We looked forward to a spectacular drive on the Icefields Parkway from Jasper to Banff, Canada’s first National Park. But, because of our recent experience driving from Vancouver to Jasper, we were a bit apprehensive as well. Especially about a couple of really steep climbs. So we set out really early, and the weather was on our side – cloudy and in the 50’s.
The Icefields Parkway is truly one of the most stunning roads we’ve ever been on. Surrounded by massive mountains with huge glaciers, and dotted with brilliant rivers and lakes and verdant meadows full of wildflowers.
One memorable stop was Peyto Lake, one of the bluest lakes we’d seen so far. What a shame that the weather was so cloudy, I imagine the view of the lake must be really astounding on a sunny day.
We arrived at another huge national park campground, very conveniently located by the beautiful but very crowded town of Banff. The only inconvenience was that since the campground is located in the midst of bear habitat, we had to put away our grill every time we used it. Other than that it was a very pleasant place with lots of trees around and hiking trails on the property.
The weather forecast projected rain every day but one. But the common saying around Banff is “don’t pay attention to the weather forecast, it’s the mountains”. Meaning that weather can change at any time.
On our first day we opted to go into town and to the local farmers market. A small market that is about half arts and crafts fair, so there wasn’t a lot of food. Probably directly related to the amount of tourists in town. But we still found some great empanadas and pulled pork sandwiches.
Just behind the farmers market was the Bow River, another glacial river. It seems as if everywhere you turn around these parts, there’s a beautiful river or lake.
The town of Banff has lots of restaurants and shops including the Hudson’s Bay Company department store. Founded in 1670 (!) as a fur trading business, it is North America’s longest continually operated company.
Hector and I had just been reading about Hudson’s Bay Company in a book about the Lewis and Clark expedition, so it was cool to see the store. Although these days it is a pretty normal department store (they own Lord and Taylor). But they did have beautiful canoes for sale in addition to the normal stuff.
Banff townsite also has a very nice off leash dog park. It is a large natural wooded area with a fence around it. What a great idea! Angel enjoyed exploring all the trees and holes in the “forest”.
Near town is Lake Minnewanka, yet another scenic little spot. And Banff is a winter ski resort and offers chair lift rides and biking in the summer. We just drove to the ski area briefly for a quick peek.
One of the less traveled roads near Banff is the Bow Valley Parkway. This used to be the only road to Lake Louise, but the Trans Canada Highway is now the faster route. We found Bow Valley Parkway much more pleasant. It also has some cool interpretive displays and is known for wildlife sightings.
And there is where we spotted the largest elk yet, one with an eight-point antler. Elk bulls shed and grow new antlers every year (the difference between antlers and horns), and the more mature elk have more points. Those with eight points or more (rare) on their antlers are called Monarch Bulls.
This bull’s antlers no longer had the soft velvet membrane that covers them when they start to grow, instead they were smooth and had sharp points. The velvet membrane dies when an increase in testosterone cuts off blood flow to the antlers.
One of the more popular trails along the Bow Valley Parkway is Johnston Canyon, which was our first hike. We chose the longer of two trails but the bottom half was pretty crowded.
The trail goes to three waterfalls: lower, middle and upper. It’s a very steep sided canyon so the park has built elaborate walkways perched on the side of its walls. The water in the canyon has that brilliant glacial color. And its surrounded by lots of vegetation including many trees and different types of lichen and moss clinging to the canyon rocks.
The day warmed up a bit and the combination of the length of the trail and warm temperature was a bit much for Angel, who was pretty exhausted on the way down. So we stopped plenty of times to rest and she had lots of time for admirers to fawn. Including one who walked up to her while she was pooping and said “she’s even beautiful when she poops!”. I am not kidding.
We’d previously made plans to get together with a couple that we met last winter in San Diego. Doug and Tricia are one of two Canadian couples who are members of the FMCA Overland Trailblazers Chapter based in Calgary and will host a Calgary Stampede 25th Anniversary Rally July 1st to July 7th, 2015. Word has it that the last rally they hosted was a great success. Space is tight, but anyone interested may contact Doug at firstname.lastname@example.org
We hope to connect with them down south again this winter.
The next day’s forecast called for rain and so we ran some errands. Including buying dog food. We give Angel a very specific type of food, and we figured we might have to drive to Calgary. Which was exactly what I discovered after calling twelve pet stores in some of the closer towns. So we went to Tail Blazers, a “health food store for pets”, in Calgary. John at the store was very helpful and nice, the only bad news was that the food cost twice as much as in the states (!). We won’t miscalculate again. We also found a great grocery store – Calgary Co-op – with tons of great food and bought some of the famous AAA aged Alberta beef. Deservedly famous, the steaks were delicious. But no photos of Calgary.
Seeing so many beautiful lakes had put us in a kayaking mood and a ranger at the visitor center had recommended the Vermillion Lakes for an afternoon/evening paddle. These are three lakes near town that are known for lots of birdlife. We started at the Third Vermillion Lake hoping to connect to the Second and First.
These lakes don’t have the brilliant blue color of other glacial lakes, but are so clear that at sunset they can turn various colors – frequently a shade of vermillion. And, we had a first, kayaking right next to railroad tracks while a train went by – kind of freaky.
Third Vermillion Lake didn’t have much birdlife so we tried to get over to Second Vermillion Lake. But the channel was way too narrow and shallow. So we paddled around Third Vermillion Lake and enjoyed a subtle sunset all by ourselves at the lake. Beautiful.
We really enjoy learning more about First Nations in Canada (Native Americans). And we noticed the Buffalo Nations Museum in Banff because of its unique building: a log building built to resemble a frontier stockade. In a very pretty location by the Bow River.
So we finally set aside some time to visit the museum. There are many artifacts including traditional regalia, quillwork, paintings, mounted animals, hunting tools, life-size scenes including humans, animals, ceremonies, tipis, and lots more. A very interesting museum.
Much of the rest of our visit to Banff National Park was spent over by stunning Lake Louise. More on that in our next post.