The Icefields Parkway, Turquoise Lakes, Bighorn Sheep . . .

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North America » Canada » Alberta
August 4th 2012
Published: February 27th 2013
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Sometimes the most beautiful places are waiting just next door as was the case for our summer visit to Alberta. After trips to Crete, Bulgaria, Turkey, Cambodia, and Thailand previously in the summer I found the greatest natural beauty with our Canadian neighbors in Alberta. Banff had been on my list of travel destinations for a long time and it did not disappoint. The real surprise though was Jasper. We fell in love with the area and plan to return as soon as possible.

We had just over a week as we landed in Calgary, rented a car, and headed for Banff after a quick visit to check out the University of Calgary. Banff itself is in a picturesque setting but the downtown is hopping and filled to the brim with shoppers. In general the area is not cheap for housing or food. We were lucky to find a basement room in a private house (Alpine B&B) in town just across the river from the downtown area. If sharing the sidewalk with hundreds of other tourists and shopping is your thing you will like to hang around the center of town. And, if not, there are still plenty of nice areas around town to explore as there are trails leading in all directions. I enjoyed getting in some runs along the river and also on the Fenland trail at the edge of town. Be aware though as bears can be found anywhere in or around town. I was lucky not to “run” into one in Banff (that came later in Jasper). Even if you are not staying there a visit out to the Fairmont Hotel is worth a quick detour and ‘walk around.’ It was interesting to compare the Fairmonts in Banff, at Lake Louise, and at Jasper.

From Banff we enjoyed driving out on Bow Valley Parkway at sunrise and sunset. On our first night we drove out just before sunset and got to see a bear roam around us for about 20 minutes and then a male bighorn sheep up close after that. We did the hike out to the Johnston Canyon Waterfall (approx. 30 min. from Banff). The trailhead begins off of the Bow Valley Parkway and is (unfortunately) mostly paved. The upper falls take about 40 minutes to reach and the roundtrip hike is 3.5 miles. The view of the upper falls is nice as are some of the overlooks on the river. While in Banff we also got up early one morning and drove back down through Canmore and onto the Spray Lakes road. We had read that it was a good place to spot bears. We did not see any bears but we did see a couple moose and the scenery was definitely worth the drive.

The drive up the Icefields Parkway is a trip highlight in and of itself. The views are outstanding all the way up to Jasper, the road is well-constructed, and the views are entirely void of any advertising so that you can focus on the scenery. I’ve driven on a lot of roads during my travels and this is definitely one of my favorites. The most popular attraction to the north of Banff is Lake Louise. We first stopped at Moraine Lake and the beauty here certainly doesn’t take a backseat to Lake Louise it’s more popular neighbor. This place might be less well-known but is stunning and the elevated views from the north end of the lake (near the parking lot) looking south will produce some of your best pictures from your trip! We also took the trail that runs along the edge of the lake as far south as we could and enjoyed the amazing views of the turquoise lake. Seeing these sorts of views was what I was most looking forward to on this trip. If you are going to Lake Louise you might keep in mind how busy it gets later in the morning and through the middle of the day. We circled a few times before we could find a parking spot and I started feeling like I was in Rocky Mountain Disneyland. We did the Plain of Six Glaciers hike (10.6 km roundtrip) which offers amazing views of Lake Louise and you seem to be so far away the iconic Fairmont hotel when you reach the tea house. After returning to the Fairmont hotel area I did a quick jaunt of to the Fairview Lookout for some nice views looking down over the Lake. The Moraine Lake/Lake Louise combo is a good diversion for the better part of a day.

We continued on from Lake Louise to Jasper. Along the way you will see amazing views. In particular Bow Lake is picturesque so be ready with your cameras. There were a few hikes recommended to us between Banff and Jasper but we weren’t able to take them all in. One that you should definitely not miss though is the Wilcox Pass hike (approximately 7 miles total;! You are treated to views of Wilcox Glacier from outstanding vantage points above the Icefields Parkway and you also hike in to impressive views opposite the glacier. We were excited to see a number of bighorn sheep at close range in the middle of the hike and got some great pictures. Also, a good stop about ½ hour south of Jasper is Athabasca Falls. The Falls themselves are very impressive and there is a good walk down below on the Athabasca River.

We absolutely loved Jasper! In my mind Jasper is a huge step up from Banff. I liked the feel of the town much more. There was a nice small town feel and the number of outdoor options available to you there are endless. And it starts right in town where you see elk grazing and bears regularly cited on the outskirts. Moreover, you really do feel like you are away from it all here. And this even includes when going to the grocery store and seeing cartons of Breyers ice cream for $9! Also, see the pic below of the t-shirts for sale at Jasper Pizza - $39! The best deal in town for food is probably the Whistle Stop where you can get a good burger for $5.75. The Bear’s Paw Bakery is also a nice place to go for your morning beverages and your fill of muffins or rolls. However, we didn’t venture out too much for food other than the burgers and pizza (ok pizza at Jasper Pizza) so there may be many other nice restaurants. What really made our stay in Jasper exceptional was the hospitality of Sherrill and Doug at their Seldom Inn. They are both Parks Canada employees who know the area inside and out and have great stories to tell. We had a great time watching the Olympics with them, talking for hours, and also getting some music going one night. They were extremely helpful at suggesting itineraries and we were not disappointed with any of the day trips they sent us on. They are wonderful hosts – if you are going to Jasper look them up:

Trail running around Jasper was incredible. Trails #2, 6, and 8 just on the west and north/northwest side of town are great to run (for maps and info of Jasper Park: Be vigilant though as I saw a black bear near the Cottonwood Slough one day and headed back in the direction from which I came. The area is also home to wolves and you will see a number of warning sign indicating this. Sherrill explained multiple incidences of people having their unleashed dogs attacked (and never seen again) on the trail. The views looking down into town from trail #2a on the north are really nice and worth a hike even if you don’t run. Also, the area out around Patricia Lake and Pyramid Lake are beautiful. You can kayak around Pyramid if you want. While in Jasper you should also go check out the amazing views after climbing up Old Fort Point and check out the Fairmont Lodge too. The Lodge setting on Lake Beauvert is very nice.

There are a number of great day trips around Jasper than will keep you occupied for a while. We would highly recommend both the Mount Edith Cavell hike and the Bald Hills Trail around Maligne Lake. The Edith Cavell Meadows hike (approx. 8km) will give you outstanding views of the Cavell Glacier both at water level on the Cavell Pond and from on high at the apex of your hike. I would recommend spending some time down at the Cavell Pond under the Glacier and also doing the full loop at the top of the Meadows Trail. If you are lucky enough to be there on a sunny day you will be treated to amazing views. Also, the marmots at the top of the meadow are quite entertaining. And keep watch for the little pika (rock rabbits) in the boulder piles as towards the beginning of the climb on your way up the trail. Maligne Lake is about an hour southwest of Jasper and is home to the well-photographed Spirit Island. We didn’t take the boat tour out to the Island but opted for the Bald Hills (approx. 10k; hike instead. It’s difficult to estimate the distance on this hike because there are a number of options of walking along the mountain ridges once you get up in elevation. The first part of the hike is mostly just along a fireroad and then you turn and go through the trees. The payoff starts after coming out of the trees and you begin to climb to the ridgeline. I would say that this is one of those hikes that you do for the views in the middle rather than all along the way. But your ability to walk the ridgelines with the great views of Maligne Lake make the hike well worth doing. Another ‘must do’ hike just outside of Jasper is the Valley of the Five Lakes (approx. 4km roundtrip) to see the five stunning turquoise lakes one after another. This is a relatively short hike that can be done in a couple hours and will not disappoint (as I sit here now and look at my 16x20 picture of one of the five lakes on the wall of my office). Finally, we also took a quick look at Maligne Canyon on the northeast side of Jasper and we weren’t as impressed. Admittedly, we didn’t do the entire walk through the canyon so I can’t give much feedback.

Overall, it was a great trip to Alberta and I am looking forward to returning. The views, the air, the nature – it’s difficult not like.

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