Canada featured high in our travel during 2014, Initially on our Alaskan cruise and the the following trip to Vancouver. Our second trip was to the Canadian Rockies.
Why two trips?
We had originally intended to fly to the Vancouver area, pick up a rental car, and drive the 800 miles or so to the Canadian Rockies, flying back home out of Calgary or Edmonton. Unfortunately, Mr. Avis, Mr. United and Mr. FIFA put a crimp in those plans. Avis wanted to charge us almost $3000 (Canadian, but the exchange rate is virtually 1 to 1) for a 10 day rental picking up in Vancouver or Seattle and dropping off in Calgary, and United wanted $1200 each for an open jaw flight SFO to Vancouver and Calgary to SFO. Additionally the World Cup Semi-Finals and Final were scheduled right in the middle of when we wanted to go, so we compromised. We tacked Vancouver on the end of our Alaska cruise, and took a separate trip a week later to Calgary. This meant we would miss the drive from Vancouver to the Rockies but would have more time at our destination. July is a busy month in the Canadian Rockies, so we pre-booked accommodation. Night 1 Calgary, nights 2-4 Banff, nights 5 and 6 Jasper and night 7 Calgary before an early flight back. Nevertheless, as our fourth night (in Banff) was a Saturday, there was nothing available under about $400 per night, we decided to stay in Canmore, about 15 miles east and just outside Banff National Park, for that one night.
Day 1 : Calgary
We arrived in Calgary early afternoon, and headed straight to our pre-booked bed-and-breakfast on the river to the west of the city to drop off our bags. What a curious little place, I don’t think I have ever seen as many little nick-nacks in one place before. There was nothing really wrong with it – clean, fairly quiet, and with a nice outdoor area on the river, but it felt a little creepy to me. The creepiness was exacerbated the following morning when the owners took photographs of everyone as they were having breakfast, and presented them to us on our departure. Not our best time of day for photographs.
We headed into Calgary for the evening. It’s a pleasant city but it has rather a small-town feel about it. Noteworthy are the network of ‘Plus 15’s, a series of enclosed bridges between most of the downtown buildings which enable you to get from any part of downtown to any other part without setting foot outside. The name refers to the fact they are 15 feet above the roadway. Calgary residents will tell you that they are that high because most winters bring 15 feet of snow, but it’s not true. Calgary gets relatively little snow, although the winters are viciously cold. They are simply that height so buses can get underneath. Fortunately the summer evening was warm so no need to use the Plus 15s. It was so warm that we were able to have an enjoyable dinner sitting outside Earl’s restaurant, after strolling through the pleasant downtown and along Stephen Avenue. The motto on the napkin sums up life in Calgary:
We walked up and along the Bow River to Prince’s Island Park, where we watched part of an outdoor performance of A Comedy of Errors. Apparently Theatre Calgary gives free (or pay-as-you-will) Shakespeare performances throughout the summer. The quality of the performance was surprisingly good and the warm and pleasant evening added to the experience.
Leaving the park we walked Chinatown, with it’s lamp posts hung with Chinese flags clearly ensuring you did not mistakenly think you were in another part of town. In many areas modern high rise buildings contrast with the old. In China town images of “Chinese style” roofs mingled in reflection with the new higher buildings. We observed where an older classic church had stood its ground while land around it had been redeveloped into high rise reflective mirrors. In fact Calgary is full of visual surprises – everywhere that we went we saw sculptures, reflective buildings and building art. When we returned to downtown from the river we passed a number of the public art projects, most notably a large metallic mesh head by the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, called Wonderland. The sculpture is interesting from outside, particularly when you observe it next to the wigwam. However, the external view does not prepare you for the full experience of walking inside and looking out at the Calgary skyline through the features of the face (at the top of the page and in the slideshow below).
The Famous Five sculpture can also be found in Calgary. Being intrigued I looked up the history and found that The Famous Five in this context were nothing to do with Enid Blyton, but were five Canadian women who asked the Supreme Court of Canada to answer the question, “Does the word ‘Persons’ in Section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867, include female persons?” In April 1928, Canada’s Supreme Court summarized its unanimous decision that women are not such “persons”. This judgement was overturned by the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council on 18 October 1929.
Day 2 : Travel to Banff
We set off west from Calgary on the 75 mile trip to Banff, passing the 1988 Winter Olympic site. We stopped off in Cochrane, about 20 miles west, to see Ann’s former work colleague from Mobil days, Simon Rogers. Simon and his wife Jean made us very welcome, and there was much reminiscing about the ‘old days’ (thirty-three years ‘old’ in fact, as Simon emigrated to Canada in 1981!) We arranged to meet up again on our return journey and continued on to Banff.
The road changed fairly rapidly from pancake flat to alpine mountainous, as we approached Canmore. Unfortunately, visibility was poor, not because of the weather, but because of haze in the atmosphere, which we later learned was caused by a massive fire midway between Banff and Jasper. We checked out the hotel we had booked in Canmore for the Saturday and immediately made the decision to switch to another hotel (a very good decision as it turned out). As we arrived in Banff, the haze cleared a little, but would return the following day. We has booked the Inns of Banff for 2 nights, based on numerous online recommendations. The hotel, while fine in itself, was a bit tired and run down – very much a late 1960s period piece. In retrospect, we probably would have been better spending all 3 nights in Canmore.
The rest of the afternoon we looked round the town of Banff. It is immensely picturesque, but rather over-touristy. It has clearly set out to be the tourist capital of the Canadian Rockies and it shows. In the line for paying the National Park fees in the Visitors Centre, we bumped into a couple of locals who said that the town had lost a lot of its charm over the last ten years. Local residents have to pay (reduced) park fees to be able to live there and park their cars. We walked down the main street to Cascade Gardens, and along the Bow River to a picturesque series of waterfalls (Bow Falls) across from the famous and imposing Banff Springs Hotel. This latter is one of the most famous buildings in Canada, supposedly built in the style of a Scottish castle, but it’s a stretch to see the resemblance. Impressive but dour is the best way to describe it. We took refuge from the heat of the day in the lobby for a little while, noticing that many of the staff were wearing kilts. At least we were spared the appalling ‘Scotty of Star Trek’ fake accents.
The highlight of our half-day in Banff was our evening trip to Banff Hot Springs, just above the town. This is a an outdoor pool fed (mostly) by natural hot springs at a temperature of about 100F (39C). There is a spectacular view over the mountains, which we caught at sunset. Admission is reasonable ($7 or so) and there are lockers and swimsuits for rent at a reasonable price. All in all a highly recommended experience.
Day 3 : Lake Louise and Moraine Lake
A day unfortunately defined by poor visibility but we still managed to visit the famous Lake Louise in the morning and the afternoon, with a side trip to Moraine Lake. One curious thing we noticed on the road was a number of very well landscaped bridges, seemingly without any roads feeding into them. We later discovered that these are animal overpasses, The main road through Banff NP is fully fenced off, to prevent animals straying into the roadway.Every few miles, there is an overpass (or sometimes a tunnel) to allow the animals to cross.
Lake Louise, 40 miles north of Banff, is often called the most picturesque spot in the Canadian Rockies, with the view along the length of the lake from the Chateau Lake Louise adorning countless postcards. The haze made it rather different experience, quite spooky in fact. The crowds were heavy so we decided to move on and look at Moraine Lake, about 15 miles away and another famously picturesque spot. The haze had cleared a little when we arrived, but once again the parking lot was crowded to overflowing. We fought the crowds and scrambled to the top of the ‘Rockpile’, a glacial deposit at the end of the lake – hence the name ‘Moraine Lake’ – and walked the length of the lake along the shoreline. As soon as we were 200 yards or so along the path the crowds simply vanished and we had most of the walk to ourselves. This is a delightful walk and highly recommended. There is a series of rapids at the far end of the lake. We considered walking a little into the back country but were dissuaded by the signs restricting any hiking of the main well-travelled trails to parties of 4 or more one of whom must be carrying bear spray. Couples were waiting at the trailheads to join up with others so they could hike on. We later learned that bears have been particularly active at low elevations in 2014.
Side note – It was also at Lake Louise that we saw our first inflatable paddleboard. I have since found them on Amazon. Not a bad idea if you are short of storage.
Lake Moraine Walk
After lunch we returned to Lake Louise. It was still hazy but not prohibitively so and we walked the length of Lake Louise as well. This was equally pleasant but very different from the Moraine Lake walk. We would suggest both. If time had permitted, we probably would have walked on an additional couple of miles to one of a series of tea rooms (yes, really) up in the mountains above the lake. You can tell you’re not in Kansas anymore when the mountain huts serve afternoon tea. We pottered round the Chateau Lake Louise for a short time, noticing that afternoon tea there was $50 (slightly cheaper than the Empress Hotel in Victoria – wonder how much they charged in the hut?) It’s an impressive building but I’m not sure it fits into the environment.
Lake Louise Walk
We returned to Banff detouring to Vermillion Lakes, just outside the town. We considered returning to the Hot Springs, but discovered the hotel had a large naturally heated pool/hot tub, so we spent some time there. This was probably the hotel’s best feature.
Day -4 : Johnston Canyon, Lake Minnewanka and Canmore
Checked out and headed to Canmore via a couple of well-known sights in the Banff area. The hike along Johnston Creek and into Johnston Canyon is said to be the most popular single hike in Canada. That is easy to believe. Steve has felt less crushed coming out of international football matches. Perhaps Saturday morning in midsummer was not the right time to do this. Had it not been raining the crowd would have been even heavier. Fortunately, as at Moraine Lake the crowd disperses fairly quickly, though never completely goes away. The reward for all this is a spectacular set of waterfalls and rock walls along a gently sloping and easy 3.5 mile round trip stroll. Looking at the sides you will see a moss covering over the rocks. all the Boardwalks cover anything which is not easily accessible. It was certainly worth visiting but we would recommend midweek in spring or fall!
Another popular spot we visited was Lake Minnewanka (yes, really). By this time the weather had really closed in and it was raining and very windy. Had the weather been fine we would have either taken a boat trip or a hike along the lake shore (not to the end, it’s about 16 miles long). It was quite disappointing to discover that although it is a natural lake, it has been ‘enhanced’ by a dam and hydro-electric plant built in 1941. While the lake was a pleasant glacial lake, given the weather and the dam, we did not stay particularly long. Fortunately, we were able to visit a more spectacular glacial lake in Jasper (q.v.)
The advantage of having a bout of rain and wind was that the air was scoured of all the haze, and the remainder of our time we had crystal clear conditions.
We headed into Canmore and checked into our hotel, the Canmore Rocky Mountain Inn (about 40% of the price of anything in Banff). It was clean and well kept, with a large and comfortable public room, 24 hour tea and coffee, and a spacious bedroom. Would definitely recommend. We decided to spend the rest of the day visiting Grassi Lakes, just above the town.
It was not particularly well signposted but once you found it, well worth the visit. The lakes are about a mile hike from the parking lot, and are reached from either of 2 parallel paths, one of which is slightly shorter but has a much steeper section and we would recommend doing as we did, up the shorter, rockier trail and down the more gentle trail. The climb gives wonderful views of the town, and passes a waterfall. The real reward is the lakes themselves. There are two lakes, turquoise blue, backed by spectacular rock formations and overlooking the valley. The upper lake (only 100 feet or so from the lower lake) is a popular destination for rock climbers.
Canmore appears to have more than its fair selection of good reasonably priced restaurants. We ate at the Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company which was very good and very accommodating to Steve’s inability to consume tomato-based products.
Day 5: Icefields Parkway
We set off early on our trip up the Icefields Parkway, making the 200 mile drive to Jasper (plus a further 70 to our hotel – see later!) This is often claimed to be one of the two or three most spectacular drives in the world, and it lives up to the hype. Because of the fire midway between Banff and Jasper, there was only a guarantee that the road would be open until 2 p.m. at that point (as it turned out, the road was open all day). We set off by 8 and stopped again briefly at Lake Louise, which we had failed to see in all its glory two days earlier. This time we were greeted with spectacularly clear scenery and fewer people as it was before 9 a.m.
The Icefields Parkway itself begins just north of Lake Louise. We made several stops along the way, at some spectacular vistas.
The first major vista is of Crowfoot Glacier. Up until several years ago, this was a large crow-foot shaped glacier that reached almost down to the Bow River, but it has retreated substantially (a fate to befall most of the glaciers on the Parkway) Nevertheless, it still makes spectacular viewing.
A little further along is Bow Lake, where we took a short hike to the shores of the lake itself. The whole scene was enhanced by the profusion of wildflowers,
Five miles further on is Peyto Lake. While only partly visible from the road, there is a parking area with a short hike to get to the lake. (For some reason, coach parties get to park right next to the overlook while private vehicles are about half a mile away. This means that the overlook is a great deal more crowded than you would expect.) The lake itself is a spectacular pale turquoise colour, caused by the suspension of rock flour in the water.
Continuing past the Weeping Wall area and Bridal Veil falls you eventually reach Saskatchewan Glacier, and the massive Columbia Icefield. It is at the foot of the Columbia Icefield you find the Icefields Center, which is the main tourist hub for the Icefields Parkway.
From the Center we drove the half mile or so up to Athabasca Glacier, and took the short hike to its foot. It is remarkable, but must have been much more so several years ago. You pass signs with years on them, noting where the toe of the Glacier was in that year. The first sign, ‘1908’ is off the road, close to the Icefields Center, about half a mile distant. The last sign, ‘1992’, is about 200 yards from the present toe of the glacier. The only way you can walk on the glacier today (other than hopping the fence, which many people were doing) is on a guided bus tour. As we have glacier-walked in Alaska and New Zealand, we gave it a miss. The other major tour offered from the Icefields Center is the ‘Glacier Skywalk’, which we considered, but did not do. Having driven past it, it looks like we made the right decision. It is a suspended walkway with a glass floor over a not particularly interesting part of the canyon, and from which you cannot actually see any glaciers. You have to take a guided tour, which runs over $40 and quite honestly does not appear to be worth it when there are much more remarkable things to see from the road. We took a sneak photo as we drove past – the front to the walk has tall walls so you can not see in but at one side the road is open and if you are quick you can get a photo and find out what you are missing. This was also the start of the Amazing Race Canada, season 2.
Driving on from Athabasca, we passed the delicate and beautiful Tangle Falls. The falls are very close to the road and therefore extremely popular and crowded. However, they are very picturesque in the way that the water tumbles down over a series of rock steps. I have read that it is extremely beautiful in winter when the water freezes in places and icicles dangle from the rocks. The rocks around the falls are very wet and slippery and we were surprised at the number of parents of small children allowing them to climb over very treacherous rocks and fast-moving water.
Approaching Jasper, there are two spectacular sets of waterfalls. The first is Sunwapta Falls, just a short drive off the main parkway. It is a 60 foot drop. Even more impressive is Athabasca falls, a few miles on. This has an 80 foot drop, but is it the sheer quantity of water which is awe-inspiring. Supposedly in terms of gallons per minute per linear foot, it is the most powerful waterfall in the world. There are several viewpoints on both sides of the river that allow you to get extremely close to the flow. It really is, literally, breathtaking.
Finally arriving in Jasper we discovered it to be a much smaller town than Banff, pleasant enough but a little lacking in charm, possibly because of the railway which runs the length of the town. Because of the difficulties of finding accommodation in Jasper, we had booked in Hinton, which is 70 or so miles beyond Jasper. Hinton is certainly not somewhere we would recommend to visit. It is an old pulp mill town which has clearly seen better days. We attempted to find a restaurant (according to Tripadvisor, the local Dairy Queen is the 6th best of the town’s 34 restaurants) and entered a seafood place (also sort-of recommended) with another couple only to be told they closed at eight o’clock (it was about two minutes past eight). We ended up eating take-out Subway sandwiches. On the positive side, however, the hotel was good, and the drive between Hinton and Jasper (which we did four times) was very picturesque and was where we saw the majority of the wildlife on our trip. All the bears we spotted except one were seen along this stretch of road (we later learned that earlier in the year a cyclist in Jasper was killed and mutilated by a bear). We also had several encounters with elk.
Animals along the Icefields Parkway
Day 6: Jasper – Whistlers Mountain and Maligne Lake
This was our budget-busting day. After driving back to Jasper (and having our first elk encounter) we took the aerial tramway up Whistler’s Mountain. The name comes from the whistling sound made by the marmots which are native to the area. The ski resort of Whistler in British Columbia is so named for the same reason. We neither saw nor heard any marmots. The tram takes 7 minutes to travel from the base station at 4300 feet to the upper station at almost 7500 feet, close(-ish) to the top of the mountain. Fortunately the day was clear again so it was a thrilling ride. At the top, you have the choice of walking the paths close to the upper station, or continuing on foot another 3/4 of a mile, and 600 feet of elevation gain, to the summit. The latter is well worth it if the visibility is good. There was still a little snow at this elevation, so we did get the chance to do a snow-walk after all. From the top there is an almost 360 degree view, although because the summit area is very flat and extensive there is not really the feel of being on top of a mountain.
We spent the afternoon driving down the Maligne valley to Maligne Lake. This is regarded as another ‘must-do’ in the Jasper area, and we decided on this rather than the Valley of Five Lakes, our schedule not really allowing time for both. Half way along the road to the lake which follows the Maligne River, is Medicine lake, which is worth as short stop. Maligne lake itself lies about 30 miles from Jasper. Although the weather was on the cloudy side when we arrived, it picked up and we decided to splash out on the boat trip. There are several trails but none really stick to the shoreline of the lake. At 14 miles in length, Maligne lake is one of the largest glacial lakes in the Canadian Rockies and at $64, the boat tour is one of the dearest anywhere! The scenery becomes ever more spectacular as you travel up the lake. The boat stops briefly at Spirit island to allow you to disembark, stretch your legs and take pictures. Apparently the view of Spirit Island is regarded as iconic, and it has the reputation of being one of the most photographed places on earth (surprising at $64 a pop, but there you are). We were lucky to have sunshine and enough cumulus clouds to make the place as photogenic as the brochures suggest. Our recommendation would be to do the boat trip only in the event of good weather (the same goes for the Jasper Tram). We were fortunate – a day later we would have had rain.
After returning to Jasper for a (not particularly good) dinner, we decided to do another outdoor hot spring. Mid way between Jasper and Hinton is the turnoff to Miette Hot Springs, one of three in the Rockies. While it looked a short distance on the map, it was a winding and slow road, and we spent rather longer getting there than we had anticipated. The place was a little more rustic than the one in Banff, but it had a selection of pools of different temperatures, including a cold pool which was highly recommended by the brochures but which we were too chicken to try. It was fun but we both preferred the pool in Banff, not least because to the journey to get to Miette (and back). Almost needless to say, we had sightings of both bear and elk.
Day7: Return to Calgary along Icefields Parkway
We set off early for the 300 or so miles back to Calgary, not least because we had arranged to have dinner with Simon and Jean in Cochrane. We pretty much returned the way we came, stopping far less frequently. We did manage one animal sighting, at Sunwapta Pass (confusingly, not all that close to Sunwapta Falls – Sunwapta Pass is where Banff and Jasper National Parks meet). A herd of mountain goats were close to the road, and were quite accommodating to photographers, as if they had done it many times before. As we made good time through the Parkway, we decided to re-visit Moraine Lake, which we had previously only seen covered in haze.
Although we did not repeat the lake walk, we did climb to the top of the Rockpile (it sounds more difficult that it really is – there’s a well marked and frequently paved path) and got a much clearer view of the lake and the surrounding mountains.
We stopped off again briefly in Banff and was able to get a clearer view of the surroundings than our initial visit. We also visited Surprise Corner, which provides a view of the Bow River and the Banff Springs Hotel from a high vantage point across the river. Both the hotel and it’s location are very spectacular. Looking down you get a good view of the Bow river which also is a popular rafting spot.
We were back in Cochrane in plenty of time to meet up with Simon and Jean for dinner, eating in a very pleasant Italian restaurant called, I think, Portofino. After saying our goodbyes we headed back into Calgary. One word of advice – don’t stay at the Comfort Inn and Suites Calgary Airport if you expect it to be close to the airport. It’s about a 20 minute drive away. Perfectly OK hotel in rather a seedy area, but there are many hotels much closer to the airport.