Banff National Park…travel in our own backyard
July 7, 2017
Travel Close to Home
After writing about our travels in Southeast Asia and my trip to North Carolina, it excited me to share some stories and photos from a recent visit to the Canadian Rockies. This is probably old news for the locals who read my blog, but I hope it may entice some of our “away” friends to come for a visit.
This exquisite area is about 2 hours away from our home. We know how lucky we are when we can drive to the mountains for the day, and hear comments like, “ I’ve waited my whole life to come here”, and “This is just so beautiful, I have to just sit here. I can’t even take a picture yet.”
We are currently tent campers, but we are ridiculously good at camping, as our daughter points out. Although she turned 30 this year, she still enjoys a road trip with her parents, and in fact, booked this trip for the 3 of us in April of this year. It was necessary to book almost 3 months ahead as it is Canada’s 150th birthday on July 1 and the federal government decided to make all the national park entrances free for the entire year. We also wanted to stay in the village of Lake Louise in Banff National Park.
It has a camping area specifically for tents and soft sided trailers that is contained by an electric fence. This is due to a bear attack in the past. It didn’t help us sleep through the trains, but it did give us wild animal peace of mind. The permit for firewood was extra, as was the fee for booking on-line. The hot showers were free. There were fresh water spigots, covered cook shelters in case of rain, a sink area with hot water for washing dishes (our favorite luxury) and daily programs offered by the park on topics ranging from the value of bats in the park to demonstrations on how to camp. The views were also free.
Road trip to the Rockies
The drive along the David Thompson Highway, (a fur trader and mapmaker extraordinaire) takes us west from Rocky Mountain House towards the Rockies. We travel past campgrounds and through the forests of the foothills bombarded with wonderful views as the mountains begin to appear in more detail around every turn.
The only town halfway along the 2 hour drive to the park is the old mining town of Nordegg. It was a booming community 100 years ago, but now provides tours of the old mine area, a small golf course, a gas station, hotel and delicious pie at the Miner’s Cafe. Gas, snacks, camping and music festivals are also available at David Thompson Resort on the banks of Abraham Lake about 30 minutes further west.
Abraham Lake is actually a reservoir built to control flooding of the North Saskatchewan River. It also generates some electricity as it passes through small turbines, and methane gas bubbles in the ice during the winter as plant matter decays below the surface. It’s most noticeable characteristic, however, is its spectacular teal blue color. Mountain lakes that form from melted glaciers contain “glacial flour” which is rock ground up to powder by the force of moving ice. This powder, or silt, reflects and scatters the colors of light to send an almost indescribable color to the eye. Unless you have seen it yourself, in photographs it looks fake. It is especially impressive in the fall when the golden leaves contrast with the blue water.
In order to manage all the visitors to Lake Louise itself, Parks Canada has a free shuttle bus from an overflow parking area a few km east of town. School buses leave every 15 minutes and drop passengers at the visitor center in the village of Lake Louise as well as at the lake itself. It sure beats driving around the parking lot hoping someone will leave.
I love going to this lake. I’ve X-Country skied and snowshoed on it in the winter, walked along it in the spring when the snow is still a meter deep, and hiked above it in the summer. The visitors who come are reverent as they stand in awe at the mountains and glaciers surrounding the lake. The majority of people have travelled great distances to come to this “bucket list” place.
The Fairmont Lake Louise stands at one end and a company nearby rents red canoes to tourists to paddle quietly through the water. In the winter, there is a skating rink cleared near the hotel with an ice castle sculpture. An ice bar with ice tables and stools is also outside. Horse-drawn sleighs take people along the lake trail where they can see ice climbers ascending the waterfall at the end. There is also a world class ski hill behind the hotel, overlooking the lake.
Tea House Hike
There are 2 tea houses on the mountain above the lake that were built as lodges in 1905 and 1924. My daughter and I have been to the Lake Agnus Teahouse a couple of times already so this time we chose to hike to the Plain of the Six Glaciers. It is 10.6 km return and 365 m elevation change. The trail starts at the hotel and the first couple of km are a paved path. It climbs up through the forest with lots of views of the lake along the way. This was a high snow winter and there were several avalanche path still in place along the way. We had hiking boots, hiking poles and snow experience so we had no concerns. Those people walking in runners had more trouble. I heard one man comment as he turned back, “I wish I had my soccer shoes.” The hike was in fact not recommended by the visitor center because of the snow.
The teahouse is a beautiful log building. The staff hike in and stay for a week. Supplies are carried up on horseback or helicopter. They serve tea, of course, and fresh baking. Soup and chili were also available. We joined a family from Pennsylvania at a picnic table and savored Banff Tea Company tea and cinnamon scones, along with good conversation. It seems so decadent to enjoy such treats in a remote place.
After a quiet night in our campsite, we headed out at 7:30 am to Moraine Lake. It is another iconic view place that used to be the main picture on the Canadian $20 bill for many years. The area is also known as the Valley of the 10 Peaks because you can see 10 peaks along the side of the lake from the Rockpile viewpoint.
Moraine Lake is glacial blue and is named after the crushed rock that gets pushed to the side by a moving glacier. This rock remains in place after the glacier recedes. We hiked above this lake last summer so we just wanted to take some pictures. The water was ruffled by wind so there were no reflections but the changing skies and snow-capped peaks made it a spectacular place. Listening to the visitors who were there for the first time also made it special. There were lots of selfies being taken, but many offers were made to take group photos for others as a wonderful memory.
The forecast was for showers and I was a bit creaky after our hike so we decided to spend the day around Banff, which is about 55 km away. Our plan was to check out some places that we had driven past and never stopped. We travelled down the Bow Valley Parkway, which is the original road between Banff and Lake Louise. It is quiet and scenic, although we didn’t see any wildlife.
Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake
Our first destination was the Lake Minnewanka loop. It is near Banff townsite. The entrance to the day use and boating area looked busy, so we continued to Two Jack Lake and stopped when we saw the National Parks red chairs. Parks staff have set out a double set of red Muskoka chairs at various parks throughout Canada. You can take a photo and share it with #redchairs as a way to promote places in the parks. I had never been to an area where they were located before so this was exciting for me. It was a lovely by the lake so we stayed for a picnic after the obligatory photographs. As it was just a few days before Canada’s 150th Birthday, it was extra special to share our red chair photos.
Cave and Basin National Historic Site
While the railway was being built across Canada, a couple of workers stumbled upon a hot springs, which was later named Cave and Basin. The Canadian Government saw the economic advantages of bringing tourists to this area and in 1887 Banff National Park was created in first national park in Canada.
Cave and Basin is now a National Historic Site. It has been recently renovated and is open to visitors. We saw the original cave as well as an outdoor pool. Swimming is no longer allowed at this location, but it is at the Upper Hot Springs pool. The courtyard at the historic site had replicas of railway worker tents set up, along with staff portraying the workers from the 1880’s.
No visit to Banff is complete without a drive down Banff Ave. and a little people watching. We wandered through the local farmer’s market then stopped for a cold drink next to the pub window. We saw people from all parts of the world strolling past, admiring the views and the atmosphere of this old mountain town.
As we returned to our campground we spotted a couple more red chairs on the hill. They were next to the road that leads up to Mt. Norquay ski hill. I didn’t remember being there either so we drove up to take a look. There were 2 chairs on a hillside with a fantastic view of the entire town of Banff, including the Banff Springs Hotel and Vermillion Lake. There was even a herd of Bighorn Sheep wandering past. We were so lucky to find 2 chair locations in one day.
For our last day, we decided that many of the day hikes would still have too much snow on the trails so we headed further west instead. Emerald Lake is about 40 km from Lake Louise in Yoho National Park. It is a small lake, but emerald perfectly describes the colour of the water. There is a lodge at one end that is comprised of cabins and a regular hotel.
There is a 5 km path around the lake. The first half was quite smooth and level and had fantastic lake views. The second half of the trail was more up and down but surrounded by temperate wetland plants like Devil’s Club and lady slippers.
On the drive back to the highway, we stopped at a natural bridge. The Kicking Horse River has worn through the rock so instead of being a waterfall coming over the top of the rock, it now comes underneath the rock, forming a bridge.
Our final stop on this quick road trip was at Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway. It is located at Bow Summit which is the high point between our access to the park from Highway 11 and Lake Louise. The Lake is fed by glacial water and is the start of the Bow River that flows through Calgary. There is an old Swiss Mountaineer Lodge there that has accomodations and a wonderful restaurant called Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. We had another picnic overlooking the lake and a fresh coffee from the trading post. It was interesting to watch all the visitors see for the first time an area that we are very familiar with.
If this doesn’t excite you about visiting Banff National Park, then I have not done my job well enough. Please comment any questions you have, or share your favourite place to hike or gawk in the mountains.