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Driving Holidays: Canadian Rockies (Part 4)

SubscribeFiled Under: Canada, Road Trip,by Neeraj

Part Four 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

Jasper Town

After our drive to Jasper via the Icefields Parkway, I think I truly understood the meaning of “it’s the journey that matters, and not the destination.” In fact, we had enjoyed the journey so much that we were somewhat disappointed by the town itself. I’m not sure what we were expecting but perhaps this was because we were seeing the town after dark and our expectations of a mountain town had become unreasonable after staying in the picturesque town of Field.

View from Jasper Town

In Jasper, we stayed in the centrally-located Best Western Jasper Inn; I had booked a suite with a kitchen. The idea was I would cook “something special” (i.e. warm up a ready-to-eat packaged food) for Bhakti on her birthday, which we would be celebrating in Jasper. However, that did not materialize as planned and she ended up cooking for both of us while I went out to buy some more groceries and a cake! Interestingly, the grocery stores in Jasper carried a lot of ethnic Indian food, including ready-to-eat curries.

As this was the tail-end of our Rockies trip, we didn’t have any grand plans for Jasper. We walked along the main road that runs parallel to the train tracks. We saw the super-expensive Rocky Mountaineer train that makes its scenic journey from Vancouver to Jasper and back. Although I’m sure the train route is very scenic, I still think a road trip is the best way to explore the Canadian Rockies as we can stop anywhere we want and, in a car, our view is not restricted to just one side as would be the case on the train.

This train makes a scenic journey from Jasper to Vancouver

This train makes a scenic journey from Jasper to Vancouver

Maligne Canyon – “GRIZZLY ATTACK”!

It was Bhakti’s birthday and we spent the morning lazing around. Finally, we decided to visit the most popular place in Jasper – Maligne Canyon. However, it wasn’t until after lunch that we drove to the canyon, which is only a short drive from the town. The canyon is a great exploratory walk with many boards that explain some of the science behind the canyon’s formation and water flow.

We parked our car in a small parking lot overlooking the Maligne River. It was around 2:30 PM and there weren’t many cars in the lot, so I thought it best to take our GPS with us than to leave it in an unattended car. As we later realized, this was a “lifesaving decision” for us.

Maligne Canyon

Maligne Canyon

From the lot, we crossed a neat little bridge to enter the most confusing trail system I’ve ever seen – this in spite of being armed with a map! There are multiple colour-coded trails of varying degrees of difficulty. To add to the confusion, there are multiple entry and exit points. Of course, if you stick to the main trail, then there is almost no chance of getting lost.

The interesting features of this canyon are the many underground streams that greatly add to the flow of Maligne River that flows through this canyon. At one place we could actually see water flowing out of a hole in the canyon wall! I wondered where it was coming from. During the winter months, the river is frozen and it is possible to walk on its bed and explore this canyon in a different way.

Underground streams greatly add to the flow of Maligne River. Seen here is a stream gushing out of the canyon wall.

Underground streams greatly add to the flow of Maligne River. Seen here is a stream gushing out of the canyon wall.

At first, we stayed on the main trail, which is child-friendly (i.e. has protective railings), and took in great views of the canyon. After Mistaya Canyon, this was only the second one that I was seeing in my life. On the way back I wanted to take a different route to the parking lot. So we climbed up a somewhat steep section to reach the upper level of the mountain. Compared to the main trail, which had dozens of people, it felt pretty isolated here. We crossed paths with a couple who were going the opposite way and then we did not come across a single person after that. It was obvious why this trail was not popular – it doesn’t offer any views of the canyon or otherwise.

Before climbing back down to the “main level”, we could see from our vantage point the bridge, which we had crossed from the parking lot; this confirmed that we were following the trial correctly. Feeling confident and double-checking our map, we descended to the main level and followed the only trail going towards the river.

The trail was along the river and we thought it was only a matter of time before we see the bridge on our left. From our vantage point earlier, it seemed as if it would take no more than 5-10 minutes to reach the bridge.

After 15 minutes of walking we were starting to wonder if we were on the right path.  We had not come across a single person and Bhakti’s fears of a bear attack were starting to come back. Fear is contagious and I was trying hard to stay cool. Bhakti asked me what I would do if a bear came at us from behind, and I brushed it off saying bears don’t stalk human beings and stage surprise attacks. THEN SUDDENLY, AS IF TO PROVE ME WRONG, WE HEARD A RUSHING SOUND FROM BEHIND AND A GIANT SOMETHING (GRIZZLY?) WAS CHARGING AT US … WE INSTINCTIVELY DUCKED AND SCREAMED!

As it turned out, it was a jogging man! He literally scared the living daylights out of us! Due to the trail’s proximity to the loud river, we could not hear him coming until he was right behind us. The man said “relax, relax!” before continuing his jog. Those words still ring in my ears. Relieved that it was not a bear and happy that there was at least one other person on the same trail, we continued our walk.

That man disappeared from sight in a matter of seconds and we immediately regretted not asking him for directions. Every now and then I would turn around to make sure nothing was lurking in the woods. In fact, seeing my paranoid state, Bhakti had forced herself to be more composed. We then remembered that we have our GPS in our backpack and perhaps it could tell us where we had parked our car and if we were going in the right direction.

I turned on the GPS and switched it to operate in pedestrian mode. Fortunately, it picked up the satellite signal and showed us where our car was parked and our own location. At that moment, the GPS gadget was our God! As it turned out, we were going in the opposite direction. We turned around and walked back to the place from where we had descended to the “main level”. Earlier, when we had spotted the bridge from our vantage point, we had descended to the main level and turned right thinking we had to keep the river to our left. Had we turned left we would’ve reached the bridge in less than 5 minutes!

Maligne River flowing through Maligne Canyon

Maligne River flowing through Maligne Canyon

I was reminded once again how easy it is to get lost in the mountains or wilderness. The most important thing to keep in mind is that if you think you’re lost, stop immediately and then decide what to do next (i.e. whether to continue moving forward or backtrack). Sometimes the best option is to backtrack than to continue moving forward and make an already bad situation worse.

After returning to our car we felt indebted to our GPS and thought this was one birthday to remember! Before returning to town, we drove to a nearby lake, which I think was Lake Edith, and just spent some time by the lake shore. All the lakes in the Rockies are beautiful and this too was no exception. Unfortunately, we missed seeing the more popular Maligne Lake – but one cannot see everything, can they?

Road to Edmonton: One Last Surprise

No questions about who owns this road!

No questions about who owns this road!

The drive from Jasper to Edmonton was not nearly as exciting as the drive from Calgary to Banff was when the flat terrain gave way to distant rolling hills, which became big mountains as we got nearer. On the drive out of Jasper National Park it felt as if the mountains suddenly disappeared and everything became flat. It was as if the Rockies disappeared in a blink of an eye!

The 'lil one catching up to her family

The ‘lil one catching up to her family

However, we were very happy to have received one last surprise on the highway to Edmonton before exiting from Jasper National Park – flock of long-horned sheep in the middle of the highway! There were around two dozen sheep altogether and I spent nearly a half hour following them and taking pictures. I suspected this would be our last wildlife encounter during the trip, so I tried to make the most of it.

A flock of long-horned sheep

A flock of long-horned sheep

Edmonton: City of Champions

I liked Edmonton better than Calgary. It was a beautiful Friday afternoon when we checked-into our hotel on Whyte Avenue in the Old Strathcona district – Edmonton’s main arts and entertainment area. When we stepped out for a walk in the evening all the restaurants and pubs were packed, and the street was buzzing with activity. At night, young party goers lined up to dance the night away in a club and street performers/musicians entertained passersby on the sidewalk. I thought that Whyte Avenue was like Toronto’s Richmond Street, but a bit classier! Indeed, Edmonton seemed to stay true to its slogan – a City of Champions!

Old Strathcona is an historic district. It is now Edmonton's main arts and entertainment area.

Old Strathcona is an historic district. It is now Edmonton’s main arts and entertainment area.

The next day, before driving to Calgary, we made a pit stop at the erstwhile largest mall in the world – the West Edmonton Mall. Although it is no longer the largest mall in the world, it is still the largest mall in Canada. Our “pit stop” at this mall turned into a rather long stop, but for good reason. The mall is a one-stop-shop for shopping, food, entertainment and gambling. On top of having hundreds of stores, it has restaurants, movie theaters, a water park, an amusement park, an ice skating rink and a casino! Although I’m no fan of malls, I quite enjoyed just walking around this huge complex – just don’t forget where you parked your car!

A water park in the West Edmonton Mall

A water park in the West Edmonton Mall

An ice-skating rink in the West Edmonton Mall

An ice-skating rink in the West Edmonton Mall

End of the Road: Back to Calgary

The 3-hour drive from Edmonton to Calgary was flat and uninteresting. After spending a week driving in the mountains, driving on flat terrain felt like a chore. If I could go back, I would return to Calgary from Jasper itself via the same route (Icefields Parkway and Trans-Canada Highway). In hindsight, there was no need to go to Edmonton to complete the loop.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” ― Ernest Hemingway

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” ― Ernest Hemingway

Tips and Budgeting Considerations

The flight to Calgary will almost always be the biggest expense, so booking early is the key for saving money. Unfortunately, due to a lack of competition in the Canadian airspace (among other things), the fares for many destinations within Canada are very high. It is actually cheaper to fly to overseas destinations from Canada than it is to fly within Canada – even short-distances! This is one reason that is holding us back in fully exploring this beautiful country.

If you’re planning a similar trip, here are some money-saving tips based on our experience:

  • Stock up on packaged drinking water and snacks from Wal-Mart in Calgary before heading to Banff.
  • When entering Banff National Park, buy the Parks Canada pass for only one day instead of all days at once; buy another one day pass before heading to Jasper.
  • Stay in Canmore, instead of in Banff, which is less than 30 kilometers away. Accommodation costs in Canmore are significantly lower than in Banff.
  • In Field, book a guesthouse well in advance rather than staying in the only (over-priced) hotel/lodge.
  • In Jasper, the best value accommodation are bed-and-breakfast inns. Alternately, stay in Hinton, which is 1-hour away en route to Edmonton.
  • Search for “promo codes” for possible discounts when booking flights, hotels and car rental.

Here’s a breakdown of our expenses and some interesting statistics:

Accommodation: $1,070.25 | 35%

Car Rental: $264.00 | 9%

Flights: $955.94 | 32%

Food: $467.50 | 15%

Gas: $121.10 | 4%

Park Fees: $98.00 | 3%

Sightseeing: $56.18 | 2%

Grand Total: $3,032.97 | 100%

Total Distance Traveled: 1520-KM

Total Fuel Consumed: 121 liters (32 US gallons)

What we loved most on our road trip? Beautiful landscapes and amazing wildlife! We shall return some day...

What we loved most on our road trip? Beautiful landscapes and amazing wildlife! We shall return some day…


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Posted by:Neerajon August 29, 2013

2 Comments to: “Driving Holidays: Canadian Rockies (Part 4)”


  1. I don’t lnow if you’re aware of it, but the Canadian Rockies Hikers page is modtly used by people who live and work in Jasper, oncluding many progessionals. Your adventures, while very nice, are more about a typical toirist trip.

    A couple of points:
    Never take a shortcut up a trail. It destroys the trail, since rainfall rushes straight down the slope at high speed, rather than flowng gently across the switchbacks.
    You are completely wrong about walking on a glacier. One person died a few years ago just a dozen steps from the toe – he fell into a crevasse, was sandwiched in the ice, and died of hypothermia. A friend of mine died skiing on a glacier, but he was killed by the fal before the cold got him.
    A GPS, IMHO, is piece of crap. It certainly did nothing for you at Maligne canyon that paying attention to your map wouldn’t have done, and if you were relying on it for rescue it won’t help. Bear in mind, your original error came from assuming the river was in a different place, not from misdirection by any map or gadget.
    I’ve been guiding in the Parks since 1982, and I’ve only met a bear on the trails once. Your fears were unfounded, and you set Bhati up to panic if she’d run into one. That would have caused her to run, which would have triggered a predatory charge. DON’T run, stay together, and carry bear spray, and you’ll be fine.
    It’s unfortunate that you missed some of the more scenic hikes. You were very close to many of them, yet didn’t know it. Examples include Emerald Basin and the Iceline, as well as many great ones in Jasper. Before you come again, might I suggest reviewing Trail Guide to the Canadian Rockies, and checking out the trail guides at the parks offices.

    There’s a lot more, but those are the ones that jump out at me.

    Happy to help if you need more information.

    Peter McClure, Master Guide
    Interpretative Guides Association

    1
    • Thanks for the tips, Peter.

      Yes, our trip was more or less a typical touristy one. I wish I lived close to the Rockies to do more exploring.

      You’re right, if I was paying attention to the map then we wouldn’t have gotten lost at Maligne Canyon. The GPS really was a lifesaver, or at least felt like it was at that point in time! Of course, it’s not a device anyone should rely on when hiking.

      I was aware of the Iceline Trail as well as a few other scenic and challenging hikes. I’ll come better prepared for those next time. It’s unfortunate that the airfare from Toronto to Calgary/Edmonton is so expensive, otherwise I wouldn’t been at the Rockies every other week!

      Thanks for offering to help – I’ll take you up on that offer… hopefully some day soon 🙂

      Cheers,
      Neeraj

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