Taking Flight…

Driving Holidays: Canadian Rockies (Part 2)

SubscribeFiled Under: Canada, Export, Road Trip,by Neeraj

Part Two of my travelogue of our week-long-best-ever summer road trip in the Canadian Rockies, where the term “it’s a pleasure to drive” takes a whole new meaning. We visited some of the best known sights of Banff, Yoho and Jasper National Parks, including the beautiful Lake Louise and Emerald Lake, as well as the Athabasca Glacier of the Columbia Icefield en route to Jasper.

Click for: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

This is what our road trip was all about - the Rockies!

This is what our road trip was all about – the Rockies!

Misadventures at Silverton Falls

It had been a long time since I had seen mountains and I was (over) eager to do some hiking/trekking in the Rockies. For me, it was rather necessary to go hiking at least one while I was there – otherwise it would be the equivalent of going to an amusement park and not taking any rides! I think trekking is the best way to get close to nature and the best way to see the beauty of nature. It instills a feeling of love, appreciation and respect for nature.

“Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.” -Anatoli Boukreev

I had in mind a couple of challenging day treks – Cory Pass in Banff National Park and the Iceline Trail in Yoho National Park – so I wanted to start off with a small trek in Banff just to get our feet wet so to speak. My online research had indicated that Silverton Falls is a great hike for beginners as it barely takes 30-minutes to reach the falls from the starting point and is also a sort of “local secret” since it’s not overrun with tourists even in peak season, unlike the nearby Johnston Canyon.

We drove to the Rockbound Lake parking lot, about 200-meters east of Castle Junction on the Bow Valley Parkway (Highway 1A), from where the trail to both, Silverton Falls (0.5-KM) and Rockbound Lake (8.5-KM), starts. There was only one other vehicle parked there when we reached the parking lot at around 3-PM. I guess I had read correctly about this being a “local secret” or perhaps there weren’t many people because we were starting late.

In preparing Bhakti for any, shall we say, eventualities, I briefed her (or scared her if you ask her) about how dangerous bears can be and what to do in case we come across one. Her impression of a cute and cuddly bear that only tickles its victims was shattered to the point that she became paranoid and every log started to resemble a bear!

The trail is fairly obvious and sort of follows a creek upstream. After walking several hundred meters we came across a new trail that forked left (towards the mountain) and the one we were on continued along the creek. Although I suspected the new trail would be the right one, I was curious to see if by following the creek we would end up at the base of Silverton Falls.

The trail ended when we reached a small waterfall, but we could hear an even bigger waterfall, which was completely hidden from view. I crossed the creek using a few stepping stones to get a better view from the other side while Bhakti impatiently waited for me. I had a somewhat clearer view of the bigger falls – Silverton Falls – but it was still obstructed. I knew that the other trail at the fork would have the best view of the falls. Anyway, I was content to have satisfied by curiosity.

The creek at the base of Silverton Falls

The creek at the base of Silverton Falls

Meanwhile, Bhakti had called out my name a few times while I was on the other side of the creek. Unfortunately, the sound of the waterfall had completely drowned out her screams. When I returned she was angry at me for leaving her alone and asked what she would’ve done had a bear come and I wouldn’t even have heard her call for help!

We traced our steps back to where the trail forked and took the other trail. The new trail had one switchback that gradually gained altitude in a zig-zag pattern. The switchback trail was a fairly long one to keep the gradient less steep. I noticed a “short-cut” going straight up and I thought it would be more adventurous to take this path instead of taking the “boring path”, which everyone else takes. This was a crucial mistake on my part as after what happened next I could not even consider doing Cory Pass or the Iceline Trail.

Watch your step! Bhakti on the Silverton Falls trail

Watch your step! Bhakti on the Silverton Falls trail

Bhakti was not too keen on taking this path, which was not even an actual trail, but still she followed me. The path was fairly steep and full of loose scree. It became even steeper after the half-way mark, at which point I was on all fours and so was Bhakti who was behind me. We were desperately trying to grab whatever we could to maintain our balance, but there was hardly anything firm enough to hold on to. I realized that I had misjudged the “short-cut” and hoped that we, especially Bhakti, doesn’t pay the price for this. It was definitely time to head back down without taking any further risks. A few other people, who were on the switchback trail above us, saw that we were struggling and said to go back down. They watched us until we were back safely on the main trail. We were both very glad that they were there in case something untoward had happened. It was also at that time that I cancelled our Cory Pass and Iceline Trail plans.

Moral of the Story: short-cuts on the mountains can cut-short your life!

The Silverton Falls is a neat 50-m high waterfall, which can be seen quite nicely from a viewpoint where the switchback trail ends. In spite of being easily accessible, it’s relatively unknown and I suspect that’s because there is nothing spectacular about the falls. Also, other than the falls, the hike is not rewarding in terms of getting to see great mountain scenery.

Silverton Falls (~50m) near the town of Banff

Silverton Falls (~50m) near the town of Banff

Some caution is required on the trail going towards the viewpoint as it is quite narrow with a steep drop-off. It would be dangerous if the trail were crowded but we had the place all to ourselves that day save for a couple who were in-and-out in less than 5 minutes. After spending 20-25 minutes at the viewpoint, we traced our steps back to the parking lot and drove to what can be best described as the Taj Mahal of Rocky Mountains … Lake Louise.

Check out our video of Silverton Falls.

Tears of God: Lakes of Rocky Mountains

Banff and other contiguous National Parks (such as Yoho) are a land of exquisite natural beauty and its lakes deserve a special mention for the many hues of blue and green. Needless to say, when we first started our trip, we were mesmerized and awestruck by the different shades of natural blue and green coloured waters we were seeing. It’s the kind of beauty that neither words nor photographs can do justice to. The lakes can be best described as “Tears of God”.

"Tears of God" - lakes of Rocky Mountains

“Tears of God” – lakes of Rocky Mountains

Some of these lakes, such as Lake Louise (Banff) and Emerald Lake (Yoho) are easily accessible by car and many others require you to trek/hike. Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park has restrictions on the number of visitors to protect its fragile environment; shuttle bus reservations need to be made much in advance if you wish to see this lake. You can bypass this restriction if you hike to the lake (quite challenging but totally worth it – or so I heard).

It is "rock flour" from melted glacial waters that gives the lakes such hues

It is “rock flour” from melted glacial waters that gives the lakes such hues

By the end of the week we were almost desensitized to the beauty of the lakes and had started to “compare” the hues of one lake to another – an unfair comparison by any stretch of imagination, but such is human nature! At one point we didn’t even bother to pull over our car and look at “another blue hued lake” that could be seen from the highway!

What audacity! Maaz!

Lake Louise – In Search of Blue Skies

Lake Louise is one of the most beautiful alpine lakes in the Rockies, and arguably in the world – and not without reason. The lake’s turquoise blue water, whose colour even our high-tech Digital SLR camera could not accurately capture, with the backdrop of snow-capped mountains is the stuff of dreams. It is on the itinerary of practically every visitor to Banff and its shockingly large parking lot is testament to its popularity!

Lake Louse - the most beautiful lake in the Rockies

Lake Louse – the most beautiful lake in the Rockies

I’ve to admit that I was quite turned off by its huge parking lot with hundreds of parked cars and even a few tour buses. While driving around the lot looking for a space to park it felt like I was back at GO Transit’s parking lot desperately looking for a spot at 7:30 in the morning before catching a train to the office. Not a good feeling indeed! How can one enjoy nature in a crowded place? I need peace and tranquility to truly enjoy nature. This is one of the reason’s why I don’t like going to Niagara Falls.

Fortunately, Lake Louise is not commercially exploited to the same degree as Niagara Falls. Although there are boating (non-motorized) facilities and a 5-star hotel, Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, which overlooks the lake, these are not distracting and do not take away the beauty of this place. In fact, the beautiful Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, whose design and architecture speaks of luxury and caters to those who seek luxury in nature (and can afford it) sort of sets the setting for this lake, which has the best of Mother Nature and the best of what is man-made.

The luxurious Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise

The luxurious Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise

The hiking trails also make it easy to escape the crowds that are happily posing for their cameras in front of the lake without venturing too far out. We ran into a Marathi-speaking family from Edmonton who gave us their phone numbers and invited us to their place once they learned we would be visiting Edmonton afterwards. I think the Marathi community still has a “community” feel in Edmonton, which is all but lost in the Marathi-speaking community in Toronto.

For Bhakti it was her first time seeing an alpine lake and that too a blue-coloured one as if it were a natural swimming pool! I read on an information board near the lake that the water gets its colour from “rock flour” that is carried into the lake by the melted water from the glaciers that overlook the lake. The only other place where I have seen such a lake was in the Indian Himalayas en route to Goecha Pass in Sikkim (from where the view of Mt. Kanchendzone – world’s third-highest peak – is to die for!) – and that too after 4.5 days of strenuous trekking. Is it any wonder then that this lake, which anyone can easily reach by car and is wheelchair-accessible from the parking lot, is such a popular place to visit?

Lake Louise with overcast skies (1st visit)

Lake Louise with overcast skies (1st visit)

Lake Louise with clear skies (3rd visit)

Lake Louise with clear skies (3rd visit)

Bhakti and I were completely taken by its beauty and the several dozen pictures that we took speak volumes about how we felt. However, there was one thing missing – blue skies! We felt that the only thing that will make the lake even better is if the skies were clear. So, we ended up visiting Lake Louise not once, not twice, but three times over three days with the hopes of capturing a photo of the lake with clear skies. However, luck was not on our side and we had to be content with only partly clear skies on our third visit. I think the key is to visit this lake early in the morning to get the blue skies as the clouds quickly settle over the mountains behind the lake as the day progresses.

Our first visit to Lake Louise was when we were staying in the town of Banff. At one point while driving back to our hotel in Banff after seeing Lake Louise we got stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic due to road construction. I was stuck in the very thing I was trying to get away from – city madness! My preconceived notion of a tranquil and peaceful national park was shattered, at least temporarily. Thankfully, that was only a one-time incident.

Bhakti... lost in thought

Bhakti… lost in thought

Check out our video of Lake Louise.

The Tragedy of Moraine Lake

Most of my pre-trip research effort was focused on finding the best hiking trails, and very little time was spent on researching the “must see” attractions of the National Parks we were visiting. Even a simple Google search would have indicated that Moraine Lake is not to be missed … and we missed it, not for lack of time but for lack of knowledge.

This lake of immense natural beauty is a short detour from the road to Lake Louise. In fact, Moraine Lake was featured on the backs of the 1969 and 1979 issues of the Canadian twenty dollar note, and the view of the lake featured on the notes is “one of the most photographed locations in all of Canada!”

We didn’t know what we had missed until we returned from our trip and I looked it up on Google Images after a friend told me about it. It was indeed a tragedy that we missed seeing this beautiful lake, especially given that we visited Lake Louise three times and each time we saw the sign for Moraine Lake indicating that it is (only!) 10-KM away and we dismissed it thinking “it’s just another lake”.

Sometimes ignorance is not bliss.

Lake Louise Gondola (Rope-way): Short-cut to Heaven?

I was not too keen on the idea of taking a “gondola” (rope-way) ride up a mountain for the views. However, after cancelling our two major treks plans (Cory Pass in Banff and Iceline Trail in Yoho), which would’ve given us such views (and perhaps even better) – the hard way – we decided to get those views the easy way as a consolation.

It’s called the Lake Louise Gondola because the beautiful blue lake can clearly be seen as the “gondola”, which essentially is a ski lift, takes you up the mountain. There are gondolas near Banff town, Lake Louise and Jasper town. However, if you only have time (or money) for one, then I think Lake Louise Gondola has the best views and there’s even a chance of spotting grizzly bears who are often seen wandering and snacking on the grassy slopes of the ski hills. In fact, we did spot a grizzly from our ski chair; however, it was not much more than a tiny speck as we were very high above it.

View of Lake Louise from the Lake Louise Gondola

View of Lake Louise from the Lake Louise Gondola

Once we reached the top there weren’t many places to explore as most areas were closed off due to “bear activity”. And after just having spotted a grizzly, we didn’t want to take any chances by wandering around! There was a large cabin nearby, which was turned into a sort of museum of all the wildlife found in the national parks – complete with stuffed animals. The displays were quite informative. This is where I learned that 99% of wildlife fatalities in the national parks are unnatural deaths – the animals are either killed on the road or on the tracks by speeding trains.

There were a few “view points” from where you can get a pretty good idea of how vast the mountain range is. Lake Louise is not more than a tiny speck and the mountains are spread-out as far as the eye can see. The panoramic views are truly incredible and worth it if trekking is not possible.

Sweeping panoramic views from the Lake Louise Gondola

Sweeping panoramic views from the Lake Louise Gondola

I think I appreciate the view more if I have to perspire and face many challenges to get to it, than if I get the same (or even better view) by driving to a “view point” or by reaching there via cable car. Anything that is easily achieved is neither appreciated nor remembered. A family friend of mine had once asked me what the point is of climbing a mountain. It’s rather difficult to answer that question as climbing a mountain is something that needs to be experienced to be understood. It’s as much a spiritual experience as it is a physical one.

It’s one of the intangibles in life – how do we put a value on it?

To be continued… Click for Part Three.

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