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Bow Lake

The Fairmont offered an excellent breakfast spread every morning of our stay. The usual continental breakfast with an omelette station, oatmeal, crepes du jour, liege waffles, vegetarian quiches, chicken and pork offerings with a ton of fruits, pastries, cheeses, juices, yogurt. Missy JJ actually enjoyed their oatmeal every morning, dubbing it the best oatmeal she had tasted. (And here I thought oatmeal had no flavor, hmm).

The Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper is somewhat akin to the Road to Hana. Its only about 3.5 hrs drive but there is so much to see and do, it could take all day. So we chose to split it into a two-part drive. We planned to drive up to Lake Peyto for that day and on the way back cover Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.

While we had planned our trip well, executing it was quite a different matter. Isn’t that what makes traveling and trip planning so much fun?!

There are two ways to get to Lake Louise, the quicker four-lane route via TransCanada Hwy, Hwy 1. It follows the Bow River, on the other side of which is the original and slower two-lane route called Hwy 1A or Bow Valley Parkway. Opened in 1920, this parkway is under 60 km long and connects Banff with Lake Louise. The route is slower at 60 km/ hr and allows one to enjoy the natural beauty of the towering mountains, the Bow River and the valley.

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Bow River as seen from TransCanada Hwy

The access to Bow Valley Parkway is off the TransCanada Hwy (Hwy 1) and is clearly marked. Despite this, somehow, Mr. JJ and I both missed the exit. By the time we realized and took the exit, we were on the wrong road to Sunshine ski resort. Eventually, we made a safe U-turn and got back on the Trans Canada Hwy, but had missed several kilometers of the Bow Valley Parkway (BVP). So we continued on Hwy 1 until the connection to BVP near Castle Mountain came up and then we took that. There was about 30 km of the parkway left leading up to Lake Louise.

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Castle Mountain from TransCanada Hwy (Image courtesy Mr. JJ)

The BVP provided a much closer view of Castle Mountain and its peaks. While the views from Hwy 1 are entrancing in their own ways, the narrower lanes on the BVP, being so closely bound by majestic mountains, the conifers on either side, make the BVP drive a bit more exciting. With no other cars around us, it felt as if the road had been laid out just for us.

There is an Internment Camp along the way, a memorial for prisoners from WWI that we didn’t stop at. Needless to say, after having missed the first part of the BVP, my mood wasn’t exactly cheery. However, as the hour progressed, we stopped by at a small parking lot and by luck, found the viewing spot for Morant’s Curve. This curve is a natural bend in the Bow River that the railway tracks follow. Framed by stately mountains in the background and a forest of trees around, the River curves solemnly. Leading one to ponder what wonders lie hidden beyond the bend!!

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Morant’s Curve along the Bow Valley Parkway

That first morning, we didn’t see any wild life on the BVP. Once we reached Lake Louise, we made our way to the parking area only to find it full. We followed the directions back to the village entry but the shuttle parking was further away still.

Not wishing to waste time there, we got back on Hwy 1 and then onto Alberta 93 towards the Icefields Parkway. We figured we would stop by Lake Louise and Moraine Lake on our way back.

The Icefields Parkway was captivating, as the books and websites promised. Our first stop was at Herbert Lake where the water was so serene, it almost felt like a mirror lake.

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Still waters at Herbert Lake

Then we came across the viewpoint for Hector Lake, the largest lake in Banff. Unfortunately, the lake access is not easy and requires a lot of walking. But the viewpoint gave a glimpse of the lake.

Our next stop was the Crowfoot Glacier, which is a hanging glacier. Only two claws of the foot are visible now, the glacier having receded much.

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The two claws of the Crowfoot Glacier     (Image courtesy Mr. JJ)

Bow Lake was our next destination. Originating from Bow glacier, this large lake took a while to visit. The lake seemed to change color with the progress of the sun. The only lodging here, the Num-Ti-Jah, was built in the pioneering days by Jimmy Simpson. One of the original outfitters and traders of note, Simpson and his family has lived here since the 1920s. Long before any others called this area home. There are great stories of Jimmy traveling to meet another mountain man Tom Wilson over Christmas, hiking in -20 degree weather for two days and then back. The stories show the love these men had for the nature surrounding them, the hardiness of their bodies and soul and their ability to embrace and relish their solitude. I can’t imagine many of us possess the resilience of mind, body and spirit that these men had. I felt glad to hear and learn their stories and be a part of their home for a short while.

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Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, Bow Lake

Num-ti-Jah, is Stony Indian for pine marten, a type of animal prized for its fur, which Jimmy caught and traded. The lodge stands solitary and proud on the banks of Bow Lake, a colorful contrast in red to the blue-green of the water. We enjoyed not only the unique color of Bow Lake and its exquisite scenery but also the nourishing warmth of the red pepper vegetarian soup that the Lodge offered. For meat lovers, there was bison chili which seemed to be a hit among the other guests.

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Bow Lake  (Image courtesy Mr. JJ)
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Bow Lake

Our last destination on the Icefields Parkway was Peyto Lake. Its named after another pioneer, Wild Bill Peyto, who often visited this area with friends but always snuck away to the shores of this lake to seek solitude. To view this lake, one has to ascend Bow Summit, the highest point along the Icefields Parkway. The Peyto Lake viewpoint is about a 100 foot climb from the lower parking lot. But sections of the Timberline Trail that leads to the viewpoint and beyond are steep. It took us about 15 to 20 minutes to get to the top. The views of Peyto Lake from the summit are breathtaking. We spent a while here sunning ourselves on the gently sloping hillside. Many visitors around us also took a break, eating a picnic lunch, snapping photos and selfies and generally relaxing.

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Peyto Lake

The Timberline Trail leads further upwards into the alpine portion of the mountain but we didn’t follow the trail that day. Back down at the parking lot, we decided to return to Lake Louise and try our luck again.

Once we got back on the TransCanada Hwy, we took a turn that led to Hwy 1 West. Shortly, we realized we were on our way to Yoho National Park ( Yoho NP) instead of to Lake Louise. Since it was on our itinerary for the trip, we decided to pursue the road to Yoho.

Yoho NP is located in the province of British Columbia (BC) whereas the other areas we covered were all in Alberta province. This portion of Canada once lay under the ocean but due to tectonic activity, the plates merged into one another, pushing upwards the layers of rocks, creating the jagged line of the Rockies. The area of Canada east of the Rockies is mainly made up of prairies, an easy proposition while building railways. However, once the surveyors got to this portion of Canada to extend the railway line to the Pacific coast, the going got significantly tough. Full of sheer mountain faces and steep gradients, it’s a wonder they even thought of extending the railways across this area! But they had to persevere and boy! did they ever!

The Kicking Horse Pass in this area was chosen as the site of the railway line as it was the shortest distance to the Pacific coast. A track with a steep grade of 4.5% was originally built here. This made it very dangerous for trains descending into the valley to safely make it down. The very first attempt ended in three deaths. Spur lines were created to help divert runaway trains. Ascending trains similarly needed extra push from locomotives which meant more workers and greater costs. This situation continued for 25 years before a safer and more gradual descent was fashioned after the Swiss “spiral tunnels” by an engineer called Schweitzer.

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A model of the spiral tunnels at Kicking Horse Pass historic site

There were two sets of tunnels created, the Lower and the Upper tunnels, that cross the current TransCanada Hwy and the Kicking Horse River and provide a spiral loop which the trains follow. During this loop, the trains ascend gradually making it safer and come out at a higher elevation. They cross the highway and river again at this higher elevation before making a second and higher spiral loop, once again allowing for a safer climb. Unfortunately, at the time of our visit, there were no actual trains in the tunnels, so it was a bit hard to understand the concept at first.

From the tunnels viewpoint we made our way to Takakkaw Falls, set deep inside the Yoho NP. Along the way, we saw the confluence of the Yoho and Kicking Horse Rivers. The Yoho appears milky due to the glacial silt coloring it while the Kicking Horse is clearer. Never before have we seen such a unique confluence!

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Confluence of Yoho (left, slightly grey) and Kicking Horse Rivers (right, white and clear)

Takakkaw Falls is one of the highest falls in Canada. Its unique in that it first falls vertically about 400 feet, then almost seems to shoot out horizontally before dropping down another 800 feet vertically. A boardwalk leads to a viewpoint close to the base of the falls where one can feel its full force.

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Thundering Takakkaw Falls, Yoho NP

We sat and watched these falls from different points along the walkpath before making our way out of the park. Back on the TransCanada Hwy, we turned into the village of Field where the Yoho NP visitor center is located. The village was an initial settlement for the Canadian Pacific Railway workers as they created the railway lines. It developed into a frontier town and now is home to under 200 residents and provides a charming base to explore Yoho NP.

While there wasn’t much to see in the village, we ate the best black bean burger ever, made in-house, at The Siding Cafe in Field!  The soup was vegetarian as well! To find such hearty vegetarian fare in a small village in Canada was thrilling and astonishing. But then, on this trip, we found several places where vegetarian and vegan options staked as much of a claim as their carnivorous counterparts.

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Field, British Columbia

After a sumptuous meal, we drove to Emerald Lake. one of the beauties of this area. As its name suggests, it is blue-green like the other lakes and offered a tremendous sense of tranquility. There is a rustic lodge on the shores of this lake that would have been a perfect spot to spend a night or two at. Exactly the kind of lodging one would hope to have, on a vacation to the Rockies, with grand views of the lake and mountains! Perhaps, if we re-visit this area, I would consider staying here, for a change.

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Emerald Lake, Yoho NP

On the way back to the main highway, we stopped to see the Natural Bridge, a rock formation created by the relentless power of water cutting its own path through stone over hundreds of years. Where water once danced its way as a waterfall, it now gushes underneath a natural stone bridge through large channels. Many years in the future, there will be only a chasm separating the two sides of the bridge, the handiwork of water and time.

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Natural Bridge, Yoho NP

Yoho in Cree language translates to awe and wonder. Indeed, Yoho NP was aptly named. I was happy we took the time to visit this nearby yet less visited area. Not only did we not have to deal with the crowds, but the natural wonders here were no less unique or exquisite than the ones in Banff and Jasper.

I don’t know whose voice is on the Gypsy audio guides, but the kids christened him RogeOrge. He traveled with us on all the drives, throwing in snippets of information like the geology, the geography, the history of the places. The life of the pioneers, the animals that inhabit this land, how to safely view wild life, and on and on. In fact, by the time we drove back to Calgary, the kids became quite attached to RogeOrge and even bid him solemn goodbyes!

Trips take us to different places and expose us to what lies beyond our home and hearth. They also provide a blank canvas for creating a unique set of memories, a few best forgotten but the majority to be cherished. Some day in the future, we may not remember the names of all the places we visited but we will carry the essence of the trip, in the stories and laughter we shared, in the experiences we lived through, in the foods that we tasted, in the voices we heard. And the silly names that we created!