Behold the Canadian Rockies, home of some of North America’s most stunning landscapes. Recently, I made a visit to some of these great places. Here are the pictures to prove it.
The mountains were barely discernible from Calgary as I headed westward from the airport. It had been ten years since my last time here. The city of Calgary has seen considerable growth and sprawl in that time thanks largely to a healthy economy tied to the oil boom in the northern parts of Alberta. The city itself is quite beautiful and very clean. Driving along the highway, the bobsled tracks of the 1988 Winter Olympics were one of the few traces of this bit of Calgary history.
Outside of the city, the rolling hills and farmland soon gave way to majestic glacial valleys and steep mountain peaks with turquoise lakes and flowing rivers. It is heavily forested with evergreens mixed sparsely with aspens and larch trees which had turned to their vibrant autumn gold. Kananakis Country is the first area to grab your attention as you enter the mountains and consists of several Provincial Parks (similar to a state park in the US).
Ninety minutes from Calgary and I was in Banff National Park. At the entrance gate a friendly ranger greeted me in English and French. I paid the necessary fees to cover the rest of the week. The parks in the Canadian Rockies cover a large territory. Besides Banff, it is bordered to the north by Jasper National Park, also Canada’s largest park. And neighboring to the west are Yoho and Kootenay National Parks on the other side of the continental divide and in British Columbia. Collectively they form the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks, a UNESO World Heritage Site. Fees for one park are good for entry to all four. Really, you can consider them one big park if it is easier.
Town of Banff
Not far into the park is the town of Banff. Founded shortly after the transcontinental railway was opened through the Bow Valley in the late 19th century, today Banff caters to tourists year-round. Fall is less busy than the more crowded summer or ski season, but the hotels remained full when I visited in September. As one of the few towns in the parks, Banff is a great place to lodge or get the essentials.
The town center is a great place to walk around and get a bite to eat or do some shopping. Since my time would be focused mainly on taking pictures of the surrounding areas, I didn’t spend much time in town other than coming and going and stocking up. It has a lot of charm nonetheless. You will also find some beautiful hikes and scenery right on the outskirts.
Vermillion Lakes is located just outside of town and offers beautiful views of the Bow River Valley. It is also a good place to see wildlife activity. One morning while photographing the sunrise along the shore, I was awed to see a Bald Eagle snatch a fish out of the water right in front of me and fly away. If it had only given me some warning, maybe I would have gotten a picture of it.
Driving from town in any other direction will bring you to a number of different vistas and lakes. The Bow Valley trail offers many great opportunities for wildlife and various hikes and other recreational activities.
Further up the Bow Valley is Johnston Canyon. The trail through the canyon takes you through a narrow gorge with a beautiful creek and waterfalls. It’s a relatively easy hike and much of it is along a narrow catwalk which offers good views of the water and falls below. I’ve heard this trail can get very crowded which could diminish the experience. I can definitely see how that would be so as it is not a good place for crowds. Luckily I visited at a slow time of day and it wasn’t too bad. There are also some very interesting places further up the trail and away from the more popular lower falls.
Lake Louise & Moraine Lake
Among the most popular places in the park are Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. These glacial lakes with steep mountains surrounding the turquoise waters are of jaw-dropping beauty. While popular and crowded at times, there are plenty of ways to seek solitude if you take a walk. If you are more adventurous, you can venture further into the backcountry. This is Grizzly Bear territory though so one should take the necessary precautions such as carrying bear spray and hiking in groups of four or more is required on many trails.
I made my way to Moraine Lake in the wee hours of the morning to see the sun rise. Because of the cloudy skies the first day I chose to do this the next day too. It was still cloudy. But luckily the lake is simply an amazing place to see in person. Being at a higher altitude, the so-called Ten Peaks were capped with a dusting of snow from the night and the clouds added a nice touch if you ask me.
Lake Louise draws more people as it is near a town bearing it’s name as well as some hotels. It is beautiful though and the water is crystal clear. The gold color of the larch trees in the mountains above were beckoning me to get a closer look. But due to time constraints and the group hiking restrictions, I had to admire them from below in hopes of returning and getting a better look next time.
Yoho National Park
Driving over the Continental Divide, I left Alberta and crossed into British Columbia. Yoho means wonder or awe in the language spoken by the Algonquin native tribe. The smallest of the Rocky Mountain Parks, Yoho features much of the similar beauty the other parks offer but with less crowds. Lake O’hara is stunning but can be difficult to acccess as you must either hike six miles or take one of the few seats on a bus made available to reserve far in advance. They make it difficult on purpose because if it were easier, the ensuing crowds would diminish the experience and serenity of that peaceful place. Emerald Lake is quite easy to get to however and also very beautiful. While a little out of the way (not much), Yoho is a park which shouldn’t be passed upon.
Back in Alberta and leaving the town of Lake Louise heading north, the long drive towards Jasper on the Icefields Parkway is arguably one of the most scenic drives in Canada, maybe North America. This highway leads through the glacial peaks, valleys, and lakes, causing many instances of pulling over to take pictures. While there are plenty of opportunities to explore the backcountry areas that surround the highway, there is really no development. That’s not a bad thing in my opinion and while you will come across a pit stop with a gas station between, I highly recommend a full tank of gas before heading out on this road of 230 km (140 mi).
Jasper National Park
At over 10,800 sq km (4,200 sq mi), Jasper is the largest national park in Canada. It was nice to escape the crowds of Banff and Lake Louise and manage to find some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever laid eyes on. The town of Jasper is 3.5-4 hour drive from Banff assuming you don’t stop along the way (yeah right). It was totally worth it though. The stunning landscapes were too many to count. Jasper is a much smaller town than Banff but still capable of getting you situated with the essentials and lodging.
My favorite spots here were Sunwapta Falls and Athabasca Falls, both which careen off their respective rivers into beautiful deep and narrow canyons. The familiar turquoise water was the icing on the cake. There are so many other places to see in this huge park and since my time was limited to spending the day and returning to Banff that night, I really only skimmed the surface. I will definitely spend more time in Jasper on a future visit.
Canada: In Summary
Canada is more than just a place for Americans to threaten to flee to during an election season. It turns out Canada is well appointed with beautiful scenery, friendly people, and did I say beautiful scenery? I can’t wait to return to my neighbor to the north and see the spots I didn’t get a chance to on this visit. Well done, Canada. Well done.