Touring The Canadian Rockies

July 17, 2012

in Travel Canada

  • SumoMe

(Tales Told From The Road” continues its series of “Travel Canada” stories highlighting destinations and attractions from sea-to-sea. In our last story, Reaching Canada’s Rocky Mountain Parks,” we told you how to get to the national parks in the Canadian Rockies. Today we show you what you can see and do, and where you can stay in and near those parks.)

Jasper National Park

Jasper Bighorn SheepJasper National Park is home to many large mammals including the rare woodland caribou, grizzly and black bears, grey wolf, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. Over 100 species of birds either breed in the park or spend part of the year there.

This huge park was established in 1907 and is over 4,300 square miles in size, almost 1,000 square miles larger than Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. Along with Banff, Kootenay, and Yoho national parks, and the B.C. provincial parks of Hamber, Mt. Assiniboine and Mt. Robson, Jasper received UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1984.

The population of Jasper is approximately 5,000, but on a busy summer day there can be nearly 20,000 people in the townsite area. About 2 millions visitors come to the Jasper National Park each year.

What to See and Do

The main features of the park include:Family at Columbia Icefields

  • The Columbia Icefield whose meltwaters flow to the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans.
  • The Continental Divide which splits North America into east and west, and marks the boundary between Alberta and British Columbia.
  • The Athabasca River and its tributaries.
  • Miette Hot Springs, the hottest springs in the Canadian Rockies.
  • The ruins of Pocahontas, once an active coal-mining town.
  • The Jasper Lake Sand Dunes, east of Jasper.

Where to Stay

Jasper Park LodgeThe Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is the classy, classic place to stay in Jasper. It was built in the 1920’s after the Canadian National Railways took over the original “Tent City” of “upscale” tent cabins.

Today it is a four-season, four star destination resort with 390 rooms in the main building, 56 adjacent cedar cabins, boutiques, a sports lounge, dining facilities, heated pool, tennis courts, and a golf course.

But there are bungalows, cabins, and hotels in all price ranges available elsewhere in the Jasper area. And for those who wish to be as close to nature as possible, there’s always camping.  The Tourism Jasper and Jasper National Park of Canada Websites can provide more information on where you can bunk.

Banff National Park

5.0.2In 1883, two years before the completion of Canada’s first transcontinental railroad, three railroad workers stumbled upon a series of hot springs on the lower shoulder of what is now called Sulphur Mountain. By 1885, after a heated ownership dispute, the springs and surrounding area were set aside as Canada’s first national park. The Canadian Pacific Railway immediately recognized the tourism potential of the Canadian Rockies. In 1888, under the direction of William Cornelius Van Horne, they opened the elegant 250 room Banff Springs Hotel.

The Town of Banff was always intended to be a tourist town. In fact, when George Stewart, the park’s first superintendent, was planning the town, he oriented Banff Avenue so that it would have the best possible view of Cascade Mountain. It has a permanent population of about 8,300. which increases during the summer tourist season.

At 4,537 feet, the Town of Banff is the highest town in Canada. The Lake Louise village is the highest community at 5,033 feet

Banff National Park sees 4 million visitors each year. The peak season is July and August. If you come in winter you have three ski resorts to chose from: Mt. Norquay, The Lake Louise Ski Area and Sunshine Village.

Many movies have been filmed in Banff National Park, including the 1954 film “River of No Return,” starring Marilyn Monroe.

The park has over 2,500 square miles of protected wilderness areas.  Like Jasper, Banff has its share of wild critters including grizzly and black bears, moose, wolf, and big horn sheep.

What to See and Do

canoe_lake_louise_Zizka_2hHere are a few of the many activities you can pursue in Banff National Park:

  • Rent a canoe and paddle on the Bow River right from the Town of Banff, or on Lake Louise or Moraine Lake.
  • Attend jazz, blues and other musical performances in the cabaret-style theatre at the Banff Centre where admission is usually on a “pay what you can” basis.
  • Enjoy a picnic outside with views of the surrounding peaks at Two Jack Lake, on the “Green Spot” up the Mount Norquay Road, or in Banff’s Central Park.
  • Hike or ride on horseback to the Lake Agnes Teahouse or Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, two historic log cabins found along the trails at Lake Louise, and enjoy a slice of homemade apple pie as a reward for making the trek.
  • Walk, hike, or bike on many trails in the town of Banff or on places like Tunnel Mountain or at Vermillion Lakes.
  • Golf at the world famous Stanley Thompson Golf Course at The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
  • Soak outdoors in the Upper Hot Springs, open year-round, but the most fun in winter when the air is cold and the landscape surrounding the pool is covered in snow.
  • Learn to be a cowboy at Wild Bill’s Legendary Saloon while taking line dancing and calf-roping lessons.

Where to Stay

5.0.2If historic and elegant accommodations are what you want, plan to stay at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel or the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.

These two resorts were originally built by the Canadian Pacific Railway to entice well-heeled tourists to visit the Canadian Rockies.

The Banff Springs Hotel welcomed its first guests in 1888, and went through many renovations until the current iteration was completed in 1928. Chateau Lake Louise was a one-story log cabin when it opened in 1890. As you can see from this photo, it’s been enlarged just a bit over the last century-plus.

Another option just a three minute drive from “downtown Banff” is the 108-room Buffalo Mountain Lodge operated by Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts. CRMR’s rustic Deer Lodge is near Lake Louise.

There are many accommodations from budget to high-end in the Banff-Lake Louise area. You can get more information on lodging from Banff Lake Louise Tourism. Check out the Banff National Park of Canada Website for information on camping within the park.

Yoho and Kootenay National Parks

Yoho PhotoYoho and Kootenay National Parks on the western side of the Canadian Rockies offer a park experience different from that at Jasper and Banff to the east.

Only 507 square miles in size, Yoho National Park is a place of high waterfalls, craggy rock walls, and lakes carved out by glaciers.

There are plenty of activities to pursue from mountaineering and waterfall ice climbing to tamer pursuits like canoeing and fishing.

You can camp in the park, or stay in or near the town of Field, British Columbia. Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts’ Emerald Lake Lodge is here, just a 20 minute drive west from Lake Louise.

Kootenay Road PhotoKootenay National Park lies west of Banff and was established in 1920 as part of an agreement between the Canadian provincial and federal governments to build the Banff-Windermere Highway – the first motor road across the Canadian Rockies. A strip of land five miles wide on each side of the highway was set aside as a national park.

Kootenay has a diversity of landscapes, elevation, climate and ecology captured in the park’s interpretive theme statement: “From Cactus to Glacier.” The park contains unique and representative examples of the natural features characteristic of the Rocky Mountains: sedimentary rocks and thrust-faulted mountains; landscapes sculptured by glaciers and water; and plants and animals typical of alpine, subalpine and montane ecological zones.

Grizzly and black bear, wolf, coyote, cougar, lynx, wolverine, marten, marmot, white-tailed and mule deer, elk, moose, mountain goat and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep live in Kootenay National Park. Biking, hiking, and horseback riding are just a few ways to enjoy this park.

If you don’t want to camp out in the park, stay at Radium Hot Springs on the western edge of the park, 84 miles and an hour and a quarter drive west from Banff.

If & When to Go

Banff Skiing at SunshineIf you want to make good use of your skis and snowshoes, winter is obviously the time to head to the Canadian Rockies. When the snow has melted away from the lower elevations, tourists surge into theses parks, especially during July and August.

Unless you’re into winter sports or can only come when your kids are on summer vacation from school, fall looks like a great time to visit. When I met with representatives from Alberta tourist boards in April of this year, they assured me that the weather and scenery are both be great in September and October.

Still trying to decide whether head to the Canadian Rockies? This video should clinch it for you.


(Next up in Tales Told From The Road’s “Travel Canada” series: Calgary and Edmonton.)

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