Hiking is an affordable family activity, and there are many trails near Calgary that provide safe options. Many popular trails are wide and straight forward to follow, even when they’re covered with snow. These trails are generally well packed down as well, so you often won’t need skis or snowshoes for a winter trip.
Here are some of my family’s favorite hiking trails:
1. Paddy's Flat Interpretive Trail. This hike is located off Highway 66 in the Elbow Valley outside Bragg Creek. In winter, park at the gate by the entrance to Paddy’s Flat Campground and hike down toward the river. The loop is 4 kilometres but allows for additional distance when starting from the highway. (Consider bringing a sled for young children as you hike the closed campground roads down to the river and bring snowshoes if you want an easy place to practice this cool winter activity!)
Trail highlights: During winter, you’ll get to explore a deserted campground where you’ll often be the only family around for miles (great for physical distancing)! The playground at the campground is an added bonus year-round.
2. Fullerton Loop. This is another hike located off Highway 66 and great for a short half-day outing near Calgary. The trail starts from the Allen Bill Day-Use Area and is popular with families. It is equally enjoyed by snowshoers in winter (the snow is often packed down enough that you’ll be fine wearing winter boots if it didn’t snow overnight). The hike is 7 kilometres round trip and you’ll gain 200 metres of height. If you don’t have snow shoes, ice cleats are recommended because there are a few steep hills.
Trail highlights: There’s a beautiful viewpoint over the Elbow Valley. Your children might feel like they’ve climbed a mountain when they’ve reached the top to the scenic bench!
3. Troll Falls. This hike is located below Kananaskis Village off Highway 40. A 4-kilometre loop follows the Troll Falls and Hay Meadows Trails. These multi-use trails are very wide, perfect for a group hike with extended family or friends. In winter, they’re open for cross- country skiing, snowshoeing, fat biking, and hiking. Access to the trails is from the Stoney Parking lot (the first parking lot on your right-hand side as you head up to Nakiska from Highway 40).
In summer and Fall, you can extend your hike to the Upper Falls on a relatively new trail that takes you to a beautiful set of two-tiered waterfalls. The trail junction is located a short distance back along the Troll Falls trail and is signed. (While it is possible to visit the waterfalls in winter, the trail is quite steep, so you need to wear ice cleats. I also wouldn’t do it with young children in tow.)
Trail highlights: The waterfalls are beautiful in any season, but I especially like them in the winter when they’re frozen. The Hay Meadows Trail is also a lovely spot for a picnic in summer or Fall where children can play beside the Kananaskis River.
4. Rawson Lake. This popular trail starts from the Upper Kananaskis Lake in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park off Highway 40. The hike is an 8-kilometre round trip and you’ll gain 300 metres of height. In winter, the trail offers a great introduction to snowshoeing because it is wide and easy to follow. It’s usually well packed down as well much of the time, so you should be fine wearing winter boots with ice cleats.
In summer and Fall, you can hike around the back of Rawson Lake where there are some large boulders. Your kids will have fun playing around here. In winter, stop when you reach the lake to avoid entering avalanche terrain.
Trail highlights: This is one of my favorite snowshoe outings for a winter wonderland experience to a remote location that’s still safe from avalanche risk.
5. Chester Lake. This hike is also located in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park but is accessed from the Smith- Dorrien/Spray Lakes Trail. From Calgary, it’s usually easiest to drive south on Highway 40 before turning on to the rough gravel road heading north toward Canmore. Alternately, if you’re spending the weekend in Canmore, head south from here, driving past the Nordic Centre.
Chester Lake is an easy family hike in summer and Fall for families with school-aged children with 8.6 kilometres of distance round trip and 300 metres of height gain. Much of the hike follows a wide gravel road that is simple to follow and is great for group outings. In winter, this is a more ‘advanced’ trip and the snowshoe trail feels steep. In previous years, my family has brought a sled for the return trip down from the lake, and my husband guided the sled in front of him with a rope (helmets are highly recommended).
If visiting the lake in winter, use the snowshoe trail (not the wider ski trail). Snowshoes are highly recommended/necessary, and you should not hike any farther than the lake or you will enter avalanche terrain.
Trail highlights: In winter, I find this to be the most beautiful snowshoe hike in Kananaskis on a clear day.
6. Bow Valley Provincial Park Loop. This easy loop circles around the Bow Valley Campground off the Trans-Canada Hwy and Hwy 1X. A loop of 3 to 9 kilometres can be completed depending on how many trails you join together. My family usually parks at the Middle Lake Day-Use Area (where there’s a winter gate) and we hike the Elk Flats Trail to the group campground (where there’s a playground). From there, we hike to the Many Springs Trail and follow the short 1.6-kilometre loop. From there, we hike down to the river for another rest break where there’s picnic tables. The Bow River Trail continues from there and connects to the Moraine Trail for a total of 6.5 kilometres. (If you still want more, you can hike around Middle Lake for another 2.2 kilometres.)
Trail highlights: There is very little height gain on this loop other than the occasional short climb on the Elk Flats and Moraine Trails. The loop is easy to hike year- round and my family especially enjoys this hike in the Spring before the campground opens for the season. The paved roads are also great to bike when the campground is closed.
7. Jura Creek. This hike is an adventure for families who don’t need signs or official trails. Start from a large parking lot off Highway 1A east of the hamlet of Exshaw (the trailhead shows up on Google Maps). Begin your hike by following random trails from the parking lot until you reach a rocky dry creek (less than 15 minutes away). Drop down into the creek and continue to a canyon entrance. Here’s where the fun begins as you spend the next half-hour exploring the narrow canyon, filled with ice in winter.
This is a glorious ice adventure in winter. Prepare to wear ice cleats in winter. The hike is short (a couple of kilometres at most to the end of the canyon). Hike as far as you want before returning. The canyon is the highlight and it’s at the beginning of the creek.
Trail highlights: Your kids will have a blast exploring the ice-filled canyon. Gather a group of friends for this one and head out for a half-day adventure.
8. Grotto Canyon. Continue farther along Highway 1A toward Canmore and you’ll come to the next canyon that’s fun to explore. The hike is 4.2 kilometres return and there is minimal height gain from the Grotto Pond Day-Use Area. In winter, this is one of the best ice hikes as the canyon floor freezes into a giant slab of frozen slippery fun! There are two beautiful waterfalls that make a good turnaround point. Ice cleats are required.
Trail highlights: This is one of my family’s favorite winter hikes for ice exploring and the frozen waterfalls are gorgeous! Regardless of the season, it’s an easy hike and if you look carefully, you can search for Pictographs on the canyon walls near the waterfalls.
9. Heart Creek. This family-favorite is a great hike year-round if you’re prepared with ice cleats for the winter months. It’s blessedly short at 4.2 kilometres return and easily located right off the Trans-Canada Hwy. There is little height gain and children enjoy the bridge crossings over the creek. Look for rock climbers above you during the summer.
Trail highlights: Children enjoy this hike and it’s a great one for preschoolers or young school-aged children as long as you’re ready to offer a hand of support at the bridge crossings.
10. Grassi Lakes. This is everybody’s favorite summer family hike, but it’s easily enjoyed year-round if you take the ‘easy trail’ that bypasses the waterfall on a wide gravel road up to the first lake. The easy trail is stroller-friendly if you have big wheels and also great if you have a sled during snowy months. The trailhead is located outside Canmore on the way to the Nordic Centre. The trail is approximately 4 kilometres return and most people hike down on the easy trail (even if taking the harder trail on the way up). Both trails start from the same parking lot. Height gain is 244 metres, so make sure you bring ice cleats if hiking in the winter.
Trail highlights: The waterfall is gorgeous in the summer season if you follow the harder trail. The lakes look like they’ve been colored with blue or green Kool- Aid and you’ll be captivated by their beauty. In winter, this is a great hike for some fresh air on an easy wide trail that’s straight forward to follow. Snowshoes are generally not needed unless it recently snowed.
As a fun family goal, try to hike at least three to five of these trails over the winter months and then visit another few next summer or Fall. Then choose a few that you’ll visit in both seasons to see how they compare. (You’ll find that each trail is quite different with a unique flavor, depending on the season you visit.)
For Kananaskis Trail reports, visit albertaparks.ca/parks/kananaskis/kananaskis-country/advisories-public-safety/trail-reports.
Other recommended resources:
AllTrails - Trail information and user-based trail reports (download the app to your phone or consult the website before hiking).
Family Walks and Hikes in the Canadian Rockies, Volumes 1 and 2, by Andrew Nugara (available to purchase at local bookstores).
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.
Calgary’s Child Magazine © 2021 Calgary’s Child