From Vancouver to Calgary
Fasten your seat belt: it's an exciting ride through Canada's most magnificent scenery
Our car climbed higher and higher into what increasingly looked like the mountain realm of an ancient ice king, a frozen Never-Summer Land in the Canadian Rockies as beautiful as it is eerie and awing. Steep rocky peaks cloaked in snow stood sentinel like castle towers guarding the massive glaciers around us. Though it was late spring the wind blew cold, and dark clouds seemed ready to unleash a blizzard at any moment. I half expected Frosty the Snowman to come scampering over the ice warning us to turn back.
We were headed north on the aptly named Icefields Parkway. It's a glacier-lined stretch of road that easily manages to out-dazzle all the rest of the almost non-stop scenic spectacles to be found on a five-day, 900-mile drive east via the Parkway from Vancouver in British Columbia to Calgary in Alberta in western Canada. I first explored the Canadian Rockies as a new college grad with only a few leftover bucks in my wallet. Go today, and you could get by almost as inexpensively, given the current weakness of the Canadian dollar. Right now, the whole country is a bargain. Meal prices, especially, are amazingly cheap.
On that initial trip, I mostly camped. But serious budget travelers who don't want to rough it can take advantage of the dozen or so hostels that line the route, including a choice of appropriately woodsy looking hostels at Banff and Jasper national parks in the heart of the Rockies that charge under $18 U.S. per bunk. Still too Spartan? No problem: Quality hotels, motels and lodges, which might be considered too pricey in other years, now are surprisingly affordable thanks to the favorable exchange rate. For the money, you're rewarded with some of the most magnificent mountain views in North America.
The high peaks of the Canadian Rockies, soaring to 12,000 feet, stretch northwest through a mostly wilderness landscape from Glacier National Park in Montana on the U.S.-Canada border across the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia to the Yukon Territory. In every direction, dense evergreen forests blanket the mountainsides, here and there broken by rolling grasslands. Seemingly countless lakes, many a startling blue or green, catch the eye. And cascading streams race through deep, hidden canyons or plunge in spectacular falls. At higher elevations, the woodlands give way to Arctic-like tundra and ultimately to barren, snow-draped crags.
As I re-read these words, I realize I've painted an intimidating picture of the Rockies, but this is the impression I've retained from my first encounter and from more recent visits (non-camping) with my wife Sandy. Still, just where you need them, bustling resort towns and other pockets of civilization have sprung up--though in places perhaps a little rough-edged as befits their frontier-like setting. It's from one such pocket to the next that I've plotted a basic five-day itinerary, budget- priced, that could be extended as money and time allow.
Along the way, you'll have opportunities to hike, stroll across a glacier and soak in a hot springs pool. In Banff National Park, the trail not to be missed leads into Johnston Canyon. Deep and narrow, the rocky canyon turns its little creek into an incredible splashing frenzy of whitewater. In a gusty wind, you'll get wet. And keep your eyes open for wildlife. One morning in Jasper, I awoke to see a half dozen elk nibbling at grass beside the lake in front of our cabin. Once, a herd of woolly bighorn sheep brought traffic to a halt as they grazed on a rocky ledge just above the Icefields Parkway.
The itinerary described below takes you one way from Vancouver to Calgary, the most convenient and scenic route. But flying into Vancouver and out of Calgary (or vice versa), while it saves you time, isn't the most economical routing. Unfortunately, the one-way drop-off charge for renting a car in one city and returning it to another can add as much as $250 to $300 (U.S.) to a week's rental.
Rather than fork over that extra sum, consider adding a day to the itinerary and returning the car to the city where you rented it. You would have to retrace only a very small portion of the route already traveled. A check of the Internet shows Hertz (hertz.com/) offer rates as low as $106 (U.S.) from Vancouver for a week's rental of an economy class car with unlimited mileage. (Budget's one-way rental charge is $379.) Similarly, air fares may be cheaper by flying into and out of the same city. Air Canada and most major U.S. airlines serve both Vancouver and Calgary.
Another money-saving option: Fly into and out of Seattle, about 145 miles south of Vancouver. By doing so, you can take advantage of lower air fares on such discount airlines as Southwest, Frontier, America West and America Trans Air. On the Internet, National (800/227-7368) has been quoting a one-week rental from Seattle beginning at $127 with unlimited mileage.