The Wilderness Series:
Winter at HI Castle Mountain Wilderness Hostel

January 17, 2024

Tucked away in a quiet little corner of Alberta, halfway between Banff and Lake Louise, HI Castle Mountain Wilderness Hostel is both a cozy refuge and a base for the outdoorsy looking to explore a wild winter paradise. Here, ski trails worm their way through snow-covered woods, an abundance of stars light up the sky, pine martens play, breezes carry scents of fresh winter air and pine, and bridges take curious adventurers over frozen waterfalls.

The Canadian wilderness experience is like no other and a stay at HI Castle Mountain especially offers a chance to rest, recharge, and spoil the senses. If skiing through fairytale-like settings and ice climbing up slabs of frozen falls sound like your kind of adventure, this piece of barely-touched wild Canadian landscape is for you. Unwind with a giant mug of hot chocolate by the wood-burning stove as your fingers thaw.

This winter, we caught up with HI Castle Mountain’s Shauna Morey to learn all about the hostel and how visitors' adventures have been unfolding this season.

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Sinead: HI Castle Mountain is located in such a special area of Canada for winter activities. Give me a little overview about what it’s like at the hostel this season.

Shauna: People have been skiing! Lake Louise, Sunshine, and the cross-country ski trails are looking good. Across the road from us, there's a ski trail to Rockbound Lake. It’s one of the most fun to ski down after you spend two or three hours going up. I've done it on wooden, tour, and normal skis. That's pretty much right out the door from the hostel. There’s also a two-kilometre cross-country ski loop for beginners where people can go snowshoeing.

Six kilometres down the road is Johnston Canyon, which is really famous in the winter. It has really neat ice formations and a catwalk over the creek. There, you can see all these waterfalls and it gets so icy, people have to wear their yak tracks!

Sinead: That sounds absolutely stunning!

Shauna: Yeah, it's really quite nice. It’s snowy and has waterfalls all along with a walkway where you can see the creek, pools, and frozen water. Sometimes the cascades freeze. Incredible.

Castle winter

Sinead: When people think of a wilderness hostel, they may think about the wildlife. When exploring natural spaces near the hostel, you’re bound to spot some animals. Which ones might visitors see?

Shauna: We have cougars and bears. This summer, we had some black bears and a moose. Someone saw a baby moose and a deer! It's important to remember there are certain wildlife behaviours that travellers need to learn in order to travel safely in the mountains, and visitor centers are good resources for learning more.

Here at the hostel, we have a resident pine marten. I was baking cookies last Christmas and the pine marten smelled it, dug a hole, and knocked on the door. It was looking in the window, trying to get in and it managed to get in through the roof! Luckily, I managed to lure him back outside.

Sinead: In Canada, the outside is always coming in! So, you live in the area and you know it really well. What’s your favourite thing about this location specifically?

Shauna: It's an area with a lot of solitude. You really feel like you're in the wild but you're still close to creature comforts. Banff is 30 minutes away and Canmore is about 40. It's 25 minutes from the ski hills. You've got hiking trails, rock climbing and ice climbing nearby. It’s a beautiful environment. If you just feel like just hanging out for the day, you don't have to walk far to see a beautiful spot. That’s probably why we see a lot of photographers in the area too.

Sinead: What’s special about this hostel versus all the other places where someone could stay?

Shauna: This hostel is an affordable option for adventurers. We're situated perfectly between Banff and Lake Louise. For people who want that wilderness experience, we have that. But there’s also a small store across the street with a gas station if you need something in a pinch. It’s the kind of place that's immersed in nature and people have to come prepared.

Sinead: For the outdoorsy traveller staying at the wilderness hostel in the winter, I imagine they’re up and out ready to explore. What might a typical day look like? What’s the plan? What’s the vibe?

Shauna: Most who come for the weekend have pretty full days planned. They'll come either for skiing or climbing and will probably be up by 6:00 a.m. They make their breakfast and coffee and get going as soon as possible to be at the trailhead. The ice climbers climbing the falls generally get an early start to beat the crowds. Backcountry skiers are trying to get an early start too to get the first tracks in the powder. Cross-country skiers start a bit later. Then everybody comes back from the day and heads to the kitchen to make dinner. You often see people playing games or sharing their stories of the day. Then we usually start the wood-burning stove at around 6:00 p.m.

Sinead: It all sounds quite social and community-oriented.

Shauna: Yeah, it's a pretty small, quaint hostel. We've got a kitchen that meets a foyer, and then attached to the foyer is a lounge. It's a pretty small space.

Sinead: Running the hostel, you must meet interesting people at all times of the year. Tell me about some of the backpackers you’ve met recently.

Shauna: I’ve met cool women who came to stay here recently. They do outdoor activities. Sometimes people sightsee. In the summer, we get many people from Europe, namely Germany or Italy, that come to hike or maybe even learn some cross-country ski techniques. We have many travellers who come in the winter and realize they can do more than just downhill ski. There have been women who like ice climbing in Marble Canyon or Johnston Canyon.

Sinead: I’m a woman in my thirties, I’m fit, I love active travel, and outdoor adventure. This is the perfect place for people like me. What advice would you give me before I go?

Shauna: I recommend that people who are interested in pursuing specific activities take the time to educate themselves. So either take courses at the Alpine Club of Canada or maybe take ski lessons if they want to learn to ski. I recommend lessons because I value education. I fell down a lot learning to ski but you don't have to do that!

Castle winter exterior long

Sinead: Let’s get into the ice climbing a little more. Tell me about a memorable ice climbing experience nearby.

Shauna: I went ice climbing at night with a friend! We decided to climb at Grotto Canyon, which is near Canmore and a 45-minute drive. It was this cool nighttime adventure in the Rockies. Two days later at the hostel, two women checked in and went night climbing at a spot 15 minutes away. I've never met anyone who went out ice climbing at night. I wonder if maybe it’s going to catch on. It's actually kind of neat because you have to have a high-powered headlamp to see the features, but then it's kind of creepy because you can see the cracks in the ice so well. It's a little more intimidating.

Sinead: I'm picturing a peaceful night with crisp, cool air. Can you see lots of stars?

Shauna: The stars were amazing! My friend just kept saying, “there are so many stars!” I think a lot of the time, we go into the wilderness and what we’re seeking is that quiet resolve, a place to reflect, and just to feel like you're in the wild. Being in the dark really makes you feel like you're more in the wild. It's a special thing.

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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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