Several years ago, we 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 five different wilderness hostels, each with its own charm. Over the past several years, we have stayed at all of them. Each hostel is considered “front country,” so you won’t be hiking very far from the parking lot to the cabins set back in the trees.
The Benefit of a Wilderness Hostel
What I love most about staying at a wilderness hostel as a family is the opportunities to hike right out the door of your cabin. You don’t have to get into your car to drive anywhere.
For example, you can trek into meadows that are perfect for making snowmen and snow angels. Behind one hostel is a canyon beckoning to be explored. Also, two others have canyons right across the road, complete with frozen icefalls. Four out of the five hostels are also named after creeks, which you can explore on snowshoes.
When you travel with children, you have 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 backflip 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.
Below are our three favorites for family adventures of the hostels to choose from along the Icefields Parkway.
HI Mosquito Creek
Upon leaving Lake Louise, the first hostel you will come to on the Icefields Parkway is the Mosquito Creek Hostel, 20 minutes to the north.
What to Expect
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 a fireplace and seating for a large group around it.
Families wanting to stay at Mosquito Creek will want to book the private cabin with 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.
If you can’t get a reservation in the private cabin, try to rent a full dorm room that 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 that 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 give you ideas for hiking trails nearby.
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 go snowshoeing. We actually 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 ice falls rather than sticking to the official trail. Just make sure the creek is well frozen over before venturing in.
HI Rampart Creek
The next hostel you will come to along the Parkway while traveling north towards Jasper is the Rampart Creek Wilderness Hostel. You can reach Rampart Creek in an hour’s drive from Lake Louise.
What to Expect
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 swimsuit if you want to unwind after your day’s adventures in the small sauna cabin.
While there is no private cabin at Rampart Creek, the dorm rooms sleep up to 6 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.
What I love about Rampart Creek is the scenery. In my opinion, it is the most beautiful of the hostels. 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. Or, 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.
HI Hilda Creek
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 the other Banff hostels on the parkway.
What to Expect
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.
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. That way, you don’t have to make a dozen trips from your vehicle. (Think of it as a very short backpacking trip).
You’ll also 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. 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.
I love this hostel because we can 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 up to 6 people!
From Hilda Creek, you can drive to the Icefields Centre five minutes down the road towards Jasper. Then, 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 information on the wilderness hostels in Alberta and British Columbia, visit Hostelling International.
Have you been to one of these wilderness hostels along the Icefields Parkway? What recommendations do you have? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Thanks to everybody at Hostelling International for assisting with our trips to the hostels to gather this content. This article was originally published on February 23, 2015, and was most recently updated on November 20, 2021.