When I initially came to live in Canada, I wrote what I thought at the time to be a very long and potentially overly-optimistic ‘bucket list’, outlining everything I wanted to see and do in the time I have here. High on that list was visiting the Canadian Rockies, a trip I was assured repeatedly I could not return home without making.
Plans for the trip were made well in advance, with thanks to my parents, who have never been ones to miss out on an opportunity for a good holiday. It was a team effort – with my mother acting as planner, me as chauffeur and my dad as identifier of any and all trees and birds we saw on the way.
For most people driving from Vancouver to the Rockies, Kamloops is the obvious overnight stop on the way – it’s a little over three-hours drive and right on the Trans-Canada Highway. However, we chose instead to travel a little bit off course and spend a few days in Kelowna in the Okanagan Valley. This was for two reasons – the first being that I had been there before and knew that my parents would love it, and the second being that I googled Kamloops and was thoroughly underwhelmed by what I found.
Kelowna, perched on the shores of Okanagan Lake, is the centre of BC’s wine country and is therefore surrounded by vineyards and wineries, but also mountains, provincial parks and forests. We occupied our time there by eating up the views on top of Knox Mountain – which you can either reach by foot or by car; walking the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) Trestle Trail – an easy flat 12km hike or bike ride that can be accessed by driving 8km up a less-than-easy dirt road while cursing your automatic rental car; and visiting a local winery for a tour and wine tasting – we went with the Gray Monk Estate Winery in Lake Country, as it was on our route out of Kelowna. (Plus the tasting was free, and we’d do anything for the chance of free booze.)
The Canadian Rockies
The Lake Louise Inn was our base for the duration of our five-day stint in the Rockies. Although most people split their time and stay between Banff and Jasper, the shortage of available accommodation even months in advance did not afford us that luxury, and in the end we were actually happier to stay in the one place and drive everywhere.
Lake Louise & Moraine LakeOur first full day in Alberta was spent between Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, fighting with the rain, which did nothing to take from the breath-taking beauty of both places. Sunshine or not, the water remains turquoise, and more resembles the colour of a swimming pool than anything else.
A popular hike from Lake Louise is the Lake Agnes Teahouse Trail, which with a 400m elevation gain is relatively moderate, even for people like me who become out of breath running up stairs. However, it’s still a 3.6km mountain trail so it takes up to 2 hours to reach the top.
Journeying to Jasper from Lake Louise is nothing to be sniffed at, as all-in-all it’s a three-hour drive – but the Icefields Parkway which stretches from Banff National Park to Jasper National Park is the most scenic route in North America, and arguably the world. There you’ll see mountains, glaciers, lakes and rivers and will struggle to travel more than 15km without wanting to stop to take pictures. Expect a herd of elk to stroll out in front of your vehicle at any point on this route.
The Columbia Icefield is located about halfway between Lake Louise and Jasper, and is somewhere you’re really going to want to see if you visit the Rockies, if only so you can post smug pictures on social media of how beautiful it is and how cold you are. There’s a number of different trails and hikes in the area that you can attempt, depending on your ability. We chose to walk up Wilcox Pass because Mammy’s book promised her spectacular views of the Athabasca Glacier.
Jasper itself is a sweet little town buried between the mountains. It originated as a railway town and has an old-style steam train erected along one of its main streets to reflect this. I had expected a tourist hotspot to the key of Whistler, but instead I found it to be a quaint little community, undisturbed by the hundreds of thousands of visitors they get every year.
Athabasca Falls is a 30km drive from Jasper and worth a 30-minute stop if pretty waterfalls and fast running water sounds like a good time to you.
If you only pay a fortune for one thing (ha!) while you’re visiting the Canadian Rockies, let it be this. The Banff Gondola takes you almost 7,500ft above sea level to the top of Sulphur Mountain where the observation deck and skywalk provide you with views of Banff that more resemble a painting than real life. While it may seem outrageously priced at $54, the gondola and the whole experience provides some of the best views I have ever and probably will ever see in my lifetime. Spend plenty of time at the top to get your money’s worth – the coffee shop is somewhat reasonably priced (for Canada) – and bring warm clothes because you won’t be able to feel your hands after about an hour.
If you’ve travelled all the way to the Rockies, it’s unlikely that you did it for the shopping opportunities, but should you find yourself thoroughly unprepared for winter in September, you’ll be glad to know that there’s no shortage of shops in the town where you can pick up hats, wooly jumpers and anything else you may need to replace the three pairs of shorts you optimistically packed for your trip.
The town is also adorable, with the large but not too large crowds of tourists giving just the right amount of hustle and bustle to the streets. I found it to be richer in charm than Jasper, and would easily have spent more time there if it was an option.
Visiting the Canadian Rockies is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Mostly because once you go there you’ll never be able to afford to go back. My parents are very well travelled, having visited countries all over the world, and they both agreed that Canada is the most expensive place they’ve ever visited, and that’s even with a weak Canadian dollar. Thus, it’s only right to acknowledge that it was both my parents and my privilege that allowed me to have this experience, both of which I am hugely grateful for.