We crossed into British Colombia at the town of Roosville under a wet night sky. We were aiming for Banff National Park in Alberta. We drove a few more hours north along the highway in the empty forest before finding a rest area to spend the night.
The next morning we continued the drive, pausing at the town of Radium Hot Springs for some local maps and hot coffee. From the Radium Valley, we entered Kootenay National Park which contains the only thru road in the area to cross the mountains from BC to Alberta. Lots of the hiking in Kootenay at lower elevations was closed due to bear activity. At higher elevations, the sky was spitting rain so we plodded on without seeing too much of the park other than the main road.
At the top of the road (Canada Hwy 93) you cross the Continental Divide, on one side of which all rain eventually flows down to the Pacific Ocean, on the other side of which, it finds its way to the Atlantic. The Divide also demarcates the boundary between the provinces of British Colombia and Alberta, as well as the end of Kootenay NP and the start of Banff NP.
The Trans-Canada Highway runs through the central valley of Banff NP. And I thought we had scenic highways in Colorado! I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the road, gawking at the views in all directions. The mountains surrounding us in the valley were the color of angry slate, with walls and ridges and spires a mile high capped in clouds and snow.
The signs along the highway remind you to watch for bears, watch for moose, they are right on the road. We watched and watched but saw only trees. False advertising.
The town of Banff sits at the southern end of the Park. It is crowded and heavily touristed, but it is easy to see why. Storm Mountain and Tunnel Mountain loom over town, views down the end of every road. The town feels a bit like Breckenridge, Colorado, but bigger, busier, and more interesting. We heard a dozen spoken languages from various people walking along the streets. The town serves as an entrance point to the park and base camp for four seasons of every imaginable outdoor adventure activity.
After spending a night in a campground outside of town, we headed up to the village of Lake Louise, about an hour to the north at the other end of the park. The lake itself (Louise) is long and deep and the color of pale mint dreams.
We hiked along the lake and up into the valley beyond. Back in the late 19th century, when the railways were being built in this region, in an attempt to draw tourists up into the mountains, the government built tea house in the high valleys that are still operating today. We hiked the 6 mile route toward the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House. The trail started in dense forest cover around Lake Louise, thinning out to meadows of shrubs and wildflowers as we hiked. Eventually, we emerged from the green into a broad plant-less expanse where the recent glacial retreat had left a valley floor covered in boulders and loose gravel. The ground had not been freed from the ice long enough for soil to form. This is the Plain of Six Glaciers. Glaciers all over the world are retreating due to rising temperatures, so it was difficult to tell what was one of the six glaciers, and what was a patch of snowpack remaining from the past winter’s storms.
As we were hiking along this area, we heard a great thunder rumble, but it was not raining. Looking up to follow the sound, I saw a huge slab of snow peeling off a high cliff on the far side of the valley. It fell slowly, then smashed itself on a rock band below and showered the lower cliffs with a waterfall of snow for the next couple minutes.
Beyond the Plains, up a side valley where the forest had extended, a large log cabin stands as a resting point and tea house for those who have made the trek. The Tea House is staffed by a small team of women, who spend 5 days at the tea house, staying in a small communal cabin nearby and hiking down to town on the weekends. All of the supplies are dropped by helicopter once at the beginning of the summer, and are thereafter carried up on foot and horseback throughout the season. The house has no electricity, only propane for heating and cooking and lighting. We sat at a small table on the upper level balcony and were served hot tea and cocoa, and a bowl of breakfast quinoa (slightly sweetened with maple syrup and topped with almonds and dried berries). What a treat in the middle of a cool, damp hike!
We had previously arranged a back country permit to spend the next 3 days camping along the shore of Lake Minnewanka, near the town of Banff. The next morning, after pulling out our tent camping gear from the back of the van (we get spoiled sleeping in the van on a nice cushy mattress each night) we headed out into the wilds. Or I should say “wilds”. While we were out backcountry for a couple nights, we found it to be probably the most luxury back country site we had ever stayed in. The hike in was not too strenuous and we had booked the same site for two nights in a row, so we wouldn’t have to move the tent, etc for a couple days once we had set up shop.
The tent site was a standard affair, a flattened clearing amongst the trees. But nearby there was an outhouse. No digging cat holes and burying poop on this trip, whoohoo! A few hundred feet from the tent pad the kind rangers had setup a food hanging station which is used to hoist your bag full of food and other odorous items into the air to keep out of reach of bears or other critters who live in the area. Back in our day, to lift the bear bag, we had to tie a rope around a rock and throw it over an acceptably high branch and hope you didn’t get clocked in the head when it inevitably came swinging back around in your direction. Here, we have steel cables 20 feet high running between trees, with a set of pulleys and hooks to float your bag skyward with minimal effort. Truly, the apex of woodland comforts. And then there were even a couple picnic tables, oh joyous day! Did I mention our camp site was right on a beach?
We spent the next three days thusly. Set up tent. Eat food. Lay out on beach and start sweating. Jump in the freezing cold Minnewanka. Lay out on beach to warm up. Read a book. Repeat. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. The stay was puncuated by a few visits from a family of mountain sheep ambling back and forth along the beach, presumably enjoying the views as we were, and munching on the local shubbery, as we were not.
After our somewhat langourious back country trek, we hoofed it back out to the van and all of its mechanical comforts. We headed north again to visit Moraine Lake and the Valley of the Ten Peaks. The romantic name of this valley is well deserved. The lake is a rich blue, and is surrounded by forest, above which stand a ring of ten imposing summits, all sharp peaked cones with stripes of dark stone and white snow. It is difficult to overstate the majesty of this place. As we had arrived at the lake later in the day, we did not have time to hike around the area, but settled for clambering over a dam of floating logs and up a tall, steep rock pile to get a better view of the scenery.
Montana, Idaho, Wyoming
The next day it was time to head south. It is a long drive from Banff to Denver, but we had given ourselves a few days to make the journey. I woke early and started driving while Rachel napped in the bed in the back of the vehicle. We made it back to Whitefish, MT that afternoon. After a mix of cloudy and rainy days for most of the trip thus far, the weather finally broke and it was now hot and sweaty by mid day. To our delight, we found that Whitefish has a small public sandy beach near the center of town. We enjoyed an afternoon there and got huckleberry ice cream cones at the old timey ice cream stand at the beach, and slept outside of town.
Ever southward again and we found ourselves in eastern Idaho. A few hours later and we cross Teton Pass in Wyoming and through the town of Jackson. We camped in the area, so that we could take a play day the following day in Grand Teton National Park. We parked in the village of Moose (yes, that is a place), and took our road bikes out from their hiding place inside the van. We had a nice 8-mile bike ride to Jenny Lake, where we hiked around the lake, up to Moose Ponds (there were ponds, yes, but no moose. False adverts, again!), then biked back to the van. A nice multi-sport afternoon to be sure.
We drove onward and camped near Pinedale, WY, and early the next morning got moving for the final 400-mile non-stop push back to home base in Denver. We were returning home only to leave again, flying out a few days later to attend two back to back weddings of some very special people in far flung locales.
Thanks for stopping by.
Dan & Rachel