The first time I saw a photograph of Chateau Lake Louise sitting at the edge of an unimaginably turquoise lake and surrounded by the snow-covered Canadian Rockies, I knew I had to go there. My husband, our two sons (ages 16 and 13), and I finally made the trip last summer and discovered that the region is even more spectacular than we had imagined because no mere photograph can possibly capture its grandeur. Our vacation began with a stay in Vancouver, British Columbia, and proceeded through the mountains to Alberta’s Jasper National Park, and Banff National Park and Lake Louise.
Vancouver Most people fly into Calgary as the jumping off point for Jasper and Banff National Parks, but we wanted to visit Vancouver. Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and the Coast Mountains, Vancouver has natural beauty, comfortable climate, diverse population and lots of attractions. We stayed at a bed-and-breakfast in the charming, tree-lined West End. Our first sightseeing stop was Stanley Park, situated on a peninsula near the downtown area and surrounded by a seawall pathway for bikers and skaters. The park offers a myriad of options for recreation: a pitch and putt golf course, rhododendron and rose garden, tennis courts, lawn bowling, children’s farmyard, miniature railway, water park, heated swimming pool, beaches, horse and carriage rides, restaurants, totem poles, a zoo and the Vancouver Aquarium. The Aquarium has outdoor dolphin exhibits, sea lions and sea otters, as well as an Amazon rainforest with anacondas, piranha, and more. The highlight was a mother beluga whale and her adorable baby who swam side by side in a huge tank. We were told that, for a true taste of Vancouver, we should visit Granville Island, a revitalized industrial island full of art galleries, shops, restaurants, and a Kids Only market featuring two floors just for families. We spent an afternoon poking around craft stores and galleries and enjoying street musicians. The Public Market bustles with dozens of vendors selling fresh produce, ethnic specialties, homemade ice cream and anything else your palate desires. For an introduction to the Northwest Coast Indian art of the area, we checked out the Museum of Anthropology on the University of British Columbia campus. Famous for its artwork from the First Nations of British Columbia, the collection includes totem poles, canoes and sculptures, as well as contemporary art made by descendants of the original totem pole creators. The museum also has an extensive display of artifacts from around the world made available to the public in the Visible Storage Galleries. Our boys especially enjoyed the imposing cedar sculpture, “The Raven and the First Men”, by contemporary Haida artist Bill Reid. It depicts the legend of Raven discovering the first Haida people crawling out of a clamshell. Other attractions in Vancouver include Gastown, the oldest commercial section of the city (and a tourist trap), featuring restored Victorian-era buildings transformed into art galleries, souvenir shops and restaurants. Vancouver’s Chinatown, second only to San Francisco in size, is filled with restaurants and small shops. Science World, housed in a geodesic sphere created for the Expo ’86 World’s Fair, offers hands-on science exhibits for kids and live demonstrations and shows. At the Capilano Suspension Bridge and Park, you can cross a 450-foot suspension bridge hanging 230 feet over the Capilano River. And for the younger set, there’s Maplewood Farm, a five-acre park with farm animals to feed and a petting zoo. We drove from Vancouver northeast through Fraser Canyon to Cache Creek, then up Highway 5. As we approached the Canadian Rockies, the vistas became more and more magnificent.
Jasper National Park Every visitor to the Canadian National Parks must have a pass (valid in all the national parks) which can be purchased at the park gates or information centers. You can buy passes by the day, but since we were staying for a week, the best deal was the Great Western Annual Pass for groups of 2-7. The park literature urged us to respect and preserve the natural environment and advised us on proper, safe behavior if we encountered any of the wild animals that live freely in the parks: black and grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, coyote, elk, mountain goats, deer and wolves. My younger son, informed by our Vancouver hostess that he was just the right size for a grizzly’s meal, anxiously stayed in between us bigger folks whenever we went hiking. We did have some thrilling moments seeing several black bears eating berries by the side of the road, two elk, and a small herd of bighorn sheep on our travels, but happily, no grizzlies. Surrounded by snow-covered mountains, the small town of Jasper is comprised of two main streets lined with stores, outfitters and restaurants. The Jasper National Park Information Centre, located in the center of town in a National Historic Site building, provides information about accommodations, dining, attractions and the varied hiking trails. In Jasper, there are many hotels, inns, and bed-and-breakfasts to choose from, but one economical way to go is to stay in “approved accommodations”, i.e., rooms for rent in someone’s home. The quality can vary, but it is much less expensive than a hotel and you usually have access to a kitchen. Although there are several easy hikes emanating from Jasper township, our first attempt was the ambitious Bald Hills Trail on a rainy day. The four-mile hike promised a view of Maligne Lake from an old fire lookout but by the time we’d trudged halfway up the mountain, it was snowing, so we turned back, realizing we wouldn’t see anything but clouds from the top. Tired and aching, we drove to the Miette Hot Springs east of Jasper via the panoramic Yellowhead Highway. There, we were able to relax and soak our tired muscles in the two hot mineral pools. The next day, we hiked the easy Path of the Glacier Loop which takes visitors up to the north face of the majestic Mount Edith Cavell via a rocky landscape once covered with glacial ice. At the foot of the mountain is Cavell Pond, just below Angel Glacier, a good place to contemplate icebergs and the grandeur of nature and to have a picnic. This path takes1-2 hours and offers a unique vista. For a change of pace, we drove to Athabasca Falls, where the Athabasca River churns through a narrow gorge and visitors can see exactly how the river cut through the land at various viewpoints. In the afternoon, we had tea facing beautiful Lac Beauvert from the deck of the grand old Jasper Park Lodge, a railroad hotel built in 1921. You can take the paved trail around the lake, to connect to other hiking trails or to head back to town. Other attractions in Jasper include the Jasper Tramway which rises 3,191 feet, just short of the Whistlers’ summit with scenic views of the Athabasca and Miette valleys; the Jasper-Yellowhead Museum, featuring artifacts from the park’s early fur-trading and mountaineering days; and the 90-minute Maligne Lake Cruise to Spirit Island. We hiked and climbed rocks around Maligne Lake, the largest glacier-fed lake in the Canadian Rockies and arguably the most beautiful. It is said that the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93), which runs from Jasper to Banff National Park and Lake Louise, and connects with Yoho and Kootenay National Parks, is one of the most magnificent drives in the world, so allow yourself plenty of time to enjoy it. It takes four hours without stopping, but there are numerous points of interest along the way, such as Goats and Glaciers Viewpoint, Sunwapta Falls, Bubbling Springs Picnic Area and various hikes. The one attraction you shouldn’t miss is the Columbia Icefield Centre. Here, at the largest body of ice in the Rocky Mountains, you can take a “snocoach” ride onto the Athabasca Glacier. These giant buses on huge bulldozer tires depart regularly and take visitors right up onto the glacier where you can observe occasional avalanches, throw snowballs in the middle of summer, and drink glacial water, the purest natural water in the world.
Banff National Park and Lake Louise In Banff National Park, we splurged by staying at the lovely Castle Mountain Chalets in Bow Valley, exactly midway between Banff and Lake Louise. The town of Banff stretches along the Bow River in the shadow of towering Mt. Rundle. The north end of Banff Avenue is crowded with hotels and motels, while the southern end features shops and restaurants. The area offers many attractions. The Banff Park Museum specializes in the park’s natural history with plenty of stuffed birds and mammals. The Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum, named for Norman Luxton who was close to the area’s natives, exhibits Indian artifacts and boasts a terrific Indian Trading Post with an extensive array of native arts and crafts for sale. The Upper Hot Springs, set against the Alpine backdrop, is wonderful for a warm soak after a long hike. The Cave and Basin National Historic Site shows how the source of the hot springs was discovered in 1883, leading to the formation of Banff National Park. The Banff Gondola takes you 7,486 feet up to an observation deck with a dramatic view of Banff township and the surrounding mountains. The Banff Springs Hotel, built by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1888, is one of the most luxurious mountain resort hotels in the world and well worth a visit. While there, take a walk down the hill to the path by the Bow River and the small but impressive Bow Falls. There are diverse hikes around Banff and Lake Louise. We took the popular Johnston Canyon Trail off the Bow Valley Parkway. Here a paved walkway takes you up to the Lower Falls of Johnston Creek. Then a suspended boardwalk built through the gorge leads to the dazzling Upper Falls. There is no actual town of Lake Louise, but the focal point of the area, Chateau Lake Louise, fulfilled my expectations. The view from the Bavarian-style hotel, built in 1890, is so gorgeous it feels like a mirage with its brilliant turquoise lake in front of snow-covered Mt. Victoria. Our favorite hike, called the Plain of the Six Glaciers, began in front of the Chateau, proceeded around the Lake Louise Lakeshore trail, then climbed through evergreen forests and glacier-scarred terrain, affording ever more breathtaking views of Victoria Glacier and the surrounding snow-covered peaks as we ascended. Exhausted after an hour-and-a-half of climbing, we finally reached our destination: the Plain of the Six Glaciers Teahouse, a rough wooden restaurant built in the 1920s by the CPR. The young staffers live there for the summer and bake the breads, pies and cakes fresh each day. All supplies have to be hiked in or packed in by horse. Needless to say, for tired and famished hikers, tuna sandwiches on fresh baked whole wheat bread and homemade chocolate cake were just what the doctor ordered. Reenergized and restored, our hike down the mountain took half the time. There are many other lakes to visit and day hikes and back country hikes to take in the area, but we were running out of energy. So we rented horses for a ride around Lake Louise with Timberline Tours; took the Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola up Whitehorn Mountain for excellent views of Lake Louise and the Chateau; and enjoyed the relaxing Lake Minnewanka boat cruise.
Families will find no shortage of activities in the Canadian Rockies. Besides some of the best hiking you’ll ever find, there are all kinds of guided tours, bike and boat rentals, camping, fishing, kayaking, horseback riding, golf, rafting trips, and more. Our family agreed this was one of the most satisfying and successful summer vacations we’d ever had.
Vancouver • Vancouver Touristinfo Centre (604) 683-2000
Jasper • The Jasper National Park Information Centre 500 Connaught Drive, Jasper (780) 852-6176
Banff/Lake Louise • Banff/Lake Louise Tourism Bureau (403) 762-0270 or www.banfflakelouise.com • Banff Visitor Information Centre 224 Banff Ave., Banff (403) 762-8421 • Lake Louise Visitor Information Centre Adjacent to the Samson Mall (403) 522-3833