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The Canadian Rockies!

Title picThe American Rockies have been one of our favorite places to visit in the world. Despite making a sort of an unofficial pact not to repeat a destination, we have ended up at Yellowstone and Grand Tetons about 4 times. So we were certain that  we would love the Canadian Rockies. We visited Banff and Jasper for a 5 day trip this July and really enjoyed it.  For a change, I am structuring this trip report as an FAQ. These are some of the questions I got after the trip.

Were 5 days sufficient to see Banff and Jasper?

Obviously, one could spend months here and still not cover everything sight.   We like to keep our trips short because we have only so many vacation days and so many other places to see.  In my opinion, 5 days were sufficient to see most of the highlights and really get a sense of the area. Our itinerary was quite laid back since we had two kids and my mom.  This was our itinerary

Day 1: Land in Calgary early afternoon.  Have dinner with friends in Calgary and stay overnight in Calgary.

Day 2: Drive to Banff and tour Banff National Park, spend the night near Lake Louise.

Day 3: Lake Louise and traverse the Ice-Fields Parkway to Jasper

Day 4: Tour Jasper national park, spend the night in Jasper.

Day 5: More Jasper, Icefields Parkway Glacier Walk, Back to Banff

Day 6: Banff town and red eye flight back to DC.

We managed to stick to this itinerary for  most of this trip.  We had to make a few changes to accommodate the weather – Lake Louise was moved to Day 5 because it was raining on the morning of Day 3. Also we spent half of Day 6 going back to some of our favorite spots in Banff National Park because the town of Banff wasn’t that appealing to us.  If I had to do it again, I might swap the night we spent in Lake Louise with the night at Banff. All in all it was a very manageable itinerary.
Did you see any animals?

ElkYou bet we did! We started off small with Columbian ground squirrels at the Cascade Ponds picnic area at Banff National Park.  These squirrels were larger than the normal squirrels and hadRed Squireel a distinctive and non-stop squeak.  The Cascade Ponds area seemed to be over run with these inquisitive squirrels –they would scamper about if we ignored them stand up like a meerkat but at the slightest hint of a movement towards them, they would dive down deep into their burrows in the ground.

The Palliser Exhibition Viewpoint at Banff was the best spot according to our trusty guide book (a photography guide by Darwin Wiggett) and  he was absolutely right. We saw several bighorn sheep and  kids sunning themselves by the side of the road. They caused a minor traffic jam but I managed to get some really good pictures without even getting out the car.  There were several foolish tourists who tried to get out of the car forgetting that while these seemed like animals in a petting zoo, they were really wild animals.

SheepWe saw several black bears and brown bears on the Ice-fields parkway and in Jasper National Park. The black bears were mostly  loitering on the bank on the side of the highway but we were usually alerted to it by a small crowd that would gather to watch the bears. We saw brown bears , mostly  in Jasper National Park, particularly near Lake Maligne Drive – theybear were scrawnier than the ones we have seen near Alaska but no less impressive.

We had done our research and knew that animals were more likely in Jasper and that was true. There were tons of elk near our hotel in Jasper and on Maligne Drive.Black BEar2In addition, we saw bald eagles, white tailed deer, hoary marmots, and had a quick glimpse of some mountain goats too.  However,  one animal that I thought we would see but didn’t was moose!

What was the weather like?

We visited in early July, so it was summer in the Rockies.  The weather was fairly warm but we did have a few rain showers that really dropped the temperature.  At some point, we did need light jackets especially when we were in higher altitudes.  This is a lesson that I learnt the hard way after living here in North America’s for a long time- Layers are important.

The rain really didn’t play spoilsport. We had to move some of the stopping points on the Ice-Fields parkway to our return trip rather than on the way to Jasper as we had planned earlier. Fortunately, we had allocated a day and half to make the 8 hour round trip for the Ice-Fields Parkway, so we managed to see everything on our way back.

And because it is me – What was Canadian food like?

We didn’t enjoy a lot of restaurants because by the time we finished playing tourist for the day, most eating establishments were closed. We certainly saw a ton of gas stations and picked up snacks and bananas and sandwiches for breakfast and dinner.  The restaurants we did try out were Nourish Bistro at Banff (a so-so vegan place, great if you are a vegetarian), Downstream Lounge in Jasper (amazing spicy Thai mussels that Annika gobbled up), the Other Paw Bakery and Café in  Jasper (awesome sandwiches, pastries and pizza bread). We went there both the days we were in Jasper.

Some uniquely Canadian food that I had never tasted before were the Nanaimo bars, the Beaver tails and  poutine.  The Nanaimo bars are a no bake specialty consisting of three distinct layers – graham cracker, custard and chocolate eaten cold.  It was refreshing but a small mouthful went a long way.

The Beaver Tails Pizza was a like a dessert pizza but fried.   It consisted of a oval  wheat base that is fried and topped with any number of favlors such as chocolate or maple or lemon and then decorated with nuts or m&ms. Altogether a decadent dessert!

Poutine was undoubtedly the national dish of Canada and it came In so many versions – the plain one, the one with sausage and bacon, the vegan style , topped with Thai stuff. You merely have to imagine and there is a poutine with that flavor combination!

What was your favorite spot?

Cascade PArkThere were a few absolute favorite parts of the trip for all of us. The Cascade Ponds spot in Banff National Park was an absolute favorite. It was one of our first stops on the trip and actually our last one as well because we circled back there at the end. Cascade ponds had a big picnic area – a lovely meadow where squirrels were scampering, a shallow stream where the kids could skip stones, beautiful daisies that dotted the landscape and a few perfectly placed picturesque bridges. And as a plus – some really clean bathrooms!

Moraine Lake

The Canadian Rockies has a bunch of lakes and each of us had our favorite. Seejo’s favorite was Lake Moraine. Seejo went back three times in a quest to get the perfect photograph.  Moraine is a mass of rocks and sediment that is carried down slowly by slow moving glaciers and deposited at the end.  A beautiful turquoise lake surrounded by a series of mountain peaks – it was a sight made for photography.

Lake Peyto

My favorite was Lake Peyto,  A horse (or is it a dog)  shaped lake with an impossible blue color . There was a bit of an hike to get to the view but it was well worth it I thought that the height gave it a vantage point for a wonderful view.

Lake LuoiseMom’s favorite was Lake Louise,  A large lake at the foothills of the glacier. It was a big crowded but easily the most accessible lake.

GlacierWe also loved our trip to the Athabasca Glacier at the Columbia Icefield off the Ice Fields Parkway.  We were taken to the Glacier on a Massive explorer bus. The ride itself was an adventure. Once we reached the glacier we had about 15 minutes to walk around and explore the glacier and take pictures.  There was flags from different countries that earlier tourists had left – so  we could pose with the Indian flag. Then we drank some “pure” glacier ice water and then took a ton of pictures.

00000IMG_00000_BURST20190713192055740_COVERAnother favorite sight was catching the double rainbow on top of the Marmot Basin Ski resort in Jasper.  It was raining while we were driving up – so we were certain it would be a futile trip and we wouldn’t be able to see anything. However by the time we drove all the way up, the rain stopped and we were treated to the sight of a really beautiful double rainbow.

IMG_20190713_164625The kids really loved Cascade Gardens in Banff.  No doubt it was a beautifully landscaped terrace garden with  with awesome view of the castle like stone building (actually the Park’s administrative building) . There were beautiful flowers , waterfalls and a picture perfect gazebo. But the best thing was that the kids could run around and stretch their legs!

What is a must do for someone who is planning this trip

There are  tons of information on the web – especially the usual suspects like trip advisor. All sorts of itineraries are described.  One resource that we found especially useful was a series of three booklets by Darwin Wiggett. These were detailed photography guides that listed almost every major (and minor) photography spots along with what light to photograph, what you see there, and the gps coordinates and so on. I was especially impressed by the fact that it listed where we could spot animals and it was absolutely spot on. There was one for Banff, one for Jasper and another one that detailed all the potential stops on the Ice fields Parkway

Another important tip is to book hotels as soon as you can. The hotels that are within a short distance from the parks either book up very early or are too expensive, so finding the hotels is a bit of challenge.  We loved staying at the Pyramid Lake Resort at Jasper and at the Inns at Banff.

Take your time to drive through the Ice Fields Parkway. It’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful drives in the world and you should take the time to enjoy the drive and stop wherever you can.  Drive show if you see a traffic jam – there is probably an animal sighting nearby.

Did the kids enjoy the trip?

IMG_20191016_233025They loved it. Any family trip is of course a big excitement for them.  The animal viewing was a big hit. Both Jasper and Banff park guides provided a couple of pages with mountain wildlife.  Checking off  when they saw an animal or a bird was a huge hit.  That also helped us rely a little less on IPads. Annika’s favorite thing to do was to strike a dance pose at every picturesque location. And Tanay’s favorite thing was to collect stones so he could throw it in every lake.

You had a spreadsheet, didn’t you?

Yep, we did. As I have mentioned before – Seejo’s rule of thumb is a day of travel requires about 2 days of planning.  To be honest, it really helps because we don’t really have the luxury of having a lot of vacation days to have “immersive” vacation experiences. The research helps us learn a lot about the place we are visiting and also we know what we are doing when we get there and that saves a ton of time. Anyway here it is :

What was the most surprising part of the park?

IMG_20190716_074602~2As we drove down the Ice-Fields Parkway  , we were puzzled by the change in the color of the trees.  The coniferous pine  trees were slowly turning red.  “Is it fall already in the mountains?” “ But pine trees don’t change color? What is happening?”.  As we got closer to Jasper, we saw that more and more trees were red in color.  In certain areas in Jasper, half the forest was red – making for impressive photographs. We soon learnt that this was because of an attaché of the pine beetle.  Pine beetles tunnel into trees and lay their eggs in tree bark. There is a special fungi that helps turn tree tissue into food for the beetles. Unfortunately this process kills the flow of nutrients within the trees causing them to turn red about a year after the attach and eventually die in 5-10 years.  These beetles spread easily and now about 30% of the pine trees is infected and is dying.  The forest rangers are trying controlled burning  , mechanical tree removal and other things to make the forest healthy again.   It is something of a shock to realize that these tiny beetles can kill such a large forest so quickly.  Nevertheless, it made for some pretty pictures.

How does this compare with Glacier or Yellowstone or (insert other park here)

sceneryIt’s difficult to compare parks. The closest in terms of the terrain was probably Glacier National Park but that is not surprising. Jasper and Banff are merely an extension of the Glacier National Park on the Canadian side.  However Jasper and Banff was something more than Glacier.  The something more isn’t very tangible but I thought there were more glaciers, more lakes, more animals, more views…just more.   Another differentiating factor was that despite being busy season , there were way fewer people in the park than you would expect.

Show me some beautiful pics to share:

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Copyright Deepa