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Driving Holidays: Canadian Rockies (Part 3)

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

Part Three 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

Driving in the Canadian Rockies

Picture Perfect: Field, British Columbia (BC)

From Lake Louise, the Trans-Canada Highway continues west towards Vancouver, and the road going north-west leads to the Icefields Parkway, which goes to Jasper via the famous Columbia Icefield. Field is the first town you come across on the Trans-Canada Highway after crossing into British Columbia (BC). It is by far the most beautiful and picturesque town I’ve ever seen in Canada!

Picturesque town of Field

Picturesque town of Field

I learned about this little town while searching for a place to stay near Lake Louise as all accommodation options around Lake Louise were not in our budget. Field is a mere 30-KM from Lake Louise and due to its proximity to attractions such as a Natural Bridge (over Kicking Horse River), Emerald Lake and Takakkaw Falls, it is the perfect place to stay and explore the nearby attractions in leisure. If I had more time, I would’ve loved to simply stay in town for a few days and do nothing – well, except, perhaps, read a book while sippin’ on a hot cuppa tea and go for long walks in the mountains – sound like a perfect vacation? Better to do that here than in some all-inclusive resort, no?

Although Field is in British Columbia, it follows Mountain Daylight Time (MDT) like Calgary (Alberta) as opposed to the rest of British Columbia, which follows Pacific Standard Time (PST). The town was established in the late 1800’s during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. It is the only town in Yoho National Park and is located at the foot of giant mountains with the mighty Kicking Horse River flowing in front of it. The colourful wooden houses with the most beautiful gardens nudged on the rocky slopes of the mountain give it a charm that is simply irresistible. I was in love with this town. It is no wonder that around 300 people have settled here for good.

Town of Field in the backdrop of mountains and overlooking the Kicking Horse River

Town of Field in the backdrop of mountains and overlooking the Kicking Horse River

We stayed at Field’s only hotel/lodge, Truffle Pigs Kicking Horse Lodge, which has a Truffle Pigs Bistro attached to it. In the morning, we were happily greeted by a deer, which we could see from the window of our second-floor room. The lodge only has a handful of rooms with mostly basic amenities, and due to limited options for accommodation in Field, advance booking is recommended in the summer months (high season). Other than this lodge, there are several family-run guest houses where it is possible to get better value for the money; however, the best ones get fully booked weeks, if not months, in advance.

Our hotel in Field - Kicking Horse Lodge

Our hotel in Field – Kicking Horse Lodge

Food options are also quite limited at Field. Truffle Pigs Bistro is the only restaurant in town, and although it had good reviews, we did not fancy the food too much. A better (and cheaper) option is to drive to Mountain Restaurant (Village Road) near Lake Louise for food.

Although worlds apart, Field reminded me of a small village in India, Ambewadi (in Maharashtra state), where I had spent some time. Ambewadi is one of the most beautiful villages in India and I had fallen in love with it the moment I laid my eyes on it from the top of Mt. Kulang. Love at first sight, as they say. Both, Field and Ambewadi, have the prettiest setting imaginable; located in the cradle of mountains – the former in the Rockies and the latter in the Sahyadris. Other than geography, friendly locals is another thing they both have in common. While Bhakti and I were wandering around in the outskirts of Field taking pictures, a rather menacing-looking trucker, who had been watching us, came over and kindly offered to take our picture together. That was nice of him and served as a reminder not to judge a book by its cover!

View from Field

View from Field

Tip: While in Field (or almost anywhere in the Rockies for that matter), don’t miss the chance to see the Milk Way! Step out at night on a cloudless and (hopefully) moonless sky and discover why it is called the Milky Way!

Natural or Unnatural Bridge?

Although not a “must-see” attraction on its own, the natural bridge in Yoho Natural Park is only 3-KM from Field and is en route to Emerald Lake (which is a must-see attraction). We didn’t have this on our list when we started our trip, but like many other places in the Rockies, this too was one of the unexpected surprises which sprung up for us on the road side as we drove. These surprises sure beat the McDonald’s that we are so used to seeing on any highway, which is the extent of a driver’s excitement on a typical highway!

Natural Bridge over the Kicking Horse River near Field

Natural Bridge over the Kicking Horse River near Field

The natural bridge is a giant rock under which flows the mighty Kicking Horse River. There’s a story on how the river got the name, but I don’t recall that as it was a rather uninteresting and uninspiring story. I’m sure the river was/is called by some other name by the Cree-speaking Natives of the land. Incidentally, “Yoho” in Yoho Natural Park is a Cree word meaning “awe”.

At your own risk, it is possible to walk on the natural bridge, which is narrow at some places. On this bridge, death by drowning would be only one miss-step away. However, there is also a man-made bridge, or, shall we say an “unnatural bridge” over the river, which is beside the natural bridge. Most people, including me (thanks to my wife), stay on this bridge, which, not to disappoint, affords great views of the river as well as the natural bridge – in a “safety-first” manner.

Kicking Horse River

Kicking Horse River

For some adventure, we climbed down to the river from where we can really appreciate how the fast flowing water must have carved a hole through the rock over thousands of years to form the bridge. I thought it was interesting that the water carved a hole through the rock, rather than simply going around it. Why it did that is a mystery to me!

The author enjoying a tranquil moment along the banks of the Kicking Horse River

The author enjoying a tranquil moment along the banks of the Kicking Horse River

Click here for a few videos of the Natural Bridge.

Emerald Lake: Jewel of the Canadian Rockies

Often described as “a jewel of the Canadian Rockies” in marketing literature, Emerald Lake really is all that and more. This pretty emerald blue-hued lake is a mere 11-KM from Field and is a must-see attraction. It is one of the few lakes with a trail that makes a complete loop along its perimeter.

Emerald Lake - "Jewel of the Rocky Mountains"

Emerald Lake – “Jewel of the Rocky Mountains”

There are several lodges by the lake and it is possible to book one for around $400/night (alternately, stay in Field). Fortunately, these man-made buildings do not take away from the natural beauty of the place as they sort of blend in with the environment. I think it’s an art to develop a place such as this without destroying its “natural character”. I’ve seen many places where development spells destruction for the environment. How can we still call that “development”?  Anyway, I was glad it hadn’t happened there.

Lodges along Emerald Lake

Lodges along Emerald Lake

Canoeing in Emerald Lake

Canoeing in Emerald Lake

Just like at Lake Louise, there are non-motorized boats available for rent and we saw a couple enjoying the tranquility of this place in their canoe. For me, the highlight was the hike, which afforded excellent views of the lake from all sides and angles.

It was rather late when we reached the lake at 4 PM. So after a quick 15-minute photo session we started our walk on the 5.2-KM trail around the lake – I was really looking forward to this!

"Saari umra hum, marmar ke jee liye, ek pal to ab humein jeene do, jeene do..."

“Saari umra hum, marmar ke jee liye, ek pal to ab humein jeene do, jeene do…”

Indeed, as they say, what is pleasure for one person can be painful for someone else. Already paranoid about bears from our earlier hike to Silverton Falls, Bhakti could hardly enjoy this most beautiful (and easy) hike. She was especially alarmed by the carefree (careless if you ask her) way I was walking on the trail and going about taking pictures without worrying about a bear waiting for us to ambush! For her, hiking had gone from being an adventure to torture!

Bhakti Bear

Bhakti Bear

It was 6:00 PM by the time we completed the loop around the lake, which took us nearly one hour and forty-five minutes. Bhakti for one was very glad that it was over, although there were moments where she too was able to put aside her (unreasonable) fear of bears – and enjoy! This easy, yet rewarding hike, should not be missed!

Bhakti - a rare carefree moment captured during the hike around Emerald Lake

Bhakti – a rare carefree moment captured during the hike around Emerald Lake

Click here for a video of Emerald Lake taken during the hike.

Takakkaw Falls

The exciting hairpin-bends-filled drive to falls alone makes the trip worthwhile. Takakkaw, which means “magnificent” in Cree language, is one of the highest waterfalls in Canada. Its highest point is 384 meters (1,260 feet) from its base, but its free-fall is “only” 254 meters (833 feet), which is still more than 5 times the free-fall of Niagara Falls!

Takakkaw Falls - one of the highest in Canada

Takakkaw Falls – one of the highest in Canada

The steep motor road to the falls is closed most of the year when it is blanketed by heavy snowfall; it only reopens for a few months once the temperatures rise to melt all the snow and make the road “motor-able”. As such, the window of see the falls is quite limited. The falls is only a short detour from the road from Lake Louise to Jasper and is only 17-KM from Field.

On the way to the falls, which is less than a 1000 meters away from the parking lot, I saw a sign for the Iceline Trail. Several popular hikes start from here, including the one that I had planned to do. It made sense that the Iceline Trail started from here since the main feature of that hike is a glacier and Takakkaw Falls is, in fact, fed by melted glacial water.

Looking up at the magnificent Takakkaw Falls

Looking up at the magnificent Takakkaw Falls

The short hike took us right in front of the towering falls with great views of the surrounding mountains. We knew we were close enough when the mist from the falls cooled our faces and its thundering roar deafened us! Only when we look up at the falls from its base, can we truly appreciate its height – don’t miss it!

The Road to Jasper: Icefields Parkway and the Athabasca Glacier

“To travel the Icefields Parkway is to experience one of Canada’s national treasures and most rewarding destinations” – icefieldsparkway.ca

Driving on the 230-KM (145-Miles) stretch of Icefields Parkway was undoubtedly the most thrilling, exciting and adrenaline-filled part of our road trip. The high passes, the hairpin curves, the glaciers, the windswept valleys, the gushing waterfalls and deep canyons, and the breathtaking and rugged mountain scenery left us – in a word – breathless!

The road to Jasper via the Icefields Parkway

The road to Jasper via the Icefields Parkway

The parkway is famous for what is probably the world’s most accessible glacier. The Athabasca glacier is quite literally on the side of the road and we parked our car and simply walked a few hundred meters to the glacier! I don’t know of any other place is the world where we can do this!

Near the glacier, we were at an altitude of over 2000 meters (6,560 feet) and the winds were gusting due to a funneling effect since the glacier is sandwiched between towering mountains. We felt redeemed to have brought our winter jackets as this was the only place where we actually needed it. I suppose we could have managed with a light spring jacket as well (it was late August), but we were quite comfortable in our winter coat.

The way to the world's most accessible glacier - Athabasca Glacier

The way to the world’s most accessible glacier – Athabasca Glacier

Seeing the glacier was undoubtedly the highlight of our trip and interestingly it wasn’t even a planned stop. I was aware of an expensive tour (starting from the Columbia Icefield Discovery Center) that takes tourists right on top of the glacier on specially-designed “Ice Explorer” buses. However, I wasn’t planning on doing this tour and wasn’t aware that there is a do-it-yourself option.

As we approached the Columbia Icefield Discovery Center on the Icefields Parkway, I noticed a narrow semi-paved road going perpendicular to the parkway. We were already in “exploration mode” so we decided to follow it to see what surprises it will lead us to. The road led us to a small unpaved parking lot, which had a trail going up a small hill – we were quite excited by the prospects by this time and our imagination was running wild!

We parked our car and upon getting out realized that it was quite windy and cool (not cold), so we quickly put on our jackets and started hiking up. What we saw after climbing to the top was something neither of us had ever seen before – a glacier – Athabasca glacier!

Athabasca Glacier near the Icefields Parkway

Athabasca Glacier near the Icefields Parkway

As we approached the glacier, we saw several signs indicating where the glacier used to be some years ago. In a hundred or so years, the glacier will have fully receded and there will be a lake in its place. Is a rapidly receding glacier not proof of Global Warming? It’s interesting how some young people’s hairlines are also rapidly receding these days!

A receding glacier: Sign of Global Warming?

A receding glacier: Sign of Global Warming?

The glacier was cordoned off by a rope and there were many signs that warned of thin ice. At the tip of the glacier where the ice is thin there was a real danger of falling through ice and into the glacial river that flowed underneath the surface, so it was best to stick to the side lines. We, however, saw a brave young couple venture past the warning rope to walk on top of the glacier. I, too, was tempted to go, but, of course, my wife wouldn’t let me…

The only downside to this do-it-yourself tour is that we don’t actually get to walk on the glacier. The tour bus on the other hand takes tourists further up and towards the middle of this 1-KM wide and 6-KM long glacier, where the ice is solid enough to withstand the weight. We cannot get there by car since cars are not allowed to travel on the dirt road that the bus takes as the route is quite steep and its wheels are specially-made for this terrain.

Bundled up at Athabasca!

Bundled up at Athabasca!

If it’s an absolute must for you to actually walk on the glacier, then, perhaps, taking the tour may be the easiest option ($100+ for a couple). However, I do think it is quite possible to navigate the glacier safely on foot from its tip if one is adventurous and careful enough. We didn’t feel like we missed anything by not walking on the glacier. We would’ve considered taking the bus tour if it was not so expensive.

For us, Athabasca was an amazing experience, which words cannot do justice to … as Khurshed Batliwala (Art of Living) says, “words are only an approximation to reality”.

Other Pit Stops En Route to Jasper

There are numerous places where you would want to stop on this parkway and therefore it is recommended that you get an early start. It took us twice as long – more than 7 hours – to reach Jasper from Lake Louise than it should have!

Bridal Veil Falls as seen from the Icefields Parkway

Bridal Veil Falls as seen from the Icefields Parkway

Just another stop on the Icefields Parkway...

Just another stop on the Icefields Parkway…

There came a point on our road trip where we had to debate about whether to explore a point of interest or to keep moving. It’s especially easy to “skip” a point that cannot be easily seen from the road – like this one: Mistaya Canyon. Close to the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park, Mistaya Canyon is an excellent pit stop before hitting Athabasca glacier. The canyon, which is over the Mistaya River, is only a short hike (~500 meters) from the highway and definitely worth exploring. Incidentally, it was my first canyon.

Mistaya Canyon

Mistaya Canyon

I liked the fact that there were no railings for safety and all exploration was “at your own risk”. For me, seeing concrete and metal railings in a natural setting is a big eye sore. This is definitely one place where little kids should not be running around!

Our last pit stop before reaching Jasper was an unnamed waterfall that we came across on the side of the road. It sort of reminded me of the numerous big and small waterfalls that can be seen on the Mumbai-Pune expressway during the monsoon season. The waterfall has several “layers” and it’s relatively easy to climb up a few levels, which makes this a fun falls to explore.

A waterfall on the road side ... the author can be seen halfway up

A waterfall on the road side … the author can be seen halfway up

Because we were stopping so frequently we were starting to worry about the distance that was still left to cover when it started to get dark. But as it typical in the mountains, the fun usually stops as the sun sets, since the visibility decreases. We made quick progress after that.

Look what greeted us as we entered the Jasper town!

Look what greeted us as we entered the Jasper town!

To be continued… Click for Part 4


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