The Canadian Rockies and the Columbia Icefields

I’ll forewarn you now that most of the photos in the entry will probably all look the same, and they definitely don’t do any justice to the Rocky Mountains National Parks.


So I last left you in Calgary with all the Western Glitz of Stampede week. Free breakfasts and cowboy hat wearing fun. Next stop was the Canadian Rockies. I’ve intentionally left this part of the trip until now in the hope that all the Australians might have cleared out after the ski season in winter.

A relatively simple lift out to Canmore right on the outside of Banff National Park. Canmore is a beautiful place but like most mountain towns in the foothills of the mountains it has seen incredible growth over the last ten years, especially because it’s not strictly IN the parks and development isn’t so heavily restricted. I stayed in a little hut run by the Alpine Club of Canada and was lucky to meet lots of like minded travellers, mostly older, who were there to hike or rock climb or mountain bike. The Club is in a beautiful spot in the shadow of Grotto Mountain and trailheads went from right outside my doorway climbing Grotto and Lady Macdonald Mountains. The view across the valley was of Canmore’s Three Sisters, a blue rock equivalent of the three sisters in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Because the Club was right on the outskirts of town I had no real necessity to go in and see the township, I spent two days hiking in the back country surrounding the lodge. Mount Lady Macdonald was a gruelling 6 hour climb which ascended close to 800 metres, the final 290m of which spanned only 60 horizontal metres…reaching the summit however sat you on a rocky spine looking over the entire valley and offered even more spectacular views to the North.

I mentioned in my last blog that often you don’t need to hitchhike if you are friendly with everyone you meet. I spent another day hiking in the back country with another traveller, Brett. We climbed a small part of Grotto Mountain and watched Eagles playfully swoop at ground squirrels in the valley below, later in the day he offered to drive me the 25 or so km’s to Banff, which I’d been planning to walk. I happily took the ride in the Mountain heat. He treated me to a big lunch and we headed off towards Banff where the hot springs awaited!

Canmore's Three Sisters - View from Grotto Mountain, Canmore

Canmore’s Three Sisters – View from Grotto Mountain, Canmore

Summit of Mount Lady Macdonald - I've been hiking a lot recently, but hiking at altitude is a mission. This was about a 5 hour climb

Summit of Mount Lady Macdonald – I’ve been hiking a lot recently, but hiking at altitude is a mission. This was about a 5 hour climb

I’ll be perfectly honest about Banff and say that I really didn’t like it. It’s such a beautiful place but it’s just so full of people whom I struggle to understand. In my room in the ‘ever partying’ hostel in town were 2 Aussie kids who had come to Canada and spent two weeks in the same hostel in Banff and planned to spend another two weeks there. They drank until early morning and slept until 5ish each day. I understand perfectly well that some people have different priorities in their travels, but I couldn’t help thinking that maybe they could have saved themselves the airfare. I spent my days hiking through deserted fields spotting Deer and Elk everywhere. I went out one afternoon to buy beer and I have no idea why I was so surprised to find that literally EVERYONE in the grog shop had Australian accents. I would have only stayed the one night but I was lucky enough to scout around for another ride up through the parks on the Icefield Parkway, a ride that was going to take me for 4 days! So I jumped car with a brother/sister combination and headed out to experience the REAL Rockies.

Flora and Nils from Amsterdam drove me pretty much wherever I wanted to go since they didn’t know what to do and I’d met enough people to steer me in pretty directions. We spent 3 nights in various wilderness hostels up through Yoho and Jasper National Parks. The first was near Takkakaw Falls in Yoho, which backed onto the Iceline trail through the mountains. The Iceline Trail is a very popular hike which climbs up through the mountains in Yoho and traces a ridge through stunning glaciers, most people spend the day doing the 22km loop, but the trail was so busy that I opted for an only marginally smaller side trip. The side trip cut down the mountain earlier but took me through a dozen or more glacially fed lakes and waterfalls and I was lucky enough to not run into another person on this leg of the trail (or any bears).

A hidden jewel in Yoho National Park

A hidden jewel in Yoho National Park

The Iceline Trail - Yoho National Park

The Iceline Trail – Yoho National Park

The Iceline Trail - Yoho National Park

The Iceline Trail – Yoho National Park

The wilderness hostels were pretty rustic but cheaper than camping in the mountain parks. I wasn’t prepared to risk the ‘sleep on the side of the road’ routine so deep in bear country and they worked out nicely. The one near Takkakaw Falls had gas lighting and flushing toilets, which was great. Some of the others I stayed in had solar powered LED’s or wood fired saunas and at most you had to bathe in the creek nearby, but this all reflected the cost I guess, and the sorts of people they attracted were more into their rock climbing and hiking which was a pleasant change from Banff. One evening I stayed at a little place called Rampart Creek and was lucky enough to catch my first bear sighting. It was just after dinner and I was drying the dishes with my new Hollander friend when I looked up to see a large black bear flipping a boulder outside. It was very funny how casual I was about the whole thing, and I think it’s because I almost expected to see one at some point. When I pointed it out to some of the other hostel crowd people took off running in search of cameras, and when they returned the bear was gone and I’d gotten the only really good look at it.

The valley near Mount Edith Cavell - Jasper National Park

The valley near Mount Edith Cavell – Jasper National Park

The Icefields Parkway - Banff to Jasper, it was all like this

The Icefields Parkway – Banff to Jasper, it was all like this

The most amazing place I stayed at was at the base of Mount Edith Cavell just outside of Jasper. Mount Edith Cavell is one of the bigger mountains at around 3400m and the rustic little hostel was perched right at the base of it. It had wood burning stoves in the rooms for heat and horseshoe pits near the campfire. In the evening a huge group of people gathered around the fire and told travel stories, every now and then you could hear parts of glaciers on the mountain crack and avalanche down for minutes. The next morning I hiked out to the base of Edith Cavell and saw one of the glaciers crack first hand as a huge ice slide cascaded over cliffs.

I only spent 8 or so days through the Rocky Mountains, but I’m not too fussed about it. It was beautiful but the hiking was crowded, the accommodation was still a bit expensive for my liking (mainly because I was in hostels every night and I’ve usually been camping for free), and the towns were full of drunk Australians, reminded me a bit of home and it’s not really what I’m looking for. The drive between Banff and Jasper is absolutely phenomenal and one of the most beautiful drives in the world, every way you turn your head there is a stunning postcard view of the mountains or the lakes; it’s hard to drive through there and honestly believe you took in everything. So I’m happy to this end to have made it up through, even with a bit of a dent in the budget. It doesn’t matter too much now because I’m out on Vancouver Island and camping with hippies everywhere for free! More about that later.


Love Jesse

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