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.