We only had one full day in Vancouver. We walked the path around the perimeter of Stanley Park, Vancouver’s famous 405 hectare park on the Burrard Inlet. We wandered the waterfront promenade. Watched the mounted police training horses on the beach. Our favourite find was this piece of outdoor art titled A-maze-ing Laughter in Morton Park.
Next morning, bizarrely accompanied by a Scottish piper, we boarded the Rocky Mountaineer.
The train takes two days, with an overnight stop at Kamloops where guests de-board and spend a night in a hotel. This is so all travel is in daylight and no views are missed. To be honest, we liked but did not love this trip. Between Vancouver and Kamloops the countryside is really not that interesting, and even on the second day it wasn’t a ‘wow’. We pondered the wisdom of an included drinks service which starts at 10.30am and serves continuously on a 10 hour journey, but most travellers seemed to embrace it with alacrity. The service is good and the meals were nice. We are just not sure it’s worth the ‘iconic’ tag it seems to have acquired.
However, there were some high points.
Hell’s Gates is a sudden narrowing of the Fraser Canyon forcing the mighty Fraser River through a gap just 35 metres wide. The swirling, high velocity water led explorer Simon Fraser, after whom both are named, to describe it in his journal as “a place no human should enter, for surely these are the gates of Hell”.
Of course, human nature being what it is, in more modern times a sightseeing air tram has been built across it.
We were also extremely lucky to get a clear view of Mount Robson. The highest peak in the Canadian Rockies has its own micro-climate at the peak. We were told on the train that the summit is only completely cloud free about 10 days per year. We later read it was 10% of the year. Either way, the odds are against it.
We spent five nights in Jasper which was a great base from which to do walks in Jasper National Park and points to the east and west.
Mount Edith Cavell
27km drive from Jasper, this hike was one of our favourites. It begins with the short Path of the Glacier Trail. From the trailhead a well formed path skirts the moraine.
After a short climb, the trail leads to a view of Cavell Pond with Angel Glacier hanging above it, her wings spread in the cirque between Mount Edith Cavell on the left and Sorrow Peak on the right. A waterfall flows from the fringe of her skirt into Cavell Pond. Not a pond as we understand that term, rather a blue-green glacier fed lake with chunks of ice still floating in it although summer is well advanced here.
Several years ago a massive chunk of glacial ice broke off without warning, crashing into the lake below. The wall of water and debris displaced from the lake smashed over the area, covering the trails and damaging the parking lot and road. Luckily it was 5.30am and no one was there. The area was closed for several years and since being re-opened the trail down to the lake remains closed. The risk of falling boulders and avalanches of ice remains quite real. Blocks of ice the size of houses frequently tumble down.
It doesn’t stop some from walking to the lake, but in fact the better view of the glacier is from higher up. From a branch in the path just back from the viewpoint, the Cavell Meadows Trail heads up, up, up to an alpine meadow.
And a bird’s eye view of the glacier. The glacier is slowly receding and from here you can see that her right wing is much diminished.
Officially, the Meadows trail finishes here, but another unnamed track heads up even higher. It’s loose underfoot and quite steep. It was surprisingly hot. But from a flat area just below the last climb to the summit, the whole span of the mountains on which the angel rests is revealed.
Very nice walk. And on the drive back to Jasper we saw this fine specimen. Check out the velvet antlers.
From a base station less than 10km from Jasper town, the Jasper Skytram trundles almost to the top of Whistlers Peak. It’s the highest and longest guided aerial tram in Canada. This is the view from the top station looking back down.
We say ‘almost to the top’ because the tram station is about a kilometre short of the summit. From there, a trail completes the climb. It is short and well frequented. Lots of trails fan out from the main one across so you can wander out to various viewpoints along the way.
The view from the peak is phenomenal.
Whistlers Peak is named for the whistling sound made by marmots to warn each other of possible danger. Supposedly there are lots of them on the mountain but we did not see any. We did see plenty of golden-mantled ground squirrels, pikas and a white tailed ptarmigan with chicks.
Valley of the Five Lakes Trail
John claims that Julie loves lists. And that once she has a list, she has to tick it off. So, a hike called Valley of the Five Lakes Trail, with names First Lake, Second Lake and so on? It was always going to be irresistible.
After coming down from Whistlers Peak we headed here for an afternoon hike.
It was totally true to its name. A short, easy, up and down 5km trail looping around five small but incredibly picturesque lakes. Here they are in order.
Maligne Canyon Trail
From Medicine Lake east of Jasper, the Maligne River flows languidly for 15km but then disappears underground into porous limestone. Swelled by several feeder streams, it re-emerges as it reaches Maligne Canyon. In places the canyon is less than one metre wide but 30 metres deep. All that water funnels through.
There’s a long loop walk which takes you above and parallel to the canyon for several kilometres and then drops down to the canyon rim, where the trail loops back to the start, criss-crossing the canyon via five bridges along the way.
A lot of people just start at the end, follow the trail to the first or second bridge and then head back, but it’s absolutely worth doing the full loop.
Initially, the trail climbs high through forest as it runs to its furthest point, but then it drops down and turns back, tracking along the edge of the canyon with the river surging alongside.
In some places the sides of the canyon close in so much, it’s little more than a crevice.
From the bridges crossing back and forth, you get a great view down.
This was a lovely walk, although crowded on the section for in-and-out walkers, as the above photo shows. It was worthwhile doing the full loop to see more of the canyon in relative solitude.
Moose Lake Loop
From the canyon we drove another 40km to Maligne Lake. There’s a small resort here and the lake is very popular for boat trips and canoeing. It’s famed for its blue colour and the fact that three glaciers are visible from the lake. Glaciers are not exactly hard to find in this part of the world, but we certainly couldn’t dispute that the lake is very pretty.
However, we came here as the start point for a less visited hike, the Moose Lake Loop, which initially follows Maligne Lake but then peels off through wet forest to Moose Lake.
Moose Lake is ‘named that for a reason’. It’s a known moose habitat. It did indeed look like the perfect place to find them. Moose like forested areas with streams and ponds. They like to live along the shore. We walked stealthily and peered into the forest. No moose. We skirted the boggy foreshore of the lake. No moose. It was a very pretty walk but at least when we were there it should have been called Mooseless Lake.
Pyramid Lake and trail
Just 7.5km outside Jasper, Pyramid Lake is another picturesque and popular spot. A tiny island on the lake is joined to the shore via a footbridge and it’s become a favoured location for wannabe Instagrammers to do photo shots. This presents a challenge – getting a photo that doesn’t feature some precious princess in a flouncy frock sashaying around while her longsuffering boyfriend snaps away, wearing the frozen smile and haunted eyes of a man who knows what will happen if the photos don’t meet her exacting standards.
With patience, we managed.
The island is tiny and walking the circumference only takes about 10 minutes. From the far side there’s a great view of Pyramid Mountain. Named, of course, for its pyramid shape, it and others like it in the Rockies proved to be the source of heartbreak for many. Glinting in the sun, they sparked a gold rush in the 1800s , but it’s just iron pyrite – fool’s gold. No real gold was ever found here.
Leaving the Instagrammers to fight it out for best position on the bridge, we hiked up the trail behind to Pyramid Lake Lookout. Beautiful view over both Pyramid Lake and nearby Patricia Lake.
That filled our time in Jasper and from there we headed south via the Icefields Parkway to Canmore, just past Banff, to hike some of the mountains in the Banff National Park area. The drive is an attraction of itself.
The Icefields Parkway is a 232km highway between Jasper and Lake Louise. Conde Naste Traveller declared it one of the ‘best drives in the world’ and it’s not hard to see why. Glaciers, waterfalls, blue-green lakes, pristine forest, gob-smacking peaks and the opportunity to see amazing wildlife. The Parkway has them all.
There are so many potential stopping places and trail heads for walks leading off on both sides, it’s impossible to do them all. Here are the stops we made on our way south from Jasper.
First, we stopped at a lookout across to the Athabasca Pass. This high mountain pass was crucial to the fur trade which first brought Europeans to these mountains. At 1,753 metres, it wasn’t exactly a stroll through a valley, but after the Pikani Tribe refused to allow access through the easier Howse Pass, it became a major point on the fur traders’ route from the mountains to the Pacific Coast.
A little further south, a short walk to Athabasca Falls. At 24 metres in height, these are stumpy by the standards of the Canadian Rockies, but the sheer volume of water pouring through makes them a remarkable sight.
So much that from any close standpoint you will get drenched from the mist.
Next stop, the Goats and Glaciers Lookout. Nice mountain views, no goats.
Further south and also fed by the Athabasca Glacier is Sunwapta Falls. Sunwapta means ‘turbulent water’ in the language of the local Stoney people. And yes, it is.
The Columbia Icefield is the largest ice field in North America’s Rocky Mountains. It was formed during the Great Glaciation 238,000 to 126,000 BCE. Yes, some of that ice is almost a quarter of a million years old. It’s 325 square kilometres, has a depth of between 100 and 365 metres of ice, receives up to seven metres of snow each winter and feeds six glaciers.
Sprawled out along the Parkway, it is a glorious sight.
The Athabasca Glacier is one of the six and on account of being relatively accessible, is the most visited glacier in North America. It is about 6km long but is losing depth at a rate of about 5 metres per year and has receded more than 1.5km in the 125 years since recordings of it began.
A short drive off the Parkway is a parking lot from which a trail leads to the toe of the glacier. To give you some idea of the size, look carefully at this photo and you will see the car park to the right of centre at the bottom of the photo.
It’s a dusty, stony walk from the car park to the toe of the glacier and a cold wind comes down from the ice even on what was otherwise a 30+ Celsius day. Walking on the ice is prohibited except that Parks Canada allows one operator to run snow bus tours into the glacier where visitors can hop out and walk on the ice. It sounds strange, but we felt sorry for the glacier. It somehow felt undignified. We settled for a walk to the edge.
One final stop for the day was at a viewpoint simply and accurately called Glacier View.
And as we headed south the mountains seemed to just get more dramatic and the glaciers more prominent.
A promise of more good walking to come.