The bells hanging above the door jingled, as my friend Josh and I pushed our way into the office of Rockies Heli Tours, pulling the door behind us as quickly as we could. Shivering from the brisk wind outdoors, we managed to string some words together without our teeth chattering too much: “How’s the weather shaping up today?” Without even flinching, one of the helicopter pilots responded, “It feels nice today.” We looked at each other, and almost in unison, responded, “We’ll go layer up.”
And so our winter outdoor adventure tour of Alberta began. Being two Southern California boys, we had come to Alberta (less than a three-hour flight from Los Angeles to Calgary) to experience the Great White North, though “Great White Freezing North” may have been a more appropriate name since Alberta was in the midst of a cold snap, followed by its first blizzard of the year. But that was part of the thrill of the trip. We had come to snowboard and ski until we couldn’t walk anymore, but what we found, is that there are some surprisingly thrilling winter outdoor adventures in Alberta that you can’t just find anywhere.
Heli-Hiking and Snowshoeing
While the end of November had us tigthening our hiking shoes, this time of year will see you strapping on snowshoes with Rockies Heli Tours in Kananaskis. The helicopter tour began by hovering over waterfalls, craggy cliffs, snow-capped mountains, lush wilderness, and the pristine Bow River (pristine because of the runoff of nearby Bow Glacier). After about a half-hour up in the air, we found a landing strip atop a craggy cliff overlooking the Bow River. Meandering along the edges of the cliff brought us down to the shoreline of the river (which I did not cannonball into, even if the thought crossed my mind), where we were pleasantly greeted with a glass of champagne and chocolate truffles.
Helicopter tours with Rockies Heli Tours begins at $189 for the basic 20-minute tour of Kananaskis. If you want to add a picnic or wilderness stop, that’ll cost a little extra. The more adventurous may instead go for heli-snowshoeing in the winter, or during the warmer months, heli-rafting, heli-yoga, heli-horseback, or even, a heli-wedding, so you can have your cake and eat it too (for $650 per couple and $399 per person).
From Kananaskis, it was time to head deeper into the Canadian Rockies toward Banff, but not before a stop in Canmore to pick up our ride for the day: a sled and a few furry four-legged friends. After arriving at Snowy Owl’s office in Canmore, that’s the last time we would see cell phone service for hours, as we hopped onto a shuttle and weaved our way deep into the Canadian Rockies. The only signs of life: a snowkiter on a frozen lake, a crackling fire pit, and a group of sled dogs ready to ride.
It wasn’t until our guide, Hiro (if there’s anyone I want to be stuck out in the wilderness with, it’s someone named “Hiro”), started explaining how to turn and break that I realized that I wouldn’t be sitting cozy in a sled sipping on a hot toddy with Jack Frost nipping at my nose. Oh no, I was going to be driving!
With one loud proclamation, “HIKE,” we were off, weaving through the woods and past frozen lakes, making it all seem so very Narnia-like. I cruised on the downhill with the wind blowing through my hair and jumped off the sled on the uphill, running alongside my group of sled dogs. After the 30- to 40-minute loop, we ended up back where we started, sitting around the fire pit with the other guest mushers, regaling each other with stories while we sipped on hot chocolate and nommed on brownies.
The price for the two-hour Powder Hound Express starts at $153 for adults, $89 for children 6-9 years old, and $33 for children 2-5 years old.
Ice Canyon Walk
Having seen the Grand Canyon a couple times, there’s nothing that quite compares to it. But while Johnston Canyon (located near Banff) is no Grand Canyon, it features one of the most unique experiences in Canada. The canyon itself was originally formed thousands of years ago as the result of erosion. Johnston Creek, a tributary of the Bow River, cuts through the limestone rocks of the canyon, which in turn, has created waterfalls, tunnels, and pools (though not the kind of pool you’ll be swimming in).
One of the most popular hikes in Southern Alberta, Johnston Canyon is visited by well-versed tour guides each day with Discover Banff Tours. After being outfitted with ice cleats (and hiking poles for those who request them), visitors are taken on a four-hour trek (couple miles round-trip with only a little elevation change) of the canyon, over bridges, beneath rocky overpasses, through canyons, and passed waterfalls. The further into winter it gets, the more the sheer rock canyon turns into a sheer ice canyon. While we were there, we could even see water rushing beneath the transparent ice canyon walls.
Tours are at 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. with a cost of $64 for adults and $40 for children (minimum age of 8). For a more unique take, do the two and a half hour night tour, where guests are equipped with headlamps.
While destinations like Banff and Lake Louise have put Alberta on the map as a ski destination, you may be surprised to find some of the things you can do in Alberta off the slope, whether you’re an avid skier or not. Beyond heli-snowshoeing, dog sledding, and ice canyon hiking, the list of winter adventures goes on, to include things like snowmobiling, ice climbing, cross-country skiing, and even bobsledding at WinSport Canada Olympic Park.
What’s your favorite thing to do off the slopes in the winter?