Wilderness Hostels

By Hostelling International

A Hostelling International Guide for Everyone

Hostelling International wilderness hostels have been host to generations of backpackers from around the world.

Tanya, a wife and a mom of a spunky three-year-old boy, lives in Calgary, Alberta, at the doorstep of the fabulous Rocky Mountains and countless Hostelling International wilderness hostels. She makes it a priority to get to the mountains almost every weekend for what many would say are big adventures, given she is travelling with her toddler. She has plenty of advice and knowledge to share!

There are 10 wilderness hostels in the Hostelling International network throughout the Alberta and British Columbia Rocky Mountains.

So far, my husband and I have stayed at eight of the 10 Hostelling International wilderness hostels, using them as base camps for climbs, backcountry ski trips, and as a source of affordable accommodation while travelling throughout the region.

When we became parents, we never dreamed that we would actually start to use wilderness hostels even more than in the past. We’d never met another family at a hostel before and had certainly seen no advertising that indicated it was a suitable place to take a child. We were pleasantly surprised on our first family trip when we discovered that hostelling with kids is not only feasible, but rewarding and fun too!

We introduced our son to wilderness hostels when he was just a baby. We decided to go in summer to ease our way into the experience and we took him to HI-Hilda Creek, located along the scenic Icefields Parkway on the Jasper/Banff National Park border.

HI-Hilda Creek is not your average hostel and is more rustic than most wilderness ones.

There is the standard shared sleeping arrangement, and like all wilderness hostels, bathrooms are found outside in the form of wooden outhouses. Unlike other wilderness hostels, you have to bring your sleeping bags because no linens or blankets are provided. (That would require a staff member on site to do laundry!) There is no manager bringing water in to filter, no staff member of whom you can ask questions, nobody to rely on but yourself! If you want water, you go to the stream and collect it. If there’s an emergency, you handle it on your own. There’s no phone, no electricity, and no real amenities or services nearby.

Saskatchewan River Crossing, the next major settlement, is 40 kilometres away, so in summer you could drive there to find basic supplies; but in winter you’d have to drive to Jasper, which is 100 kilometres away. Hostelling International’s website actually warns that HI-Hilda Creek is not for the faint of heart.

When we phoned Hostelling International to book spots at HI-Hilda Creek for ourselves and another family, we could tell that we were about to embark on an adventure. The staff member handling our call seemed somewhat surprised that we wanted to bring two infants to HI-Hilda Creek with us. He went over every possible danger in great detail and made sure we understood that we had to carry out the dirty diapers. Meanwhile, we weren’t really all that concerned. We like backpacking, and packing out your garbage is pretty standard practice. Using outdoor toilets, boiling water for drinking, and knowing what to do in an emergency, are all a part of backcountry travel. The bonus for us was that we were going to be sleeping inside. Even without heat, it had to be warmer than sleeping in a tent. And if we were 100 kilometres from medical care, at least we didn’t have to hike to our car before starting the drive to a hospital. We felt very comfortable using HI-Hilda Creek as our family’s first wilderness adventure, and honestly, the only challenge we faced while staying there was transporting all of our gear from the cars to the hostel. We had mountains of gear to carry across the highway—from booster seats to playpens—and in the end, we felt like we had gone backpacking after all.

We had a wonderful time at HI-Hilda Creek, and spent our days hiking a couple of magnificent nearby trails. Parker Ridge was so close we didn’t even have to drive. We just walked down the highway, climbed the ridge on an excellent short trail, and meandered crosscountry in the direction of our hostel until we found a nice trail which took us right back down. The next day we hiked Wilcox Pass, which required a very short drive. It was a longer hike at 12 kilometres return, instead of the 5 kilometres Parker Ridge hike. That being said, our babies were being carried and were quite content with the free ride to the Pass, where we got to enjoy splendid views of the Athabasca Glacier, and lunch with vistas of the whole Columbia Icefield area spread out in front of us.

Despite the remote location of this hostel, and the need for basic backcountry knowledge, it’s a wonderful place to take children for a wilderness experience. If your family is comfortable with winter camping, you could go anytime; but you may want to wait until next summer for a more comfortable adventure.

If you do plan on going in winter, make sure you check out hihostels.ca for a complete description of what to expect—including wading through deep snow as you dig your way to the front door! The hostel is a backcountry ski paradise in winter; but Parker Ridge falls in class II avalanche terrain, so it might not be the best place to take junior skiers. 

HI-Hilda Creek was just the beginning of our family hostelling adventures, and for families that might enjoy a less rustic wilderness experience—good news! We’ve discovered other amazing hostels that have on-site managers and don’t require backcountry knowledge or skills. We’ve even found hostelling to be pleasant and comfortable in the winter months when our tent is packed away in the basement waiting for spring to arrive.

This past January we visited HI-Mosquito Creek, and it was the most incredible place to stay as a family.

We reserved the private cabin, which was self-contained with its own kitchen, living room area, and two bedrooms (which had doors—I wasn’t expecting that!). Linen and blankets were provided, along with everything needed to cook our simple family meals. The hostel had a manager present to help us get checked-in, and we even found a couple of sleds to help pull our mountain of gear to the cabin—though it’s true we still haven’t learned to pack lightly!

We stayed with family friends and when the cabin became too small for our three children, we bundled them up to play in the snow. We used the sleds we’d found and made a little toboggan hill for the kids to slide down. My son made his first-ever snow angel, and the kids showed us that you don’t have to be skiing to have fun in the snow. When they got cold, we took them in to the communal cabin to warm up beside the fireplace. They had a fabulous time running around the room chasing each other as I serenaded them with the hostel guitar I found tucked away in a corner.

HI-Mosquito Creek is conveniently located 29 kilometres north of Lake Louise, so we were able to go cross-country skiing while we stayed there.

Lake Louise has some of the best snow in the Rockies, and whether you choose to go downhill at the resort or cross-country on the trails around the Chateau Lake Louise, it’s a guaranteed good day of skiing. In the summer, families can enjoy beautiful hikes around Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, or even rent canoes for a scenic paddle.

We enjoyed the experience at HI-Mosquito Creek so much that we decided to visit HI-Kananaskis in late February. We had always driven right by this hostel on our way to go hiking or skiing, and never thought of staying overnight. It takes less than an hour to reach HI-Mosquito Creek from Calgary, so it was always a suitable distance for day trips.

Things change though when you have kids and you start to wonder what it would be like to have a pleasant base camp in the mountains for your family adventures. Small children can’t play outside for very long before they get cold, they don’t want to ride in a sled for more than an hour while you go skiing or snowshoeing, and they tire of riding in backpacks as you carry them along the hiking trails. We’ve started staying overnight more often now, so that we can take shorter trips and have more free time for playing.

When we stayed at HI-Kananaskis we had a very different experience from our usual day trips.

Our kids woke up in the mountains, with no drive necessary. We skied up to Kananaskis Village in the morning, and then let the kids run around the fireside room in the Delta Lodge. We skied back to the hostel and were able to have lunch inside, instead of freezing little fingers on the trail. Then in the afternoon, we went back up to the village and took the kids skating on the pond. It was very cold, so we didn’t stay long, but it was a nice experience nonetheless. Had it been warmer, we would have gone sledding on the village hill before returning to the hostel for dinner. There was no drive home and we didn’t have to go out to eat. HI-Kananaskis has a shared kitchen for all guests, but it is big enough for several groups, so we found it extremely comfortable. When the children were tired, we took them to our rooms and put them to sleep. This hostel doesn’t have a private cabin, but it does have three private rooms and we even had a bathroom with a flush toilet across the hall from ours! I have to point out that this was the first wilderness hostel we stayed at that had indoor plumbing. It was positively decadent!

This spring, we had the opportunity to visit one more hostel while we toured the Northern Rockies in Jasper National Park. Instead of booking an expensive hotel for our visit in Jasper, we decided to try out HI-Athabasca Falls. Staying in hostels with kids can be tricky due to the shared dorm room situation; but this is another wonderful hostel that has private rooms on site.

HI-Athabasca Falls has three sleeping cabins, and one of them is divided into two private rooms.

Each room is self-contained, and we didn’t hear any noise coming from the other room adjacent to ours. Cooking and eating is done in a communal cabin that also has a pleasant fireside living room area. Our favourite part of the experience was the quiet time we had in the evenings. After we put our son to bed each night, we sat outside on the private deck of our cabin and played cards while sharing a bottle of wine. For many parents, moments like this are few and far between.

The hostel is conveniently located across the highway from the majestic Athabasca Falls; just a short, easy hike on a paved trail to view the falls from several vantage points. An advantage of staying at the hostel is that you can visit the falls in the early morning or evening when most tourists are tucked into their hotels or visiting restaurants in the town of Jasper 30 kilometres away.

We enjoyed many pleasant family hikes while staying at HI-Athabasca Falls, and since it’s located outside the town and back along the Icefields Parkway, we packed picnic lunches to take with us on our adventures.

We look forward to visiting more wilderness hostels as a family in the near future, and visiting all of our favourites over the next years as our son grows up. Our days of reserving hotel rooms in the Rockies are behind us, and we now know that we can go camping year round. When September rolls around each year and we put away the camping gear, we’ll know there are cozy, warm camping houses spread throughout the mountains that we love.

Whether we are skiing, hiking, snowshoeing, or biking, we’ll have a comfortable home base in the mountains for years to come with Hostelling International.

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