Ice Field Parkway
This is a stretch of road between Banff and Jasper, considered one of the world's most scenic drives, located just west of Lake Louise. It is a two hour drive from Banff Springs. Once at the Columbia Ice Fields, it is another hour to Jasper. It is along this parkway that you will see all kinds of wildlife – that is if you pay attention and drive safely. We saw a grizzly bear and words can not describe how exciting it was. He was huge!!!! (See picture) The bear, it seemed, could care less about the 20 or so tourists jumping up and down, shaking their heads in disbelief and franticly snapping pictures - no more than 200 ft away. If you see a few cars pulled to the side of the road there is probably some sort of animal nearby. Stop, stretch your legs and get out those cameras. But remember; stay close to your car - it may be a grizzly!!!!!!! Highly Recommended.
Columbia Ice Fields
Main hub (Icefield Center) is a large, green-roofed building which houses, bathrooms, gift shop, visitor center, cafeteria and fine dining area. The facility was completed in 1996 and covers and area of over 300 kilometers. It is here where you can buy tickets to visit the Athabasca Glacier which is across the valley from the visitor center. Tours leave every 15-30 minutes depending on season. They take you via regular tour bus to the tip of the glacier. Then you get off that bus and board a gigantic glacier snowmobile (6 wheel drive). It looks like a moon machine. There are huge glass windows on both sides; so you have views from every seat. The tour guides are very friendly and helpful, telling you facts about the glacier and the area on your way. The ride takes about 15 minutes (if that). The glacier is basically a vast ice and snow field with mountains surrounding you. There are frequently avalanches; very cool to see. Don’t worry - you are far enough away to be safe. It is so bright because of the snow; I had a hard time looking around. Bring sunglasses, a heavy coat, hiking boots and your camera. The wind can get strong and the snow from the mountains/glaciers whips around. Difficult for the handicap; to get on and off buses and to walk around. There are no set paths, nothing is shoveled, there are no platforms to stand on, etc. You are warned more than once that walking on the glacier is at your own risk. There seems to be huge “fissures” in the ice that people occasionally fall through. Ouch!!! 23 CAD per person (adult) that includes a 90 min excursion with a drive to the glacier and 20 minutes to walk around and take pictures. The center also has two dining options; cafeteria style and fine dining, bathrooms, gift shop, small museum that lays out the icefield for you and plenty of free parking. We were there in off-season and the place was packed! Recommended.
We flew into Calgary on Continental from NY after making a connection. To our knowledge, Air Canada is the only carrier that flies direct from NY. The drive from Calgary to Banff was about an hour and a half, mostly highway and very pretty. Seeing the snow capped mountains getting closer and closer really was a thrill. This is the Canadian Rockies – at its best. The area is gorgeous, truly breathtaking. Renting a car is an absolute must. I don't care what anyone says it’s the best and most practical way to get around and see all of the sites. We visited in May which is considered the shoulder season here. I can not even imagine how beautiful the Rockies must be during the summer when the lakes are emerald green. However, wildlife viewing is supposedly at its best in spring and the crowds haven’t arrived yet. We were shocked that it remained light out until 9:30 pm in May!! Banff is considered a national park and therefore there is a charge to be in the park - 9 CAD/per day/per person. There is something for everyone here; skiing, snowboarding, hikes, snowmobiling, shopping, history, great food, golf, white water rafting and wildlife. As you drive around, you’ll see the name “Brewster” everywhere. That family basically owns everything.
The next closest town which is similar to Banff but not as charming is Canmore. It's about 20 minutes east and the look and feel of the town is very similar to Banff but not as resort like. A few hours are more than enough to explore this small town. A good portion of the movie “Brokeback Mountain” was filmed here. The Three Sisters mountain formation also makes for great photos.
The Fairmont was a great hotel to stay in as it was centrally located within Banff. It was however, impossible to get a picture of the full hotel from standing anywhere on the premises. We found out through the hotel’s bookstore that the best place to get pictures of the full hotel (Fairmont) is off of Buffalo Street. If coming from the hotel, make a right onto Buffalo and take road all the way down, it will curve left and the hotel (full view) will be on the right. There is also a deck that you can climb to get better shots from a higher vantage point. Bow Falls is a small waterfall around the corner from the Fairmont. Nothing exciting. However, Bow Valley itself really is spectacular. Free parking, some locals come here to just relax.
The weather really varies here from warm in the day to cold at night. It also varies depending on where you are (mountain vs. on Banff Ave,). We found it interesting that we could not use our (American) ATM cards at any of the local bank machines. We were rejected each time. Thankfully we had some US cash on us and we were able to go to the local bank and exchange it for Canadian Dollars. We have never had this problem anywhere – not in Europe, Mexico or the South Pacific, but in Canada our cards did not work, so plan ahead. Be that as it may, we did find things to add up. Although there wasn't one specific thing that was expensive, we definitely felt that everywhere we went it cost us money; to get into the park, to take the gondola, to get on the glacier, parking, etc. This was a trip we always wanted to take, so we overlooked this. But – when we got home and added it up – this was a very expensive 4 day trip. That being said - it’s surprising how expensive the area priced out during the “high season” (June to September). To be honest, I just can’t imagine it being more money than what we spent. There are good deals to be found for lodging in the off season, you just have to search a little on Expedia, Travelocity, etc.
The major downfall to visiting off season is of course, a few of the roads are still closed (Moraine Lake, Tunnel Mountain Drive) and many of the lakes are still frozen over. Regardless, we were still kept very busy and had plenty to do. It’s true - the Rockies are beautiful any time of year. The people are wonderful and so welcoming and the food overall, was fantastic. You will not be disappointed. Highly Recommended.