Monday, 8 April 2013

Hiking with Kids in Kananaskis: Corri-Robb Trail (and Lessons Learned)

Ahead of me the "trail" down was getting steeper and the snow deeper. Behind me I could hear four-year-olds wailing in the trees. With me were a bunch of eight- to 12-year-olds who were having a blast.

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It's only now, almost a year later, that I can write about my kids hike on the Corri-Robb Trail. It was the first weekend of May, when Kananaskis' Elbow Valley is usually a safe bet for snow-free trails. I'd found Corri-Robb trail on, and it sounded like the perfect trip for kids. Not too long, not too much elevation gain.

Walking past White Buddha
The gate on Highway 66 was still closed at Elbow Falls, so we parked on the highway and walked the final few hundred meters to the Powderface parking lot. As predicted, the area was snow-free as far as we could see. Following the directions on the blog, we hiked the Powderface trail to the first creek crossing, which was almost dry, and continued 350 meters to where the old pack trail headed right up the hill between Powderface Creek and Prairie Creek. From there, a half hour of pleasant switchbacks led to the rocky outcrops known to rock climbers as White Buddha and unofficially called Vents Ridge by hikers. On the top, we had lunch, played around for half an hour and enjoyed the views of the Elbow Valley to the south. No problems. The four-year-olds were beaming with pride at having climbed what to them was a mountain and the older kids, from seven to 12, were challenged enough by the trail to have been engaged all the way up. Even a two-year-old had made it, although he required some carrying.

When it was time to head down, we ventured west on the ridge from the open rocky high point into trees. Within minutes, we lost the trail in a light covering of snow a couple inches deep on the north-facing (and less sunny) side of the hill. Even without a trail to follow, the route was straightforward. As long as headed west and down, we'd meet up with Prairie Creek. The snow was gradually getting deeper the farther down we went, but it didn't seem like anything to worry about. It wasn't until we were about halfway down that I realized it was up to my ankles. That's when I noticed the howls and wails behind me.

Things got steeper and deeper
I had a decision to make. Turn around and backtrack to our ascent route, or keep going. I could see Prairie Creek a hundred meters at most below us, maybe a half-hour away. Above us, the four-year-olds and some of the parents were sliding on the wet snow-covered slope, pushing the kids well beyond their comfort zones. Going up would be a slippery, grueling slog that could take a couple of hours and truly throw the four-year-olds into near panic.

So I made a judgement call. We'd keep going down. Given the circumstances and the outcome, I believe it was the right call. Another ten minutes took us to slightly gentler slopes and the snow began to thin. A final snow-free but steep opening in the trees brought us to the dry flats on the north side of Prairie Creek. The problem was finding a place to cross it. Although only a couple meters wide, it was too deep for the kids to wade across. Luckily, we soon found a few rocks sticking up through the water. Standing up to my knees in frigid spring run-off, I alternately held kids hands as they hopped across the rocks and piggy-backed others across. The only real problem was Laya, my dog. We'd only had her for two months and this was her first hike that required crossing a creek. As it turned out, she was terrified of water (still is). There was no way she was willing going to walk across the rocks or jump in and swim. So I did the only thing I could. I picked her up and carried her squirming 50 pounds across. All was going well when she squirmed just as I stepped on a slippery boulder under the water, and into the creek we both went.

That's when I noticed the laughing. As I stood up, thoroughly soaked, I could hear the kids...having fun. The valley was dry, they'd had an adventure crossing the creek, and they'd shaken off the unpleasant experience of the descent. Notwithstanding the glares of a couple parents, the half-hour it took us to reach the car was as fun a kids hike as I've ever been on.

The drive home gave me time to debrief myself on what had happened and what I could have done differently. Here's what I came up with: It was time to stop trying to please everyone in my hiking group and stop letting kids of all ages come on my kids hikes. Providing an opportunity for kids of all ages to experience the mountains was resulting in less that ideal experiences for everyone. Taking my 12-year-old on trails that were suitable for four-year-olds was boring him, and trails that engaged him were too much for the four-year-olds. I also had to do more due diligence when selecting a trail that I hadn't been on. Over the course of that year I came up with my 3 D's of picking a kid-friendly trail.

Will I do Corri-Robb trail with kids again? Absolutely. In many ways it's a perfect kids hike. But I'll do it with older kids. And later in the summer when the snow on north-facing slopes has had a chance to melt.

Distance: About 5.5 km round trip
Elevation gain: About 200 m
Hiking Time: About 4 hours.
Dogs: Dogs are welcome on this trip as long as they are on a leash.
Directions: Driving west on Highway 22X, turn left at the four-way stopp at Bragg Creek. In a few minutes you'll come to a T-intersection. Turn right onto Highway 66. Follow this about 19 km to the Powderface day use area. If the winter gate is still closed, park on the side of the highway as close to the winter gate as possible. If the winter gate is open, continue for a few hundred meters and park at the Powderface day use area.


  1. A flawless day is rarely as memorable. Great blog, I will need to get our kids out on these hikes.

  2. Thanks! If the unexpected didn't happen, it wouldn't be an adventure. And that's what the mountains are all about.

  3. lol, I almost came on this hike. With my 3 year old. Decided it would be too much for us.

  4. My kids both loved it, and my 4 year old has nothing but great memories of it. Thanks Ken, you made the right choice and we had a great group of parents that worked together to make it fun for the kids.


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