Snow is collecting on the mountain peaks of the Canadian Rockies and there’s a great deal of excitement in the air for those of us who enjoy winter sports. In my house, we are busy planning out our trips for this next season, adding trails to our list of places we want to explore, and reserving beds in backcountry cabins for our overnight adventures. Add gear shopping since we have a child who won’t stop growing, and hunting for new clothing for the same kid who doesn’t fit any of his winter wear from last year, and we have a lot to do before we start searching for powder.
One thing that I enjoy doing this time of year is to reflect on our previous year’s adventures. We’re past the prime season for hiking, but not quite ready for snowshoeing or skiing. I like to look back and see which trips we most enjoyed, which ones we’d like to do again, and which ones we want to do again this winter. The following “top ten list” was born out of these reflections and includes all of my favorite snowshoe adventures in the Canadian Rockies, each one I personally tried and enjoyed.
I hope you find some inspiration from the suggestions and that you’ll be able to add one or two of the trips to your personal list this winter.
Ten Snowshoe Adventures to Try this Winter in the Canadian Rockies
- Seek out Early Snow at Highwood Pass in Kananaskis
By mid-November I’m more than ready to be done with “shoulder season” hikes and I’m ready for snow. Lots of fluffy snow! The challenge is that it can be hard to find “good” snow this early in the year. Ice or packed crusty snow, you will find. Powder and deep snow that’s fun to snowshoe in is harder to find.
Thankfully, Highwood Pass is easily accessed via Canada’s highest paved road and is only a 90 minute drive from Calgary. This is where locals know they can find good snow as early as mid-November before the highway closes at the end of the month until the following spring.
For families who want to stay out of avalanche terrain, Elbow Lake is the place to explore. The lake is reached in under a mile one way. While the trail climbs a steady 450 feet uphill to the lake, it is wide enough to pull young children in sleds, and most novice snowshoers will find the trip gentle enough for a pleasant outing.
For families or adults with some avalanche training and winter backcountry knowledge, Ptarmigan Cirque is the favourite trail. It’s easy enough to stay out of avalanche terrain, but you have to know where to stop once you reach the cirque and can’t just go wandering at will around the basin. (Hence the need for winter safety training)
We visit Ptarmigan Cirque every winter with other families and always bring sleds with us for some fun backcountry-sledding off the moraines at the beginning of the cirque. We try to time our visit for early November (before the avalanche risk is too high) and sometimes only need spikes or ice cleats if the snow hasn’t accumulated enough on the trail.
For more information on November snowshoeing at Highwood Pass, please read my previous story: Winter Comes Early to Highwood Pass in the Canadian Rockies
- Snowshoe into a Backcountry Lodge
This is the winter adventure that you add to your bucket list, the adventure that makes the” top ten list” for places you have to stay before you die, and the adventure that you save up for! It can take years depending on the lodge!
I have been lucky enough to stay at all three lodges featured here and I’d plan a repeat-trip in a heartbeat.
Shadow Lake Lodge, Banff National Park
Shadow Lake Lodge is most easily accessed via the Red Earth Creek Trail, a 6.5 mile cross-country ski, snowshoe or hike on an old road that is easy to follow. Most people bring skis for this part of the trip because you can make it back to your car in a fast hour on the way down and it’s not really all that exciting to snowshoe an old road. From the end of the Red Earth Creek Trail, it is a final 1.5 mile hike or ski to Shadow Lake Lodge.
Once you reach the Lodge, you’ll appreciate having snowshoes if you want to do any touring in the area towards Gibbon or Ball Pass. You’ll also be rewarded for your efforts in reaching the lodge with decadent meals and comfortable accommodations in private cabins. Unlike most backcountry lodges in the Canadian Rockies, every guest here gets their own cabin with choices of king, queen or double beds.
For more information on Shadow Lake Lodge, please read my previous story: My Quest to find the Most Beautiful Destination in Backcountry Banff
Skoki Lodge, Banff National Park
Skoki Lodge is a historic backcountry ski lodge that dates back to 1931. You begin your backcountry trip to Skoki Lodge by uploading the Lake Louise Ski Resort gondola and then downloading a chair lift on the backside of the ski hill, arriving at Temple Lodge and the nearby trailhead to Skoki. From there, it is a 6.8 mile hike to the Lodge on a well maintained, ski-doo packed, trail.
Lest you think that you have to ski into the lodge, it’s equally fun to reach on snowshoes (and a whole lot easier if you are not experienced with backcountry ski touring). I find the ski in to the lodge to be at my far edge of comfort for my ability and usually prefer to hike in so that I know they won’t have to send a helicopter in to rescue me with the broken leg if I tried to ski down Deception Pass.
Regardless of how you choose to reach the lodge, on skis or snowshoes, touring opportunities for both sports are plentiful from the lodge. At the lodge, you’ll be treated with gourmet meals (some of the best found at a backcountry lodge in the Canadian Rockies) and you might even get to sleep in the same cabin that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Will and Kate) stayed in on a recent tour of Canada.
For more information on Skoki Lodge, please read my previous story: In Search of the Ultimate Backcountry Ski Lodge (on Snowshoes)
Lake O’Hara Lodge, Yoho National Park
“Skiing or snowshoeing into a backcountry lodge in the Canadian Rockies is one of those bucket list experiences that you’ll want to try at least once in your lifetime, hopefully multiple times and to a number of different lodges for variety. But what happens when you visit the ultimate lodge that firmly roots you, draws you in, and pulls you back year after year? That is the Lake O’Hara Lodge for many people who return time after time to the same lodge, some making it an annual pilgrimage for upwards of 50 years.”
I got my “chance in a lifetime” opportunity to stay at this incredible lodge last winter for a night and I definitely see the appeal of this decadent lodge. You might have to save your pennies for a few years to finance the trip but know that it will be highly worth it. The lodge is built on the shores of gorgeous Lake O’Hara, and has indoor plumbing, showers, 5 star world-class cuisine, and a sauna.
Professional guides take guests out snowshoeing or backcountry skiing every day and they get you out to the most spectacular places in the Lake O’Hara region. Not being well trained in avalanche safety, I never would have had the opportunity to go snowshoeing high up into the backcountry at Lake O’Hara without a trained guide. It was a phenomenal experience and whether you choose to ski or snowshoe, you’d be hard pressed to find better scenery in the Canadian Rockies.
For more information on the Lake O’Hara Lodge, please read my previous story: Winter at the Lake O’Hara Lodge: The Ultimate Canadian Rocky Mountain Lodge
- Snowshoe into an Alpine Club of Canada Backcountry Cabin or Hut
Awesomeness of backcountry lodges aside, I recognize that they won’t be in the budget for every family or couple out there. Fortunately, there is a more affordable way to get into the backcountry without having to sleep in a tent! Winter camping was never so comfortable or enjoyable thanks to the Alpine Club of Canada’s (ACC) network of backcountry cabins and huts across the mountains of Alberta and British Columbia.
Many ACC cabins are inaccessible in winter or challenging to reach to say the least. Four of the cabins are quite easy to reach and are great for family backcountry snowshoe or ski trips. We’ve stayed at all of the cabins below and I recommend each one for those looking to find pristine powder, backcountry untracked snow, and a real taste of winter in the Canadian Rockies.
Elk Lakes Cabin, Elk Lakes Provincial Park, British Columbia
This cabin is accessed via a 5.6 mile hike or ski from Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis, Alberta. The trail follows a groomed ski trail system for the first couple of miles and then enters more “Backcountry” terrain for the second half of the journey where I always appreciate having snowshoes for easier travel. There is no avalanche risk on this trip and the cabin sleeps 14 people.
Elizabeth Parker Hut, Lake O’Hara, Yoho National Park, British Columbia
This is the affordable way to enjoy Lake O’Hara in winter for those who don’t have thousands of dollars sitting around for the stay at the Lake O’Hara Lodge above. This cabin is accessed via a 7.5 mile hike or ski on a well maintained summer road (closed to vehicles in winter) that is easy to follow. Most people prefer to ski the road and bring snowshoes for exploring the backcountry terrain from the hut. The hut sleeps 20 people in winter.
A.O. Wheeler Hut, Glacier National Park, British Columbia
This hut is accessed via a very short 0.7 mile hike or ski. It is very popular in the winter with backcountry skiers but families will enjoy snowshoeing near the hut and playing in the deep powder that makes this hut famous across the Rockies. The hut sleeps 24 people in the winter.
Cameron Lake Cabin, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Brand new for the 2015 winter season, The ACC restored an old warden cabin and turned it into a comfortable cabin that now sleeps 8 people. It is accessed via a very short 1.2 mile hike or ski on a well maintained summer road that is relatively flat for the entire distance. From the cabin, you can ski or hike to nearby Cameron Lake or snowshoe to Little Akamina Lake.
For more on these backcountry cabins and huts, please read my previous story: Easy Ways to Stay Overnight in the Backcountry Year Round as a Family
- Take a Historical Snowshoe and Fondue Tour at Sunshine Village Resort in Banff
When most people think of “Sunshine Village” they don’t think about snowshoeing. Skiing and snowboarding, yes! Snowshoeing… not so much.
I have to admit though that one of my best days snowshoeing in the Canadian Rockies was spent at Sunshine Meadows, jumping through mountains of fresh soft powder in the biggest pair of snowshoes I’ve ever seen in my life. I spent the day hiking to Rock Isle Lake with a couple of my girlfriends and we all agreed that snowshoeing was definitely not boring! It changed the way I viewed the sport and it was shortly after this tour that I began to write for Snowshoe Magazine. Which says a lot about a tour if you want to devote a large amount of your writing time devoted to that sport afterwards!
I returned to Sunshine Village again a year later for a brand new tour that combined a gourmet cheese fondue experience at the end of it. Powder + fondue and I had now found my favourite winter tour in the Canadian Rockies! I think it’s time to go back in fact!
To read about my Historical Snowshoe and Fondue Tour at Sunshine Village, please read: Snowshoe and Ski Vacations for the Whole Family.
- Join a Full Moon Snowshoe and Fondue Tour at Kananaskis Village
Two winters ago I got the opportunity to try a brand new tour in the Canadian Rockies that allowed me to try something brand new – snowshoeing in the dark! I was intrigued (and a little bit scared) to say the least. “What if I walk into a tree?” was first and foremost in my mind. Second was, “What if I walk into a bear?” Good thing it was winter and most were hibernating!
The Full Moon tour takes place at Kananaskis Village, roughly located 45 minutes outside Calgary. It’s a great tour to take while spending a weekend at the Delta Kananaskis Lodge on site after a decadent dinner at one of the lodge’s restaurants. There’s also an outdoor hot tub and a skating pond at the lodge so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to enjoy the full moon while there. The tour ends with a chocolate fondue experience while you warm up and enjoy time with friends.
The tour is run by Kananaskis Outfitters, based out of the Village, and they are offering a second snowshoe tour this winter called “Stargazing Fondue Tours.”
“This tour runs on the Saturday closest to the new moon when the sky is darkest. Guests have seen Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), meteor showers and even a meteorite.”
- Seek out Perfect Powder in the Spray Valley, Kananaskis
This one is near and dear to my heart because you’ll stay at Mount Engadine Lodge for the ultimate winter experience in Spray Valley Provincial Park. The lodge is located roughly an hour from the nearby Town of Canmore and is situated just down the road from the Mount Shark Trailhead where over 12 miles of groomed cross country ski trails await you. Snowshoers will enjoy hiking to Watridge Lake from the Mount Shark Trailhead or will want to hike up to Rummel Lake with its trailhead located across the road from the lodge.
Just down the road from the lodge is the trailhead for Chester Lake, easily the best and most beautiful snowshoe trail in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park (and maybe all of Kananaskis). Chester Lake is reached in a moderate 5.8 mile round trip hike. The lake can also be reached on a separate ski trail, but it falls in the realm of backcountry ski touring so you should be pretty good on steep twisty trails.
Guests at Mount Engadine Lodge have their choice of lodge rooms (all with private bathroom), suites (larger and accommodating of pets), or one of three cabins with private balconies. All stays include meals at the lodge, afternoon tea, and a packed lunch for your day’s adventures. The meals are on par with any 5 star restaurant in Canmore and Mount Engadine Lodge is a paradise for foodies and adventurers alike!
Mount Engadine Lodge is a front country lodge with a backcountry feeling. For those who enjoy a little more of the “backcountry” aspect though, there’s also a rustic yurt on the property that can be rented for $125.00 per person per night. All meals are still included but you’ll save quite a few pennies on your accommodations with this more affordable option.
For more on Mount Engadine Lodge and snowshoeing in the Spray Valley, read my previous story: Mount Engadine Lodge: Alberta’s Front Country Lodge with Backcountry Charm
For more on winter camping at the Mount Engadine Yurt, read: Yurt-Camping in Kananaskis at Mount Engadine Lodge
- Snowshoe out your cabin door at Emerald Lake Lodge, Yoho National Park
It feels like a decade since I last stayed at the incredible Emerald Lake Lodge in Yoho National Park. In reality, it’s only been 2 years, but it’s been 2 years too many when it comes to how often you’ll want to stay here once you make your first visit. The Lodge is located on the shores of Emerald Lake, aptly named in summer, and is a winter paradise for those who enjoy snowshoeing and cross country skiing. This is one of the few places where you can stay in a cabin with snowshoe in/out opportunities in the Canadian Rockies. There’s an easy 3 mile loop that circles the lake or you can walk directly across the middle of the lake once it’s well frozen. For skiers, there is also a track-set loop around the lake and many other groomed cross-country trails in the near vicinity.
Emerald Lake Lodge is on my “must visit again” list this coming winter and we’re hoping to hike into nearby Wapta Falls, an easy 5.3 mile return outing to a frozen 98 feet high waterfall.
For more on Emerald Lake Lodge, read Snowshoeing Paradise at Canada’s Emerald Lake Lodge and consider planning a trip into Lake O’Hara as well while in Yoho National Park (adventures #2 and 3 above.)
- Explore the Scenic Icefields Parkway, Banff National Park
The Icefields Parkway is one of the most beautiful drives in Canada and links the Village of Lake Louise in Banff National Park with the Town of Jasper in neighboring Jasper National Park. Most people enjoy the winter views along this highway from the windows of their car as they drive to Jasper for a long weekend. I personally like to stay overnight though at one of the remote wilderness hostels found tucked off in the trees along the Parkway. Most of the hostels are so hidden, you’d never know they were there if it weren’t for a small sign on the side of the road (often buried in snow.)
Hostelling International operates 10 wilderness hostels across the mountains of Alberta and British Columbia. Most are open year-round and have managers on site to welcome you to the facility. The hostels offer simple rustic accommodations with no indoor plumbing or showers but do have kitchens with electricity, filtered water for drinking, and lights for those dark winter evenings.
My husband and I have stayed at all 10 wilderness hostels but of the ones located along the Icefields Parkway, we have 3 favorites that we like to stay at in winter:
HI Mosquito Creek Hostel
This is the first wilderness hostel you will come to on the Icefields Parkway upon leaving Lake Louise 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. It’s a far cry from winter camping though with heaters, stoves, fridges, and lights to make your stay comfortable. Families can book the private cabin which has two bedrooms (sleeping 5 people per room in bunk beds) and there are shared dorm rooms for adults or children over the age of 6.
From this hostel it is a short walk across the highway to the Mosquito Creek trailhead where you’ll find a beautiful set of frozen waterfalls in less than 5 minutes of walking. There are also snowy meadows to be explored behind the campground next door with great mountain views. A quick drive takes you to Lake Louise where recreation opportunities are plentiful and include everything from snowshoeing to cross country skiing, downhill skiing, and ice skating on the frozen lake.
HI Rampart Creek Hostel
This is the next wilderness hostel you will come to along the Parkway while traveling north towards Jasper. It is very similar to Mosquito Creek except that it does not have any private rooms for families. Dorm rooms are small though and only sleep 6 so you can always book an entire dorm room if traveling with kids.
From this hostel it is a short drive to Mistaya Canyon 5 minutes up the road or you can just walk across the highway and snowshoe across pristine snowy meadows making your own trail as you go.
HI Hilda Creek Hostel
This is our favourite wilderness hostel along the Icefields Parkway and gives the most authentic wilderness experience. The hostel resembles a backcountry cabin more than a front country hostel and you’ll have to put your snowshoes on just for the 2 minute walk to the cabin’s front door. You’ll be melting snow for water at this hostel or hauling buckets of water from the nearby creek and there is no manager on site.
We love this hostel because we are able to have a family winter backcountry trip without making a long journey into a cabin or hut. We can also rent the full hostel for our own private wilderness retreat because it only sleeps six people!
There is amazing terrain for snowshoeing right out the door of the hostel on the moraines above the cabin. A short drive takes you to the Columbia Icefield Centre where you can snowshoe up to the Athabasca Glacier and look for the ice cave that reveals itself most winters near the toe of the glacier.
For more on the Icefields Parkway in winter, read my previous story: Family Wilderness Getaways in Banff National Park.
- Travel North to Jasper National Park for Snowshoeing and Winter Canyon Hiking
While you’re exploring the Icefields Parkway, you really should keep driving and add a couple of nights in Jasper onto your itinerary. Jasper is a beautiful little town in winter and is much quieter than Banff. It has a very strong “local” feel to it and you’ll be well off the beaten tourist path.
While in Jasper, you’ll want to head out to Maligne Canyon for an adventure into a magical world of frozen waterfalls and ice caves. While you can do the tour on your own with a pair of ice spikes or cleats, The Maligne Adventures Ice Walk has been designated a Signature Experience by the Canadian Tourism Commission and you’ll be safe in the hands of their lead guide who’s been operating tours in the canyon for over 15 years.
After your ice walk, I recommend driving a little bit further down the highway towards Maligne Lake until you reach Medicine Lake, one of our favourite spots for some easy snowshoeing in untracked powder.
Other popular winter activities in Jasper include ice skating on Pyramid Lake, downhill skiing at Marmot Basin Resort, cross country skiing on one of many groomed trails, or snowshoeing on one of the trails on the Pyramid Bench above the town.
For more on Jasper in winter, read my previous story: Canyon Hiking and Snowshoeing in the Northern Canadian Rockies.
- Go Waterfall Chasing in Kananaskis or Banff
You should have guessed by now that I like visiting frozen waterfalls in winter. There have been suggestions so far in both Yoho and Jasper National Parks. For something closer to Calgary though, there are three great choices for winter hiking.
Troll Falls, Kananaskis
Troll Falls are reached via multi-use ski/snowshoe trails in Kananaskis Country. It’s an easy outing of only 2 miles round trip and families can pull youngsters in sleds if they want on the well-groomed trail.
Grotto Creek Canyon, Kananaskis
The Grotto Creek Canyon Trail is a short 1.3 mile long trail (one way) and leads through an icy canyon to native pictographs and frozen waterfalls seeping off of the rock walls. Official tours can be joined if you want to make sure you find the pictographs or else you can head off on your own with a pair of ice spikes. On my personal list is to return with a pair of ice skates for the frozen canyon floor.
Johnston Canyon, Banff National Park
Johnston Canyon is the ultimate winter canyon hike in the Southern Canadian Rockies and is every bit as magical as Maligne Canyon in Jasper National Park above. It’s a 1.7 mile hike (one way) to the Upper Falls. En route, you’ll pass by the Lower Falls (at the 0.7 mile mark) with a cave that you get to crawl through for a close-up view. You can also sneak down into the canyon shortly before the Upper Falls to find a secret set of waterfalls that you can crawl behind.
Note that you won’t need snowshoes for this trail but that you should have some ice cleats when the trail is slippery or if you want to go down into the canyon.
To read more on Johnston Canyon in winter, read Ice Caves and Frozen Waterfalls in Banff National Park.