Oh, Canada

Trails, Indians and bears keep kids engaged, learning


Kit Bernardi

Kid-tested travel - Banff National Park

 My husband, Bob, 5-year-old son, Will, and I focused on hiking while spending a week around Banff and Lake Louise in Banff National Park, a 90-minute drive from Calgary International Airport. Rent a car for access to the many trails, all marked in kilometers (1 kilometer equals .62 miles). In late fall, some trails close due to mountain weather, including snow. Daytime temperatures range from 30 to 60 degrees.


There are a wide variety of trails-from stroller- and wheelchair-accessible trails to those covering tough, rocky terrain-originating in the town of Banff and just a short drive away. The Tunnel Mountain trail, our favorite hike, has stunning Bow River Valley views. It takes 90 minutes to reach the summit of this moderately steep trail through pine forests. It's a workout for adults but not too strenuous for young kids. At every switchback, Will surveyed his climbing progress with panting pride.

Bring plenty of water, plus a fleece, hat and gloves; it's chilly on top. Wear sturdy shoes with ankle support so no one gets hurt on the trails' sprawling tree roots.

An easier hike is the amble around Cave and Basin National Historic Site, Banff's first hot springs. Discovered in 1883, it offers topographical variety and wildlife viewing. Will studied darting fish while I soaked up valley scenery. In the bathhouse complex, a tunnel leads to the cave's thermal pool, which interests kids more than the film on the park's founding.

At Banff's museums we learned about wildlife and native peoples. Housed in a Victorian railway station, Banff Park Museum's collections of insects and stuffed mountain animals date from the 1900s. Will was able to pet animal pelts in the kids' room.

We were guests of the Fairmont Banff Springs. Built by the Canadian Pacific Railroad, it is a massive 1888 castle-like hotel near the Spray River, where Will and his dad skipped stones. The public is welcome (reservations suggested) to bowl at the hotel's cozy four-lane, five-pin alley, where we spent several evenings when we weren't swimming in the hotel pool. On the 36-mile drive to Lake Louise, be sure to stop at Johnston Canyon off Bow Valley Parkway. The trail traffic is heavy, but it's worth fighting the crowds on this half-mile walk to the lower waterfall. Kids will have fun traversing the catwalk clinging to the canyon's edge.

Lake Louise

Will plunked rocks into turquoise Lake Louise chanting "Ho Rum Num Nah"-the Stoney Indian name meaning "Lake of the Little Fishes.' He learned this from Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Mountain Heritage guide Michael Vincent, who accompanied us on the easy 2.4-mile Lakeside Trail and captivated Will with explanations of surrounding glaciers, vegetation and animal tracks.

Fairmont guides are available for hire to conduct customized family hikes as well as for regularly scheduled half- and full-day mountain adventures. Most trails originate from the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, our host for this leg of the journey. Guided hike prices start at $49 Canadian for adults, $24 for kids-money well spent for the guide's educational interpretations of nature.

When the topic turned to grizzly bears, Will flexed his muscles and roared down the populated path. It was good practice for our more remote hikes, since guides recommend that hikers make lots of noise to let bears know that people are nearby. Since bears don't seek human encounters, they'll move on if they're aware of people's presence.

My favorite family romp was secluded Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park, 40 minutes west in British Columbia. The 3-mile, shoreline trail winds though towering pines backed by snowy peaks. Will liked spying animal tracks on the shore.

Don't miss the half-day hike to Lake Agnes and Little Beehive at 7,400 feet for an eagle's view of Lake Louise. Wear hiking boots, since there can be ice and snow on the upper, narrow trail. This 5-mile, relatively strenuous hike is not recommended for children under 8, so we hired a sitter for Will through the hotel concierge. Fairmont conducts background checks on its sitters, who are hotel employees.

This trip is for outdoorsy families seeking fresh air fun. You'll turn in early-and sleep like hibernating grizzlies.

Kit Bernardi is a travel writer and mom who lives in Oak Park.

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