I was mesmerized by the beautiful formations born of the interplay between ice, water and Earth in Canadian Rockies, that redefined Paradise for me. I kept wondering how can nature be so beautiful. It was like the combination of many stunning vistas (barring drylands) I had seen – colorful lakes, rivers, waterfalls, glaciers, mountains, flora and fauna. Though it took millions of years for glaciers to carve this grandeur, now everything looked like it co-existed peacefully. It was just Chaitanya and I who made this long weekend trip. I was carrying the free permit (due to Canada’s 150th anniversary year) which I had ordered months back. We drove for most of the trip, stayed in hostels and visited usual tourist spots. I booked hostels quite late and fortunately got the spots. I wasn’t able to book online and had to do all the bookings through call. He flew from Chicago on 06/30 and I arrived the next day morning due to a missed connecting flight.
Day 1 – Calgary to Jasper via Icefields Parkway
Chaitanya had shopped for food for the trip and he picked me up from the aiport in the morning. We visited a family in Calgary where we had tasty Rava-Idli and it was around 11:45 PM by the time we actually started our trip. I had booked a full sized car via Costco Travels and we got VW Passat from Alamo. It was a 2017 model and we really enjoyed the driving experience – smooth yet powerful. We were heading to the mountains and Chaitanya (who is from Midwest) was getting psyched at the view while I (from PNW) was still calm. We started making stops at lookout points and as we entered deep into the mountains along the Icefields Parkway, even I started getting psyched. Believe it or not – almost every sight we beheld looked beautiful like a postcard picture. We were dumb struck and kept taking in the abundant oncoming beauty. We drove through the valley beside colored lakes and rivers which were adorned with jagged peaks with glaciers swathing them. The best part was that all of this was visible right from the seat of the car and it kept on getting better. There was one very tiny pond with greenish yellow patches of growth which looked like the ponds in Yellowstone. There were cascades of waterfalls from the melting ice and at some places rivers almost rose till the roads. Just after telling Chaitanya that we got to see most of things we thought of except Bear, we saw people parked on the roadside to see a close-by bear. We stopped too and I was surprised to see a black bear which was only 10 feet away. Though it was hiding its face in the bushes for most of the time, we could catch some glimpses and I was scared whenever it made a move closer to us. Bear sighting was checked too. I could see many RVs and the huge parking lots and campsites allowed for a comfortable ride. We had late lunch at Saskatchewan River Crossing before reaching Columbia Icefield. We got the ultimate explorer pass which covered the Glacier adventure tour, Skywalk, Banff Gondola and Lake Cruise. Since it was already evening, we had time only for the glacier adventure tour and I got ready with layered clothing. The tour involved a short ride on a huge explorer truck on the glacier and we were allowed to walk around a bit. The scenes around was spectacular and we had a great time on the 100 m thick ice sheet. It was quite an experience with the truck too which navigated the slopes, creek and glacier. We visited Sunwapta falls where I co-incidentally met a former teammate. We took full advantage of the longer days – there was still light at 10 PM!! Athabasca falls was the last major stop for the day and the spots around it including a gorge were serene. The Sun’s golden rays shone on the mountain above the waterfalls which was spectacular.
This drive was one of the best I have ever had. Sometimes in shotgun seat I laid back and enjoyed the endless scenery. A convertible would not be a bad idea too. We drove to HI (Hosteling International)-Jasper and stayed for the night. I slept well in hostels all the nights since I was quite exhausted with the day. We skipped the fireworks in Jasper town for the Canada Day since it started around 11 PM.
Day 2 – Maligne Canyon, Lake and Icefields Parkway again
We started early and started with a short hike in the Maligne canyon. Day temperature averaged around 24 deg C and I wore shorts for rest of the trip. The first stretch had some deep canyons and it started getting shallower as we hiked further. It was very interesting to see water carving the walls of the canyon at various points. The hike was milestone-d with bridges and we made it up-to little further than 4th bridge before returning.
We were supposed to visit Yoho National Park according to the itinerary, but in the interest of time I decided to skip it and instead fully cover Maligne area. We drove to Maligne lake beside the burnt trees and bare steep mountains. Canoes and kayaks were available for rental and we chose Canoeing. I sat in the back and we started rowing. I was surprised at my efficiency and quickly recalled that it was possible due to my practices in Dragon Boating at Lake Union. We took it light and enjoyed the surrounding scenery. We stayed in the middle of the lake so that we got nice view of the mountains beside us. It was little difficult to keep the canoe in straight direction since we didn’t row in sync. We turned the canoe after 35 mins and this time we rowed near the shores on shallow waters. We returned to the dock after an hour and I had a slight ache in the back.
I wanted to try Maple Syrup in Canada, so chose to eat waffles at Jasper town. It wasn’t very sweet and couldn’t really make out the difference. Both, Jasper and Banff towns are Bavarian styled with mountains all around. We couldn’t make it to Mt. Edith Cavell since it required permits. We left for Glacier Skywalk – I had taken 10 AM time slot but reached there at 5:30 PM. We got onto the tour and a bus took us to skywalk. We spent more time on the walk to skywalk itself listening to the audio tour. Skywalk is a glass-floored observation platform 280 metres (918 ft) above the Sunwapta Valley and it was an ok experience with too many tourists. We then went to Peyto lake overlook which included a short hike. The lake with long valley looked nice and that was the last major spot for the day.
We then had dinner at Saskatchewan River Crossing and went to HI Rampart-Creek for the stay. This hostel was very wild in the sense that it had no showers or attached bathrooms, it was more like cabins. A guy who couldn’t visit Lake Moraine shared his experiences and I made a mental note to visit Lake Moraine early to avoid parking problems. I spent some time at the fire pit and retired to sleep.
Day 3 – Lake Moraine, Sentinel Pass hike and Lake Louise
We drove to HI Lake Louise early morning to freshen up. The HI people were nice enough to allow us and even handed us the towels. We got fresh soon and left for Lake Moriane. There was already a 1 km backup with roadside parking but we continued. Fortunately there were 2 spots open in the parking lot which the vehicle in front and we took. We were so happy with it and made the full use of it. We spent almost half the day at Lake Moraine itself. There wasn’t much crowd and we explored the areas around. The blue lake with pointed peaks in the background looked stunning. We picked one good spot and clicked numerous pics.
We realized only later that early morning is the best time to view the lake. The water is almost flat with no boats on the lake and the Sun doesn’t reflect the water. So the color of the lake is maintained. I then chose to hike and Chaitanya walked the shore trail instead. Hike was an amazing one and it deserves a separate post. We went to Lake Louise later which was extremely crowded. The lake was greenish in color with glacier on the one end and Lake Louis Chateau Hotel on the other. We spent some time roaming and sat eating an ice cream before leaving. We had dinner at an Indian restaurant in the Banff town and spent an hour at the Banff hot springs. We then drove to HI Canmore for the stay for the night. The hostel area had amazing view and the entire cabins can be booked for stay.
Day 4 – Banff Gondola, Lake Minnewanka and Sidney
We left again early morning for Gondola ride and we were in the car by 8:15 AM. The ride lasted for 8 mins covering 1 mile. It was quite impressive, especially we kept wondering about the gap between two pillars. We reached the observation deck and the view of the Banff town and surroundings was fantastic. We hiked to the top of Sulphur mountain which was basically a boardwalk. People started pouring in slowly and we were glad again that we made it early. We went to all the floors of observation deck and then returned with a couple in the Gondola car. The couple had made their hotel bookings 7 months back!! We then visited Cave Basin historical site which was the first National Park of Canada. It was a cave with hot springs in it and on the deck there were people enacting the 19th century life. The last attraction of the trip was the lake cruise on lake Minnewanka. It was an 1 hour informational tour. It was interesting to observe two different terrains on either side of the lake – one containing dense tress with no wildlife and other with sparse, green patches and wildlife. Thus we ended up doing many of the touristy stuff during the visit. But even till the very end, we kept gaping at the scenic beauty presented by mother nature. It was also fun talking so many things especially about mid life crisis with Chaitanya throughout.
A bear crossed the road two vehicles in front of us. Not sure if it was a grizzly or a black one. We drove back to Calgary and I took my flight to Victoria. Victoria, a town very near to US border near San Juan islands provided a nice ending to my long weekend trip. I stayed at a hotel at the area called Sidney. It was so close to the border that I could see Mt Baker and Olympic Mountains from the pier. It was also interesting to observe people catching crabs. I took the early morning flight to Seattle. I could see Mt Rainier from the train station and I was on the mountain making my final push to the summit exactly an year back.
Though it was Canada day holiday and US long weekend, the trip itself didn’t cause us any major delays and we were very fortunate to cover most of the places we had thought of. But I had trouble with both inbound and outbound flights. Considering the prices and timings, I had booked for 1 stop flights though it was only a 2.5 hour long direct flight from Seattle to Calgary. During the journey to Calgary, the flight from Seattle was delayed by 2 hours due to which around 20 of us missed the connecting flight. The airlines was nice enough to book stay at Sheraton and provide 32 CAD coupons for food. I didn’t mind this since the dinner was awesome, especially the Caramel, doughnut ice-cream dessert.
For the trip from Calgary to Seattle, I received the mail 2 weeks before the trip about the cancellation of connecting flight. I chose stay at Victoria and early morning flight while rebooking. I hadn’t kept alarm and I didn’t get wake up call too. The flight boarding time was at 4:35 AM and I got up at 4:20 AM. I got ready in 5 mins and reached airport by 4:45 AM. A funny incident happened at the airport. Since I was late, I decided to skip the line for security checkout and was asking people if I could join in. A lady said that they all were there for the 5:30 AM flight so was kind of hesitant to let me in. I went to the front of the line and asked people and a sweet lad let me in (even though the security guy asked me to get everyone’s permission). The boarding hadn’t started and I had ample of time. Now the funny part was my seat was next to the lady who was hesitant to let me in. I broke the ice by speaking to her casually.
All this was unnecessary and realized my mistake of saving few dollars. Usually the direct flights or better suited ones cost 50% or 100% more than the cheapest ones. If you go to compare just these flight prices, you might feel that you are paying a lot. But it doesn’t feel a lot if compared to the overall cost of the trip. So henceforth, I will try for direct flights which gives a peace of mind.
Places we visited in Order:
- Numerous stops on Icefield Parkway
- Athabasca Glacier
- Sunwapta Falls
- Athabasca Falls
- Maligne Canyon
- Lake Maligne
- Jasper town
- Peyto Lake Overlook
- Lake Moraine
- Sentinel Pass
- Lake Louise
- Banff Hot springs
- Banff Gondola
- Cave Basin historic site
- Lake Minnewanka
- Visit early to all the tourist spots. I mean 7-8 AM early. The lakes especially are beautiful in the early mornings.
- Keep drives and hikes for later part of the day.
- During the summer, daylight stays till 10 PM so make full use of it.
- Book stay early or try hostels. Surprisingly there are many hostels in both the national parks.
- Its quite warm in summer. So dress accordingly.
- Consider RV or convertible.