I spent three days exploring Alberta’s Rocky Mountains back in August 2011. Three days is of course inadequate for covering the whole of this vast area, but it’s enough time to get caught in its majestic spell. Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise are ideal stops for acquiring a taste of the Canadian Rockies.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Banff National Park is the third oldest of its kind in the world, having been established in 1885. The town itself is also the most populous in the region, and I was glad that my hostel was located away from Banff Avenue with its bustling tourists. Banff Y Mountain Lodge is situated right next to the Bow River, which is lovely to walk along during sunrise or sunset.
A bus from the town will take you up the base of Sulphur Mountain, and if you don’t have time or desire to hike your way up, it cost just under $35 (at the time of writing) for an adult ticket to take the 10-minute ride on the Gondola. This might seem pricey but the views are definitely worth it. Imagine being surrounded on all sides by nothing but jagged mountains studded with fir trees, as you look down like a royal on your kingdom below. I could have happily stayed up there all day. The gondolas run from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. in summer so technically, you could.
Banff’s Central Park was heaving with midday activity. Lying down basking in the sun, head resting on my backpack, I was reminded of childhood camping trips as mothers dealt out food to their excited kids on picnic tables. It was such a pretty area, but I couldn’t help but wish there were fewer people around. There was something very commercial and glamorous about Banff Town, and if anything I felt slightly left out in my untidy outdoor clothes. I could see hardly anyone else with a backpack, and anyone who did have one was likely to be kitted out in fancy clothes that screamed ‘all gear no idea’. But maybe that was just because the more experienced travellers were out hiking on a mountain somewhere.
I’d heard that Jasper, also a World Heritage Site, was quieter than Banff and contained more wildlife, so had high hopes as I boarded my Brewster bus in the early afternoon. At one point in our journey the bus slowed to a halt. I looked towards the front, wondering if we’d broken down and starting to wish I’d stocked up on more food at the supermarket in case. But no, the bus driver had simply spotted a black bear on the side of the road. I scrambled out of my seat to look through the window on the other side and just caught a view of its large rear as it sneaked behind a bush. A few people on the bus laughed at those tourists who’d got out their cameras excitedly. This was obviously a sight they were used to.
Continuous mountains towering like statues above sparkling-blue lakes dominated the scenery as we carried on along the Icefields Parkway. The air conditioning on the bus stopped working and I grew more impatient, itching to be on my feet again. I instantly noticed a difference upon getting off the bus in Jasper Town. It felt more homely and natural here. I’d booked two nights at the HI-Jasper, which was located 7km southwest of the town. The staff at the tourist information centre will happily book a taxi for you, as buses run less frequently in the evening. A guy in his twenties with long hair picked me up. He must have been drinking coffee all day because he was full of energy, constantly making jokey observations about the tourists as he nodded his head in time to ‘Give it Away’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers whilst the taxi climbed the steep hill up to the hostel.
I walked up some steps into a rustic building, where Fleetwood Mac was playing in the reception. My dorm contained 28 bunk beds and I was reminded of those hospital wards you see on films about World War Two. A tiny Vietnamese girl was in the bed above me. I introduced myself and asked if she wanted to go for a wander outside with me – a decision I soon regretted as I found myself being attacked by midges. Her name was Wen and she was painfully shy and with limited English. If I’d been slightly anxious about travelling alone in a country that spoke my first language, I couldn’t imagine how apprehensive this girl was.
I rose early and packed a small bag, excited for my busy day ahead. Jasper Tramway was about 20 minute’s walk up the road from the hostel. Unlike the Banff Gondola, larger carriages carried groups of us up to Whistlers Mountain, which stands at 2464m high. Puffy clouds surrounded us and the cold air hit me immediately as I stepped out of the tram. As I stood waiting for gaps in the clouds to appear and reveal the view below, I was joined by a group of Chinese tourists who insisted that I be in a photo with them. After my two minutes of feeling like a celebrity I proceeded with the 1.5km hike up to the summit of the mountain. As I climbed higher over the loose rocky terrain, the air gained a greater sting in its bite and I began to regret wearing a playsuit that showed my bare legs.
The views were even more incredible that those on Sulphur Mountain. I was stood level with the mountains, their sharp snow-capped peaks poking up for miles in front of me, with wispy clouds floating lazily between them. I stood gazing in mesmerisation, until a man approached and asked dubiously “Aren’t you cold?” Feeling like I’d been woken from a dream, I turned to him and insisted I was fine. “I’m from Yorkshire,” I joked. He didn’t look convinced. I didn’t want to leave but ten minutes later the chattering of my teeth told me it was probably a good idea.
There was a souvenir shop at the bottom of the tramway and I appreciated the fact that, for once, I could find my name on the gifts! A shuttle bus ran down to Jasper town, from where I would begin my afternoon tour with Sundog Tours. There were only seven of us and I was the youngest and only sole traveller, but because it was a small group I didn’t feel swallowed up. If anything, I felt like everyone was looking out for me, even though I didn’t crave it, and it was quite touching. Our first stop was Maligne Canyon with its steep gorges and gushing falls. Then we were driven onto Maligne Lake, slowing every now and then to make way for a group of care-free mountain sheep taking over the road.
Our group joined a few others as two young guys with ear plugs took us out on a boat trip to Spirit Island, where the magic really began. The name ‘Maligne’ (or ‘malignant’ in English) at first seemed unsuitable for an area of such beauty, but I soon started to understand its relevance. The views were spellbinding – like something from a fantasy film. Huge glacier mountains looked down on the shimmering water, the colour of which was a turquoise-blue unlike anything I’d ever seen before, surrounded by forests on either side. It was an infectious sight, and one could almost believe that there was poison in the lake to make it such an incredibly rich and unique colour. The lake was placid and so inviting, but who knew what secrets were hidden underneath.
When the boat got back to shore we went for a hot drink in the cafe. A Belgian couple sat with me and asked where I was from. Upon learning that I was English the woman sat up with interest and said “Oh! So, do you know how Amy Winehouse died?” I couldn’t help but feel amused. Of all the questions she could have asked me, this was the first one! The man remarked how unusual it was to see people my age on their own here, and that made me feel quite special. As the bus took us back through the Maligne Valley and passed Medicine Lake with its sinister grey water, I realised that I was living in dreamland, and pinched myself when I thought back to the stunning places I’d been that day. My thoughts were interrupted by the bus stopping again, this time because the driver had spotted an elk in the bushes. I could just make out its huge horns.
In the hostel that evening I met a girl from South Korea, an American woman and an Australian girl who was taking the same tour as me the next day. Four people from different areas of the world chatting together – that was a new and exciting experience for me during my first solo travel adventure.
On this morning I got kitted out well and truly professionally: big rugby shirt, jeans tucked into warm socks and trainers. My friends back home would later tease me for how funny I looked. The first stop on today’s tour was Athabasca Falls, with more gorges of sheer velocity. Next we stopped at Columbia Icefield, halfway between Jasper Town and Lake Louise and evidently the largest icefield in the Rockies. A special coach with huge tyres driven by a tall hunky man took us down slowly over the icefield and onto Athabasca Glacier, where we were allowed to get off and walk around. The tour guide used a metal pole to show us how deep the ice went. Luckily there were no crevices nearby for us to fall into.
The tour continued on until we stopped again at another viewing point. I wasn’t sure what we were looking for and followed the others along a path curiously, only to gasp at the view that appeared below. Peyto Lake was even bluer than Maligne Lake and didn’t look real. There were clouds in the sky but they failed to dim the brightness of the water that shone like a diamond, with forests surrounding the lake like a guard protecting a rare jewel. Looking at my photos was like looking at an oil painting. If you go to the Rockies, this is a must-see.
Finally the tour brought us to the famous Lake Louise. It was more enclosed by mountains than Maligne Lake, and dotted with kayaks. I wanted to jump in and join them. As expected the place was brimming with tourists, many of whom wandered over from the fancy Fairmont Chateau nearby. I resented how busy it was, but at the end of the day, you could understand why.
My hostel was situated just north of the quaint village. I went for a wonder round and sat by a river, glad to see less people and hear nothing but bird song and the gentle lapping of the water on the rocks. There was something charming about this little place, and it felt fitting that my last night in the Rockies would be here.
Even though I’d managed to pack a lot into my three days here, it felt way too short. There was so much more to see, and just that brief taste I’d got had made me hungry for more. The next morning I boarded a bus that would take me on into British Columbia. As we wound our way past the mountains with Neil Young entering my head, I felt rejuvenated. My adventurous mindset had been unleashed. I can’t wait to come back and see even more of this amazing part of the world.