Originally published in the Post Register May, 2003.
BANFF, Alberta - Idahoans tend not to be impressed by 10,000-foot mountain peaks.
After all, eastern Idaho is surrounded by mountain ranges that top out at 12,000 feet or more. By comparison, the 8,000- to 10,000-foot peaks in Alberta’s Banff and Jasper national parks might be considered foothills.
Until you see them.
The unique, jagged peaks of the Canadian Rockies, combined with the opportunity to walk onto a glacier and see more diverse wildlife than a typical trip to Yellowstone, make the drive north worth the time and expense.
It’s a long day’s drive up I-15 and a series of good Canadian highways to Banff, which is an hour west of Calgary. Banff is the name of both the national park and the small town that anchors the southeastern end of the park.
From Banff, the Icefields Parkway takes you northwest to Jasper, passing through a series of icefields, or groups of glaciers, some of which come nearly to the edge of the road. You’ll notice the lakes here take on a surreal turquoise color from mid-summer on, caused by “rock flour” ground by glaciers and sent as sediment into the lakes during snowmelt.
You can choose from a number of locations for your headquarters: Canmore, just outside the Banff park entrance; Banff townsite; Lake Louise, or lodges at several other locations throughout Banff and Jasper parks. If you’re travelling during the peak months of July and August you’ll need reservations months in advance and should prepare to pay a minimum of $100 US per night, even with the favorable exchange rates (currently about $1 US to $1.50 Canadian).
If you want a wide selection of lodging, dining and shopping from which to choose, Banff should be your base. Lake Louis offers limited selections of each. Canmore has more to offer than Lake Louise but less than Banff and is just a few miles outside the park entrance. Jasper also has a good variety of services, but it’s on the northern end of the region and very remote.
The two classic places to stay – Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise – run more than $200 a night, depending on when you stay. On the other end of the spectrum is a series of hostels up and down the two parks, which can be as little as $10 a night for dormitory-style accommodations.
It would be an unusual trip if you don’t see a handful of bears (both grizzly and black), plus mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, deer and moose. Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper have chairlifts or gondolas that operate summer and winter for great views without a strenuous hike. But the hiking is world class.
For a truly civilized hike, walk from Lake Louise to Lake Agnes, a climb of some 1,200 feet over 2.2 miles, perhaps Banff National Park’s most popular hike. At the top you’ll find an English-style teahouse, where you can enjoy a cookie, muffin or lemon bread and a spot of tea (or cup of coffee).
You can remain inside Banff National Park and have a wonderful time, but a highlight of any visit to the Canadian Rockies is a drive on the Icefield Parkway from Lake Louise to Jasper National Park and the Jasper townsite, a trip of some 175 miles one way. With stops along the way, it’s a full day from Banff to Jasper and back. If you want a more leisurely option, spend the night in Jasper and return to Banff the next day.
While you can stop anywhere along the parkway and have something to look at, there are a few places at which you must linger on the drive – widely considered one of the top five mountain drives in North America. For instance, you must stop at Bow Lake, one of the largest of the turquoise lakes that dot the two parks. In the distance is Bow Falls, in the summer a significant waterfall pouring from a high glacier.
Next is Bow Summit (just a few miles northwest of Bow Lake) and the viewpoint for Peyto Lake at the high point of the parkway, where you can view the lake far below you and the Rockies going on seemingly forever in the distance. This is the quintessential Canadian Rockies vista, featured on book covers, post cards and calendars.
The final must-stop on the parkway is the Columbia Icefield Information Center, aptly named, since it’s in the middle of the Columbia Icefield – a collection of glaciers. From here you can rent a ride on a “Snocoach” that will take you onto the nearby Athabasca Glacier, where you can walk onto the glacier itself (you can also get to the foot of the glacier with a short hike). From the Information Center – a large building with exhibits, a shop and a restaurant – you can see a number of glaciers and observe how they have carved out the terrain around them. Even in the middle of summer temperatures here rarely get above 70 degrees, so dress accordingly.
Bighorn sheep frequent this area, as do mountain goats and bears, so keep a sharp lookout. It’s perhaps an hour from here to the Jasper townsite. The Icefields Parkway is kept open year-round, but traveling its length can be very iffy before April or after October. It’s a particularly spectacular drive in September when the aspens change color.
Another favorite stop in the Canadian Rockies is Takakkaw Falls, a monstrous multiple cascade totaling 1,254 feet. The main cascade alone is 838 feet high, ranking it fourth highest in Canada. (Taken together, the falls are the second highest in Canada, behind the remote Della Falls on Vancouver Island). Takakkaw is actually in Yoho National Park, just an easy hour’s drive northwest of Lake Louise. Speaking of falls, a short hike up Johnston Canyon between Banff and Lake Louise takes you to a series of falls in a granite gorge, another popular destination. There’s lodging and dining at Johnston Canyon as well.
When you tire of hiking and site-seeing, Banff townsite has the best selection of restaurants and shopping, and it’s home to the Banff Springs golf course, considered among the world’s best mountain layouts.
There are eight hot springs in the Banff area and more across the continental divide at Radium Hot Springs just outside Kootenay National Park. All are developed and easily accessible.
Elevation in the region ranges from 3,800 feet to more than 10,000. At this northern latitude, days are usually cool in the summer (mid-70s) and nights can be chilly even in July and August. If you’re hiking, layer your clothing and carry raingear, just in case. From late June through mid-August it’s not completely dark until well after 10 p.m. If you can, plan your trip for mid-September through mid-October. You run the chance of an early season snowstorm, but you’ll miss the high season crowds and lodging rates. Many of the hikes are snowbound into June, so a spring trip is good only if you’re content with sticking to the lower elevations.
The definitive resource for the Canadian Rockies is the book of the same name by Graeme Pole, published by Altitude Publishing. “Canadian Rockies,” the book, includes geological and human history, comprehensive information on touring all the major sites, plus a list of lodging, shopping and dining options. If you’re thinking of a trip to the Canadian Rockies, start with this book.