With Its Icy Rivers and Peak Views, the Canadian Rockies Will Give You Chills
About 100 rivers begin in the Canadian Rockies. Clear, icy flows from melting glaciers trickle down the mountains, creating headwaters to rivers that feed into three oceans: the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Arctic. The thousands of lakes here take on every color in the blue-green spectrum. The unique shades are created as sunlight hits the water and reflects off suspended particles of rock that has been ground into dust by the movement of glaciers. The color of any particular body of water is determined by the different sizes and mineral contents of those “rock flour” particles. The shades are so unusual that on my return from a trip to the Canadian Rockies last summer, I consulted paint charts for help in naming them. Some of the best matches: jargon jade, calypso, rapture blue, emerald, Aegean.
Summer days are long, with up to 17 hours of sunshine, yet temperatures tend to hover in the 70s. Not convinced yet that the place is worth the long trip? Consider the waterfalls that thunder into deep green pools and explode against protruding rocks. Tiny sprays of water droplets collide with beams of sunlight, creating constant flickers of rainbows.
Or the snowcapped mountains that in a certain light are mirrored in still lakes, making it appear as if earth, water and sky have become one.
Hollywood discovered the Canadian Rockies before the moving pictures had sound. Many times, these mountains have been stand-ins for the Swiss Alps. In fact, much of what Americans imagine as the wild American West has been taken from TV and movies, and many of those pictures
floating around our minds are actually images of the Canadian Rockies.
The question is not whether to put this area on your travel wish list, but which part of the vast territory to tackle.
Four contiguous national parks — Banff, Yoho, Jasper and Kootenay, all UNESCO World Heritage sites — lie within the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, and are surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness areas, forest reserves and provincial parks.
After much deliberation, I chose Banff National Park. After flying to Calgary, 80 miles southeast, I was able to hit many of the park’s highlights in less than a week, plus a piece of Kananaskis Country (a rural area west of Calgary) and a tiny slice of Jasper National Park.
While I can’t yet say which is the best piece of the Canadian Rockies, I can say that it’s hard to imagine the scenery and activities could get any better than what I experienced. Further, I can recommend stops that should not — must not — be missed within the little portion of the huge swath of natural wonder where I spent my summer vacation.
Down to the River
Horses have never been known to commit suicide, have they? That’s what I’m thinking as we ride just a few feet from a cliff that towers at least 100 feet above the Bow River. None of the horses had shown any signs of depression as we left the Kananaskis Guest Ranch, and now they’re walking calmly. I soon forget my apprehensions and lose myself in the beauty of the landscape. The river below, famous for harboring trophy-size trout, is an alluring milky blue, surrounded by tall evergreens.
When I booked this ride before leaving home, I worried that I was making a mistake; maybe I should have gone all the way into Banff National Park to ride. Millions of people from around the world head straight to Banff. This area, just 45 minutes from Calgary, is popular with locals, but maybe they just don’t want to travel the extra distance to the park.
But now I’m congratulating myself. We wind along the river, then trot up the side of a mountain into a broad grassy meadow. The trail leader announces that “Brokeback Mountain” was filmed here. If you’ve seen the movie, you know how beautiful and peaceful the landscape is.
A short distance away, I settle into the Rafter Six guest ranch, where I’ll spend the night. After tucking into a huge lunch, I walk a few yards to the barn and volunteer to groom horses. The place is a find. I soon meet owner Stan Crowley, who tells me the ranch was a remount center for the Canadian Mounties in the 1800s, and before that, an outfitters post.
The walls of a lounge area in the log lodge are covered with autographed pictures of some of the luminaries who have stayed here. So many Disney films were shot here, beginning in the 1940s, that the former owners built a cabin just for Walt.
Scenes from the Marilyn Monroe movie “River of No Return” were also shot here. At the other end of the movie spectrum: “How the West Was Fun,” starring MaryKate and Ashley Olsen. In between, dozens of movies and TV shows have used the ranch as a backdrop. Other guests have included Paul Newman, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson and Kevin Costner.
Next morning I tug on a wet suit for what turns out to be the best rafting trip I’ve ever taken. Why? In part, the wild enthusiasm of the young guides, in part the scenery, in part the rush of being splashed by ice-cold water that, given the heat of the sun, felt great. But most of all, it was the free rafting. That’s a name I made up: It involves getting out of the raft and riding the rapids on our backs, feet forward, with a promise that we’d be helped out of the water when the rapids pooled.
In short, in your rush to Banff and the sites that draw tourists from around the world, don’t pass by Kananaskis Country too quickly.
Into the Canyon
Since it sits in the midst of a national park, I was expecting the town of Banff to be somewhat rustic. Surprise. Instead I find a busy center of chic stores and restaurants, and low-rise lodgings and museums. The Whyte Museum houses a huge collection of art and artifacts relating to the Canadian Rockies. There’s also a national park museum, restored in 1985 for the park’s 100th anniversary, a museum of natural history and a museum of Plains Indians.
I’m something of a nature purist, but I enjoyed spending a day strolling around this clean, mountain town, developed with the tourist in mind but without being tacky.
That evening, I drive outside town to visit the hot springs. The place has a fascinating history, but I’m somewhat disappointed that the steaming water is held in a large but ordinary swimming pool, and the view is blocked on two sides by a bathhouse that is akin to a YMCA. If I were in charge of developing another attraction in the Canadian Rockies, I’d move the bathhouse out of sight and build a natural, Japanese-style outdoor bath.
Next morning, as I drive north along the Bow Valley Parkway in a rush to reach famed Lake Louise (about 30 miles from downtown Banff), I almost decide to pass by Johnston Canyon. I’m glad I didn’t.
True purists may object to the paved paths that make the hiking seem a bit tame, but the waterfalls and “ink pots” — mineral springs that are a brilliant aqua color — make up for the pavement.
Water has been eroding the canyon for 8,000 years. A plaque notes that “when the pyramids were being built, the canyon was only half as deep as today.” The waterfalls are small but beautiful. Most peo- ple stop after the first fall, about half a mile from the parking lot. But you find solace if you go another mile to a second waterfall, then on to the ink pots.
My only regret is that I arrive at Johnston Canyon early in the day, so I am not able to have lunch at a charming little restaurant whose deck reminds me of a rural German beer garden. But I’m mollified with a picnic later along the shores of Lake Louise. The famous lake is smaller than I’d imagined — just 11⁄ miles long and 1,600 feet wide.
2 But what it lacks in size it makes up for in sheer beauty.
At one end is the towering face of the 11,350-foot-tall Mount Victoria, which straddles the Continental Divide. The elegant Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise sits at the other end, its manicured gardens a draw for both tourists and moose. The other two sides of the lake are lined with trees and hiking trails, one of which leads to a teahouse.
The first white man to see this lake: Thomas Wilson, a horse packer for the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1882 he heard the roar of an avalanche in the distance. A Stoney Indian told Wilson the sound came from “the snow mountain above the lake of little fishes,” and led him there. Later, railroad men built the towering hotel that is a cross between a French chateau and a Scottish castle.
Even if you can’t afford to stay the night, splurge on a meal or tea in one of the restaurants that overlook the lake, and check out the shops. At a gems store, which is more like a museum, I covet an amazing artwork of nature: a slab of rock with indentations from a fossilized palm tree and several fish, arranged as if by the hand of a genius artist. Seeing as how it’s a prehistoric, one-of-akind piece, I’m surprised that it only costs $25,000 U.S. A bargain! Still, I settle for something more in my price range: a $12 turquoise ring.
I also splurge on a $30-anhour canoe rental. (All prices quoted here are in U.S. dollars.) Learning that the lake is up to 295 feet deep and never gets warmer than 39 degrees, I’m glad it’s rather small. With the hotel at your back you can imagine yourself a Canadian trapper paddling this gorgeous, unspoiled stretch of water to parts unknown. At the same time you know you’re within screaming distance of humanity should you capsize.
I further enjoy the beauty of the lake on the outdoor patio of one of the hotel’s two cheapest restaurants, the Glacier Saloon. Given the views, it’s a bargain, even though the food is ordinary, with entrees ranging from about $12 to $24.
There are still a couple hours of daylight left, and I wonder if I should drive about 16 miles farther, to Moraine Lake. I’m spending the night here at Lake Louise, which is by far the most visited and most famous lake in the Canadian Rockies, so why not relax here?
But I head off anyway, and on ar-
rival thank myself for being dutiful. The deep blue waters of Moraine Lake are sheltered by mountains, and the lake is accentuated by an island covered with tall, green trees. I am the only person sitting along the shore awaiting a sunset that makes the land and water glow.
Bigger Than a Glacier
Nature calls at dawn on my last day in the Rockies, and in my groggy exit from bed I happen to look out the window. Suddenly I’m wide awake, mesmerized by the sight. The rising sun has set the sky ablaze in shades of red, orange and gold. Both sky and snowcapped mountain reflect off the emerald lake, making it hard to discern where land begins and sky ends.
I watch until the sun has completed its rise to the horizon, then inadvertently fall back to sleep until noon.
It’s a 114-mile trip from Lake Louise to Calgary, where I need to be tonight for an early-morning flight the next day. The big question: Should I add a visit to the Columbia Icefield, 80 miles away and in the opposite direction from Calgary?
I really don’t even know what an ice field is, but I head there anyway, making stops along the way. One of those stops — Num-Ti-Jah Lodge — turns out to be inspired.
The log lodge along the Caribbean-colored Bow Lake was built by Jimmy Simpson, who left England in 1896 as a teen and set out for the Canadian Rockies. He became a famous guide, and in the early 1900s began building the lodge, using some logs that were 75 feet long.
An Indian tribe nicknamed Simpson “Wolverine Go Quick.” I mention that merely as an example of the kind of history and romance you can still feel when entering the lodge, which has three massive stone fireplaces, a restaurant with fine food, a tea room, a billiards room and large but simple rooms with no TVs or phones.
After a lunch of herb-crusted salmon, I walk around the lake and chat with a park service worker who hands me a sticker reading, “Save a Bear/Drive with Care/ Don’t Stop to Stare.” He tells me an ice field is more or less a glacier, only bigger, and recommends that I hire a guide to hike it, rather than riding a bus-like contraption.
Turns out that unless you’re lucky, you have to reserve a guide in advance, so instead I board a vehicle that would be a little boy’s dream: a big lumbering thing developed for arctic exploration. After about 15 minutes, it drops me at an area bounded by orange cones and tape, lest visitors wander off and fall into a deep crevasse.
I’ve always wanted to walk on a glacier, but in a way it’s disappointing. Glaciers and ice fields are amazing things. For example, I learn that it takes 80 feet of compacted snow to create one foot of glacial ice. But standing atop a glacier or ice field doesn’t really seem any different than standing on a foot of snow, unless you use your imagination and get excited that the ice is hundreds of feet deep and miles long and always moving, imperceptibly.
Then again, I’m able to fill my water bottle with pure glacial melt and glimpse some awesome crevasses.
The ice field lies within both Banff and Jasper national parks, and for a moment I’m tempted to venture a bit farther into Jasper than I’ve already come. But I already have more than 200 miles to go before I sleep. I’m confident I can go to bed feeling that while I might have missed something, I’ve sampled at least some of the best.
Reflect on this: Bow Lake in Banff National Park is surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness areas, forest reserves and provincial parks.
The deep blue waters of Moraine Lake, left. Downtown Banff, right, is a busy center of shops, restaurants and museums.