My daughter lives in Calgary, Alberta, and that means that I have left no stone unturned, so to speak, in exploring the Canadian Rockies. The area is often called the Alps of North America and is more beautiful, some say, than the American Rockies. Just an hour from my daughter’s home, Banff National Park is the oldest and most visited park in all of Canada. But Banff is actually just the beginning of the wonderland; beyond is an area replete with 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 collectively been designated, together with Banff, as the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And all around the parks are not only a host of beautiful towns but also natural and man-made attractions.
1. Visit Kootenay National Park, Just Beside Banff
From Banff en route to Kootenay National Park, we were welcomed by the old Continental Divide sign. I was thrilled it was all in yellow but unhappy the letters didn’t register well on my camera. It said: “This is the continental spine of western North America. At this location, it separates two watersheds, two provinces, and two national parks.”
Kootenay is not a big 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 lovely stops like Marble Canyon and then Paint Pots, similar to Yellowstone. Unfortunately, the bridge had collapsed at Numa Falls, so we could not get the correct angle to appreciate the scene. But right after we spotted the sign for Radium Hot Springs, we knew we had arrived at Sinclair Canyon which provides a breathtaking scene, a romantic peek of the village below.
Pro Tip: If you don’t have a lot of time, don’t miss the Kootenay Valley Viewpoint.
2. After Kootenay, Descend Upon Columbia Valley
Only a few minutes later, we reached our hotel in the Columbia Valley, the western foothills of the Canadian Rockies (lovingly called the warmer side of Canada) just 2 and a half hours from Calgary. At the Visitor Information Center close by, we were welcomed by some of the bighorn sheep that have made Radium home, waiting to be photographed by two excited new visitors.
3. Radium, A Town In The Columbia Valley
Radium Hot Springs was very near our hotel. It was named after the radioactive element when an analysis of its water showed that it contained small traces of radon, a decay product of radium. Radiation from bathing in the pools is inconsequential for a half-hour soak, so that was how long we stayed at the hot pool. Even if its curative 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 central hub of the valley is the town of Invermere, 13 kilometers south of Radium on the beautiful Windermere Lake, popular for boating in summer and ice skating in winter. The road to the town offered many interesting scenes to be photographed: mountain goats, quaint red-trimmed churches, and fields of dandelions.
5. Golden, The Western Entrance To Yoho
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 town that grew at the confluence of the Columbia and Kicking Horse Rivers. Two other mountain ranges surround it, besides the Rockies.
Pro Tip: Right in the middle of Golden is the striking Kicking Horse Pedestrian Bridge, the longest freestanding timber frame bridge in Canada, 150 feet long and 210,000-pounds heavy in beautiful Burr Arch design. As a community project of the Timber Framers Guild, volunteers from Golden were joined by timber framers from the U.S. and Europe. It was completed in September 2001.
6. Be Amazed At The Yoho National Park
Golden leads you to Yoho National Park. In Cree, “yoho” means awe and wonder. The smallest of the four contiguous national parks, the park’s visitor center is in the small unincorporated community of Field, British Columbia, within the confines of the park along the Trans-Canada Highway cutting through it. Just before reaching Field, the Emerald Lake Road leads to two major points of interest in the park.
7. Natural Bridge, An Impressive Rock Formation
The first is the Natural Bridge, an impressive natural rock formation that spans the flow of the Kicking Horse River where the slower-moving waters from Field begin their descent through a canyon. Rushing water over what once had been a waterfall contributed to the sculpting of the natural formation where the softer rock below its hard limestone band eroded more quickly in 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 because of its vivid turquoise color coming from powdered limestone. Emerald Lake Lodge provides high-end local accommodation amid three mountains that surround the lake. A 3.2-mile hiking trail circles the lake, half of which is accessible to wheelchairs and strollers. In summer, wildflowers abound and canoe rentals are available; in winter, cross-country skiing is the sport.
Pro Tip: If you have the time, try to stop at the Big Hill on the Canadian Pacific Railway main line. It was the railroad’s most difficult section 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 witness one end of the train coming out of 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 called Highway 93 North, running for 142 miles and paralleling the Continental Divide. National Geographic named it one of “20 drives of a lifetime.” This is where interconnected, boundless glaciers dominate the scene. You can experience them much better by riding those huge buses that ply the Columbia Glacial Fields.
The Columbia Icefields Visitor Center offers a warm refuge inside, fun shopping at the busy gift shop, and a comforting bowl of hot soup at the cafeteria. Stepping onto the observation deck, you can take in the whole vista of the famous Athabasca Glacier, the icefield’s biggest. Sadly, it is said to be receding 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 1,000 feet high into the sky on a cliff’s edge. It is the largest cantilevered platform in America with a massive, H-shaped polygonal steel support holding an all-glass curved tension bridge. It loops approximately 150 degrees around the outside edge of the cliff. This overlook is part of an interpretive trail about 400 meters long.
10. Farthest, Second Most Visited, And The Largest: Jasper National Park
The farthest away, the second most visited, and the largest of all, Jasper National Park, is only 3 and a half hours from my daughter’s home. But it is such a landmark of beauty with elegant lakes in glacial waters of a milky greenish hue. And there were lakes galore and we saw three: Medicine Lake, Maligne Lake, and Patricia Lake. Even with the many tourists around, it feels like you are alone amid the serenity of the lakes and snow-covered mountains that protect them in varying hues of blue and purple. Each photo we took seemed to emerge as another painting. We also saw elk cavorting by the road, and we took so many photos.
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 Of The Canadian Rockies
We also took a trip to the border of Alberta and British Columbia. There was another Continental Divide sign. And soon we reached the highest summit of the Canadian Rockies, at over 14,000 feet high. I don’t know why, but the peaks of Mt. Robson stood as imposing as Mt. Rainier’s peak, even though they rested on a base already thousands of feet above sea level!
Pro Tip: Unfortunately, we did not have the time to visit the other two provincial parks. If you want to complete your exploration of the World Heritage Site, find the time for Hamber and Mount Assiniboine Provincial Parks.
12. The Overflow Town Of Banff: Canmore
Lastly, I have to tell you about the town of Canmore, an overflow destination of tourists from the town of Banff and picture-perfect Lake Louise in the Banff National Park. It is even closer to Calgary at the southeast boundary of the park. Since it was chosen to host the Nordic events of the 1988 Winter Olympics, its population has risen to 12,000, exceeding Banff’s 9,000. But the latter is still larger in area and has more establishments. Canmore gives much the same feel while you shop and stroll in the midst of towering glacier-capped mountains.
The Canadian Rockies is one of those special spots on earth, and UNESCO recognized that when it was named a World Heritage Site. We covered it in several trips from my daughter’s home, but if you want to take in everything including Banff in one trip, you probably need at least 2 weeks, better if 3.
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