I drove around the Canadian Rockies for a week discovering the wild pristine nature offered by the national parks and lakes. And here is how I did the journey from Jasper to Banff.
Why Canada? And why The Rockies?
One year ago a message popped up on my Twitter feed posted none other than the Canadian National Park. The tweet from the Park said that to mark their 150th anniversary all the national parks in Canada will offer free entrance in 2017. After seeing this message, I immediately started planning my trip.
Knowing that this promotion will attract many other tourists from around the world, I wanted to plan my trip in a time where I would run into fewer tourists. So I planned the month of June as it offers the perfect conducive weather for hiking (as it is not too hot). I invited my Japanese friend Miko to go along with me as she is also fan of Canada and nature. Also it is not fun to drive around alone when there is no one to talk.
A little planning
Our goal was to spend a week visiting four to five national parks – Jasper, Yoho, Glacier and Banff. Add one more day for a stop in Edmonton where we would be kicking off this epic journey.
Now, I’ve done a few amazing scenic drives in my lifetime, like the Pacific Coast Highway along the California coast, Hue to Hoi An in Vietnam, and Lisbon to Algarve in Portugal. But with exhilarating vistas of forest, craigs, glacier, ice fields and wildlife, the drive from Jasper to Banff takes out the top spot in my list. It’s easily one of the most beautiful drives in the world.
Since back in those days Google didn’t offer an offline map to download into our phone (at least not in Canada), we relied on the old way of printing the maps before the journey. Good ole days!
So we rent a mid-size car from Avis rental for less than $80 a week. Declined insurance coverage as my Mastercard credit card covered the insurance. First, we checked to make sure that we have enough gas for the initial part of the trip. Since it is Canada and the distances are huge ,we may not find gas stations easily along the way. Off we go!
The following is a rough 5-day itinerary. If you’re thinking of a self drive adventure through the Canadian rockies, I encourage you to follow this route.
Day 1, 2: Jasper National Park
We kicked off our Jasper to Banff drive from Edmonton. The drive from Edmonton to Jasper National Park took us about four hours. On our the way we see evergreens like the pines and the firs that are neatly aligned on either side of the road. In early June there was not much traffic on the road. Here is what we did once we reached Jasper Park.
As we reach Jasper we go straight to Lake Maligne. By the time we got here, it was late in the afternoon and the kayak rental was closed. But there was enough time for a two hour stroll around the lake. It was only after visiting Lake Maligne we checked into Athabasca hostel near the lake.
Although not as large as the great Niagara falls at the border of U.S/Canada, Athabasca falls is a pretty good size waterfall. The water that you see in the falls originates from Mt. Athabasca Glacier. It was also a site to witness Grizzly bears in the wild.
Mt Athabasca Glacier / Colombia Ice Fields
We hiked to see the Colombia Ice Field what is now the remnants of the once magnanimous Glacier that occupied the car park. But now it has receded far from the parking space. It was rather ironic since it was the same week when Trump announced pulling out of the Paris agreement. Very sad!
The walk to the top of the summit was almost 1000 meter. Once you are there you will see this gorgeous blue colored lake – Peyto Lake. It was interesting to see the steps still covered with some snow and ice. Thanks to our hiking shoes it wasn’t very difficult to walk. Peyto lake is the longest lake that goes between Jasper and Banff.
One of the best outdoor activities in Jasper is to hike to the top of the Wilcox pass. When we got there we find this infamous red chair at the top of the hill. There we sit and observe the breath taking glacier, lake and the park. We were spellbound by the view in front of us.
As an add-on bonus we got to witness Mountain goats hanging around the hills grazing the fields and enjoying the occasional sun.
Day 3, 4 – Yoho National Park
After spending two nights in the Jasper area, it was time to leave Jasper to Yoho National park.
Here is what we did in Yoho National Park.
We found one good hostel (Dreamcatcher hostel) in Yoho National park which was close to all the sites we wanted to visit. After a good night sleep at the hostel and a hearty breakfast, voila, we start our day.
First destination was Wapta falls (i hear you ask another falls in Canada?). On our way, Miko and I were discussing about how to plan the day and in the middle of our conversation we found out we were going in the wrong direction. We were looking for the trail head that led to the falls. But ended up taking a different road but still manage to find a better spot to start our hike. We walked about two hours and walking in a cool 20 celcius Spring temperature felt good on our soul. Once we got to the view point, the Wapta Falls looked magnificent. Sometimes getting lost is the best way to experience the most interesting things!
Near the vantage point we found a guy who was camping alone with a mini camper van. Not a bad spot to camp we thought. But as we turn to leave the place we saw something moving…there it was…a big brown grizzly bear. My Japanese friend and I looked at each other not knowing what to do at this point. Luckily the bear moved on and ran into a bush. We wanted to snap a picture but we were so shocked neither of us took our cameras out.
Wondering how this guy was able to sleep (with all the food in the car) and not bothered by the bears. Bears are attracted to food that humans carry with them.
How do you witness the history being made in front of you? By going to the Natural bridge in Yoho National Park. As the glacier started to melt and defrost over a few millenia, the water that resulted from it gushed over to slowly carve these rocky formations. Nature is a wicked architect, isn’t it? You can walk over these bridges and admire the beauty around it.
Another favorite lake of mine in the Canadian National Park has to be Lake Emerald. Known for its serene view and grand vista, Lake Emerald is a good place to go Kayaking. The color of the water is crystal blue-green due to sunlight’s reflection on the calcium carbonate clay particles that settles on the top of the water.
We started to do a hike around the loop of the lake which took three hours.
After Yoho National Park we did attempted to drive to Glacier National park. To our disappointment the area was still covered in ice and so the entrance was closed. So we instead changed our plan to spend two nights in Banff which is our next and last stop in our journey.
Day 5, 6 Banff National Park
Among all the national parks in Canada, Banff is the most touristy and most advertised national park. It is also situation near the city of Calgary. Most people go to the park to see the main attraction – Lake Louise.
It is undoubtedly beautiful, though in my opinion overrated, as it’s far too over crowded for my taste. This lake is also a glacially fed lake (like most others) in Banff National Park. There are some outdoor activities like Kayaking, Paddling and Fishing available.
If you are allergic to crowds then head to the near by Lake Morraine.
Lake Morraine sits in the middle of the valley of ten peaks. This lake is relatively underdeveloped compared to other glacial lakes. Even in June the lake was covered in floating ice. When you climb to the top of the hill, you will enjoy a breathtaking view of the lake with the backdrop of surrounding high mountains.
We hiked about 1.5 km and saw the fast flowing river carving a deep canyon with a beautiful ray of sunlight passing through creating a rainbow. Roaming around the canyon there we spot another set of grizzly bears.
When you get to the foothills of Sulphur Mountain in Banff National Park avoid the easy Gondola ride. Instead take the steep hike to the top of the mountain. The climb is about two hours. As you start your hike, along the way you will pass through many scenic spots. At the top of the mountain is a cosmic ray telescope station.
Cosmic rays are easier to track at higher elevations. This telescope station was built to monitor the cosmic rays and it one of the most sensitive telescopes in the world.
The finale of this one week tour ended in a great place. Lake Minnewanka is sort of an underrated place and it has its own charm.
All things end well
Our Jasper to Banff adventure comes to a close after a week. We went to Calgary to return the car and leave our footprints in the Canadian Rockies. It was sad to leave but on the other hand we carried some great memories from the trip.