A Rockies road trip.
A mother-daughter CANADIAN ROCKIES road trip reveals a rich pioneer history.
WIND STIRS THE TREMBLING ASPENS, their golden leaves shaking like a thousand little tambourines. Lake Minnewanka shines mirror-like under the late-September sun, steeling itself for the impending cold. In a few weeks, the mountain town of Banff will be blanketed in snow. But for now, my mother and I have been granted a bright window of weather for our trip through the Alberta Rockies to Jasper, where she was born.
The turquoise lakes that dot the vast mountain range in Banff National Park were a draw for early settlers and 19th-century explorers like Sir George Simpson, who made their way over treacherous passes in an insatiable spirit of discovery. Bobbing on the back of our Lake Minnewanka Cruise boat, I find the sentinel mountains just as magnetic. “The lake is full of mysteries,” says our guide as we motor out onto the water. Indigenous peoples lived on the lakeshore more than 10,000 years ago, and the Stoney-Nakoda First Nations named it Minn-waki, or “lake of the spirits,” after the revered spirits that were believed to inhabit it.
Tales of spectres and mythical creatures that dwell here abound, but as our boat glides through the shadow of Mount Inglismaldie along a shoreline dense with emerald spruce and pine, I find the natural beauty of this UNESCO World Heritage Site equally haunting. It’s easy to see why the lake was one of the region’s first tourist attractions, with boat cruises around Minnewanka dating back to the 1889 steam-powered Lady Brooke.
As we travel to downtown Banff in our rental car, we follow a winding shoreline route that was once the path of turn-of-thecentury travellers making their way to the lake from the railway station and surrounding hotels with Brewster Company, one of the Rockies’ original outfitters. After checking in at the historic Mount Royal Hotel on Banff Avenue, we clamour aboard Open-Top Touring’s replica of the Brewster Company’s open top motor coach. We make our way alongside the aquamarine Bow River and then snake up Tunnel Mountain Drive, which affords a sweeping view of Bow Valley, with Banff etched in miniature below us.
The next morning, we set off on the hour-long drive from Banff to Lake Louise and the Canadian Rockies’ grande dame, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Towering over the lake, the palatial hotel is as commanding as the surrounding mountains and is the birthplace of Canadian mountaineering. Originally built in 1890 as a one-storey log cabin for outdoor adventurers by Canadian Pacific Railway general manager Cornelius Van Horne, the hotel grew in scale and design to become one of the most luxurious in Canada, drawing guests from all over the world with its cinematic backdrop, afternoon tea served with a panoramic lake view and horseback riding.
I’m lucky enough to experience all of it, starting with a ride on horseback through a fir and spruce forest to the Lake Agnes Teahouse, built in 1901 as a refuge for mountaineers and riders. My horse kicks up dust as it plods gingerly along our rocky path up into the mountains. At the top, I sit by the water’s edge as the sunrise reveals a perfect mirror image of Mount Whyte reflected in the lake.
These sublime landscapes only grow more dramatic the farther north we travel. The next day, we follow the Icefields Parkway toward Jasper. The 232-kilometre stretch of highway
runs along the Continental Divide, skirting the Sunwapta River Valley and the Columbia Icefield’s sparkling glaciers and jagged spires.
As we approach Jasper along the Athabasca River, the primordial power of the majestic mountains that cradle the town is palpable. Once little more than a fur-trading post, the city seems largely unchanged since the 1950s, when my immigrant grandparents met around this time of year at a Halloween dance, the aspens and larches painting the landscape a brilliant yellow. “There it is,” says my mom, pointing to the Canadian Pacific Railway station where my grandfather worked as a conductor. My grandparents’ story isn’t uncommon. The town was a hub of commerce and development in the 19th and early-20th centuries—a place where people have always passed through. Veering left out of the town, the road meanders through a luminous golden aspen forest and ends at Pyramid Lake Resort. We drop our bags as violet dusk cloaks the mountain peaks and make our way to Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, where we spend the evening stargazing.
An ode to Canadiana with a grand foyer reminiscent of Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel, the lodge is built in a low-chalet style that mimics the camps of early settlers who braved the Athabasca and Kicking Horse passes by horseback to reach the area. Jasper National Park is the second-largest Dark Sky Preserve in the world, an area where no artificial light is visible and any nearby light pollution is regulated. As night falls, a brilliant vault of stars shimmers.
Heading to Maligne Lake the next day, we follow a road carved by explorer and early outfitter Curly Philips, who also built the lake’s iconic boathouse in the 1920s; visitors can still rent canoes there today. As I stand at the water’s edge, I wonder how much of this place is part of who I am. The Rockies’ summits and sapphire lakes still draw mountaineers and adventurers with a history that’s woven into the fabric of our national heritage. My grandparents weren’t explorers, but the same spirit drove them to Jasper, and although it’s my first time travelling through the region, the allure of these mountains is something I immediately understand.
Even though my grandparents left Alberta for Vancouver in the ’60s, it was as if they never shook the restlessness that led them to the mountains in the first place. They road-tripped throughout North America together into old age and often took me with them, which sparked my own love of travel. Maybe the energy of certain places is an heirloom I carry with me, a force that seeps into my bones—even if I’m only passing through.