Canada is well-endowed when it comes to natural wonders such as the Bay of Fundy – home of the highest tides in the world – in the Maritimes in eastern Canada and the gorgeous and world famous Niagara Falls in southeastern Ontario. There is no shortage of natural beauty in a country rich in its natural heritage.
The Rocky Mountains are another such natural wonder in Canada. The nearly 5000-kilometer long range covers parts of the western provinces of Alberta and British Columbia and stretches down to the United States. Several national parks have been established to protect the natural heritage, including Banff National Park, the first and therefore the oldest National Park in Canada.
The Road Trip
We planned our road trip to start and finish in Calgary by first driving west to Banff on the scenic Trans-Canada Highway and then making our way north to Jasper via Lake Louise and the beautiful town of Field. From Jasper we drove east to Edmonton (famous for what was once the largest mall in the world) and then completed the loop by driving back south to Calgary.
We had wanted to fly into Calgary and then fly out of Edmonton to avoid the boring 3-hour long drive from Edmonton to Calgary; however, car rental turns out to be twice as costly if the car is not returned at the location where it is rented from (even if it’s in the same city, let alone another city)! Round-trip airfares are also cheaper than one-way fares.
Our week long road trip in the Rocky Mountains started with an early morning flight from Toronto to Calgary – the largest city in the province of Alberta. During the nearly 4-hour long flight, we watched the House of Games, a “hidden gem” that I had on my laptop. It was noon by the time we landed in Calgary – famous for steaks and the Calgary Stampede – and picked up our “Zoom-Zoom” rental car (Mazda 3) from Budget Car Rental’s convenient airport location.
Due to their street naming convention, I had to be very careful driving in Downtown Calgary. Their naming convention was a number, followed by “Road” or “Avenue”, followed by the direction. For example, “4 Ave SW” intersected with “4 St SW”, and “3 Ave SW” and “4 Ave SW” were parallel. To make things more confusing, most roads were one-way only with traffic flowing on the even numbered roads in one direction and in the opposite direction on the odd numbered roads. Because the traffic was light it was easy to make a wrong turn and not even know it. And not just any wrong turn, but a potentially catastrophic one. I remember I made a right-turn somewhere and upon driving a hundred or so meters I noticed that the road signs and the traffic lights were facing the opposite direction. In the next moment I realized that if I don’t turn around quickly I’m going to come face-to-face with the oncoming traffic since I was driving the wrong way on a one-way street!
Since our hotel’s check-in time was rather late, we decided to get some lunch before heading to our hotel. We had purchased a Garmin 1350 GPS and used its ‘Points of Interest’ feature to look for some nearby Indian restaurants. The GPS took us on a long and scenic drive to the suburbs and before we knew it we ended up at a run-down plaza with no indication of the restaurant we were looking for! The nearest Indian restaurant from that plaza was another 20-km away, but we could no longer trust our GPS. Cursing the GPS, we found a Chinese restaurant on our own and had a sumptuous meal. Little did we know at the time that the GPS, which we were cursing now, would save our life later when we were lost on a hiking trail.
Our hotel, The Westin Calgary, was centrally located in downtown and close to the trendy Eau Claire neighbourhood. However, we learned that spending a Saturday night in downtown Calgary was not the best way to experience the city. With deserted streets and closed restaurants we were left scratching our heads on what to do and where to go. Unlike in Toronto, there hasn’t been a boom in residential condominium projects in downtown Calgary, and as a result, the city center becomes a ghost town after office-hours when all office-goers go back to their suburban homes. The only saving grace about spending a weekend night in Calgary was the free street parking (after 6 PM on Saturdays and all day on Sundays) in this city known for its most expensive parking in Canada!
On Sunday afternoon, after checking-out of our hotel, we were in a mood for some Thai food and found one using our GPS. The restaurant wasn’t difficult to find but finding a street parking spot was. It left me wondering where all those people were because the streets were almost devoid of people. As it turned out, the Thai restaurant was closed. We were shocked that it was closed on a Sunday afternoon!
The bums were out on full force that day so we quickly settled on Milestones, which was one of the few restaurants that were open. As we sat in the restaurant patio having delicious pasta and curry noodles, we saw a group of anti-China Vietnamese-Canadian protesters coming our way. They were protesting against the new “Imperialistic China”, or rather, raising awareness of China’s growing ambitions and military might. Apparently, China is claiming some islands in the South China Sea as their own, which belong to Vietnam. Then again, Vietnam is not the only country with whom the Chinese have a territorial sovereignty dispute…
Here are some photos of the protest, which I took while having lunch:
Drive to Banff National Park
The first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains range as we drove from Calgary to the town of Banff ignited an excitement that grew to no bounds. It was the first time we had seen a mountain range in Canada, even a hill for that matter! The constant clicking of photos was testament to that.
We passed the town of Canmore, which is located just outside the boundary of Banff National Park. Many visitors opt to stay in Canmore where it is possible to get much better value accommodation than staying in the town of Banff, which is located within the national park boundary. Apparently, new development has been frozen in Banff and as a result Canmore is developing rapidly as tourism and the resulting demand for hotels and restaurants increases. We found a somewhat good deal on Expedia for the Banff Caribou Lodge so we opted to stay in Banff, more for convenience than anything else. However, Canmore is only 25-kms from Banff.
The entrance to Banff National Park is a series of toll booths with a separate lane for pass holders. The park fees were the same for all the National Parks we were planning to visit and cost nearly $10 per person per day. We spent a small fortune (nearly a hundred dollars) on park fees alone between the two of us for five days!
Town of Banff – Gateway to Heaven
Depending on personal preferences, the town of Banff can be looked at as just a gateway to hiking in Banff National Park, or it can be looked at as a destination in itself – a place to unwind – in luxury – in the lap of mountains where the hour-hand on the clock simply ceases to exist. For us, it was a mix of both.
The check-in process at our pre-booked hotel, Banff Caribou Lodge, was smooth and hassle-free. Our room was fairly compact and the bathroom was one of the smallest I’ve ever seen in a hotel room. Our hotel was conveniently located on the main Banff Avenue and was walking distance to shopping and restaurants. After freshening up, we set out to explore the little town and grab a bite to eat.
For a small town, we were surprised to see its pedestrian-friendly downtown abuzz with tourists. There were no shortages of bars, fast food restaurants and flashy souvenir shops. There were also many restaurants serving tasty multi-ethnic cuisine such as Chinese, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Tex-Mex and Thai. During our stay in Banff, we tickled our taste buds with Greek, Indian, Tex-Mex (American-Mexican) and Thai food. Unfortunately, we felt that the Indian restaurant, Masala Authentic Indian, was over-priced and far from authentic. The service also left much to be desired. I feel that many Indian restaurants take their Indian customers for granted. On the other hand, the food at Thai Grill was very tasty and offered excellent value for money – and as a bonus, the service was courteous – that’s all we expect!
Of course, Banff being a popular tourist spot, there were plenty of souvenir shops. However, most of the souvenirs sold in these shops were overpriced and lacked authenticity and character. For the discerning eye, they were nothing more than cheap mass-produced “Made in China” crafts that can be found at almost any tourist place in Canada. I think a souvenir should be more than just where it is purchased. Probably the best souvenirs are locally-made and are something that is unique to that place; however, such things are hard to find in today’s “Global Village”.
For me, the memories of my experiences are my souvenirs.
Trans-Canada Highway: Curse or Blessing?
The roads and highways that cut across the Banff, Jasper, Yoho and other National and Provincial Parks are at once both, a blessing and a curse to the parks. Without the roads, it would be impossible to enjoy the spectacular mountain scenery from the comfort of our own vehicle. On the other hand, 99% of wildlife fatalities (statistics from Parks Canada), including grizzly bears and wolves – the top predators in the Rocky Mountains – are due to collisions with vehicles and trains. Roads through national parks are clearly doing a lot of harm.
The most disconcerting thing about the Trans-Canada highway is the way it divides the park with seemingly no way for wildlife to go across. The high fences along the highway help in preventing animals from becoming road-kill, but it also leaves the park tragically fragmented. Although we were certainly enjoying the breathtaking panoramic views from the comfort of our car as we drove on the highway, I kept wondering if this is how wildlife has to pay the price for our enjoyment.
As we know only too well, economic sense always trumps common sense. However, unfortunately, if there are no economic incentives or benefits in preserving our natural heritage, then there won’t be much of it left for the future. Tourism is a necessary evil to preserve our natural heritage. Or else all will be lost to loggers, hunters and developers.
As I later learned, in order to connect important wildlife habitats, several overpasses (at a cost of $1 million each) and many more underpasses have been constructed on the Trans-Canada highway in Banff National Park for wildlife to cross the highway in a safe and “natural” way. The passes are designed to resemble a natural setting. Apparently, it did not take long for some of the smaller animals to start using the passes, but it took a few years before top predators such as bears and wolves felt comfortable enough to use it. I guess everyone has their own learning curve!
Bow Valley Parkway (Highway 1A)
From the town of Banff, Bow Valley Parkway is the alternate route to the TransCanada Highway. Although slower than taking the highway, it is the recommended route for sighting animals and for stopping en route at the many view points. However, with the exception of a few viewpoints dotted along the route, it lacks the sweeping panoramic views, which the Trans-Canada Highway affords throughout the journey.
We were lucky as we spotted a huge deer just as we got on the Bow Valley Parkway from Banff. We pulled over to the side and happily took several pictures. Initially, we thought it was a woodland caribou. We found it very confusing to distinguish between an elk, woodland caribou and a deer as all three look more or less the same and have very funky antlers. As we learned later, caribou prefer to stay on the higher altitudes in the summer months, and their numbers are so small that we would be lucky indeed to spot one. I recently read that the last remaining woodland caribou in Banff all died in an avalanche in 2009, and, sadly, there are only a few remaining in Jasper.
There were two animals that we were really hoping to spot – woodland caribou and bears. It hadn’t even been twenty minutes since we had seen a deer, and we came across a couple of bears – a mother and her pug! As we were constantly on the lookout for animals, we were driving slowly so I was able to immediately pull over to the side just a few feet away from them. Apparently, the pug had wandered out of the woods and its mother followed it and took it back inside. By the time others pulled over to see the bears, they had gone back into the woods. We were very happy to have taken Bow Valley Parkway indeed!
We spotted the bears very close to a camping site. So to all those who plan on camping in the National Parks, make sure to secure your garbage to keep the bears away!
To be continued… Click for Part Two