If you are a follower of my blog you might remember I posted our Summer 2018 Southern Alberta: Family Objectives. This list was designed to keep my kids entertained, out of the house and prevent this stay at home mom from losing her mind. It’s half way through the summer already (insert quiet sob here) and the intention list has been performing its duty perfectly. It has certainly kept us busy and on track to experiencing as much of Southern Alberta as possible. I initially thought that I would post one blog detailing our excursions at the end of summer once our list had been completed. However, reflecting on what we have already experienced in the first half of summer I thought I would divide the blog in half to prevent my readers diving into a novella instead of a blog.
NOTE: To help understand our family reviews one should know a little bit about my children. My youngest just turned five and my eldest is seven. They both are sport loving children who can easily be active for an hour straight when given small water breaks.
June 24, 2018 – Moraine Lake
My birthday and the one place I wanted to visit just happen to be one of the busiest spots in Banff National Park: Moraine Lake. I gave up my birthday right to sleep in effort to arrive early at our sought out destination, but our efforts were insufficient. Signs began to appear on the highway in big bold flashing letters: LAKE LOUISE PARKING LOT FULL! It then provided instructions to use overflow parking and utilize the shuttles provided. I should note that I had not been to Moraine Lake for years and the signs only indicated Lake Louise, not Moraine Lake. So we bypassed the shuttle parking lot and continued driving up the highway to find ourselves in the congested, stop and go, single lane, no escape, winding road leading to Moraine Lake and then onward to Lake Louise. At this point we were still under the impression that the crowds must be for Lake Louise, how naive and stupid were we?! Low and behold the turnoff to Moraine Lake was blocked off and manned by a few National Park employees indicating the parking lot was full. Defeated and caught in the current of vehicles, with no where to turn around we continued the slow ride up to Lake Louise to turn around and, with our tail between our legs, head back down the mountain. On the slow decent, figuring out a new birthday day plan, we just so happen to arrive back at the Moraine Lake turnoff when the employees opened up the barriers to allow the cars leaving Moraine Lake to enter into the salmon stream of vehicles on the way back down. My husband immediately indicated we wanted to enter and they allowed us in. PURE ROTTEN LUCK! Once we recovered from our disbelief, we parked and began our excursion around Moraine Lake. My husband and I were very excited to show our children where he preposed to me twelve years ago.
Here comes the hiking information. From the parking lot it is a quick hike up the Rock View Point hike to get our iconic Moraine Lake shot that everyone comes for. The path is clearly marked and many stairs are carved into stone. Years ago this rock pile, formed from an ancient rock slide from the nearby slopes, was a gigantic scramble for anyone to navigate in any direction. You used to be able to find an isolated spot away from the crowds for a moment to yourself and to take in the beauty that was before you. Now in efforts to preserve and promote the vegetation growing within the rock pile there are designated trails and man made look outs. I agree with the parks trying to manage the crowds but it did take away the magic that my husband and I remember. Total hike, including fighting for the family photo spots, was approximately twenty minutes and must note that there was no crying or complaining from our children.
On the way back down to the parking lot lies the Consolation Lakes trail head just off the Rock View hike. Immediately you are confronted with a sign warning about bears – always follow policy! This hike is designated as an easy 2.9km one way (5.8 km total) hike (no loop, one way in and one way out). It begins with a rocky path and then crosses a stream where if the water is high enough you need to jump and maneuver from boulder to boulder to keep your feet from getting wet. Perhaps another 100 meters of roots and rocks the rest is a large well defined trail. It is essentially a steady incline until you reach the lake. The kids did not enjoy the hike up and were constantly requesting the ETA of the hike with the iconic question “are we there yet?” This question also had follow up inquiries regarding hunger and thirst request, as well as the “carry me please” and the “I’m tired” statement. However, when the forest opened up to the glade, revealing the lake, the distant Quadra glacier, the football field of boulders to climb around and left over snow to touch they suddenly had all the energy in the world. If you manage to find yourself scrambling amongst the rocks, take time to sit and listen to the water move underneath. Plus if you look carefully you might see an inquisitive hoary marmot checking out the newcomers to his home. In total the kids took two hours to hike (not including the time spent around Consolation Lake) and even though they complained on the way up, it was worth the whining to see their smiles, thumbs up and rave reviews once back in the car.
My overall recommendation is to either plan on arriving super early, or later on in the day if you are not looking for a hike for easier parking and not relying on shuttles from Banff and from the park and ride. Next year the kids would really like to rent canoes and spending some time on Moraine Lake.
July 4th – Johnston Canyon Hike
This hike my children and I were accompanied by my parents and brother. My immediate family wanted to join us as this was the first hike our family completed when we moved to Alberta twenty years ago. Driving up to the trailhead was like a deja-vue from our Moraine Lake odyssey. Road signs indicated the two designated parking lots were both full and the road was lined with parked vehicles and spotted with walking pedestrians working their way towards the trail head. Defeated and knowing the level of whining that awaited me if I force my children to complete a hike in order to begin a hike, I pulled into the parking lot to drop my family off. The parking angels were once again on my side as a vehicle pulled out the moment my mother closed her side door. I was then able to park within fifty feet of the trailhead. Yes I did give my father a high five and blasted the rocking tunes on the radio for a brief celebratory moment.
As you can imagine with the parking lot and roads being full, the hike was busy. Honestly, in all my years living in Alberta I have not seen crowds like this. It is a perfect family hike. The hike is paved, enough that even on our decent there was a courageous woman who was pushing her grandmother in a wheelchair. The hike to the lower falls took approximately 25 minutes as per my children’s pace and then another 25 minutes to the upper falls. Walking through the canyon on platforms above the raging water and under rocks faces provide plenty of scenic spots to capture the beautiful environment. However, because of the crowds it was difficult to stop and catch the locations when you have a group of 20 people walking single file behind you and 25 people walking towards you in the same fashion passing shoulder to shoulder. There are places to look out and take a breather from the crowds but the two most interesting spots, sitting at the base of both of the upper and lower falls had line ups of at least 30 -50 people deep. They all were waiting for their fleeting moment to feel the mist of the water fall and capture their idyllic photo. My kids really wanted to go see the lower falls as it requires you to walk through a cave but due to the lineup, I promised they that we would return in the fall when the crowds are much less. The bonus of living close to the mountains.
The hike is easy, with plenty of signs, lookouts and benches. The higher up you hike, the thinner the crowds. Our favourite quote of the hike was from my son, fatigued from the continual ascent to the upper falls, asking “Is there a toy store up at the top?”. For those who might be wondering, no, there isn’t a gift shop, but near the trail head there is a little bistro and mini log cabin shack that serves ice cream.
We plan on returning however we will do so in the fall when hopefully the summer crowds have thinned to capture our family waterfall photo. Be on the look out on my Instagram and Facebook page to see the end result.
July 5th – Granary Road
This visit all happened because of a coupon. Yup, I saved myself a child’s entrance fee, but probably paid it with gas to get there anyways! South west of Calgary nestled in the green rolling hills between Priddis and Okotoks lies Granary Road. The extra large grain bin feel with a modern flare greeted the arriving vehicles. An old truck sits out front surrounded by planters of annuals of various colours. The smell of fresh baked breads and brunch items wafted from open doors of the cafe and market. It was hard not to hold the children back so I could sample the aromatic delicacies that had to look as good as they smelled. After purchasing our arm bands we made it into the compound. Beautiful and over the top decorations were a feast for the eyes. Paths were laid out and signage easy to read and navigate. The kids were able to play in gigantic spider rope courses, tunnel around an ant playground, pet rural farm life, bounce on giant lily pads and slide through oversized fruit.
A wonderland of playgrounds and learning activities while providing ample opportunities for adults to sit in shaded areas while monitoring their little mutating critters. The kiddos had an amazing time, and we plan on returning at some point to partake in the market.
July 6th – Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and Frank Slide
The Calgary Stampede provides parades, fireworks, deep fried exotic foods, rodeos, grandstand shows, fairgrounds and wave upon wave of crowds both domestic and from abroad. Our family took the opportunity to escape the opening day of the Stampede and spend a day trip navigating the southwestern part of the Alberta province. We drove to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and looped over close to the Alberta/BC border to visit Frank Slide before navigating our way back home. Our children, when their noses were not buried into their electronics during the hours of driving, experienced the vast flowering canola fields, the rolling foothills and the toothy rocky mountains all in one day.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site. It is a location that I had never been to, but was always drawn to learning the history of the Plains Buffalo culture. The interpretive centre is built into the cliff next to the jump. Each level is full of Plains Buffalo and Plains Blackfoot culture from the influence of weather systems, hunting culture and the impact of the European arrival. The highlight from the trip was the film re-enactment of the Buffalo hunt displayed in the small theatre in the middle of the centre. For my son who is not yet able to read, taking in the dioramas and pictures are one thing but experiencing and watching the intricacies of how every aspect needed to be perfect in order for the hunt to succeed hit home and brought everything he had witnessed to life. We rounded out our tour at the Buffalo Jump Cafe and treated ourselves to some Buffalo burgers. It did make me think that years ago this culture followed, revered and worshiped these beautiful animals in order to survive, now any one can sit in an air conditioned room, with a slab of Buffalo meat, seared to perfection with a side of fries. How far we have come!
After leaving the jump we decided to take the less paved route to Frank Slide on highway 785. We drove with the windows down, on dirt roads, between isolated ranch homes, canola fields and giant wind turbines amongst ridges of the foothills. Then like a snap of the finger, we at the base of the mountain, half carved out and driving in the wake of the fall out.
Frank Slide: Boulders as big as houses litter both sides of the modern highway. Walking into the centre flanking the western side of the slide it is hard to believe that it was not part of a movie set. The sight, though terrible to learn that approximately ninety men, woman and children lost their lives, also contain unbelievable stories of survival such as houses being picked up and moved, children catapulted from their beds and out of the debris field to safety and a random decision from sleeping at camp versus the hotel further in town that in the end saved the decision makers’ lives. The centre is full of interactive displays from learning about the townspeople, the nearby mining way of life, and how the mountain is still on high alert for another possible slide. Photos and videos does not justify the sheer devastation of this destruction, if you have the chance take the time to stop by the centre, even if you do not enter the interpretive centre, the vantage point allows one to view the full extent of the slide. It is the only way to absorb the extent of the tragedy, one that you cannot find just off the highway.
July 21- Cave and Basin Lantern Tour
I have been to Banff many times throughout my twenty years living in Alberta and I have never set foot in the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. True shame as it is the birthplace of the Canadian park system. What began as a random discovery escalated to a fight for rights and finally with the our government deciding that these unique and special places need to be preserved for and enjoyed by everyone. When I was researching the national site I was immediately drawn to the Saturday evening lantern tours. The tour is guided by the spirit of Mr. Galletly, the first caretaker of the spring. The cave is beautifully lit by tea lights in the rock crevices just barely lighting your way to the opening of the spring. My children received the VIP treatment being guided personally by Mr. Galleltly while my husband, father-in-law and myself were near the back. It was amazing to feel the heat from the sulphur springs and listen to the moving water. I will highly recommend to use the suggested bathroom break before entering the caves as the sound of running water appears to be magnified in the dark. The tour continues by returning through the tunnel and then followed by a fifteen minute video across four giant screens showcasing the national parks and sites throughout Canada. It is a beautiful tribute and as a Canadian that prides herself of visiting multiple sites across this vast country, I quickly realized there is so much more to be seen. The last portion of the tour is a quick visit outside where the old swimming pool used to be but now is a protected viewing areas for the Banff Spring Snails. One of the reasons why this site no longer has the public swimming pool is because of these endangered mollusc that only live in these specifics pools in Banff. These unique critters are small enough to fit on the top of a pencil’s eraser and I am pretty sure my son did not see them or believes that they are actually there. You know that look in your children’s eye when they appease you to get you to back off but at the same time think that you may need psychological help. Yeah that look, my five year old did that for the first time on this trip.
If you have a chance to visit this national site, make sure to take the small boardwalk above the cave and basin. It provides panoramic scenes, locations absorb the heat and sulphur pheromones spewing from the mountain, and to be mesmerized by the small fish, snails and even in our case snake that lives in these wicked conditions while viewing the chimney of the cave itself. The walks are free around the cave but if you wish to enter the cave, either during the day or night there is a fee involved. In order to book the lantern tours check the website and contact the personnel via phone in order to book date and times and settle payment. When in Banff take a right at the parliament building, head down the two minutes drive and take a knee to commemorate the founders of our national park system that is the biggest in the world.
July 26th – Marsh Loop Trail
This was the first hike outside of our community that I have done by myself with the kids. The hike or should I say walk as it was flat and paved for at least one third of the 2.3 kilometres has less than ten meters in elevation change. To be honest, this hike quickly became “lets just get through it” type of walk. After the paved section finished the rest of the walk was loose dirt as it is a well used horse trail. In fact my kids and I had to wait on the side for one horse riding group and nearly had to jog the last stretch to the parking lot ahead of a second group because there was no where to stand to the side to allow the horses to walk pass. It was greatly frustrating and the kids were also very much disgusted by the sheer amount of horse droppings. The plus side was that we really did not have to worry about any unwanted animal encounters even with the trail situated next to the designated animal corridor because every 52 seconds my children were yelling out, “ew!” or “do not step in the poo!” and “ugh not again!” I think my kids learned more about horse biology then nature itself even though I was trying to point out the various plants along the trail edge.
The scenery when there is a break in the river bank foliage is awesome no doubt about it, but I would highly recommend to rent a canoe or kayak and navigate the beautiful turquoise Bow river to capture those images. Do not waste your time on this hike. I will note that there is a board walk located near the entrance to the Cave and Basin centre but we did not do the small extra loop. It may be considered part of the Marsh Loop trail as from my research the majority of people who post their photos included boardwalk pictures, though we never came across any during the loop, just a couple of small wooden bridges. In my opinion the park should simply label the trail as a designated horse trail when the trail rides are running.
We jammed in a lot of amazing family experiences throughout the month of July. The majority of our August is filled with extended family obligations. We will be fitting in our last three items on the intentions list and I will try to focus on the weekly hikes and bike rides. Stay tuned for the next blog and in the mean time go outside and explore.