As I sit and write on today, Canada Day, I’m reminded of a recent Canada Day adventure. In July 2009 we vacationed in Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, spending a week hiking and trekking the Canadian Rockies. Keeping with tradition, I’ve distilled all the photographs down to nine that I especially like. Coincidentally, they’re all from Banff. (Sorry Jasper, but you had all the thunderstorm days.) So call this Banff in 9 Photographs.
We’d been talking about and preparing for this trip for quite some time, now. Recession pricing on flights and hotels presented a good opportunity to go that year. Multiple last minute trips to MEC had us equipped with an assortment of hiking gear. Reading Kathy and Craig Copeland’s Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies several times, we had quickly assembled a list of too many hikes to do and not enough days to do them in.
We drove out of Calgary on a sunny Friday, on the TransCanada-1, following the meandering Bow River westward. With fields of green and yellow against a blue sky which an occasional white cloud, you could mistake the occasional scene for the great Canadian prairies, but are soon corrected by gray granite monoliths that loom in the horizon, growing larger and revealing more wrinkly texture with each passing minute: the Great Canadian Rockies.
Fourty-five minutes had us in Canmore, last refuge of civilization before entering Banff National Park. For most, the main attraction is the Banff Townsite, complete with touristy trappings such as fancy stores, hot springs and gondolas, with a few “hikes” that offer as much seclusion as Bloor Street during lunch hour.
We opted instead to base at Lake Louise, the famous and oft-pictured turquoise glacial lake with beautiful Victoria glacier dangling in the background. We arrived at Lake Louise around 2 PM; with sunset at 9 PM, that gave us enough time for a 14 km hike, yes?
Plain of the Six Glaciers
13.6 km, 420m elevation, easy-moderate difficulty
We started at the heart of Banff, Lake Louise, with its beautiful turquoise lake teaming with canoes, and throngs of tourists snapping photos of themselves and the majestic view of Victoria Glacier beyond. The flat trail continues around to the other side of the lake, past the river flats, and only there do the number of sandal wearing tourists thin — discouraged by the rising elevation into the forests beyond. Climb up, up, and up, and the forest gives way to a hot, busy, gravel path, advancing up into the mountains. Look behind! There’s the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, set against sparkling Lake Louise, framed by large mountains on the left and right.
Further ahead still, the path forks into two. Take the high path and walk along the edge of canyon walls, black and speckled shades of orange and pink. Take the low path and trudge through drifts of snow, melting and receding in the warm summer sun. The paths merge; some more gravel, switchbacks through the forest, and alas, you’ve arrived at the Tea House!
Most tourists consider the teahouse their final destination, but continue slogging, through the bushes, and follow a desolate ridge line, broken rocks sloping away to both sides. Trudge forth. The lack of human presence, only the sound of the wind howling through the valley, is eerie after jostling with other explorers all afternoon. To your left, two hundred meters below and just one mis-step away, a glacial plain of shattered stone. You’ve arrived at an amazing view of six incredible glaciers, including Victoria Glacier, a stone’s throw away, stories of ice and snow towering above you.
Many thousands take photos every day of Victoria Glacier, 6 kilometers away, from the comfort of the Lake Louise docks. This is what it’s like to be up close and personal.
Helen Lake and Cirque Peak
15.9 km, 930m elevation, moderate-hard difficulty
The previous day’s 13km hike was a mere warmup for Helen Lake and Cirque Peak, the main event. A mere 10 hours after finishing the Victoria Glacier hike, we set off early in the crisp morning cold, up a steep and craggy forested climb. Over the next few hours, the sun and temperatures rose, and we shed layers, eventually emerging into a smooth alpine meadow with short-cropped plants and the occasional small tree. Fording a large stream, we caught a glimpse of our target ahead: Helen Lake, at the base of a sheer rock tower, and a kilometer beyond, Cirque Peak, elevation 9820ft (2990m), protected by a band of loose and craggy rock.
A few easy hours got us to Helen Lake, a gorgeous turquoise glacial runoff lake teeming with marmots … and hikers, for whom Helen Lake is a popular lunch spot. Another half hour gets you to the top of a ridge just beyond, affording a spectacular view of the lake from above. But it’s here that you first get a sight of why Cirque peak is a scramble (and not a hike): a band of boulder-sized rock a hundred meters high, through which sentinels guided us into getting completely lost. When almost all was lost, we popped out onto the main face of Cirque, a scree slope that soon had our pant legs covered in a fine stone dust and our hands covered with little scrapes and cuts.
Halfway up, we were tired — having not yet acquired the scree-climbing technique and in the thin mountain air, we sat down on the slope and looked out at the vista beyond. The summit loomed above us, with an incline that seemed to grow the higher it went up.
Our scramble up the peak turned into an exhausted four-legged crawl — the ten pounds of camera gear didn’t help — and after what seemed like an eternity we finally reached the bottom of a grey rock band of boulders that crowned the peak, guarding the summit above. Conquering this we arrived at a small summit, no larger than a couple hundred square feet around, with sheer drop-offs on multiple sides, affording gorgeous views of the distant Bow Glacier and Bow Lake, the head of the Bow River. In the other direction was a view of Dolomite Peak guarding the valley from which we made our long morning ascent. The feeling in the air was … electric. About ten kilometers distant dark storm clouds gathered and stirred, which prompted our quick snap of a few photographs, a recharge on trail mix, and a scramble down the peak.
Our ascent down the peak was tiring after a long day of ascending, being not very fast hikers. After we passed Helen Lake, traversing across the alpine meadows, armies of marmots lined the trails, no doubt seeking out tidbits of trail mix or other snacks dropped by hikers. What could make a better photograph, alpine meadows, rocky mountains, blue skies, and wildlife? We didn’t see a soul during our long descent. We only found out later that everyone else had been flushed down the trail, a couple of hours earlier, by a grizzly bear who was prowling a mere hundred meters from Helen Lake.
The amazing thing about Banff is you need not hike all day to gain an incredible view. A short stroll around beautiful Lake Moraine and a lakeside nap afforded valuable rest for weary muscles the day after the Cirque Peak summit. Lake Moraine is also the start of the famed Valley of the Ten Peaks / Sentinel Pass hike, a four hour hike which we returned a few days later to experience (alas, on a cloudy day, not many good photographs).
The most magical and tranquil moment of the trip was, surprisingly, at Lake Louise. Go to Lake Louise on any given summer day and you’ll find normally find it teeming with flip-flop wearing tourists renting canoes. Go to Lake Louise at sunrise, at 5 AM, and you’ll find it the most relaxing and tranquil place — alone, we enjoyed the golden light striking the forested mountains, and the sun lifting the morning fog revealing a gorgeous Victoria Glacier beyond.
We were quite sad to leave Banff, truly one of our national treasures. If you haven’t been, go. If you have been, cherish the memories, but be sure to go again. I’m sure we’ll be back!