by Lee Foster
The magnificence of the Canadian Rockies west of Calgary, with stunning alpine scenery and massive glacial presence, appeals to a wide range of travelers.
Imagine yourself in one of several travel scenarios:
*Ever the adventurer, you are ferried by helicopter to remote mountain locations, where you spend the day savoring the wildflowers, knowing that few people, beyond an occasional backpacker, have ever set foot on this terrain. As the day progresses, the helicopter returns to move you to several other mountain locations, where you walk for an hour with an expert guide. In the evening the helicopter takes you and your fellow adventurers back to the comforts of a first-class resort.
*Ever the student of history, you are on a well-organized motor-coach tour or on your individually planned family car trip to the grand dowagers of hotels–the Fairmont Banff Springs and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise–both relics from the early Canadian Pacific Railway days. Within the labyrinthine layout of these grand-manner hotels, you imagine how you would have arrived, starting in the late 1880s, by rail.
*Ever the appreciator of the outdoors, you gaze up at a star-filled sky from your tent or RV in one of the many mountain camps. You commune with the Cree and Blackfoot Indians who preceded you and experienced similar star-bright nights, bracing clean air, and the forest quietness, an antidote to our high-decibel modern world.
Canada’s Magnificent Rockies
Regardless of your travel style, the Canadian Rockies present all travelers with a shared experience, whether in the remote helicopter-only backcountry of the Bugaboos or along the easily viewed and dazzling wildflower walk at roadside Peyto Lake in Banff Park.
Travelers usually access the area from Calgary, the southern Alberta oil and farming city with an international airport. Calgary booms and crashes with fluctuating oil prices.
Calgary lies on a plain, noted for its ranching history, which is celebrated during the famous annual early-July rodeo known as the Calgary Stampede. If your schedule allows, plan a trip to allow a day at the Stampede, a major event since 1912.
From Calgary you reach the Rockies by driving west to the four great national parks–Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho.
You enter the mountains at Banff, whose main attraction is the fin-de-siecle Fairmount Banff Springs Hotel, a baronial establishment. As railroad president William Cornelius Van Horne famously said, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.” Banff Springs Hotel (1888) and its sister resort to the north, Chateau Lake Louise (1890), were designed as civilized destinations to provide high-toned comforts amidst the ruggedness of a Rocky Mountain adventure. With these resorts in place, the young Canadian Pacific Railway, founded in 1881, hoped to attract more passengers.
The architecture of Banff Springs is eclectic. From the Terrace Restaurant at the hotel you can see the famous “million dollar view,” which has not suffered from inflation. For an elaborate panorama of this castle-like structure, drive to Surprise Corner on Tunnel Mountain Road. The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise has a more unified architecture, and it added a meeting wing that was envisioned in the 1920s and finally executed in 2004.
The town of Banff serves as an apt introduction to the area because its Luxton Museum of the Plains Indians alerts you to the nomadic Cree and Blackfoot tribes who originally dwelt here. Indian quillwork at the museum is exceptional, as are the realistic displays of family life, emphasizing the importance of dogs for carrying supplies.
Another museum, the Banff Park Museum, a monument to the taxidermist’s craft, shows in stuffed form the wildlife you may encounter. This old-style museum displays encyclopedic collections, such as Bird Eggs of the Rockies.
There is a park service interpretive center at 200 Banff Avenue which is worth a visit.
In Banff you can also partake of the culinary specialties of the region, such as caribou, buffalo, and rattlesnake, by dining at the Grizzly House Restaurant.
A gondola ride up Sulphur Mountain at Banff gives you an elevated perspective of the area. At the gondola you can also immerse yourself in the famous Banff hot water springs.
Raft trips are popular down the Bow River or on the Wild Horse River to the west and Athabascan River to the north.
From Banff, drive north at a leisurely pace for 200 miles along the Trans-Canada Highway and the Icefields Parkway to witness the most striking vistas of the Canadian Rockies. Strategic turnoffs allow you to savor the superlative natural features. Banff, first of the four national parks, was created in 1885.
Along the Parkway road, mountains of sedimentary origin rise to towering heights. Turquoise-blue lakes, such as Moraine, emerge at the base of retreating glaciers. Eskimos, who are said to have a dozen words in their language to express shades of blue, would find those nuances useful to characterize the changing color of these glacial lakes. Excellent examples, such as Peyto Lake, can appear aquamarine, cerulean, or turquoise, to name just a few references.
The glaciers themselves are numerous, sliding slowly down the sides of mountains. Foremost among these glacial encounters is the foot of the Athabascan Glacier, a small portion of the immense Columbia Icefields, at 200 square miles the largest glacial entity in subarctic North America. Nine glacial tongues extend from this icefield. The Athabascan, though immense, is only 2 percent of the total ice volume. An interpretive center at the Athabascan helps orient visitors.
The Columbia Icefields also possess a unique feature, at Snow Dome, described as a hydrological apex. If you poured a glass of water onto Snow Dome, you could anticipate that some of the water would flow to the Arctic, some to the Pacific, and some to the Atlantic.
Throughout the summer, wildflowers flourish in every meadow. With a good guidebook, you can easily spot the Indian paintbrush or mountain lily. Conifer tree communities begin with colonizing lodgepole pine, which later give way to climax forests of spruce and fir. Trees dominate the landscape at lower altitudes. Sparse and small alpine plant life thrives at higher altitudes as diminished ground cover. Higher still there is nothing but barren rock. Among big game, the elk are most plentiful. Often an elk with a fine rack will create a minor traffic jam by browsing on succulent roadside grass for camera-snapping travelers.
Hikes can reward you with a private mountain experience along 2,000 miles of trails in the four parks. Fishing is excellent for trout, such as in the Bow River at Calgary. Cultivating a memorable collection of alpine vistas can be sufficient rationale for the trip.
Travel Styles in the Canadian Rockies
Although the grandeur of the Canadian Rockies will be available to you regardless of your travel style, the emphasis will vary. Here are some tips when considering different approaches:
*Helicopter hiking. Arthur Tauck of Tauck Tours and Hans Gmoser, who owned lodges, pioneered this adventurous mode of summer travel in 1978. Gmoser’s Canadian Mountain Holidays (now CMH) had already been helicoptering skiers, since 1965, over this large skiing snowfield. There are three backcountry lodges–Bugaboo, Caribou, and Bobbie Burns–accessible with large helicopters, which carry in 12 travelers. The Bugaboo lodge is also famous for its cuisine.
Helicopters take you during the day to remote mountain locations for walks. All ages and levels of physical prowess can enjoy these excursions. Some tours include bus trips through the national parks. Others focus totally on helicopter hiking. The tours pick you up and drop you in Calgary, providing all transportation, food, and lodging in the fixed price.
*Motor coach touring. The distances are considerable in the Canadian Rockies and the need for dependable lodging, organized in advance, is definite. If you don’t want to drive or don’t want to plan a detailed trip, you might choose a bus tour, which includes a capable guide to describe the geological features and historical story. The average age of people taking bus tours was formerly quite high, but more young people and families are now participating. There are several providers of bus tours in the Canadian Rockies.
*Individual travel is popular with your own car/RV or with a fly-drive rental, easily arranged with the major car rental companies for pick-up at the Calgary airport. Individual travel offers the most flexible travel opportunities here, but you must research and plan out your trip.
With your own vehicle, your lodging options could be selected from the numerous campgrounds, the major old-line hotels such as the venerable Fairmont Banff Springs and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, or the relatively new establishments, such as Emerald Lake Lodge. Emerald Lake Lodge is a cluster of modern cabin-like structures, opened in 1986 at this idyllic lake in Yoho National Park. Guests who are enthusiastic backpackers sometimes depart for a day or two in the mountains and then return to the modern facilities and gourmet cooking.
VIA Rail, the Canadian national rail service, also offers the individual traveler scenic transportation through this area, with stops at Banff and Lake Louise.
The individual traveler, from backpacker to luxury indulger, will find good options in the Canadian Rockies.
Overall, as a travel destination, the Canadian Rockies offer one of the major scenic mountain experiences available in North America. In one feature–its glaciers–the Canadian Rockies is extraordinary.
Canadian Rockies: If You Go
For Banff, contact Banff Lake Louise Tourism, www.banfflakelouise.com.
For Alberta, the Canadian province where these Rockies are located, contact www.travelalberta.com.
by Lee Foster
Suddenly the Bell helicopter pulled into the sky, leaving me and a dozen other hikers in a huddled cluster under the wash of the rotors.
I rose up from the ground to look around. I had been dropped in a remote area of the Canadian Rockies–the Bugaboos of the Purcell Range on the western slopes. With a certified alpine guide, I would walk from the improvised helicopter landing over terrain that few backpackers have ever reached.
You can do the same. In your party there may be children and seniors. Because the helicopter will return to a site perhaps a mile down the ridge, you don’t need to possess more than casual fitness to enjoy this pristine wilderness.
Let us continue as if this is your story:
You begin to identify the wildflowers with your guide, distinguishing between heaths and heathers, mountain lilies and saxifrages.
One helicopter drop puts you on the middle of vast Vowell Glacier. Expertly guided, you make your way amidst the crevices, the streams of water, and the massive boulders that lie on the surface of the ice mass.
While enjoying the visual experience, you breathe the fresh, brisk mountain air. During the walks, aside from conversations with your comrades, all is silent, except for the wind and the occasional whistle of a pika, one of the small rodents of the mountains.
You see remarkable sights, such as excavations grizzly bears make to dig out ground squirrels. Your guide informs you that some researchers think the grizzly does this partly for play. The grizzly’s caloric energy expended to dig out the squirrel exceeds the energy gained by eating the squirrel.
Such are the insights of the mountains, available primarily to the helicopter hiker.
Soon the hour and a half at the average drop has passed, and the helicopter returns. Your guide calls the helicopter in with a radio phone. You lift off to another location for a second drop. In a day there are usually two drops in the morning and two in the afternoon. By late afternoon you return to the first-class comforts of the lodge.
The drops themselves have fanciful names that eclectic mapmakers have left on the land here. My drops for the first day started at a mountain site called Powder Pig. The next day included an outdoor barbecue lunch on a glacial moraine and drops at Groovy, Dead Elk Lake, Tidy Bowl, and Easy Roll.
All the 27 major drops in the area have special features to enjoy, whether they be alpine meadows with wildflowers, slopes tiled with small sheets of shale, lakes formed at the base of glaciers, or forests thick with spruce and fir. Big game, such as bear, deer, and elk, are sometimes seen.
The single main nature experience is that of geology. You immerse yourself in the wondrous forces of glaciers, learning how they scraped out the landscape, slowly shifting large masses of rock and earth. You see the metamorphic shales of the Purcells, folded and upthrust in different layers, then shot through with molten rock that cooled as quartz, sometimes with lovely crystals.
Such is the world of helicopter hiking in the Canadian Rockies, an adventure sport available to all travelers.
The sport began in 1978 when tour operator Arthur Tauck of Tauck Tours approached Canadian Rockies entrepreneur Hans Gmoser of Canadian Mountain Holidays. Gmoser had built a remote lodge in the backcountry on the west side of the Rockies. He had transported skiers by helicopter since 1965 for the extraordinary experience of skiing on the largest snowfields available anywhere, all made accessible by the helicopter. Skiers are dropped at backcountry locations otherwise inaccessible.
Tauck saw the possibility of organizing summer tours that would helicopter people into the same area for walking and nature enjoyment. Gmoser was skeptical of the idea at first, but he agreed to participate, and Tauck delivered the travelers. Gmoser expanded to three lodges (Bugaboo, Cariboo, and Bobbie Burns). The two entities–Tauck Tours and Canadian Mountain Holidays–started the business of summer helicopter hiking.
Tour options include picking you up at Calgary and providing all transportation, lodging, and food, as well as helicopter hiking, until you are returned to Calgary. Helicopter hiking tours can be combined with trips through the great national parks of the Canadian Rockies (Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay), with tour leaders explaining the natural and historical story. Nights can be added at the historic lodges of the parks, Fairmont Banff Springs and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
The Bugaboo Lodge, base for one of the tours and site of my trip, is a friendly place with family-style dining. (The word Bugaboo is British for hoax, referring to the assessment of miners who had been lured into the area in search of gold. There was little gold. The area was a bugaboo. Little could they imagine that tourism would be an enduring vein of wealth for this Canadian Rockies region.)
All three of the lodges operate as helicopter ski facilities in winter and helicopter hiking bases in summer. The Bell helicopter is the most expensive aspect of the whole operation. All three lodges are comfortable places accommodating a maximum of 44 people. There’s a reason for that number. The helicopter must be used efficiently and can carry 11 passengers and a guide. By dividing the party into four groups, the helicopter can operate continuously, dropping and picking up parties at scattered locations in the mountains.
Helicopter hiking occurs in what Canadians have named the Bugaboo Recreation Area, an immense acreage along the west side of the Canadian Rockies in the Purcell Mountain Range.
Hans Gmoser came to Canada from Austria in 1951, when he was 19 years old, and worked in various odd jobs, then at the Banff Hotel, starting in 1953. Gradually he rose in the travel industry here, accumulated capital, started helicopter skiing in 1965, built his first lodge, the Bugaboo, in 1968, and gradually expanded. He opened the Cariboo lodge in 1974 and the Bobbie Burns lodge in 1981. Gmoser died at an advanced age a few years back. Ironically, he died in a bicycling accident.
Gmoser recruited some guides from his homeland in Austria. Other guides are Canadian. All are enthusiastic about the region and hike or ski on their free time as well as during their work.
The genius of helicopter hiking as a concept is that it opens up the mountain wilderness to everyone. Only the experienced backpacker, able to traverse treacherous terrain for days, could reach remote mountain locations that the helicopter can arrive at in minutes. The helicopter drops you at these locations and you savor the pleasures of the wilderness, a domain of philosophers and mystics, without the exertions that would limit the experience to a hardy elite.
“You arrive in an isolated area,” Gmoser once said to me. “You know that it is entirely uninhabited, with no sign of man. The experience is incomparable in summer for hiking. In winter, skiing here is the best skiing I can imagine.”
Helihiking the Canadian Rockies: If You Go
Canadian Mountain Holidays is at www.canadianmountainholidays.com.
by Lee Foster
A few great railroad trips in the Americas truly inspire the imagination.
In Mexico, for example, there is the Chihuahua al Pacifico trip from Los Mochis to Chihuahua over the Sierra Madre Mountains.
So, what does the U.S./Canada offer that is comparable in rail trips?
One main contender is the Rocky Mountaineer rail tour from Vancouver on the British Columbia coast to Banff and Calgary in the Canadian Rockies.
The Canadians have done it right on this adventure in several respects.
First, this is one of the most historic rail trips in North America. The train tracks united East and West Canada, historically, with completion in the 1880s. The railroad opened Canada for tourism. Moreover, British Columbia and the whole of western Canada might have become part of the United States if the railroad had not been built.
Second, this train trip passes through some of the most stunning scenery in North America, the Canadian Rockies, which are fully as impressive as the U.S. Rockies.
And third, the Canadians have arranged this historic rail tour to occur during daylight hours, so you see all the scenery, spending the night at the midpoint, Kamloops. (There is nothing more frustrating that falling asleep in your rail car knowing that imposing scenery is passing you in the dark, as happens on some of the U.S. trains crossing the American West.)
This scenic train ride has a “season,” operating April to October. The first burst of spring and the tree leaves turning color in fall are treats near the ends of the season. I took an October trip and enjoyed the brilliant yellow color of the larch trees.
I boarded the train at 7 a.m. in Vancouver after spending the night at The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. This is the fitting lodging to stay at because it is one of the grand hotels of Canada built in conjunction with the railroad.
As the railroad builder William Cornelius Van Horne said, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.”
To achieve this goal the company needed both a railroad and grand hotels. On this trip I experienced both The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver (built in 1939, the height of the rail era) and The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel (built in 1888, at the start of the rail period).
The train meanders out of Vancouver up the Fraser River, which is noted for its huge salmon runs. An upstream tributary, the Adams River, is said to have the largest red sockeye salmon run in the world, at over a million fish.
The train passes over the route that explorer Simon Fraser first charted in 1808 as he was seeking a trade route to the Pacific Ocean.
The most dramatic moment of the coastal-mountain passage on the Fraser River comes at Hell’s Gate, where the mountains squeeze together to make an opening only 110 feet wide, requiring the torrent of the river water, 200 million gallons a minute, to gush through with awesome force.
After passing the coastal mountain range, the train crosses a long stretch of high desert terrain along the Thompson River, with the most arid area around Ashcroft. This desert environment comes as a surprise to many travelers, who can see the mountain peaks from Vancouver and assume the route will be mountains all the way to Banff.
Finally, after the town of Revelstoke, following further tributary rivers, the train reaches the jagged peaks of the Canadian Rockies. Hour after hour of spectacular scenery in the Selkirk Range and the Purcell Range follows. One brief stretch of the trip passes along the Columbia River, which eventually empties into the ocean at Portland, Oregon. Near Lake Louise the train crosses the Continental Divide, the highest point on the trip, before descending into Banff, home of one of the premier hotels in all Canada, The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
Along the way I became aware, partly through the informed commentary of railroad attendants, of the grand historic visions of the area. For example, an entrepreneur named C. E. Barnes persuaded a cluster of British aristocrats to locate in this remote region at Walhachin to farm apples. They built over 18 miles of wooden flumes to bring water from a lake to the apple orchards. The enclave flourished until World War I, when storms wrecked the flume system and the men were called away to fight the war. Eventually, the community collapsed.
The railroad line is still vital today because it ships west to Vancouver in the winter the huge autumn harvest of wheat and other grains grown on the Canadian prairies. Wheat is a substantial Canadian export to China and Japan.
Eagles, osprey, and bighorn mountain sheep are seen many times during the trip. The osprey need about four pounds of salmon per day from the river, which is an easy matter during the spawning season.
I overnighted in a modern chain hotel at the city of Kamloops, which took its name from an Indian word meaning “meeting of the waters,” where the North and South forks of the Thompson River join. The overnight in Kamloops allowed me to experience the entire 600-mile rail trip, roughly 300 miles each day, in total daylight. The days began early and ended when I descended from my dome car at 5 p.m.
The dome car in which I traveled offered unparalleled mountain viewing as the train proceeded at a measured pace. Moreover, viewing areas between the cars allowed direct contact with the fresh air and the outdoors. The food was superb, for breakfast and lunch, on white table cloths, with menu items such as scrambled eggs wrapped in wild BC smoked salmon and succulent molasses glazed pork loin, all cooked to order on the train.
The luxurious dome car service, with a dining room and gourmet hot meals, is called GoldLeaf. More affordable options, with fewer amenities but the same scenery, are called Silver Leaf and Red Leaf.
I spent a few days in Banff, taking guided nature trips to look at the wildlife and scenery, all arranged by the concierge at The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. The level of guide service available here is high. Guides provide the transportation and much insight into nature. The number of patrons on a trip is small, usually nine or less.
Caretakers for the Canadian Rockies are taking many steps to preserve the grand natural heritage, partly by restoring the checks and balances that man has disturbed regarding the large mammals. There are now too many elk, which are stripping the ground for food in winter, preventing the normal growth of new poplar trees, for example. The solution is to encourage the wolf and cougar populations. Highway animal overpasses now allow the free migration of large mammals, prey and predator alike.
I hiked around Johnson Lake, enjoying sightings of elk and mountain sheep as well as breathtaking views of Mt. Rundle reflected in the turquoise waters.
One evening in Banff, celebrating my rail tour, I had dinner at the Caboose Restaurant, located in the original rail station. This beef-and-salmon restaurant has walls lined with historic photos of the rail legacy. The photos of rail construction helped me appreciate what a feat of engineering was involved in constructing a rail bed through the Canadian Rockies. A couple of trains passed by, shaking the building, during dinner.
After my sojourn in Banff, I flew home from the Calgary airport, east of Banff.
The Rocky Mountaineer is one of the more satisfying rail trips possible in North America. The historic story, the scenery, the wildlife, the all-daylight itinerary, and the service are all superb.
If You Go: Rocky Mountaineer Rail Trip in Canada
Rocky Mountaineer rail trip details can be seen at www.rockymountaineer.com.
For tourism information on either end of this trip, contact the following:
Tourism British Columbia info is at www.hellobc.com.
Tourism Vancouver is at www.tourismvancouver.com.
Travel Alberta is at www.travelalberta.com.
Banff Lake Louise Tourism is at www.banfflakelouise.com.