In Canada’s Banff and Jasper National Parks, mountains, big mountains, rise above the tree line -- grey in the summer and white monoliths of stone in the winter. The wild pines curve up their flanks like a cloak of green. Fast-flowing rivers chart their own course through the hills, curving in among the peaks. Enormous glaciers flow down the peaks and nearly touch the road. Lakes are the colour of turquoise, so blue that you have to wonder if there is something unnatural behind their hue. This is one of the most awe inspiring and scenically overwhelming places on earth.
People come here for all sorts of reasons: to ski, climb and hike on the mountains, to raft and kayak the rivers, to camp among the trees, or explore on their mountain bikes. But most come simply to look, to stand in awe of the sheer beauty of this amazing place. As you pass through you are under the ever-watchful eye of the animals that call it home. If you are lucky you can check off the Canadian Rockies’ Big Five animal sightings: deer, elk, moose, wolf and bear.
Driving the scenic and sparsely trafficked Hwy 40, you enter blankets of pine forest interspersed with craggy peaks and the odd moose in the verge. At an impressive 4000 sq km, it’s a hefty tract of landscape to try to fully take in. Luckily there is a network of hiking trails to get you into the backcountry and away from the roads. Hikers, cross-country skiers, bikers and climbers all lust for these hills – they are the perfect combination of wild, accessible, unspoiled and inviting.
The Icefields Parkway that stretches from Lake Louise to the south and Jasper at the northern end has towering peaks, tumbling unspoiled rivers, massive sheets of glacial ice flowing down the valley to meet the road, and hanging above in the rafters of the peaks. The winding roads are fun to drive as you pass the bluest lakes you’ll ever see, waterfalls gushing with cold melt water and hiking opportunities at every corner. You can put pedal to the metal and cruise the 230km in a few hours, but why would you want to? This is the time to slow down, take in the postcard views and spend time exploring an area of uncompromised beauty.
The Jewel of the Rockies
In a park full of stunning places, Lake Louise may take the top prize. Roughly 60km northwest of Banff Town, this tourist haven is often referred to as the 'Jewel of the Rockies'. The lake itself is a robin-egg blue, surrounded by a mountainous amphitheatre of overwhelming grandeur. The Victoria Glacier hangs at the far end, while Mt Temple and the surrounding mountains paint a natural picture that couldn’t have been engineered to be more aesthetically pleasing. The lake is where you will find the Chateau Lake Louise, which, depending upon your opinion, is the best thing since sliced bread or a lump of human intervention dropped into paradise. Nothing is perfect in this world, and the best time to see the lake without the crowds is likely after dark or during a snowstorm. Otherwise get ready for Disneyland.
The town in the wild
Jasper town is nestled in the middle of the national park, where icy glaciers tumble down towering rocky peaks and melt to form wild, white water–choked rivers that cut through pine-filled valleys. In turn, these massive U-shaped glacially formed valleys create a home for countless species of flora and fauna, including animals such as the much photographed mountain sheep and the elusive grizzly bear. Meadows filled with wildflowers nestle in with the forest and give the furry residents the perfect places to strike a pose for photographs.
The perfect way to take it all in is on the Jasper tramway. The view, on a clear day, is of the Columbia Icefield 75km to the south. From the top of the tram you can make a 45-minute hike to the summit, where the outlook is even better.
A good spot to wind down for a soak from mountainous activities during the day is the remote Miette Hot Springs. The soothing waters are especially enjoyable when the snow is falling on your head and steam envelops the crowd. There are a couple of hot pools and a cold one, too – just to get the heart going – so it is best to stick a toe in before doing your cannonball.
There's further reading - restaurants, sights, hotels - on our Banff and Jasper National Parks page.