Looking to get outdoors during the pandemic and curious about cross-country skiing? Alberta boasts some fantastic cross-country skiing and most shops have been having a hard time keeping gear in stock this year. So with that in mind, we’ve put together a list of some of the best beginner-friendly cross country ski trails near Calgary to ease you into the sport and help you get comfortable on your skis.
We’ve written before about our love of cross country skiing and why more people should try it. This year with travel on hold, it seems like many in Calgary and across Alberta are looking to take up the sport. There are a huge variety of beginner cross country ski trails near Calgary that should keep you busy during this winter and into the future.
Cross Country Skiing in the City of Calgary!
This is a bit of a cheat, but you don’t even have to leave the city to strap on your cross-country skis as there are some decent trails in a handful of parks right in the city. If you have limited time (and who doesn’t?) or if you want to get comfortable on your skis before heading out into the mountains this is a great option. A variety of ski clubs and the City of Calgary maintain ski tracks at Confederation Park, Shagganapi Point Golf Course, Glenmore Park, and Bowness Park, so no matter which quadrant you’re in you should find something nearby. Also new in 2020, is a short 1km loop at Fort Calgary, right in East Village! All of these have minimal elevation gain and are perfectly suited to beginner skiers.
Unfortunately, the same chinooks that give us a reprieve from winter also play havoc on the tracks, as do city park users that aren’t aware that skiers HATE it when people walk on the ski track. (Seriously folks, stay off the track!) Some of the local ski clubs, like Foothills Nordic, which maintains Confederation Park, do snow farming and the conditions can be surprisingly decent year-round, but if you’re skiing in the city and it’s been warm, make sure you get some intel before taking out your brand new skis, especially early season!
When we started out cross country skiing, this was our favourite trail. It’s mostly flat, you feel like you’re out in the middle of the forest, away from the crowds, and you are rewarded with fantastic views. Essentially it’s a nice, short trail that allows you to get out into the mountains. What’s not to like?
In total, the Wedge Connector is only 5km round trip, which is pretty much the perfect length for beginners. Don’t worry, no new skier needs to do an ultra-long loppet, you can save that for a few years down the line after you have some experience under your belt!
To ski Wedge Connector you’ll park right off Highway 40 at Wedge Pond. It’s not too far down Highway 40, so it’s an easy day trip from the City of Calgary. Snow can be a bit sparse early season and unfortunately, Wedge Connector doesn’t seem to be track-set as often as other trails in Kananaskis, so make sure that you check the trail reports before heading out, but when it’s in good shape, it’s the perfect beginner ski trail. (And if the Barrier Lake Visitor Centre was still open, they used to be a great resource for track-setting information. Unfortunately, that was a victim of UCP cuts – you can read more about that here.)
Lake Louise (Yes the lake itself)
There are several cross-country ski trails suitable for beginners that start from the Lake Louise parking lot. For instance, in the area, you have the Fairview Loop, Moraine Lake Road, and there’s even a track set on the lake itself.
The track on the lake is completely flat, and it doesn’t get more scenic than skiing at Lake Louise. The only downside is that it’s a busy area and unfortunately lots of folks that are walking along the lake step on the tracks, ruining them for those of us on skis. So if you’re walking, don’t step on the track!
If you’re looking for a bit more of a properly groomed trail, the trails mentioned above, Fairview, Moraine Lake Road, and the Tramline can be combined into a loop and this makes a great option for novice skiers. Fairview Loop does have some hills, so if you’re not comfortable with those yet, stick to Moraine Lake Road. The combination of these three trails is an easy 7.5km loop with only 160m elevation gain. Parks Canada recommends that you start counter-clockwise for the easiest route. Take your camera, the view is fantastic!
If you don’t have skis already it’s very convenient to pick them up right in Lake Louise Village at Wilson Mountain Sports.
This trail is also based at Lake Louise but gets a separate entry because it’s probably one of the best beginner cross country ski trails in Alberta.
One of the things that beginner cross country skiers always struggle with is hills. They take a bit of effort to go up, but the real trouble is the downhill sections. Because you don’t have edges to help you turn like on downhill skis, it’s all about balancing your centre of gravity properly and you need a strong snowplow. If you find yourself on a hill, bend your knees and lean forward, it helps to keep your arms out front to pull yourself forward. One of our instructors at the University of Calgary hill course famously told us all to pretend we were hugging a barrel of beer and we’ll never forget it.
Anyways, hills are not super natural for the beginner cross country skier, which is what makes The Great Divide so perfect for beginner cross country skiing. It’s pretty much 100% flat so you can focus on getting comfortable on your skis and learning the proper technique. There are no hills to worry about here!
You start the trail by parking near Lake Louise and the trail takes you along the old 1A highway towards the Great Divide border between Alberta and British Columbia/. If you’re ambitious, you can continue an extra 3.5km onward to the Lake O’Hara parking lot. The full trail is roughly 20km round trip, but only 60m of elevation gain, and you basically just follow the same route without having to worry about turn-offs. No need to stop and read the map, just keep going until you’re tired!
If you’re not up for the whole distance of the Great Divide, no worries, just go as far as you’re comfortable doing. You’ll see lots of families outside, enjoying winter on this trail and possibly even some dog sleds.
West Bragg Creek
Aside from skiing at the parks in Calgary, this is the closest set of cross country trails to the city. West Bragg Creek is a mecca for local cross-country skiers. If you’re a beginner, stick to the Crystal Line loop heading straight out of the parking lot.
Dogs are allowed here so expect a lot of happy furry friends to come up and visit you. Don’t forget to make a donation to the fantastic trail groomers at Bragg Creek. Aside from the awesome terrain and track-setting, part of the popularity of West Bragg Creek is that it’s close enough to the city that you can easily go for a ski in the morning and enjoy the fresh outdoors, and still have time to get back to the city for dinner or to finish off some errands.
Nestled in at the end of Highway 40, in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, you’ll find the Pocaterra Warming Hut. This little hut serves is a popular base for some of the best cross country skiing that Alberta has to offer for skiers of all abilities. Some of these trails have significant hills, but there are trails to suit all abilities and fitness levels. Whether you’re skiing on your own, with family, or friends, you’ll find something to put a smile on everyone’s face.
Unfortunately, as part of Kananaskis, this area is a victim of the UCP cuts to track-setting and you now have to pay for a voluntary parking pass ($10/day or $50 for a car). We won’t get into that here, but if you’re interested, you can read our thoughts on why cutting cross country ski track-setting in Kananaskis is shortsighted in a separate blog post)
You can expect to see a full parking lot of Calgarians and Bow Valley-ites on weekends, and trails full of skiers grinning ear to ear, but with 50km of trails, there’s lots of room to spread out. There are several trails that are suitable to novice skiers such as Pocaterra, Rolly Road, or Lodgepole, just make sure to read the map beforehand or else you might find yourself on some steep hills or a longer ski than you bargained for!
Canmore Nordic Centre
What post about cross-country skiing near Calgary would be complete without mentioning the Canmore Nordic Centre? The Nordic Centre is actually considered a Provincial Park and hosted the 1988 Calgary Olympic Games. It’s one of the best places in the world to cross country ski, boasting 65km of groomed trails, with machine-made and natural snow, fantastic views, and it’s often the first (and last) place that you can ski during the season.
A day pass or season pass is required. Beginners will likely want to stick to the 11km Banff Loop. Pro tip? Head out there in the evening when it’s free! Looking for an evening ski? 6.5km of the Banff Loop is lit at night!
So there you have it, several easy trails to get you started cross country skiing. After you’ve gained some comfort on your skis, consider taking a course — cross country skiing is all about technique and proper technique means you can go a much further distance without working as hard. We recommend the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre but there are lots of great options for cross country ski lessons. See you on the trails!