Family Day Weekend on the Icefields Parkway

February, for such a short month, always seems hard so I’m thankful that the Family Day long weekend falls right in the middle of it for a little vacation.  I’m not the best at planning over-night outdoor winter adventures but luckily our friends had this one covered by booking the weekend at the Athabasca Falls Wilderness Hostel and so a winter road trip to Jasper was planned. Sometimes February is warm and spring like but this is a cold and snowy year which made a winter adventure up the Icefields Parkway the perfect way to embrace the arctic temperatures and avoid the temptation to spend three days huddled up at home.

Saturday

The hostel is located about 25 km south of Jasper on the Icefields Parkway, making it a bit of a drive from Calgary. Because of this we waited until Saturday morning to set off on our adventure and made a day of the 400 km drive. This gave me Friday night to pack up and meant that we didn’t have to rush to leave on Saturday. In fact, by the time we solved our frozen vehicle problems and finally hit the road it was close to 10 am.

The main highway as far as Lake Louise was in great shape but as expected the Icefields Parkway was a slightly different experience. The highway is definitely experiencing winter driving conditions (much more so than when we made the trip in March) so it was snow covered and bumpy. We convoyed up with our friends and it was nice to know what we weren’t out there on our own should something happen. While not deserted, the highway is pretty quiet in the winter which is what makes it awesome (the place can be a zoo in the summer) but also a little lonely.

Winter driving on the parkway

The weather was cold and cloudy so we drove without stopping to Saskatchewan River viewpoint (near the intersection with Hwy 11 – we actually stopped at a pullout called Howse Pass which had open washrooms and a cleared parking lot) where ate lunch and went for a short walk to the view point even though there weren’t any views. It was very brisk out and I was happy that we’d taken the time to gear up for even such a short adventure.

All bundled up

After our break we hopped back in our vehicles and drove to Sunwapta Falls. We stopped again for a short walk to see the first falls but I think everyone just wanted to get to the hostel so we didn’t linger long. The highway was actually the worst for the final few kilometres from Sunwapta to Athabasca Falls so we took out time navigating the ice. It was a long driving day – about 6.5 hours in total – so I think we were all ready to get out of the vehicles when we arrived at our destination

Of course there were sheep on the road – and right at a corner too

We arrived before check in so we hung out in the main kitchen/lounge cabin where it was warm before we were given the tour and how-to by the hostel manager and given the keys to our cabin. We had private rooms booked (there are two) so we settled in for a bit before heading back the kitchen for an early dinner. The kitchen is big but there was also a large group staying there so we were happy that we had made meals that required very little prep work. The lasagna was simply popped in the over and then we were able to hang out while it cooked. Everyone was hungry and even E ate a huge helping of lasagna.

We hung out a little bit after dinner and then it was time to attempt to get the little ones to sleep. It took a bit to get the kids to bed – our friend’s older kid was able to sleep in the cabin with the monitor but we ended up taking E back to the main building in his car seat to sleep so we could hang out while the adults played board games before heading to bed ourselves.

Sunday

I thought we’d be up super early but E surprised me by sleeping in until 8 am. Apparently he likes the hostel lifestyle! We eventually got dressed and headed to the kitchen for oatmeal and coffee. The thermometer read around -25 C so we weren’t in a huge hurry to get going on any outdoor adventures. We finally decided to start our day with a walk to Athabasca Falls so everyone bundled up and we headed out. It is about a 1 km walk from the hostel to the falls and apparently in the summer there is a path you can take but with all the snow we ended up just walking up the highway. It was pretty quiet and we kept well over on the shoulder but I would maybe skip the walk next time and just drive (even though it is so close). Once at the falls we did a short walk around before heading back to the hostel for lunch.

Checking out a very frozen Athabasca Falls

After lunch we left Jon and E in the warmth of the hostel and headed out for a cross-country ski. It is possible to ski almost right from the hostel by starting at Athabasca Falls and skiing along highway 93A so we drove back there after talking to a few other hostel guests who had been out skiing. It had warmed up to about -10C and was really nice for skiing. The road was skier trackset and I skied 4 km out and back to Leach Lake (for a total of 8 km). It is an easy gradual climb to the lake and then a gentle hill all the way back down.

After our ski we headed back to the hostel where E and Jon were just getting up from a nap (seriously, our kid slept awesome there). We all met up in the main building for a pre-dinner snack and drink while our pulled beef warmed up for dinner. We put the kids to bed around 8 pm and the adults followed soon after.

Monday

It was -35C when we woke up – so chilly! We packed up our gear and headed for breakfast with the plan to be on the road by 10 am (hostel check out time). Unfortunately, our Rover had been sitting in the lot since we arrived Saturday night and refused to start. With a lot of coaxing and a couple boosts we finally got it started and were ready to hit the road by 11 am.

With the chilly temps came beautiful blue skies and sunshine so we enjoyed finally seeing all the mountains that had been hidden on the drive up. We stopped briefly at Athabasca Glacier for a few photos:

The Athabasca Glacier

And then kept driving to Howse Pass for lunch again. This time we were able to take in the views (and they are worth the very short walk from the parking lot).

Views from Howse Pass lookout

We powered on home from there, arriving back at home around 5 pm.

Three days was definitely a nice break from the usual and it felt good to get out and do something. I wish we’d been able to squeeze one more day in – there were lots more activities I would have to loved to do including a trip into Jasper for some skating. While still do-able as a three day long weekend, it would be a perfect destination for a four day weekend.

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