I recently read a list of the world’s top 50 places you must see before you die. With, literally, thousands of destinations around the globe to visit, I was curious to learn where on the list I had been and also to know where I should dream of one day travelling. However, it was the realization that we, here in Calgary, are living on the doorsteps of one of those destinations that fascinated me the most.
With the throngs of tourists that peruse the streets of Banff every summer, the world must be aware that the Canadian Rockies ranked 11th on that list. With its endless spectacular scenery of wildlife and waterfalls, our rocky mountains definitely live up to their reputation. Now, in a time when the world is experiencing a global recession, it has become very difficult for a lot of families to conceive visiting anywhere else on that top 50 list. However, with the plethora of activities available to those of us living in the vicinity of #11, we don’t need to. For my family, weekend day trips to the mountains have become a regular occurrence throughout the summer.
With a backpack full of water, granola bars and bear spray, we find ourselves exploring the backcountry through the myriad of hiking trails that cover the green rocky slopes. While motivating our young children to enjoy themselves was initially a bit of a challenge, we have learned fun ways to make the experience stimulating and worthwhile. First of all, the backcountry is full of many different kinds of plants, flowers and wildlife, which presents a great learning opportunity for children to discover the various varieties native to the region. Unless you are a horticulture or zoology expert, I would suggest purchasing a pocket guidebook to help identify everything that you encounter. Our two favorites are Wildflowers of the Canadian Rockies’ by George W. Scotter & Halle Flygare, and Rocky Mountain Nature Guide by Andy Bezener & Linda Kershaw.
While it may sound dorky to picture the five of us with our hiking shoes, backpacks, walking sticks and guidebooks, trudging through the forest, it is actually a fantastic family bonding time. Our kids have learned to spot everything from marmots, juniper bushes, bear berries and yarrow. Of course, they don’t buy the line that ‘being in the fresh outdoors is their reward’ for their valiant efforts. No, we usually do have to bribe them with a triple scoop of ice cream on the way home, if they can each identify five different kinds of wildflower or animal. It has become a great game and I know that my children are also learning an appreciation of nature along with some interesting knowledge. Secondly, choosing hikes that offer children more than just a walk through the forest has been very useful. The Grotto Canyon trail is a great hike for kids where they enjoy having to manoeuvre their way up the creek bed, finding their balance on the different rocks. For our six-year-old, it proved to be a great confidence-builder as she was able to choose her own route over and around the rocks on the creek bed floor, rather than following a specified trail. We also had a lot of fun competing over who could spot the faded pictographs that were drawn on the canyon walls hundreds of years ago by the Hopi peoples that inhabited the area.The hike from Lake Louise up to the teahouse at Lake Agnes is another fun one with children. Although it might be a bit difficult for really small children, whom you will, no doubt, end up piggybacking for a portion of the way, they will enjoy the delicious cakes and cookies at the top in the rustic cabin built in 1925, while you and the other adults in your group enjoy a cup of hot tea and the breathtaking views of the two lakes and the valley. Nothing got my children up that mountain faster than the promise of the most delicious chocolate cake at the top! I don’t remember if they actually got chocolate cake but it was something sweet and they were happy with that.
The same motivation even worked for the more difficult 11km hike up to the Plain of Six Glaciers teahouse. Let me tell you though that after hiking that far with three young kids in tow, constantly trying to entertain them with games of wilderness ‘I Spy,’ I never tasted apple crisp so good. If you go, be sure to take cash, though. There are no ATMs 6km up the mountain! If you are interested in learning more about great hikes with children in the Rockies, a good book to start with is Walks and Easy Hikes in the Canadian Rockies by Graeme Pole.If you have a daring and adventurous spirit, and would love a day away from the kids, I would highly recommend taking in a caving tour.
The Rats Nest Cave, which is found in Grotto Mountain, is a deep 4km long cave system full of fossilized animal bones, calcite formations and pools of running water. Donned in coveralls, helmet and headlamp, you make your way crawling through the cave, down steep inclines including a 60-foot repel, and squeezing through tight passageways, (one known as the Laundry Chute). The sport is exhilarating, daring and mentally stimulating. Deep inside the cool mountain with only your battery powered headlamp to break the darkness, you truly sense the sheer immensity and splendour of the mountain. The cave remains a constant 5°C, and while manoeuvring your way through the cool, dark, wet passageways, you enter a temporary lapse of reality. Sitting in the bottom of the cave alone, after being the first in my group to make the 60-foot repel, I had a moment to meditate and allow the experience to really sink in. It felt awe-inspiring. After spending most of my adult life in Calgary, I can honestly say that it was definitely one of the most amazing activities I have ever participated in. If you are interested, cave tours are conducted through Wild Cave Tours of Canmore. For more information, visit www.canadianrockies.net/wildcavetours/.
Because we live so close to the Canadian Rockies, engaging in exciting activities such as caving and hiking is an absolute reality. It gives us wonderful opportunities to stay active, teach our children, bond as families, and rejuvenate the soul. There are dozens of places to visit, trails to hike, water-falls to photograph, and other activities to engage in. Don’t wait until you can afford to visit one of the other top 50 places. Take your family and explore the one in our own backyard. Use this summer to enjoy the happy trails. Have fun, stay safe and be active!
Great websites to help you get started:
National Park information: www.pc.gc.ca
Travel Alberta: www.travelalberta.com
Royal Tyrrell Museum: www.tyrrellmuseum.com
Jasper Tramway information: www.jaspertramway.com
UNESCO World Heritage Site Information: www.unesco.org
Yana is a freelance writer who lives in Calgary. Her interests include hiking, skiing and reading. Much of her writing inspiration comes from her three children, the youngest of whom was adopted from China.
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