Thursday, November 07, 2013

[Travel] Rocky Mountain High, High in Alberta

Rocky Mountain High, High in Alberta: [[photos on smugmug]] Here's the solution: When the U.S. Government shuts down and all the National Parks close and hikers risk trespassing arrest, go North my son. Canada has some astounding parks, very well maintained and supported. I had a terrific experience at Gros Morne when visiting Newfoundland a few years ago. This time it was the other side of the country -- Alberta. In Alberta there are two huge National Parks that sit adjacent to one another: Jasper and Banff.

You start by flying into Calgary, a relatively decent mid-sized airport with folks in red cowboy hats to guide you around. Then you get out of Calgary. Nothing against Calgary, it just isn't all that photogenic or remarkable. It is on the very western edge of the Canadian plains. A fairly non-descript city immediate surrounded by cattle ranches and farming. But by the time you get an hour or so northwest -- hold on to yer hats.

The human mind can get used to anything. I suppose if you live among the Rockies, you don't even notice the postcard-perfect snow-capped peaks in the backdrop of every scene -- almost like someone a painted the background everywhere you look. As for me, over the course of a week I never got jaded looking up from the street and seeing the mountains towering over everything. Clearing customs, we picked up our rental and made our way 6 hours up the Icefields Highway into Jasper.

Here's a big difference between Canadian and U.S. National Parks. In the U.S. you can typically expect to drop $20 or $30/per car for an entrance fee and get anywhere from three nights to a full week access. In Canadian parks expect to spend that much for a single day per person. In fact, for a week long stay, it made more sense to buy an annual pass at round about $150. Yeesh!

There are two paradigmatic views you can see all over in Western Alberta. One is the Alpine lake view. The lakes are all glacier fed which means, apart from being wicked cold, they are shimmering turquoise blue; an explosive color, as if you took and average lake and Photoshopped the color saturation to 11. The water itself is very still; there are no currents and the glorious mountains surrounding them block most of the wind. Until now, the only alpine lake I had ever seen was Tahoe, which is quite beautiful especially in Emerald Bay. But in Banff and Jasper there is a comparable scene around every corner. We pulled off the highway for a quick pit stop and happened upon a view that astounded us, but it was only the smallest taste of what was to come. Yes, the rest stops along the Icefields Highway are comparable to Lake Tahoe.

Jasper is what I would call quaintly-sized. It is a granola-crunchers dream for the most part; outdoorsy, rustic to an extent, vegan choices on all the menus. The dirty secret to towns like this is that while they present themselves as organic havens for genuine trekkers, they are in fact designed to make upper middle class tourists feel like genuine trekkers. That's fine with me. I am certainly upper middle class, although I don't really give a rip about appearing genuine -- I'm a tourist and proud. The point of all that being that while looking like a haven for organic I-don't value-material-wealth types, it is in fact, friggin' expensive. Not Manhattan expensive, but as expensive as any major city in the U.S.

But that's not a big deal, just a bit of a surprise for a quaintly-sized town. Get a hotel near town and you can walk in, enjoying the crisp fall evening and the astoundingly fresh air. There are decent restaurants and shops and, occasionally, enormous elk grazing alongside the road. The high-end resort here is the Fairmont, and while I'm sure it is lovely, it is located across the river so you'll be driving into town. Although parking doesn't appear to be too bad, the convenience and pleasure of walking into town with enormous snowcapped peaks in every direction makes it worth staying close.

You could probably spend a month exploring all the trails and activities in and around Jasper. We confined ourselves to these which, in retrospect, I would highly recommend as an itinerary for a brief stay.

1) Maligne Canyon - A well maintained, partially paved, heavily trodden trail through a rocky canyon and past a handful of waterfalls. This is actually very reminiscent of the canyons around Ithaca, New York. There are a number of bridges along the trail which snake you back and forth across the river, about twenty or thirty feet above the water in most parts. The first waterfall is the most dramatic and also the most crowded. It appears as though the tour busses stop and let folks out just long enough to reach the first bridge or two, if you hike beyond that it gets less crowded. This is a great starter hike in Jasper, just to get the feel of things.

2) Jasper Tramway - I'm tempted to say if there is one activity to do in Jasper it is this one, but that's going too far. You should never go to Jasper as a day trip so the need to pick out "one thing" is out of line. But this is as awesome as it gets. You board a twenty-person tram and ride up the side of Whistler's Mountain to an elevation of about 7500 feet. I'm sure in summer it is much cooler at the top; in fall it's downright cold. In fact they had just had several inches of snowfall the day before. At the top there is a sizeable viewing area, a gift shop, and a diner-level restaurant in the tram station. You are still not at the very top of the mountain, that's a winding 45 minute hike further up, and a bit treacherous in the snow. The view, as you can guess, seems endless. You look down on the entire town of Jasper like a patchwork quilt with a river running through it. You can look down on the clouds, in fact, as you traverse the mountainside behind the station, clouds and fog roll in and out and the station can appear to be perched precariously at the edge of the world surround by nothing but infinite white.

3) Maligne Lake - Have I mentioned that the lakes around this area are glacier-fed. That is to say, they are pooled directly from melting glaciers or from glacier-fed rivers -- not underground springs or other emergences of the water table from below. The glacier water contains extra oxygen (or something) that create lakes that are a brilliant aquamarine color. It's really quite remarkable. A boat tour takes you through the long, but almost canyon-narrow lake, past three active glaciers, to a remote dock with a view of Spirit Island which is claimed to be one of the most photographed places in the world. It begs the question of whether you take the picture because it looks so photographic, or it looks so photographic because you've seen the picture. Either way, it's a hell of a view.

4) Pyramid Lake - You can, if you choose, take a hiking trail directly from Jasper to Pyramid Lake. I don't think it's more than 3 kilometers of so. Pyramid Lake is an easy jaunt. Nothing too dramatic. It's lovely and easily accessible. I suspect it's the center for summer water activities as there is a fine looking resort that reminds me of many of the lake resorts here in Michigan; lots of boat and kayak rentals. It's not really wild or remote; great for a picnic, or a low key visit to finish off your time in Jasper.

On the way back from Pyramid Lake we passed a Chinese man with his young son walking along the road frantically trying to wave us down. Assuming he had a broken down car or other urgency we stopped, only to find that he was just trying to hitch a ride. This was odd since we were really only a mile or so out of town, but he was keen on demonstrating to his son an act which could not happen in China, according to him there was no hitchhiking in the Middle Kingdom. In fact he was travelling across Canada doing whatever he could to demonstrate how different the culture was to the one at home. He had apparently rented a Harley at one point, which was another thing he couldn't do at home. Anyway, a very laudable goal. (Although the panicky waving was not the right protocol for hitching a ride. More of a bait and switch.)

This duo stood in contrast to how one typically encounters folks from the Far East out here. They were on their own, exploring, but tour busses full of Asians are ubiquitous. This is a phenomenon that I have noted before in the western U.S. If anything there was more of it in the Canadian Rockies. I have already mentioned that the place is on the high end expense-wise.
I suppose it is the most economical way to visit and see many things. No car rental. No arrangements to make. Everything gets rolled into one package and you avoid the anxiety of being alone in a strange land. And if fact, it's probably not that different from my travel experiences except that I plan and schedule on my own. (I can drive people crazy by having things planned, at least casually, long ahead of time.) Still, I would miss the occasional unexpected discoveries. Like the Chinese guy waving down a ride. Or the painted version of the infamous and disturbing Mark Messier-Gary Coleman photo hanging over the fireplace at the Jasper Brewpub (yes, it really is). But I wouldn't say no. It's kind of like a cruise on land I suppose. I'm sure there are busloads of Yanks and Canucks rolling around Beijing on any given day.

Jasper had one last treat for us. As we walked back from town in the evening there were two elk grazing on the grass by the side of the road, oblivious to people walking past just a few feet away. No fear. And why not? It's a national park so it's not like they've been hunted by people. In fact, they probably feel safe from the bears if people are around. And no, we never saw bears. Despite the constant admonishments of the locals to make noise on the trails and to steer clear of the larger forms on wildlife, which are "everywhere", we saw nothing except these two lazy elk. Wolves and bear were supposed to abound. One wonders how common encounters are or whether a lot of the drama is just to benefit the tourists.

The next step was a backtrack to Banff. About a three hour drive, but a little over two hours in you can stop at Lake Louise. Lake Louise is interesting. I could go on about how beautiful it is, but you're probably sick of that by now. Still of all the beautiful mountain-framed, glacier-blue lakes in the Canadian Rockies, Lake Louise is going to be at the top of just about everyone's list.

There are a couple of good trails here, including one that ends at a mountain top tea room (!), but we were really just here for lunch. When you pull off the road for Lake Louise you find yourself in Lake Louise Village which is essentially a nice little shopping mall with a visitor's center. From there, to see Lake Louise you have to go the the Fairmont Lake Louise Resort. OK, maybe not have to. I'm sure you can get to edge of Lake Louise other ways, but nobody does that as far as I could tell. The resort and The Lake are a mated pair. If someone ever said I'm going to Lake Louise, you could rightfully assume they were going to the resort. From Lake Louise Village you can either drive on to the resort, or you can hike there along a very pretty, but uphill, path that winds along a picturesque creek. From the trail you emerge at a castle, which turns out to be the resort.

The resort is a stunner. It is the jewel of the Fairmont Properties (a worldwide high-end hotel corporation), and a destination in itself. Banff is about 45 minutes away so you can stay here and make the run in for various activities, but I suspect the bulk of the folks here are happy just to hang in the resort and arrange to join a tour or two. The centerpiece of the resort is the spacious courtyard that abuts the lake. Packed with flowered gardens, and cafe seating (in summer), it has the view of the lake and surrounding mountains. One suspects weddings are almost daily occurrences in spring.

There are four or five restaurants in the Fairmont, but only one was open and there was a wait for a table at about 2pm. Makes no sense, but so little in life does. The food was decent, the view was fabulous, of course. I would consider a stay here if I only had two or three nights, but you are still rather distant from the center of all the activity options. All in all, as attractive as Lake Louise is, I think it works best as a day trip.

Banff was next. Banff is, as everyone told us, a good deal more commercial than Jasper. There are chain restaurants and fine dining options, an arts community, and, presumably, traffic problems and crowds in season -- either summer or ski. There is one lovely main street in town, containing all sorts of shops and restaurants and outfitters, it could be a main street in any similar tourist town, except of course that looking tight down the center draws your eye up to the surrounding mountains. Turning out of town and driving about a mile up a steep road brings you to The RimRock Resort, where we were staying. RimRock is definitely a quality spot. Spa on site, a very good restaurant, and a comfortable pub. Recommended.

One nice thing about RimRock is that it was walking distance to the hot springs and the aerial gondola. While the hot springs looks appealing -- no need to bring anything you can rent suits and towels and a locker on-site, it really does seem like little more than a naturally heated pool. Nice, and inexpensive, but not really a must do. The gondola on the other hand is killer. (By the way, I'm not entirely clear on the difference between a gondola and a tramway. The Gondola was private -- one per party, the tram in Jasper was a public group. Is that the difference?)

You ride the gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain where you have 360 degree birds-eye views over the town of Banff and all the surrounding area. Tremendous photo ops. Unlike Whistler's Mountain in Jasper where you reach the top and you can wander freely along the trails, here there is an extensive wooden planked pathway that winds around to various viewpoints. Very cool, zero stress activity, but again I would caution you that if you come in season or go much later than when it opens in the morning you will be waiting in line. This is a big tour bus spot. They will dump multiple loads at once and you'll be lined up out the door.

There are terrific hikes around Banff, some only a short ride outside the city. A very popular one is Johnston Canyon -- another glacier-fed river-carved a canyon, with picturesque waterfalls and precarious cliffs. The path is paved and heavily peopled. This one has the advantage of a nice little diner at the trailhead for a quick lunch. Close in town is the Bow River trail, which hugs the eastern side of town and looks out over the river valley and features a view of a couple of minor hoodoos -- odd sights this far north. A brief trip northeast of town gets you to Lake Minnewanka which I gather is the central area for outdoor activities. There are campgrounds and picnic sites and it is nearly as lovely as Lake Maligne up in Jasper. A trail follows the lake around and across the river into a deeply wooded area. Here we encountered a group of hikers who had lost one of their party. They didn't seem overly concerned. Though clearly senior citizens, they had the healthy red-cheeked appearance of veteran hikers, but we backtracked a ways up the mountain then along the river and saw no sign of anyone.

I suspect if you have read this far, you are now bored with the whole 1) hike, 2) marvel, 3) repeat, aspect of this trip. I'll spare you the details of the one last hike, up to the peak of Tunnel Mountain, another one accessed directly from town. The views are...well, you know. This one was a real lung buster though. After that, it was souvenir shopping and a beer at the Banff Brewpub, then off to fight my way through Customs and the Air Travel industry to get home.

The Canadian Rockies can put things in certain perspective. The deep woods in upper Michigan, the mountains of Zion National Park, such experiences can be overwhelming and leave you thinking nothing can compare, but there's always something that can. What will compare to the Canadian Rockies? I don't know, but I'm guessing I'll have to step it up to Alaska to find out.