My daughter lives in Calgary, Alberta, which means I have, so to speak, left no stone unturned when exploring the Canadian Rockies. Often referred to as the Alps of North America, the area is said by some to be more beautiful than the American Rockies. Just an hour’s drive from my daughter’s home, Banff National Park is the oldest and most visited park in all of Canada. But Banff is really just the beginning of the wonderland; beyond is an area full of beauty to behold and adventures to be had.
Three other adjacent national parks — Kootenay, Yoho, and Jasper — and three British Columbia provincial parks — Hamber, Mount Assiniboine, and Mount Robson — have been jointly designated with Banff as the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And around the parks are not only a large number of beautiful cities, but also natural and man-made attractions.
1. Visit Kootenay National Park, just off Banff
From Banff on our way to Kootenay National Park we were welcomed by the old Continental Divide sign. I was glad it was all in yellow, but unfortunately the letters didn’t register well on my camera. It read, “This is the continental backbone of western North America. At this location, it separates two watersheds, two provinces, and two national parks.”
Kootenay is not a large park, but Highway 93 South runs through it as an alternate route to the Trans-Canada Highway through the Rockies. It offers a 60 minute scenic drive with scenic stops such as Marble Canyon and then Paint Pots, similar to Yellowstone. Unfortunately the bridge at Numa Falls had collapsed so we couldn’t get the right angle to appreciate the scene. But right after seeing the sign for Radium Hot Springs, we knew we had arrived at Sinclair Canyon, which offers a breathtaking scene, a romantic peek into the village below.
Pro tip: If you’re short on time, don’t miss the Kootenay Valley Viewpoint.
2. After Kootenay, Descend into Columbia Valley
Just a few minutes later, we reached our hotel in the Columbia Valley, the western foothills of the Canadian Rockies (affectionately called the warmer side of Canada), just 2 and a half hours from Calgary. At the visitor information center nearby, we were welcomed by some of the bighorn sheep who made Radium home, waiting to be photographed by two excited new visitors.
3. Radium, a city in the Columbia Valley
Radium Hot Springs was near our hotel. It was named after the radioactive element when an analysis of the water showed it contained small traces of radon, a decay product of radium. Radiation from bathing in the pools is insignificant for a half hour swim so that was how long we stayed in the warm pool. Even if its healing powers have been disproven, a hot spring in Canada (or anywhere cold) is usually a good idea.
4. Invermere, the central hub of Columbia Valley
The valley’s central hub is the town of Invermere, eight miles south of Radium on beautiful Windermere Lake, popular for boating in summer and ice skating in winter. The road into town offered many interesting scenes to photograph: mountain goats, quaint red-rimmed churches, and fields of dandelions.
5. Golden, Yoho .’s West Entrance
Just 105 kilometers (65 miles) north of Radium is the town of Golden. The Canadian Pacific Railway and the logging industry are both tied to the history of this city, which grew at the confluence of the Columbia and Kicking Horse rivers. Two other mountain ranges surround it, in addition to the Rockies.
Pro tip: Right in the middle of Golden is the striking Kicking Horse Pedestrian Bridge, the longest freestanding wooden frame bridge in Canada, 150 feet long and 210,000 pounds heavy in a beautiful Burr Arch design. As a Timber Framers Guild community project, Golden volunteers were joined by timber frame builders from the US and Europe. It was completed in September 2001.
6. Be Amazed by Yoho National Park
Golden leads you to Yoho National Park. In Cree, “yoho” means awe and wonder. The park’s visitor center, the smallest of the four contiguous national parks, is located in the small unincorporated community of Field, British Columbia, within the park’s boundaries along the Trans-Canada Highway that runs through it. Just before you reach Field, the Emerald Lake Road leads to two major attractions in the park.
7. Natural bridge, an impressive rock formation
The first is the Natural Bridge, an impressive natural rock formation spanning the flow of the Kicking Horse River, where Field’s slower-flowing waters begin their descent through a gorge. Flowing water over what had once been a waterfall contributed to the formation of the natural formation, where the softer rock beneath the hard limestone belt eroded more rapidly into ever-widening fissures.
8. The largest and most beautiful, Emerald Lake
At the end of the road is Emerald Lake, the largest of Yoho’s 61 lakes and ponds, so named for its vibrant turquoise color that comes from powdered limestone. Emerald Lake Lodge offers quality local accommodation amid three mountains that surround the lake. A 5.2-mile hiking trail circles the lake, half of which is wheelchair and stroller accessible. In the summer there are many wildflowers and canoe rentals are available; in winter, cross-country skiing is the sport.
Pro tip: If you have the time, try stopping at the Big Hill on the Canadian Pacific Railway’s mainline. It was the most difficult section of the railway until it was replaced in 1909 by the only spiral tunnel in North America (there are about 70 in the world, mostly in Europe). From the road, you may be able to see one end of the train exiting one tunnel opening while the other enters another.
9. Icefields Parkway Connects Banff to Jasper
From Banff to Jasper, you will drive along the Icefields Parkway, also known as Highway 93 North, which runs for 142 miles and parallels the Continental Divide. National Geographic named it one of the ’20 Rides of a Lifetime’. This is where interconnected, boundless glaciers dominate the scene. You can experience them much better by riding those huge buses that travel through the Columbia Glacial Fields.
The Columbia Icefields Visitor Center offers a warm indoor retreat, fun shopping in the busy gift shop, and a comforting bowl of hot soup in the cafeteria. Entering the observation deck, you can enjoy the whole view of the famous Athabasca Glacier, the largest of the ice field. Unfortunately, it is said to recede 5 meters (16 feet) a year, so it would be good to visit the parkway now.
Pro tip: Take the shuttle to the Columbia Fields Skywalk, a narrow walkway built 300 meters into the sky on the edge of a cliff. It is the largest cantilevered platform in America with a massive, H-shaped polygonal steel support that holds an all-glass curved tension bridge. It runs about 150 degrees around the outer edge of the cliff. This vantage point is part of an interpretive trail about 400 meters long.
10. Farthest, Second Most Visited, and Largest: Jasper National Park
The furthest road, the second most visited and the largest of them all, Jasper National Park, is only 3 and a half hours from my daughter’s house. But it is such a landmark of beauty with elegant lakes in glacial water with a milky greenish hue. And there were lakes in abundance and we saw three of them: Medicine Lake, Maligne Lake and Patricia Lake. Even with the many tourists around, it feels like being alone amid the serenity of the lakes and snow-capped mountains protecting them in varying shades of blue and purple. Every photo we took seemed to become a different painting. We also saw moose romping along the road and we took so many pictures.
Pro tip: Don’t forget to try the aerial trams to get an even better view of the beautiful landscape.
11. Mt. Robson Provincial Park, highest peak in the Canadian Rockies
We also took a trip to the Alberta and British Columbia border. There was another Continental Divide sign. And soon we reached the highest peak of the Canadian Rockies, at over 14,000 feet high. I don’t know why, but the peaks of Mount Robson were as imposing as the peak of Mount Rainier, even though they rested on a base that was already thousands of feet above sea level!
Pro tip: Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit the other two provincial parks. To complete your exploration of the World Heritage Site, make time for Hamber and Mount Assiniboine Provincial Parks.
12. The Overflow City of Banff: Canmore
Finally, I need to tell you about the town of Canmore, a destination overflowing with tourists from the town of Banff and the beautiful Lake Louise in Banff National Park. It is even closer to Calgary on the southeastern boundary of the park. Since it was chosen to host the Scandinavian events of the 1988 Winter Olympics, the population has risen to 12,000, surpassing Banff’s 9,000. But the latter is even larger in terms of surface area and has more branches. Canmore gives you much of the same feeling of shopping and hiking amid towering glacier-capped mountains.
The Canadian Rockies are one of those special places on Earth, and UNESCO recognized it when it was declared a World Heritage Site. We covered it in several trips from my daughter’s house but if you want to include everything including Banff in one trip you’ll probably need at least 2 weeks, better like 3.
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