No matter how much you love winter, there’s something reassuring about a warming hut.
Here in the Castle region of southwestern Alberta, with mild late-winter temperatures and snow dropping in soggy splats and our internal furnaces humming as we pedal our fat bikes, the warming hut isn’t even necessary. But rolling off the trail and opening the door to the hut feels as warm and welcoming as mom’s cookies.
The hut is a welcome addition to the Castle, part of the improvements being made after the region was declared a provincial park in 2017, the first new park in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta in a generation. Located at the head of a network of cross-country, snowshoe and fat bike trails, the hut is one of several welcome respites from the winter outside – smelling of freshly cut pine and warmed by a toasty wood-burning stove – it’s intended to give a little dash of coziness to those winter lovers taking advantage of the recreational opportunities in the area.
Just as reassuring to the newbies in our group is Karey Watanabe, our guide. A former professional mountain biker in Japan, Watanabe has made the region of southwest Alberta, which also includes Crowsnest Pass and Waterton Lakes National Park, her home and her riding hub. Her company Sweet Riders offers guided summertime mountain bike trips in this area – a burgeoning hub of fantastic trails that has been, but won’t be for long, a closely held secret by locals. Now that the snow has fallen, Watanabe has turned to those monster-truck mountain bikes known as fat bikes, which roll through the dry powder of Alberta like a winter wind.
Watanabe oozes confidence on a bike, in the snow and in the region, which is a special feeling if you’re new to any of them. She takes our group through a series of trails cut through the trees and groomed for easy access. Snowshoers and cross-country skiers criss-cross our path, but we are rolling. We stop at a clearing for selfies with the Rockies as the backdrop, and the group breathes a collective sigh. This is the winter life.
Later, over a homey lunch at the lodge of the nearby Castle Mountain Resort (a hidden gem of a ski resort that also won’t be hidden for long, thanks to its growing reputation for harboring huge caches of snow), Watanabe can’t help but gush about the region’s future. Castle lies between the famously beautiful Waterton Lakes National Park to the south and the burgeoning communities of the Crowsnest Pass to the north.
“Things are happening here,” she says. “People are starting to realize what a great spot this is.”
In the summer, Castle Provincial Park is opening up to more and more recreational opportunities with the construction of new and improved campgrounds, trails, a network of backcountry huts and glamping cabins. In winter, trails are being groomed for skiing, snowshoeing and fat biking, which is drawing more than the traditional lovers of downhill skiing. Plus, those warming huts!
Watanabe, being a bike lover, is most excited about the cycling opportunities in both seasons. In summer, nearby Crowsnest Park has a committed group of locals building mountain bike trails and signage throughout the region. A network of trails also criss-crosses the site of Pass Powderkeg ski resort (which will soon start renting pedal-assist electric bicycles). Watanabe is also offering mountain bike camps for women and helping bring big mountain bike events to the region.
In winter, the dry snow of Alberta is ideal for fat bikes, and a growing network of trails is being groomed through the region. The nice thing about fat biking is its ease – if you can ride a bike, you can fat bike. The snow and the massive low-pressure tires bring the speed down a bit, so it’s a much mellower experience than summertime mountain biking. Plus, pillowy snow makes for a soft landing if things go badly – some of the people in our group were testing this theory over and over again, just for fun.
For Watanabe, who has spent a good chunk of her life in the saddle of a mountain bike, all of these changes mean she’s likely to spend a good deal more time in the same position. She’s OK with that.
“We’re so lucky to live here,” she says. “Now, we want more people to know about it.”