Snowshoeing in Kootenay NP

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.1Getting 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.2 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. 3Glistening 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.4Ochre 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. 5Ready 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. 7Making 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.8Negotiating 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.9Overall, 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.

More info:

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

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Bankhead – coal, trains & amazing views

Bankhead is an old, abandoned coal mining town just out of Banff on the road to Lake Minnewanka. I had know it was there and this week, finally got around to visiting. It’s still very smoky here in Banff due to the wildfires in BC so the views of Rundle, Cascade and the surrounding mountains were limited but it was a great visit all the same. Lower Bankhead is where the industrial area of town was while the residential area was located in Upper Bankhead.

From the Lower Bankhead carpark you descend some stairs to the entrance of the mining shafts that went into Cascade mountain, there were 3, the other 2 being further up the mountain. The entrance was covered when the mine closed in 1922 so you can’t really see where it was but an information board, (these are dotted around everywhere) explains it all for you. 

First you pass the old Lamp House where the miners would collect and store their lamps. If a lamp was missing at the end of the day, there would be a search party sent out for that miner. Following the coal path you pass other structures, machinery, piles of coal deposits and building foundations. Most of the buildings were wooden so only the foundations remain but they looked absolutely huge. The town was bigger than Banff itself in its heyday. The views of Cascade mountain are pretty good from Bankhead, There is so much more coal in the mountain but because it’s in the National Park it’s protected. Some of the concrete building such as the Briquette building are still intact in parts. The compressed air locomotive was used to haul the coal deposits out of the mines. 

The trail is a 1km interpretive loop with adjoining trails that venture off to Cascade Ponds and the lakes. You can find more information about the town, the mine and the other mining towns in the Bow Valley at Ghosttowns.com.

We also went for a stroll around Cascade Ponds, a picnic area at the base of Cascade Mountain. A pretty walk around the ponds gives you stunning views and the water is a pretty green hue due to the weeds, apparently people do swim in there but it was too cold for me. 

Cave and Basin Historic Site and Upper Banff Springs – relaxation and history in the Rockies.

Cave and Basin Historic Site

During our first whole weekend off in a while, Fergus and I decided to play tourists, learn some history and have a soak in the hot pools on Sulphur Mountain (which we can see from our house).

Sulphur Mountain is very important in Banff’s history. During the construction of the railway through the Rockies in 1883, 3 railroad workers rediscouvered the mineral hot springs on the slopes of Sulphur Mountain (others including the First Nations people had previously discovered the springs) and decided to commercialise the area. They built a hut near the springs and laid claim to the area. Later the government reserved an area of 10 miles around the site and that was the birth of Canada’s National parks system.

Soon after the Banff Springs hotel was built and the tourists followed…..

Visiting The Cave and Basin Historic Site was really interesting, first we climbed up to the area behind the main building where there was a boardwalk leading up to the original spring where the hut was built all those years ago. Walking through the forest, past hot steaming rocks and streams full of egg smelling Sulphur deposits was fascinating and makes you realise what an important find this was for the area. ​

We got in for free since we had a 12 month parks pass (yippee) and read a bit of history about the springs before making our way into the cave itself. 

The cave isn’t huge, it’s one small cavern with a pool at its base. There is a small opening in the ceiling of the cave that lets the sunlight through. The Banff snail lives here, it’s the only place in the world this 3-5mm snail lives so the area is of course, protected. Back in the museum we watched a short movie about Canada’s national parks and looked at the displays before heading outside to the other hot pool. This one was built later in 1887 as a bathhouse.The pools were closed and opened many times before finally closing in 1992 and the Banff Upper Hot Springs was opened.

Banff Upper Hot Springs

The hot pool you are allowed to swim in is just up the hill from the Banff Gondola on the East facing slope of Sulphur Mountain looking over to Rundle and over Banff and Tunnel Mountain. Built in 1932, the mineral water at Banff Upper Hot Springs is a balmy 40 degrees and it’s so relaxing after being in the cold air. The day we went the pool wasn’t that busy which was good. The facilities are nice and I think we might get a 10 day pass to use during the ski season when our muscles will be hurting.