Monday, January 18, 2010

Ultimate Rocky Mountain Experience

Midway through our Western tour, we left Revelstoke with our sights set firmly on Lake Louise. By now we had spent nine days racing around much of British Columbia, from Kelowna to Vancouver to Victoria and then across much of the BC interior. We just wanted to settle for a few days in one place. Though we didn't have any reservations in Lake Louise, and others have warned us we would have a hard time finding a place to stay, we didn't give it a second thought.

We soared through Glacier National Park , with a quick stop at Rogers Pass  to stretch our legs and grab some refreshments. Historically significant as the last great obstacle facing the trans-continental railway, we didn't find anything of real interest other than the beautiful scenery.

Just west of Lake Louise, we found a comfortable lodge called, what else, West Louise Lodge. Formerly the historic Wapta bungalow camp built by the CPR in 1921, West Louise Lodge has been visited for over 80 years by people from around the world searching for that Ultimate Rocky Mountain Experience. To our surprise, the room rates were very reasonable starting from $99.00. We paid $129.00 per night for a theme suite with a loft and fireplace... and breakfast was included! This would be our home base for the next 5 days.

Batty in Lake Louise
On the third night, I awoke about 2 a.m. to the sight of something flirting around in the darkness. Quickly turning on the light, I spotted a single black bat heading for the rafters. I shook Carole awake and we both just sat there awhile trying to figure out what to do next. For sure we weren't going to get back to sleep in that suite that night. "Oh, he's back", was the calm, cool response from the night clerk. "Thought we got rid of him." Apparently, he was a recurring visitor the staff had become familiar with. We weren't amused and switched rooms, but didn't sleep quite right for the next couple of nights.

Still in British Columbia, Yoho National Park  begins where Banff National Park ends along the Trans-Canada Highway a few minutes west of Lake Louise. The first great site of the day was the Natural Bridge near the small town of Field. Carved by the Kicking Horse River, this limestone arch over the river could be used as a bridge though you can't get anywhere near this natural landmark due to the safety fences and turbulent waters. Once a waterfall, as water found its way through cracks in the rock, it gradually enlarged them, cutting a new channel through which to flow. Eventually, the bridge will collapse creating a gorge.

Emerald Lake is an absolute treasure to be found in Yoho National Park. Legendary guide Tom Wilson first discovered Emerald Lake in 1882 during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. (Interestingly, Tom Wilson also discovered Lake Louise and also called it Emerald Lake.) The CPR built the original guest lodge in 1902. By the mid-1920s, the lodge had been expanded, and road improvements made it possible to reach the resort by car. Since then, the Canadian government has permitted no additional development, so there are no other lodges in the area. If time permits, you can hike the five kilometers around the lake. Interestingly, the climate on the far side of the lake away from the lodge is much drier and this is shown in the surrounding vegetation. But, no matter from which side you view the lake, it looks gorgeous.

A Mini United Nations
Surely one of the most beautiful places in the world, Lake Louise is also one of the most popular areas in the Rockies. On any given summer day, Lake Louise is like a mini United Nations with hoards of people speaking different languages, snapping pictures and just enjoying the majestic view of the Victoria Glacier towering over the calm, turquoise-blue water.

To get the best light for picture taking, visit early in the day. There are also less crowds at this time. Arriving first thing in the morning, we walked along side the lake enjoying the view from the every vantage point. We had expected to go swimming here, but to our surprise, the water was freezing cold. The reason the lake is the beautiful color it is has to do with the minerals washed into the water from the Victoria Glacier. Think of it as a giant ice cube melting into the water. Though you can't swim here, you can rent a canoe and paddle around the lake for an hour or so.

One little known treat involves a bit of hiking up the mountainside beside the lake. The uphill hike takes about three hours but is well worth the trip. The final destination is a small tea room overhanging the Victoria Glacier and Lake Louise and providing incredible views.

Diamond in the Wilderness
We finished off our stay here touring around the lower shopping concourse in the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise , known by polished travelers as "The Diamond in the Wilderness". The upstairs areas, including the lobby and inviting picture window sitting area, are reserved for guests, but we did take a quick stroll around just the same. Later, we had a late lunch and beverage in the restaurant overlooking the gardens before heading back to the lodge.

Of the three main tourist destinations in the Rockies - Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper - Banff definitely has more going on. At least for the general tourist. The downtown core is central to all there is to do in the area, and is a good place to start. Banff Avenue, the main street, is full of tourists exploring souvenir shops, enjoying a fine meal or beer on a patio, or just admiring the great scenery. The awesome Cascade Mountain, one of the most photographed landmarks in Banff, appears to rise straight out of the east end of the avenue.

The town - and it really is a town with a permanent population of only 8,000 - is easy to get around in, and is best explored by foot. We strolled west along Banff Avenue towards the Administration Building on the other side of Bow River. Once on the west side of Bow River, we found a path that leads down to the river and followed the flow of water deeper into the wilderness. We were amazed by the incredibly clear water, which flows rapidly as we approached the Bow Falls and then calms right down. If you've signed up for a slow raft tour down the river, this is the spot where the tour begins. Through a clearing to the west, we can see the famous Banff Springs Hotel.

Discovering Hoodoos
Tired, we made our way back to the car, took a scenic drive around the area and discovered the hoodoos along Tunnel Mountain Drive. Hoodoos are interesting rock formations carved into the mountainside by the force of wind and water over thousands of years.

In the afternoon, we visited Sulphur Mountain... possibly the most popular attraction in Banff. Similar to most tourists visiting the mountain, we took the gondola  up to the lookout near the top of the mountain at an altitude of some 7,486 feet. From there, the 360 degree view is absolutely stunning. From the lookout, we walked the wooden board walk path still further up the mountain to a stone weather station, named in honour of Norman Bethume Sanson, who religiously hiked the trail up the mountain over 1,000 times in his lifetime to record weather observations.

Now, if you're feeling fit and frugal, you too can hike the 5.5 km winding trail up the mountainside. If you're in shape, you should be able to reach the top in about three hours. And for all your efforts, enjoy a free ride back down in the gondola.

Take the Waters
At the base of Sulphur Mountain, we relaxed in the warm waters of the Banff Upper Hot Springs  for the better part of an hour. This splendid, historic spa and bath house is set against a backdrop of spectacular alpine scenery. Travelers have come here to "take the waters" for more than a century. The mineral rich water soothes both the body and soul.

After our "bath", we sought out the original hot springs known as the Cave and Basin, now a National Historic Site. Here, in 1883, three CPR workers noticed steam rising from a vent in the mountain, and descended on a rope to investigate. The original basin is no longer open to the public, but you can tour the grounds and find the small vent where the hot springs were first discovered.

The Vermillion Lakes to the west of Banff are a series of three shallow lakes framed by jutting Mount Rundle and the Fairholme Range to the east. Hearing that the mountains reflect beautifully in the calm waters at dusk, we drove slowly along the road beside the lake and waited for the sun to go down. Some photographers were perched along the water's edge eagerly anticipating sunset.

The Celebrated Icefield Parkway
Day three and we left the lodge early to spend the day driving the 230 km stretch between Lake Louise and Jasper known as the Icefield Parkway. This is one of the most celebrated drives in North America. It traverses a massive wilderness, broken only by a few outposts along the way. Parts of the route were a Native trail, but for many years after Jasper and Banff became settled, the area was almost completely impassable, used only by trappers, surveyors or adventurous tourists on guided trips.

The first road through the mountains was built in the 1930s as a depression-era make-work project. Crews started in both Jasper and Lake Louise and met up at "Big Bend" in the Columbia Icefields. Essentially, the road has not changed significantly since the 1960s.

Entering the parkway at Lake Louise, our first stop was Crowfoot Glacier. Many years ago there were three distinct "toes" to the glacier, hence the name. Though there are now only two "toes" this was still an impressive site nonetheless.

A short distance away, Bow Lake is one of the loveliest sights in the Rockies and is the source for the Bow River. This is a highly recommended place to stop and take a walk or hike. Posed on the lakeshore, the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge  is a handsome log and stone building built in 1937. The distinctive red roof is something of an icon in the Rockies. The cozy lodge offers very rustic, simple accommodations without television or phones in the rooms. If you want to stay here, book early as this is a favorite stop in both summer and winter.

Approaching the Athabasca Glacier
We spent the next couple of hours exploring some of the more known attractions of the Icefield Parkway before we got to the treasured highlight - the Athabasca Glacier. The colourful Peyto Lake was captivating, as was the Mistaya Canyon. The massive cliff face known as the Weeping Wall is world-renowned for ice climbing in the winter when the falls are all frozen and glistening. At the Big Bend, the expansive view southward was truly amazing. The sight of the parkway cutting through the mountain range presents a reference point to measure the vast scale of the landscape.

Approaching the Athabasca Glacier, we decided to take the road leading to the glacier before visiting the Icefield Centre. In some respects, this may have been a mistake. Athabasca Glacier, in Jasper National Park, is the best-known glacier in the Rockies. One cannot drive directly up to it. We had to park in the lot a couple of kilometers away and slowly hiked the uphill path to the retreating foot of the glacier. Luckily, we had windbreakers handy as the wind was bitterly cold blowing off the icefield.

The Athabasca Glacier is melting faster than the annual snowfall can replace. Testimony to this are the numerous markers showing the glacier's edge position year after year. It seems amazing the glacier doesn't disappear faster as the ice water run off is heavy and non-stop. There are also many signs indicating the danger of walking on the glacier, particularly near the crevices. It's possible the ice can crack. Some children have fallen into the crevices and froze to death before they could be rescued. As a result, many tourists with small kids would not walk on the ice. I myself walked about thirty feet up the glacier, but Carole wouldn't step on it. Mind you, she wasn't alone.

A Better Way - Brewster Snocoach
Back at the Icefield Centre, we learned the history of the Athabasca Glacier. We also found out about the Brewster Snocoach . This is a specially designed vehicle that climbs directly onto the Athabasca Glacier. It offers a unique perspective on the area, and provides a chance to walk in safety high above the roadway. Sure beats the long cold hide from the parking lot.

Continuing our drive north through Jasper National Park, it's almost like we were compelled to stop at all the waterfalls in the area. Sunwapta Falls is only a short walk from the parking lot just off the parkway. This thunderous falls winds through a limestone canyon, past more rapids and more falls downstream.

A short distance away, the impressive Athabasca Falls tumbles 23 metres through a nice canyon. A clear view of Mount Kerkeslin frames the background. Still not to be out done, the very pretty Tangle Falls is visible from the Icefield Parkway. You have to be careful driving in this area as a number of people stop along the road, and clamber around the rocks to get near the falls. A few minutes away, we discovered what appeared to be a field of colorful stone. I don't know if this place has a name, but it's a great place for some exciting photos.

Goat Lookout is a likely place to spot white shaggy mountain goats clinging to the sides of the cliffs licking mineral salts from the earth. We actually spotted a couple of goats right beside the road. Quite a few people stopped and some foolish people approached within a few feet of them. Nothing happened, but there are warnings everywhere about staying away from the wild animals.

Short Stay in Jasper
We arrived in Jasper mid-afternoon. The town is smaller and less crowded than Banff, but offers similar striking mountain views, activities and attractions. Though many may disagree, I found the journey to Jasper along the Icefield Parkway more exciting and varied. The railway station appears to be the main attraction here. Jasper is the only major railway destination in the Rockies still reachable by passenger train. We grabbed a late lunch at Papa George's, one of the oldest restaurants in town serving excellent food. Afterwards, we quietly strolled through the downtown area before heading back to Lake Louise.

Our last day in the Rockies we elected to take it easy and visit Moraine Lake. We saw signs to the lake on our way to and back from Lake Louise but never ventured to check it out. I'm glad we finally did. Nestled in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, this splendid lake is a must-see in the Rockies with its intense blue-green water and magnificent mountain setting. The view looks very familiar, and we soon found out the landscape is depicted on the back of the old twenty dollar Canadian bill.

The view here is absolutely beautiful... really beyond words. There also seems to be more to do here than in Lake Louise itself. As we had planned, we rented a canoe for hour or so and explored the whole lake, found a couple of hidden waterfalls and hiked some great trails.

We spent a great week in the Rockies. Sad to leave this magnificent wilderness, we wished we could stay here on vacation forever. Or at least a little longer.

                                                                                                                                                                                                     

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