An outdoors explorer finds something for everyone in the Canadian Rockies — a hiking blitz with some buddies and a leisurely family vacation.
A few dozen miles from its birthplace in the sprawling Columbia Icefield high in the Canadian Rockies, the lazy Athabasca River plunges into a twisting, pothole-filled gorge it has carved through layered rock.
After boiling through the descent, the river again flattens into an ethereal, milky-green glassiness that invites you to slip into a canoe and float off toward the Arctic Ocean.
You can gaze at the top of Athabasca Falls from just a few feet away, then walk alongside the churning water as it drops through elaborately sculpted chutes to its calm conclusion.
And you don’t have to be a mountaineer. Little kids and grandmothers — buses full of them, in fact — tread the well-paved path daily.
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That may be the genius of the four adjacent national parks in the Canadian Rockies: Yoho, Jasper, Banff and Kootenay. The sinuous rivers, massive escarpments of brute rock, and awe-inspiring glaciers are wild, unique and remote, yet many scenic spots in these parks in Alberta and British Columbia are easily accessible.
They offer adventures for every grade of outdoor explorer, as I discovered on two recent trips — a go-for-it hiking blitz with a group of buddies, and a more leisurely vacation with my wife and two 20-something daughters.
The 180-mile-long spine of this wonderland is the Icefields Parkway, which runs between the Alberta mountain towns of Banff and Jasper through broad glacial valleys framed by steep massifs. The belly button, perhaps, is glistening Lake Louise, no doubt the only world-class alpine lake with a luxurious, 11-story Fairmont hotel on its shore.
Four-lane highways and four-star lodgings aren’t what most of us are looking for when we go into the mountains, but the Canadian Rockies can be as rough or as cushy as visitors want. Here’s a sampler of our experience:
The Columbia Icefield straddles the Rockies, terminating with glaciers whose meltwaters flow to three oceans: the Arctic, the Atlantic (via the Saskatchewan River) to Hudson Bay, and the Pacific (via our own Columbia River).
The Icefield is also a small industry: Excursions onto the ice at Athabasca Glacier in large-tire custom-built vehicles are heavily promoted. It sounds appealing — imagine standing on ice as thick as the Eiffel Tower — but the $50 ticket takes you to a spot not so different from an iced-over Snoqualmie Pass parking lot. Walking out across the glacier isn’t part of the deal; apparently they don’t want you falling into a crevasse even a fraction the size of the Eiffel Tower.
A better approach might be to study the exhibits at the Icefields visitors center, then take the short hike to the foot of the glacier. You’ll get a better look at the glacier’s tapered end and the thick layer of moraine — the rocky debris from nearby valley walls that covers parts of the glacier. Markers along the path trace the glacier’s dramatic retreat since the end of the so-called Little Ice Age in the 1800s.
One of my favorite spots is Mount Edith Cavell and its Angel Glacier. Automobile-sized chunks of ice, calved off a glacier at the far end of a small lake, drift around while sun and wind etch them into odd shapes. Chances are good you’ll hear rumbling from high on the mountain as ice and boulders clatter down. Again, it’s just an easy walk from the parking lot to the lakeshore, if that’s your style. A longer hike will take you up to Cavell Meadows for better views of the Angel Glacier and its two upswept wings cradled in a rocky bowl.
For hikers, the Lake O’Hara campground is the gateway to some stunning high alpine vistas where only a few dozen visitors are allowed daily. A gravel road that’s closed to private cars leads to the well-equipped facility; make a reservation for one of the 30-odd campsites, and a park bus will carry you in.
Camping above 6,000 feet in early September brought my coldest overnight in memory — eventually I donned rain gear to gain an extra layer inside my lightweight summer sleeping bag.
But the next day’s hike to craggy, 8,300-foot Wiwaxy Gap brought pristine Lake Oesa glistening in the sun below us. The dusting of early snow on the nearby mountains accentuated the ancient layers running at crazy angles across the rock faces.
I was feeling like a pretty rugged individual up there. But partway down we spotted two guys who were swiftly free-climbing a vertical stone wall several hundred feet high. I couldn’t even watch that.
Take the tram
One option for climbing high without breaking a sweat is the Jasper Tramway, which carries you 7,472 feet up a peak called Whistlers for a good view of the half-dozen closest mountain ranges. Or, if you’re feeling robust, make the 3,000-foot climb under your own power and enjoy the gondola ride down without the $30 fare.
Maligne Canyon, said to be the longest and deepest limestone canyon in the Rockies, is a narrow channel below the beautiful Maligne Lake. Walkers can follow the canyon’s twists and turns along a series of small bridges.
Lake Louise is a jewel — a justly famous spot, a community with a large glacier licking the opposite end of the lake. The village features a useful collection of stores and restaurants and a large, well-outfitted hostel (plus a resort hotel). Trails from the lake form a network that combines the hiker’s scenic rewards with a civilized bonus — two alpine teahouses.
To get into the water, Miette Hot Springs is reputedly the hottest of the Canadian Rockies’ many mineral springs. A pleasant, recently modernized array of four large outdoor pools is fed via buried pipes from the source. A short walk will take you to the original springs, where scalding, sulfury water pours from a crack in the rock.
Banff and Jasper, the two urban spots in the Rockies, have different personalities. Let’s put it this way: In Banff, streets are named after animals, but in Jasper you can see animals on the street — deer and elk come into town to browse on the vegetation.
Banff has shopping that ranges from gorgeous Canadian crafts and carvings to United Colors of Benetton fashions. The town also has a historic hotel (now the Fairmont Banff Springs Resort) with a grand stone patio and display cases harboring nuggets such as the September 1929 bill for a “Blackett Douglas & Mrs. of Winnipeg”: $14 a night.
Jasper is cozier and closer to the wilderness. Its city center is dominated by eateries, a grocery and outdoor gear retailers. Visit in early August and you can join the locals flocking to the four-day Jasper Heritage Rodeo (Aug. 15-18 this year).
My wish list for future visits to the Canadian Rockies remains long. It includes a wintertime walk along the frozen bottom of Maligne Canyon; a stay at the posh yet rustic Moraine Lake Lodge, next to what may be Canada’s most beautiful lake; and a bicycle tour along the Icefields Parkway. And yes, grabbing a canoe on the Athabasca River and floating away to the north.
Rami Grunbaum is The Seattle Times’ deputy business editor.