Waking up to the crisp, mountain air of the Canadian Rockies and a sparkling lake and a tasty breakfast in front of you is such a treat. Add to that a few wild elk on your cabin doorstep and it is certainly a rare experience!
We have woken up at The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and have a few of the ‘locals’ paying us a visit… It is rutting season here in Canada, and the bulls are all displaying their typical mating behaviours, posturing, sparring and a bit of ‘bugling’; their mating call which I heard overnight from the cabin. This bull has a group of around five ladies and one of them is getting a little close to Clint, who is trapped on the porch of another cabin. A little terrified that the jealous bull will charge him (Clint is looking pretty attractive in his bright orange jacket), he stands completely still as if he is not a threat at all. In the end, the female wanders off leaving Clint able to escape to breakfast.
Exploring the Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies
With such a start to the day, it is no wonder we are itching for more treats that this amazing region has in store. Today, we are continuing our APT tour and driving along one of the most scenic roads in the world, the Icefields Parkway. This is a national treasure in Canada and stretches through the heart of the Canadian Rockies, through both Jasper and Banff National Parks and World Heritage Sites, flanked by hundreds of glaciers and lakes on either side.
One such glacier is our halfway stop-off point. We are going to take an incredible ice-explorer journey onto the Athabasca Glacier and spend some time literally walking on ice.
These ice-explorer vehicles are incredibly unique. Existing only here in the Canadian Rockies and in Antarctica, they have been custom built to climb intensely steep gradients, and move on top of glacial ice that is 300 metres thick. Our driver today is Masimo, who assures us he is the best Japanese-accountant–turned-Ice-Explorer-driver we will meet today! He throws this beast (which has wheels taller than my head) into 6WD and begins an 18-degree descent down a hill which marks where the glacier used to exist.
The Athabasca Glacier is six kilometres long and one kilometre wide. It is retreating due to glacial melt at fifteen metres per year, and we can see where it used to reach way back in the 1800s – all the way to the Visitor Centre, which is a few kilometres away at least.
Today, we are climbing onto ice as deep as the Eiffel Tower is tall. Once the ice-explorer comes to a stop in the middle of the glacier, we climb down and take in the immense whiteness of the ice all around us. It’s truly a unique adventure. We are all rugged up in our thermals, scarves and hats – temperatures can be well below zero up here – and it’s just a sheer thrill being on top of such a natural wonder.
Warming up with a coffee back at the Visitors Centre, its time to hit the road again and head to the ‘jewel of the Rockies’, Lake Louise. The famous turquoise lake, with its crowning glory – The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise – perched at one end, is world famous. Celebrities and royalty visit regularly, and more than 20,000 visitors can be seen here on a daily basis in the height of summer, all to witness this Canadian icon. It began life as a pioneering alpine base for outdoor adventurers and was the vision of Cornelius Van Horne, general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1890. From a one-story log cabin, it has grown into a world-class hotel with hundreds of rooms and 8 restaurants, opening to skiers in the winter, tourists in the summer and adventurers all year round.
Originally named the Emerald Lake due to its colour, Lake Louise is one of those rare pictures of unrivalled beauty. Flanked by mountains at almost every edge, including imposing Mount Victoria at its centre, the lake looks almost unreal. We met with Mountain Heritage guide Jeff for a walk around the lake and to get to know more about this incredible part of the country.
Dinner that night at the Chateau is equally as sublime and authentically Canadian. With a trio of game meats including local bison, elk and venison, you truly felt like royalty at this incredible chateau.
The next day we woke to incredible views of the lake outside our rooms and reluctantly tore ourselves away to leave Lake Louise and head to our final destination on our Canadian Rockies itinerary – the birthplace of tourism in the Canadian Rockies, Banff.
Pioneered as a destination by Cornelius Van Horne, who famously said ‘if we can’t export the scenery, we will import the tourists’, the nearby natural hot springs were the original source of attraction for visitors who came from all over the country for medicinal purposes. Nowadays, it is a meeting point for tourists, adventurers and skiers and home to a population of people who seek outdoor lifestyles. With Cascade Mountain perched spectacularly at one end of the town, Sulphur Mountain on another and a quaint village which is home to around 8,000 people at a time in the middle, this is a truly great place to visit, whatever your reason.
One of the best ways to see it is from up high, and we jump on the Banff Gondola for a view. Heading up Sulphur Mountain, though, it is becoming increasingly obvious that we might not actually get the view… We are ascending into a thick fog that seems to go on for miles. Getting out at the top, we kind of feel like we will be coming straight back down. However, one step out onto the observation platform and our breath is taken away. Yes, there is a sea of cloud before us, but rising out of that cloud are the most incredible, majestic mountain peaks, against a background of pure blue sky. You couldn’t have painted a more amazing picture.
Back on the ground, we are heading to a hotel that is a tourist attraction and destination onto itself. The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is another world famous icon. Styled after a Scottish Baronial Castle, this ‘castle in the Rockies’ perches on a hill overlooking Bow Valley and commands attention and respect. With a history stretching back to 1888, no better person is placed to take us on a tour than Dave Moberg, resident historian and the hotel’s longest serving employee of more than 50 years. Dave has seen his fair share of changes at the hotel and has many memories and experiences to recount, his favourite being when they hosted Marilyn Monroe.
It is the perfect ending to our adventure in the Canadian Rockies – surrounded by awesome mountain peaks, the Bow River flowing in the valley and the sun lighting up the green landscape. The memories we will have will be full of bears and other wildlife, amazing food, soaring peaks, aquamarine lakes, and perhaps more than anything, the people who shared their incredible country with us, the friendliest locals on the planet.
Have you ever visited the Canadian Rockies and their spectacular national parks?