Few places can match the allure of Alberta’s majestic vistas, mountain peaks, glaciers, rivers, evergreen forests and unique wildlife.
Banff National Park, an outdoor paradise, draws millions of visitors annually. It’s one of my favorite places to visit for its natural wonders and a playground for outdoor experiences, set among a backdrop of spectacular mountain scenery.
Driving the Trans Canada Hwy. west from Calgary, you first pass through the gently rolling foothills of wide-open tundra belonging to the Stoney-Nakoda (First Nations) plains people. Going into the great Rocky Mountains you next encounter the huge flat surfaced, frill wall known as Mt. Yamnuska, which announces your arrival in the land of grand lofty peaks and steep avalanche prone vales. Instantly you are transformed into a world of year-round glaciers that hang high above lush perennial alpine meadows and extensive forest tracts of uniformly straight evergreens like Lodgepole pine and Englemann spruce. Eventually all glacial meltwaters cascade down into raging streams that create scenic basins like the 21 km long Lake Minnewanka, near Banff, or the steep sided, rushing river gorge of Johnston Canyon, a tributary of the mighty Bow River, which heads east and meanders through Calgary.
Canmore, a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, is located beside famous peaks known as The Three Sisters, named so by early explorers in the 1880s. This trendy town played host to Olympic events, in the winter of 1988, at its year-round Nordic Centre Provincial Park. Here there are 100 km of hiking, biking and cross-country ski trails and the adjacent Quarry Lake Park is a popular destination for families to swim in summer. Strollers can walk beside the Bow River as it winds through town and hikers wanting moderate challenge will enjoy venturing up the nearby mountainside to the crystal-clear, azure blue Grassi Lakes, which are also a launching point for free-hand climbers on the sheer rock face beside the lakes.
All vehicles stopping in Banff or visiting anywhere in the National Park must have a valid day use permit.
Banff’s Sulphur Mountain hot springs were first established as a protected Reserve in 1885, when authorities realized it had long term value and should be sheltered from exploitation. Subsequent park boundary expansions included the high alpine Sunshine Village, a vehicle free, gondola access only, remote oasis. Over the decades heightened environmental awareness and improved wild habitat safety, like roadside fences and animal land bridges built over the highway, have earned this extensive National Park great fame as it is enjoyed by visitors, year-round.
In winter, thrill seeking downhill skiers and snowboarders enjoy carving or riding at the nearby Mount Norquay and Mystic Ridge snow resort, while summer adventurists escape the hub of Banff’s town life and ride the sightseeing chairlift, then tent camp at the Tunnel Mountain Village, which has over 600 sites.
The Trans Canada Highway update was completed in the late 1980s, yet many still drive the original Bow Valley Parkway, an older and quieter section of paved road, 50 km in length, in between Banff and Lake Louise. You may have a better chance of seeing wildlife like bear or elk up close here, plus it’s also the access for hiking the Johnston Canyon, an easy walking pathway, several km in length, that winds past numerous waterfalls, cut dramatically into the zigzagging limestone river gorge.
Lake Louise is actually three locations; a small town in the valley, a ski and snowboarding resort on one side of the valley and the namesake lake and Chateau hotel up the hill at the base of Fairview Mountain overlooking the lake, Mount Victoria and a glacier, on the opposite side of the valley.
While driving up the winding road towards the Chateau you will pass the seasonal access road leading to Moraine Lake, before you arrive at the famous Lake Louise. The original Chateau, built in the 1920s, was a humble log cabin, however with growing popularity, several subsequent buildings were each either quickly outgrown or suffered fires. After several refurbishments, a complete winterization in 1982 and a new wing in 2004, the Chateau at Lake Louise continues to be one of the most popular destinations in the park. Year-round guests and day visitors enjoy the flat pathway along the north shore of the lake, while more arduous hikers can connect to additional trails leading up to the Agnes Lake or Six Glaciers tea houses.
Lake Louise and the province itself, were thought to be named in the 1880s, after Queen Victoria’s daughter Louise Caroline Alberta, who was married to the Marquis of Lorne, then Governor General of Canada. However deeper research reveals that Princess Louise never even set foot at the lake and some claim to attribute the lake’s naming to that of the officiating Science Association Member Sir Richard Temple’s daughter Louise.
Moraine Lake and its famous cirque, Valley of Ten Peaks, was seen printed on the Canadian twenty-dollar bill through the 1970s. The lake’s starkly blue azure colour comes from the fine grains of rock silt, ground down by glaciers, that are suspended in the water. Visitors who arrive early enough in the day to get a parking spot can enjoy this spectacular iconic viewpoint and stroll along any of the day hiking trails, which follow alongside, beyond or above this stunning lake site.
Story by hiker and photographer Cynthia Percival