Written by MagdaDH_AlexH on 25 Mar, 2011
Banff is a major centre for tourism in the Canadian Rockies, the main town in the national park which bears its name and probably the most famous settlement in the area. But then, all of Canadian Rockies are about tourism. The European settlement of the…Read More
Banff is a major centre for tourism in the Canadian Rockies, the main town in the national park which bears its name and probably the most famous settlement in the area. But then, all of Canadian Rockies are about tourism. The European settlement of the area started with the railways, and the railways brought the visitors searching for dramatic landscapes and healthy airs. Hotels (many of them railway hotels, owned by the powerful Canadian Pacific railway company) followed the railways and the visitors flocked to the wilderness. And wilderness it remains, despite the veneer of civilization and technology, despite the roads, ski lifts, bear-proof rubbish bins and cable cars, the Rockies, as they have always been, are wild and untamed. Unlike the European mountains of similar size, the Alps, where people have been living, herding sheep and goats, making cheese and practicing the yodeling for hundreds if not thousands of years, there is little evidence of permanent human habitation in the Rockies. We spend a sunny day in Banff and around, with our Couch-Surfing hosts kindly lending us a car and a parks' pass. It's a busy, touristy little place and the town itself doesn't feel particularly enchanting, but what matters is of course the landscape around and there is enough to satisfy everybody. We take a walk along the Bow River to the rapids slightly downstream from Banff centre. It's a pleasant stroll, mostly on a wooded path separated from the road, with attractive views opening up and changing every few meters, it seems. The day is beautifully sunny, and the mountains look magnificent. The rapids are noisy and worth the effort of the walk, and as we climb up to a small viewing platform above the road, we can see the Banff Springs Fairmont Hotel, another of those castle-like grand railway hotels that Canadian Pacific seem to have built all over Canada. We walk back to the car park, where the children do some mock rock climbing in the playpark, and then drive to the Sulphur Mountain Gondola (which warrants a separate review, but is certainly a fun thing to do if you can afford it). By now it's the afternoon, and we need to think of returning to base. On the way back, we do a detour to Lake Minnewanka, a glacial lake below Cascade mountain, a few miles north-east of Banff. It's clear here that May is not quite the high season in the Rockies. The lake is surrounded by snow and partially frozen, and there is no visitors about, although mountain goats and bighorn sheep can be seen by the roadside. The lake has been made bigger but also somewhat more desolate by hydro-electric schemes that raised the water level by some 30m. Still, it's an attractive spot, although wind gets channeled down between the hills and it's starting to sleet so we only stop for a brief look. From Lake Minnewanka we drive back to the main highway and then off again for a while along the Bow River Valley which meanders rather magnificently under the huge massif of Mt Rundle. Views are everywhere, and as there are plenty of parking spaces we are tempted to stop for photos, cigarettes and gazing sessions that Our Children greet with increasing moans of annoyance. The last stop before we take off on the way back to base is by the Hoodoos, a set of convoluted shapes eroded in rocky outcrops that raise from the steep valley side above the river. The walk to the lookout is quick and interesting enough even for the children, and we don't meet many people on what is normally apparently very crowded path – there are some advantages to visiting in the low season. The disadvantages hit us rather forcefully the next day, when we set off in the morning with a plan to visit the Johnston Canyon and Lake Louise. It's sunny and hopeful looking as we drive off from Canmore, taking the Bow Valley Parkway which is supposed to be the more attractive route. Alas, fog and mist descend pretty quickly and we can't see much, and within a few miles it starts to snow. By the time we turn back onto the Trans Canada Highway, I am driving in a minor blizzard, with the wipers going at full speed and the snow falling in large, wet and sticky flakes. In Canmore it's raining cats and dogs and we get completely soaked in a short run between the parking bay in a retail park and the inside of a cafe. Clearly, Johnston Canyon wasn't to be. We will take another shot at Lake Louise tomorrow, as part of our onwards journey. Close
Written by callen60 on 28 Feb, 2009
We were married on a cold Michigan night 25 years ago, trudging through snowdrifts and road salt to the rehearsal dinner, our wedding, and the reception. Back then, it seemed appropriate to head south for a honeymoon, and we woke after a few brief hours…Read More
We were married on a cold Michigan night 25 years ago, trudging through snowdrifts and road salt to the rehearsal dinner, our wedding, and the reception. Back then, it seemed appropriate to head south for a honeymoon, and we woke after a few brief hours of sleep to board a freezing cold plane for a week in Cancun.But for a silver anniversary celebration, we thought it would be fun to indulge our long-time delight in mountain landscapes and head west, fulfilling an idea that we’d first had while exploring the wonders of Yellowstone: spend a week in the mountains in wintertime.We thought about returning to Yellowstone, and exploring that amazing but somewhat familiar landscape via skis and even snowmobile. That would have been a great trip, but we decided instead to head someplace (largely) new: the Canadian Rockies, and Banff and Jasper National Parks. I’d been to Banff as a kid, as part of one long, fantastic trip along the Rockies from Denver to Calgary, through the Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier and Banff. But my memories were mostly clustered on the American side of the border, with Banff having served as a brief, final way station before heading home.To the surprise of most who heard our plans, we’re not skiers. My downhill experience started and ended on the slopes of Michigan, mostly at places like ‘Mount Brighton’, having ventured north to the state’s best slopes a single time, 30 years ago. And although I spent a lot more time on cross-country skies, those haven’t been out of the garage since we landed in Missouri nearly two decades ago.So this vacation was built around a different set of activities. We’d sample all the other things winter has to offer: dogsledding, snowshoeing, ice canyons, and wildlife; good meals, warm fires, and cozy cabins; finishing with an nightly retreat to the fireside with a good book.HighlightsThe weather can range from hospitable to intolerable. We arrived the Sunday after Christmas, and the first words from nearly everyone we met were "Oh, I’m glad you weren’t here last week." Then, temperatures had hit 40 below, the magic point that reads the same on both the Celcius and Fahrenheit scales. The weather had warmed considerably since then, hitting highs of -10 to -5 during our stay (or 14 to 23 F; we liked using the minus signs in telling family back home just how cold it was).That was more than warm enough to get outside, provided you were dressed right. And we were: thanks to Igo polar expert MilwVon, we headed north with good boots (bravo Sorels!) and multiple layers. My running silks worked just fine, but a big key is Merino wool socks. Don’t skimp on Merino content, or on good gloves: I ended up paying twice, buying real ones to replace the $8.97 pair that seemed ‘good enough’ on a cold Missouri day.Properly equipped, we had a blast outside. We hiked Marble Canyon in Koontenay National Park, and immediately followed it up on the catwalks of Johnston Canyon back in Alberta and Banff NP. Winter hiking was terrific: the scenery was fantastic, and we had Marble Canyon completely to ourselves (and Johnston nearly so). On our first full day, we headed into the Spray Lakes region south of Canmore for a dogsled ride with Snowy Owl Tours. What a great experience! We seriously debated whether to come back and do it again. The combination of the animals, the landscape, and the quiet was amazing. The Town of Banff is an odd combination of mountain outpost, tony resort, and jumping off point. We had some great meals here and in Canmore (chronicled in other journals), and explored the origins of Canada’s National Park system at the Cave and Basin, and the Banff Park Museum. Both are worth a visit if you’re looking for in-town things to do; if you’re out in the mountains already, stay there. Chances are you’ll get more out of a visit to the Whyte Museum of the Rockies, if for no other reason than to visit the excellent gift shop. Browse their photographic archives, or the excellent traveling exhibits: it’s definitely worth a stop.We made two trips to Lake Louise, both on the grayest days of our visit. The world-famous view down the lake to the now rapidly retreating glacier didn’t look the same when you had to squint through the snow, but it was fun to walk out on the ice. The Chateau Lake Louise perched on its shore looked much different than my first view 37 years ago: the additions, renovation, and new beige skin made it seem out of place, in contrast with its sister property, the brick castle Banff Springs Hotel back in Banff. A downsizing may be in order. But a short hike along the lake’s edge was a good antidote to looking at the acres of plaster in the hotel’s façade.Thanks to our hosts at Storm Mountain Lodge, we headed out on snowshoes late on New Year’s Eve. This classic mode of travel was easier than I’d thought, and doing it with an experienced guide by moonlight (and finishing with a midnight champagne toast ‘round the bonfire at midnight) gave us an unforgettable start to 2009. Close
Canada’s Rockies are more accessible in winter (or other seasons) than you might initially suspect. It’s quickest to approach from Alberta, although it’s a longer but beautiful approach from Vancouver and the west. Calgary and Edmonton share the same longitude, four hours apart and directly…Read More
Canada’s Rockies are more accessible in winter (or other seasons) than you might initially suspect. It’s quickest to approach from Alberta, although it’s a longer but beautiful approach from Vancouver and the west. Calgary and Edmonton share the same longitude, four hours apart and directly east, respectively, of the towns of Banff and Jasper. The northwest slant of the Rockies means that while Calgary is slightly more than an hour from Banff, the drive from Edmonton to Jasper is closer to three. This makes a large loop possible, but there’s little between Alberta’s two largest cities to justify the trip along Canada 2. If weather permits, why not backtrack through the fabulous mountains?But in winter, that might be easier said than done. Through Hotwire, we rented a compact car for a modest $20/day, but received a minivan instead. It was nice to have the extra size and mass, but an even better bet in the snow is anything with all-season radials or snow tires. Every road heading out of the Bow Valley—Highway 93 west over the Divide to Windermere, the Icefields Parkway northwest to Jasper, or Highway 1 west over the Rockies to Field and Golden—warns you to have good tires or even chains. And there’s something both cool and intimidating about the large barriers behind those signs, ready to be lowered and close the road at a moment’s notice. As we approached from Calgary, my wife noted that our guidebooks recommended four-wheel drive, which we were pretty sure our Chevy Uplander didn’t have.Roads can be in great shape, or completely impassable, so make sure you check. My pleasure at being among people who know that winter is a fact of life and prepare to enjoy it extended to their care for the roads, but it does take time to clear out after a storm. Even the flat pathways from Calgary to the foothills can be challenging (think the blowing snows of Iowa, Nebraska, or the Dakotas). Outside of Canada 1, the strategy is to leave the snow on the road and maintain it with plowing and gravel, which produces a pretty decent surface. This was the character of the Bow Valley Parkway, the old route from Banff to Lake Louise, a very nice two-lane road through the forest. Unfortunately, it has narrow shoulders, which I discovered by slipping my front tire over the edge when my concentration wandered for a second. Thanks to the kindness of strangers, we only lost an hour to that snowbank: a kind woman from Edmonton headed to Castle Junction and reported that we were stuck, then dropped her passengers and came back to retrieve us, and another woman who overheard our phone call to CAA got her husband to borrow a tow rope and extract us with his jeep.We planned to drive the Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise to Jasper, a 150-mile trip rated by some as the world’s most scenic highway. Sorry, we can’t offer our own opinion. It’s maintained in the winter—a Cold War era agreement requires that it be kept open, as part of the only overland route to Alaska—but the plowing hierarchy places it after Canada 1 and ahead of the Bow Valley Parkway. Think twice before setting out: we got a wide range of opinions from local residents about the road, and after finding the driving conditions rated ‘poor’, adjusted our plans and cancelled. That felt right after our Bow Valley incident, the fatal accident we encountered on Canada 1 as we set out for Lake Louise. Had any of those been a little different, we probably would have taken a shot at it. It’s said to be wide and fairly straight, but subject to ice and slippery conditions. And in winter, there are no services, and no towns or stops along the way. Thankfully, both our hotel and our two pre-paid tours accepted our cancellations without penalty.As a substitute for Jasper, we drove south from Canmore into Kananaskis Country, which proved a worthy substitute. The weather was perfect, with cloudless blue skies and moderate temperatures, and the snowpack road was eminently drivable. Remote but not abandoned, it weaves between peaks and along the long lake formed by a small dam. We drove, stopped for pictures, drove, stopped some more, and continued that pattern for about 50 km until hitting the sharp boundary between our clear skies and a heavy snowstorm. We abandoned our plan for a circle drive, and enjoyed revisiting our scenery on the way back.In short, the roads where we wanted to go were largely open, and ready for travel. And if not, you're probably staying somewhere comfortable: what's wrong with staying put for a bit? Close
The U.S. invented the national park in 1873 to protect Yellowstone’s fairyland of thermal features, although you might say that ‘reserving’ the Hot Springs of Arkansas in 1820 was the precursor to this landmark decision. Either way, Canada followed in those steamy footsteps by establishing…Read More
The U.S. invented the national park in 1873 to protect Yellowstone’s fairyland of thermal features, although you might say that ‘reserving’ the Hot Springs of Arkansas in 1820 was the precursor to this landmark decision. Either way, Canada followed in those steamy footsteps by establishing Banff National Park in 1883. The three rail workers who’d discovered the hot springs had visions of a fortune built around the warm, sulfurous waters, but in the end the national government denied their petition to withdraw the area from the public domain and instead set aside a modest amount of land as Rocky Mountains Park.Today, an impressive amount of spectacular landscape forms one of the world’s premier park systems, protecting a wide expanse of land and wilderness along the crest of the Rockies. Much of it was designated fairly quickly after creating the seed from which Banff NP eventually grew, surviving cattle ranching, strip mining of coal, and farming (all within park boundaries!) before these activities were finally shut down in the early 1930’s. This string of jewels begins with Waterton Lakes on the US-Canada border, featuring the oft-photographed Prince of Wales Hotel atop its promontory on the shore of one the region’s countless turquoise lakes. From there, it’s a few hours drive northwest along the spine of the Rockies to the four-park cluster that begins with Banff, and includes Jasper NP to the north and Kootenay and Yoho parks to the west, across the Continental Divide and the Alberta-British Columbia border. Further west in British Columbia are Glacier and then Mount Revelstoke National Parks, both along Canada 1. Together, these parks contain over 8,500 sq mi of protected mountain ecosystem, much of it inaccessible by road. When you add in the significant Provincial Park and reserve system, particularly in Alberta, there’s a 300-mile stretch of the Rockies and surrounding area in public hands.After a few days, I noticed some real differences between the US and Canadian park systems. For starters, there were the entry fees: in the last few decades, US parks have received permission from the Park Service to raise their fees, and keep the additional monies in the park for special projects. Even so, the $20 pass for Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite gives you and everyone in your vehicle entry for a week. With the recent changes to public lands admission, $80 will buy you an American the Beautiful pass, giving you and your vehicle’s passengers admission to every national park, monument, forest or other federally administered site for a year.In Canada, daily park entrance fees are charged for each person. At nearly $10 a pop, five days of entry for the two of us totaled nearly $100. This covered admission to Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay, and came within $40 of a yearly pass but still seemed steep. Park entry fees are required for any entry from the southern edge of Banff (transiting the other way—east from Yoho or Kootenay to Calgary—is free as long as you don’t stop).The other differences became clear as we talked with Peter, our host in Canmore. He was convinced that Parks Canada wants to simply move people through the parks, and discourages visitors from stopping to hike, paddle or enjoy the wilderness in other ways. His comments suddenly brought a lot of things into focus. We drove Canada 1 from Calgary to Lake Louise; whether inside the parks or not, this backbone transportation artery doesn’t have a single scenic turnoff. I can’t imagine an American park having its roads structured in a similar way. And that’s unlikely to change, as the government works to complete the ‘twinning’ of the highway, completing its transition to limited access, divided highway. There’s also a noticeable difference in the amount and character of literature. Parks Canada publishes a single 16-page color newsprint folder describing all seven Rockies parks, devoting a two-page spread to each. Each highlights about 10 features of the parks, but that’s nearly it for published information describing the attractions of each park. In the visitor centers, the rangers were helpful, and (at Lake Louise) pulled out another simple line drawing of the area with trails on it. But there were no easily available lists of hiking opportunities and other options, as you find at each NPS facility. My best guess is that Canada has already made the transition from considering the parks primarily as recreational facilities, and instead sees them as ecosystems to be preserved. Banff remains wildly popular, hosting over 4 million visitors a year, comparable to Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon. Everything we saw was consistent with conceding the well-known sites to visitors, and then working to minimize human interaction with the remaining landscape. That explains why over 2 million people will hike some part of Johnston Canyon this year: what other options do they have? This also fits with the extensive (and expensive) commitment to reducing human-wildlife interactions (and especially human vehicle/wildlife interactions). Once, Banff was famous for having elk on Banff Avenue; clearly, they would like those days to end (although we did see three deer in the schoolyard, and another on the lawn of a condo not far from the main exit). Long-term studies of wildlife movement led to a comprehensive series of barriers, bridges, and tunnels along Canada 1 and the other roads, preventing animals from reaching the roadway’s surface but providing them with multiple routes to cross under or over the highway, and directing them in new routes away from the towns and roads. It’s an admirable goal, and an amazing effort, and the few quick slides we saw seemed to indicate that it’s succeeding. But the long stretches of fence along the highway gave me the feeling of being in the mirror image of a zoo.In the end, although I was sympathetic, I found it hard to completely share Peter’s frustration. Intentional or not, Parks Canada’s usage policy may be just what’s needed to keep such beautiful and highly popular places intact. As any park ranger or guidebook will tell you, less than 10% of visitors ever leave the paved areas. When visitor totals run into the millions, would we really want to push that percentage any higher? Perhaps the best solution is for those seeking more direct experience with wilderness to have their numbers and impact diluted among the wide range of other parks and forests. That group is highly likely to find such opportunities easily, without running the risk sending a few hundred thousand people down a new road or trail in Banff. Close
Written by callen60 on 15 Feb, 2009
When we settled on spending three nights at Storm Mountain Lodge, switching our reservation from the stratospherically priced Chateau Lake Louise, we thought we’d have an equally special stay and save nearly $900 in the bargain. Nonetheless, given the $270 CDN nightly price tag, I…Read More
When we settled on spending three nights at Storm Mountain Lodge, switching our reservation from the stratospherically priced Chateau Lake Louise, we thought we’d have an equally special stay and save nearly $900 in the bargain. Nonetheless, given the $270 CDN nightly price tag, I thought I’d ask if they had any packages. Not over the holidays, they said, but we do take our guests snowshoeing every New Year’s Eve. At no charge, I asked? That’s right, she replied.That sounded fantastic. Even though it wasn’t perfectly free (the $8 rental per shoe set was added to our tab), heading out under the stars with someone who knew what they were doing seemed like a great way to experience another quintessential northern activity. We pulled in from Lake Louise about 6pm, lit a fire in our cabin, and broke out the cheese and crackers and light dinner we’d picked up at the small grocery before heading back down Canada 1. Just before 10pm, we walked up to the lodge, enjoying the perfect winter scene of fir trees weighed down by snow. In back of the lodge, about 20 guests were gathering, measuring their feet against the snowshoes and getting their new gear strapped on.These weren’t the large, classic wooden snowshoes with leather straps: these had largely rectangular frames of aluminum tubing, with nylon fabric stretched partially across the opening, a web for holding the front half of your boot, and a nylon strap that tightened around the back of your ordinary footwear.Steve, our host, had already broken this trail that headed north from the lodge in the direction of Boom Lake. That was about 8 km, but we were only going out for 2-3 km, and then looping back to a bonfire. The night was calm and cool, but between our clothing and our exertions, we stayed perfectly warm (love those Sorel boots!). Snowshoeing proved easier than we expected; you just needed to compensate a little for your newly expanded foot size. But although some of the romance may be gone from the aluminum shoes, they must be a whole lot easier to maneuver, since their footprint is significantly smaller. Every now and then someone would step on their own shoes and go down, or get to close to the person in front of them and take them down, too. But that was rare, and by the time our 90-minute trek was over, we all had the hang of it. Our group included a group of five friends from London who’d come for a two-week holiday, a friendly family from Calgary, and a retired couple from elsewhere in Alberta who’d RVed all over North America and loved retreating to their own Albertan mountains. Steve pointed out tracks in the snow, described the animals who’d left them (including deer, moose, pine martens, and others), and generally showed that he’d spent a lot of time in the woods and wilderness.After correcting a wrong turn (Steve let someone else lead for a bit), we came out upon a clearing and a roaring bonfire. The staff of Storm Mountain Lodge and nearby Castle Mountain Lodge joined our New Year’s celebration, and we mingled while waiting for the midnight hour. A few folks towed the toboggan up the small hill behind the fire, some rowdy but friendly Scots from Castle Mountain offered everyone the use of their hip flask, and just before midnight Steve broke out champagne from some coolers that had been hauled up earlier. With fire roaring and the stars overhead, it was a beautiful way to welcome 2009.Snowshoes for you, too?A number of tour companies will take you snowshoeing for $60. You get transportation, a guide/instructor, and usually hot chocolate at the end. If you’d like to give it a try, get a recommendation for a good trail and just rent a pair from a local outfitter. There’s really nothing to learn, and in no time you’ll be off in the woods. And you can buy your own hot chocolate. Close
This is the place that created Banff. Well, this and the railway, and the railway made this place. After the Hot Springs were discovered in 1883, the Canadian Pacific began planning to create a reason for passengers to ride its new trains. "Since we can’t…Read More
This is the place that created Banff. Well, this and the railway, and the railway made this place. After the Hot Springs were discovered in 1883, the Canadian Pacific began planning to create a reason for passengers to ride its new trains. "Since we can’t bring the mountains to the people", reasoned President Cornelius Van Horne, "we’ll bring the people to the mountains."At first thought, it seems that they chose an unusual location for this huge brick castle. It’s not close to the railway, the hot springs, the Bow River, or Lake Minnewanka, or even (for the first few decades) ‘downtown’ Banff. But it is perfectly nestled in among the mountains, at the intersection of the valleys, with beautiful vistas in nearly every direction. Carriages brought passengers to and from the station, and for decades, pipes brought the water from the hot springs.Like many remote mountain hotels, the current hotel is not the original, with fire and expansion leading to today’s massive structure. The most recent additions were a new entrance a few years ago, needed to accommodate today’s larger vehicles, and a new convention center. Done in dark brick, the entire 800-room structure still looks like a Victorian era castle. Once it sat nearly alone in these beautiful mountains; despite the tremendous growth in Banff’s popularity, it still maintains its appeal and reputation.For years, this was one of the crown jewels in Canadian Pacific’s string of western hotels. But along with its sister property at Lake Louise, they were most recently acquired by the Fairmont chain early this decade. Despite the smallish rooms (175 square feet for some), the increased competition in the area, and the high prices ($450/night for Christmas/New Years when we looked), it remains a prestigious and popular place to stay. Even amid the tougher financial times of this year’s holiday period, the Springs was full during our stay in Banff.The hotel was beautifully decorated for Christmas. As we conducted our own tour in place of the hotel’s guided visit (free to guests, $15 for others), we sipped the complimentary hot chocolate provided at several locations in the lobby and registration area. Despite the exclusive air that such places sometimes seek to project, I love these large, old hotels, with their numerous restaurants, public spaces, shops, and amenities. "It’s like staying at a cruise ship," my wife said, and she nailed it perfectly, just as we passed a trio of guests in white robes and slippers returning from the spa.We made our way through the hallways to the outdoor patio, chatting along the way with a flower girl and ring bearer from a recent wedding, headed to the reception in one of the many ballrooms. Just outside the dining room lay the ice rink, perfectly positioned between two mountain ridges, with Christmas lights supplementing the deepening purple skies. I looked back through the glass at the numerous staff setting tables for the upcoming dinner hour, then turned to watch the last glimmer of daylight leave the mountain landscape. It was easy to imagine staying here. Spend a few days in the mountains, then return to civilization here for a few nights? Sounds perfect. Even though we didn’t see Lake Louise at its best, for a splurge, I think I’d choose Banff Springs over its sister property Chateau Lake Louise, since the Springs seemed to retain more of its own history, architecture, and mountain feel despite the town setting. But I’ll have to save up for a while. Close
Written by Vanilla Sugar on 13 Oct, 2008
National Geographic calls The Icefields Parkway "one of the world’s ten greatest drives." This endorsement alone made me persistent in my goal to travel this stretch of road through the heart of the Canadian Rockies. Our motorhome "Dolly’s Pride" would stay parked in the…Read More
National Geographic calls The Icefields Parkway "one of the world’s ten greatest drives." This endorsement alone made me persistent in my goal to travel this stretch of road through the heart of the Canadian Rockies. Our motorhome "Dolly’s Pride" would stay parked in the Tunnel Mountain Village of Banff National Park site number 232. Driving our Toyota Corolla tow car would make it easier to maneuver into the numerous viewpoints and to see all that the travel books promised: "vast wilderness of magnificent peaks, ancient glaciers, diverse wildlife, waterfalls, pristine mountain lakes, and broad sweeping valleys." The Icefields Parkway stretches a full 144 miles between Lake Louise and Jasper. I would travel the only a segment of the road beginning at the Junction of the Trans-Canada Highway and the Icefields Parkway. I planned to head north 78 miles to the Columbia Icefield and Icefield Centre to visit the Athabasca Glacier. My first attempt to make this road trip failed, but I eventually reached my destination.On Friday, July 11th, the Highway Patrol Officers diverted all northbound traffic from Banff off the Trans-Canadian Highway at Castle Mountain. We were five miles short of reaching the junction for the Icefields Parkway. A day later, word around the town of Canmore was that an accident shut down the Highway in both directions for nearly half the day. We had idled in that traffic jam for over an hour creeping along. Without a CB in the Toyota, we sat wondering why the route to the Icefields Parkway was as congested as Houston in rush hour. When we were forced to exit onto a secondary road near the Castle Mountain and head south on the Bow Valley Parkway, we turned back to the campground. We would schedule our Icefield trip for another day during our stay at Banff National Park.Three days later, we tried to follow the route again. This time the journey took us to the Columbia Ice fields, a day-long round trip from Banff that ought not to be rushed.Lake Louise was our first stop. This highly regarded community was way too crowded for me. People clustered around the turquoise colored lake photographing the towering backdrop of Victoria Glacier. The resort, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, dominated the scenery. This was definitely a hub for shopping at Samson Mall, eating and bumping into tourists. I need not have bothered to slip out of my embroidered, beaded Skechers sandals and lace up my Timberline boots for this brief visit. This was definitely a Skechers place. I secretly hoped that the rest of the drive would be less commercial, less crowded. We hadn’t driven far out of Lake Louise before I realized my wish would be true. The pull-offs along the Icefields Parkway offered views of snow covered mountains and glacial lakes. The milepost guide from the National Park Service helped us decide which viewpoint to select for stops. Vehicles clustered in areas not designated as pull-offs gave us clues to wildlife viewing. We saw a black bear lunch on wild berries close to the highway. Another time, two grizzly bears quenched their thirst at a pond. We watched them a safe distance away with binoculars. Our travel guidebook suggested that the drive from Banff to the Columbia Icefield would take 90 minutes. I suspect that must have been calculated at a rate of 55 MPH without stops along the way. By my calculation, we lollygagged nearly 3 hours.At the Icefield Centre, visitors can opt for "Guided Ice Walks" or book a trip for Brewster’s Glacier Experience. We decided to take the 90-minute narrated journey aboard Brewster’s 6-wheeled Ice Explorer, a unique motorcoach shuttle bus that lumbered down a near vertical drop to the Athabasca Glacier.Our enthusiastic guide feed our intellect with the cold historic and geological facts about the Columbia Icefield. She told us that the Icefield is the largest concentration of glacial ice below the Arctic Circle in North America. And, it is one of the last places in southern Canada where temperature, wind, and water continue to interact as they did during the last Ice age. She explained the extraordinary fact that snow melting from the apex of the triple continental divide on Mount Snow Dome is bound for one of three oceans: waters from the northern side flow to the Arctic Ocean, meltwaters on the west join the Pacific Ocean, and waters originating on the east will eventually make the journey to the Atlantic Ocean at Hudson Bay. Mount Snow Dome overlooks the north side of Athabasca Glacier, the glacier accessible from the mighty all-terrain Ice Explorer.Before our group was allowed to set foot on the glacier, our guide warned us not to go beyond the bounds of icy surface. She pointed to some hikers in an area that could be dangerous for even the strongest of men. "One step into a crevice could land you deep below the surface of the ice. You might not be as lucky as one fellow who fell through the ice. He landed in a subterranean water passage. Fortunately, it had the force of an amusement park water slide. He slid out an opening at the base of the glacier. Others," she paused effectively, "were less fortunate." She promised we could easily and safely explore the glacier within the reasonable bounds of the ancient ice since in most places it measured 1,000 feet thick.Then continuing in the spirit of her upbeat commentary on the Athabasca Glacier, she advised us all to take a taste of the glacier water running clear like a small spring. "Some say the water flows from a fountain of youth. One drink will take ten years off your life," she winked. Out on the glacier, I saw some old boys, 60+ take a hopeful sip. And, one fearful youngster complained, "If I take a sip, I’ll be back in diapers, Mom!" I wandered around quietly on the massive ice field taking in the incredible, towering mountains. I breathed the cool air and felt content that I hadn’t given up on driving the Icefields Parkway, truly one of the world’s greatest drives.Note: A Canadian Park Pass is required to travel along the Icefield Parkway #93Brewster’s Glacier Experience 1-800-423-7433Columbiaicefield.comGuided Ice Walks 1-800-565-7547 Close
Written by jenandfrank on 02 Jul, 2006
Ice Field ParkwayThis 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…Read More
Ice Field ParkwayThis 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 FieldsMain 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.General:http://www.banff.com/http://www.discoverbanff.com/http://www.banfflakelouise.com/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. Close
Banff Gondola – 403-762-2523 or http://www.banffgondola.comThe gondola is something we felt we had to do if for nothing else but to get a bird's eye view of the park. We were not disappointed. The views atop Sulfur Mountain are absolutely gorgeous. Definitely a photo op.…Read More
Banff Gondola – 403-762-2523 or http://www.banffgondola.comThe gondola is something we felt we had to do if for nothing else but to get a bird's eye view of the park. We were not disappointed. The views atop Sulfur Mountain are absolutely gorgeous. Definitely a photo op. Located 5 minutes from the center of Banff on the cusp of Sulphur Mountain. The charge is 23.50 CAD/adult and 11.75 CAD/children 6-15 and the ride takes about 10 minutes each way. Yes, I agree- very expensive for such a short ride but really a must do. Each "car" holds 4 people safely but if you go off season, like we did, they send you up in couples. It's a pretty steep ride up and I was more than thankful we didn't have to stop for any reason.
Once up top there is a gift shop and bathroom facilities. There is also a boardwalk with about 300 steps that takes you to another viewing point. It is not handicap equipped and not safe for children in carriages (not really practical either with all of the steps). That walk takes about 20 minutes each way and gets higher in elevation. Lots of snow and ice on the "boardwalk" even in May, so walking can become slightly dangerous if you are careless. The staff are all very nice and kept asking us if we had an enjoyable time. At the end you are directed through the gift shop (ala Disney) where you are able to purchase a photo of yourself that was taken at the top of Sulfur Mountain. That is $15 for a 5X7. The Banff Gondola is less than a 5 minute drive from the Fairmount. Depending on the time of year the attraction is open from 7:30 am to 9 pm. Recommended. Bo Valley Parkway – 1AThis is the alternate route to the Trans-Canada Parkway, Route 1. People usually take this route, which is considered the more scenic route; to take pictures, see wildlife and enjoy the atmosphere. We saw several caribou and one young male elk along the way, but heard that many people saw plenty of other animals as well. It was a nice drive, 30 miles - very easy, but once was enough; we chose to take the faster Route 1 for the remainder of our trip. There are five main trails that branch off of this parkway, one of which is the Johnston Canyon which I will definitely suggest hiking. RecommendedJohnston CanyonLocated off of the Bow Valley Parkway, ½ way between Banff and Lake Louise. This is essentially another beautiful hike. It took us about 45 minutes each way – 3 miles round trip. The canyon was created by a small stream. There are two waterfalls to see, first (lower falls - the smaller of the two) is after ½ mile, second (upper) is 1 ½ miles (1 mile from small one). To be honest the smaller one was easier to view and much prettier. The second waterfall required you to walk out on this platform (to the end) and lean over to get a good picture. The hike has steps, uneven ground, narrow walkways and the temperature (May) is cold, then warm, so dressing in layers would not be a bad idea.
The water is beautiful and it actually gets colder (the air) as you get closer to each waterfall. There is no entrance fee or parking fee – wow! - you mean the 9 CAD per day, per person we paid to get into Banff covers this too???? At certain points you feel like you are walking through caves. There were tons of trees, many which had fallen and as silly as it sounds the air just smells so wonderful. We saw one small chipmunk on our hike that was it. Not a place for carriages (although one couple was actually trying to push one) or handicapped people. Definitely recommended; an easy hike with great scenery. Recommended.Lake MinnewankaLocated about 5 kilometers northeast of the Banff town site. The lake is 15 miles long and over 400 ft deep, making it the longest lake in the Banff National Park (the result of a power dam at the west end). The lake is fed by the Cascade River, flowing east of Cascade Mountain, and runs south through Stewart Canyon as it empties into the westen end of the lake. Minnewanka means "water of the spirits" in the Stoney Indian language. I`ll admit there is something spiritual about this place. Beauty lends itself to this effect. The Minnewanka Loop is an absolutely gorgeous drive; very easy to navigate with incredible views of the lake , valley and surrounding mountains. It seems that spring comes early to this part of Banff. In May the lake was completely thawed, emerald green and stunning. This area is also great for wildlife viewing; especially bighorn sheep. We saw many by the side of the road and even in the middle of the road; so be careful while driving. This area is a must see. Recommended.Cave & Basin – Cave Avenue, Banff – 403-762-1557This is the site where the very first mineral hot spring was found, thereby facilitating the creation of Canada's first National Park. Once you enter the lobby there are signs and a few photographs and charts. Just past the lobby is the cave. For 7 CAD/pp you get to view the Hot Springs (which is so fetid it's hard to put into words), you get to see a movie (that extols the beauty of Banff) and walk a few yards through a tunnel that ends at a small cave. There is also a few hiking trails, one of which is a short jaunt through a wetland type area along a wooden boardwalk. The Hot Springs is home to a rare snail, the Physella Johnsoni. To be honest, if you ran out of time and couldn't make it here – no big loss. Not Recommended.Fairmount Lake Louise Hotel LoungeLocated about an hour away from the Fairmont in Banff is this very pretty hotel. Very different from the castle-like structure of Banff, this hotel does not disappoint. A huge lobby with high ceilings and medieval paraphernalia around. Lots of tourist walking around and a harpist playing in the lobby. Unlike the Fairmont Banff Springs there is plenty of free parking here in addition to valet. We ate at the lobby lounge which offered incredible views of Lake Louise and the surrounding mountains. In early May the lake was still completely frozen over. The lounge had a large bar but a limited menu. We ordered the brushetta, a burger and pasta. The brushetta was 5 pieces of toast with goat cheese and a small salad.
A delicious appetizer (11 CAD). The burger came with mushrooms, bacon, lettuce, tomato and onion (15 CAD) – fries were half the plate and a mountain of them – salty and delicious. The baked penne pasta came with pieces of zucchini and was a huge bowl covered with asiago cheese. Surprisingly good. Other menu options were salads, including a Cesar salad with shrimp, chicken or liver and a chicken club sandwich. The service was very good, and friendly. The harpist was excellent and provided for a very relaxing atmosphere. All of the seating is living room-esq with large upholstered chairs and couches. We initially planned on going to one of the hotel's restaurants but were shut out as they close for lunch at 2 pm. This was a great alternative. Accepts all major credit cards. Recommended to see the hotel and lake.
Eden - Rimrock Resort Hotel, 100 Mountain Avenue, Banff – 403-762-1865 or www.rimrockresort.comLocated on the same street as the Banff Gondola is the Rimrock Resort, a quaint, understated hotel. The Rimrock is part of the Leading Hotels of the World and judging by Eden -…Read More
Eden - Rimrock Resort Hotel, 100 Mountain Avenue, Banff – 403-762-1865 or www.rimrockresort.comLocated on the same street as the Banff Gondola is the Rimrock Resort, a quaint, understated hotel. The Rimrock is part of the Leading Hotels of the World and judging by Eden - deservedly so. Upon arrival, we were escorted to the restaurant by the valet and referred to by last name all evening long. Very relaxed atmosphere within a very quiet hotel - we even saw a Caribou grazing on the property. The elegant lobby has a fire place, some plush sofas, coffee tables, chairs, etc; basically a living room. The restaurant has heavy velvet draperies with large gold silk accents, dark furniture and walls, and lots of European art. The tables had crisp white linens, with a small glass bowl and an orchid floating inside of it. Our napkins were changed every time we got up – I mean God forbid we have to use the same napkin after using the facilities. Fresh (large) floral pieces were everywhere. The large wine cellar was viewable upon entering and exiting the restaurant. The bathroom had linen towels, small bottles of Listerine, Aveda lotion, Neutrogena chapstick and shoe mitts – all for the taking/use. We had a great table, next to the window that faced the back of the property and surrounding mountains. There were five people waiting on us at once to serve our every request. Immediately after being seated we were kindly asked to please turn all cell phones to vibrate as not to disturb other guests. Yes – this is that kind of place…I mean the bathroom has amenities. Come on! Bottled water was complimentary and we were given a choice of Pellegrino or Evian. I will say this, all of the attention and the general atmosphere of the restaurant made it slightly overwhelming at first. I mean just so much pomp and circumstance. But we quickly got used to all of the attention.The menu is French cuisine with regional accents and changes every season. It has received the 5 diamond AAA award, and many other awards including one from Wine Spectator. Eden offers 4 dinner options; 3 courses for 90 CAD, 4 courses for 100 and 5 courses for 110. We were warned that all portions were small - almost like tastings and they weren't kidding. The fourth option was a tasting menu for 150 CAD with 8 courses. I found it fascinating that all menus are interchangeable. That's not common in a restaurant such as this. In any event, we ordered and were greeted by the bread waiter who offered us a choice of four breads; lemon zing, multigrain, sourdough and rye – all delicious of course and served with salted or unsalted butter and some sort of whipped cheese spread.First course, compliments of the chef, was a cinnamon-ginger (sweet) drink with a frozen "essence" (which was a cinnamon burst), served in a champagne glass. Hard to describe but refreshing, which was the point, and very tasty. The second course, also compliments of the chef, was a parsnip puree with a ground squab center and pistachio oil drizzle. Sounds a little too eclectic to be good but it was. In fact, it was incredibly delicious and was perfect to peak our interest in what was to come. Our third course was whatever we chose as our first course (so in layman's terms, the appetizer). We had the truffle risotto with Parmesan crisp and king oyster mushrooms and the buffalo tartar with carpaccio soaked in sambuca. (See picture of carpaccio below). Served with such care, the presentation was almost too beautiful to touch.
The fourth course was an intermezzo which we were told was served because the chef was unhappy with how our entrees came out. If that isn’t the most hilarious thing you have ever heard, I don't know what is. Entrees options included; Alberta beef, tenderloin with truffle oil, sea bream, buffalo ribeye, veal, venison, quail and squab. We chose the Alberta beef and the sea bream (see pictures of both below). Again, presented beautifully and extremely delicious. My husband had an extra course of quail. At that point I was truly too stuffed to even consider another course. Dessert options were mascarpone with raspberry ice cream and a chocolate cake. We chose the mascarpone (see picture) and the cheese plate (which was on the appetizer menu). The cheese plate included grapes, candied pecans and a wide selection of cheese but no bread or bread flats. After the dessert we ordered was gone, we were served yet another "compliments of the chef" course. It was a two-tier silver dish that had pieces of milk and white chocolate, white chocolate covered leece nuts, bonbons and shortbread cookies. And of course, it goes without saying that each piece was carefully decorated and carefully placed on this tray. Service was truly incredible, friendly - suggesting wines, telling us about the local area, explaining all aspects of meal. We received constant attention. Sounds intrusive? – somehow it wasn’t. Before ordering wine we were served tasting options by the cellar master, Quinn. He was extremely knowledgeable; he explained every aspect of the extensive wine menu. We learned a great deal especially concerning Canadian wine. He even was unhappy with the temperature of the wine my husband ordered and insisted on giving him only a tasting while he cooled the wine a "degree or two". Are you kidding?!! Really, I can not say enough about this guy. He was great.We were given two pieces of banana bread dipped in chocolate and wrapped in a beautiful gift bag, as a parting gift from the matre'd. Incredible! The cellar master, Quinn, walked us out to the car and waited for us to pull away. We were the last to leave that evening. Expect to spend at least 2 hours dinning. We were there almost three. Complimentary valet parking. The restaurant serves dinner only. Dressy attire required, no children. Reservations are a must. Accepts all major credit cards. If you think about it, 90 Cad a person (about $82) is nothing compared to the quality and amount of food – not to mention the level of service – you get. It was an incredible meal, one of our best ever. A romantic evening, a great place for a special occasion – Very, Very Highly Recommended