Banff National Park, Canada: There are (almost) no words

Fourth stop on the Alaska road trip

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This is one of three posts about some of Canada’s spectacular national parks.


There are no words to adequately describe Banff National Park, and as a writer, it’s really, really frustrating when my vocabulary comes up so short.

I guess if I had to choose an appropriate adjective, it would be ridiculous; what with its UNESCO World Heritage Designation and pristine ecosystem and dense evergreen forests and towering mountains, and oh yeah, its immense glaciers, Banff is just plain ridiculous.

90 miles west of Calgary, Banff was Canada’s first national park (established in 1883), and, along with three other national parks—Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay—is part of the UNESCO Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site, a well-deserved honor.

Classic day trip, plus an evening hike

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At the Banff Tourist Information Center

Banff is incredibly busy, a huge tourist draw.  A small town (also called Banff) sits in the middle of the park and is inundated by hordes of tourists from all over the world every summer.  It was slow-going as we moved through the crowded, narrow sidewalks of the city center, and we mainly avoided town unless we needed groceries or wifi.

You’d think that, with our aversion to crowds, we would try to get far away from them on the trails.  There are about a thousand miles of hiking trails in the park, so it would be easy to do just that, but instead we headed toward the masses, joining them for a visit to Lake Moraine and Lake Louise.  These two iconic destinations were so beautiful that it was worth enduring the crowds in order to see them.

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Moraine Lake

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First, we walked the short 3 km trail alongside Moraine Lake, which offered views of Mount Fay and Mount Glacier.

The color of Lake Moraine was just unearthly.  The only explanation I could come up with was that it had to be manmade.  “I think the Canadians have devised a way to make their lakes extra extraordinary,” I told Dale.  “Special effects under the surface of the water?  A neon dye manufactered in a top-secret Vancouver lab?  What about nuclear waste?  Nuclear waste certainly makes things glow.”

“Effin’ Canucks, with their effin’ beautiful lakes,” was all Dale said.

(Note: the above is a joke, and the Canadians are lovely people.  It’s just that their landscape is so… surreal).

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Lake Moraine

Our next destination, Lake Louise, has the nickname of “jewel of the Rockies.”  I’m not sure if it could get any more gem-like than Lake Moraine, but we were going to check it out.

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Lake Louise and Victoria Glacier

We joined the throngs of people taking photos on the shoreline nearest the parking lot.  Victoria Glacier could be seen across the lake; the two combined comprise one of the most photographed scenes in the world.

After taking our snapshots alongside the rest of the tourists, we walked the short Lake Louise Lakeshore path.

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Me, struggling up a steep hill; Victoria Glacier looms ahead of me

From here, we veered onto the Plain of the Six Glaciers, a steep trail that consisted of several miles of continuous climbing.  Our quads were burning, but the rewards were twofold—first, we had close-up views of several glaciers along the way, and second, we got to visit the historic Plain of the Six Glaciers Teahouse, which sits along the trail in the middle of the mountains.

The teahouse was built as a chalet in 1924 by Swiss guides but has been privately owned and operated since 1959.  There is no electricity onsite, and the food is hand-prepared on propane stoves by staff who stay in the cabins for five days at a time.  In order to get to work, they hike up the same route that we took.  Supplies from Calgary are delivered to the teahouse either by helicopter or pack horse or carried by staff on their backs.

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Plain of the Six Glaciers Teahouse

The setting was perfect.  We had a view of Victoria Glacier while sipping tea and eating rich homemade chocolate cake.  I actually got all mushy and started to cry, because we were here!  In a place that we’ve dreamed about for so long!  I forced back the tears and, over crumbs of chocolate cake, offered a toast to all the hikes we’ve done and all the ones that we dream about doing in the future.

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Victoria Glacier as seen from our vantage point on the balcony of Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse
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These outhouses have the best views in Canada

It was difficult to leave the comfort of the teahouse, but eventually we headed back down.  When Lake Louise appeared in the distance,  the sun had turned it into neon blue so that it really did look like a jewel.

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A glowing Lake Louise in the distance
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The glacial stream that feeds Lake Louise

Lake Louise is fed by a glacial stream; the silt that is chipped away by the slowly moving glacier has given the water a milky hue.  It’s the silt (and not nuclear waste) that gave the lake its spectacular color when we saw it on that sunny afternoon.  Lake Louise resembled the Caribbean–except that, when I stuck my fingers in the water, they started tingling from the cold within ten seconds.

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Lake Louise; an historic chateau, now the Fairmont Hotel, sits on the opposite side

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On our last evening in Banff, we also walked a short trail to the Johnston Canyon Lower Falls.  Instead of running along the top of the rim like most canyon hikes do, the Johnston Canyon trail takes hikers through the canyon via use of a catwalk.  The path ends at the Lower Falls, but there is also an Upper Falls trail that consists of several switchbacks and views of several other waterfalls.

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Wildlife and a scenic drive

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Lake Minnewanka

Grizzly bears are at the top of our wildlife checklist, but sadly the only one we’ve seen so far was a dead one, on the side of the highway between Waterton and Banff.  When we arrived at Two Jacks Main Campground, where we would stay for three nights, we learned that a different predator was nearby–wolves.  A pack of wolves had grown a little too comfortable around humans and had gotten into garbage, ultimately resulting in the euthanization of one wolf.  Sad.  While the thought of a wolf pack roaming the campground was a bit alarming, a park staff member said that, in general, wolves are very shy creatures and our chances of us seeing them were minimal (It’s true.  We didn’t see any while we were there).

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The park staffer also mentioned that she saw black bears on the Lake Minnewanka Loop almost everyday when riding to work (on her bike!), and she recommended that we drive it for a chance to see wildlife.  Not only did we drive the loop, but it became an obsession; morning and evening we made loops around and around in the hopes of seeing something, and it paid huge dividends:

On two evenings, we saw an enormous bull elk with his little harem of cows nearby.  He had an impressive rack of horns that looked almost too big for his head, and we saw him scratching it against trees and bushes several times (Dale said the horns get itchy).

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Bighorn sheep

IMG_4759We also saw three bighorn sheep grazing and lazing on the side of the road, completely unperturbed by the cars stopping to photograph them.   I’m thinking that these adults were both females; they also grow small horns.

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Baby sheep!

And the biggest highlight—I spotted a mama black bear and her two little cubs eating right by the side of the road.  We weren’t more than 30 feet away from them, and a long line of cars formed on both sides of the road to snap pictures.  A few dummies got out of their vehicles and stood at the edge of the road to get their pix, and Dale and I had our bear spray ready in case we had to avert a mauling, but mama tolerated us all, even the dumb asses.  The babies were small and adorable and undoubtedly spring cubs, and it was a joy to watch them bound about.  (We recorded video, which we’ll post one of these days!)

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The loop also afforded wonderful views of Lake Minnewanka, the largest lake in the park, as well as the surrounding mountains.

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Alright, you’ve seen the pictures.  Take your best shot and share your best adjectives with me.  It’s a tough task!


Up next: Banff’s neighbor and fellow beauty, Jasper National Park