Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Canadian Rockies - July 2010

Sunday, July 4
Calgary to Banff

Imagine a river, colored milky turquoise blue from glacial silt, meandering through the meadows of a wide valley that is lined by towering peaks on both sides, the mountain-sides green with lush pine forests on the lower slopes and with bare grey granite snow-capped summits.  Now imagine this landscape extending for endless miles.  Every minute of our drive from Calgary north through Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, Canada led past jaw-dropping scenery and incredible beauty.

We had an easy three hour flight from LAX to Calgary and immediately picked up our rental car, but our morning included one little misadventure. We had just purchased a brand new Garmin GPS, and it worked GREAT on the trip, but somehow, we got onto the first highway going in the WRONG direction. The day was overcast so we had no sense of direction from the sun, and of course, the area was completely unfamiliar to us, so "Mrs. Garmin," as we came to call her, kept telling us to take all these turns that we didn't recognize from our written Google maps directions.  (It was a mistake to rely on both!). After driving much too far, we finally decided just to trust Mrs. G, and she turned us around in the right direction and then guided us back through Calgary and on to Banff without a hitch. Unfortunately, it added about an hour to our trip, but once we got into the glorious mountains, we didn't care.

It is so lush and green here, with the ragged granite peaks looming around us on all sides.

The Trans-Canada Highway is a great road, very smooth and easy to drive and the GPS guided us right to our hotel, the Fairmont Banff Springs, affectionately known as "The Castle." 

The afternoon was quite rainy, but we walked into the town of Banff for dinner (at a wonderful vegetarian restaurant called Nourish...fabulous dinner with the most unusual and tasty blend of ingredients!), and by the time we came out for our walk home, the rain had stopped and the mountains were gorgeous in the sunlight.

We stopped at a grocery store for provisions for our breakfast and snacks for our planned hike tomorrow...a strenuous one to the top of Sulphur Mountain. (I had been working out hard for two weeks, and I felt confident that I was up for it as long as it wasn't pouring rain.)  Then we finally settled in to the very comfortable beds and went to sleep to the glow of a gorgeous sunset.

Monday, July 5
Hiking Sulphur Mountain - Banff
We woke around 8 a.m. after a very good night's sleep. The sun was already high in the sky (thank goodness for black out curtains in these northern climes!). After breakfast, we immediately set out for our hike to the summit of Sulphur Mountain. Remember how I said that I had been working out and was up for it?  Well...maybe not! This was, without a doubt, the most difficult hike I have ever done! It wasn't the longest hike, but it was the steepest uphill for the longest distance.

The first leg of the trip was the Hot Springs trail, which started behind the parking lot of of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel and wound about a mile and a half up the hill to the Banff Hot Springs and the gondola which takes visitors to the summit.

From the hot springs, we found the trailhead sign (in both English and French, as were ALL the signs on our trip) for the Sulphur Mountain trail which would take us another 3.4 miles with an elevation gain of over 2,200 feet.  The trail started off with a very steep climb.  I can hike forever on a downhill, but with the steep uphill, I immediately fell behind Rob and told him to go on ahead. We agreed to meet at the top. He was a little concerned that he wouldn't know if I decided to turn back, so I assured him that I would make it. It was probably a good thing that I did, because there were times along the trail when that promise was the only thing that kept me going! The hike was a continuous uphill climb along many switchbacks.

The views into the Bow Valley and the town of Banff below were beautiful,

but I have to admit, around 3/4 of the way up, I was not really enjoying the climb. Jane Fonda used to say "go for the burn," and unfortunately, I reached the burn about a half an hour before I reached the summit and my poor little leg muscles just didn't want to move anymore. So it was 20 steps and stop, 20 steps and stop, and on and on and on until I finally -gratefully - saw the gondola tower and the observation platform above me.

The weather, at least, was great for hiking...partly cloudy, but nice and cool. In spite of the chill, the hike warmed me up so much that I was shedding clothes along the way. First, the hat came off. Later, the polar fleece pullover came off. And finally, I zipped off the leggings on my convertible hiking pants, turning them into shorts.
Rob was waiting at the top (where I playfully collapsed) and admitted that he really didn't think I'd make it, once he had hiked it himself and seen how tough it was, but it WAS worth it. The views from the summit in all directions were just spectacular, in spite of the overcast skies... beautiful granite peaks still streaked with snow, deep valleys, the Bow River winding past Banff, and Lake Minnewanka off in the distance.

 There was a nice snack bar at the top, so we rested over a bowl of hot chicken noodle soup, walked around the observation deck (where I put all my shed clothing back was VERY chilly at this high altitude), then set off down the mountain. Along the way, we had our first wildlife sightings...a Clark's Nutcracker, and several cute little chipmunks.

I usually LOVE downhill hiking. It is practically no effort at all - usually - but on this hike, we had about 4 and a half miles of very steep downhill to go, and about 2/3 of the way down, my left leg sort of gave out and became quite painful, so I ended up hobbling back the rest of the way. I was quite frustrated about it because we were still so early in our trip, and after getting to walk with Rob most of the way, I finally had to send him on ahead again, while I limped my way back to the hotel. (Walking backwards was painless, but most of the trail was too steep and filled with rocks and roots to try that for very long!)  At least I had the gorgeous views to keep me company.  From the trail, I had a bird's eye view of the grounds of our hotel.

I stopped by the Hotel Deli for a nice hot chocolate on my way back to our room. Rob and I both showered and napped for a bit, then we explored "the Castle" a bit. It was built to accommodate the visitors who came to "take the waters" of the Banff Hot Springs and is really quite spectacular...beautiful lounges, elegant meeting halls, a grand ballroom, a ritzy spa.

We drove into town for another dinner at Nourish Restaurant...the "Beautiful Burrito," which was absolutely fantastic. Then we stocked up on some provisions at the little grocery story in town and headed back to the hotel.

There were still a few places I had wanted to explore in Banff...the Cascade Gardens at the top of Banff Avenue and the walking trail to Bow Falls, which I could just catch a glimpse of from our hotel...but unfortunately, the hike had wiped us out so thoroughly that all we could do was a little reading, TV, and collapse into bed.  I guess we will just have to come back here!!!

Tuesday, July 6
The Bow Valley Parkway and the Icefields Parkway

Today was the gorgeous drive from Banff to Jasper along the Icefields Parkway...reputed to be one of the top ten drives in the world...and I have no doubt that that is true!!! Wow wow wow...spectacular from one end to the other.

We ate breakfast in our room...instant oatmeal made with hot water in the coffee maker. (We figured, since we are splurging on hotels this trip, we could be frugal with the food.) Then we packed up, checked out, and were on our way. We took the detour off of Highway 1 along the slower and more scenic Route 1A, the "old road" between Banff and Lake Louise. It wound its way through the tall pines and aspens.

Very shortly into the trip, we had our first "big" wildlife sighting...Big Horn Mountain Sheep! We easily found them because 6 or 7 cars were pulled over to the side of the road and everyone was out on the highway with their cameras. The sheep were a ways up the hill, just resting in the grass, quite unconcerned with the excited tourists below. 

Our next stop was at Johnston's Canyon, which had a very nice hike along a river canyon along a series of waterfalls. The canyon was so steep in spots that the trail was actually a catwalk clinging to the side of the canyon walls with the river right beneath us. This was a very popular site, so we were joined on the trail by many other tourists, but it didn't diminish the beauty of the canyon and the sound of the water rushing through the narrow gorge. 

The trail takes hikers to the "Little Falls" and the "Big Falls" but actually the entire gorge is filled with a series of waterfalls all along the way.

Here are the "Little Falls":

and some of the "In-Between Falls":

And finally, the "Big Falls":

A short way past Johnston's Canyon, we stopped at Castle Junction, just below the much photographed Castle Rock, to have a picnic lunch. We were joined by two begging magpies who argued vigorously about the bits of bread that Rob threw to them.

Then just past Castle Junction, we had our second and third big wildlife sightings...a gorgeous huge elk grazing in the forest, and just past him, a pretty mule deer.

The scenery along Highway 1A was gorgeous...lush and green with the mountain peaks in the distance.  I found myself taking photos from the car as we drove just because I couldn't stand to lose any of it, a habit that continued throughout the entire trip.

We briefly rejoined Highway 1, but quickly left it again to start up Highway 93, the famous Icefields Parkway. There were many recommended sights along the way, but our hike in Johnston's Canyon had made us a little later than we had planned, so we decided to see them on our way back to Lake Louise along the same highway after our stay in Jasper.  So Rob drove on (with occasional rest stops) while I continued to snap photos of the mountains, rivers, and glacial lakes from our car.

Our only other big stop today was at the Columbia Icefields, where we walked the rather difficult trail over the glacial moraine, the rocky debris left by the receding glacier,  to the "toe" of the Athabasca Glacier.

The glacier was quite impressive...but what was even more impressive was the series of signs showing how the glacier has receded in the past 100 years. This is one of the many places in the world that you have to see now before it disappears forever.

We then continued on through miles and miles of more incredible peaks and gorgeous valleys with pale blue glacial rivers meandering through them...and finished our drive with one more exciting wildlife sighting...a small black bear rooting through the bush very close to the road. Hurray...big horn sheep, elk, deer, AND a bear all in one day (along with MANY little squirrels and chipmunks.)

We arrived at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge around 5:45 and got settled into our room. It is a old style lodge with little cabins sitting on the banks of Beauvert Lake, which has a nice little walking path around it. We had a light dinner on the deck looking out on the lake and the snow-capped peak of Mount Edith Cavell beyond.

Wednesday, July 7
Jasper National Park

Today was a relatively quiet day. We were quite worn out by our vigorous activities of the last two days. (My poor little legs were really sore.) But we started the day with a very easy stroll around Lake Beauvert, the pretty lake in front of our hotel. The trail map said it was a little over two miles, but after the 9 mile hike up Sulphur Mountain two days ago, and the two hikes yesterday to the Johnston Canyon waterfalls and over the rocky debris of the receding glacier, the two miles on nice FLAT land through a quiet green forest seemed like a walk in the park! The views were beautiful from every angle. I love digital photography...I can just snap away when every new view seems better than the last...and then keep the good ones.

We had been a little disappointed with our first room here...we had asked for a lakefront room, but we were at the BACK end of the little duplex cabin. I guess you could have called it a lake view.  Out of one corner window, we could see the lake, if we kind of leaned over, so Rob, the original New Jersey negotiator, went up to the front desk and charmed the clerk into upgrading us to a junior suite with a large picture window looking out over the NO extra cost!

We could now look out the window at the lovely grassy slope down to the lake, which is a clear as Lake Tahoe used to be (although much more shallow, of course.)

At noon, we headed into the town of Jasper for lunch and found a nice little restaurant with an upstairs outdoor deck with a little view over the small town. Then we headed up the road above the town to see the pretty little lakes, Patricia Lake and Pyramid Lake.

We had planned to do a little more hiking and walk around the town browsing the shops, but we were honestly just so exhausted that we came home and took a long nap. So it was a rather uneventful, but pleasant day...and did include views of several elk resting on the banks of a little island in the middle of the Athabasca River on the way back to the Lodge.

Our room was quite warm so we went up to the big Lodge lounge for the evening to read and relax.  A very pleasant end to the day!

Thursday, July 8
Lake Annette and Miette Hot Springs

Today was another very nice, relaxed day...but still filled with beautiful scenery and a great little adventure. We slept in VERY late. We really had been wearing ourselves out with lots of hiking, so the good sleep was wonderful and very restorative.

After breakfast, we went for a nice long stroll from our lodge along a trail leading through the forest to another large lake, Lake Annette, which - like Lake Beauvert here in front of our cabin - had a walking path all the way around it. The forest was lovely, cool and green under the tall thin limber pines that fill most of the forests around here, and the lake was just as clear and blue.

The walk probably lasted a couple of hours, then we rested a bit before setting out on the second part of our day...a drive northeast on Highway 16 to the Miette Hot Springs, the hottest of the many hot springs in all of the Canadian Rockies.

The drive was just as spectacular as the drive up the Icefields Parkway.  The mountains here are so astounding. Huge peaks like the Tetons, but going on for endless miles. Every curve brought even more beautiful mountains into view as we drove through the river valley filled with shallow lakes and broad meadows.

The hot springs were 17 kilometers off the main highway, very remote, yet rather than the natural pools I had expected, there is a very nice bath house with 4 different pools of different temperatures. They actually have to cool the natural springs' waters as they are too hot to bathe in! We soaked for quite awhile in the 40 degree Celsius pool (what a treat for our aching leg muscles!), then jumped into the icy pool for a refreshing dip. Today was actually the hottest day of the entire summer so far in Jasper...everyone was talking about the heat (which, of course, to us Bakersfuddlians, was warm but not hot), but the cool pool did feel very refreshing.

As we left the Hot Springs, we had another animal encounter...a small herd of mountain goats who were still shedding their winter coats.

We spent a couple of hours enjoying the springs, then returned to our very warm room. My only complaint about the Jasper Park Lodge was that we had no air conditioning and timed our visit to correspond with these very warm days. But that also meant gorgeous blue skies and beautiful views, and the evenings cooled down quickly as soon as the sun went down.

While I waited for the room to cool down, I took an evening stroll around the lodge.  Down by the lake, the hotel was hosting a S'mores party for the guests, so I toasted a marshmallow and enjoyed a nice treat.

Friday, July 9
Jasper to Lake Louise on the Icefields Parkway

Another incredible day! We packed up in the morning and said good-bye to the Jasper Park Lodge. Actually, our departure was kind of a comedy of errors. Rob went up to get our car, planning to drive it right up to our cabin to pick up me and our bags. I carefully carried out all of our suitcases and set them on the lawn in front of our cabin. Well, just before Rob arrived, THREE different Fairmont vehicles...a housekeeping truck, a groundskeeper, and a big cement mixer decided to drive down our highway at the same time! (There is some construction going on around the pool.)  The big truck couldn't get around the tight curve and had to back up while everyone else waited for him. Then, just as the trucks were finally moving, the sprinklers came on and I had to frantically drag all of our suitcases back up on the porch! Just as I finished, Rob came along...riding in one of the little Fairmont golf carts with a very nice young man who helped us gather our bags and delivered us to the front desk to check out. (Rob had given up trying to get the car to me.)

So around 10 a.m., we set out, retracing our drive along the Icefield Parkway back to our next destination of Lake Louise. The drive was every bit as gorgeous as it had been on the way up. In fact, I believe it was even more beautiful...the peaks were even more dramatic driving from the north. I was once again astounded by the grandeur of this region. Miles and miles of massive mountains in the most amazing shapes and sizes.

This drive included several stops that we had skipped on our drive north three days earlier. Our first stop along the way was the very impressive Athabasca Falls, which roared over the cliffs from a wide river mouth into a deep narrow canyon that it had gouged through the rocks over the ages.  There were little trails on both sides and a bridge over the gorge that allowed us to view the falls from several angles.  For a little video that shows the power of the falls, paste this address into your browser:

We continued south on Highway 93, with me still snapping away as we drove. 

We zipped on past the Columbia Icefields this time, as we had stopped there on the way to Jasper, but on this drive, we stopped to take the hike to the top of Parker Ridge which led to a spectacular view of the Saskatewan Glacier far below us and more astounding views of the mountains and Highway 93 far below us. The hike was quite rigorous...very steep...but considerably shorter than the Sulphur Mountain hike.

Our next stop was Mistayo Canyon, where the river has carved out a narrow channel winding through the walls of the canyon. It was really quite amazing to see in person.  The canyon folds and turns in intricate designs, but the photos just don't capture the twists or the depth or the thrill of the water rushing through the canyon.

After Mistaya Canyon, we made no more stops until we finally arrived at the famous Chateau Lake Louise at around 4:00 in the afternoon. There was a young man at the entrance to the grounds who found our names on his list of expected arrivals and sent us on to registration where we checked in and happily entered our fourth floor room with this lovely view of the lake.
We rested a bit, then went to the Lakeview Lounge for our dinner, served by a darling young man from Birmingham, England. Both he and the young lady in one of the hotel shops recommended the same hike...up to Lake that is our plan for tomorrow.

At 10:30 in the evening, it was still light as day outside, but we were beginning to get pretty sleepy after another strenuous hike today, so we were soon in dreamland.

Saturday, July 10
Lake Louise - Hiking to Lake Agnes and the Little Beehive

Yet another great day!  There was rain predicted, so we set off on our daily hike immediately after breakfast. The trail started nice and easy along the lake behind the hotel, but it quickly became another major uphill climb that took us through the gorgeous forest up past Mirror Lake, on to Lake Agnes with its impressive waterfall and famous Tea House, then another 2 kilometers up up up to the Little Beehive, which had incredible views of the valley far below us.

 Mirror Lake

                                                             The waterfall that spills from Lake Agnes down into Mirror Lake

Naturally, Rob hiked up much faster than I did, so he waited at Lake Agnes, where they had nice picnic tables below the Tea House, and chatted with a nice lady while I slowly worked my way up to him. We rested there for about 15 minutes and had our apple and water, just enjoying the view. We were joined by a little chipmunk who saw the apple and pestered us for about 10 minutes just begging his little heart out. I know you are not supposed to feed the animals here, but he was so persistent, running all over our backpacks, standing up on his little hind legs and actually reaching out to the apple...and he was just so darn cute...that we finally couldn't resist and gave him a little piece of apple. Naughty us!

Lake Agnes
We continued to the top of the Little Beehive high above the Chateau. We had actually intended to go to the Big Beehive, but somehow missed the fork in the trail. But we were perfectly happy with our mistake. Beautiful views of the Chateau and Lake Louise below us, alpine flowers everywhere, and a gorgeous panoramic view of the mountains across the valley.

And at the very top, we saw a marmot who seemed quite unconcerned by our presence and posed very nicely for us.

The one thing that keeps me going on these vigorous hikes is the knowledge that the way down is ALL downhill and, sure enough, the hike down was easy and fun and we were soon walking up the path to the hotel.

We stopped by the Hotel Deli for a sandwich and fruit plate, then Rob took a long nap while I read in the room (while listening to the music of a wedding going on below us in the courtyard in front of the lake.)

The only disappointment about the morning was the overcast weather. We did have some rain on the hike down. The rain itself didn't bother me at fact, it kept us nice and cool. I am very philosophical about the weather when we travel. My ONLY frustration is because of the photographs, as they are not as stunning as they would be under blue, clear skies.

After Rob's nap, we walked around the hotel grounds

and took a lovely evening stroll along the Lakefront Trail which leads all the way to the back of Lake Louise.

Along the way, we came across rock climbers who were enjoying the sheer cliffs that line the river.

This walk was nice and flat and the trail actually kept going beyond the pack of the lake, but we were getting hungry for dinner, so we headed back home. 
On the way back, the sun finally came out, so I did get some good views of the Chateau in front of us. I resolved to take this easy walk again tomorrow and go a bit farther.

Sunday, July 11
Lake Moraine and the Valley of Ten Peaks

After breakfast this morning, we drove through the hills to Lake Moraine which lies in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. It was very quickly clear to see why it was so named. This view of the peaks over the lake was once on the Canadian $20 bill. 
Once again, the weather was quite overcast, so we didn't get the gorgeous photos that I had hoped for, but it was still very beautiful.

We took the lakeside trail to the back of the lake where the river widened to form a beautiful little cascade  flowing into the lake. 
As we were walking back, the sun came out a bit and the lake turned the most amazing turquoise blue.

After the walk along the lake, we climbed a huge rockpile left over from an ancient rockslide for some great views of the lake and the forested valley below us.

There were many trailheads leading out into the woods in all directions, but there were also signs recommending that you hike in tight groups of four because of the presence of grizzly bears in this region.

We went into the very tiny village of Lake Louise for lunch at a little deli which was filled with people watching the kick-off of the World Cup final game, and after lunch, we returned to the hotel and Rob watched the rest of the game in our room while I explored the hotel for awhile, enjoying the music and the gardens.  I took a peek at the elegant High Tea, which is served every afternoon, but I resisted the tempation to eat the goodies (and pay the high prices!)


The Lake is named for Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria and Albert.

I loved the Icelandic poppies and other bright flowers in the hotel gardens.

We were both pretty worn out from all the hiking we have been doing so after the Netherlands lost the World Cup to Spain (boo!), Rob fell asleep for a couple of hours while I read, then just as he was waking up, I fell asleep for about an hour. So it was a quite uneventful (and slightly rainy) afternoon.

After dinner, the sun FINALLY came out (for the first time during our two days in Lake Louise) so I followed up on my resolve to once again walk the lakeside trail and to go a bit further into the woods. 

where I passed a frozen waterfall and another very beautiful UNfrozen waterfall.   

Along the way, I had one more wildlife sighting...a cute little pika scurrying through the rocks.  It was adorable, looking something like a very large mouse with big round ears and no tail.  It was too fast for me to capture a photo, so I found this photo on the internet.

 About halfway back to the hotel, Rob met me by hiding behind a tree and popping out unexpectedly.  He got a big laugh and I got a big heart attack (and a big laugh).  He is such a New Jersey boy!

Monday, July 12
Lake Louise to Banff to Calgary

We left Lake Louise early and returned to spend one more day in Banff to see a few of the sights we had missed.  Along Highway 1, we saw some of the special bridges that were built to provide a safe route for the animals to cross the road.

Happily, the morning was sunny and clear so we finally got to see Banff in the bright sunlight that had been missing during our first two days here.


 We especially enjoyed our visit to the Cascade Gardens, a beautiful garden on the grounds of the National Parks Administration headquarters.  The gardens are built on a series of terraces that spill down the hillside and they were bright with summer flowers.  While not as extensive or elaborate as the Buchardt Gardens on Vancouver Island, these were peaceful.  If I could design a perfect backyard, it would look something like this!


We next hiked the Bow River Trail to Bow Falls which spill down a shallow hill just behind the Banff Springs Hotel. 

Below the falls, we saw a number of rafts preparing for a trip down the river.  It looked like fun...I think we are going to have to come back!

During our walk, the skies once again clouded over and the rest of the afternoon became quite rainy.  We tried going to the Banff Hot Springs to spend the afternoon soaking in a nice warm pool, but unfortunately, they had experienced a problem that morning and the baths were temporarily closed. 

They opened again just as we were leaving, but the attendant said that the water was quite lukewarm and "not very good,", so we browsed through the town shops in the rain (where Rob made naturally made friends with a horse), and then headed on to Calgary a bit earlier than we had anticipated.

Once again, Mrs. Garmin guided us flawlessly to our destination, the Fairmont Palliser Hotel, where we were greeted by bellmen decked out in western regalia in honor of the famous Calgary Stampede, which was in full swing.  Happily, we had missed the freak storm that had swept through Calgary two hours before our arrival, bringing with it golf ball sized hailstones that had dented cars and smashed windows, and a funnel cloud!

We settled in and walked out in the rain for a little dinner and then returned for early bedtime.

Tuesday, July 13
Calgary to Home Again

Our flight was not until 7:30 in the evening, so we had to find ways to pass the time in the morning.  It was raining quite heavily the entire day, but we braved the elements to walk along Stephen Street, the pedestrian shopping street, to see the Stampede decorations, listen to the live music that went on in spite of the rain, and do a little shopping in the Patagonia store. 

When the rain got to be too much, we took advantage of the hotel's very nice workout room and pool, then it was time to pack up, check out and get ourselved to the airport.

Why is the return of the rental car invariably the most difficult drive of the entire trip?!  We had foolishly decided to go by the easy sounding directions from the hotel staff and did not plug in Mrs. Garmin, but the roads were somewhat more confusing than we had expected and we had a few minutes when we were not sure if we were on the right highway.  Happily, a sign finally indicated that the airport was up ahead but Rob still had to contend with the VERY heavy rain that made visibility almost zero.  Then just outside the airport, we had to top off the gas in our rental car, and the only gas station in sight had only one out of four pumps working! 

But in due time, we were on our Air Canada flight back to LA, and we arrived home at 1 a.m. to ecstatic greetings from "our kids," doggies Maggie and  Max, and kitty Scamper...(and, of course, Rob went to get Lily, his other wife, the first thing in the morning.  She spent the next afternoon happily napping on his shoulder.)

It was another great trip...and, as always, it is nice to be home!