Cross country skiing is a winter activity we learnt in Canada – naturally. After discovering many trails in Banff national park area and within a short drive from Calgary, we choose cross country skiing more often than hiking. Not only you can go further and get there faster, but it’s a great full body workout if you kick your butt a bit and pick up the pace.
As a little child I remember my grandfather taking me in the woods trying cross country skiing for the first time. It was fun – mostly because I spent time with my grandfather. He used to go out quite often. Maybe that’s why I always thought cross country skiing is an activity for old people, to get them moving in the winter.
Haha – I was wrong. I remembered the feeling of my first try dragging the skis in the snow years back when we decided to give cross country skiing a try. I still love skiing but since the winter is quite cold in Canada, we were looking for other alternatives to stay active. Read more ideas in our list of 100 things to do in Banff National Park.
In the beginning, we were renting skis in Banff. But as we fell for it this past season, we bought our own gear. We explored trails in Banff National Park – near Banff and Lake Louise, in Kananaskis country and in Canmore.
These are the most enjoyable trails for cross country skiing in Banff National Park, Kananaskis Country and Canmore:
Road to Moraine Lake – Lake Louise
Distance – 20 km roundtrip
Elevation gain – 370 m
Moraine Lake road is closed to traffic in winter. It is well maintained and groomed for both classic and skate cross country skiing. Although it is mostly uphill, the grade is very low and sometimes it doesn’t even seem like you are going up. We got some nice views of Lake Louise ski resort, Bow Valley and Ten Peaks at the end.
Trail is safe up until the sign which warns of possible avalanche. Tracks are not maintained beyond the sign and it is not recommended to continue without avalanche training and gear. We were determined to reach Moraine Lake, which would add another 4 km to the trip, but the snow became too deep. We decided to admire the view of Ten Peaks from the end of groomed tracks. Coming back is very easy as it is all down – sometimes not enough to coast.
Great Divide Trail – Lake Louise
Distance – 16 km roundtrip (full length is 20 km)
Elevation gain – 127 m
The old highway through the mountains is now closed – great for biking in summer and cross country skiing in winter. On the way to Lake Louise Chateau, the parking lot for Great Divide Trail is on the right. It has groomed tracks for both classic and skate cross country skiing.
Snowmobile maintaining the tracks passed us on our way out making nice and fresh tracks for us. You spent most of the time in the trees, with a view of Mount Temple and later passing the Great Divide arch with picnic shelter. Trail ends at the Lake O’Hara parking lot.
Cascade Trail at Lake Minnewanka
Distance – 12 km roundtrip (full length is 28 km)
Elevation gain – 276 m
During winter, Lake Minnewanka is only accessible driving from Banff along Two Jack Lake. The other portion of Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive is closed – used for cross country skiing. The trail starts from the parking lot, having your back to Lake Minnewanka.
Shortly after entering the road, it leads into the forest going uphill. Then it flattens and is very easy. Tracks are well maintained and popular for hikers in snowshoes as well. It opens up after 6 km with views of the surrounding mountains.
The bridge across the Cascade River was our turn around point although it is possible to go further to the warden’s cabin (28 km roundtrip). It was -18C when we went and felt that 12 km would be enough for the day.
Spray River Loop in Banff
Distance – 11 km
Elevation gain – 140 m
This trail is probably the most busiest – it’s located in Banff, it’s short and easy, it’s ideal for cross country skiing, hiking, snowshoeing, running and biking.
You can either start from the parking lot located 100m past the Banff Spring hotel. Or park at the Bow Falls, cross the bridge and you’ll see well groomed tracks on your right – this is our usual starting point.
This loop along the Spray River offers views of the Mount Rundle on one side, and Sulphur Mountain on the other. Tracks are well maintained and the course is rolling up and down. Every time you see it goes uphill, think of the rewarding downhill after.
Once you reach the bridge half way in, you can test out the crystal clear water – in case you are caring a water filter. (The trail continues further to the valley for another 12km which would lead you to the parking lot above Canmore. It’s doable but count in much more hills.) We crossed the bridge and continued back on the other side of the river.
Note that you will not end up exactly on the same place where you started. If you started from the Banff Springs Hotel, you will end up at the golf course and vice versa. Make your way to the parking lot on foot. I’d recommend buying some food beforehand and use the open pit fire to grill your lunch.
For all the above trails, you need to purchase a park pass to enter Banff National Park. Fees are very affordable considering the park is well maintained. From 2016, if you buy an annual pass, it will be valid for 2 years. All cross country trails are free to use.
Mount Shark in Kananaskis country
Distance – from 2 km to ∞
Elevation gain – any from 100m
Mount Shark trail system was developed for training and racing. It offers well maintained groomed tracks for both classic and skate cross country skiing. From 2km to 15km loops, from easy to difficult. Loops are connected, you choose what length and difficulty you would like to ski. You can download a map of the trails.
These trails challenged us, few climbs were quite hard for us beginners. And going downhill was so much fun – we are still not sure how to go downhill and were trying slow down looking like children learning how to ski.
Constant view of the surrounding peaks and having trails all to ourselves definitely added to our great day out.
Nordic centre in Canmore
Distance – from 5 km to ∞
Elevation gain – any from 100m
Canmore Nordic Centre hosted cross country skiing at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Ski trails are well maintained for both classic and skate cross country skiing. You can choose whichever loop you like with different difficulty.
6.5 km main loop is popular day or night – it is quite flat and illuminated in the evening. Trails are accessible after paying a fee at the Day Lodge. Check the cross country ski pass rates before you go as they change annually.
You can find trail map, weather report and grooming report on their website.
Check before you go:
Trail conditions in Banff National Park and Kananaskis Country.
Trail reports, avalanche reports, trail closures and backcountry safety in all Alberta parks
Have you visited Banff National Park? Do you like cross country skiing? Have you tried any of the above trails?
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