In Early December I was lucky enough to be invited on a Snowshoeing FAM tour with Discover Banff Tours.
Discover Banff Tours is one of the most well-known tour operators in Banff and provide lots of exciting tours in and around Banff National Park. Starting in 1998, they specialise in small, personalised groups run by professional, local guides who have a passion for Banff and the National Park.
They are also involved in the Banff Ambassador Program, so almost every young traveller who comes to Banff to work, goes on their Discover Banff and its Wildlife tour when they first arrive as part of the programme.
We were collected from the town lot behind the Mount Royal Hotel at 9:30am and got into a full minibus that left for Kootenay along with a second bus full of local hotel workers. En route we were introduced to our guides, Anick and Nick, who gave us an overview of the tour, a brief history of the snowshoe, the fur trade in Canada and a brief explanation of the weather and geography of Kootenay National Park.
It was all very interesting, and I learnt a fair bit I will be able to pass onto our guests while selling this tour.
After arriving at the Paint Pots trail entrance, we clambered out of the busses and were instructed on how to put on the snowshoes that were delegated out to each of us. They are basically just a strong, wide, plastic base with 3 straps that hold your foot in and spikes on the bottom under your toes for grip on the snow. Quite odd once you put them on but after a few steps you get used to them.Getting geared up at the trail head.
We took off in 2 groups and followed each other down the trail for about 20 metres then turned off into the forest where we meandered around and over fallen trees, up and down small mounds of snow and out to the clearing of the Vermillion River. The sun was low but bright against the white fluffy snow surrounding us and it felt warm on our faces as we came out onto the clearing. There, we were given a bit more history about the Paint Pots and a chance to walk around freely in the deep snow. Learning about Kootenay National Park.
Crossing the large, wooden bridge was a bit of a challenge, climbing up and down stairs in snowshoes is no easy fete I can tell you! The Kootenay River that starts high up in the surrounding mountain passes, flows down to the US, back up into Canada and finally out to the Pacific Ocean was semi-frozen and where it had frozen, small multi-levelled waterfalls appeared making the flow even more interesting, especially as it glistened in the late morning sunlight. Glistening Keeoenay River in the morning sunlight.
After splitting into smaller groups, we ambled off into the Pine forest on the opposite side of the river where Anick stopped to explain the distinct types of Pine trees in the thicket we were walking through, after about 5 minutes walking at a fast pace we hit upon a large, flat clearing containing relics from the Ochre mining days. Old, rusted pipes and scoops litter the ground amongst the snowy mounds that in Summer are dark red Ochre mounds that were once destined for Calgary to be made into a pigment base for paint.Ochre deposits under the snow.
We trudged up the trail towards the Paint Pots site and on the way up we found a small snow-covered hill to the right of the trail, our guides thought it would be a great idea to have a race from the top back to the trail and test out our running style in snowshoes. It was pretty funny, although most participants only managed a fast walk instead of a full-on run. Ready to hurtle themselves down the snowbank.
Once at the Paint Pots we had a look around and learnt more about the Ochre and how they collected it for. I think this site is better visited in the Summer, so you can actually see the colours of the different pools as well as the red Ochre on the ground, in the Winter, it’s all covered in snow, so you cannot appreciate how different this spot is to the rest of the park. It’s still beautiful all the same.
We wandered out of the clearing and back into the woods again, this time heading up above the pots on a trail through the tall Pine forest. We stopped briefly to observe a large tree favourited by passing Bears who had been scratching at it. There were huge claw marks all over it, the highest one being about a foot taller than me. Standing there I was glad it was Winter and the Bears in the area had already gone off to hibernate…hopefully.
We met up with the remainder of the group for a well-earned rest in a sloped clearing covered in deep snow. Our guides set up their small camping stoves to heat up the Maple Taffy and handed out hot chocolates to keep our hands warm as we waited in anticipation for out sweet treats. Maple Taffy is made by boiling Maple SAP to 112 degrees and then pouring it onto the cold snow where it sets. A popsicle stick is then rested on the Taffy as it sets then rolled around the stick to create a Maple lolly-pop.
This traditional dessert’s origins lie in Quebec, Eastern Ontario, New Brunswick, Manitoba and New England. Making traditional Maple Taffy.
While most of the group rested and indulged in hot drinks and Taffy, some tried the ‘crazy carpets’. Basically, pieces of thick plastic you ride down the slope on, head first! People would go to the top, lie on the crazy carpet and zoom down the hill at high speeds, either crashing into the snowbanks in a burst of powder or making it all the way to the end and stopping softly as the slope flattened out.
After packing up all the gear and putting our snowshoes back on the whole group made their way back into the forest to head back to the trail head. This was probably the most technical park of the hike, as we were climbing over fallen trees, crossing small semi frozen creeks and negotiating sticks and branches that were blocking the trail. A few people stumbled as the backs of their shoes got stuck between tree branches, this included me, and I understood why snowshoeing burns 400 calories per hour after this short jaunt through the woods.Negotiating fallen trees, creeks and snowbanks in the woods.
We made our way easily through the clearing and over the bridge, again, with great difficulty, and meandered, in small groups, back to the vans where we parted ways with our shoes and jumped in for the 45-minute journey back to Banff.Overall, I’d give this tour a 6 out of 10. The guides were interesting, knowledgeable and friendly and made sure everyone was coping with the pace. The walk itself was both relaxing and challenging, we had a lot of different terrain to walk on which kept things interesting and the weather was excellent. I do however prefer this particular walk in the Summer due to the Paint Pots being a place where the colours of the ponds and the ground is the main attraction. In winter all that is covered in snow, so you cannot appreciate it.
Who: Discover Banff Tours
Where: Kootenay National Park
What: Hotel Pick up & Drop off, Snowshoes & hiking poles, refreshments, crazy carpet ride
Difficulty: 3km, minimal elevation gain
Duration: 4 hours
Cost: $74 Adults / $42 Children