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.
The itinerary weaves through or near several national parks. If you plan to stop (rather than only driving through), consider purchasing an annual Great Western Pass. For entrance to the 11 western Canadian parks, the price is $54 U.S./$70 C and can be used by up to seven adults. Otherwise, the daily park fee is $7.70 U.S./$10 C per car; half price for solo travelers. For information: Parks Canada, 888/773-8888, parkscanada.gc.ca/.
All rates below are listed in both U.S. and Canadian dollars, based on the exchange rate of $1 Canadian equals just $0.77 U.S. at the time I wrote this story. Lodging rates are for two people except where noted. Prices are for summer high season; room rates drop substantially from fall to spring. Major roads remain open in winter but can be treacherous in snow storms.
Day one: Vancouver to Kamloops, 215 miles
At Hope, a gold rush town barely two hours out of Vancouver on the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1), the scenic show begins. For the next 65 miles to Lytton, the roadway clings to a precarious ledge above the Fraser River as it races, splashing and foaming, through a narrow canyon. Ice-topped peaks tower overhead. Canadians regard this twisty stretch, tunneling repeatedly through rock walls, one of the Trans-Canada's' most challenging. Stop at Alexandria Bridge, where the highway crosses the Fraser, to get a good look at the canyon upriver and down. Just beyond at Hell's Gate, the narrowest part of the gorge, take a Hell's Gate Airtram (adults, $8.48 U.S./$11 C) 500 feet down the cliff side to the river's edge for the views and a Visitor Center lesson in salmon lore.
The little town of Lytton, where the Thompson River joins the Fraser, claims to be Canada's river rafting capital. Here Highway 1 leaves the Fraser and follows the Thompson past the former fur trading post of Cache Creek and on to the crossroads city of Kamloops. En route, the terrain levels and the highway enters a high desert country of grasslands, sagebrush and cactus. The region's fur trading past is detailed at the Kamloops Museum (donation requested). Just north of town, picnic and swim in the warmish (really) lake at Paul Lake Provincial Park (no charge).
Stay in Kamloops. You'll find the cheapest rates at the 75-bed Hostelling International Hostel (250/828-7991), $15.63 U.S./$20.28 C per bunk for non-members; private rooms, $37-$83 U.S./$47-$108 C for up to five people. Elsewhere, try the 36-room Alpine Motel (800/270-1260), $61 U.S./$79 C; the 68-room City Center Travelodge (250/372-8202), $71 U.S./$92 C; or the 203-room Best Western Kamloops Towne (800/665-6674), $116 U.S./$150 C. Dine at the ABC Country Restaurant; a full homespun country meal featuring Salisbury steak, potatoes, a vegetable and roll comes only to about $7 U.S./$8.99 C. The Hostelling crowd favors Peter's Pasta for its similarly cheap fare and hefty portions. For information: Kamloops Visitor Information Center, 888/526-5667, venturekamloops.com/.
Day two: Kamloops to Banff, 305 miles
Expect a long, but gorgeous day of mountain sightseeing as Highway 1 continues east through four national parks: Mt Revelstoke, Glacier, Yoho and Banff. I suggest quickly covering the first 130 miles from Kamloops to Revelstoke, which is where the most dramatic views begin. Out of Revelstoke, keep watch for fields of summer wildflowers as the road traces glacier-spawned Illecillewaet River. Glacier ice drapes the granite peaks high above. In Mount Revelstoke, take a short hike on the Giant Cedars Interpretive Trail, a forest path that provides insights into the ecology of the park's lush, wet woodlands. In Yoho, detour five miles north to aptly named Emerald Lake, one of the country's most photographed gems. Paddle a rental canoe to enjoy it up close. At Spiral Tunnels, take in the Yoho Valley views while pondering the task of building a railroad through these daunting ranges. For now, skip Lake Louise (we'll be back) and continue on to the resort city of Banff for the night.
Stay in Banff. Budget choice is the quite spiffy 216-bed Banff International Hostel (403/762-4122), $21.60 U.S./$28 C per bed for non-members; $49-$55 U.S./$64-$72 C for a private room for two. Elsewhere, check into the 52-room Red Carpet Inn (800/563-4609), $96 U.S./$125 C; the Banff Voyager Inn (403/762-3301), $104 U.S./$135 C; the 27-room Homestead Inn (800/661-1021), $107 U.S./$139 C; the 21-room King Edward Hotel (800/663-3126), $84 U.S./$109 C; 65-room Irwin's Mountain Inn (800/661-1721), $90 U.S./$145 C and the 70-room High Country Inn (800/661-1244), $120 U.S./$155 C. Dine at the newly refurbished Bruno's Café. Tops on the menu is the Canadian maple-glazed salmon plate, $11.57 U.S./$15 C.
For a less urban setting, stay at (unfortunately) pricer Lake Louise, 35 miles north. Two options are the 150-bed Lake Louise International Hostel (403/522-2200), $21.60 U.S./$ 28 C per bunk for non-members; $64 U.S./$83 C for a private room for two; and the 232-room Lake Louise Inn (800/661-9237), $122 U.S./ $159 C. For information: Banff-Lake Louise Visitor Information Center, 403/762-8421, banfflakelouise.com/.
Well-priced bed-and-breakfast lodgings in Banff and Jasper (see below) can be booked though Canada West Accommodations (800/561-3223). Rates range from $73-$135 U.S./$95-$175 C, including breakfast.
Day three: A free day to relax and explore the Banff area
For all their wild and rugged grandeur--this is grizzly country, after all--Canada's Rockies are in some ways surprisingly tamed. Like Europe's very civilized Alps, tourist-swamped Banff is dotted with shops, inns and even an occasional Victorian "tearoom" along its scenic walks. American visitors, accustomed to sharply restricted development in U.S. parks, may be surprised by the extensive commercial development here. I can think of no U.S. national park with the equivalent of the sprawling Banff townsite.
Nevertheless, the village, sitting as it does at the foot of several prominent peaks, is an attractive and fun place to spend a day. The Bow River rushes through its heart, dashing onward down a canyon and over a wide falls. Colorful flags line Banff Avenue, the main street, giving the whole community a festive air.
My favorite spot, especially after the long drive getting to Banff, is the Upper Hot Springs, a giant outdoor hot tub pool perched on a mountain ledge overlooking Bow Valley. At 93 degrees, the steaming water keeps away the chill any season of the year. The springs, operated by Parks Canada, is open until 11 p.m. nightly ($5.75 U.S./$7.50 C). Sandy and I soaked under the stars.
Spend a second night in Banff. Dine this evening at the Barbary Coast Bar & Grille, a lively pub featuring English-style fish and chips with a salad for $6.90 U.S./$8.95 C.
Day four: Banff to Jasper, 175 miles
I don't think I'm in any danger of raising your expectations too high when I say that you are about to experience one of the world's most beautiful mountain drives. From Banff, take the Bow River Parkway north to Lake Louise, stopping en route for the short, moderately steep--and thrilling--hike into Johnston Canyon, where the creek splashes down a series of spectacular waterfalls. At Lake Louise, pause for a romantic stroll around this small alpine lake that sets the standard for beauty by which all mountain lakes must be compared. You surely will agree that it is graced both with an ideal setting--a fairytale land of mountain peaks, green forests and snow-covered glacier--and its exquisite turquoise color.
The Icefields Parkway begins just to the north, and your head may swivel antically trying to capture all the views along its route. To the left, a sliver thread of a waterfall plunges over a cliff, its wisp of a stream caught in a breeze and tossed right back up the mountainside. To the right, a jagged mountain ridge soars above, its sawtooth edges outlined in snow. Ahead looms Athabasca Glacier, one of the largest and most accessible of the region's many ice flows. More than a half mile wide and four miles long, it slides at (ahem) glacial pace down the mountainside to near the parkway. A short trail leads up the ice for first-hand glacier trekking, or you can join a snow coach tour ($20 U.S./$27 C adults) departing from the Icefields Visitor Center.For information: Columbia Icefields Snowcoach Tours, 877/423-7433.
From the Icefields, the parkway descends into the quiet little resort town of Jasper, where you will find one more natural spectacle not to be missed. About 12 miles north of town at slender Maligne Canyon--"The Valley of the Wicked River"--the Maligne spins and churns through a deep, rock-lined channel that seems in places barely an arm's width wide. A trail follows its progress, crossing the chasm by bridge at especially good viewing spots. You can't beat this show as a rousing climax to a magnificent mountain drive.
Stay in Jasper. Here again the budget choice is the 84-bed, chalet-style Jasper International Hostel (877/852-0781), $17.70 U.S./$23 C per bunk for non-members; private rooms, $37 U.S./$56 C for two. Four more rustic (and cheaper) hostels in the Jasper area can be booked though the same number. Other lodgings: the 61-room Athabasca Hotel (780/852-3386), $68 U.S./$89 C with shared bath; 56-room Jasper House Bungalows (780/852-4535), $108 U.S./$140 C; and the 100-room Maligne Lodge (800/661-1315), $140 U.S./$189 C. Dine on the ribs and chicken combo ($11.55 U.S./$14.99 C) at Earl's in the Rockies or the curried pork chop plate ($13.80 U.S./$18 C) at Fiddle River Seafood Company.
Day five and six: Homeward bound
If you're flying home from Calgary, retrace your path south on the Icefields Parkway and east on Highway 1 to the Calgary airport, 210 miles. If you are returning to Vancouver (or Seattle), take Highway 16 west through scenic Mount Robson Provincial Park to Highway 5 south to Kamloops for a sixth night, 300 miles. Connect next morning to the Coquihalla Highway, a high-speed toll road ($7.70 U.S./$10 C), to Hope and continue on Highway 1 into Vancouver, 215 miles.