Adventure in Western Canada: Jasper & Banff
Jubilant about Jasper
We rolled off the Rocky Mountaineer (literally rolled, having been stuffed with fine food) into the time-warp town of Jasper on a warm Wednesday evening. As soon as we clapped eyes on it, we loved it. Untouristy and charming, you can’t help but fall for its quaint feel, not to mention its jaw-dropping mountain backdrop. It’s also a great place to start a wilderness adventure…
Our first port of call was the water – specifically, getting on it. On Jasper Rafting Adventure’s Class II Athabasca Falls trip we took on a 90-minute white-water voyage, experiencing a glacial facial (or five) from our front-row pace-setting spot.
The action really worked up our appetites, so we finished the day with a late lunch at the tasty Patricia Street Deli (hidden behind a jeweller’s) and an exploration of Jasper’s shops. The town is perfect for grabbing a few souvenirs that are slightly cheaper than the ones you’ll find in Vancouver or Banff.
If you only have a short amount of time in Jasper, Maligne Canyon and Lake – or at very least the route to both spots – is an absolute must. Wildlife abounds on the side of the road, from elks to chipmunks to black bears. In fact, it was on the drive to Maligne that we spotted our first wild bear. We also got caught in our first Canadian blizzard.
When we reached the lake, the staff seemed as shocked as we were by the mid-June snow, but, invigorated by our wild bear sighting (the first of three that day), we weren’t deterred from taking the cruise to Spirit Island. The sun may not have been shining, but the mountains were laden with crisp, white powder and looked almost ethereal. I’d take that view over the stereotypical postcard snap any day.
Where to stay: Upmarket travellers will enjoy the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. Those who want to get in touch with the wilderness a bit more (like we did) will fall in love with Alpine Village, a collection of high-end log cabins, surrounded by lofty trees and renowned for blissfully terrible Wi-Fi.
The immensity of the Icefields Parkway
There’s so much to see and do along the Icefields Parkway, it’s hard to cover it all. The 144-mile Highway 93 connects Jasper National Park with Banff National Park, finishing in Lake Louise where you can pick up the Trans-Canada Highway. It’s known not just for its abundant wildlife and immense mountain scenery, but for its glaciers too. So it goes without staying that no drive is complete without a pitstop at the Columbia Icefields. We did the southbound route, stopping at the thunderous Athabasca and Sunwapta Falls before reaching the icy site, located on the Jasper-Banff border.
From the Discovery Centre just opposite the glacier, we embarked on two trips: one on the glass-floored Skywalk, the other the Glacier Adventure – in which we were to set foot on the Athabasca Glacier itself. Aboard an eight-wheeled behemoth, we climbed across ice and towering moraine deposits before getting the green light to disembark and tread tentatively on the stark ice sheet. We drank from icy streams, threw snowballs and basked in the sunshine as it glistened off the bleached landscape. It was a magical experience. The only downfall is that you only get 20 minutes on the glacier, so it’s worth visiting early morning (before 9-10am) or late in the evening (after 4pm) to beat the crowds and maximise your time.
Heading south from the Icefields, there’s even more to see: the cascades of the Weeping Wall, the aerial aquamarine view of Peyto Lake and the seclusion of Bow Lake and Hector Lake – to name a few.
Where to stay: Take two days to travel the Icefields Parkway, stopping midway at the Glacier View Inn, inside the Columbia Icefields Discovery Centre.
Heading off the trail in Yoho
Everyone raves about Jasper and Banff, but they’re not the only parks nearby – Kootenay, Glacier and Yoho National Parks are often disregarded when travellers visit Alberta. That only makes them even more exciting and untrodden. We went off-piste into Yoho and back into British Columbia for a day to discover Emerald Lake, the perfect spot for a sunny canoe trip ($40 for one hour) and a 90-minute hike.
Yoho is also home to the second tallest waterfall in Canada: the mighty, glacier-fed Takakkaw Falls. Cascading from 258-metres above, the water crashes into a waterwheel right near the top, forcing it to spray up before gravity takes hold and it plummets downwards. It is a truly breathtaking sight, best seen during the Golden Hours (dawn or dusk) when it is framed by a sky of pink and orange and there isn’t another soggy soul in sight.
Before returning to Alberta, the ski-famous Kicking Horse Mountain Resort is only a short drive from Yoho. Why visit a ski resort in the summer, you ask? Well this peak is about more than just powder. With Discover Banff Tours guiding you, take the gondola to the summit and you can dine at the tallest restaurant in the country. Next, take the ski-lift half-way up and you’ll find something even more thrilling: a 20-acre bear sanctuary, home to 13-year-old grizzly ‘Boo’.
Back over the border, we headed for Lake Louise, which we found just as interesting for its vast marmot population as it was for its renowned turquoise waters.
Where to stay: In Yoho, try the Emerald Lake Lodge for its waterside setting or the Cathedral Mountain Lodge for its great food and close proximity to Takakkaw Falls. In Lake Louise, if money is no object, try the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Those with a more modest budget can opt for the convenient and less imposing Lake Louise Inn instead. It’s simple, comfortable and near the town’s tiny hub of shops, where you’ll find souvenir stores, an information centre and restaurants.
We were sad to reach Banff, it being the final stop on our adventure, but our sour demeanours didn’t last long. On a cruise around Lake Minnewanka we learnt all about the grizzly bears that roam the lake shores in the summer, not to mention a mythical water monster to rival that of Loch Ness. For the brave (not us this time), you can take an all-day hike around the water in search of the beast, although we hear sightings are, unsurprisingly, rare. That evening, we took the Banff Gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain for uninterrupted views of the Rockies. Despite spending over a week amid these many peaks, we still hadn’t quite gotten used to their magnitude, multitude and rugged beauty.
We dispelled any further feelings of holiday blues on our final morning too, by getting even closer to the mountains on a tour with Canmore-based Alpine Helicopters. With my boyfriend in the co-pilot seat, we soared into the clouds for 30 minutes, weaving between peaks and hovering within metres of the dirt-engraved Mount Assiniboine glacier. We reached the ground just in time – minutes later the heavens opened and a storm hit Banff. Not a bad time to be heading to the airport and back home.
Where to stay: Buffalo Mountain Lodge – a beautiful hotel atop Tunnel Mountain.