The Icefields Parkway connects Jasper National Park to Banff National Park with 65 miles of what some have called one of the world’s most spectacular highways. After driving it, we would have to concur. It is a mix of wide, high mountain meadows; fast running, churning rivers which the rains of a couple of days ago turned the color of a vanilla milk shake; expansive mountain lakes the most remarkable turquoise and emerald green; waterfalls that seem to hang in the air before crashing onto ledges below; a chain of mountain ranges, some with craggy, stand-alone peaks that top 7,000 feet; over mountain passes; and glaciers.
The destination of this Parkway is the Columbia Icefield, one of the largest accumulations of ice south of the Arctic Circle where the ice field reach depths of 800 feet.
The landscape at the Columbia Icefield looks like a moonscape – black and brown gravel, with deep ruts and arroyos carved by centuries of water and wind that continue to form this place. The glacier here, called Athabasca, is huge and active, shedding what amounts to cliffs of ice from time to time as it recedes and shifts and moves over the earth below. Warnings along the road alert the overly inquisitive to the dangers of hiking unescorted on the Athabasca where fragile layers of melting ice are known to cover shear breaks and crevasses in the glacier that are hundreds of feet deep. Every year, the warnings point out bleakly, someone ignores the warnings and pays with a life.
After about six hours of travel, we merged onto Trans Canada Highway 1 on the way to Banff and our campground. The re-entry into the world of much more traffic and tractor-trailers and four lanes of high speed interstate driving was jarring to the system.
Our campground is along Tunnel Mountain right in the town of Banff. Here, the full service campground it is called a “trailer court” or, in French, “parc caravannes” which sounds so much more refined in the bi-lingual languages of Canada. Our day trips from here included two trips, over two consecutive days, up to Lake Louise. The initial trip we made on a glorious summer day, leaving our campground at the leisurely hour of 10:00am, which dropped us into the height of the crowds at Lake Louise for which we were completely unprepared. In describing it later to my sister, I invited her to imagine Route 6 on a Sunday summer afternoon with weekenders exiting the Cape and heading back to Boston. The parking lots were overcrowded and the roadside parking created a tunnel of RVs and cars through which one drove to exit the valley. Back in town, we used the found time to drive around the area, sample a bison burger, and do some food shopping before renting a movie.
Our second attempt to Lake Louise the following day, was timed to get us to the Lake at 5:00pm and it was a much easier excursion. The Lake is stunning any time of the day but late afternoon with the slant of golden light upon the remarkably clear waters, was lovely. I watched as canoes crossed the lake, families paused for photos, couples took selfies, and walkers claimed one of the open benches to rest in the warmth of the day. A swimmer emerged from the lake, dripping and shiny like a silver fish, wrapped a towel over her shoulders and walked off.
Here, the historic Fairmont Chateau, with baskets of flowers adorning the lamp posts and gardens, resplendent with blooms, competed for attention. Adirondack chairs sat under trees providing views to last a lifetime. We wandered into the lobby where Peter wanted to show me the restaurant where he and a dear friend had high tea during a snowboarding trip to Banff half a dozen years ago. The arched windows of the restaurant created a perfect frame for the exquisite image of God’s masterpiece, Lake Louise.
The sun sets here around 9:00pm so with plenty of daylight left, we returned to town via the scenic Bow Valley Parkway. It wanders through tall spruce and pine forests, hugs the banks of the Bow River and offers up jaw-dropping views of places like Castle Mountain. But the piece-de-resistance for me was stopping at Morant’s Curve. This is where the road runs tight above an oxbow in the east side of Bow River. Opposite the oxbow, six or seven spectacular mountain peaks fill the horizon. The glacier on the top of the tallest of the peaks was topped with fresh snow, like a dollop of whipped cream on a sundae.
This oxbow in the river is the spot made famous by Nicholas Morant who is known for the countless images of the Canadian Pacific Railroad that he took right here. It was thrilling to see it in person. Not long after arriving, we heard the whistle of a train. Minutes later, a freight train rounded the bend and deliriously, I snapped my own memories of this glorious place in the perfect light of early evening on a magnificent day in the Canadian Rockies.
The fourth day here we decided to visit the Cave and Basin National Historic Site.The place is named for the location of two of the largest thermal pools that were created here by the numerous underground springs in this part of Banff. The “Cave” is an underground thermal pool, fed by springs, which had been used for centuries by the First Nation people here, the Stoney Nakoda. In the 1880s, three railway workers discovered it. The above ground thermal pool, the “Basin”, fed by more hillside springs, eventually became the impetus for the creation of Canada’s first national park in 1885, following the U.S. example of Yellowstone National Park. Our newly purchased National Park Pass gained us free admission and made the visit extra special.
Some technical issues with our Airstream led us to a day-long excursion to the nearest dealer in Calgary, about 2 hours east of Banff. It was another opportunity to explore this huge and wild province of Alberta on a gorgeous sunny day. We had our concerns addressed and after getting some small warranty stuff done, we were back in the campground in time for a late afternoon bike ride before hooking up to leave Canada the next morning.
We had a wonderful two weeks exploring this beautiful country and look forward to next year’s exploration and further discovery. Now it’s time to cross back into the U.S.