The kids are out of school, it’s a beautiful sunny day, and a road trip is calling! Fortunately, you don’t have to go far because Calgary is surrounded by great parks, fun destinations, lakes, and recreational activities. Choose a direction and you’ll be rewarded with a new adventure every week of the summer!
1. Hike and bike around Glenbow Ranch and Cochrane
Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park is located west of Calgary off Highway 1A. A big paved hill takes you down to the river and from there, you can explore both paved and natural trails as you hike or bike through this active cattle ranch through native grassland.
Arriving in Cochrane, my family likes to hike around the Cochrane Ranche where you’ll find a large parking lot off the 1A, east of the intersection with Highway 22. The highlight is a visit to the grandfather tree, a white spruce estimated to be over 300 years old. The tree is located uphill on a hiking trail that follows the creek flowing through the park (labeled on Google Maps).
My family also loves exploring the paved pathways along the Bow River in Cochrane, starting from Riverfront Park off Griffin Road. In this park, you’ll find a disc golf course, a natural playground, and beautiful paths to bike or walk.
For directions, consult the All Trails app or website for these destinations.
2. Explore Bragg Creek and Elbow Valley
Everybody loves heading out to Elbow Falls or Allen Bill Pond for a picnic, and kids enjoy throwing rocks in the river at these popular day-use areas. To explore more, drive farther along Highway 66 until you reach the Little Elbow Campground and the Forgetmenot Pond Day-Use Area. My family loves playing in the river here where there’s a natural ‘beach’ area with sand under the big suspension bridge.
Popular short hikes in Elbow Valley include the Fullerton Loop (Allen Bill Pond), the Beaver Flats Interpretive Trail (Beaver Lodge Day-Use Area), or the Nihahi Ridge Trail (parking at Forgetmenot Pond). To get off the beaten path, hike up the Powderface Creek Trail to reach the top of the White Buddha climbing cliff where you’ll be rewarded with amazing views. (Find each of these hikes on All Trails.)
Back in Bragg Creek, no trip with kids is complete without a visit to one of the ice cream or candy stores! A $15 day-use fee per vehicle is required to visit Kananaskis unless you purchase an annual pass.
3. Paddle, swim, and float through Canmore and Banff
There’s nothing like mountain water to cool you off on a hot day! In Canmore, Quarry Lake is the place to be. Kids love playing in the sand and never seem to notice how cold the water is. A parking fee is in place for this park ($20 for up to four hours of parking in peak season). If you have a National Parks Discovery Pass, there’s free parking at Johnson Lake in Banff with a great beach area. Regardless of which lake your family chooses to visit, arrive early to find a parking spot.
For families with SUPs or boats, Johnson Lake is a great place to tour around on calm water. The Vermilion Lakes are also fun to explore by boat; parking is available along Vermilion Lakes Drive. In Banff, you can also rent boats from the Banff Canoe Club. If renting from the canoe club, enjoy a leisurely paddle up Echo Creek, which takes you to the first Vermilion Lake. If using your own boats, park at the Recreation Grounds in Banff where you can paddle over to the canoe club and then make your way up the creek. It’s a lovely float back down after you finish paddling around the lake.
4. Spend the day at Barrier Lake in Kananaskis
This is the closest you’ll get to a ‘beach’ in Kananaskis. Arrive early to get a parking spot (visiting mid-week helps). There are two day-use areas: one at the dam and one farther down the lake (closed for construction but hopefully reopening for the summer). Bring your paddleboards or boats. Warning: This lake can be quite windy, so careful supervision of your kids is required while on the water.
While in the area, my family likes to hike the trails near Kananaskis Village, including Troll Falls and Ribbon Creek (both on All Trails). To get off the beaten path when Barrier Lake is busy, check out the day-use areas on Upper or Lower Kananaskis Lake farther along on Highway 40. There are beautiful day-use areas along the The Spray Lakes Highway where you can have a picnic beside the Spray Lakes Reservoir (driftwood is my family’s favorite with picnic tables beside the water). A $15 day-use fee per vehicle is required to visit Kananaskis unless you purchase an annual pass.
5. Discover South Kananaskis along the Cowboy Trail
Solitude is easier to find if you travel farther south in Kananaskis. Driving south on Highway 22, you’ll arrive in Turner Valley where you can head west on Highway 546 toward Sheep River Provincial Park.
Your family will love stopping at the Sheep River Falls Day-Use Area for a picnic and to see the beautiful waterfalls. Popular hikes in the area include the Foran Grade Loop (near the Sandy Mcnabb Campground), Dyson Falls (Indian Oils Day-Use), and Missinglink Mountain (Gorge Creek Day-Use).
Farther south on the 22 you’ll arrive in Longview where you can head west on Highway 541 toward Highwood Junction. This creates a lovely scenic drive with Highway 40 if you continue over Highwood Pass toward the Kananaskis Lakes.
Popular hikes along Highway 541 and Highway 40 include the Cat Creek Hills (near Highwood Junction), Cat Creek Falls (Cat Creek Day-Use), and Pickle Jar Lakes (Lantern Creek Day-Use).
Consult All Trails for each hike and again, the $15 day-use fee per vehicle is required if you plan to stop to hike or have a picnic along your drive.
6. Bike to Chestermere on the Western Headworks Canal
A short drive from southeast Calgary takes you to Chestermere, but my family likes to travel here by bike along the Western Headworks Canal, a paved flat pathway loaded with geocaches. The full ride is over 20 kilometres one way if you start in Inglewood. My family likes to start farther east in Ralph Klein Park for a shorter outing of 24 kilometres round trip. Google Maps will help you find other starting options, too.
If you want to visit the Anniversary Park Beach on Chestermere Lake, it’s easier to drive out for the day, but you could bike over and send an adult back for the vehicle while the rest of the crew hangs out at the beach.
7. Go park-and-playground hopping in Airdrie
Airdrie is a gold mine for great playgrounds and parks! My family’s favorite, Chinook Winds, has a fabulous skate park, playground, and spray park, all located side-by-side. Your family can spend hours here.
Another park my family enjoys is Iron Horse Park where you can pay for miniature train rides! Visit the park’s website to see how COVID restrictions are affecting their operations this summer and to find hours of operation for the train rides.
To discover other great parks and playgrounds, visit the Calgary Playground Review website, calgaryplaygroundreview.com. My family usually tries to visit at least two or three new playgrounds each time we visit Airdrie.
8. Get wild about Innisfail!
You could plan a month’s worth of adventures in this area north of Airdrie starting with a visit to the Discovery Wildlife Park. This large zoo has entertaining animal performances daily and large grounds to explore (golf carts are available to rent).
South of Innisfail, nature lovers will love walking through the sunflower fields at the Bowden Sun Maze, open late August through September. My family also loves day-tripping out to nearby Red Lodge Provincial Park west of Innisfail. The Little Red Deer River winds its way gently through the campground, and the kids will love floating down it in tubes or inflatable rafts. By mid-summer, the river feels more like a creek and is a fun place to spend hours playing.
For a weekend getaway, there is camping at the Red Lodge and the Discovery Wildlife Park.
9. Explore the Alberta Badlands in Drumheller
Drumheller is located 90 minutes north of Calgary, making it a great destination for a hike in the badlands at Horseshoe Canyon. Farther off the beaten path, Horse Thief Canyon is much less busy and equally spectacular!
For cyclists, park at the giant dinosaur beside the Visitor Centre and follow the paved riverside pathway to the Royal Tyrrell Museum (a 14-kilometre round trip ride). The museum has been closed due to COVID restrictions, so check their website before planning your visit. Regardless, you can still bike to the museum through an incredible badlands landscape and there’s a playground at the museum, too!
For a scenic drive with fun stops along the way, make a loop with the North and South Dinosaur Trail, crossing the Red Deer River on the Bleriot Ferry and passing by the museum, the Little Church, and Horse Thief Canyon. Alternately, head south of town on the Hoodoo Trail, which passes by the Star Mine Suspension Bridge and the Hoodoo Viewpoint, ending at the Atlas Coal Mine.
Heading south, you’ll also pass by the intersection with Highway 10X, which takes you to the ghost town of Wayne over 11 one-lane bridges. In Wayne, you’ll find a family-friendly saloon and a challenging disc golf course (maps are available at the saloon).
10. Explore Red Deer’s backyard to the north
For a non-mountain adventure, consider taking a day trip north to Red Deer where you’ll find a variety of fun activities! Water lovers have options, including the Discovery Canyon Water Park just north of the city or the outdoor swimming pool (with waterslides) at the Abbey Centre in the nearby town of Blackfalds. (Consult their individual websites to see how COVID restrictions are affecting their operations.)
Just to the west, Sylvan Lake is another great place to cool off on a hot day with a sandy beach and shallow swimming area at the provincial park in town. The Aqua Splash inflatable water park is also located nearby.
For adventure lovers, you’ll find a great bike skills park in Blackfalds across from the swimming pool. My family loves hiking around the Kerry Wood Nature Centre in Red Deer where there is a bird sanctuary and a small nature playground. Visit the Tourism Red Deer website, visitreddeer.com, to discover more fun family activities in this area.
Tanya is a freelance writer and mom to an energetic boy. 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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