For our time at the Banff area of the Rockies, we spent three nights in Canmore and four nights in a cabin at Johnston Canyon. The hiking down here was world class and we had some insider knowledge thanks to our friend David K who has hiked here many times.
Rummel Lake Trail
About 40km south of Canmore, and not actually in Banff National Park, this one was very quiet compared to most. Just as we started, a crazy-eyed shirtless man came sprinting out of the forest. Otherwise, we only saw two other sets of hikers on the whole trail.
An initial easy climb gets you high enough to see the Spray Lakes Reservoir with the peaks of Kootenay National Park behind.
It’s 5km to the lake, mostly under a canopy of fir and spruce. The lake appears quite suddenly through a gap in the trees.
It’s ringed by a cirque, with the rock walls of Mount Galatea towering behind.
A really great walk.
Stewart Canyon and Lake Minnewanka
West of Banff, a 57km trail skirts around Lake Minnewanka to Devil’s Gap with several camping sites along the way. We planned to do a day hike to the first campsite and back, about 17km round trip.
We arrived early and there weren’t many people around. The weather was perfect and the lake was beautiful.
At the trail head, a Parks Canada sign informed us there was grizzly bear activity in the area. It’s berry season and the bears come down to feast on these berries which are all along the lake shore.
The sign stated anyone could walk as far as Stewart Canyon, two kilometres ahead, but only groups of four or more walking together could proceed past that point. We were only two, but thought we’d go ahead and maybe find others to link up with. Just before the canyon we caught up to a group of three walkers in the same predicament and we agreed to walk together. Now we were a group of five.
We soon reached the canyon. Another beautiful spot with a river emptying into the lake.
But five minutes walk further on, there was a Parks Canada barricade and signs saying only groups of four or more, with at least one person carrying bear spray could go further. None of us had bear spray. There were remonstrations within the other group. That morning Mum had said “should we bring bear spray?” Dad had insisted it would be unnecessary.
They debated going ahead anyway. It would have been easy enough to walk around the barricades. But how high was the bear risk? Mum seemed sceptical of Dad’s reassurances. Perhaps his credibility had been dented by his fail on whether to bring the spray. Then their very practical early-adult daughter pointed to the sign warning of a $CAD25,000 fine for non-compliance. That ended the debate.
They went back to the pier at the lake to look at hiring a canoe. We decided to cut our losses and consider other options. A helpful Parks Canada ranger recommended the Stanley Glacier Trail about 40 minutes drive away. We headed there.
Stanley Glacier Trail
Despite a sign at the trail head warning of bears, the trail was open. As we headed up we saw plenty of berry-laden bushes. But no bears. Perhaps other hikers’ jingling bear bells scared them off. To us they sounded like Tibetan pilgrims heading to a temple.
The track climbs steeply but the benefit is that it reaches the tree line quickly.
And then it’s views all the way.
Eventually the glacier comes into view. You can see the trail ahead on the left side of this photo.
The end of the official trail is a ridge with a view across to the glacier and the waterfall cascading down from it.
An informal trail goes further and we could see a couple of walkers toward the bottom of the falls. Another group were tracking around to the left where it may have been possible to go higher, but there didn’t seem to be a way to get up the rock face for a better view of the glacier. We went a little further but actually the closer we got, the less the glacier was visible. We headed back.
This landscape couldn’t have been more different to the lush blues and greens of Lake Minnewanka but was a pretty good second option. There’s nothing like this where we come from!
Lake Louise and Moraine Lake
About 4 million people visit Banff National Park every year. And we think every one of them comes to Lake Louise. The lake with the Fairmont Chateau hotel perched on the shore is one of the iconic images of the Rockies. It’s insanely busy. Sure, if you muscle your way through the crowd you can get a photo like this of the deliciously milky green lake.
But to be honest, your experience is more like this.
But since a lot of people just turn up, take some convenient photos and leave, the solution is to go further. Eventually you will leave the majority of people behind and find somewhere to appreciate the natural beauty with fewer distractions.
The Plain of Six Glaciers Trail fits the bill. It skirts the lake for a few kilometres and looking back there’s a fine view with the Fairmont hotel behind.
At the far end of the lake, the trail heads up. We were never completely alone, but now we were out of the crush of people. Behind us, the lake and hotel. Up ahead, the first of the glaciers.
After about 7km, there’s a tea house. Built in 1927, it’s been owned by the same family since the 1950s and is open through the summer serving drinks and light meals. They’ve maintained its original form and it still has no electricity. Everything’s done with propane gas. We read some on-line comments whingeing about the prices. But, really, just think about the logistics of getting product up there. And we had to admire the dedication of staff who walk 7km up the mountain to get to work each day, then the same down again at the end.
Sitting by the tea house, we could hear the occasional boom of the glaciers cracking, like a cannon firing.
From the tea house we continued up toward the glaciers. This is looking back down from part way up the last section.
The end of the trail is a ridge across from Abbott Pass with the cascading glaciated area known as the Death Trap. Canada’s first mountaineering fatality occurred in 1896 at Mount Lefroy, the prominent mountain to the left of the ice.
And then it was just a matter of retracing our steps. Back at lake level there were a couple of ladies rock climbing. That looked frightening.
And lots of people canoe-ing. That looked peaceful.
From Lake Louise we headed to Moraine Lake. The colour was even more striking. And here is the Twenty Dollar View. It’s more like a million dollar view, but it gained this nickname because for many years it was the image on the back of the Canadian $20 note.
To cap off a great day, we saw two bears on the way back, but unfortunately on both occasions we were in a moving vehicle and couldn’t stop so it was just a glimpse.
Helen Lake Trail
This was our favourite hike in the Rockies. From the Icefields Parkway about 40km north of Lake Louise, the trail starts across the road from Bow Lake. The first 3km is a stiff climb up through the trees on a path that’s laced with tree roots. About half way up there’s a great view over to the Crowfoot Glacier hanging high above Bow Lake.
Eventually the trail breaks clear of the trees onto a subalpine meadow. The summer flowers are out and it was just glorious.
Over the crest we went and down to Helen Lake. It isn’t that milky blue-green of the glacial lakes, but it’s stunning in its surrounds, best appreciated by climbing the ridge to the right of the lake and looking back.
Up here, the topography is totally different. Dry and stony.
Perfect habitat for marmots. An information board at the trailhead stated they were here, but after their absence at Whistlers Peak, we weren’t getting our hopes up. Well, we were wrong. We saw plenty.
This one looked like he was standing at a bar having a beer.
Others were grazing on the sparse grasses.
We climbed until we could go no further. The view down the valleys was incredible.
David said this walk was not to be missed. Absolutely right.
And on the drive home we saw ahead of us a queue of traffic slowing down. Could it be? Yes! A bear jam. This is where a driver sees a bear and stops. Cars stop behind and before you know it there’s a traffic jam. Except it’s a bear jam. Luckily there was a solid verge to pull over and watch the bear without impeding traffic flow. So we did. Gorgeous! Those berries really are irresistible and the bear didn’t seem to mind being watched.
And then further down the road, we won bear lotto. Three bears!
A mother bear and two cubs out foraging. Again we stopped and watched for ages, following them as they grazed along.
Best hike of the trip plus bears. A perfect day.
Johnston Canyon and The Inkpots
This was our final hike. Nice but the canyon section is massively over-used. We made the mistake of not leaving early enough. That said, probably dawn would not have been early enough.
The initial part of the trail is actually a walkway fixed to the canyon wall with a railing for safety.
There’s a river running through it and it’s only 1.2km to the Lower Falls.
From there it’s another 1.3km to the Upper Falls.
Thankfully, many visitors only go this far because the ‘next thing’ to see is the Inkpots, a stiff 3km uphill slog further on. But it’s worth it to see this unusual phenomenon. Spring water percolates up through the sand and gravel adjacent to the riverbed. The blue-green colour and the swirling circles in the sand where the water and air bubbles emerge give them their name.
Both the canyon and the Inkpots are worth the walk, but go early. By the time we returned, the canyon walkway from the Upper Falls to the trailhead was a conga line in both directions.
Icefields Parkway (part 2)
Next day we returned to Jasper, initially on the Bow River Parkway and then back up the Icefields Parkway, stopping at some places we’d not stopped at on the way down.
First, a neck bending look at Castle Mountain.
Then we stopped at the viewpoint for Morant’s Curve, a bend in the rail track as it snakes beside the Bow River. Nicholas Morant, a photographer hired by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the mid 1900s took a promotional shot from here of a train passing through. It became quite famous and this been a favoured site with train photography buffs ever since. There’s no publicly available schedule as it’s all freight trains, but they will sit patiently for hours waiting for a train to pass around the curve. A niche interest perhaps but we saw several guys with absurdly large lenses set up and waiting. Let’s just say, we’re not that into trains. Nice view though.
Next stop, the breathtaking Peyto Lake.
And finally, we stopped again at the Columbia Icefields. It’s worth a second look.
Back to Jasper for one night and then the train to Toronto.