As promised, despite getting home only 7 hours ago after a night flight and no sleep home, I am keen to post this before I forget and go back to work!!
So you will all remember the ‘I wish I could drive’ forum entry, followed by the entry with Moose cancelling our tour and us reluctantly accepting that the most likely option to achieve what we wanted was to drive. Well, here is the promised Trip Report with our adventures around ‘The Rockies’ and our experience of ‘wrong side of the road’ driving. I was typing this day by time for my journal so I’ve slightly amended it but it is still long winded and very detailed so you might want to skip bits of it – sorry if it goes on, I’m a bit too descriptive!
Thursday 15th May 2014
We flew from Vancouver to Calgary, arriving just before 2pm. By time we had our luggage and got our hire car from Avis it was just turned 2:30pm. Avis had given us a brand new 2014 Fiat 500 with less than 500K on the clock (if ever we were under pressure not to crash the car, it was now)! It was gleamingly new and we sat in the car park for a good 15 minutes setting up the GPS, looking at maps and trying to work out all the controls. Even all the manuals were still in the sealed cellophane and we had to open them to figure out what some of the buttons were. Needless to say we were petrified of the drive ahead (and I wasn’t driving, luckily my partner agreed to drive, neither of us having done it before). The GPS picked us up which was a good job as I couldn’t see any of the highways on the map initially. It all got a bit confusing and stressful at some point with roadworks and road closures and a slight detour and a turn around, but eventually we ended up on Highway 1/1A. I’m still not sure which highway we actually took but it got us here. The weather was so odd, as we were driving we could see the mountains ahead in blue skies, then we would pass under a black cloud, then it would clear again. At one we were under a cloud in front of us, but me in the passenger seat looking to the right had blue skies. The sight of the mountains in front of us and the stunning scenery was what we had come to Canada for, just stunning. Without crashing our little Fiat or causing any accidents we made it to the Georgetown Inn in Canmore at 4:25pm. We checked in and kind of did a successful happy dance in our room for the first day of driving! We decided to go stretch our legs in the gorgeous sunny weather (clearly the weather forecast in Canada is about as accurate as the UK weather forecast as they had give rain all day). We walked the town of Canmore, window shopping and looking at some very expensive property enjoying the sun and the amazing views of the snow topped mountains. On the way back we walked Policeman’s Creek Boardwalk before returning to the Georgetown Inn. We had a lovely meal in the Georgetown Inn which was very reasonable and retired to bed early. I’d been feeling rough all day due to too much red wine in Doolins in Vancouver the night before .
Friday 16th May 2014
We drove to Canmore centre and parked at Tourist Info to check out walking trails. We were keen to do Grassi Lakes and Ha-Ling peak. Having checked the weather it didn’t look good for the afternoon and the lovely lady at the Tourist Info advised us to do Grassi Lakes first before the rain came in. We called at Subway for a sandwich and cookie (we ate the cookie for breakfast). We made the drive to Grassi Lakes and decided to do the difficult trail. There was a warning up for melting ice and to be cautious so we decided to give it a go and see how ‘difficult’ it got. There was some water and some snow in places, but we were prepared with hiking boots. The waterfalls were stunning and there was one still iced up ‘dripping’ that was beautiful and we stood pretty much right under it (safely just incase it fell). The trail was empty and we never saw anyone else, although we didn’t find the trail difficult Grassi Lakes itself was just stunning and being able to see the snowy mountains in the distance was breathtaking. We hiked around the lakes and then up to snowy ground passing some rock climbers where we eventually sat in the sun eating our lunch with a chipmunk just above us. We took the easy route down hoping for some different scenery but apart from a squirrel it was pretty boring compared to the route up. Back at the car park we decided to take the gravel road to Ha-Ling. It was an OMG moment, very windy roads and our poor car did not like it at all and was groaning all the way up. We made it to a large pull in and I think we must have been near the car park and got out and had an amazing view of Ha-Ling and the lake, but were jittering about the black cloud in the distance and worrying about the drive down if it started to thunderstorm (if I had know we were going to have perfect weather we would have done it, but the forecast was wrong again luckily).
The drive to Banff did not go well. How we could mess it up I don’t know but I was flapping about which lane and twice I navigated to my partner wrongly almost sending her into the wrong side of the highway! We then missed getting our National Parks passes and were frantic with worry we were going to get fined. We had planned on stopping en route but we were both nervous wrecks so we found our accommodation and parked the car (no happy dances today). Our accommodation Rocky Mountain B&B on Otter Street was not ready as check in wasn’t until 4pm so our first point of call was to find Tourist Info and confess about the Pass. We spoke to a nice guy and bought the pass, as we were going to be here longer than a week we had the annual pass (I never knew how expensive they were, hopefully we can sell it on Ebay on our return to get some money back). We got some recommended hikes and decided on the Tunnel Mountain Trail as it was near our accommodation. This was a great hike to give fantastic views of Banff, really puts the town into perspective when you view it from the summit. Again there were lovely blue skies with no rain and views of the mountains in the distance. We returned back to the B&B, checked in, showered and had dinner there, it was a three course meal for $25CAD all home made. I’d really recommend this, good value and very nice home cooked meals. Deciding we wanted to walk off some of our meal, we headed into town, but I got side tracked by Mountain Chocolates en route (really after a three course meal)! We walked over Bow Bridge and down to Bow Falls which was nice as the sun was setting. We then walked back to the B&B and tried to figure out our route to Sunshine Village safely.
Saturday 17th May 2014
Skiing day, we were both so excited to catch the end of the ski season at Sunshine Village and neither of us had skied before. We got up and had a lovely breakfast included in our rate at Rocky Mountain B&B. We then drove with no hiccups to Sunshine Village where we got kitted out and caught the gondola to the Village and ended up being an hour early for our lesson! I’ll do a separate review of our ‘Never Ever Skied’ package, but it was great and there was just the two of us so it was like private tuition and our instructor Kenji was so helpful and encouraging. The best thing was that we both did really well and got to go on the lift and use some of the main trails with our instructor. I was so proud of myself, I never expected to get off the beginners area. We ate lunch at Sunshine (fast food restaurant). Rip off food prices/locker prices, but I guess it is to be expected. We were shattered so returned back to the B&B and went to bed early. We weren’t even hungry after our breakfast and lunch.
Sunday 18th May 2014
The weather wasn’t looking too good for today, but we wanted a good hike so decided on the Sulphur Mountain hike. We popped into the Visitors Centre to check it was OK and was told higher up there would be snow but we were all kitted out in our Goretex Jackets and boots. We took a detour on the way to walk past the Fairmont Springs Hotel, curiosity got the better of me. It’s like a complete village of its own. We also passed deer crossing the road and a squirrel stood up like a meerkat. When I went to take a photo of it, it ran to my rucksack and was trying to open the zip which was part way open (ladies watch your bags)! From here we took the track to the Hot Springs, calling in to use the bathroom facilities (I am so glad we didn’t go here, busy, packed with lots of families and not really hot springs compared with ones we have been to in NZ/Peru which really are natural hot springs not set up like public swimming baths). The trek up Sulphur was not particularly strenuous until probably half way when under clouds it was snow covered which made it more difficult. It then snowed so we were trekking in the snow from just before the 4km mark to the summit. We were wet and cold but there was something quite magical about it : - ) We saw quite a few people really not prepared for this trek, a group of lads wearing t-shirts, skinny jeans and converse. We did however admire a group of three young girls (I guess locals) running up the mountain!!
At the summit we couldn’t see much but then again you can’t have it all and we did have fantastic views from Tunnel Mountain on Friday. Tourist Info had said we would get free gondola passes down but they were very reluctant to give them out at the top saying it was only until a few days ago, but relented in the end and gave us the free passes (probably felt sorry for us as we looked like drowned rats at this point). The ride down was nice coming back through the clouds over where we had hiked and then seeing Banff. I’m glad it was free, but for me it is just so over the top touristy – taking photos of you in the gondola, people in coaches being shipped from one place to the next without really experiencing any of the scenery. Get out take a picture, go back down and onto the next attraction . . . and repeat! I really didn’t like it but that’s just my opinion. We waited ages for the ROAM bus which was running late, paid our $2CAD each and left, but the traffic was horrendous. It was gridlocked so we jumped back off the bus and walked back into Banff in the rain. We were debating whether to eat out and looked at a few menus and restaurants we had seen on Tripadvisor but decided in terms of value for money and nice food we would eat at our B&B again. We had a lovely three-course meal for £20 each. We were going to go for another walk but it was raining and thundering at this point so retired early and to pack for Lake Louise tomorrow.
Monday 19th May 2014
We had another lovely and filling breakfast at Rocky Mountain B&B, but not a particularly good night sleep. Our rooms had shared bathrooms and we were next door to one of them and seriously some travellers need to learn etiquette for this. There was a new group that took up two rooms and thought it was completely acceptable to chatter away in Chinese at 6am when they were doing the same until gone midnight, then to stand with the tap running and door open to the bathroom whilst shaving. Following one of them out of the bathroom they had blocked the toilet and soaked the floor (seriously that’s what a shower curtain is for)! I feel for the owners because the accommodation was just perfect. Sorry, I digress . . . We drove from Banff to Johnston Canyon in lovely sunny weather today but there had been alot of rain overnight. As it was only just turned 9am, it was quiet at the Canyon at both the lower and upper falls. The weather was holding out so we went up to the Ink Pots. Seriously I could watch these little pools for ages; they are fascinating with little bubbles and the sort of patterns in the bottom, it’s like watching a lava lamp. Back down it was gridlock at the Canyon, so very busy and it took us a while to get through the sheer traffic of bodies.
We then drove to Lake Louise, finding our HI Lake Louise hostel first, checking in and then to Tourist Info to check the trails. I always knew Lake Louise and Moraine Lake would be froze, the latter being closed which was expected. When we parked up at Lake Louise just off the upper car park we saw a group of middle aged Indian men in traditional dress who were having a whale of a time in the snow. As we approached and said Hi, an elder man said ‘My boys are just playing in the snow’. We thought it was so funny, but then we have seen snow many times but it must be odd if you have never seen it and walk into 4ft of it! We chatted to them briefly and then walked to Lake Louise which took my breath away. Yes it is partly froze but the blue/turquoise is visible in places where the snow has gone and I think this just makes it more beautiful. The blue skies also helped though. Tourist Info had said we could go to Mirror Lake but no further so we hiked up. This was very, very deep in snow in some places but we ploughed on. We saw a couple of people en-route who were saying we hadn’t got far to go and there was a seat there. I think they confused this with the steps and viewing area that is about 30-40 minutes from Mirror Lake and the view is of Lake Louise not Mirror Lake! Mirror Lake was frozen but we had a great view of the Beehive. On our way up we saw two people who said they had been to Lake Agnes and at the top of Mirror Lake another couple were going to do this. We told them we had been given info by both our hostel and Tourist Info not to hike but this didn’t stop them. I must admit, I briefly contemplated this but my partner said not to and I was so pleased. Literally as soon as we left from until we got to the bottom all we heard and saw were avalanches. Even on the trail below Mirror Lakes we had some snow fall from higher ground. Lesson learned – never ignore what Tourist Info says!! My partner also slipped on some well trodden snow and twisted her knee too, which was really sore. Back on the lake we walked as far as we could (very slushy and icy) to get a view of the Fairmont then drive to HI Lake Louise, having a stare off en route at the four way STOP sign to see who is going to go first (even our Canadian friend said they have the same problems). We showered and had a meal at the hostel before grabbing an early night due to our lack of sleep.
Tuesday 20th May 2014
I woke at just before 7am and checked my internet banking and saw about a dozen fraudulent card activities from the USA totalling nearly £700. I had to email my bank and then they rang me to block the card and take details so I had to draw what cash we would need out for our trip before my card was blocked. It was very stressful, although the transactions are all in USA $. Brooklyn Trading, Kinney Drugs and Family Dollar. I think this may be linked to our trip to NY the first week in April. Thank god our bank was great but it delayed setting off.
So after leaving HI and refuelling, we started our trip on the Icefields Parkway. We decided to avoid any major hikes because of my partners twisted knee yesterday and because we would be returning again the same way back to Banff after Jasper. Well, I can’t say enough about the drive, front back and side the views were stunning all the way. We stopped many times along the way for photos but no serious hikes. At the crossway we got out for a toilet stop and junk food in the absence of any breakfast (crisps and chocolate). We took a look at Parkers Ridge for our return journey and went to walk over to the sign and ended up thigh deep in snow! Our main hikes were at Sunwapta Falls (I am sure people just go to the first bit and don’t actually walk to the falls) and Athabasca Falls. Both were beautiful and we did additional less strenuous hikes in the area, e.g. to the Canyon and river at Athabasca. En-route there was lots of cars parked up and it was our first moment spotting a black bear although it wasn’t very clear as it was in between lots of trees and we stayed in the car although some people were probably touching distance which was a bit worrying). We landed in Jasper early (we were going to do the Five Lakes but decided to go straight to Jasper) and checked into Elkview (run by Patti and Joe) – Joe runs the wildlife tours No1 on Tripadvisor. We had a basement room with kitchen area (microwave/toaster) and bathroom. We wandered around Jasper itself calling in at Tourist Information for some info on hikes/closures and wandered around the area/river and admired the v e r y l o n g t r a i n s. We called at the grocery store for food to cook ourselves and back at Elkview we saw Joe who also gave us info of other hikes he had done recently. They are so nice to talk to and Joe is clearly really passionate about the hiking and wildlife. After our pizza we planned the following days activities and flaked out. For some reason we had done very little today but were extra tired!!!
Wednesday 21st May
Today we woke up later than planned. The weather was good so we headed to the Valley of the Five Lakes. What a highlight, we saw female elk and squirrels of course and spent such a long time here admiring the scenery (probably a bit too long) but it was gorgeous. Next we went to the Jasper Gondola. We were unsure whether to hike the Whistlers trail but in the end the decision was made for us, as we had to be back at Elkview for 4:45pm for the wildlife tour and we had taken that long at the Valley of the Five Lakes we wouldn’t have time so caught the (expensive) gondola. It proved a wise choice as the views en-route and at the top were breathtaking and it didn’t seem as touristy as the Banff one. We were also able to hike to the summit (a bit snowy in places) and then carried on beyond for about 30-40 minutes for the most amazing views of Jasper, the mountain ranges and beyond and we were the only ones there so had lots of time to ourselves. This was to be my favourite view of the whole holiday.
Back at Elkview we grabbed some dinner and started our Wildlife Tour with Joe (Adventure Tours Jasper). I will do a separate review but there is a reason why this is the No.1 activity in Jasper. This guy is a legend. We started the tour at 5pm and got back at around 10:20pm (it was supposed to be a 3-3:30 hour tour)! We saw mountain goats, long horned sheep, an osprey feeding, male and female elk and a proper grizzly brown bear). Joe went out of his way to find us a grizzly as we had all seen black bears at some point already. We spent ages with it alongside the road (entering into BC) and watched it feeding in water. I cannot put into words how amazingly fabulous this guy is and educational with being funny at the same time. There is a review on Tripadvisor already which I have done with our amazing pictures of a grizzly bear if you want a look the link is here tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g154918-…
Thursday 22nd May 2014
Another late wake up today but we were so wired from our tour last night we spent ages looking at the amazing pictures. We headed to the Maligne Canyon and did the trail 7 hike followed by the hike to the Sixth Bridge then returned on the 7f trail. The Canyon was nice but to be honest we had seen better and were a bit disappointed and wish we had skipped this. I really wanted to do the Sulphur Skyline hike so we headed out of town. I loved the drive out, it is so different and scenic from other ‘Rockies’ scenery, very ‘Lord of the Rings’ like. If the grizzly the previous night got us excited, around the sharp bend around 5km from the hot springs was a black bear. We pulled over and watched it eating dandelions then when we moved away and went around the bend to lower ground it was there again having waded through the stream. There was only us on the road and we were able to see it cross back in front of us three times searching for food. Needless to say this ate into our time so when we got to the hot springs the weather didn’t look too bright for us to start the Sulphur Skyline trek so we chose the Utopia Pass trek which passes the spooky ruins of the old pool building which is worth seeing in itself. We also found the hot springs themselves so took off our boots and had a dip (much better than paying to go into the hot springs) and scrunched our noses up at the stinky smell. The Utopia Pass was a nice hike, a bit wet and muddy in places but nice crossing over the creek. On the way back we searched again for the bear but didn’t find it, although we did see mountain goats, sheep and elk using the wildlife spotting techniques we learnt on the tour! Back at Elkview we cooked dinner and packed ready for our return journey to Banff.
Friday 23rd May 2014
Today we left Jasper after cooking ourselves breakfast and drove back along the Icefields Parkway. We were hoping to see some of the things we missed first time around hike wise, and of course we stopped at some places we had already stopped off at on the way to Jasper. We were able to hike the trail leading to the Columbia Icefield (it was bitterly cold and windy up there) but at the bottom of the glacier there was a small lake forming so there was warnings up preventing us from going any further. It was still nice to do and we were the only ones there. Parker Ridge was more snowy than it was on our outgoing journey and we were gutted we couldn’t do this but it was impossible. On the plus, Bridal Falls and the Weeping Walls were unfroze so it was great to see these ‘in action’. At Bow Summit I was determined to get to see Peyto Lake as I’d read it was already showing its colour as part of it was now melted. There were plenty of people around so four of us grouped together and did the trek to the Summit. It was beautiful to see it partly froze and partly showing its blue colour and the snow topped mountains in the background. Bow Lake and Bow Falls were also looking better than they were when we left Banff so it was worth another visit. We landed back at Rocky Mountain B&B and showered, discovered a tick at the back of my neck cue panic and the posting on Tripadvisor for help. We had the evening meal at the B&B again as it was so good previously. We were going to go out but it started to rain so chilled out.
Saturday 24th May 2014
After discovering Moraine Lake was now open we decided to go and visit. After breakfast we arrived at Moraine Lake. It was quiet as it was only just after 9am. We did a couple of hops over the wooden fencing at the lodge and made it to the wooden jetty for a lookout onto the lake. It was thawing in places and was still very pretty but there was alot of snow around. We did try and get further around the lake but it was impossible but we made the most of being on our own. A couple of coaches turned up but they literally got out, walked to the main bit of the lake and went, no-one ended up near us. I watched a couple attempt to start the hike near the toilets and the man immediately ended up thigh deep in snow and couldn’t get himself out. When the female tried to help him she ended up thigh deep in snow too. We decided to go on to Yoho, even though we knew some of it was closed (the falls). En-route we saw the most enormous freight train, I’ve never seen anything so long and high. My partner works on the railway so was particularly impressed. Our first stop was Spiral Tunnels and my partner found this fascinating (she would cringe if she knew I’d said that)! As we were there the huge train we had seen en-route passed through which was an added bonus. From here we stopped at Tourist Info in Field (this was a lovely Tourist Info, very helpful and informative staff) and went to Wapta Falls which was one of my favourite waterfalls we saw. We then headed to Natural Bridge. As we arrived the heavens opened and it poured, luckily after 10 minutes it stopped and brightened up again so we were able to walk to the bridge and down the river area. We then drove up to Emerald Lake which was, in the main, ice free and was showing lovely colours. We were also able to walk over half way around it (the latter end being completely ice free) and back. As we were walking around we experienced blue skies, cloudy skies and rain. It meant a layer of mist formed over the lake at one point which gave it a very spooky like feel, but within minutes it had lifted again, it felt very magical. Yoho Valley road was partially open, but not until the waterfalls. We were able to go to the point and walk where the two rivers met and did see some waterfalls from the snow and ice melting but couldn’t get any further unfortunately. We drove back past the old Railway bridge and parked back at our B&B in Banff where we tried to clean up our hire car which was a mess with mud and dirt inside from trekking. As the weather had brightened up, we dumped some of our stuff and walked into town, calling in at Subway which we put into the rucksack for our walk. We then walked to the Suprise Corner viewpoint and saw two lots of wedding pictures being taken and then followed the trail for the Hoodoos. What made the walk impressive was the fantastic scenery and weather. The view of Rundle Mountain, Sulphur Mountain and Tunnel Mountain were amazing, if I am honest more so than the eventual viewing of the Hoodoos themselves. We found a bench and ate our Subway and Cheeto’s. We walked back along Tunnel Road to our B&B and started to pack.
Sunday 25th May 2014
Our departure day : -( After breakfast and packing we went into Banff for some last minute tacky souvenirs for the young kids in the family and I bought one of the bit onesies that say ‘bare bum’ on them from a shop called Carltons I think it was. Unbelievably tacking but I can vouch it is so comfy, I am sitting at home with it on now! Afterwards we returned to the B&B to get our luggage and drove to Calgary. We set off super early but it was a good plan, there was lots of traffic on the highway and we ended up coming all through town. Glad to report the hire car got back in one piece and with no damage.
To sum up our trip to ‘The Rockies’ – we loved, loved, loved it. Moose cancelling our tour ended up being a blessing in disguise as we were able to see far more than we would have done by driving ourselves I’m not saying at times we weren’t stressed and uncomfortable, but we both agreed that we would drive again in this area.
We both feel privileged having seen the area in May, trudging through snow trails, trekking whilst it was snowing, being able to ski in Banff, seeing lakes partially melted with the gorgeous blue colour seeping through and other lakes already showing the turquoise blue colour. To us, it felt like we had the best of both worlds and we were blessed that the weather was particularly favourable to us, especially for hiking (not to hot and not too busy). We would love to return and do a Calgary to Calgary trip, hiring a car around the end of June when there are more trails open, particularly those that would allow us to do more strenuous and less popular hikes that weren’t open this time but I wouldn’t have changed anything about this trip for our ‘first time’. My favourite place was Jasper (I liked the feel of the town more than Banff although I did really like Canmore).
I hope it has inspired or helped others with their own trip plan. Thanks again to everyone for their help, it has been much appreciated.