on their own in time. 

It takes practice to develop a strong sense of right and wrong, but starting early, and letting kids learn for themselves will hopefully help guide them when they are subject to bad influences. It is easy to think "no one will know" or "other people do it" with respect to anything (including texting and driving, drunk driving, sex, or drugs), but I hope my kids will learn that whether or not there is an adult, police officer, or other authority figure present, they are responsible for their own actions and must make sensible choices.  

Anticipating what's inside is always fun! Keep it fun! 

Fair Play

Sometimes it's hard to follow the rules properly because kids don't understand the value of things. That's ok; that's when we as parents can help! "Sure, that Lego figurine is smaller than your McDonald's toy, but it costs a lot more. Do you have something fancier to trade? Or is there something else you would like instead?" Take advantage of the opportunity to discuss the value of money. Empty your change purse and show them how much various treasures are worth. For the record, the recommended value of a geocaching treasure is at least $1, but the best practice is to trade up (leave something or better value than what you took), even, or not at all. 

Discuss "treasure" values with your kids so they can make fair trades.


A good geocacher has many responsibilities. By making children accountable for the following tasks, and discussing the consequences of skipping steps, they learn to be thorough and considerate because their actions have an impact on other geocachers: 
  • Keep the cache hidden from muggles (so the cache does not get damaged, pillaged, stolen).
  • Fill in the log book (as verification that you found the cache).
  • Trade treasures according to the rules (so there will always be cool treasures for others to find).
  • Put everything back in the cache the way you found it (so nothing is missing).
  • Close the cache properly (to prevent water damage to contents).
  • Re-hide the cache just as you found it (so other geocachers can find it). 
My kids usually work together to accomplish these tasks and are quite efficient! They like to get 'er done so they can find another cache!

An added benefit of geocaching is that it encourages teamwork.
Geocaching is a fun way to point your children in the right direction and teach them the importance of making good choices whether someone is watching or not, regardless of what others are doing. To learn more about geocaching and how you can geocache with your smart phone, please see this post. 

For More Information

Monday, July 13, 2015

Ptarmigan Cirque - The Best Short Hike in Kananaskis

It's not every day that little kids can hike to alpine terrain without assistance, unless they are mountain goats, but at Ptarmigan Cirque, they can! Starting from Highwood Pass, the highest paved pass in Canada, in only 2 kilometres, you enter a beautiful alpine meadow. The cirque, carved by glaciers, dominates the view straight ahead, but there are other wonders for the eyes. A sparkling stream, small waterfalls, wildflowers, and peaks in all directions will amaze you. 

Ptarmigan Cirque, Kananaskis
While adults may complete the hike in 1.5 hours, allow 2 - 3 hours with children. The first kilometre is a bit steep with 200 metres of elevation gain, but the preschoolers in our group had no difficulty at all! In fact, they would have hiked quicker if we hadn't stopped them every few minutes to take photos. 

Starting out on Highwood Meadows Trail
Crossing Highway 40
 Once you leave the trees, the trail flattens out and the views open up. Since the alpine meadow is so fragile - it is covered in snow for half the year - continue on to the creek for a snack break where there are lots of rocks to sit on. Near the creek, you have the option to continue on the loop, or hike to the back of the basin. While my party snacked, I jogged to the back, but didn't notice an improvement in the view. (Note: Ambitious hikers may scramble Mount Rae from here, but I do not recommend taking young children there.)

Ptarmigan Cirque
Small canyon
Babbling brook
Ptarmigan Cirque 
Carrying on, keep your eyes open for fossils (near trailmarker #8) and patches of snow. After signpost #12, the trail rejoins the trail you came up on. It is a quick hike down, so be sure to keep the kids close as you approach the highway, and cross very carefully. If you still have energy, the Highwood Meadows interpretive trail is a pleasant 500 metres stroll (no elevation gain).

Barnacle fossil
Lingering snow patch! Do you wanna build a snowman?
Heading back
Safety Moment
  • This is bear country. I recommend travelling in a group, making noise, and carrying bear spray. For more bear safety tips, please read this post.
  • You must cross Highway 40 to access the rest of the trail. Please hold children's hands as cars are travelling very quickly on this road.
  • The weather can change very quickly at high elevations, and it is often windy above treeline. Bring a sweater and waterproof layer. Highwood Pass is 2,206 metres above sea level! 
  • A hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen are great for sun protection too.
  • Pack a small first aid kit as the rocks are very sharp! 
Ptarmigan Cirque is by far the best short hike in Kananaskis! It is deep in the heart of Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, but well worth the drive with a lot to see over a short distance. Go in mid July for the wildflowers or in the fall to see golden larches.

What is your favorite family hike?

For More Information

The Ptarmigan Cirque Interpretive Trail brochure is available here from Alberta Parks. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Wildflower Hikes in the Canadian Rockies

July is the month to see wildflowers in the Canadian Rockies. While late July is usually best, the exceptionally warm temperatures have made for early wildflower viewing, even at high elevation. The flowers are at their peak now in Banff and Kananaskis and should be great for the next week. If you want to get a head start on wildflowers, head to Bow Valley Provincial Park in early June or Waterton in mid to late June.

Here are some family-friendly flower power destinations within a couple hours of Calgary.

Sunshine Meadows - Banff: 3.6 km from bus drop-off, 150 m elevation gain

You could hike up to the meadows, but it is recommended you take the bus up as the 4.5 km ascent is steep. This way you have lots of energy to explore this stunning area. Even if the flowers aren't in full bloom, the scenery is spectacular! This area is also full of larches and makes a beautiful fall hike. Hike to Rock Isle Lake or beyond and be sure to bring a lunch as you will want to linger. Shuttle bus information is available here.

Red and pink paintbrush, smooth blue asters, and arnica
Healy Pass - Banff: 18 km return, 655 m elevation gain

If you're up for a long hike and don't relish spending $27 on the bus, the wildflowers at Healy Pass are just as amazing as what you will see at Sunshine Meadows' bus drop off. Allow 6 hours for this moderate, but long hike so you have plenty of time for lunch, snack breaks, and photos.

For more information on Healy Pass, please see this post.

Healy Pass in Fall
Ptarmigan Cirque Interpretive Trail - Kananaskis: 4.5 km, 250 m elevation gain

Ptarmigan Cirque should be on every family's bucket list. With meadows, forest, a sculpted cirque, stream, and waterfalls, there is a lot to see over a short distance. The meadows were bursting with color even though the snow just recently melted. I expect the flower situation will only improve over the next two weeks.

While you may read that this is a "strenuous" or "difficult" hike, keep in mind that it is an interpretive trail. Unless you have an injury or are unaccustomed to hiking at high elevations (the trailhead is at Highwood Pass, the highest paved point in Canada at 2206 m), you should be able to complete this lovely hike in 1.5 hours. Allow 2-3 hours if hiking with young children. On our recent trip, my friend's 3 year old niece easily completed the hike without assistance!

For a complete trail writeup, see this post.

Ptarmigan Cirque
Indian paintbrush (red), Arnica (yellow), and Western Anemones (furry) decorated the meadow
Helen Lake - Icefields Parkway: 12 km, 455 m elevation gain

Helen Lake is one of my favorite hikes for a two reasons: the flowers and Cirque Peak. Cirque Peak may be a bit much for most families, but Helen Lake is a great destination on its own. Enjoy shade on the way up to the meadows, take in the grand sight of Dolomite Peak, photograph reflections in mirror-like tarns, and cool your feet in a sparkling stream, all before reaching the lake.

Helen Lake
Bow Valley Provincial Park trails: 1.5-2.5 km, minimal elevation gain

For shorter wildflower hikes and a much shorter drive, check out the Many Springs, Montane, Flowing Water, or Middle Lake trails in Bow Valley Provincial Park. All of the trails are 2.5 km or less and have minimal elevation gain. 

Since Bow Valley Provincial Park is at a much lower elevation than the other locations mentioned, the flower season starts and ends earlier (late May to late June is usually good).

More information on Bow Valley Provincial Park is available in this post.

Blue Rock Clematis on Many Springs Trail
Middle Lake, Bow Valley Provincial Park

Other Wildflower Hikes

Other recommended flower hikes include the following:
  • Johnson Lake, Banff: 3.1 km, no elevation gain
  • Marl Lake Interpretive Trail, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park: 3.1 km round trip from Elkwood Campground Amphitheatre parking lot, 25 m elevation gain
  • Parker Ridge, Jasper: 5.4 km, 250 m elevation gain
  • Bow Summit Lookout, Icefields Parkway: 5.8 km, 245 m elevation gain
Wildflower season in the Rockies is short, so don't delay! Check with local Visitor Information Centres to discover the best wildflower hikes in the area you are visiting.

What is your favorite wildflower hike?

For More Information

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

5 Tips for Fun Family Camping and Fishing (Guest Blog Post)

Guest Blog Post by John Mondin from

Camping and fishing can be either the best or worst family activities possible. Adequate preparation is the key to ensuring that you have good, rather than bad, memories. While you can't control the weather or if the mosquitoes are biting more than the fish, you can guarantee that your family has a great time by preparing a wide range of interesting activities.

Photo credit: Karen Ung

Practice Makes Perfect

Before you go on a long camping trip with your kids, make sure they are ready. Especially with younger children, consider a night camping in your back yard so that they can get a feel for sleeping in a tent in comfortable and familiar surroundings. Your next step might be a single night or a weekend long car camping at a nearby park or campground. Back yard camping or short local trips allow you to accustom your children to camping and make sure all your gear is in working order before venturing out on a longer trip. 

Health and Safety First

Although not as dangerous as hunting for the first time, camping is far more fun when everyone is prepared. Before a trip, make sure that all members of your family are up to date on vaccinations and in good health. Have your children help with packing your first aid kit, so that they are actively part of taking care of family safety. 

Make safe drinking water interesting by having your children look through a microscope at unpurified river or lake water and spotting the tiny organisms and bits of debris in it. Make a game of listing all the different dangerous or gross substances that can get into lake water, so they understand the importance of only drinking treated water. Remember the sunscreen and bug repellent as well.

Fishing for Fun

While adults can enjoy a full day of fishing, younger members of the family may have more limited attention spans. Plan a variety of activities for the day that might include tubing, snorkeling, paddling, water polo, hiking, or other games to keep your kids moving and help them burn off some energy. Avoid low-quality children's fishing poles, and start your kids with an ultra-light spinning or spin casting reel and rods. And most importantly, let them help clean and cook their catch.

Photo credit: Karen Ung

Night and Bad Weather Fun

After dark or if you encounter bad weather, you still need to keep your children entertained. Rather than let them retreat into their private worlds of electronic devices, plan family activities such as card and board games, or bring books you can read aloud together as a family. At night, roast marshmallows over a campfire or teach your children to identify the constellations in the sky.

Children's Programs

Many parks offer a wide range of programs for either children or the whole family. Rangers lead nature and history walks during the day and star-gazing sessions at night. Many parks run programs in which children can get hands-on experience recreating some of the lives of early settlers or Native Americans. Other programs can teach your children wilderness survival skills or how to identify plants or animals. Taking advantage of these offerings is not only educational for your children, but gives you as a parent some time to relax alone with your spouse and enjoy each other's company in a way that can be difficult during normal weeks filled with work and errands.

BC's Jerry's Rangers Program is a lot of fun!
Photo credit: Karen Ung

About John

Today's guest blogger is John Mondin from

John is an avid outdoorsman who regularly goes for bird, small game, and deer hunting. In addition to running a hunting site, he is passionate and knowledgeable about all activities related to the great outdoors, including fishing, camping, and hiking.

Related Links

Monday, July 6, 2015

For High Output Activities, Rice is Nice (Riceball Recipe)

Have you ever considered rice as a trail snack? Rice is nice for so many reasons! It is easy to digest and provides a lot of energy. In fact it is a top choice of pro cyclists when they are doing long races such as the Tour de France because it refuels them quickly without weighing them down. Rice balls or rice cakes* can be filled with a variety of fillings just like a sandwich and are easy to make.

Rice ball (onigiri)
Traditional rice balls (onigiri) require short grain rice, fillings or seasoning, and seaweed to wrap the rice balls in. If you cannot find all the Japanese ingredients, improvise with locally found ingredients. My girls' favorite fillings are green peas and teriyaki chicken.


Seasoned seaweed

  • Short grained rice (3 cups for 4 people)
  • Fillings:  teriyaki chicken, grilled fish, chopped hard boiled egg, furikake nori seasoning, salt and black sesame seeds, canned tuna/salmon,  umeboshi (pickled plums - remove pit), kimchi, or pickled daikon/eggplant
  • Rice seasoning: Sesame seeds & salt, furikake nori, cooked green peas, cooked red beans & salt
  • Seaweed: Nori (sushi seaweed) or Gim (Korean toasted seaweed) - 1 piece per rice ball
  1. Cook a few cups of short grained rice (do NOT use instant rice). If the Kitchen God has blessed you with a rice cooker with an automatic timer, pre-set it so your rice will be ready when you need it.
    1. When the rice is ready, let the rice rest for 5 minutes (the secret to perfect rice), then flip it with a rice paddle.
    2. Let the rice cool until you can touch it without saying bad words burning your fingers (15 minutes). 
    3. Scoop a small bowl of rice into a piece of plastic wrap, add fillings, twist the plastic wrap shut, and pack the rice into a ball or triangle. Alternately you may season the rice, then shape rice balls. Photo instructions follow.
    a. empty rice bowl into plastic wrap
    b. add filling (furikake nori shown)
      Furikake Nori Rice Seasoning
    c. pull 4 corners of plastic wrap together and twist closed
    d. pack rice into a ball or triangle
    e. When ready to eat, remove the plastic wrap and wrap the rice ball in a piece of roasted seaweed. 
    The seaweed adds flavor and keeps your fingers from getting covered in sticky rice. 
    If you make rice balls all the time, and like them to be the same shape and size, consider purchasing an onigiri mold. I purchased this one from Bento & Co.

    Onigiri mold from Bento & Co.
    For a sweet and creamy rice cake recipe from Team Sky (cycling team), visit Rapha's blog here

    What would you put in your rice balls? Something sweet or savory?