We recently spent a weekend at a small wilderness hostel with two other families on Alberta’s most scenic highway, the Icefields Parkway. This remote highway connects the Village of Lake Louise in Banff National Park with the town of Jasper in Jasper National Park to the north. Along the Parkway are 5 different wilderness hostels, each with its own charm, and we have stayed at all of them over the past several years. Each hostel is considered to be “front country” so you won’t be hiking very far from the parking lot to the cabins set back in the trees.
What I love most about staying at a wilderness hostel as a family are the opportunities to hike right out the door of your cabin into meadows perfect for making snowmen and snow angels. Behind one hostel is a canyon beckoning to be explored and two others have canyons right across the road complete with frozen ice falls. Four out of the five hostels are also named after creeks that can be explored on snowshoes without ever getting into your car to drive anywhere.
When you travel with children, you are looking for that perfect base camp from which you can launch a weekend’s worth of adventures (if not longer,) and do so without going anywhere. The ideal winter cabin should have piles of snow everywhere so that you can spend an afternoon building snow quinzees, snow forts, or tunnels. It should have enough snow that you could do a back flip off the hostel deck or use the driveway as a sledding hill. Most of all, there should be miles of open terrain for exploring with a new surprise around every corner.
Our Three Favorite Wilderness Hostels on the Icefields Parkway
HI Mosquito Creek
The first hostel you will come to on the Icefields Parkway upon leaving Lake Louise is the Mosquito Creek Hostel, 20 minutes to the North. As with all of the hostels, it is operated by Hostelling International and is a true “off the grid” experience. There is no indoor plumbing or electricity and you’ll have to do without a shower during your stay. It’s a far cry from winter camping though with heaters, stoves, fridges, and lights to make your stay comfortable. There is filtered water for drinking and the main cabin also has a beautiful fireside room with fireplace and seating for a large group around it.
Families wanting to stay at Mosquito Creek will want to book the private cabin which has two bedrooms and sleeps eight people or two families comfortably. There is a private kitchen and living area in the cabin but if you want a fireplace you’ll have to go over to the main cabin or build a fire outside (always a cool experience in winter.) The private cabin is nothing fancy but it does the job of keeping you warm in winter while allowing you to have a wilderness experience without having to sleep in a tent.
Private cabin aside, the other reason to stay at Mosquito Creek is its proximity to Lake Louise. You can drive to the Village for a day of snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, downhill skiing or skating on the lake. There’s enough to do at Lake Louise to occupy most families for a full week.
Wanting to stay closer to the hostel? There’s lots of ground for families to explore without ever leaving the hostel for a weekend. The campground next door is a great place to explore on snowshoes and we found a dozen snow quinzees there one year. Our kids had a great time climbing the quinzees and playing in them. Hiking along the creek from the campground is also a great way to spend a couple of hours. Finally, you can cross the highway and head up the Mosquito Creek hiking trail. We prefer to hike right up the creek into a canyon with frozen ice falls rather than stick to the official trail. Just make sure the creek is well frozen over before venturing in.
If you can’t get a reservation in the private cabin, try to rent a full dorm room which sleeps 12 people and take another family or two with you. Note that children under the age of six cannot sleep in a dorm room unless you make an exclusive booking so you’ll have to pay for any beds you don’t use in the dorm room.
Finally, there is always a manager on duty so you won’t be stranded should any problem arise. Hostel managers are always helpful and ready to answer any questions you should have regarding the area and can give you ideas for hiking trails nearby.
HI Rampart Creek
The next hostel you will come to along the Parkway while traveling north towards Jasper is the Rampart Creek Wilderness Hostel. Rampart Creek can be reached from Lake Louise in an hour’s drive. Similar to Mosquito Creek, there is also no indoor plumbing or electricity. Again though, you will have everything needed to make you comfortable and all amenities are the same as at Mosquito Creek. There’s even a sauna at both Mosquito Creek and Rampart Creek so bring your swim suit if you want to unwind after your day’s adventures in the small sauna cabin.
What I love about Rampart Creek is the scenery. In my opinion, it is the most beautiful of the hostels and your jaw will drop if you step outside the hostel on a sunny day to look around you at the surrounding mountains. It’s a popular hostel with ice climbers in winter but you don’t have to be a climber to enjoy a stay at Rampart. There’s a small canyon behind the hostel that’s fun for exploring and a snowshoe trail across the highway will occupy the kids for a half day outing through a big open meadow to the North Saskatchewan River. We lucked out in finding a snow quinzee leftover from a recent winter camping trip on our hike and it was a big draw with the children.
If you want to go further and explore beyond the hostel, the Mistaya Canyon trail is only five minutes up the road in the Lake Louise direction. The hike is a short one-mile return outing but provides views down into a frozen canyon that’s worth the trip.
While there is no private cabin at Rampart Creek, the dorm rooms sleep six people so you can easily rent a full dorm room for your family. Traveling as a group? Rent all four dorm rooms (two cabins) and bring three families with you. You’ll still have to pay for each bed (even if you don’t have six people per family) but hostels are very affordable so it might be worth it to you if you want a private cabin booking.
HI Hilda Creek
The Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel is a bit different from the other wilderness hostels in that it resembles a backcountry cabin more than a front country hostel. You’ll be melting snow for water at this hostel or hauling buckets of water from the nearby creek. You have to turn on the heat and propane when you arrive and backcountry survival skills are required for a winter stay here because there is no hostel manager on duty. In fact, you’ll have to get the combination to the door before arriving or you’ll be stranded outside the locked hostel.
The hostel is composed of a kitchen/living cabin, and a small sleeping cabin. There is a stove with cooking supplies and dishes in the kitchen but there’s no fridge at this hostel. There are also no lights other than propane lanterns. This is essentially a backcountry cabin with a front country approach.
Hilda Creek is located on the border between Banff and Jasper National Park, two hours north of Lake Louise. It’s a great destination for a long weekend since the drive is further than for the other Banff hostels on the parkway. While the hostel is located just off the highway, you’ll have to put snowshoes on for the short five-minute hike down to the cabins and you’ll want a sled for pulling your gear in. It’s recommended to pack everything into just a few bags as well so that you don’t have to make a dozen trips from your vehicle. (Think of it as a very short backpacking trip)
I love this hostel because we are able to have a family winter backcountry trip without making a long journey into a cabin or hut. You are also never very far from your vehicle so if something goes wrong, help is easily reached. Finally, you can rent the full hostel for your group because it only sleeps six people!
From Hilda Creek you can drive to the Icefields Centre five minutes down the road towards Jasper and hike up to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier. Alternately, from the hostel you can hike up the creek behind the bathrooms until you reach the moraines below the Hilda Glacier. It’s a beautiful hike and you will certainly get a sense of isolation and remoteness at the base of the glacier.
For more on Hilda Creek, read the story I last wrote: Spring Adventures on Alberta’s Icefields Parkway
For more information on Hostelling International’s 10 wilderness hostels in Alberta and British Columbia, follow this link to the Hostelling International website.
Thanks to everybody at Hostelling International for assisting with our trips to the hostels to gather this content.