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How to Have a Great White Winter in the Great White North

As summer winds to an end, many hikers, campers, and outdoor enthusiasts alike slowly start to change their plans. Mountains are no longer places that are welcoming with blossoming alpine meadows, running water, refreshing waterfalls, and novelty snow on the trails. Don’t fret! The greatest thing about the summer ending is the beautiful colors that pop in the autumn and the serene quiet of freshly fallen snow in winter… and let’s face it, there are way less people on the trails in the winter! It’s a perfect time to find solace in nature away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist season. Some of the busiest areas in the Canadian Rockies are completely silent and present so differently in the winter—they are once in a lifetime views!

Photo by Alyse Huynh

A true Canadian stereotype is how frigidly cold it is in the winter, and there is a reason that this holds true. Temperatures can get down to -25℃ or colder in the Rocky Mountains, but it is only then that the rivers, lakes, and other gorgeous water features are truly frozen over. One of my favorite spots to go to is actually a popular destination during the rest of the year. Only about a 20-minute drive from the town of Jasper south on the Icefields Parkway (AB-HWY 93), Athabasca Falls in Jasper National Park is the highest-volume waterfall in the Canadian Rockies and boasts a great boardwalk and paved path that let’s people of all abilities and ages access the great viewpoints. As you step onto the trail, you see the expanse of the river above the falls rushing to the drop-off only a few meters away in spring, summer, and fall. In the winter, however, facing directly east at the first viewpoint, you stand to see Mt. Kerkeslin covered in snow behind the frozen falls! As you continue down the path, you start to head to the area below the waterfalls.

In the winter, my favorite piece of gear for any hike are my microspikes! I usually use YakTraks because I’ve come to love the spiral design and the extra secure grip they offer. You will definitely need good grip, because the winter season means ice everywhere! Even though the trail is paved, the expected freezing and melting packs the ice over top of it. Making it down the path is a little treacherous, and if you’re lucky you will catch the river completely frozen over. This extremely rare occurrence means you can walk through the canyon, up to the mouth of the usually inaccessible waterfall, and see if from a completely different viewpoint. A tip is to visit in the coldest months—January and February—but even then, the last two winters the Athabasca River didn’t even fully freeze over; trust me, I checked! I have been chasing this (frozen) waterfall for three years now. I was completely alone when I visited in January of 2017. Something struck me differently about this amazing destination being so still. It looked almost like it was frozen in time, but only for a quick moment in time.

Photo by Alyse Huynh

Another beautiful winter sight to see in Alberta demands extreme cold as well. Again, I’m talking -25 Celsius or more! In all my time exploring the mountains in the winter, I still have not been able to make it to this lake at the right time, with the right conditions to capture it’s unique beauty. Abraham Lake is outside the northern end of Banff National Park. It’s on Crown Land (think Bureau of Land Management for comparison in the USA) off of the David Thompson Highway just bordering the area of the Icefields Parkway called the Saskatchewan River Crossing. One of my top places to camp in the summer turns into a desolate wind tunnel during the off-season. But what’s so special about Abraham Lake is that in the winter there are the frozen bubbles underneath the surface. Again, just like catching the frozen Athabasca Falls, you need to be diligent to catch a good view of the bubbles. Fresh snow, wind over the lake, and cracked or melting ice are all obstacles that would hinder your view.

I love telling the history of Abraham Lake because so many people have no idea that this beautiful and expansive mountain lake is actually a man-made body of water. It still has glacial dust suspended in the water and presents as a glacial run-off lake, but it was actually a project by a power company in relation to the Bighorn Dam just a few kilometers away. The bubbles aforementioned are the remnants of methane gas in the water from the project. Maybe you’ll be luckier than me and catch a glimpse of these elusive bubbles when you visit, and make sure to bring your skates! Even your own Hello Ranger international ambassador has not been able to skate on the ice bubbles, yet!

Photo courtesy of Alyse Huynh

Finally, a hike that is near and dear to my ice-cold heart: the trek to Rawson Lake in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park (Kananaskis Country) is one that I have actually only ever done in the winter! For some odd reason, I just never make it there during the summer months, but all the better because the trail is closed due to bear activity more often than not in July and August. Kananaskis is an area just outside of the main entrance to Banff National Park, and in the winter, the highway past the provincial park in this area is closed because it’s elevation is too high to be maintained! The roads are not for the faint of heart getting to the trailhead, but again, a hugely popular mountain destination in the summer transforms into a peaceful setting in the winter—definitely something you can’t miss if you ever want to brave the Canadian winters.

The trail starts at the Upper Kananaskis Lake loop trail, and about a quarter of the way around the lake, you take the left fork and start up switchbacks. The hike itself is not extremely exciting because you are in the forest for most of the way, but once you hit the end, you get amazing views of Rawson Lake blanketed in snow, and might even see snow blowing off the top of Mount Sarrail in the backdrop. See for yourself!

Winter seems to be everyone’s least favorite time of year, but with summer coming to close and a pandemic raging our world, nature can always serve as an escape from our everyday woes, even in the frigid cold. From frozen falls, ice bubbles, to snow-covered lakes and mountain tops, the Canadian Rockies host a huge variety of amazingly stunning winter landscapes. Gear up with a jacket, snowpants, mittens, a touque (or beanie), and some microspikes, and you’re set to start exploring the Great White North!

Header photo by Alyse Huynh

As the first international ambassador for Hello Ranger, Alyse Huynh looks forward to sharing her experiences as an out-of-country visitor to U.S. national parks, preserves, and monuments. Her trips are never planned or organized, so along with her experiences hiking, she hosts a podcast that is essentially a “what not to do” guide to travel.

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