I started this year in the beautiful province of Alberta, meeting up with some friends I met last summer in Montreal as part of Canada’s Explore program. Before I even boarded the plane, I told myself I needed to see the ever-so-beautiful Rocky Mountains, even if I had to hitchhike there (spoiler alert: I didn’t hitchhike). Come January 1st, I had a car booked and three days to get from Calgary to Edmonton, driving right through both Banff and Jasper National Parks.
Before I get to my tales – a few general things to take note of, in the order that I realized them:
ONE – When renting a car, especially in winter, most (if not all) rental car companies have all season tires on their cars. All season tires begin to lose grip when the temperature drops below 7°C, so keep this in mind when taking an exit ramp. Start slowing down early, especially since the average temperature when I was driving was around -20°C.
ONE, PART TWO – Make sure you get the extra insurance when getting a rental car. That way if anything happens, you’re covered and it means less stress for you. Yes it adds to the price of the rental, but I think it’s worth the ~$20-$25 per day for my sanity.
ACTUALLY TWO – In order to take this route, you need to have a Parks Canada Pass since there is no place to purchase a day pass on the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper. I’m not sure what the penalty would be if you were caught, but if you plan on going to any other parks throughout the country, spending the ~$68 on the yearly pass is worth it considering it includes entry into 27 National Parks and 77 National Historic Sites. From my experience entry into our beautiful national parks can fluctuate between $8-$12, so if you plan to check them out for a total of 7-8 days within the year I’d say it’s worth it!
THREE – Beware of no cell zones! Along parts of the parkway there is absolutely no cell reception, so if something goes haywire you’ll need to depend on the kindness of others to get to cell reception and then backtrack to your car.
Now, onto the trip!
After getting my car from Enterprise in Calgary, I was off on my mini road trip! I did this neck of my visit solo, so it was just me, my car, and the open road. Now, as Murphy’s Law has it, Calgary was hit with a snowstorm the night before I picked up my car, so tackling the newly snow-covered roads while getting used to a new car was a bit of an adjustment. All I can say is thank goodness for GPS, and soon I was on my way to my first stop – Banff!
Banff is a cute little town with lots of shops and eateries, as is expected since it is the town of choice within the Rocky Mountains. Unfortunately for me the weather wasn’t overly co-operative, with crazy winds and lots of blowing snow. This didn’t stop me however, as I spent my day wandering around the town, ducking into stores to get warm every once in a while. I made a stop at the tourist information centre as a friend suggested checking out Johnston Canyon, signing up for a nighttime guided ice walk. To kill some time until then, I took the gondola up Sulfur Mountain and walked along the paths to the historic Cosmic Ray Station. Since the weather included more blowing snow than you could handle, I would suggest doing this on a clear day or save it for any season other than winter. I didn’t have the luxury of returning on a different, clearer day, so I checked it out anyway. Despite the weather I was still able to see some mountains so I was a happy camper.
After this trek I needed some time to warm up, so I took a break and waited until it was time for my night walk in Johnston Canyon. The climb isn’t overly strenuous, and once my eyes adjusted to the darkness I was able to see quite a bit since it was a clear sky and an almost full moon. I enjoyed the hike, but I think it would have been better to do it during the day so I could see more of the canyon. Also, you can do these hikes yourself, which I didn’t know ahead of time, so that’ll be one of the things on my to-do list next time I’m in the area! The excursion finished around 9pm, and I had an hour drive ahead of me to get to my hotel. At this point I was wearing myself a little thin as I was pretty tired from the day of wandering. Needless to say I slept like a baby once I was all settled in.
The next morning I woke up fairly early and was greeted by a fairly clear sky – perfect for my next target, Lake Louise. In the winter, the entire lake freezes up so you can actually walk right across it. I met up with one of the trails that leads around the lake, and wandered past a few streams that weren’t quite frozen. This area is overwhelmingly beautiful. Anyone who has been there can agree with me in that you need to take the time to just stop and take everything in. Personally, mountains are my favourite element of nature (with waterfalls being a pretty close second), and being surrounded by them filled me with such joy I can’t put it into words. All I can say is, if you make it to Lake Louise in winter and have a few hours to kill, do this walk.
After refuelling and grabbing some snacks, it was time to get on the road to Jasper. Now, this is where my earlier notes about renting a car come into play. The highway between Banff and Jasper isn’t well travelled, so in the winter it has close to an inch thick layer of ice for most of it. This, combined with all season tires, makes stopping (as well as making your exit) a bit of a challenge. Needless to say I learned this the hard way, and ended up with the front end of my car in a snowbank. I was in a no cell zone, which meant that if the two lovely men in their Lafarge truck hadn’t seen the whole thing and helped pull me out, I would have been in a predicament. Luckily with the help of another pair of men that had just finished some rock climbing, the four of them were able to drag my car out of the snow and get me on my way (and this is why you get the extra insurance). I took this as a sign to get my behind moving, and off I went with no more stops to Jasper.
The drive was half again as long as it normally would be even without stopping, meaning I lost to daylight and driving for an hour in the dark. Now you’re probably thinking, Lindsay, this really isn’t that big of a deal, is it? You may not know this, but Jasper is the second largest Dark Sky Preserve, therefore there is little to no light on the roads. Relying on my high beams alone and keeping my fingers crossed that no animals crossed my path, I experienced what was the longest hour of my life. This stretch was also a no cell zone, just to add insult to injury. Luckily the critters were on my side and I made it safely to my hotel, where I treated myself to some take out and had a quiet, relaxing night.
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I set out for Maligne Canyon. Approximately a 15 minute drive from Jasper, chances are if you’re in town, you’re going to be spending a bit of time here. Take. That. Time. I can’t stress enough just how beautiful this canyon is, and a winter visit has its hidden gems. The big one is that you can actually walk along the canyon floor since the water freezes. When I arrived in the park, I took some time to pull over at the first sign of a map to check out the trails (they’re also mapped on Google, which is a big plus!), and make a rough plan of attack. My suggestion is to not just stick to the main trails and go off the beaten path. And when you do this, take a moment and really experience your surroundings in your own way. Whether it’s just sitting down and taking a deep breath, or finding that perfect panorama and spinning in one spot – do it! For me, it was laying down on the canyon floor. I tried to take a photo, but even though a picture is worth a thousand words, it still just isn’t enough.
With my last full day in the Rockies coming to a close, I made it an early night, but not without watching our Juniors win gold! Although, I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to my darling Maligne yet, so back to the canyon I went! With one last hike, it was time to say goodbye to the beautiful Rocky Mountains, and hello to Edmonton.