Friday night we flew into Calgary around 9. We made it to our hotel around 10pm as the sun was setting. The next morning we went back to the airport to pick up our rental car. The thrifty agent let us know they had a “special” on 4x4s and he recommended it if we were driving in the mountains. It would only be twice the price of the compact we’d requested. We declined. Suddenly our original compact car disappeared from their system and we received a free upgrade to the 4×4 SUV. Golly, aren’t we special? We drove off in a brand new Hyundai SUV thinking we’d outsmarted the system (clearly they ran out of compacts and would have had to give us the SUV whether we paid the higher price or not). Fate wouldn’t let us get away with it…but more on that later…
We drove from Calgary out to Banff without stopping. We kept on going past the sights we’d seen in December 2016 to head to Jasper, which we had to drop from our list back then because the Icefields Parkway was too dangerous.
This time around, the only danger came from constant construction on the road and constant rain. And by constant I mean every day of the trip without fail.
We stopped at Mistaya Canyon for a short hike to the waterfalls on our way to Parker Ridge. At the ridge, we could see nasty storm clouds coming in and ran back down from the top without hiking all the way down on the other side. I say we ran, but the trail was already mushy from days of rain so it was more like slipping and sliding. We both fell at different points on the trail but were able to stop ourselves from splatting an entire body part in the mud.
On the drive from the ridge to Jasper, we came across a grizzly bear grazing on vegetation near the road. We’d gone the entire Montana trip without seeing a grizzly, and the only black bears we saw were far up on a hill. This fellow was only twenty feet from our car. And, unlike in Montana, nobody warned us at any time about the need for bear spray. I guess, like the people, the bears are nicer in Canada.
The next day we visited Maligne Canyon, which is similar to Johnston Canyon in Banff in that it’s a series of waterfalls along a forest trail. Unlike Johnston, this one is a dirt trail which, like Parker Ridge, had (in parts) turned to a MOV demolition-derby style mud-fest by the time we arrived.
From Maligne Canyon, we tried to visit Maligne Lake by driving up the mountain into falling snow. By the time we arrived at the lake the restaurant had just closed and the mountain hid behind the snow clouds so we went back to Jasper to eat dinner and check-in.
Unlike our last trip to Canada (in the winter) we were able to find quite a few good restaurants. I guess the Michelin reviewers don’t ski.
On Sunday we visited Sunwapta Falls and walked down the trail to the river and back. On the way to Pyramid Lake, we spotted more bears. First, a momma brown bear with a cub, then a wandering black bear. At Pyramid Lake, we stopped in the forest to sit with some young Elk grazing along a hiking trail. At the lake, we watched fly fishermen for a bit before driving to the other side and walking out to the island. We didn’t stay long due to the cold winds blasting across the lake.
We attempted to take the Jasper gondola before dinner, but the same winds that blasted the lake had shaken the cables enough to shut the operation down.
On Monday we knew that we might see more blue sky than the rest of the week, so we switched our reservations to walk on Athabasca Glacier and headed down the icefield parkway. When we finally hopped off the arctic bus we learned the storms left a few feet of snow on the glacier, turning the ordinarily crystal blue wall into another heaping snow drift in the distance. On the way there we’d seen a bighorn sheep standing on the side of the road. When we stepped out onto the glacier skywalk (a few miles up the road from Athabasca) a mountain goat made it’s way down from the hills to walk beneath the glass under our feet.
On the way back to Jasper we saw yet another bear. Two bears actually, an adult and juvenile grazing the same open patch of grass next to the road. Trying again for the gondola we went all the way up. From there we could see Beauvert Lake, but not the traffic on the only road in. We pressed through to visit the Lake, thinking we could drive around the other side but found that road closed to auto traffic. After dinner, we visited Edith and Anette Lake.
On Tuesday we needed to make our way to Banff, stopping where we wanted along the way since we’d already seen the glacier. Barely outside of Jasper, we hiked out to the valley of five lakes; a series of oval lakes known for their deep emerald color. An hour or so later we stopped at Tangle Falls on the parkway, and after that, the tandem of Panther and Angel falls, which aren’t actually labeled. Despite the unnecessary mystery, the adequately named Panther Falls was both one of the easiest to reach on the trip and most powerful.
With plenty of daylight left, I asked Sam to find something new to kill time. With no cell phone service, but a saved Google Map we only had a star and a road to go by. After twenty minutes of zooming down the road off the icefield parkway, we discovered the star was placed on an Icefields helicopter tour operation. However, down the road, a dirt path offered our 4×4 access to the Cline Riverbed. We’ve since learned that the river normally comes all the way to the banks, but apparently in summer (or for some other reason) when we arrived it had shrunk back from the banks maybe a half mile and created a beautiful shallow blue “lake” beneath jutting mountain ranges.
After spinning around a few times we made a beeline for Banff for dinner. However, yet again, we stopped to view black bears at two separate spots on the road.
On Wednesday, we returned to Johnston Canyon, which we’d visited on our last trip when the waterfalls were frozen. During the last visit, our GoPro and DSLR both failed when we came to the upper falls viewpoint. In a stirring coincidence that might convince a less-skeptical person of hauntings, ghosts, or astral energy vortexes, the GoPro started corrupting all remaining video files from the trip immediately after we left the same spot. Luckily my new camera survived intact….but only temporarily.
We visited the Vermillion Lakes next, vastly different than during the dramatic winter sunrises we’d seen before (though vastly safer to approach the waters). The mountains behind the town were hidden in fog so we drove up to the viewpoint. The last time I visited the Banff viewpoint I tried to take sunrise photography and ended up freezing the camera with my own breath in the negative thirty degree cold. This time we spent some time walking around in the fog listening to a large family of marmots warn each other about our presence before popping in and out of their holes. This has to be the place where whack-a-mole was invented.
Also unknown to us last time was the fair-tale forest behind the viewpoint. A conglomeration of tangled trees rooted in an increasingly vertical hillside and covered in moss and lichen itched for an elf, or something darker, to appear in the drifting mist. These unseen forces beckoned me to worm my way further up through the tall grass into the strange clearings and circles of skeletal black branches. If Sam hadn’t have been there I may have continued on up the hill in search of the perfect photograph and lost my way in the eerie quiet.
We left the forest devoid of animal life and found a family of deer by the railroad tracks below. Further outside of town we saw a trio of antlered elk grazing in the rain. We traveled on to Lake Minnewanka as the clouds began to break. By the time we’d driven to the other side and come to Two Jack Lake conditions were right to take one of those famous “reflection” photos. Except that the demons haunting Johnston Canyon caught up with my camera as well. The image stabilization motors began to fire at random and gave the camera (brand new Sony A7III) seizures until the dreaded black “camera error” screen flashed. Photography for the rest of the trip would be a struggle and by the end of the week, the damn thing would simply flash the “error” screen as soon as it booted up.
The next day we visited another place we’d seen before under different circumstances, this time the difference proved more dramatic. We went to Yoho National Park in British Columbia to see what Natural Bridge looks like when you can’t actually stand under the water. Next, we tried to find Wapta falls, which left us stuck in the snow spinning our wheels in the winter. With no snow to stymie things, life found another way. On the highway down into the canyon, a rock hit our windshield and created a six-inch crack. I’d always seen cracks in other windshields but never been in a car when it received on. The cost of crack repair easily ate up our “free upgrade” to the SUV, so we ended up paying twice as much as we planned for the rental anyway.
As it turns out, the place we got stuck last time wasn’t even the way to the trailhead, it was the way to a viewpoint on the other side of the river from Wapta Falls. Eventually, we got to the real trail, another muddy run through a cloud of mosquitos that eventually gave way to a winding descent next to the mini-Niagra of Wapta Falls.
Hungry after the hike we headed to Emerald Lake, a “winter wonderland” in December that proves just as pretty in warmer times, though with a hell of a lot more Chinese tour buses, and had dinner at the restaurant on the Lake.
With a little more time to kill and rain clouds coming up in the distance we followed a hunch and drove out to Takakkaw Falls, easily Canada’s closest version of Yosemite Falls and a stunning omission from everyone’s “what to see in Banff” list. Maybe it has something to do with the way the rocks surrounding the falls make the whole thing look like a giant butt. It’s one of those things that can’t be un-seen once someone mentions it, as Sam did while we were walking toward it.
On our last full day in Canada, we returned to Peyto Lake. In 2016 we attempted to hike up from the viewpoint, stumbling through the snowdrifts and barely avoiding the occasional cross-country skiers splitting the pines. This time we took the same hiking loop and headed off on another hunch onto a dirt trail. The trail soon led to a rocky outcropping with a much better view of the lake than anything we’d seen before.
On our way back to Banff, we stopped at Lake Louise, now infested with more tourists than Times Square. We wanted to visit the other lake, but found the road closed as it was “full.” Instead, we took the Banff Gondola up the mountain to eat dinner at the buffet.