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Canadian Rockies: Banff and Jasper National Parks

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Picture of a glacial lake along the Icefields Parkway in Alberta Photograph of the Athabasca River in Alberta Picture of little waterfalls along the Icefields Parkway in Alberta Flowers on a hill along the Icefields Parkway in Alberta

Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta are separate adjacent parks for historical and administrative reasons. But they’re really one continuous panorama of spectacular Rocky Mountain scenery. The Trans-Canada Highway leads from Calgary to the town of Banff, and continues north into Banff National Park before it veers west at Lake Louise. From Lake Louise, Route 93, the Icefields Parkway, continues north through Jasper National Park to the town of Jasper. Between Banff and Jasper are 287 kilometers of seemingly endless views of mountains, lakes, waterfalls, and even a “walk-up” glacier.

You can drive the combined park route in a day. But if you want more than an exhausting whirlwind, you’ll want to divide your itinerary between Banff and Jasper, and possibly stop at Lake Louise in between. These towns make great bases for day trips exploring nearby sections of the parks, and have plenty of accommodations. There are also numerous campgrounds along the park route, if that’s what you prefer.

The seasons are another important consideration in planning a visit. The summer months of July and August offer warm and sunny weather that presents the scenery in its full splendor. But they also bring swarms of visitors (and, in some places, mosquitoes), along with peak-season prices for accommodations and traffic jams that turn the Icefields Parkway into an unreasonable facsimile of a Los Angeles freeway. The winter months are popular as well; but the crowds are there for skiing at the resorts around Banff and Jasper rather than for scenery.

You can avoid the crowds if you visit at other times. But you might not avoid unpredictable mountain weather that can make the parks seem like a construction site, with the scenery frustratingly shrouded in a scaffolding of clouds, fog, snow, and elephant-gray sky.

I’ve visited the parks twice. The first time was in summer. Although according to the calendar my second trip was in late May, the weather was more like February most of the time I was there. But the persistent winter offered its own distinctive beauty, along with special opportunities for photographic creativity. (You can read more about that trip and the lessons I learned from it.) What follows is some of what you’ll see if you travel north from Banff to Jasper. The pictures are from both of my visits.

Mount Rundle with rainbow Picture of Banff from Sulphur Mountain
Golf course on the Bow River in Banff Picture of Two Jack Lake with picnic table
Picture of Vermilion Lakes Picture of Mount Rundle from Vermilion Lakes Dusk at Vermilion Lakes

The town of Banff, named for Banffshire County in Scotland, is the most populous and developed part of the Rocky Mountain parks. If you have good weather, a ride on the Sulphur Mountain Gondola is an essential excursion. From 2,281 meters high, you’ll get a panoramic view of Banff and all the surrounding mountains. (The mountain isn’t made of sulfur, and it isn’t smelly. The name comes from the sulfurous hot springs at its foot.)

Although Banff has many fine (and expensive) restaurants, a picnic lunch can be a good way to save money and calories while enjoying a natural setting.

The Vermilion Lakes are a wetlands area along a 4-kilometer scenic loop just west of Banff. During the day, the three lakes are popular places for fishing and canoeing. At dusk, they offer many beautiful spots for quiet contemplation (interrupted only by the buzzing of mosquitoes), and views of iconic saw-toothed Mount Rundle. Castle Mountain Detail Picture of Castle Mountain

Castle Mountain is prominently visible from the Trans-Canada Highway, some 30 kilometers north of Banff. Polymath naturalist Sir James Hector gave it a rather obvious name when he discovered the eroded mountain during his 1858 expedition to explore the geology of the Rockies.

In 1946, General Dwight D. Eisenhower visited Ottawa to give a speech. Prime Minister Mackenzie King used the occasion to pay tribute to the former World War II Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe. Noting that Scotland had given the General a castle, King decided that an appropriate (and even more permanent) Canadian tribute would be to rename Castle Mountain as Mount Eisenhower. The renaming outraged many in Alberta, who saw it as an arbitrary and politically-motivated imposition. It took 33 years of protests and petitions to restore the mountain’s original name; though as a compromise, the highest peak of the “castle” was called Eisenhower Tower.

Picture of Lake Louise Lake Louise and Chateau Grounds
Lake Louise winter reflection Photo of Lake Louise in winter

Lake Louise is a glacial lake 58 kilometers northwest of Banff on the Trans-Canada Highway. It’s an easy day trip from Banff, but staying in the little town that grew around the lake lets you more easily explore the surrounding scenery.

The lake was named for Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria and wife of John Campbell, the Governor-General of Canada from 1878 to 1883. In the summer and the winter ski season, the lake is the centerpiece of a crowded and rather tony resort. The Château Lake Louise, originally one of the “château-style” luxury hotels built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 19th century, occupies prime real estate at the edge of the lake. If luxury isn’t what you’re looking for, more affordable accommodations are available nearby.

Lake Louise with Canoes in winter Canoes at Lake Louise in winter

Typical of Rocky Mountain lakes fed by melting glaciers, the water is too cold for swimming. A sign by the lake reminds visitors that the temperature is a frigid 7 °C, even in August. But the Château rents canoes to paddle around the lake in relative comfort.

In the off-season, when the crowds are gone, the lake presents a brooding scene of ice, clouds, and solitude. The canoes tied up on the pier awaiting warmer weather add a splash of bright red color.
Picture of Moraine Lake horizontal Picture of Moraine Lake vertical Moraine Lake in Winter Winter logs at Moraine Lake

14 kilometers from Lake Louise, Moraine Lake might epitomize the scenic splendor of the Canadian Rockies. Secluded in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, it remains free of extensive commercial development. In summer, the lake’s placid glacial blue water reflects the towering backdrop of the Ten Peaks mountain range. That much-photographed iconic view frequently appears on scenic calendars, advertisements, and computer desktop wallpaper. It was also featured on the 1969 and 1979 versions of the Canadian $20 bill.

A visitor in the off-season might be disappointed to find the world-famous view hidden under a blanket of snow. But in its winter coat, the lake offers a different, less obvious beauty that’s worth taking the time to appreciate, even when winter unexpectedly lingers into what should be late spring.

For a place so renowned for its beauty, Moraine Lake has a surprisingly homely name. In 1893 Walter Wilcox, a student at Yale University, got a summer job mapping the area around Lake Louise. He discovered the lake and named it for a nearby Ice-Age moraine. What’s a moraine? An advancing glacier acts like a giant bulldozer that slowly but relentlessly mows down and pushes along rocks, trees, and anything else in its path. When the glacier retreats, it leaves all that accumulated stuff in a moraine— a pile of debris that marks the glacier’s maximum extent.

Wilcox went on to become an explorer, naturalist, and photographer, and published two books about the Canadian Rockies. But he seems to have lacked imagination when it came to naming the features he discovered. He named the Ten Peaks mountains with the numbers one through ten in the language of the local Nakoda (or Stoney) Indians.
Picture of Peyto Lake from Bow Summit Peyto Lake spring

Bow Summit is the highest point on the Icefields Parkway, 40 kilometers north of Lake Louise. On a sunny summer day, a lookout point off the highway is the place to view Peyto Lake, an astonishing turquoise blue pool set in a forested valley.

The lake’s water comes from Peyto Creek, which carries meltwater from the nearby Peyto glacier. As a glacier slowly advances, it grinds the bedrock under it into a fine powder called “rock flour.” When glacial ice melts, the meltwater carries the rock flour as it flows. The particles remain suspended when that water collects in a lake. Because the size of the rock flour particles is close to the wavelength of red light, a glacial lake absorbs the red part of the solar spectrum. That gives the lake a distinctive color that varies between dark blue and turquoise, depending on the season and the time of day. The lake, creek, and glacier are all named for Ebenezer “Wild Bill” Peyto, the British-born explorer, mountain guide, and warden of Banff National Park from 1913 to 1936.
Athabasca River Picture of a moose in Jasper National Park

The southern boundary of Jasper National Park is 90 kilometers north of Bow Summit on the Icefields Parkway. The park is larger and less developed than its southern neighbor.

From 1817 to 1825, Jasper Hawes ran the North West Company’s provisioning post for fur traders, on a site about 35 kilometers east of the present Jasper townsite. The North West Company gave the post the generic name “Rocky Mountain Portage House.” To distinguish it from another Rocky Mountain Portage House on the Saskatchewan River, fur traders called it “Jasper’s House.” Jasper’s name quickly became synonymous with the whole region surrounding the post, which eventually encompassed a town and a national park.

Picture of Columbia Glacier Photograph of Columbia Glacier Toe of Columbia Glacier

The Icefield Centre is just north of the park boundary. Open from mid-April to mid-October, it’s the visitor center for the Columbia Icefield, a collection of eight glaciers encompassing 325 square kilometers.

Athabasca Glacier is the Columbia Icefield’s “walk-up” glacier. Its leading edge, or “toe,” is less than a kilometer from the Icefield Centre. You can walk there on an easy interpretive trail. If you want to explore Athabasca Glacier beyond the toe, you’ll need specialized equipment and guidance. Or else you can take a commercial tour on a snow coach, a tour bus designed for driving on ice.

Meltwater from Athabasca Glacier is the source of the Athabasca River, which the Icefields Parkway parallels in Jasper National Park. Athapaskaw originally was what the Woods Cree people called the inland delta where the Peace and Athabasca Rivers converge and flow into Athabasca Lake. The lake straddles the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan 1,300 kilometers north of Jasper. Picture of Athabasca Falls Detail of Athabasca Falls Patricia Lake, near Jasper Pyramid Lake, near Jasper

In the Woods Cree language, Athapaskaw means “where there are plants, one after another.” (It might refer to the sparse willow trees and grass growing in the wetlands of the Peace-Athabasca Delta.) Demonstrating the sensitivity to indigenous cultures and languages typical of European explorers, an 18th century cartographer for the fur-trading Hudson’s Bay Company noted that the Cree called the entire lake “Athapison.” 19th century cartographers extended that name (under various spellings) to sections of the river, before settling on Athabasca to refer to the entire river and the lake.

70 kilometers north of the Icefield Centre, the Athabasca River tumbles 24 meters at Athabasca Falls. If you visit in summer, you’ll experience a solid white wall of glacial meltwater plunging over the precipice with a deafening roar. But you’ll probably have to share that experience with lots of other visitors, who emerge from several simultaneously-arriving tour buses to join the occupants of all the cars in the parking lot.

Easily accessible from the Icefields Parkway, Athabasca Falls is one of the most popular summer attractions in the Rocky Mountain parks. In the spring or autumn, the glaciers don’t fill the river to its full summer capacity. But the absence of summer crowds may well compensate for the waterfall’s reduced exuberance.

Pyramid Lake and Patricia Lake are on opposite sides of Pyramid Mountain, north of the Jasper townsite. They’re not on the itinerary of tour buses, which makes them all the more appealing.

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