Summer in Calgary is so short! While the temptation is always there to spend your days indoors, we live right at the foot of the most beautiful mountain range in North America – the Rockies. No matter what your family’s age and stage, there are hikes in the mountains which will make memories and inspire a love of the outdoors to last a lifetime. Pack a lunch and get out there!
FAMILY-FRIENDLY FIRST HIKES
Hailstone Butte Lookout, Kananaskis
This is a beautiful hike in Southern Kananaskis where you’ll get to visit an active fire lookout site. The hike is short and sweet with a 3km return distance and 300m of height gain. The trail is steep, but you’ll be rewarded with great views from the top.
Drive south of Calgary on Highway 22, passing Black Diamond and Longview. Turn west on Highway 532, a gravel road that is generally not too rough. Driving time is about 90 minutes from south Calgary. Park at the top of the ‘hump’ where you’ll find the trailhead.
For a scenic drive home, you can continue driving over the hump and then turn north on Highway 940. This takes you to Highwood Junction where you can turn west on Highway 40, heading for Highwood Pass. Drive over the pass and return to Calgary via the Kananaskis Valley, past the Kananaskis Lakes and Kananaskis Village. Alternatively, if you live in south Calgary, from Highwood Junction turn east on Highway 541, which takes you to Longview.
Make sure you take time to stop for ice cream or treats in one of the small towns that you’ll pass on your way home or pack a lunch to enjoy at one of the day use areas you’ll pass. Depending on which route you take home, you can also add on another short hike. The hike to the Cat Creek Waterfall is a good choice if you take Highway 40 towards Highwood Pass. (2.6km return, 150m height gain.)
Sulphur Mountain, Banff National Park
Here’s where we say, “Yay for gondolas!” With the price of a gondola ticket, you can reach within 30m of the summit of Sulphur Mountain and introduce even your two year old to climbing mountains. The Sulphur Mountain Vista Trail is a 2km return hike on a very good boardwalk. Note that there are many sets of stairs, so this hike is not stroller-friendly. The hike is also very busy in summer, so my suggestion is to go mid-week or get an early start! Also, while adult tickets may seem steep, children ages five and under ride for free, and you can get one free child admission for each paying adult daily before 12pm. (Offer valid online only.)
For more information on hours and pricing, visit the Banff Gondola website.
Take it up a notch: You can hike to the top of Sulphur Mountain (without taking the gondola) in a 5.5km hike with 650m of height gain. Treat the kids to a ride down on the gondola afterwards (discounted rates apply for one-way rides.) The hiking trail is well switchbacked with a nice grade the entire time.
FAVORITE MOUNTAIN PICNIC PLACES
Wedge Pond, Kananaskis.
Located just beyond Kananaskis Village on Highway 40, this small pond is great for children who enjoy wading or playing in water. While you likely won’t go swimming in this cold pond, you can still spread a blanket out by the lakeshore while the kids play and snack on the delicious food you’ve packed. You’ll also find a few picnic tables and fire pits here, along with a short walking trail around the pond.
For families who enjoy biking, you can also access Wedge Pond via the paved Bill Milne Bike Trail. I recommend starting at the Kovach Day-Use Area below Kananaskis Village and biking to Wedge Pond for your picnic. It will be mostly flat or downhill on the way back, so it’s an easy return ride after playing at the pond. The total distance between the two day-use areas is 17 km return. Note: If this distance is too far for your family to bike, an adult could bike back for the vehicle while you play at the pond.
Buller Mountain Day-Use Area, Spray Valley, Kananaskis.
I only just discovered this great Day-Use area in Spray Valley Provincial Park this summer. You’ll find picnic tables, fire pits, and a lovely pond in this secluded location that is rarely crowded or busy. Popular activities in the area include easy family-friendly mountain biking from the Mount Shark Day-Use Area to Watridge Lake (3.7km one way on an old gravel road), visiting Mount Engadine Lodge for afternoon tea (no reservations required), or hiking to Chester Lake (4.6km one way).
Johnson Lake, Banff.
The sister to Quarry Lake, this is Banff’s local town beach. Bring your swimsuits, a blanket, and sand toys. There are a few picnic tables on-site but no fire pits. As with Quarry Lake, wear your swimsuits under your clothing or you will be changing in the bathrooms. While at Johnson Lake, enjoy a peaceful paddle (bring your own boat or inflatable raft) or hike around the lakeshore in a 3.5km loop. Families who enjoy mountain biking will also find the trailhead for the intermediate Water Tower Trail here. The trail begins past the bridge on the right side of the lake. Follow the old road up to the water tower and continue on the single-track trail from there. It’s best done as an out-and-back ride. The trail is roughly a 6km return if you stop at the high point above Cascade Ponds.
Sundance Canyon, Banff.
The paved Sundance Trail leads to a picnic site at the entrance to Sundance Canyon. There are bathrooms and picnic tables. The trail is 3.9km one way to the picnic area and entrance to the Sundance Canyon Loop (1.6km loop on a moderate trail, which has stairs and a few spots where you’ll want to hold a hand if hiking with young kids). The first part of the trail is Chariot-friendly.
This trail is also great for families who enjoy biking. It’s an easy ride up to the picnic area. There are benches along the trail for resting, and you can watch as people canoe down the Bow River beside you.
HIKING SAFETY TIPS:
It’s highly recommended that you carry bear spray with you when you go hiking. I also suggest hiking in a group and making lots of noise.
Pack layers and be prepared for any kind of weather to blow in. You’ll also want to wear good sturdy footwear.
Research your hike before you go! Visit the Alberta Parks or Parks Canada website, check for trail closures, contact a visitor center, and download the route on a hiking app. There are also many great local guidebooks you can buy to get your family started with hiking.
Here’s to a summer of first summits and happy trails! Have fun, and maybe I’ll even meet you and your family on one of these great summits!
Tanya is a freelance writer and mom to a spunky 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. You can find her on Instagram @MountainMomYYC
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