The Canadian Rockies
Jasper and Banff National Parks

I spent a week and a half in the Canadian Rockies.  I could have spent weeks there, dayhiking and exploring.  Jasper and Banff National Parks are just crawling with people who came to gawk at the scenery.  They are a hazard on the roads, and it's often hard to even find a parking place at the popular stops.  The campgrounds in the park fill up early.

And with the right strategy, it's easy to ignore those problems.  First of all, do all your moving early in the day.  Get to the popular places early in the morning, before the motorhomes and the tour buses began to move.  Camp before noon - most campers on limited time schedules don't want to stop early.  Once you've got your camping spot secured, making sure to leave a sign or equipment as an obvious indication that the site is occupied, you can explore the local area.

And, as always, once you get a half mile from a paved surface, the crowds are almost always gone.  I always stop at a local store, and get a trail guidebook, which tells you where all the good hikes are, both for dayhikes and extended trips.  Getting out in the backcountry really lets you see the country, and avoid the hordes.  And the guidebook will let you plan subsequent trips to the area.  If you want to be smart, you can buy those guidebooks before you go - one good source for them is the Adventurous Traveler Bookstore.

The one I got is Classic Hikes in the Canadian Rockies by Graeme Pole, published by Altitude Publishing Canada Ltd.  It's excellent.

Mount Edith Cavell is named after a Canadian nurse who stayed when Brussels fell to the Germans during WWI.  The Germans executed her for allegedly helping Allied prisoners to escape.  This glacier, and the lake it calves into, are on the mountain, and one can drive up to a parking lot a couple of hundred meters from the lake.  The road also has trailheads for several popular trails.  Large motorhomes and trailers are not allowed on that road, but there is a place to drop trailers off before ascending the road.  The views from the road are worth the drive up the road, whose surface is not very good.

I don't know the name of this mountain - it's just an example of the striking views from the Icefield Parkway in Jasper National Park.  Jasper and Banff National Parks are contiguous - Jasper is the northern park.

This is the Athabasca Glacier, which flows off the Columbia Icefield.  The Columbia Icefield Interpretive Center is right across the road from the foot of the glacier, and is worth a stop.  They run tours up on to the glacier in motorized vehicles, and let you walk on the glacier if you want, in the company of a guide.  They also have a very informative set of exhibits about glaciers and icefields, which is free.

Walking on the ice by yourself is not a good idea.  An unescorted tourist walked out a short ways onto the ice from the foot of the glacier, and fell into a crevasse.  Despite the nearly instantaneous efforts of a force of highly-trained and experienced rescuers, he died of hypothermia before he could be extracted.

A lot of the lakes in this area have a pretty green color caused by glacial "flour", which is the residue of rocks ground up by the glacier as it moves.  I think this is Bow Lake.

This is Lake Louise.  I didn't hang around Lake Louise very long, as there were a lot of people there.  There is a nice trail around the lake, though, and several good dayhikes from trailheads in the immediate area.

This is Emerald Lake.  It's actually in Yoho National Park.  I don't make up these park names.  According to Pole's trail guide, Yoho comes from a Cree expression of awe and wonder. Hmmm.  There's a very fancy lodge and conference center at the lake, if you are into dropping large dollars, but reserve early - a year in advance is appropriate.  If you just want to drive up to the lake, arrive early, or you'll have a non-trivial hike from the overflow parking area.  There is a trail around the lake.

As far as the towns of Jasper and Banff themselves, Jasper is a splendid place to stock up on supplies - it's pretty easy to find things, including a place to park.  The local campgrounds in Jasper are large, but out of town.

Banff is the premier yuppie shopping experience.  It has shopping malls for tourist stuff, and good stores for outdoor gear, but the prices are high.  The smart outdoorsman will shop before the trip at REI or Campmor, and save a lot of money.  I have to confess that I was possessed of gear envy while walking though a three-floor store in Banff called Abominable Sports, which had just about every kind of outdoor gear I know of, and some I didn't, but the only thing I bought was some wicking inner socks and insoles for my boots.  All the gear I have works.  Good outdoor gear is an investment - it lasts a long time.

The campgrounds in Banff are large, especially if you don't need RV hookups, well-maintained, and have showers.  However, both are close to a noisy railway switchyard, if you're a light sleeper.  You don't have to drive to get to town, which is good, as parking is limited - there's a shuttle which runs every half-hour from the campgrounds, for a Canadian dollar.  At current exchange rates, that's about 70 cents, probably the best, and arguably the only, bargain in town.  The stores in town don't open until 10:00 A.M, though, and if you go well before that, it's easy to find parking.

In previous years, I've often taken vacations in the early fall, anytime from just after Labor Day to mid-October.  That would be an ideal time for exploring the road-accessible part of the Canadian Rockies, as most of the tourists will be gone.  It wouldn't be the best time for the backcountry, as you're more likely to get snowed on.

Mid-to-late August is the prime time for the backcountry, as the early season snows have melted, and there is less rain and fewer bugs.  But you can get snowed on any day of the year in those mountains.  Be prepared.

I had never been into Alaska or the Canadian Rockies before this trip, and two months wasn't enough.  I'll be spending lots of time there in the future, and more of it in the backcountry, where it's peaceful and quiet.  I'll take the bears in preference to hordes of tourists.  Your mileage may vary.

Copyright 1999 by Linden B. Sisk
All rights reserved