USA and Canada Days 14-17

Day 14

Another day with an alarm set for around 6am. Most people probably want to relax a bit but there’s so much to do. We packed up at Patricia Lake and oddly took our first real look at the lake which was very pretty. We drove over to Pyramid lake (also pretty) before heading into town to grab some packed lunch and head out onto the epic Icefields parkway. Until this day I did not know that an icefield is an area that creates glaciers. There are many glaciers along the icefields parkway and many of them can be seen from the road.

We had a lot to do and a nebulous dinner reservation at our stop for the night, so we tried to keep up a decent pace. First up we decided to (abruptly) stop at horseshoe lake, a pretty little spot with nobody around aside from one young guy who looked like he’d spent the night in his hammock. Then we stopped at Athabasca falls which was already quite busy but well worth a look. Not too far away was Sunwapta falls which was not as big but also very pretty. The drive itself through this region is hard to describe and do it justice. There are incredible mountains of different shapes and types all over the place. You pass waterfalls and glaciers. I can’t quite believe that I didn’t know that this was here until I started doing the trip research. As far as landscapes go, this probably just became my favourite amongst those that I’ve visited.

We stopped at Beauty Creek which had been recommended in my guide book for being off the tourist trail but very beautiful. We followed some very specific instructions to an unmarked parking space for a handful of cars just off the parkway, ate some lunch and then went for a “short” hike. My book said it was an easy 1 hour round trip. My mistake was not reading until the end of the description. The creek contains Stanley falls, a series of lovely waterfalls, and no tourists there to get in the way. We met 2 other groups on the trail and that was it. Our easy walk became a longer and steeper hike as we ended up walking right to the top of the falls, easily taking an hour just getting there. The trail isn’t marked but I could always hear more waterfall around the next corner and stuck with it. I don’t think many people will actually keep going to the top (those we saw didn’t), but it was very rewarding and one of the more memorable little bits of the trip. There were a few vertigo inducing moments for me and because it was “easy” we hadn’t taken walking poles or much else with us, but that only served to make it a little more rewarding.

After the creek we headed on down the road to the Columbia Icefield. We had to wait in a short but incredibly slow line but then got tickets to ride out onto the Athabasca glacier in a big truck and walk around on top of the glacier. They only get to run these tours because they were doing it so long ago it was before the laws came in and they put a lot of work into keeping it environmentally friendly. Due to the glacier naturally receding, this will only be possible here for another 50 years or so. Then the glacier will be gone and a lake will form at the base of it. It’s very cool to see the lakes, moraines, waterfalls and glaciers in various stages and see how everything changes very slowly over time. The views around the glacier were spectacular, which was saying something given what we’d been seeing all day.

We then headed on towards Field, only stopping at Peyto lake. This involved a pretty quick hill climb before coming to a really nice viewpoint looking out over the lake. We spent the night at Cathedral Mountain Lodge in the Yoho National Park, staying inside a log cabin. It was a pretty fun experience but for just one night we didn’t get too many benefits of being at such a place. It did give us the opportunity to get into the Yoho park though. We met one couple near Beauty Creek who had done the parkway drive on 2 consecutive days because on the day before it had been so cloudy here that they couldn’t see any of the mountains. We only had the one day to do it but had such a beautiful day that we really did consider ourselves very lucky.

Day 15

The lodge in Yoho provided us with a very memorable dinner and pretty tasty breakfast. The dinner was on the classy and expensive end, but well worth it. Easily top 3 for the trip. We got up super early to check out and then make our way to the main sights in Yoho park. These were Takkakaw falls and Emerald Lake. Very few people were at the falls at 8am which made it pretty fun. They’re the 2nd tallest in Canada and were well worth the trip up the road and some pretty tight roads. Emerald Lake was a lovely little lake further into Yoho and it was very tempting to stay for more than just a brief walk but we had more lakes on the agenda.

We hopped into the car and headed on towards the town of Lake Louise. We were trying to get to Moraine Lake for 11am to beat the crowds and see it in nice light but the road was closed due to too many visitors so we went to see Lake Louise instead. This lake has a grand Fairmont hotel right at one end and is all over the postcards in the region. I remember after I had my gallbladder out that I looked into holidays and Canada before settling on Japan. I saw the photos of Lake Louise and I wanted to stay at that Fairmont. In the end we didn’t, because of the cost and the touristy nature of the lake.. but it was part of the inspiration to come. We got lucky with a parking space here and it really was tourist central. Not all that fun where the path from the coaches met the lake, but not so bad a little further round. We grabbed some early lunch and then rented a canoe to do a trip up and down the lake. The wind made getting all the way to the end of the lake and back in the allotted time a bit of a challenge, but I was determined. I had a great time, Claire just wanted to rest for a few weeks afterwards!

We then headed up to the Lake Louise Gondola which was on the other side of town and which gives a really nice view across the valley and to the lake with hotel. We got to ride up and down on the open air chair lift and enjoy the sunshine. Afterwards we hopped on the road to Banff and found that we’d left the best scenery behind. Banff does have some nice mountains though, the parkway just can’t compete with north of Lake Louise.

Day 16

We’d been told that we’d need to get to Moraine lake very early to park up and avoid any blocked roads, so we got there for not too much after 8am. We had breakfast in the lodge and then walked up and down the lakeside before renting another canoe. This time there wasn’t much wind and we had a more sedate paddle. The weather started out very cloudy but picked up quite nicely by the time we were on the lake. We then walked up the rocks at one end of the lake for a good couple of viewpoints before heading off.

The lakes here are so famous because of their incredible colour. Glaciers grind up rocks into a fine powder and that ends up in the rivers and lakes. Due to the concentration of minerals in the powder it creates the special effect when the light hits the water. It’s hard to say which of the lakes was my favourite but they were all gorgeous. Spending an hour canoeing across one of them is a very nice way to relax.

We stopped off at Johnston Canyon one the way back to Banff and walked to the lower falls. This was again packed out with tourists and whilst it was pretty, it was incomparable to Beauty Creek. Back in Banff things got pretty cold for the evening as the storm was rolling in and even though we brought appropriate clothing, we didn’t wear quite enough even then. After over 2 weeks of sunshine and hot summer it can be easy to forget how quickly the temperature can change in the mountains.

Day 17

After repeatedly expecting bad weather in the mountains we finally had a day with it really pissing it down. On top of this it was well under 10 degrees at best when most other days of the trip had been in the high 20s. This was also the first day where the alarm was turned off and we weren’t getting up around 6am. We got up late for a very tasty brunch in town and then headed up to Banff hot springs in the early afternoon. Apparently everyone else in town had the same idea and we had to queue for a little while before entering a pretty packed pool. Luckily a bunch of people left fairly quickly and then we didn’t feel so much like sheep. The hot water was nice but after Japan it seems like everything else is a warm spring. As insanely stupid and punishing as the ones in Japan were, I feel like they’ve ruined other hot springs for me now. Unless I’m actually cooking myself and regretting any kind of movement which wakes up my nervous system then it’s just not going to be so fun.

Afterwards we grabbed some dinner and did a little walk to the falls just outside of town on the Bow River as the weather had just started to clear up. We were lucky enough to see a deer next the path too. There were some pretty gorgeous views through town on the way back at little bits of mountain revealed through gaps in the cloud.

The only things we didn’t get to do in Banff were the gondola and a look at Lake Minnewanka. We’ve not been short on either lakes or gondolas so it’s no big loss, but neither would have been good at all in the weather today. Maybe we’ll sneak one of them in tomorrow on the way to Calgary for our very late flight home. Maybe I’ll just spend all day in the knife shop ;).