The Wilderness Series:
Summer at HI Kananaskis Wilderness Hostel

April 15, 2024

Situated amidst the stunning landscapes of Kananaskis, HI Kananaskis Wilderness Hostel emerges as a beacon of summer adventure and tranquility. This Canadian wilderness retreat, located between Calgary and Banff, offers a unique blend of rustic charm and modern comforts, making it a haven for families, nature enthusiasts, and adventurers alike.

From picturesque hiking trails that lead to cascading waterfalls, to encounters with local wildlife such as elk and bears, the hostel embodies the essence of a summer getaway immersed in untarnished Canadian nature. Enjoy the flavour burst of wild raspberries warmed by the sun’s hot summer rays. Listen as raven’s calls echo through the mountains. Trade the pinging of phone notifications for the soothing crackle of a campfire.

This is the Kananaskis wilderness and to get a full picture, we caught up with manager Millie Booth to find out what else to expect in this wooded paradise this summer.

. . .

Sinead: Kananaskis is a pretty special spot. What’s the vibe of this wilderness hostel all about? Set the scene for me a little.

Millie: So Kananaskis is halfway between Calgary and Banff. We're towards the city a little bit, yet we're completely out here on our own in the middle of nowhere. Because Kananaskis is a village, there are a lot of outfitters and activity coordinators nearby. The hostel itself is completely on its own in the middle of the woods so you can literally leave right from the front door to go hiking. Even today, people were asking me where to drive to go on a trail. You don't need to drive, you can go straight from the front door.

S: That leads nicely to my question about recommended activities. What should guests definitely have on their weekend itinerary?

M: In the summer, it's largely hiking. I personally think that’s the best thing to do around here. From the hostel, we're right next to the Ribbon Creek which is a little river that runs through the valleys. You follow it through the mountains. It’s just an absolutely beautiful hike—one of the more popular ones in the area. It's stunning, and it's quite easy in terms of the elevation, and it's well maintained. There's a series of bridges that cross the creek zigzagging across the water as you go up. Then right towards the top, you get to the Ribbon Falls. That’s this huge waterfall that comes crashing down the rock face. As you hike, you're tucked right into the valley with the mountains soaring up on either side.

S: What’s your top recommendation for a hiking route and why?

M: Troll Falls. It's quite a short hike, and it's relatively easy, so it's good for all abilities and ages. You can leave right from the hostel and do about a two-hour out-and-back route to the waterfall. If you're a little more ambitious, you can hike further up towards the top of falls. It's a really good hike that I recommend to everyone because it's so beautiful, you get to take in the sunshine and wilderness, and when you get there the waterfalls are just gushing. It’s a popular hike too so if people are concerned about bears, wildlife, or getting lost, it’s reassuring that this one if well signposted and walked frequently. It can be a nice warm up or it can be a great way to go at dusk or to finish off the day with a bike ride.

S: What’s something that people might not know about this hostel?

M: Because we're quite close to the city, we accommodate a lot of families. Even though it’s a wilderness hostel, we’re very well-equipped. We have electricity, WiFi, hot running water, and indoor toilets. We have the facilities here to make it more of a comfortable, less rustic experience. A large part of what we do is host families and school groups. They always love the cozy home away from home feel with the cozy lounge, little fireplace and the big tables where they can sit and have family meals.

I think one of the important things to know about Kananaskis is that we're home to a lot of grizzly bears. It’s known for being a hotspot for grizzlies. The locals are aware of that and know the regulations. Then there are the travellers who are on a road trip and they want to see a grizzly bear. If you drive or hike around here a lot, you're bound to see at least one.

S: Right on! On the topic of animals, what other wildlife lives nearby? Bears, moose, elk?

M: Aside from the mice, those are the top animals we see. We definitely have elk, bears and also deer who come by the hostel grounds. There are so many different kinds of birds and it’s beautiful to watch them all. The other day, I was in the Kananaskis village, and my friend and I watched this huge raven that was imitating all the other bird noises it could hear. It was really fascinating.

S: When you think of all your days spent in Kananaskis, what’s one special memory that stands out?

M: Last July, I stayed here for a week. It was for my birthday and I came alone to celebrate. A couple of the girls at the hostel found out that it was my birthday and they picked up a cake from the village. During the summertime, there are wild raspberry and strawberry bushes all along the Ribbon Creek Trail. So we went out and we picked raspberries and wildflowers from the trail and used them to decorate the cake. It was a really, really wonderful experience.

S: I had totally forgotten about the taste of wild raspberries in summer! That’s a perfect example of an experience that you can really only get there, right?

M: Yeah, it really is. It's so unique and so magical to know that they've just grown on their own in the wild. And then here we are, and we can forage. I had come to stay by myself but nature really brings people together. Community really is a selling point of this hostel.

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S: Tell me about a typical day and what the wilderness lifestyle looks like for you.

M: I take my mornings slow. I sleep with the curtains open since there are so few people in the area. It's so peaceful to let the natural sunlight come in as it rises over the mountains. In the mornings, I'll do housekeeping and check in with guests about their plans for the day. One of my favourite points of my morning is taking the garbage out to the dumpster at the end of the road. It's just those little things where it's such a mundane task but I’m in such a stunning, beautiful place. As the sun is rising, it casts the light across the mountains in front of me. It's such a juxtaposition of mundane chores and a stunning environment. Once I'm finished with the morning work, I have the day to myself to hike or enjoy the surroundings. I'm a bit of a musician and writer so I play the guitar, piano and accordion. Since people have gone out of the hostel for the day, I don't have to worry if I'm singing too loud or if the accordion is too abrasive.

S: Do you feel more creative in that setting?

M: Yeah. Since being in the mountains, there’s a flow of creativity. There’s so much history and majesty in the mountains. To know that they've been here for hundreds of millions of years makes you feel small in comparison, but also so important to be here experiencing it.

S: I can relate to that. I feel lucky to live in the mountains and see those types of views. It feels almost too good to be true.

M: It's such a humbling experience. I have endless gratitude for being able to experience it and come to terms with the fact that I live here. I’m so lucky to have this amazing opportunity to live and work here and to help others find that joy in the mountains.

S: When you travel, you also leave certain things behind. What’s something you definitely take a break from at HI Kananaskis?

M: I think it's really important to take that distance from technology. It's something that I encourage. We have WiFi, but only for limited hours of the day. We try to keep people away from their phones and remind them to go outside and look up at the sky. Usually the school groups enforce that the kids not bring any technology with them which I think is a really powerful thing. Learning to put the phone down and let go is very important.

S: Wilderness aside, what can I do to unwind there?

M: In the village, there's the Kananaskis Nordic Spa. That's a top spot for people to visit if they're here for a long time or if they just want to get away from the city. You can stay in the spa all day and do a rotation of hot saunas and cold plunges and then come back to the hostel in the evening for a little fire and board games.

The nice thing about Kananaskis is that we've got the perfect blend of wilderness hostel and hikes, but we also have access to the things going on in the village. And we're close to Canmore which is a really beautiful town.

S: You’re really selling me on summer in Kananaskis. I’m sure some guests are more outdoorsy than others. What could I get up to if I *wasn’t* an avid trekker or climber?

M: Go for a drive! You can drive all the way down Highway 40 and then back up on Road 742 that goes around the western side of this mountain range. Take it all in, make it a road trip and have your playlist going. I always tell guests that this is their home away from home. It's about feeling cozy, comfortable and taking your time. You don't want to rush the experience. There are so many emotions associated with coming to a place like this. Personally, I’m so in love with this area. I hope that everybody gets a chance to visit. It's so worth it!

Another top spot is Upper Kananaskis Lake. It's a 40-minute drive from the hostel. That in and of itself is a great way to spend the day. The drive through the valley is spectacular! Around every corner, there's a new mountain and new site to take in.

S: I’m imagining sunlight on the mountains, glacial lakes, and nice turquoise rushing rivers…

M: Yeah, that's exactly it! And mountains with glaciers at the top even in summer.

S: So now that we’ve been gushing about Kananaskis, what are you going to do for the rest of your day?

M: Well, now I've been going on about Troll Falls, I think I might go out and do that.

S: Go do it! You've painted this mental image and it sounds so hauntingly beautiful. Enjoy!

. . .

HI has eleven rustic wilderness hostels tucked among the Rocky Mountains in Alberta – each with its own unique charm and perfectly positioned for easy access to outdoor adventures.

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