Banff
Mount Norquay

Make tracks with skinny skis and snowshoes in Banff National Park

Loops and trails get you off the beaten path

While snowshoeing near Castle Mountain, we tried to determine the different tracks in the snow. The markings from everything, including moose, elk, deer, wolf, coyote, rabbit and mice can be seen across the snowscape.
Photo by Joanne Elves

JOANNE ELVES

BANFF, ALTA. - In the backcountry, beyond the highway, beyond the resorts and beyond where most people will trek is a place of solitude and silence and some of the best untracked snow in the west. To find this wonderful place takes a little extra effort, but it is worth it. All it takes to get there is either a skinny set of skis or a pair of snowshoes.

If you're new to cross country skiing, start with the stride and glide of the classic technique or better yet, take a quick lesson from people in the know.

Cascade Fire Road

We recently spent a day with Kristi Beetch, who is a guide from White Mountain Adventures of Banff, so that we could dust off our backcountry skills.  

There are a few trails around Banff that are track set, easy and scenic to try as your first outing. Beetch took us to the Cascade Fire Road near Lake Minnewanka for a quick lesson on an easy out and back trail. Cascade Fire Road is accessed from the parking lot at the Lake Minnewanka dam. From there the road rolls easily through the forest beside trickling creeks and open meadows.

Kristi Beetch of White Mountain Adventure leads skiers on the Cascade Fire Road.
Photo by Joanne Elves

It’s silent except for the noise of your skis sliding on the track and the squeak of your pole as it stabs the snow. The trickle of a creek submerged under a thin layer of ice or the call of a poodle-sized raven will suddenly grab your attention - something you don’t hear under a chairlift.

The elevation gradually climbs, rolling along giving you opportunity to get used to the rhythm of the stride and glide, stride and glide of cross country skiing. When you do make it flow, it makes the journey speed along, and it’s not long before you discover that you are breathing hard and are either dressed right or overdressed for the occasion. Make sure you dress in layers and bring a backpack to stuff your extra layers into.

A short downhill section brings you to the wooden bridge across Cascade River, and believe it or not, six or so kilometres are already under your skis. It's a perfect place to turn around or, you have the opportunity to continue to the end of the trail, which would make it an adventurous 28-km adventure. On the way back, that long slow hill instantly turns into a long fast blast. 

Spray River Loop

Eager to introduce the family to a “new sport” we rented skis from SNOWTIPS-BacTrax in Banff and took to the Spray River Loop accessed from the parking lot behind the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Interestingly, the rental for all of us matched the cost of one adult lift ticket at a ski resort.

Love snowshoeing? How bout hitting the spa? Read our SnowSeekers story about making the perfect weekend getaway to Banff!

The adrenalin-seeker teenager thought cross-country skiing would be boring without a lift to take him to the steep and deep pow but after a few embarrassing spills going down gentle slopes he quickly realized there is a skill involved and is now determined to master the sport. A set of telemark skis will have him trekking higher into the backcountry to places like Parkers Ridge or the crest of Healy Pass to carve out the turns in serious powder. Because really, there is no powder as sweet as the powder you climbed higher for.

Spray River Loop follows along the river for about six kilometres. A picnic table across the bridge is the perfect place to snap a few photos and enjoy a lunch before the return portion that eventually follows the golf course finishing at the bottom of an ice clad Bow Falls. There are some tricky steep sections but hey, that adds to the adventure. We took our time and finished the 11-km loop in less than three hours. Even though cross- country gear is lightweight, we had a car waiting at the falls so that no one had to carry it up to the trailhead.

Breaking trail in snowshoes

Another great way to explore the backcountry is on snowshoes. But, let’s get one thing straight about snowshoeing. You don't need to follow a path. Go on, meander the meadows in all directions. The purpose of the snowshoe is to keep you floating on top the snowpack so marching along a trodden path is unnecessary.

Spread out and have fun. Look for footprints in the snow and see if you can guess what creature was there before you. We trekked a meadow under Castle Mountain and found prints from moose, deer, mice and lots of rabbits. Check out White Mountain Adventures for guided snowshoe hikes. They supply the guide, the snowshoes and hot chocolate; the snow gods provide the stunning playground.

Check the Banff Lake Louise webpage for trails and Parks Canada for trail conditions in Banff National Park.

Other than being a great cardio workout, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are inexpensive, something you can enjoy in a group and with all ages. But as with all backcountry adventures, don't forget about your safety. Many trails head into avalanche zones. Be prepared and check for  the Canadian Avalanche Centre bulletins because every day spent in the backcountry should be followed by epic stories of fresh tracks, wild trails and hilarious newbie falls.

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The picnic table alongside Spray River is a great chance to refuel before turning back to Banff.
Photo by Joanne Elves

If you want to stay connected to nature at the end of your mountain adventure days, the Juniper Hotel & Bistro is the place to stay. With unrivalled views and genuine guest service, it's still close to town but far enough away that you'll feel like you're really getting away from it all. Find out more by visiting Juniper's website

For more stories and detail on Banff check out our SnowSeekers' destination page.

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