Canada’s Rocky Mountains are located in the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. Within Alberta, the locations of Lake Louise, Jasper, and Banff provide many opportunities for alpine experiences. The landscape includes peaks, valleys, canyons, rivers, glacial lakes, forests, waterfalls, and lots of wildlife. I will write about Banff, the larger, more commercial of the three in a future column.
Lake Louise and Jasper serve as the gateways to the Icefields Parkway, surely one of the most scenic drives in the world. Lake Louise, with the stately Chateau Lake Louise facing the Victoria Glacier at the other end of the lake, is very popular with tourists. There is a pathway around one side of the lake to the foot of the glacier, and hiking trails lead off of it. The “village” of Lake Louise is actually a strip mall about two and a half miles from the lake.
The classic hike in Lake Louise is to the Agnes Tea House, situated next to Lake Agnes, which is named for the wife of Canada’s first prime minister. A hike past two lakes and a waterfall to a cozy tea room more than a hundred years old serving tea brewed with glacial water sounded charming to us, especially since we awoke to a cold, drizzly day. Here’s what the guidebooks didn’t tell us. The hikewas steep and sure seemed longer than the advertised just over two miles and the teahouse, described as rustic, truly is. There is very limited seating inside the building with a little more on the outside porch and there are hordes who make this trek. We were lucky as we went early and beat the crowd. There is no electricity. They helicopter in some large provisions, but mostly the young women who work there hike up with the supplies. There is no running water; the water for the beverages comes right from the lake. No electricity also means no modern bathroom and no credit cards. Yet, it was a lovely hike and we did enjoy our refreshments there.
Another popular hike is to the Plain of Six Glaciers for eye popping views of the Victoria Glacier and, as the name implies, five others.
In the warmer months, the gondola at the Lake Louise Ski Area, four plus miles from the lake, whisks passengers up almost 7,000 feet from where there is a panoramic view over the Bow (River) Valley. A Wildlife Interpretive Centre is a short downhill walk from the top of the gondola. Although guided hikes are offered, many of the trails are closed off with electrified fences because, as everyone kept telling us, and the signs indicated, this is grizzly bear country. Beforeascending the gondola, we were required to watch a safety video about bears. Alas, we saw none!
Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway more than a hundred years ago and now operating as a Fairmount property, it is worth the splurge to stay at the Chateau Lake Louise and be just steps from the lake, able to appreciate the lighting on the lake and surrounding mountains at all hours of the day. The color of the water varied from emerald to deep turquoise to teal, depending on the direction (and often absence!) of the sun. The hotel is lovely, but crowded and very busy. There are five restaurants as well as a 24-hour deli; dinner reservations are a must. If planning a stay at the Chateau, do join the Fairmount President’s club. It affords expedited check in and check out, as well as free WIFI.
Fifteen minutes from Lake Louise is Moraine Lake. Located in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, that says it all about the scenery. A smaller lake, it is located on the road between the village and the Chateau. It is less touristed than Louise, but the parking lot does fill quickly and the road closes in the colder months. It is claimed that the view overlooking the lake with the snow-capped mountains behind is one of the most photographed spotsin Canada; it adorned the back of the Canadian twenty-dollar bills printed in the 1970s. As at Lake Louise, there is canoe rental. The Moraine Lake Lodge located here is a somewhat more rustic, but quieter choice than the Chateau.
Despite its focus on tourism, Jasper, about 150 miles from Lake Louise, gave us the feel of a true mountain town and we loved it. Located within Jasper National Park, a World Heritage Site, the population of just over 4,000 is tightly controlled; new residents must have a “need to reside.” That is, they must be involved with some type of business in the town or be the spouse or dependent of an eligible resident. Homeowners do not own the property on which their houses are located; they lease it from Parks Canada. Most of the residents are employed in tourism related concerns or work for the railroad.
The commercial part of town is basically two long blocks housing shops and a number of very good restaurants featuring a variety of cuisines. The National Park visitor center is located in town.
There are many lakes in the Park; the two most visited are Medicine and Maligne (“muh leen”). Medicine Lake is interesting because of the extreme fluctuation of its water level. In the spring and summer, snow melt floods the lake. The water gradually disappears toa mudflat in fall and winter. This change is due to the lake’s natural underground drainage system; it got its name from the Aboriginal people who observed this rather magical phenomenon.
The mystery of where the water of Medicine Lake goes can be answered in part by a visit to Maligne Canyon, 10 miles away. A 165-foot deep, narrow gorge through limestone, it is the deepest gorge in Canada. The trail around it and its series of bridges is easily traversed for vertigo inspiring views of rushing rapids, thundering waterfalls, and interesting rock formations. I’m not a big fan of park gift shops, but the one here is worth a stop for its wide selection of Native and Inuit art and jewelry. The carved jade pieces displayed in cases are spectacular, including one valued at a million dollars. I couldn’t resist buying a pair of earrings, priced well under that million-dollar tag.
Maligne Lake is the largest glacial lake in Canada; in the world, it is second largest to one in Siberia. The lake offers a gentle trail around it, boating, trout fishing, and arguably the prettiest narrated lake cruise in the Canadian Rockies. If interested in this cruise, reservations are a must as tour companies book seats early. Maligne Lake Chalet offers afternoon high tea in a rustic setting overlooking the lake.
The Jasper Tramwaywhisks visitors in a 30-passenger car up Whistlers Mountain (7,000+ feet) for panoramic views of the area’s lakes, rivers, peaks and valleys. Guided hiking trips are available for those who don’t want to venture off on their own. The lines for the trip, which lasts seven minutes, can be very long during peak tourist time. Reservations can be made online 24 hours in advance.
Hiking opportunities abound in Jasper National Park. There are some hikes that leave right from downtown Jasper.
Jasper’s version of Chateau Lake Louise is the Fairmount Jasper Park Lodge with its golf course, restaurants, shopping promenade and room for almost 1,000 guests, and located on Lac Beauvert. We debated staying there, but after Lake Louise, we didn’t want another self contained situation and chose to stay in one of the hotels closer to town from where we could walk to restaurants and shops. With a hiking trail out back, it was perfect for us to truly enjoy all that Jasper offered.
Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is a former board member of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.