I'm just back from Portugal and the Extremadura region of Spain and will post about it soon, but in the meantime, a friend asked me recently for some advice about Banff and Jasper National Parks, in the Canadian Rockies, as she knew I'd been there some years ago. I didn't post about my trip at the time (not because it wasn't amazing - it was!) but I was swamped, and I saved all my notes intending to post about it later. Happily, there aren't a lot of changes to report on in this part of the world, which isn't surprising for an area that is mostly wilderness. Here are some brief notes:
First off, we flew into Calgary International Airport, which is quite a nice airport for its size, and the views for the entire ride to Lake Louise looked like they were created in Adobe Photoshop. The colors of the sky and the landscape were so intense they didn't look real, so the two-hour ride was really memorable. The Edmonton and Vancouver airports are other air options (Edmonton is closer), and the Rocky Mountaineer and VIA Rail train are other (more scenic) considerations.
My husband, daughter, and I traveled with my brother-and-sister-in-law and our nieces, who are among my most favorite traveling companions. They stayed at the Fairmont Château Lake Louise and we stayed at the nearby Post Hotel & Spa, a Relais & Châteaux property. Both of these options are expensive, but I urge visitors to consider them because they're truly special, notably the Fairmont. What isn't immediately apparent from hotel photographs is that there isn't anything else around the lake - the hotel is it. If it was just another hotel on the edge of a beautiful lake it would not be distinctive enough; but the few trails that branch off from the lakeshore trail lead to the Lake Agnes and Plain of Six Glaciers tea houses, and when you get to them you can't believe they exist as they're really in the middle of nowhere. It's a unique setting and I cannot think of another place in the world that is quite like it. It's not at all similar to the northern Italian lakes, for example, or Lake Annecy in France or Lake Lucerne in Switzerland: once you leave the lakeshore you're in the wilderness. If Banff National Park weren't so amazing it would almost be understandable to never venture very far beyond the hotel as there are numerous outdoor pursuits (such as canoeing, skiing, hiking, horseback riding, snowshoeing, ice skating, and sleigh rides) and indoor activities (such as wine tasting, yoga, in-room wellness, and a health club). At any given time, Fairmont offers special promotions to make a stay less expensive, and travelers may set up an Accor Live Limitless (ALL) account and save on reservations and earn points (AccorHotels Group acquired the Fairmont hotels group in 2022). Relais & Châteaux also offers many promotional rates and has its own members program.
That's part of the Plain of Six Glaciers trail in the photo to the right (Lake Louise is at the back of the photo) and the trail is a bit unsettling as there is a steep drop-off on one side. The drop-off is more apparent in the photo below (that's my niece Caroline in the foreground).
I didn't investigate any other accommodations in the Lake Louise area, but there is a handful of other options (though not as many as in other areas of the Canadian Rockies) including hotels, cabins, B&Bs, and campgrounds.
Aboriginal peoples knew about the area that is now the Cave and Basin National Historic site likely for millenia, gathering to trade or to dip into the sacred and curative waters found there. In 1883, two years before the completion of Canada's first transcontinental railroad, three railroad workers stumbled upon a series of hot springs on what is now called Sulphur Mountain (there are nine thermal springs on the mountain, and the Banff Snail - about the same size as an apple seed - lives here in the mineral springs and nowhere else in the world; it's an endangered species and is protected by Parks Canada). In 1885, after an ownership dispute, Prime Minister Sir John A Macdonald supported a landmark proposal to set aside the hot springs and the surrounding area and create a special reserve, and Banff became Canada's first national park. By now the Canadian Pacific Railway lines stretched across the country and the tourism potential of the Canadian Rockies was apparent. In 1888, the elegant, 250-room Banff Springs Hotel opened; other grand hotels opened along the line and Banff began to be advertised as an international tourism stop on what had become the fastest and most direct route from Europe to the Far East. Banff today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The view of Moraine Lake at the top of this post is stunning, so much so that it's featured on the back of Canadian twenty-dollar bills issued between 1969 and 1979. It's one of the most popular sites within the park, for good reason. Note that the road to the lake is only open to personal vehicles in June, July, August, September, and October (shuttles, public transit, and guided tours are also available). In the winter months, the road is reserved for cross-country skiing to the Ten Peaks viewpoint.
We stayed in nearby Canmore, which is a nice, laidback town that we really liked - it has a great vibe, and there are lots of independent shops and good places to eat and drink - while the other family members stayed at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. It is not quite as impressive as its Lake Louise sister but is still quite wonderful.Rainbow in Canmore
If rafting is your thing, Wild Water Adventures is the company we used for a trip on the Kicking Horse River, located in Golden, British Columbia, about an hour and a half from Banff. The Kicking Horse is a Canadian Heritage River for its historical, cultural, and recreational significance, one of only three in British Columbia. Rafting is most definitely not my thing. Before this trip, I had only been on one rafting adventure, on the American River in northern California. I was terrified for the entire journey, and I think the only reason I survived is because I molded my legs to the side of the raft and didn't move, even when our guide fell off (at that point, I was sure I was going to die). So when the family suggested this rafting trip, I was understandably lukewarm. While we were checking in and trying on life vests, etc., I overheard another, smaller family talking about how they had opted for the shorter version of the trip on the river, and I asked them if they would consider having me join on their raft. They said they would be happy for me to join, and I was buoyed by their welcoming attitude. When I told my own family, they were incredulous. "You're going to what? You're actually going to abandon us and go on a raft with another family you don't even know?" I was guilted into sticking with the original plan. Our guide was terrific and the river was beautiful and in some spots it was calm and quiet, but mostly, I was terrified yet again, especially when the guide announced that we were approaching a spot that was known as the meat grinder or something like that (I have successfully blocked out of my head what he actually called it). Obviously, I made it through, but I made it clear that I will never, ever be going on a rafting trip again. Everyone else loved it, and despite the fact that I couldn't relax for a half a second, I still recommend Wild Water for the friendliness of the staff and the overall professionalism of the operation.
Jasper National Park is equally as worthwhile as Banff. We loved Maligne Lake and we walked the 2.6 km Moose Lake Loop. Three other trails are longer - the Opal Hills Loop (8.2 km), Bald Hills one-way trail (5.2 km), and Mary Schaffer Loop (3.2 km) - and the Mona and Lorraine Lakes Skyline Trail is 2 km one-way. We drove along a portion of the Icefields Parkway, named for the 100 glaciers that line the western side of Highway 93N. The route is 143 miles long and runs between Lake Louise and Jasper. The road traces the Continental Divide and is one of the world's most scenic drives - the Jasper tourist office refers to it as 'The Most Spectacular Highway in the World.' We did not visit the Athabasca Glacier or the Columbia Icefield but I think these would be really interesting - the "adventure of a lifetime" as they're referred to. These are a surviving remnant of the Ice Age, and there are few places in the world where you can step onto an active glacier.Wildlife really is everywhere...
Note for all hikes anywhere: bring water (surface water may be contaminated with Giardia, an intestinal parasite) and wear layers of clothing or bring extra clothing in a daypack (the weather can change unexpectedly). Our trip was in the month of August, and while there was plenty of sun and mild temperatures throughout our stay, it's chilly at night (all the patios at restaurants in Canmore had outdoor heaters, and this was pre-Covid), and on one particular day there were snow flurries while we were hiking (bring gloves, hats, fleece jackets, etc.). Also, stay on the trail: this is wilderness and there are wild animals everywhere even if you can't see them. If you step off the trail you may startle an animal, and any animal (not just bears) can be aggressive if it feels threatened.
This was one of the very best family trips we've ever taken, and though this part of the Canadian Rockies is popular in the summer months, winter is considered high season due to the excellent ski resorts in the area (it will likely come as no surprise, if you've read this far, that downhill skiing is also not my thing; however, I very much excel at après-ski!). Besides downhill and cross-country skiing, other cold weather outdoor pursuits include dog sledding, snowshoeing, skating, and the game of Snow Battle.
"For better or worse, zoos are how most people come to know big or exotic animals. Few will ever see wild penguins sledding downhill to sea on their bellies, giant pandas holding bamboo lollipops in China, or tree porcupines in the Canadian Rockies, balled up like giant pine cones."
- Author Diane Ackerman