Few people would say that they love the late autumn season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Personally, it is one of my favorite times of the year, and I always look forward to November in the Rockies! Read on for the day trips that get my family excited for late autumn fun year after year.
Visit a spooky cave for a Halloween-themed hike
From the Heart Creek parking lot, it is a short 2-kilometre walk (one way) to the Heart Creek Bunker, a small cave that was originally dug out of the mountain during the Cold War era to house important documents. Nothing was ever stored here, but the vault remains. It is colorfully decorated with spooky graffiti, befitting of a Halloween-themed hike (donned in costumes, if you dare!). Visit the All Trails website for directions, alltrails.com/trail/canada/alberta/heart-creek-bunker.
Also remember, as of this year, a Kananaskis Conservation Pass is required to visit any of the day-use areas in Kananaskis. You can purchase a day pass or a yearly pass online or at a Visitor Centre.
It doesn’t matter if the leaves have fallen off the trees or if it’s a cold and gloomy November day because waterfalls are spectacular to enjoy during any season!
Two of my family’s favorite waterfalls are easy to reach and are perfect for a half-day afternoon outing (so you can still sleep in after a busy week of school and work):
Troll Falls - This trail is closed at the time of writing, but hopefully it will open again by late October. Start at the Stoney parking lot below Kananaskis Village where it’s a short 3-kilometre round trip walk to reach the beautiful Troll Falls on a wide easy trail. You can also continue to the Upper Falls in another kilometre (return). The trail to the Upper Falls is steeper, but there are handrails, and you’ll get the opportunity to walk underneath the falls.
Cat Creek Falls - This is a short 2-kilometre return hike to a scenic waterfall. You’ll spend longer getting to the trailhead by vehicle than you will hiking, but my family likes to make a day trip out of it with a scenic driving loop over Highwood Pass on Highway 40 on the way out, returning via Longview on Highway 541. (Note: Access to this trail closes on December 1, 2021.)
Plan a picnic or bring some hot dogs and marshmallows for a wiener roast at any of the nearby day-use areas. Sites that have had fire pits include the Cat Creek Day-Use Area, Fitzsimmons Creek Day-Use, and Lantern Creek Day-Use Area. (It’s always best to check directly with Alberta Parks before heading out.)
Visit the Alberta Parks website or the All Trails website for directions for both hikes. Trail reports can also be found through Alberta Parks to see if Troll Falls is accessible again.
Hike a canyon
Canyons are fun to explore any time of the year, and they do not require vibrant green trees or perfect sunny weather.
Two of my family’s favorites in Kananaskis are described here, along with everybody’s favorite canyon in Banff. Each hike is easily done in an afternoon, should you wish to relax Saturday or Sunday morning before heading out:
Grotto Canyon - This easy hike is 4 kilometres round trip to the double waterfalls. You can hike farther, but my family usually turns around after the canyon opens past the waterfalls. Park at the Grotto Mountain Day-Use Area off Highway 1A near Canmore.
Jura Creek - Technically, this hike is 7 kilometres round trip, but everything interesting is seen in the first couple of kilometres. Follow the dry creek bed to the canyon, and then enjoy a short section of tight narrow twists and turns in one of the best canyons near Calgary. The fun ends shortly, that’s where my family usually turns around. Park at the Jura Creek parking lot off Highway 1A near Exshaw. (All Trails is your best resource here.)
Johnston Canyon - Everybody loves the hike to the Lower and Upper Falls at Johnston Canyon in Banff. The highway is fully open again, so you can approach the parking lot from either Banff or Castle Junction. The return hike is only 5 kilometres, and it’s a great adventure in late fall when the trail is quiet and peaceful.
For information on each hike along with trail reports, visit the Alberta Parks or Parks Canada website.
Play tourist for a day in Banff
Plan a day trip to Banff with a ride on the gondola, a walk along the river, or a short hike up Tunnel Mountain. The town is quieter in October and November, making it an excellent place to take your family! My family often plans half-day autumn trips to Banff with a relaxed start, lunch at Tim Hortons in the Bus Depot, and then a short hike. It’s a great way to plan a stress-free day in the mountains.
And for families looking for a great stroller hike, you can walk to the entrance of Sundance Canyon on a beautiful, paved trail that starts from the Cave and Basin Historic Site. The trail follows the river and once you arrive at the canyon, there is a picnic area followed by a short loop through the canyon. The canyon loop is not stroller-friendly. The paved trail is 3.7 kilometres one way, and the canyon loop is an additional 1.6 kilometres.
Get into the Christmas spirit at the Banff Santa Claus Parade in November!
The 2021 parade is scheduled for November 20, and my family usually tries to have an early dinner before it starts at 6pm. Your family can also plan an entire Christmas-themed day in Banff by visiting the Christmas Market or the Banff Gondola for their Spirit of Christmas event, which is always an annual highlight for my family with visits from Santa on top of the mountain!
Experience wild skating on a mountain pond or lake
November is a magical month that locals in Canmore and Banff refer to as ‘Skating Season.’ Many of the lakes freeze over but are still snow-free and clear for perfect gliding across the teal green ice. Johnston Lake on the Lake Minnewanka Loop Road outside Banff is the local favorite and if you time your visit right (mid to late November), you’ll find hundreds of families out for a day of skating from one end of the lake clear across to the other end.
Parks Canada has a great page on their website that goes into detail about skating on the local lakes. It also features specific instructions on how to measure for ice thickness. I highly recommend reading the information before heading out so that you are aware of any and all hazards associated with outdoor ice skating.
Visit the Canmore Nordic Centre and ski “Frozen Thunder”
Frozen Thunder is an early season 2-kilometre cross-country ski track that the Canmore Nordic Centre builds every fall using snow that has been stored from the previous season. It is designed for high-performance athletes to start training by late October, but the public is allowed to access the trail after noon each day.
The trail is not beginner-friendly and has some steep hills on it. Families wanting an easier first outing on their cross-country skis should wait until the Nordic Centre has been able to make snow for the Banff Trail Loop, usually open by early December. Banff Trail is a great novice trail, and you can rent equipment at the Centre.
A trail fee is required to use the ski trails at the Nordic Centre and a Kananaskis Conservation Pass is required for parking. For more information, visit the Nordic Centre’s website.
Plan your first downhill ski trip of the season
Nakiska Ski Area is open weekends by Halloween some years, and by mid-November most years. Usually, the beginner terrain isn’t ready until December, but there’s excellent intermediate skiing off the gold and Olympic chairs early season for some warm-up laps to stoke excitement for the upcoming season.
Lake Louise, Sunshine Village, and Mount Norquay also open by early December each season with more beginner terrain available.
My family loves early-season skiing because we quickly find out what gear and clothing the kids have grown out of - just in time for Christmas shopping!
Visit Highwood Pass in Kananaskis for early-season snowshoeing
Highway 40 is open year-round as far as Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, but there is a gate beyond that point preventing winter travel over Highwood Pass. The road closes on December 1, so my family likes to visit the area mid to late November for some early-season snowshoeing.
Elbow Lake is a great safe trail for families, and you won’t find any avalanche danger if you turn around at the lake. It’s a beautiful trail when there’s snow on the ground and you can bring sleds for the kids to play around on while descending the trail (or to tow younger children).
If you want to hike this trail without snowshoes, plan for late October or early November. And if you’re interested in other nearby trails, such as Ptarmigan Cirque or Pocaterra Cirque, you’ll also want to go earlier before there is avalanche risk. By mid-November, both trails are unsafe for families without avalanche training.
Happy exploring! There’s fun to be had every season in the mountains.
Tanya is a freelance writer and mom to an energetic boy. She loves hiking, camping, skiing, and all things mountain-related. She is the author of the blog, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies, rockiesfamilyadventures.com. Feeling Social? Follow on Instagram @MountainMomYYC.
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