Part One of my travelogue of our week-long-best-ever summer road trip in the Canadian Rockies, where the term “it’s a pleasure to drive” takes a whole new meaning. We visited some of the best known sights of Banff, Yoho and Jasper National Parks, including the beautiful Lake Louise and Emerald Lake, as well as the Athabasca Glacier of the Columbia Icefield en route to Jasper.
Canada is well-endowed when it comes to natural wonders such as the Bay of Fundy – home of the highest tides in the world – in the Maritimes in eastern Canada and the gorgeous and world famous Niagara Falls in southeastern Ontario. There is no shortage of natural beauty in a country rich in its natural heritage.
The Rocky Mountains are another such natural wonder in Canada. The nearly 5000-kilometer long range covers parts of the western provinces of Alberta and British Columbia and stretches down to the United States. Several national parks have been established to protect the natural heritage, including Banff National Park, the first and therefore the oldest National Park in Canada.
The Road Trip
We planned our road trip to start and finish in Calgary by first driving west to Banff on the scenic Trans-Canada Highway and then making our way north to Jasper via Lake Louise and the beautiful town of Field. From Jasper we drove east to Edmonton (famous for what was once the largest mall in the world) and then completed the loop by driving back south to Calgary.
We had wanted to fly into Calgary and then fly out of Edmonton to avoid the boring 3-hour long drive from Edmonton to Calgary; however, car rental turns out to be twice as costly if the car is not returned at the location where it is rented from (even if it’s in the same city, let alone another city)! Round-trip airfares are also cheaper than one-way fares.
Our week long road trip in the Rocky Mountains started with an early morning flight from Toronto to Calgary – the largest city in the province of Alberta. During the nearly 4-hour long flight, we watched the House of Games, a “hidden gem” that I had on my laptop. It was noon by the time we landed in Calgary – famous for steaks and the Calgary Stampede – and picked up our “Zoom-Zoom” rental car (Mazda 3) from Budget Car Rental’s convenient airport location.
Due to their street naming convention, I had to be very careful driving in Downtown Calgary. Their naming convention was a number, followed by “Road” or “Avenue”, followed by the direction. For example, “4 Ave SW” intersected with “4 St SW”, and “3 Ave SW” and “4 Ave SW” were parallel. To make things more confusing, most roads were one-way only with traffic flowing on the even numbered roads in one direction and in the opposite direction on the odd numbered roads. Because the traffic was light it was easy to make a wrong turn and not even know it. And not just any wrong turn, but a potentially catastrophic one. I remember I made a right-turn somewhere and upon driving a hundred or so meters I noticed that the road signs and the traffic lights were facing the opposite direction. In the next moment I realized that if I don’t turn around quickly I’m going to come face-to-face with the oncoming traffic since I was driving the wrong way on a one-way street!
Since our hotel’s check-in time was rather late, we decided to get some lunch before heading to our hotel. We had purchased a Garmin 1350 GPS and used its ‘Points of Interest’ feature to look for some nearby Indian restaurants. The GPS took us on a long and scenic drive to the suburbs and before we knew it we ended up at a run-down plaza with no indication of the restaurant we were looking for! The nearest Indian restaurant from that plaza was another 20-km away, but we could no longer trust our GPS. Cursing the GPS, we found a Chinese restaurant on our own and had a sumptuous meal. Little did we know at the time that the GPS, which we were cursing now, would save our life later when we were lost on a hiking trail.
Our hotel, The Westin Calgary, was centrally located in downtown and close to the trendy Eau Claire neighbourhood. However, we learned that spending a Saturday night in downtown Calgary was not the best way to experience the city. With deserted streets and closed restaurants we were left scratching our heads on what to do and where to go. Unlike in Toronto, there hasn’t been a boom in residential condominium projects in downtown Calgary, and as a result, the city center becomes a ghost town after office-hours when all office-goers go back to their suburban homes. The only saving grace about spending a weekend night in Calgary was the free street parking (after 6 PM on Saturdays and all day on Sundays) in this city known for its most expensive parking in Canada!
On Sunday afternoon, after checking-out of our hotel, we were in a mood for some Thai food and found one using our GPS. The restaurant wasn’t difficult to find but finding a street parking spot was. It left me wondering where all those people were because the streets were almost devoid of people. As it turned out, the Thai restaurant was closed. We were shocked that it was closed on a Sunday afternoon!
The bums were out on full force that day so we quickly settled on Milestones, which was one of the few restaurants that were open. As we sat in the restaurant patio having delicious pasta and curry noodles, we saw a group of anti-China Vietnamese-Canadian protesters coming our way. They were protesting against the new “Imperialistic China”, or rather, raising awareness of China’s growing ambitions and military might. Apparently, China is claiming some islands in the South China Sea as their own, which belong to Vietnam. Then again, Vietnam is not the only country with whom the Chinese have a territorial sovereignty dispute…
Here are some photos of the protest, which I took while having lunch:
Drive to Banff National Park
The first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains range as we drove from Calgary to the town of Banff ignited an excitement that grew to no bounds. It was the first time we had seen a mountain range in Canada, even a hill for that matter! The constant clicking of photos was testament to that.
We passed the town of Canmore, which is located just outside the boundary of Banff National Park. Many visitors opt to stay in Canmore where it is possible to get much better value accommodation than staying in the town of Banff, which is located within the national park boundary. Apparently, new development has been frozen in Banff and as a result Canmore is developing rapidly as tourism and the resulting demand for hotels and restaurants increases. We found a somewhat good deal on Expedia for the Banff Caribou Lodge so we opted to stay in Banff, more for convenience than anything else. However, Canmore is only 25-kms from Banff.
The entrance to Banff National Park is a series of toll booths with a separate lane for pass holders. The park fees were the same for all the National Parks we were planning to visit and cost nearly $10 per person per day. We spent a small fortune (nearly a hundred dollars) on park fees alone between the two of us for five days!
Town of Banff – Gateway to Heaven
Depending on personal preferences, the town of Banff can be looked at as just a gateway to hiking in Banff National Park, or it can be looked at as a destination in itself – a place to unwind – in luxury – in the lap of mountains where the hour-hand on the clock simply ceases to exist. For us, it was a mix of both.
The check-in process at our pre-booked hotel, Banff Caribou Lodge, was smooth and hassle-free. Our room was fairly compact and the bathroom was one of the smallest I’ve ever seen in a hotel room. Our hotel was conveniently located on the main Banff Avenue and was walking distance to shopping and restaurants. After freshening up, we set out to explore the little town and grab a bite to eat.
For a small town, we were surprised to see its pedestrian-friendly downtown abuzz with tourists. There were no shortages of bars, fast food restaurants and flashy souvenir shops. There were also many restaurants serving tasty multi-ethnic cuisine such as Chinese, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Tex-Mex and Thai. During our stay in Banff, we tickled our taste buds with Greek, Indian, Tex-Mex (American-Mexican) and Thai food. Unfortunately, we felt that the Indian restaurant, Masala Authentic Indian, was over-priced and far from authentic. The service also left much to be desired. I feel that many Indian restaurants take their Indian customers for granted. On the other hand, the food at Thai Grill was very tasty and offered excellent value for money – and as a bonus, the service was courteous – that’s all we expect!
Of course, Banff being a popular tourist spot, there were plenty of souvenir shops. However, most of the souvenirs sold in these shops were overpriced and lacked authenticity and character. For the discerning eye, they were nothing more than cheap mass-produced “Made in China” crafts that can be found at almost any tourist place in Canada. I think a souvenir should be more than just where it is purchased. Probably the best souvenirs are locally-made and are something that is unique to that place; however, such things are hard to find in today’s “Global Village”.
For me, the memories of my experiences are my souvenirs.
Trans-Canada Highway: Curse or Blessing?
The roads and highways that cut across the Banff, Jasper, Yoho and other National and Provincial Parks are at once both, a blessing and a curse to the parks. Without the roads, it would be impossible to enjoy the spectacular mountain scenery from the comfort of our own vehicle. On the other hand, 99% of wildlife fatalities (statistics from Parks Canada), including grizzly bears and wolves – the top predators in the Rocky Mountains – are due to collisions with vehicles and trains. Roads through national parks are clearly doing a lot of harm.
The most disconcerting thing about the Trans-Canada highway is the way it divides the park with seemingly no way for wildlife to go across. The high fences along the highway help in preventing animals from becoming road-kill, but it also leaves the park tragically fragmented. Although we were certainly enjoying the breathtaking panoramic views from the comfort of our car as we drove on the highway, I kept wondering if this is how wildlife has to pay the price for our enjoyment.
As we know only too well, economic sense always trumps common sense. However, unfortunately, if there are no economic incentives or benefits in preserving our natural heritage, then there won’t be much of it left for the future. Tourism is a necessary evil to preserve our natural heritage. Or else all will be lost to loggers, hunters and developers.
As I later learned, in order to connect important wildlife habitats, several overpasses (at a cost of $1 million each) and many more underpasses have been constructed on the Trans-Canada highway in Banff National Park for wildlife to cross the highway in a safe and “natural” way. The passes are designed to resemble a natural setting. Apparently, it did not take long for some of the smaller animals to start using the passes, but it took a few years before top predators such as bears and wolves felt comfortable enough to use it. I guess everyone has their own learning curve!
Bow Valley Parkway (Highway 1A)
From the town of Banff, Bow Valley Parkway is the alternate route to the TransCanada Highway. Although slower than taking the highway, it is the recommended route for sighting animals and for stopping en route at the many view points. However, with the exception of a few viewpoints dotted along the route, it lacks the sweeping panoramic views, which the Trans-Canada Highway affords throughout the journey.
We were lucky as we spotted a huge deer just as we got on the Bow Valley Parkway from Banff. We pulled over to the side and happily took several pictures. Initially, we thought it was a woodland caribou. We found it very confusing to distinguish between an elk, woodland caribou and a deer as all three look more or less the same and have very funky antlers. As we learned later, caribou prefer to stay on the higher altitudes in the summer months, and their numbers are so small that we would be lucky indeed to spot one. I recently read that the last remaining woodland caribou in Banff all died in an avalanche in 2009, and, sadly, there are only a few remaining in Jasper.
There were two animals that we were really hoping to spot – woodland caribou and bears. It hadn’t even been twenty minutes since we had seen a deer, and we came across a couple of bears – a mother and her pug! As we were constantly on the lookout for animals, we were driving slowly so I was able to immediately pull over to the side just a few feet away from them. Apparently, the pug had wandered out of the woods and its mother followed it and took it back inside. By the time others pulled over to see the bears, they had gone back into the woods. We were very happy to have taken Bow Valley Parkway indeed!
We spotted the bears very close to a camping site. So to all those who plan on camping in the National Parks, make sure to secure your garbage to keep the bears away!
To be continued… Click for Part Two
Part Two of my travelogue of our week-long-best-ever summer road trip in the Canadian Rockies, where the term “it’s a pleasure to drive” takes a whole new meaning. We visited some of the best known sights of Banff, Yoho and Jasper National Parks, including the beautiful Lake Louise and Emerald Lake, as well as the Athabasca Glacier of the Columbia Icefield en route to Jasper.
Misadventures at Silverton Falls
It had been a long time since I had seen mountains and I was (over) eager to do some hiking/trekking in the Rockies. For me, it was rather necessary to go hiking at least one while I was there – otherwise it would be the equivalent of going to an amusement park and not taking any rides! I think trekking is the best way to get close to nature and the best way to see the beauty of nature. It instills a feeling of love, appreciation and respect for nature.
“Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.” -Anatoli Boukreev
I had in mind a couple of challenging day treks – Cory Pass in Banff National Park and the Iceline Trail in Yoho National Park – so I wanted to start off with a small trek in Banff just to get our feet wet so to speak. My online research had indicated that Silverton Falls is a great hike for beginners as it barely takes 30-minutes to reach the falls from the starting point and is also a sort of “local secret” since it’s not overrun with tourists even in peak season, unlike the nearby Johnston Canyon.
We drove to the Rockbound Lake parking lot, about 200-meters east of Castle Junction on the Bow Valley Parkway (Highway 1A), from where the trail to both, Silverton Falls (0.5-KM) and Rockbound Lake (8.5-KM), starts. There was only one other vehicle parked there when we reached the parking lot at around 3-PM. I guess I had read correctly about this being a “local secret” or perhaps there weren’t many people because we were starting late.
In preparing Bhakti for any, shall we say, eventualities, I briefed her (or scared her if you ask her) about how dangerous bears can be and what to do in case we come across one. Her impression of a cute and cuddly bear that only tickles its victims was shattered to the point that she became paranoid and every log started to resemble a bear!
The trail is fairly obvious and sort of follows a creek upstream. After walking several hundred meters we came across a new trail that forked left (towards the mountain) and the one we were on continued along the creek. Although I suspected the new trail would be the right one, I was curious to see if by following the creek we would end up at the base of Silverton Falls.
The trail ended when we reached a small waterfall, but we could hear an even bigger waterfall, which was completely hidden from view. I crossed the creek using a few stepping stones to get a better view from the other side while Bhakti impatiently waited for me. I had a somewhat clearer view of the bigger falls – Silverton Falls – but it was still obstructed. I knew that the other trail at the fork would have the best view of the falls. Anyway, I was content to have satisfied by curiosity.
Meanwhile, Bhakti had called out my name a few times while I was on the other side of the creek. Unfortunately, the sound of the waterfall had completely drowned out her screams. When I returned she was angry at me for leaving her alone and asked what she would’ve done had a bear come and I wouldn’t even have heard her call for help!
We traced our steps back to where the trail forked and took the other trail. The new trail had one switchback that gradually gained altitude in a zig-zag pattern. The switchback trail was a fairly long one to keep the gradient less steep. I noticed a “short-cut” going straight up and I thought it would be more adventurous to take this path instead of taking the “boring path”, which everyone else takes. This was a crucial mistake on my part as after what happened next I could not even consider doing Cory Pass or the Iceline Trail.
Bhakti was not too keen on taking this path, which was not even an actual trail, but still she followed me. The path was fairly steep and full of loose scree. It became even steeper after the half-way mark, at which point I was on all fours and so was Bhakti who was behind me. We were desperately trying to grab whatever we could to maintain our balance, but there was hardly anything firm enough to hold on to. I realized that I had misjudged the “short-cut” and hoped that we, especially Bhakti, doesn’t pay the price for this. It was definitely time to head back down without taking any further risks. A few other people, who were on the switchback trail above us, saw that we were struggling and said to go back down. They watched us until we were back safely on the main trail. We were both very glad that they were there in case something untoward had happened. It was also at that time that I cancelled our Cory Pass and Iceline Trail plans.
Moral of the Story: short-cuts on the mountains can cut-short your life!
The Silverton Falls is a neat 50-m high waterfall, which can be seen quite nicely from a viewpoint where the switchback trail ends. In spite of being easily accessible, it’s relatively unknown and I suspect that’s because there is nothing spectacular about the falls. Also, other than the falls, the hike is not rewarding in terms of getting to see great mountain scenery.
Some caution is required on the trail going towards the viewpoint as it is quite narrow with a steep drop-off. It would be dangerous if the trail were crowded but we had the place all to ourselves that day save for a couple who were in-and-out in less than 5 minutes. After spending 20-25 minutes at the viewpoint, we traced our steps back to the parking lot and drove to what can be best described as the Taj Mahal of Rocky Mountains … Lake Louise.
Check out our video of Silverton Falls.
Tears of God: Lakes of Rocky Mountains
Banff and other contiguous National Parks (such as Yoho) are a land of exquisite natural beauty and its lakes deserve a special mention for the many hues of blue and green. Needless to say, when we first started our trip, we were mesmerized and awestruck by the different shades of natural blue and green coloured waters we were seeing. It’s the kind of beauty that neither words nor photographs can do justice to. The lakes can be best described as “Tears of God”.
Some of these lakes, such as Lake Louise (Banff) and Emerald Lake (Yoho) are easily accessible by car and many others require you to trek/hike. Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park has restrictions on the number of visitors to protect its fragile environment; shuttle bus reservations need to be made much in advance if you wish to see this lake. You can bypass this restriction if you hike to the lake (quite challenging but totally worth it – or so I heard).
By the end of the week we were almost desensitized to the beauty of the lakes and had started to “compare” the hues of one lake to another – an unfair comparison by any stretch of imagination, but such is human nature! At one point we didn’t even bother to pull over our car and look at “another blue hued lake” that could be seen from the highway!
What audacity! Maaz!
Lake Louise – In Search of Blue Skies
Lake Louise is one of the most beautiful alpine lakes in the Rockies, and arguably in the world – and not without reason. The lake’s turquoise blue water, whose colour even our high-tech Digital SLR camera could not accurately capture, with the backdrop of snow-capped mountains is the stuff of dreams. It is on the itinerary of practically every visitor to Banff and its shockingly large parking lot is testament to its popularity!
I’ve to admit that I was quite turned off by its huge parking lot with hundreds of parked cars and even a few tour buses. While driving around the lot looking for a space to park it felt like I was back at GO Transit’s parking lot desperately looking for a spot at 7:30 in the morning before catching a train to the office. Not a good feeling indeed! How can one enjoy nature in a crowded place? I need peace and tranquility to truly enjoy nature. This is one of the reason’s why I don’t like going to Niagara Falls.
Fortunately, Lake Louise is not commercially exploited to the same degree as Niagara Falls. Although there are boating (non-motorized) facilities and a 5-star hotel, Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, which overlooks the lake, these are not distracting and do not take away the beauty of this place. In fact, the beautiful Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, whose design and architecture speaks of luxury and caters to those who seek luxury in nature (and can afford it) sort of sets the setting for this lake, which has the best of Mother Nature and the best of what is man-made.
The hiking trails also make it easy to escape the crowds that are happily posing for their cameras in front of the lake without venturing too far out. We ran into a Marathi-speaking family from Edmonton who gave us their phone numbers and invited us to their place once they learned we would be visiting Edmonton afterwards. I think the Marathi community still has a “community” feel in Edmonton, which is all but lost in the Marathi-speaking community in Toronto.
For Bhakti it was her first time seeing an alpine lake and that too a blue-coloured one as if it were a natural swimming pool! I read on an information board near the lake that the water gets its colour from “rock flour” that is carried into the lake by the melted water from the glaciers that overlook the lake. The only other place where I have seen such a lake was in the Indian Himalayas en route to Goecha Pass in Sikkim (from where the view of Mt. Kanchendzone – world’s third-highest peak – is to die for!) – and that too after 4.5 days of strenuous trekking. Is it any wonder then that this lake, which anyone can easily reach by car and is wheelchair-accessible from the parking lot, is such a popular place to visit?
Bhakti and I were completely taken by its beauty and the several dozen pictures that we took speak volumes about how we felt. However, there was one thing missing – blue skies! We felt that the only thing that will make the lake even better is if the skies were clear. So, we ended up visiting Lake Louise not once, not twice, but three times over three days with the hopes of capturing a photo of the lake with clear skies. However, luck was not on our side and we had to be content with only partly clear skies on our third visit. I think the key is to visit this lake early in the morning to get the blue skies as the clouds quickly settle over the mountains behind the lake as the day progresses.
Our first visit to Lake Louise was when we were staying in the town of Banff. At one point while driving back to our hotel in Banff after seeing Lake Louise we got stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic due to road construction. I was stuck in the very thing I was trying to get away from – city madness! My preconceived notion of a tranquil and peaceful national park was shattered, at least temporarily. Thankfully, that was only a one-time incident.
Check out our video of Lake Louise.
The Tragedy of Moraine Lake
Most of my pre-trip research effort was focused on finding the best hiking trails, and very little time was spent on researching the “must see” attractions of the National Parks we were visiting. Even a simple Google search would have indicated that Moraine Lake is not to be missed … and we missed it, not for lack of time but for lack of knowledge.
This lake of immense natural beauty is a short detour from the road to Lake Louise. In fact, Moraine Lake was featured on the backs of the 1969 and 1979 issues of the Canadian twenty dollar note, and the view of the lake featured on the notes is “one of the most photographed locations in all of Canada!”
We didn’t know what we had missed until we returned from our trip and I looked it up on Google Images after a friend told me about it. It was indeed a tragedy that we missed seeing this beautiful lake, especially given that we visited Lake Louise three times and each time we saw the sign for Moraine Lake indicating that it is (only!) 10-KM away and we dismissed it thinking “it’s just another lake”.
Sometimes ignorance is not bliss.
Lake Louise Gondola (Rope-way): Short-cut to Heaven?
I was not too keen on the idea of taking a “gondola” (rope-way) ride up a mountain for the views. However, after cancelling our two major treks plans (Cory Pass in Banff and Iceline Trail in Yoho), which would’ve given us such views (and perhaps even better) – the hard way – we decided to get those views the easy way as a consolation.
It’s called the Lake Louise Gondola because the beautiful blue lake can clearly be seen as the “gondola”, which essentially is a ski lift, takes you up the mountain. There are gondolas near Banff town, Lake Louise and Jasper town. However, if you only have time (or money) for one, then I think Lake Louise Gondola has the best views and there’s even a chance of spotting grizzly bears who are often seen wandering and snacking on the grassy slopes of the ski hills. In fact, we did spot a grizzly from our ski chair; however, it was not much more than a tiny speck as we were very high above it.
Once we reached the top there weren’t many places to explore as most areas were closed off due to “bear activity”. And after just having spotted a grizzly, we didn’t want to take any chances by wandering around! There was a large cabin nearby, which was turned into a sort of museum of all the wildlife found in the national parks – complete with stuffed animals. The displays were quite informative. This is where I learned that 99% of wildlife fatalities in the national parks are unnatural deaths – the animals are either killed on the road or on the tracks by speeding trains.
There were a few “view points” from where you can get a pretty good idea of how vast the mountain range is. Lake Louise is not more than a tiny speck and the mountains are spread-out as far as the eye can see. The panoramic views are truly incredible and worth it if trekking is not possible.
I think I appreciate the view more if I have to perspire and face many challenges to get to it, than if I get the same (or even better view) by driving to a “view point” or by reaching there via cable car. Anything that is easily achieved is neither appreciated nor remembered. A family friend of mine had once asked me what the point is of climbing a mountain. It’s rather difficult to answer that question as climbing a mountain is something that needs to be experienced to be understood. It’s as much a spiritual experience as it is a physical one.
It’s one of the intangibles in life – how do we put a value on it?
To be continued… Click for Part Three.
Part Three of my travelogue of our week-long-best-ever summer road trip in the Canadian Rockies, where the term “it’s a pleasure to drive” takes a whole new meaning. We visited some of the best known sights of Banff, Yoho and Jasper National Parks, including the beautiful Lake Louise and Emerald Lake, as well as the Athabasca Glacier of the Columbia Icefield en route to Jasper.
Picture Perfect: Field, British Columbia (BC)
From Lake Louise, the Trans-Canada Highway continues west towards Vancouver, and the road going north-west leads to the Icefields Parkway, which goes to Jasper via the famous Columbia Icefield. Field is the first town you come across on the Trans-Canada Highway after crossing into British Columbia (BC). It is by far the most beautiful and picturesque town I’ve ever seen in Canada!
I learned about this little town while searching for a place to stay near Lake Louise as all accommodation options around Lake Louise were not in our budget. Field is a mere 30-KM from Lake Louise and due to its proximity to attractions such as a Natural Bridge (over Kicking Horse River), Emerald Lake and Takakkaw Falls, it is the perfect place to stay and explore the nearby attractions in leisure. If I had more time, I would’ve loved to simply stay in town for a few days and do nothing – well, except, perhaps, read a book while sippin’ on a hot cuppa tea and go for long walks in the mountains – sound like a perfect vacation? Better to do that here than in some all-inclusive resort, no?
Although Field is in British Columbia, it follows Mountain Daylight Time (MDT) like Calgary (Alberta) as opposed to the rest of British Columbia, which follows Pacific Standard Time (PST). The town was established in the late 1800’s during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. It is the only town in Yoho National Park and is located at the foot of giant mountains with the mighty Kicking Horse River flowing in front of it. The colourful wooden houses with the most beautiful gardens nudged on the rocky slopes of the mountain give it a charm that is simply irresistible. I was in love with this town. It is no wonder that around 300 people have settled here for good.
We stayed at Field’s only hotel/lodge, Truffle Pigs Kicking Horse Lodge, which has a Truffle Pigs Bistro attached to it. In the morning, we were happily greeted by a deer, which we could see from the window of our second-floor room. The lodge only has a handful of rooms with mostly basic amenities, and due to limited options for accommodation in Field, advance booking is recommended in the summer months (high season). Other than this lodge, there are several family-run guest houses where it is possible to get better value for the money; however, the best ones get fully booked weeks, if not months, in advance.
Food options are also quite limited at Field. Truffle Pigs Bistro is the only restaurant in town, and although it had good reviews, we did not fancy the food too much. A better (and cheaper) option is to drive to Mountain Restaurant (Village Road) near Lake Louise for food.
Although worlds apart, Field reminded me of a small village in India, Ambewadi (in Maharashtra state), where I had spent some time. Ambewadi is one of the most beautiful villages in India and I had fallen in love with it the moment I laid my eyes on it from the top of Mt. Kulang. Love at first sight, as they say. Both, Field and Ambewadi, have the prettiest setting imaginable; located in the cradle of mountains – the former in the Rockies and the latter in the Sahyadris. Other than geography, friendly locals is another thing they both have in common. While Bhakti and I were wandering around in the outskirts of Field taking pictures, a rather menacing-looking trucker, who had been watching us, came over and kindly offered to take our picture together. That was nice of him and served as a reminder not to judge a book by its cover!
Tip: While in Field (or almost anywhere in the Rockies for that matter), don’t miss the chance to see the Milk Way! Step out at night on a cloudless and (hopefully) moonless sky and discover why it is called the Milky Way!
Natural or Unnatural Bridge?
Although not a “must-see” attraction on its own, the natural bridge in Yoho Natural Park is only 3-KM from Field and is en route to Emerald Lake (which is a must-see attraction). We didn’t have this on our list when we started our trip, but like many other places in the Rockies, this too was one of the unexpected surprises which sprung up for us on the road side as we drove. These surprises sure beat the McDonald’s that we are so used to seeing on any highway, which is the extent of a driver’s excitement on a typical highway!
The natural bridge is a giant rock under which flows the mighty Kicking Horse River. There’s a story on how the river got the name, but I don’t recall that as it was a rather uninteresting and uninspiring story. I’m sure the river was/is called by some other name by the Cree-speaking Natives of the land. Incidentally, “Yoho” in Yoho Natural Park is a Cree word meaning “awe”.
At your own risk, it is possible to walk on the natural bridge, which is narrow at some places. On this bridge, death by drowning would be only one miss-step away. However, there is also a man-made bridge, or, shall we say an “unnatural bridge” over the river, which is beside the natural bridge. Most people, including me (thanks to my wife), stay on this bridge, which, not to disappoint, affords great views of the river as well as the natural bridge – in a “safety-first” manner.
For some adventure, we climbed down to the river from where we can really appreciate how the fast flowing water must have carved a hole through the rock over thousands of years to form the bridge. I thought it was interesting that the water carved a hole through the rock, rather than simply going around it. Why it did that is a mystery to me!
Click here for a few videos of the Natural Bridge.
Emerald Lake: Jewel of the Canadian Rockies
Often described as “a jewel of the Canadian Rockies” in marketing literature, Emerald Lake really is all that and more. This pretty emerald blue-hued lake is a mere 11-KM from Field and is a must-see attraction. It is one of the few lakes with a trail that makes a complete loop along its perimeter.
There are several lodges by the lake and it is possible to book one for around $400/night (alternately, stay in Field). Fortunately, these man-made buildings do not take away from the natural beauty of the place as they sort of blend in with the environment. I think it’s an art to develop a place such as this without destroying its “natural character”. I’ve seen many places where development spells destruction for the environment. How can we still call that “development”? Anyway, I was glad it hadn’t happened there.
Just like at Lake Louise, there are non-motorized boats available for rent and we saw a couple enjoying the tranquility of this place in their canoe. For me, the highlight was the hike, which afforded excellent views of the lake from all sides and angles.
It was rather late when we reached the lake at 4 PM. So after a quick 15-minute photo session we started our walk on the 5.2-KM trail around the lake – I was really looking forward to this!
Indeed, as they say, what is pleasure for one person can be painful for someone else. Already paranoid about bears from our earlier hike to Silverton Falls, Bhakti could hardly enjoy this most beautiful (and easy) hike. She was especially alarmed by the carefree (careless if you ask her) way I was walking on the trail and going about taking pictures without worrying about a bear waiting for us to ambush! For her, hiking had gone from being an adventure to torture!
It was 6:00 PM by the time we completed the loop around the lake, which took us nearly one hour and forty-five minutes. Bhakti for one was very glad that it was over, although there were moments where she too was able to put aside her (unreasonable) fear of bears – and enjoy! This easy, yet rewarding hike, should not be missed!
Click here for a video of Emerald Lake taken during the hike.
The exciting hairpin-bends-filled drive to falls alone makes the trip worthwhile. Takakkaw, which means “magnificent” in Cree language, is one of the highest waterfalls in Canada. Its highest point is 384 meters (1,260 feet) from its base, but its free-fall is “only” 254 meters (833 feet), which is still more than 5 times the free-fall of Niagara Falls!
The steep motor road to the falls is closed most of the year when it is blanketed by heavy snowfall; it only reopens for a few months once the temperatures rise to melt all the snow and make the road “motor-able”. As such, the window of see the falls is quite limited. The falls is only a short detour from the road from Lake Louise to Jasper and is only 17-KM from Field.
On the way to the falls, which is less than a 1000 meters away from the parking lot, I saw a sign for the Iceline Trail. Several popular hikes start from here, including the one that I had planned to do. It made sense that the Iceline Trail started from here since the main feature of that hike is a glacier and Takakkaw Falls is, in fact, fed by melted glacial water.
The short hike took us right in front of the towering falls with great views of the surrounding mountains. We knew we were close enough when the mist from the falls cooled our faces and its thundering roar deafened us! Only when we look up at the falls from its base, can we truly appreciate its height – don’t miss it!
The Road to Jasper: Icefields Parkway and the Athabasca Glacier
“To travel the Icefields Parkway is to experience one of Canada’s national treasures and most rewarding destinations” – icefieldsparkway.ca
Driving on the 230-KM (145-Miles) stretch of Icefields Parkway was undoubtedly the most thrilling, exciting and adrenaline-filled part of our road trip. The high passes, the hairpin curves, the glaciers, the windswept valleys, the gushing waterfalls and deep canyons, and the breathtaking and rugged mountain scenery left us – in a word – breathless!
The parkway is famous for what is probably the world’s most accessible glacier. The Athabasca glacier is quite literally on the side of the road and we parked our car and simply walked a few hundred meters to the glacier! I don’t know of any other place is the world where we can do this!
Near the glacier, we were at an altitude of over 2000 meters (6,560 feet) and the winds were gusting due to a funneling effect since the glacier is sandwiched between towering mountains. We felt redeemed to have brought our winter jackets as this was the only place where we actually needed it. I suppose we could have managed with a light spring jacket as well (it was late August), but we were quite comfortable in our winter coat.
Seeing the glacier was undoubtedly the highlight of our trip and interestingly it wasn’t even a planned stop. I was aware of an expensive tour (starting from the Columbia Icefield Discovery Center) that takes tourists right on top of the glacier on specially-designed “Ice Explorer” buses. However, I wasn’t planning on doing this tour and wasn’t aware that there is a do-it-yourself option.
As we approached the Columbia Icefield Discovery Center on the Icefields Parkway, I noticed a narrow semi-paved road going perpendicular to the parkway. We were already in “exploration mode” so we decided to follow it to see what surprises it will lead us to. The road led us to a small unpaved parking lot, which had a trail going up a small hill – we were quite excited by the prospects by this time and our imagination was running wild!
We parked our car and upon getting out realized that it was quite windy and cool (not cold), so we quickly put on our jackets and started hiking up. What we saw after climbing to the top was something neither of us had ever seen before – a glacier – Athabasca glacier!
As we approached the glacier, we saw several signs indicating where the glacier used to be some years ago. In a hundred or so years, the glacier will have fully receded and there will be a lake in its place. Is a rapidly receding glacier not proof of Global Warming? It’s interesting how some young people’s hairlines are also rapidly receding these days!
The glacier was cordoned off by a rope and there were many signs that warned of thin ice. At the tip of the glacier where the ice is thin there was a real danger of falling through ice and into the glacial river that flowed underneath the surface, so it was best to stick to the side lines. We, however, saw a brave young couple venture past the warning rope to walk on top of the glacier. I, too, was tempted to go, but, of course, my wife wouldn’t let me…
The only downside to this do-it-yourself tour is that we don’t actually get to walk on the glacier. The tour bus on the other hand takes tourists further up and towards the middle of this 1-KM wide and 6-KM long glacier, where the ice is solid enough to withstand the weight. We cannot get there by car since cars are not allowed to travel on the dirt road that the bus takes as the route is quite steep and its wheels are specially-made for this terrain.
If it’s an absolute must for you to actually walk on the glacier, then, perhaps, taking the tour may be the easiest option ($100+ for a couple). However, I do think it is quite possible to navigate the glacier safely on foot from its tip if one is adventurous and careful enough. We didn’t feel like we missed anything by not walking on the glacier. We would’ve considered taking the bus tour if it was not so expensive.
For us, Athabasca was an amazing experience, which words cannot do justice to … as Khurshed Batliwala (Art of Living) says, “words are only an approximation to reality”.
Other Pit Stops En Route to Jasper
There are numerous places where you would want to stop on this parkway and therefore it is recommended that you get an early start. It took us twice as long – more than 7 hours – to reach Jasper from Lake Louise than it should have!
There came a point on our road trip where we had to debate about whether to explore a point of interest or to keep moving. It’s especially easy to “skip” a point that cannot be easily seen from the road – like this one: Mistaya Canyon. Close to the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park, Mistaya Canyon is an excellent pit stop before hitting Athabasca glacier. The canyon, which is over the Mistaya River, is only a short hike (~500 meters) from the highway and definitely worth exploring. Incidentally, it was my first canyon.
I liked the fact that there were no railings for safety and all exploration was “at your own risk”. For me, seeing concrete and metal railings in a natural setting is a big eye sore. This is definitely one place where little kids should not be running around!
Our last pit stop before reaching Jasper was an unnamed waterfall that we came across on the side of the road. It sort of reminded me of the numerous big and small waterfalls that can be seen on the Mumbai-Pune expressway during the monsoon season. The waterfall has several “layers” and it’s relatively easy to climb up a few levels, which makes this a fun falls to explore.
Because we were stopping so frequently we were starting to worry about the distance that was still left to cover when it started to get dark. But as it typical in the mountains, the fun usually stops as the sun sets, since the visibility decreases. We made quick progress after that.
To be continued… Click for Part 4
Part Four of my travelogue of our week-long-best-ever summer road trip in the Canadian Rockies, where the term “it’s a pleasure to drive” takes a whole new meaning. We visited some of the best known sights of Banff, Yoho and Jasper National Parks, including the beautiful Lake Louise and Emerald Lake, as well as the Athabasca Glacier of the Columbia Icefield en route to Jasper.
After our drive to Jasper via the Icefields Parkway, I think I truly understood the meaning of “it’s the journey that matters, and not the destination.” In fact, we had enjoyed the journey so much that we were somewhat disappointed by the town itself. I’m not sure what we were expecting but perhaps this was because we were seeing the town after dark and our expectations of a mountain town had become unreasonable after staying in the picturesque town of Field.
In Jasper, we stayed in the centrally-located Best Western Jasper Inn; I had booked a suite with a kitchen. The idea was I would cook “something special” (i.e. warm up a ready-to-eat packaged food) for Bhakti on her birthday, which we would be celebrating in Jasper. However, that did not materialize as planned and she ended up cooking for both of us while I went out to buy some more groceries and a cake! Interestingly, the grocery stores in Jasper carried a lot of ethnic Indian food, including ready-to-eat curries.
As this was the tail-end of our Rockies trip, we didn’t have any grand plans for Jasper. We walked along the main road that runs parallel to the train tracks. We saw the super-expensive Rocky Mountaineer train that makes its scenic journey from Vancouver to Jasper and back. Although I’m sure the train route is very scenic, I still think a road trip is the best way to explore the Canadian Rockies as we can stop anywhere we want and, in a car, our view is not restricted to just one side as would be the case on the train.
Maligne Canyon – “GRIZZLY ATTACK”!
It was Bhakti’s birthday and we spent the morning lazing around. Finally, we decided to visit the most popular place in Jasper – Maligne Canyon. However, it wasn’t until after lunch that we drove to the canyon, which is only a short drive from the town. The canyon is a great exploratory walk with many boards that explain some of the science behind the canyon’s formation and water flow.
We parked our car in a small parking lot overlooking the Maligne River. It was around 2:30 PM and there weren’t many cars in the lot, so I thought it best to take our GPS with us than to leave it in an unattended car. As we later realized, this was a “lifesaving decision” for us.
From the lot, we crossed a neat little bridge to enter the most confusing trail system I’ve ever seen – this in spite of being armed with a map! There are multiple colour-coded trails of varying degrees of difficulty. To add to the confusion, there are multiple entry and exit points. Of course, if you stick to the main trail, then there is almost no chance of getting lost.
The interesting features of this canyon are the many underground streams that greatly add to the flow of Maligne River that flows through this canyon. At one place we could actually see water flowing out of a hole in the canyon wall! I wondered where it was coming from. During the winter months, the river is frozen and it is possible to walk on its bed and explore this canyon in a different way.
At first, we stayed on the main trail, which is child-friendly (i.e. has protective railings), and took in great views of the canyon. After Mistaya Canyon, this was only the second one that I was seeing in my life. On the way back I wanted to take a different route to the parking lot. So we climbed up a somewhat steep section to reach the upper level of the mountain. Compared to the main trail, which had dozens of people, it felt pretty isolated here. We crossed paths with a couple who were going the opposite way and then we did not come across a single person after that. It was obvious why this trail was not popular – it doesn’t offer any views of the canyon or otherwise.
Before climbing back down to the “main level”, we could see from our vantage point the bridge, which we had crossed from the parking lot; this confirmed that we were following the trial correctly. Feeling confident and double-checking our map, we descended to the main level and followed the only trail going towards the river.
The trail was along the river and we thought it was only a matter of time before we see the bridge on our left. From our vantage point earlier, it seemed as if it would take no more than 5-10 minutes to reach the bridge.
After 15 minutes of walking we were starting to wonder if we were on the right path. We had not come across a single person and Bhakti’s fears of a bear attack were starting to come back. Fear is contagious and I was trying hard to stay cool. Bhakti asked me what I would do if a bear came at us from behind, and I brushed it off saying bears don’t stalk human beings and stage surprise attacks. THEN SUDDENLY, AS IF TO PROVE ME WRONG, WE HEARD A RUSHING SOUND FROM BEHIND AND A GIANT SOMETHING (GRIZZLY?) WAS CHARGING AT US … WE INSTINCTIVELY DUCKED AND SCREAMED!
As it turned out, it was a jogging man! He literally scared the living daylights out of us! Due to the trail’s proximity to the loud river, we could not hear him coming until he was right behind us. The man said “relax, relax!” before continuing his jog. Those words still ring in my ears. Relieved that it was not a bear and happy that there was at least one other person on the same trail, we continued our walk.
That man disappeared from sight in a matter of seconds and we immediately regretted not asking him for directions. Every now and then I would turn around to make sure nothing was lurking in the woods. In fact, seeing my paranoid state, Bhakti had forced herself to be more composed. We then remembered that we have our GPS in our backpack and perhaps it could tell us where we had parked our car and if we were going in the right direction.
I turned on the GPS and switched it to operate in pedestrian mode. Fortunately, it picked up the satellite signal and showed us where our car was parked and our own location. At that moment, the GPS gadget was our God! As it turned out, we were going in the opposite direction. We turned around and walked back to the place from where we had descended to the “main level”. Earlier, when we had spotted the bridge from our vantage point, we had descended to the main level and turned right thinking we had to keep the river to our left. Had we turned left we would’ve reached the bridge in less than 5 minutes!
I was reminded once again how easy it is to get lost in the mountains or wilderness. The most important thing to keep in mind is that if you think you’re lost, stop immediately and then decide what to do next (i.e. whether to continue moving forward or backtrack). Sometimes the best option is to backtrack than to continue moving forward and make an already bad situation worse.
After returning to our car we felt indebted to our GPS and thought this was one birthday to remember! Before returning to town, we drove to a nearby lake, which I think was Lake Edith, and just spent some time by the lake shore. All the lakes in the Rockies are beautiful and this too was no exception. Unfortunately, we missed seeing the more popular Maligne Lake – but one cannot see everything, can they?
Road to Edmonton: One Last Surprise
The drive from Jasper to Edmonton was not nearly as exciting as the drive from Calgary to Banff was when the flat terrain gave way to distant rolling hills, which became big mountains as we got nearer. On the drive out of Jasper National Park it felt as if the mountains suddenly disappeared and everything became flat. It was as if the Rockies disappeared in a blink of an eye!
However, we were very happy to have received one last surprise on the highway to Edmonton before exiting from Jasper National Park – flock of long-horned sheep in the middle of the highway! There were around two dozen sheep altogether and I spent nearly a half hour following them and taking pictures. I suspected this would be our last wildlife encounter during the trip, so I tried to make the most of it.
Edmonton: City of Champions
I liked Edmonton better than Calgary. It was a beautiful Friday afternoon when we checked-into our hotel on Whyte Avenue in the Old Strathcona district – Edmonton’s main arts and entertainment area. When we stepped out for a walk in the evening all the restaurants and pubs were packed, and the street was buzzing with activity. At night, young party goers lined up to dance the night away in a club and street performers/musicians entertained passersby on the sidewalk. I thought that Whyte Avenue was like Toronto’s Richmond Street, but a bit classier! Indeed, Edmonton seemed to stay true to its slogan – a City of Champions!
The next day, before driving to Calgary, we made a pit stop at the erstwhile largest mall in the world – the West Edmonton Mall. Although it is no longer the largest mall in the world, it is still the largest mall in Canada. Our “pit stop” at this mall turned into a rather long stop, but for good reason. The mall is a one-stop-shop for shopping, food, entertainment and gambling. On top of having hundreds of stores, it has restaurants, movie theaters, a water park, an amusement park, an ice skating rink and a casino! Although I’m no fan of malls, I quite enjoyed just walking around this huge complex – just don’t forget where you parked your car!
End of the Road: Back to Calgary
The 3-hour drive from Edmonton to Calgary was flat and uninteresting. After spending a week driving in the mountains, driving on flat terrain felt like a chore. If I could go back, I would return to Calgary from Jasper itself via the same route (Icefields Parkway and Trans-Canada Highway). In hindsight, there was no need to go to Edmonton to complete the loop.
Tips and Budgeting Considerations
The flight to Calgary will almost always be the biggest expense, so booking early is the key for saving money. Unfortunately, due to a lack of competition in the Canadian airspace (among other things), the fares for many destinations within Canada are very high. It is actually cheaper to fly to overseas destinations from Canada than it is to fly within Canada – even short-distances! This is one reason that is holding us back in fully exploring this beautiful country.
If you’re planning a similar trip, here are some money-saving tips based on our experience:
- Stock up on packaged drinking water and snacks from Wal-Mart in Calgary before heading to Banff.
- When entering Banff National Park, buy the Parks Canada pass for only one day instead of all days at once; buy another one day pass before heading to Jasper.
- Stay in Canmore, instead of in Banff, which is less than 30 kilometers away. Accommodation costs in Canmore are significantly lower than in Banff.
- In Field, book a guesthouse well in advance rather than staying in the only (over-priced) hotel/lodge.
- In Jasper, the best value accommodation are bed-and-breakfast inns. Alternately, stay in Hinton, which is 1-hour away en route to Edmonton.
- Search for “promo codes” for possible discounts when booking flights, hotels and car rental.
Here’s a breakdown of our expenses and some interesting statistics:
Accommodation: $1,070.25 | 35%
Car Rental: $264.00 | 9%
Flights: $955.94 | 32%
Food: $467.50 | 15%
Gas: $121.10 | 4%
Park Fees: $98.00 | 3%
Sightseeing: $56.18 | 2%
Grand Total: $3,032.97 | 100%
Total Distance Traveled: 1520-KM
Total Fuel Consumed: 121 liters (32 US gallons)