It’s always fun to visit someplace new as a family, discover a new favorite trail, and perhaps even try out a new sport. And while the summertime may seem like the best time to go ‘exploring,’ personally, my family likes to visit new places in the wintertime. Summer’s such a short season and tends to get filled up with revisiting our favorite parks and campgrounds. Winter, on the other hand, at least in Alberta, is long and tends to drag on for five or more months, so it’s the perfect time to come up with creative destinations to explore, then take a trip and try something new.
Here are the top five provincial parks that my family loves exploring in the winter. Number 5, Beauvais Lake, is a bonus location that we have yet to visit in the wintertime (and it sounds awesome!). Pick one - or two if you’re keen - of these great parks to visit this winter and maybe even try a new activity while there. Luge or fat biking, anyone?
1. Cypress Hills Provincial Park. This park is located approximately four hours south of Calgary, but save this trip for a long weekend and/or when the drive is manageable. Accommodations can be found nearby Medicine Hat or in the town of Elkwater at the Elkwater Lake Lodge and Resort. For the adventurous, there are also three backcountry cabins that offer cozy and affordable lodging with easy access on skis or snowshoes. Last February, we hiked into the Tom Trott Hut and it was a very easy 5-kilometre distance on snow-covered roads.
Main winter activities in Cypress Hills Provincial Park include cross-country skiing, hiking, and snowshoeing on the park trails along with downhill skiing at the nearby Hidden Valley Ski Resort. For my family, the highlight of our visit was ice-skating in the Old Baldy Campground on a loop that the Park converts into a 1.5-kilometre skating track. We also loved the luge track that the Park builds for the kids. Sleds and helmets are provided in a warming hut beside the track so you can just show up and play. Finally, make sure you stop in at the Camp Cookhouse for lunch or dinner while there. I cannot say enough about the chili cheese fries!
2. Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. This Park is much closer to Calgary, making it an ideal destination for a day trip to go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing with the family. The drive will take you about an hour-and-a-half, and is very scenic as you travel down Hwy 40 past Kananaskis Village, a great spot to stop on your drive home for coffee in the resort as you warm up beside the big fireplace. Visit at Christmastime to see the large gingerbread house and to go skating on the Village pond (usually open by early December).
The main winter activities in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park include cross-country skiing, hiking, and snowshoeing on the park trails. Popular trailheads are the Pocaterra Hut or the Visitor Centre for easy family skiing, the Elkwood parking lot for snowshoeing around Marl Lake, or start at the Canyon parking lot for three snowshoe trails.
Our favorite winter hike in this park is the Chester Lake Trail off of Hwy 742 (the Smith Dorrien Trail). The hike is a 6.8-kilmetre round trip and is beautiful as you cross the meadows before the lake on the snowshoe trail. (Please leave the ski trail to those on skis. It’s not as pretty anyway and you’ll enjoy the meadows from the actual signed snowshoe trail, marked with small orange snowshoe symbols.)
3. Bow Valley Provincial Park. A great park to explore in winter, this is an easy drive at only 45 minutes from the west end of Calgary. Our favorite winter thing to do in this park is to hike the Grotto Creek Canyon Trail to see the frozen icefalls and to play on the skating rink-like canyon floor. I’ve even seen people skating through the canyon. The trail starts from the Grotto Mountain Day-Use Area on Hwy 1A, just east of Canmore. The hike is a 4-kilometre return and ice cleats or spikes are imperative. You can pick up cleats or spikes at any outdoor recreation store in Calgary, including Canadian Tire.
Sometimes Grotto Pond at the parking lot is also cleared for skating (usually in November or December), so bring your skates in case you find a group of ambitious people out on the pond with shovels. Last year, a local resident had attempted to flood the ice and it was amazingly smooth for a non-maintained skating rink.
4. West Bragg Creek Provincial Recreation Area. This is Calgary’s nearest recreation area for fat biking (a fat bike is an off-road bicycle with oversized tires), cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. Located 10 minutes west of Bragg Creek, I often come here when my son is in school for a quick ski loop. There are dedicated trails for cross-country skiing (with signs urging hikers and bikers to use their own signed trails). The multi-use, all-season trails are great for snowshoeing or fat biking, and there are also two designated snowshoe loops that do not allow for biking.
If you’ve never been out here before, there are great maps in the parking lot, and you’ll find another map at every trail intersection. It’s easy to come out here to explore for an hour or two and then head to Bragg Creek to warm up over hot chocolate and baked goods at the Cinnamon Spoon.
5. Beauvais Lake Provincial Park. This park is a bit far for a day trip, but makes for a fabulous destination on a weekend. The park is located 20 minutes southwest of Pincher Creek in Southern Alberta and can be reached in two-and-a-half hours from Calgary. Accommodations can be found in the town of Pincher Creek and from there, you can explore both Beauvais Lake Provincial Park and Waterton Lakes National Park (30 minutes to the south).
Main winter activities in Beauvais Lake Provincial Park include cross-country skiing and snowshoeing on over 25 kilometres of trails. Ice fishing is also popular on the lake and for the hardy, there are 15 sites open for winter camping. We have yet to visit this park in the winter, but fell in love with the trails when we visited this past summer. We now want to return in winter to try snowshoeing or skiing the same trails we enjoyed biking in July.
Road trip season is year-round for our family, and I hope you and your family will join us in getting out and exploring a new Alberta Provincial Park this winter, too!
Tanya is a freelance writer, and a mom to a spunky nine-year-old. She loves hiking, camping, skiing, and all things mountain-related. She is the author of the blog, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies, rockiesfamilyadventures.com.
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