Banff National Park
by Lee Foster
Modern air-and-rental-car transportation now forces all the great winter sports destinations of North America to compete with each other.
Surprisingly, the Canadian Rockies winter sports area around Banff, west of Calgary, may be nearly as close in hours as the Colorado Rockies or California’s Tahoe for many travelers.
I’ve had an opportunity to view the Canadian Rockies and evaluate its potential for winter sports outings. I concluded that the strong points for Canada are the striking scenery of Banff and Jasper National Parks, complete with wildlife, the ever-improving skiing facilities (such as the Goat’s Eye runs at Sunshine), and the one-of-a-kind lodging possible at castle-like Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
The winter negative for this area can be its potentially cold January to early-February weather, which is why I visited around mid-February. Mid-February through March here can be as sunny as Lake Tahoe in California.
Scenery and Wildlife in the Canadian Rockies
The flight into Calgary from the West takes a visitor over the Canadian Rockies where the skiing occurs. The view from the plane on a clear day is breathtaking, with the mountains extending as far north as the eye can see.
All visitors should ride the year-around gondola up Sulphur Mountain at Banff to get a panoramic view of the adjacent terrain. From the top you look down on the Banff Springs Hotel, a fairytale lodging, then beyond to the modern small tourist town of Banff, and across to Cascade Mountain, with its serrated top. Mountain ranges and sharply cut valleys extend in all directions. Sulphur Mountain and the surrounding area is vested forever in public ownership as Banff National Park.
Another lovely view, if you have a rental car, is the Vermilion Lakes road, where you glimpse water and snowy grasslands in the foreground with steep Mount Rundle in the background. Wildlife, mainly elk, congregate at Vermilion Lakes.
The winter visitor to California and Colorado ski areas will not likely see wildlife. Around Banff, by contrast, a visitor will see elk and mountain sheep, usually in small groups. The comparable U.S. ski destination with extensive winter wildlife is Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where the great herds of elk gather on the plains north of the city to pass the winter.
Banff National Park hosts about 3,000 elk and 40-50 wolves. The wolves prowl up to the edge of Banff town, stopping there because of their timidity around humans. Realizing this, the elk often seek the relative protection of the town, especially the golf course at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
To further experience scenic treats, drive north on the Icefields Highway to Jasper National Park. If a scenic roadway must be nominated as the most spectacular drive in North America, the Icefields Parkway would get many votes. Start from Banff with a drive along the Vermilion Lakes, as mentioned earlier. Pass on to the Bow Valley Parkway, between Banff and Lake Louise, noted for its aspen and spruce trees. Then proceed on the Icefields Highway between Lake Louise and Jasper after pausing for a stop at the Lake Louise Visitor Centre, the main dispenser of information on the region’s extraordinary park resources. The visitor center shows many early photos and paintings of the region as Canadians discovered their natural heritage.
The Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper travels through 143 miles of wilderness as the road gently climbs and descends through the mountains. Avalanches are common in snowy periods, so be prepared for stops as road crews clear the highway. The avalanches sheer off the trees, creating paths that look, ironically, like man-made ski runs. Frozen blue-ice waterfalls can be seen along the parkway, sometimes with climbers inching their way up the ice pack, especially at a site called the Weeping Wall. Glaciers dot the mountains on the west side of the road.
One special stop is the Athabascan Glacier, which can be toured on foot. The Athabascan Glacier is part of the Columbia Icefields, the largest icefield in the Rockies and the hydrological apex of North America. This heady term simply means that water from these glaciers flows into rivers that eventually enter both the oceans from all directions.
The scenery of the Canadian Rockies is, in some respects, more spectacular than that of Colorado, where the mountains are actually higher. In the Canadian Rockies the mountains have a greater vertical extent, as seen from the viewer’s perspective, fully 10,000 feet at Mount Robson. On the Icefields Parkway a stop at the Tangleridge Overlook shows a 1,000-foot drop from the road, with towering mountains in the background.
Another perspective on winter scenery is available at the Maligne River canyon ice walk near Jasper. The water plunges through a steep, narrow-walled gorge of limestone bedrock. In winter the water freezes underfoot into sheets of blue ice. Walls of ice form along the steep bank where there are springs. Frost flowers are created on the exposed rock. The outfitter who guides the tours provides special waterproof boots and crampons with spikes that are strapped to the boots for added traction. The walk is known locally as a “crawl” because of the icy environment.
Some of the best wildlife viewing occurs in Jasper National Park, at the north end of this trip. Elk are numerous around the Jasper township, at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, and especially out the eastern roadway from the town along the Athabasca River. Wolves and coyotes restrain the elk population. Controlled burns of the forest keep the elk habitat healthy. Better cooperation with timber and mining interests on the park fringes helps extend the range of the ungulates and carnivores, insuring larger overall numbers and a more diverse gene pool as the animals breed. Wolves especially can traverse immense ranges, sometimes moving several hundred miles in directions that know no political boundaries. The animals flourish here because Jasper is both a wilderness park and the largest of the Canadian parks in the Rockies.
Because of its size and opportunity to protect many large mammal species, the Canadian Rockies National Parks were declared a World Biosphere Reserve in 1984 by the United Nations.
The main issue in both Banff and Jasper National Parks is what level of development is consistent with protecting and preserving the environment, including all the animals. The notion is one of a sustainable ecosystem. Environmental, social, economic, and safety issues all come into the societal decisions made here. Most people are in agreement on the overall vision, but implementing the details that might impact economically on an individual’s livelihood spurs bitter resistance.
The skier, of course, has additional opportunities to see the scenery from special vantage points.
Downhill and Cross-Country Skiing in the Canadian Rockies
Both downhill and cross-country ski opportunities attract a visitor to Banff and Jasper.
From the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, I cross-country skied through the spruce and pine trees along the Spray River. The trail was well groomed and maintained.
My main interest in this trip was downhill skiing at the Goat’s Eye area of Sunshine Village at nearly 9,000 feet. I took the 18-minute gondola ride and then a lift to near the top of Lookout Mountain, where Sunshine has a ski-in resort facility right on the mountain.
Much of the run is on wide-open terrain above the tree line. From mid-mountain, another gondola cuts left to the Goat’s Eye ski area, where the lift rises to nearly 9,200 feet, the highest skiing in Canada. At this elevation the mountain gets nearly 30 feet of natural snow a year. No snow-making mechanism is needed here.
On a magical day of bright sun and soft snow, I skied through the alpine scenery down the elaborate Sunshine Coast Trail, which zigzags across the mountain. More expert skiers find plenty of double black diamond runs here, as well as “glade” skiing, skiing through the trees.
After savoring the mountain panoramas, I skied the 3.5-mile trail to the bottom over generously wide intermediate runs.
The Canadian Rockies were the site for the 1988 Winter Olympics, so a world-class skiing environment can be expected here. Lake Louise, near Banff, and Marmot, near Jasper, are other major ski areas.
The Legendary Banff Springs Hotel
There are a few hotels in a traveler’s experience that are truly a destination unto themselves. The Ahwahnee in Yosemite would rank in that class. On an even grander scale, however, is the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, a stone fairytale castle, first built as an incentive to lure railroad passengers west in the late 1880s. The Banff Springs Hotel is a towering stone edifice that is a kind of Neuschwanstein of the Canadian Rockies.
In 1888, the general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway, William Cornelius Van Horne, opened the first Banff Springs Hotel. Van Horne, who had responsibility for building railroad revenue, observed, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.”
I found the service and professionalism of the staff at the Banff Springs Hotel outstanding, whether one is being served a meal or assisted by the bellhop. It is likely that a traveler will meet guests from Japan, Germany, and England because Banff Springs is popular with many nationalities. Although Banff Springs is the epitome of tradition, it is also fully innovative, with a major spa facility, called Solace. Other prime lodgings for the region are the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge to the north, at Jasper National Park.
The town of Jasper is special, however, as a totally controlled environment within a national park. (Banff, by contrast, has more freedom.) The superintendent today still manages the town of Jasper in the manner of a feudal landlord, watching over the leased lands. Several heritage houses made of logs and stone get much attention, such as the Brewster-Jeffery house. House prices and rents are high because no more township land will be allowed in the national park, permitting only the in-filling of space between present structures. Elk roam the town freely, requiring the fencing in of any delicate shrubs. Stop in at the Jasper-Yellowhead Historical Society Museum to see historic photos of the region, including the Native Americans, such as the Iroquois, who were brought to the area during the fur trade era. The original Park Superintendent House, opposite the train station, has served as a trout hatchery and now functions as an information center. All the Jasper park and township development began when the rails came through here 1910-1911.
It is possible to include a train ride in this trip, as a beginning taste of the excellent Canadian rail service, which is worth considering for a vacation trip winter or summer. I took a short train ride on VIA Rail Canada from Jasper to Edmonton, a highly recommended way to see the winter scenery. The train in Canada can be considered a “land cruise” allowing a visitor to see this vast country from a comfortable vantage point.
If You Go: Winter Exploration in the Canadian Rockies
For Banff, contact Banff/Lake Louise Tourism, www.banfflakelouise.com.
For Jasper, contact Jasper Tourism & Commerce, www.jaspercanadianrockies.com.
Banff National Park
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.