Day 1 – Drive to Banff/Canmore, Canada
Day 2 – Drive to Jasper on the Icefield Parkway – Highway 93
With a total area of 200 Sq. Kms, the Columbia Icefield is one of the largest masses of glacial ice outside the Arctic circle, surrounded by some of the highest mountains in the Canadian Rockies. The Icefield feeds several large glaciers, including the Athabasca, the Columbia and the Saskatchewan. The glacier forms breathtaking lakes in a valley abounding alpine wildlife and grand vistas. In recent years, a warmer climate has accelerated the glacial melt and recessions. If this trend continues one day these glaciers will be gone! After a 3-hour drive from Banff, we got to the Icefield Center, the center of all activities. We trekked to the Kitchener Glacier, the origin of the gurgling Sunwapta River. An organized tour activity on a humongous tank like bus is offered from there that takes visitors atop the Athabasca Glacier, giving all a chance to walk on the glacier, drink pure glacial water from the actual streams, and enjoy the icy nature in abundance. One has to be careful of the several super-dangerous crevices on the glacier. There are markings that need to be followed (I know! Because we got yelled at for getting too close to uncharted areas). The drive up and down the glacier is pretty enthralling. Post this 2-hour activity, the bus took us to the Glacier Sky Walk… about 10 minutes from the Center. The small glass-bottom curved cliff-edge walkway sits where glaciers rest above and birds soar below. It was a thrilling experience to see waterfalls, wildlife, canyons and more standing on a platform where glass is all that separates you from a 918-foot drop.
Jasper is another 1.5 hours north of there…on the beautiful Iceland Parkway, considered one of the most scenic drives in the world. There are several nature activities to do along the way – the Athabasca Falls, Sunwapta Falls, Saskatchewan River Crossing, Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, Valley of the 5 Lakes – a must-see for that area, and easily a full day adventure. We did a few chosen activities along the way to Jasper and drove further on to the Maligne Canyon area. Along the way we stopped at the gorgeous Medicine Lake, a giant leaky bathtub. It drains through a potentially enormous underground cave system, re-surfacing about 16 kms downstream through springs along the walls of Maligne Canyon. We did not have the time to drive further down to the Maligne Lake – which in retrospect, is an absolute must-do because of it’s awesome serenity and gorgeousness. On the drive back, we did a 2-hour hike in the stupendously gorgeous Maligne Canyon, formed by the ever color-changing Sunwapta River. There are 6 bridges along the canyon, we only did the first 4 because it was getting dark (the other 2 are a bit further down) but easily the highlight of the trip!
Day 3 – Lake Louise / Lake Agnes / Lake Minnewanka
The major highlight of the trip is Lake Louise, a short 45-minute drive north of Canmore. Lake Louise is named after the Princess Louise Caroline Alberta (1848–1939), the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria. The movement of glacial ice continually grinding away the bedrock creates rock flour (silt), which then drains into the lake…when the sun strikes the water, these particles absorb all the spectrum of colors except green and blue. The lake is drained through the 3 km long Louise Creek into the Bow River. You could spend a whole day soaking in the scenery and doing several hikes around there. We chose the 3 hr. Lake Agnes Hike, 3.5 km one way, and a bit strenuous because of the uphill nature but oh-so-worth-it!! It rained on the way, the path was slippery and arduous, but the valley opened to reveal spectacular Lake Agnes – at an altitude of 2,135 m (7,005 ft.). The lovely Tea House there is located in a lovely hanging valley on the shores of Lake Agnes. Together with Mirror Lake and Lake Louise, these lakes are often referred to as the ‘Lakes in the Clouds’. For those preferring a less strenuous approach, horses are available too. At the tea house they take cash only, and the Chai Latte, Tea Biscuits are absolutely refreshing.
Since we had some hours left in the day light, we drove to Lake Minnewanka Loop, about 45 minutes South-east of Lake Louise. At first glance, the lake looks like any other lake as you take the short 5-minute trek to it from the parking place. However, as you proceed for the hike along the lake border, the real beauty pops out from between the trees. The lake is 21 km (13 mi) long and 142 m (466 ft.) deep, making it the longest lake in the mountain parks of the Canadian Rockies. For more than 100 centuries, people hunted and camped along the original shores of Lake Minnewanka. Scuba divers can visit a village setup in 1912, Minnewanka Landing which is now submerged in the lake. Walking around and inhaling the beauty of the place was overall a very serene and peaceful experience!
Our last stop of the day was the much touted Banff Hot Springs. Having been to several of these around the world, especially the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, we found this a bit small and crowded. However, considering the nominal fees of $7 per person, it was a good relaxing spot after a long day of rives and hikes.
What we couldn’t do: Radium Hot Springs was ok our list for the next day, but we didn’t get enough time to get it. Wanted to compare it with the Banff Hot Springs.
Day 4 – Lake Louise / Peyto Lake / Bow Lake
Lake Louise left such an impression in us that we landed up again there the next morning. Part of the reason was to get better pictures (it was rainy the previous day), and part of the reason was to hike up to Lake Moraine which was only 10 kms from there – we could not get there the previous day because parking is limited there, and often the park officers stop the vehicles at the very start of the drive. We missed it again in the morning even though we reached there at 9 AM itself.
We set off back again on Icefields Parkway to cover all the areas we had missed the other day – Lake Peyto being one of them. The hike up to the lake viewing point was an easy 15 minute one, but the view from there was a spectacular one like all the other lakes in the area. Significant amounts of glacial rock flour flow into the lake, and these suspended rock particles give the lake a bright, turquoise color. The lake is fed by Peyto Creek, which drains water from Caldron Lake and Peyto Glacier (part of the Wapta Icefield). Just 10 minutes South of that area was the other spectacular lake in the area – the Bow Lake. It is located on the Bow River, in the Canadian Rockies, at an altitude of 1920 m. Water in the lake is meltwater of the Bow Glacier. Hike around the lake is relatively flat compared to all other lakes in the area. The colors are not as bright from close-by as they are from viewing from afar.
Since we were missing our daily strenuous hikes, we decided to use Johnston Canyon as our hiking grounds for the day. The canyon is divided into parts – the Lower and Upper Canyons – we did both. The trail to the lower falls, via the affixed catwalks, covers minimal elevation as it works its way through the forest. It then takes you over catwalks alongside Johnston creek and up into the canyon above the rushing waters below. The trail to the upper falls covers more elevation as it climbs through the forest and out of the lower canyon, working its way back towards the creek. The while hike offers several scenic viewpoints of cascading waterfalls. Thought very pretty on its own accord, it couldn’t hold a candle to Maligne Canyon
What we couldn’t do: A 2 hour strenuous hike up from Johnston Canyons leads to “inkpots” – a group of seven crystal-clear, jade-green and very beautiful spring-fed pools of water located in a meadow above Johnston Creek. The source of the warm water feeding the pristine jade pools is unknown. Other falls and caves in the area are the Vermillion Lakes and the mammoth Bow Falls – none of which we could do mostly due to exhaustion and lack of time.
Day 5 – Drive back to Seattle via Vancouver, Canada
We covered quite a lot of ground in the past 3 days but it was time to head back home! As we drove back past Lake Louise, we decided to take a very minor detour on to Emerald Lake. Truly emerald in color, the lake is located in Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada. The vivid turquoise color of the water, caused by powdered limestone, is most spectacular in summer, and we were lucky to witness that. Just about 20 minutes from there, is the Kicking Horse River in southeastern British Columbia. The River begins at the outlet of small Wapta Lake and flows southwest receiving the Yoho River upstream from Field. The second is the Natural Bridge Falls near Field. We hiked up to the Natural Bridge – which is largest rocky bridge in the area over the 100-foot (30 m) Wapta Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in Canada in both volume and width.
What we couldn’t cover – If time permitted we could have done some more activities like horseback riding on the river, canoeing on the lakes, camping by the lakes, chairlift to see Grizzly’s in the wilderness etc. There were several beautiful spots that were on our list like Maligne lake, Athabasca falls, inkpots lakes, that we could not get to.
5 Favorite things about the trip:
- Lake Louise
- Maligne Canyon
- Lake Moraine
- Athabasca Glacier
- Minnewanka Lake
Some Don’ts or recommendations:
- Try and go in summer – maybe a little expensive but the best time to enjoy the beauty of the place! Stay prepared for rain.
- The National Park has some beautiful accommodation locations but all the vacation rentals, places and hotels are booked much in advance. So its highly recommended to book accommodations as soon as you decide about venturing on this trip.
- Our Condo provided us the National Park Pass for our use. If you don’t have that option, you will have to purchase one when entering the park.
- As we had rented a car from Hertz, in Seattle, USA, their service in Canada was scarce. Especially if anything were to go wrong with the rental car.
- Paper Maps are available at hotels. Also the park has good road signs and markers. Satellite reception is hindered by the mountains. The GPS doesn’t help much too if roads are closed all over the place.
- Fuel is not always conveniently available, so gas up whenever you get an opportunity.
Good mountain driving skills are important, as the highway becomes more narrow, more steep, more winding, and with more steep drop-offs at the side. This is accompanied by fabulous scenery and more abundant wildlife (the wildlife fence ends between Banff and Lake Louise), which can cause dangerous distractions. While driving at night the fog can be daunting, the driver must also watch for rocks or wildlife like Bear, Deer or Elk crossings.