Sunday, July 24, 2022

7/16 - 7/24 Exploring Banff and Jasper National Park

Nina and I have always wanted to go to Banff, Canada to check out Lake Louise. This started by us sending each other photos or videos on Instagram from other people who had been there. Then, my parents wanted to take us on a trip to celebrate me completing my Master's Degree and they asked where we wanted to go. We tossed around the ideas of Europe or even Africa but with the world still recovering from Covid and having little travel days, we decided to head up across the border to Canada. My parents had been to Canada, although not this area, before but myself and Nina both haven't so we thought, wow! What a great time to check out Lake Louise! So the four of us agreed and my mom, with the help of google, a few books on the subject and friends in connected places, put together an eight day trip for us. 

The plan was for them to fly to Vegas a few days prior, then the four of us all fly to Calgary, rent a car, spend the first four days staying at a Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO) in the nearby town of Canmore while visiting Banff National Park during the day. Then, days five and six at Jasper Park Lodge in Jasper Park. After that, days seven and eight at Lake Louise staying at the Post Hotel. Finally, driving back to Calgary on the eighth evening for a flight out on the morning of our ninth day. It was definitely an ambitious itinerary but we had some scheduled downtime to recover between events and we had many different places to see. So, as they say, when in Canada! 

Banff National Park
Day 1 - Saturday
The morning of our flight out finally arrived. Thankfully, my sister-in-law Aileen had taken a little break from work and decided to spend the month living with us. This was helpful in two big ways - 1. She can take care of Winston while we are gone. 2. She can drive us to the airport! And she did. We left the house with plenty of time since we are flying internationally and arrived in Calgary after a short flight around lunch time. Customs in Canada was a breeze and we quickly scooped up our bags and headed for the rental car agency. We had concerns about all of our bags fitting in a small rental car but since Calgary was hosting a big event, the rental car agency was too busy to spend more than a few seconds with each customer and just threw us a set of keys when we approached. The guy didn't even care that the car he gave us was an upgrade from what we had already paid but the bigger vehicle fit all our bags so off we went. 

Calgary wasn't much different than the Mid West. Plenty of trees, gently sloping hills and a good amount of farm land. However, as we headed the 100 kilometers west, we were engulfed in mountains. And I mean big mountains. When we approached our VRBO, the view across the street were three mountain peaks called the Three Sisters. Each peak was right next to each other and around 9,000 feet tall. It was a nice reminder that we weren't in Kansas anymore.

Once we settled in, Nina and I unpacked while my parents broke out the binoculars. As they are avid bird watchers, this came as no surprise since they were hoping to spot something good among the trees and mountains. It didn't take long for them to call us over that they had spotted an owl on the roofline looking for small rodents. I thought it a little unusual to spot an owl during the day but it was pretty far away so I wasn't able to get a good look at it. After the owl sighting, we went to the local grocery store and stocked up on food and drinks. We also had to pick up a can of bear spray since it was berry season meaning bears would be in the area. It was such a threat that it was mandatory for many hiking trails in the area. The nice part about staying in our VRBO is that we had a full kitchen so able to make food for ourselves! 

Turns out when we got back from the grocery store that SURPRISE SURPRISE the owl hadn't moved! Finally, I decided to look through the binoculars and quickly identified that although it was an owl, it wasn't real. Huge disappointment for Mom and Pa. 

Day 2 – Sunday
Day 2 was our first full day in Canada and we had a big day planned! The plan was to drive to Lake Minnewanka via the scenic drive, sail on a 90 min guided cruise then hike the nearby Johnson Lake. Since we weren't sure if there were lunch options out by the lakes, we hit up a local sandwich spot called The Black Dog Cafe for a sacked lunch. 

The Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive was very scenic but actually turned out to be the only road to get to the lake so we would have had to take that road anyways. Once we arrived at the lake, we realized how big it was! It was 21 kilometers wide and reached depths in excess of 400 feet. It was also my first time experiencing a glacier lake meaning that the lake is fed by glacier melt runoff rather than being fed by a river like normal lakes. This glacier runoff combines with a flower called the Rock Flower to give the glacier lakes their beautiful turquoise color! Additionally, glacier lakes maintain the same cold 40 degree temperature in the summer rather than heating up like a traditional lake would.

Once we got on the boat, we started to sail towards the other end of the lake. The tour guide company was the only company allowed to have permits on the lake so it meant that the lake was not very crowded which was nice! At the halfway point of the tour, the boat captain stopped the boat and turned off the engines to led us in a moment of silence. It was pretty cool hearing the natural sounds of Canada and the waves hitting the side of the boat. After that, they passed out Pine Needle Tea that was authentic from the area from when the first settlers came into the region. I wasn't a huge fan but Mom and Dad seemed to like it! The guide also gave us a little history of the area which was cool. They talked about how the first people in the region were the Stoney Nakoda and they're the ones who named it Lake Minnewanka meaning Water of the Spirits. After our tea and moment of silence, we started heading back. The guide taught us how to say a few words in the native Stoney Nakoda language but I forgot them. I probably wasn't saying it correctly anyways. 

After our boat cruise, we headed to Johnson Lake for lunch and a post lunch hike. Johnson lake is not a glacier fed lake so it was much warmer making it the local swimming hole. It was packed! Thankfully, we were able to find a picnic bench on the far side of the lake and had our sandwiches from the Black Dog Cafe that morning. After lunch, we headed out for our hike. The trail started as a walk through the forest then broke out into views of the lake. 

Although the hike was short at around 2 miles, it got us away from the crowds so we could enjoy the lake in a more peaceful setting. We tried to mimic our moment of silence from earlier but weren't quite able to get away from other people enough to make it happen. Once we finished, we got back in the car, headed back down the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive and into the actual town of Banff for the first time. 
The town of Banff put on a show for us! The second we were within city limits, we spotted our first wildlife. Two big ole mule deer! We, of course being the tourists that we are, had to pull over to take a photo. While we were taking some photos, two teenagers on bikes cruised right by the two big boys without even looking at them. That goes to show how common it is up there to see wildlife like that. 

After we got some photos, we headed into town, parked and stopped for dinner at a highly reviewed local place called The Grizzly House. This restaurant was known for doing a cheese baked fondue which I am all about. We took outdoor seating which was a bit risky given the overcast cloud layer and ordered up plenty of meats to cook in our fondue. It started raining not long after but we had enough space to scoot under the awning.

After dinner (and a few drinks), we checked out the local town a bit to do a little shopping before headed back the short drive to Canmore back to our VRBO. Similar to the night before, the sun sets so late that we all went to bed with the sun still coming through the windows. 

Day 3 – Monday
Monday was my favorite day of the trip. We headed to this place about 30 minutes away called Sunshine Village Ski Resort. The road was so remote and scarcely traveled that I cross-referenced Google Maps and my off-roading app Gaia more than once to ensure we were on the correct road. Once we arrived, we jumped on the miles long gondola that took us to the top of the mountain where the actual village was. Since this was a ski town, it was quiet during the summer. The village was cool since they had employees that were called trail guides that hiked the trails everyday and were available to talk with you. They even asked for our plan before we headed out so I felt like someone was at least partially aware of where we were headed. It also never hurts to get the local intel from the boots on the ground! 

Once we had our plan, we took a ski lift even higher to the start of the backcountry area. Nina said this was her first ski lift so she was a little nervous but she handled it like a pro. We got off the lift around 8,000 feet so pretty high up!

Once we landed, we took in the views and started our hike. Unbeknownst to us at the time but we had crossed into the province of British Columbia during our ski lift and were officially in the "back country". I loved it! We barely saw anyone else, the trails were well marked, and we were truly out there with nothing but mountain ranges ahead of us. We took our time going up and down the hills taking in all the views and the fresh air. During one point of the hike, we traversed to a lake and followed a scurry of chipmunks to and fro. During a later point, we took a small wooden bridge over a creek and again stopped for a moment of silence to take in the natural sounds of the babbling brook. Very surreal! 

The last part of the hike was along a snowmobiling route and was downhill. It was a nice break to head down instead of up for a change. The weather had been perfect that day but the clouds were starting to fill in as we started our descent. Thankfully, the village was just ahead so we kept up the speed. And good thing we did because no sooner had we gotten inside the pub did it start raining. Again, in true Sunshine Village fashion, we had the whole restaurant to ourselves and had a nice lunch. However, the rain quickly turned to thunderstorms with lightning and we heard over the bartender's push-to-talk radio that the ski lift and gondola were shutting down for safety. But, no need to fear, they had a school bus that would take us down. I had my doubts that the school bus would be a good alternative since on the way up on the ski lift, I noted that the only road was a winding, sloped dirt road. Not a great place to take a school bus off roading in a storm. Thankfully, once we piled on, the driver really knew what he was doing and was utilizing engine braking to prevent the whole ride from being miserable. Overall, I was impressed. The only bummer of the day was that there was no significant wildlife sighting. Maybe tomorrow! 

Day 4 – Tuesday   
Tuesday was our last full day in Canmore and Banff but Mother dearest had a full day ahead of us! We took the Banff Gondola up to the top of Sulphur Mountain overlooking Banff. Unlike Sunshine Village the day prior, the secret was out about taking gondolas up instead of hiking as this entire area was crowded. Thankfully, we had a reservation so we made our way over to the lower terminal a few minutes early to assure we would get parking. It was a struggle to park so we were glad we got there early. 

The Gondola took us up about 2,500 feet. There was a 10km (or 6.2 miles for us American types) hiking trail you could do instead but we were glad to be on the gondola. Once we arrived at the top, they had an entire historical museum, restaurant and gift shop. The real reason for the development on top of the mountain is that it provided transportation to a weather station that overlooked the valley. The weather station was located close by but had hundreds of stairs to get there. Mom, Pa and Nina elected to stay back but I wanted to see it. The weather station was uniquely placed, although not on the tallest peak, it had vantages to the western side of the nearby mountain range along with views of Banff. So, unlike any other peak out there, that station would allow viewers to be able to see the weather systems developing and headed towards Banff. Although the weather station was boarded up, I'm glad I made the trek.

When I got back, I found that the rest of the gang had taken the stairs to the top floor, found a cozy outdoor fireplace to curl up by and decided to take a little snooze. Once nap time was over, we headed back a floor for our lunch reservation at this buffet called the Northern Lights Mountaintop Restaurant. The restaurant was a full 360 view of the surrounding area and had excellent food. They even had a prime rib station that I may have gone back to a few times. After our lunch, Pa wanted to check out the 10 min video about the history of the area so we took a load off and got our history on, very interesting! 
Post video, it was time to head back down for our download time so we hopped in the long line and awaited our gondola. Once we were back at ground level, we spent a little time exploring the city of Banff since this was our last chance to see it before we left the following morning. We finished up the rest of our food in our VRBO and packed up ready to depart in the AM.

Jasper National Park
Day 5 – Wednesday
We got up early to check out a short 0.5 mile hiking trail by the VRBO that gave a great view of the Three Sisters mountains. The trail followed a creek bed which was nice to look at but was the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos. So, we decided not to stay long. But despite the bugs, it gave us a great view of the Bow River with the Three Sisters in the background. I'm a sucker for mountains reflected in still water so that made it very worth it! 

After we checked out of our place, the plan was to drive northwest from Canmore to Jasper on Highway 93 also called the Icefields Parkway as it takes you by the Athabasca glacier and others. Many travel guides rank this drive as one of the best in the world and I can see why. The entire drive had no cell phone service (which I firmly believe the best places are where there's no cell phone service) and winded through the Canadian Rockies while following the Bow and later the Athabasca river. Since the Athabasca river was fed by the Athabasca glacier, it had the same turquoise color we were becoming accustomed to seeing. Our rental car had a full sun roof so we lowered that in the hopes of seeing wildlife. Although we spotted multiple water falls, there was still no bear or moose sighting. 

191 kilometers later, we pulled off highway 93 into the Colombia Icefields Adventure and Tour. This was the first building we've seen since we departed Canmore and it was home to the world's largest ice trucks that took visitors out onto the Athabasca Glacier to give people like us a chance to walk on the glacier and even drink some of the fresh glacier melt. I, of course, was very impressed with the big 6x6 trucks and was ready to see them in action! 

Once out on the glacier, the ice was a wee bit slippery. Although with careful footing, none of us fell down. Pa decided to take a drink of the fresh glacier melt and was pleasantly surprised. The water temperature was just over 32 degrees and tasted very good. It wasn't until later that we learned that the Rock Flower in the water that gives the lakes the pleasant color is also a bit of a laxative. I don't think Pa was affected too badly though! The tour guide told us that the glacier is 980 feet thick but melting at an average rate of 16 feet a year. 

After our expedition out on the ice, the next stop was the Columbia Icefield Skywalk. This skywalk was only a few short minutes away from the glacier and across a stretch of road that the locals call 'the shooting gallery'. It's called this because the mountains high up above the road freeze and thaw at such a rate that causes massive boulders to break off suddenly and come shooting all around the road and surrounding area. It was eerie to see the big rocks in the middle of empty fields and more eerie to see dents in the road where boulders have gone skipping across. 

After surviving the shooting gallery, we arrived at the skywalk. This skywalk is hundreds of feet in the air and the sign said that each square inch of glass could support 1,000 pounds. Good thing I'm not that fat! I like the idea of sky walks after visiting the one on top of the Sears Tower but this one was quite different as it extended us off a cliff wall overlooking the river. Even mom and Nina who I thought wouldn't make the step off of solid ground dared to come out and join us if only for a brief moment. My favorite part about the skywalk, in addition to the views, was how the skywalk swayed in the wind. Apparently, this valley gets winds in excess of 100 miles per hour so the skywalk had to be designed with some resistance in it. Crazy! 

After our walk on the skywalk, we headed back up Highway 93 towards Jasper to check into our new home for the next few days at the Jasper Park Lodge. Although we had a few issues at check-in, we sorted them out and scored a room upgrade and free vouchers for the canoeing on the lake! The resort was right on two lakes with a large pool, plenty of cabins and even a golf course. How nice! We settled in and called it a night with big plans for an early morning. 

Day 6 – Thursday
Day 6 and our first day at Jasper started early since mother had arranged a 6:45 AM pick up for a photography tour by van in the local area. It was only three families on the short bus so we had a private audience with our tour guide who had been a local in the area for over 30 years. While on the tour, we finally found our first and only bear! Although it was only a 2 or 3 year old, it was exciting nonetheless. We didn't get off the bus to get a closer look though, even a young bear would still do some damage. 

After our bear sighting, we continued the tour with a viewing of nearby Pyramid Mountain. Apparently, there's a hiking/biking trail that takes you to the summit that our guide had done in his youth. Next stop was Pyramid Island which is a small island on Pyramid lake in the shadow of Pyramid Mountain. Not real original with their naming conventions...

The best part of Pyramid Island is that meant it was lunch time! Our tour guide packed us a muffin and coffee snack break and we enjoyed it while on the picnic table in the middle of the island. He spent a few minutes pointing out a few of the landmarks in the area as we stuffed our face with muffins. He mentioned that this is a very popular place in winter to star gaze and it's not uncommon to see many photographers with lenses taking photos at 2AM.

After our photography tour, our guide dropped us back off at the lodge and we decided to grab our oars and use up our canoe vouchers. Thankfully, the marina was on the property and had openings. We cruised around for an hour and had a great time out on the very calm lake. 

After our canoeing and a short nap from our early wake up, we headed out to catch a 4:15 reservation on the Maligne Lake Boat Cruise. Once we got on the boat with our tour guide, they explained that the lake was named back in 1907 by the first non-Native American explorer to make it to the lake - Mary Schaffer. The only reason she was able to get to the lake back in the day was from a hand drawn map from the chief of the Native American tribes. The lake is longer than it is wide and is best known for the uninhabited, and smaller than I thought it'd be, Spirit Island. This island is where the local Native American tribes would go to have ceremonies. Those ceremonies still occur today and there are numerous first hand accounts of these events. 

Once at the island, we docked the boat at a small pier they have there and were able to explore maybe only a couple hundred yards of trail in the area. Part of that was a short climb to give a higher vantage point of the area. The long valley behind Spirit Island was called the Halls of the gods and has no trail, road or town. With the exception of the pier, there were no other man made structures or impacts within eyeline. Awesome! 

After the rest of our boat cruise, we headed back for an Italian dinner back at our lodge overlooking the lake just taking in the sights. This would be our last night at the Jasper Park Lodge and we wanted to enjoy it before we departed for Lake Louise the next day. 

Lake Louise
Day 7 – Friday
On the morning of day 7, we checked out of the Jasper Park Lodge headed to the Jasper SkyTram not far away. This would be the last gondola/SkyTram of our trip and this tram was built differently than all the others. Rather than having multiple cars going to and from, this tram had one of either side that was attached directly to the other so the force of one descended provided most of the lifting mechanism for the one ascending. This meant for us that trams only departed every 15 minutes. Perfect time to get a little local Canada ice cream! Don't mind if I do.

Despite spilling my ice cream in the tram, we climbed up to the 8,000 foot high station which was the base of the Whistler's summit hiking trail. Mom and Pa wanted to take in the views so Nina and I headed up the trail. This trail was quite the uphill climb. We didn't make it very far nor did we make it very fast but it had great views of the town of Banff and the surrounding area. 

After hitting the gift shop, we headed back down and departed the city of Banff for the Lake Louise area. The drive was about 150 miles south but we stopped half way to check out the Athabasca Falls. This waterfall was created by the Athabasca River which was fed by the Athabasca Glacier melt. Again, very creative with their names. These falls were interesting in that the fast water pressure actually created little pockets or ravines in the rock we were standing on. This caused the river to change location over time and we could see old pockets where the water used to flow but doesn't anymore. Make you wonder where the falls will be in a few decades! 
Once we got to the Lake Louise area, we checked into our Post Hotel. This is the highest rated hotel in the area because it's right on the Bow River making for supposedly excellent moose sighting potential. We didn't see one....but that doesn't mean we didn't look! 

Once settled in, we checked out the local pub called the Outpost Pub for dinner. It was clear that this was the place to be in winter and I'm sure it would be poppin'. There was a whole party of backpackers just finishing a long trip throwing back some beers happy to be back in civilization. My kind of spot. Once we finished dinner, we did a brief walk by the river, hit the shops across the way then turned in excited to finally see Lake Louise, the inspiration for our trip, the next day. 

Day 8 – Saturday
Today was the most looked forward to day of the trip. We learned from the locals that you can't really drive to Lake Moraine or Lake Louise due to the heavy traffic and small parking lots but you can get a shuttle reservation to take a bus to, from and in between the lakes so we did that. We decided to visit Lake Moraine first and hoped on the bus and rolled up to the lake 30 minutes later. Good thing we took the shuttle because there was no parking and it would have been a big time waste to even try and drive. 

Lake Moraine was packed but even the crowds couldn't take away from the color of the water and the views of the mountains. This is thought of as the best lake in Banff and I believe it! We started the area by doing the Rock Pile trail. This is a short but steep climb on, believe it or not, a big pile of rocks overlooking the area. Again, it was crowded but great views! 

Once we climbed down, we decided to get away from the crowds and do the lakeview hike that took us down one side of the lake. The first couple hundred meters were busy but after that, we had our own space to admire the trees, mountains and lake. At the end of the hike, there was another trail that required mountain climbing, bouldering and glacier travel up to the Neil Colgan Cabin. I don't know much about mountain climbing but it sounds like something to add to the bucket list! 

After Moraine Lake, it was time to finally check out the world famous Lake Louise. However, Canada had other plans. Due to a freak accident, I inadvertently sprayed myself in the eyes and face with the bear spray while still on the bus. Long story short is that it was a very rough 45 minutes, the paramedics were called. I pulled through with the heroic help of Nina, Mom and Dad. They all acted quickly and courageously to get me the help I needed since the ambulance was 45 minutes away. I owe all three of them a big thank you! Unfortunately, this ended our visit at Lake Louise but Mother and Nina were able to get a glimpse of the lake. But at least I got a woman's small hat? I guess it means we have to go back! 

After we got back to the hotel, we packed everything up for the last time and headed back to Calgary to catch our early morning flight. It was the opposite of our initial drive out, the views only got worse as we got closer to civilization. We had our last dinner in Canada at the hotel bar but, as bad as it sounds, we toasted to a great trip, better company, and the fact that my eyes still worked. 
Day 9 – Sunday
Our last day in Canada wasn't very eventful. We gassed up the car, checked our bags, got a decent brunch at the airport lounge, then said 'see ya later' to Mom and Pa as they got on their flight first. Nina and I departed about an hour later. Everyone got home safe.

Big thanks to Mom and Dad for putting this trip together and making it amazing in every aspect. Every tour, every resort and every detail was planned out perfectly to create such a great trip with lasting memories. Thank you both and we love you very much. We can't wait for the next one!