Geology

Majestic, indomitable and bursting with life, the Canadian Rockies are environmentally unique. Formed over 170 million years ago when a massive collision in the earth’s crust caused a giant lateral displacement known as the Lewis Overthrust, the mountains today are the product of several million years of glaciation. Anointed rather regally with the title ‘Crown of the Continent,’ the parks are home to a plethora of glaciers, dwindling in number and size, relics of a colder and mightier age.

The Land

Geologically speaking, the Canadian Rockies are a rock-lover’s paradise, a striking mix of towering mountain chains and multicolored terrain that is considered to be one of the most important fossil localities in the world. Everywhere you look you’ll see graphic evidence of 1.5 billion years of the earth’s history laid out like hieroglyphics in well-preserved sedimentary strata. Even more dramatic are the region’s crenellated peaks and U-shaped valleys, a lasting testimony to the formidable power of ancient glaciers and ice fields.

The First Supercontinent

In the beginning there was nothing much at all. And then, approximately 1.5 billion years ago, sediments began to be laid down in an inland sea within a hypothesized supercontinent known as Rodinia (a combination of landmasses that later broke apart into the continents we recognize today). Consisting of sands, silts and cobbles, these ancient sedimentary layers are now so deeply buried that they appear on the earth’s surface in only a few places, two of which are Waterton Lakes and Glacier National Parks.

On the west side of the parks, the oldest layer is known as the Pritchard Formation and preserves evidence of a deep sea visible in thin layers of fine green rock along MacDonald Creek. Other strata such as the Altyn, Appekunny and Snowslip Formations are also evident in places such as St Mary Lake and Logan Pass. Perhaps the most eye-catching and easy-to-recognize layer of rock is the brick-red coloration of the Grinnell Formation, which is spectacularly exposed in Red Rock Canyon in Waterton Lakes National Park.

The Big Breakup

About 750 million years ago, the supercontinent Rodinia began to break up along a giant rift, creating a new shoreline where North America split off from the future continents of Australia and Antarctica. Various sediments accumulated in an ancient sea during this epoch and, over time, these deposits hardened to form limestone, mudstone and sandstone.

A significant transition occurred around 570 million years ago, with the onset of the Cambrian period, a transitional era that sparked an incredible proliferation of complex new fauna in what became known as the ‘Cambrian explosion.’ Embedded in the region’s rock, many well-preserved fossils of multicellular organisms remain from this period, and have taught scientists much about evolution and the development of species diversity worldwide. Some of the planet’s best Cambrian fossils were uncovered at the Burgess Shale site in Yoho National Park in 1909.

The Cambrian era was followed by a long period of relative stability as desert landmasses eroded and sedimentary layers accumulated along the continental coastline. For a period of over 350 million years the dozens of different rock layers that comprise the bulk of the peaks in today’s Canadian Rockies were laid down in contrasting bands, documenting an encyclopedia of geological history, a record that shows how seas advanced and retreated numerous times across the region.

Collision Course

This period of stability came to a close around 200 million years ago when the continental plate began a steady march westward, pushing against the part of the earth’s crust that lies under the Pacific Ocean. Like a slow-motion collision, the leading edge of the continental plate buckled against the impact. At first, the buckled edge may have simply created folds in the earth’s crust, but over time these folds became steeper and started to fracture under the stress.

Extending progressively eastward, the fractures reached the region of the Canadian Rockies about 100 million years ago where dynamic tectonic movement pushed up a huge wedge of rock and displaced it over 80km (50 miles) to the east, forming the basis of the mountains we see today.

The main period of compression reached its apex 60 to 80 million years ago, then subsided slowly, leaving behind layers of deep old Paleozoic rock wedged up on top of younger Mesozoic rock. This compressing process is known as thrust faulting and it geologically sets the northern Rockies apart from their smoother southern cousins, which were formed by broader tectonic uplifting.

Glaciers

For the past 60 million years, the primary force in the Canadian Rockies has been erosion, not deposition. The most dramatic erosive process has been that of glaciation, precipitated by the great glaciers and ice fields of the Ice Age that have sculpted rugged peaks and gouged out deep valleys from Pocahontas to Marias Pass. Two million years ago, huge sheets of ice covered much of the Canadian Rockies. These giant sheets produced incredible amounts of weight and pressure, and as tongues of ice crept across the landscape they tore apart rocks and transformed narrow V-shaped ravines into broad open valleys. Trillions of tons of debris were left behind when the ice finally retreated 10,000 years ago, much of it forming distinctive ridges called moraines, such as the one that the chateau at Lake Louise is perched on.

Nearly every feature seen in the Canadian Rockies today is a legacy of the Ice Age. Peaks that were simultaneously carved on multiple sides left behind sharp spires called horns, as can be seen at Mt Assiniboine. Mountains that had glaciers cutting along two sides ended up as sharp ridges known as arêtes. Side streams flowing into valleys that were deepened by glaciers were often left hanging in midair, creating hanging valleys, with the streams pouring out as waterfalls down over sheer cliffs.

The Glacial Landscape of the Rockies

The Rocky Mountains national parks provide a perfect outdoor classroom for wannabe students trying to digest the geomorphological (surface) features created by glacial erosion. Here are some of the best examples, although there are plenty more:

Arête

Definition

A thin sharp ridge that forms between two parallel glaciers

Best example

Garden Wall (Glacier)

Glacial cirque

Definition

A bowl-shaped amphitheater formed at the head of a valley glacier

Best example

Iceberg Cirque (Glacier)

Glacial horn

Definition

A pyramidal peak formed when three glacial cirques form together

Best example

Mt Assiniboine (Mt Assiniboine Provincial Park)

Glacial lake

Definition

A lake left behind when glaciers retreat

Best example

Lake Louise (Banff)

Hanging valley

Definition

Small side valleys left ‘hanging’ above a deeper U-shaped glacier-carved valley

Best example

Maligne Valley (Jasper)

Moraine

Definition

An accumulation of glacial rock and soil

Best example

Moraine Lake (Banff)

Roche moutonnée

Definition

Tear-shaped hills formed when a glacier erodes down to the bedrock

Best example

Old Fort Point (Jasper)

U-shaped valley

Definition

A steep-sided, flat-bottomed valley formed by a glacier moving downhill

Best example

St Mary Valley (Glacier)

Glaciers Today

Even though the Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago when the great ice fields gradually retreated, the story of ice and glaciers in the Canadian Rockies is far from over. Mini ice ages have regularly altered the climate in the years since, the most recent of which peaked in the 1840s when the frozen tip of the Athabasca Glacier reached as far as the present-day Icefield Centre – it has retreated 1.6km (1 mile) since 1844. Even today, along the spine of the Continental Divide, smaller ice fields continue to craft and shape the landscape and the relatively larger ice fields in Banff and Jasper are probably safe for a good couple of centuries, whatever the warming effects from climate change.

However, intensifying concerns and research suggest that the glaciers in Glacier National Park (which now number only 25) will be all but extinct by the year 2030 (Waterton Lakes National Park is already a glacier-free zone). The degree of the loss is quite affecting to contemplate. These grand and seeming indomitable monuments formed over millennia are now vanishing before our eyes. In 1850 northwest Montana was home to nearly 150, and when Sperry Glacier was first photographed in 1887 surely the photographer never imagined it would some day vanish. Harrison is now the largest and Weasel Collar, just east of Mount Carter, is predicted to be the last surviving – south-facing glaciers with more sun exposure are the most vulnerable. Research scientists studying the park's glaciers are part of a global network sharing data with the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS; www.wgms.ch), which is tracking global trends. Of course, the melting glaciers aren't simply an aesthetic concern. The downstream impact on water systems, surrounding ecosystems and the survival of various species of wildlife are all threatened.

Getting Up Close & Personal with the Rocky Mountains Glaciers

Four of the park’s glaciers are easily accessible to day hikers:

  • Victoria Glacier (Banff) The crystal crown of Banff is visible from the Chateau Lake Louise at the far end of the eponymous lake, or in close up on the Plain of Six Glaciers trail.
  • Sperry Glacier (Glacier) Perched above the backcountry Sperry Chalet on Gunsight Mountain, this dwindling glacier is accessible by a steep but rewarding hike across high-alpine terrain.
  • Grinnell Glacier (Glacier) Named for the famous US naturalist, this river of ice is Glacier National Park’s most photographed and precarious. An 8.8km (5.5-mile) trail leads out from the Many Glacier Hotel.
  • Athabasca Glacier (Jasper) The Rockies’ most famous glacier dips its toe close to the Icefields Pkwy from where you can arrange excursions to walk or drive (yes, drive!) on it with a Snocoach tour.

Sidebar: 1

The Rocky Mountain Trench is a large valley up to 25km (15.6 miles) wide that runs from Montana up to the Yukon/BC border, separating the Rocky Mountains from the Columbia/Cassiar Mountains to the west. Although partially glaciated, it was caused primarily by faulting.

Sidebar: 2

Situated on the western side of the Continental Divide, Yoho National Park receives over 884mm (35in) of rain annually; meanwhile, dryer Banff National Park on the eastern side gets 472mm (19in).

Sidebar: 3

A common feature of a hanging valley is a waterfall caused when a river drops from the higher side valley down to the U-shaped valley below. Visible from Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Rd, 152m (500ft) Bird Woman Falls near Mt Oberlin is a classic example.

Sidebar: Highest Peaks

  • Jasper: Mt Columbia 3782m (12,408ft)
  • Banff: Mt Forbes 3612m (11,850ft)
  • Yoho: Mt Goodsir 3567m (11,703ft)
  • Kootenay: Deltaform Mountain 3424m (11,234ft)
  • Glacier: Mt Cleveland 3190m (10,466ft)
  • Waterton Lakes: Mt Blakiston 2910m (9547ft)

Wildlife

Rising like snow-coated sentinels above the plains and prairies of Alberta and Montana, the Rockies protect a narrow, wildlife-rich corridor that stretches down the continent from northern Canada to Mexico. With the adjacent lowlands taken over by roads, farms and cities, the mountains have provided a final refuge for wolves, mountain lions, bears, elk, deer and many other large mammals. While populations of these animals are only a fraction of their former numbers, they are still impressive enough to lure wildlife enthusiasts to the region by the truckload.

Fish Tales

That dreamy image of a philosophical fisher sitting with rod and line beside a high country lake might seem like a typical Rocky Mountains idyll, but the reality is a little less pure. In truth, high mountain lakes do not naturally support native fish. Instead, countless non-native species were introduced to the national parks over a period of 50 years in a bid by wildlife and park agencies to ‘improve’ the visitor experience and attract more fishing tourists. Today Banff counts at least 119 lakes stocked with non-native fish (when only 26 contained fish historically). As a consequence, native fish populations and aquatic ecosystems in lower lakes have suffered, while several species of non-native fish have thrived. Though the fish stocking policies have been phased out (in 1971 in Glacier and 1988 in Banff and Jasper), millions of non-native fish remain.

Surviving native fish include the threatened bull trout, the dwindling populations of which are protected by law. Once the most widespread native fish in the Canadian Rockies, bull trout are now seen at only a few sites. Your best bet is Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, south of Canmore, where they migrate up creeks out of Lower Kananaskis Lake from late August to mid-October. They are distinguished from other trout by their lack of black lines or spots. Return them to the water if you accidentally catch one.

Representative of the nine non-native fish that have become most common, brook trout are found in most low-elevation streams and lakes. Brook trout can be recognized by their olive-green color, reddish belly and yellow squiggly lines along their back.

Aquatic habitats in the Canadian Rockies support many more kinds of fish than just trout – 40 species in all. One of the healthiest populations is mountain whitefish, a bottom-feeder that preys on small invertebrates in the major watercourses and lakes.

Animals

While the prospect of seeing ‘charismatic megafauna’ is one the region’s biggest draws, the Canadian Rockies support nearly 70 species of mammal, including eight species of ungulate (hoofed mammal). In the fall and winter, many large mammals move down into valleys for protection against the weather; high concentrations can be seen along the Icefields Pkwy during these seasons.

Very few amphibians and even fewer reptiles do well in the relative cold of these northern latitudes.

Best Places to See Wildlife

Bighorn Sheep

Where

Lake Minnewanka (Banff), Highline Trail (Glacier)

When

Nov-Apr

Black Bear

Where

Bow Valley Pkwy (Banff), Maligne Lake Rd (Jasper)

When

May-Oct

Caribou

Where

Tonquin Valley (Jasper)

When

Nov-May

Elk

Where

Vermilion Lakes (Banff), Maligne Lake Rd (Jasper)

When

Mar-May

Grizzly Bear

Where

Many Glacier (Glacier), Carthew-Alderson Trail (Waterton)

When

May-Oct

Marmot

Where

Skyline Trail (Jasper), Highline Trail (Glacier)

When

May-Sep

Moose

Where

Moose Lake (Jasper), Kootenai Lake (Glacier)

When

May-Aug

Mountain Goat

Where

Logan Pass (Glacier)

When

year-round

Wolf

Where

North Fork Valley (Glacier), Lake Minnewanka (Banff)

When

Nov-Apr

Gone to the Dogs?

Dog-sledding with a team of huskies through the parks and valleys of Jasper or Banff has long held a primeval attraction for visitors searching for the purist type of winter wilderness. But, in early 2011, following a high-profile incident in the host Winter Olympic resort village of Whistler, BC, that involved the large-scale culling of dogs used for dog-sledding, the ethics and code regarding this winter activity was brought into question. While most outdoor operators undoubtedly still follow perfectly ethical practices, it would be pertinent to do some homework before you embark on your next dog-sledding adventure.

Start your search by checking through lists of recommended outfitters. The Jasper Adventure Centre offers decent, if pricey, dog-sledding excursions on its busy winter activities schedule.

Bears

The black bear roams montane and subalpine forests throughout the Canadian Rockies in search of its favorite foods: grasses, roots, berries and the occasional meal of carrion. They can frequently be seen along roadsides feeding on dandelions. While most black bears are black in color, they can also be light reddish brown (cinnamon). Black bears are somewhat smaller than grizzlies and have more tapered muzzles, larger ears and smaller claws. These claws help them climb trees to avoid their main predator, grizzly bears, which are known to drag black bears out of their dens to kill them. Although they are generally more tolerant of humans and less aggressive than grizzlies, black bears should always be treated as dangerous.

Grizzly bears once roamed widely in North America, but most were killed by European settlers who feared this mighty carnivore. Thanks to conservation efforts, their numbers have increased since they were listed as endangered in 1975. Today, an ongoing and complicated legal battle wends its way through the courts as to whether to 'delist' them or classify them as threatened. Even with rebounding populations, they aren’t particularly easy to see or count, in part because males roam 3885 sq km (1500 sq miles) in their lifetimes. Male grizzlies reach up to 2.4m (8ft) in length (from nose to tail) and 1.05m (3.5ft) high at the shoulder (when on all fours) and can weigh more than 315kg (700lb) at maturity. Although some grizzlies are almost black, their coats are typically pale brown to cinnamon, with ‘grizzled,’ white-tipped guard hairs (the long, coarse hairs that protect the shorter, fine underfur). They can be distinguished from black bears by their concave (dish-shaped) facial profile, smaller and more rounded ears, prominent shoulder hump and long, nonretractable claws.

Both bears are omnivorous opportunists and notorious berry eaters, with an amazing sense of smell that’s acute enough to detect food miles away. Their choice of meal varies seasonally, ranging from roots and winter-killed carrion in early spring to berries and salmon in the fall. Before hibernation, bears become voracious. Black bears will eat for 20 hours straight and gain an incredible 1.8kg (4lb) each day before retiring to their dens, and grizzly bears are known to eat 200,000 buffalo berries a day.

Sometime in October, bears wander upslope to where snows will be deep and provide a thick insulating layer over their winter dens. There the bears scrape out a simple shelter among shrubs, against a bank or under a log and sink into deep sleep (not true hibernation, as their body temperatures remain high and they are easily roused). Winters are particularly hard, since bears live entirely off their fat and lose up to 40% of their body weight. Females who have been able to gain enough weight give birth to several cubs during the depths of winter, rearing the cubs on milk while she sleeps.

Coyotes

The cagey coyote is actually a small opportunistic wolf that devours anything from carrion to berries and insects. Its slender, reddish-gray form is frequently seen in open meadows, along roads and around towns and campgrounds. Coyotes form small packs to hunt larger prey such as elk calves or adults mired in deep snow. Frequently mistaken for a wolf, the coyote is much smaller – 11.3kg to 15.8kg (25lb to 35lb), versus 20.3kg to 65.3kg (45 to 145lb) for a wolf – and runs with its tail carried down (a wolf carries its tail straight out).

Wolves

The gray wolf, once the Rocky Mountains’ main predator, was nearly exterminated in the 1930s, then again in the 1950s. It took until the mid-1980s for them to reestablish themselves in Banff, and today they are common only from Jasper National Park north; in Glacier National Park, wolves can be found in North Fork Valley. Wolves look rather like large, blackish German shepherds. Colors range from white to black, with gray-brown being the most common hue. They roam in close-knit packs of five to eight animals ruled by a dominant (alpha) pair. The alpha pair are the only members of a pack to breed, though the entire pack cares for the pups. Four to six pups are born in April or May, and they remain around the den until August. Packs of wolves are a formidable presence, and they aren’t afraid of using their group strength to harass grizzly bears or kill coyotes, but more often they keep themselves busy chasing down deer, elk or moose.

Bighorn Sheep

Living on high slopes near rocky ridges and cliffs, bighorn sheep are generally shy creatures of remote areas. Unlike other parts of their range, however, bighorn sheep in the Canadian Rockies come down to roadsides in search of salts, invariably causing traffic jams of excited visitors. Males, with their flamboyant curled horns, spend summer in bachelor flocks waiting for the fall rut, when they face off and duel by ramming into each other at 96km/h (60mph). Their horns and foreheads are specially modified for this brutal but necessary task. When not hanging around roadsides looking for salt and handouts (strictly forbidden), bighorn sheep use their extraordinary vision and smell to detect humans up to 300m (1000ft) away and keep their distance, making them extremely difficult to approach.

Mountain Goats

Occupying even steeper cliffs and hillsides, pure white mountain goats are a favorite with visitors. Finding one is another matter altogether, as goats live high on remote cliffs and are seldom observed close up. These cliffs provide excellent protection from predators, and both adults and kids are amazingly nimble on impossibly sheer faces. Occasionally they descend to salt licks near roads. In Jasper they occur in high densities on Mt Kerkeslin; around Banff try scanning the slopes of Cascade Mountain; and in Glacier National Park you might see goats at Logan Pass.

Deer

Two species of deer are common in valleys and around human dwellings throughout the region. More common by far are the mule deer of dry, open areas. Smaller, and with a large, prominent white tail, are the white-tailed deer of heavily forested valley bottoms. Both species graze extensively on grasses in summer and on twigs in winter. Delicate, white-spotted fawns are born in June and are soon observed following their mothers. Adult males develop magnificent racks of antlers in time for their mating season in early December.

Elk & Moose

Weighing up to 450kg (1000lb) and bearing gigantic racks of antlers, male elk are the largest mammals that most visitors will encounter in these parks. Come September, valleys resound with the hoarse bugling of battle-ready elk, a sound that is both exciting and terrifying, as hormone-crazed elk are one of the area’s most dangerous animals. Battles between males, harem gathering and mating are best observed from a safe distance or from your car. While numbers increase dramatically in winter, quite a few elk now spend their entire year around towns like Banff and Jasper, where they can be dependably observed grazing in yards and on golf courses.

At 495kg (1100lb), the ungainly moose is the largest North American deer. Visitors eagerly seek this odd-looking animal with lanky legs and periscope ears, but they are uncommon and not easily found. Moose spend their summers foraging on aquatic vegetation in marshy meadows and shallow lakes, where they readily swim and dive up to 6m (20ft). Visitors can look for moose in the Miette Valley of Jasper, around Upper Waterfowl Lake of Banff, in the McDonald Valley of Glacier and in similar areas. The male’s broadly tined antlers and flappy throat dewlap are unique, but like their close relative the elk, moose can be extremely dangerous when provoked. Moose are no longer as common as they were in the days when they freely wandered the streets of Banff; numbers have been reduced due to vehicle traffic (roadkills), a liver parasite and the suppression of the wildfires that rejuvenate their favorite foods.

Pikas, Marmots & Beavers

Hikers into the realm of rock and open meadow will quickly become familiar with two abundant mammals. When you encounter a pika, you are likely to hear its loud bleating call long before you spot the tiny, guinea-pig-like creature staring back at you with dark beady eyes. Pikas live among jumbles of rocks and boulders, where they are safe from predators, but they still have to dart out into nearby meadows to harvest grasses that they dry in the sun to make hay for their winter food supply.

Another rock dweller is even more of a tempting morsel for predators. Hoary marmots are plump and tasty, but they have a system for protecting themselves. First, they stay near their burrows and dart in quickly when alarmed. Second, all the marmots on a hillside cooperate in watching out for predators and giving shrill cries whenever danger approaches. Marmots may shriek fiercely when humans come near, warning everyone in the neighborhood about the approach of two-legged primates. Whistlers, a mountain outside Jasper, is named after these common rodents.

The aquatic beaver has a long history of relations with humans. Reviled for its relentless efforts to block creeks and praised for its valuable fur, the Canadian Rockies’ largest rodent is now widely recognized as a ‘keystone species’ – an animal whose activities have a tremendous influence on the lives of many other species. Beavers' shallow-water dams create vibrant wetlands, mini-ecosystems that promote biodiversity, and dozens of animals, including ducks, frogs, fish, moose and mink, depend on beavers for their livelihood. Although their numbers have declined as much as 90% in recent decades, beavers are still fairly common around marshes and ponds in valley bottoms. Here, each beaver cuts down as many as 200 aspens and willows per year, feeding on the sweet inner bark and using the trunks and branches to construct dams.

Birds

Although more than 300 species have been found in the Canadian Rockies, birds are readily overshadowed by the presence of so many eye-catching large mammals. However, casual observers will notice some of the more conspicuous species without even trying.

You’d be hard pressed to find a campsite or picnic table where you aren’t quickly approached by gray jays hoping for a handout. They stash most of their food away in small caches for winter. The stash master, however, is the larger Clark’s nutcracker. Each nutcracker buries up to 98,000 seeds in thousands of small caches across miles of landscape then returns to dig them up over the course of several years – an unbelievable test of memory.

Two large raptors (birds of prey) are frequently encountered. Working their way along rivers and lakes are white and brown fish hawks, better known as ospreys. Fairly common from May to September, when the ice has melted, ospreys specialize in diving into water to catch fish. Plunging feet first into the water, ospreys grab fish up to 90cm (3ft) deep, then fly off to eat their scaly meal on a high perch. Osprey nests are enormous mounds of sticks piled on top of dead trees or artificial towers.

In recent years the Canadian Rockies have gained some fame for the spectacular golden eagle migration. Each year 6000 to 8000 golden eagles migrate both north and south along a narrow corridor on the east side of the main mountain divide (the official count site is near Mt Lorette, in Kananaskis Country, just east of Banff). Spring migration peaks at the end of March, and fall migration peaks in October. While migrating, golden eagles do little feeding, though some pairs stay for the summer and nest on high, remote cliffs.

Of the region’s eight species of owl, only the great horned owl is familiar to most visitors. Fearless around humans, highly vocal and sometimes active in the daytime, these large birds are a perennial sight around towns and campgrounds at lower elevations.

Plants

The Canadian Rockies are home to over 1000 species of plants, comprising a fairly diverse mix for such a relatively cold, northern climate. One of the main reasons for this mix is that the Continental Divide not only creates a strong elevational gradient, but also splits the region into westside and eastside habitats. With a wet, ocean-influenced climate on the west side and a dry, interior climate on the east side, this geographic split is a very significant division. Adding to the region’s botanical diversity are alpine plants from the Arctic, grassland plants of the eastern prairies, and forest plants from the Pacific Northwest.

Because the parks cover such a span of habitats and elevations, it’s possible to find flowers from March until the end of August, and taking time out to smell the flowers will definitely enrich your park visit.

Trees

Except for areas of rock, ice or water, landscapes of the Canadian Rockies are mostly covered with coniferous forest. Only a handful of species are present, and these are easy to identify – recognizing these species makes it easier to understand the layout of life zones and to predict where you might find specific animals.

Montane and subalpine forests are dominated by two spruces – white and Engelmann. Both have sharp-tipped needles that prick your hand if you grasp a branch. White spruce occurs mainly on valley bottoms, and Engelmann spruce takes over on higher slopes, but the two frequently overlap and hybridize. Cones on white spruces have smooth, rounded tips on their scales, but Engelmann spruces have narrow, jagged tips on theirs. Many animals feed on spruce seeds or rely on spruce forests for their livelihood in some way.

Sharing the higher slopes with the Engelmann spruce is the subalpine fir, the namesake tree of the subalpine zone in the Canadian Rockies. Recognized by their flattened, blunt-tipped needles, subalpine firs have narrow, conical profiles. This shape allows the trees to shed heavy winter snows so their branches don’t break off under the weight.

At the uppermost edges of the subalpine forest, mainly growing by themselves on high, windswept slopes, are whitebark pines. Intense wind and cold at these elevations can cause these trees to grow in low, stunted mats. Their squat, egg-shaped cones produce highly nutritious seeds favored by Clark’s nutcrackers and grizzly bears, but an introduced disease is threatening this important tree and the animals that depend on it.

One of the oddest trees of the Canadian Rockies is the subalpine larch, a rare tree found most easily in Larch Valley, just south of Lake Louise. Although it’s a conifer, this remarkable tree has needles that turn golden in September then drop off for the winter in October. This makes places like Larch Valley a photographers’ paradise during the peak display.

After fires or other disturbances, lodgepole pines quickly spring up and form dense ‘doghair’ thickets. In some areas, lodgepoles cover many square kilometers so thickly that the forests are nearly impossible to walk through. These conditions eventually promote hot fires that create seedbeds for more lodgepoles; in fact, lodgepole cones are sealed in resin that only melts and releases seeds after a fire.

A beautiful tree of dry, open areas, the quaking aspen has radiant, silver-white bark and rounded leaves that quiver in mountain breezes. Aspen foliage turns a striking orange-gold for just a few weeks in fall.

Shrubs

With berries that are delicious and sweet instead of bitter, blueberries provide an immensely popular treat for humans and bears alike. Half a dozen species of blueberry occur in the Canadian Rockies, with common names like huckleberry, grouseberry, bilberry and cranberry. Often these plants grow in patches large enough that berries for a batch of pancakes or muffins can be harvested within minutes.

Closely related and similar in appearance to blueberry plants is the kinnikinnik, also known as bearberry. This ground-hugging shrub has thick glossy leaves and reddish woody stems. Its leaves were once mixed with tobacco to make a smoking mixture, and the berries have been a staple food for many First Nations peoples.

It’s something of a surprise to encounter wild roses growing deep in the woods, but at least five types grow here. All look like slender, somewhat scraggly versions of what you’d see in a domestic garden. Their fruits are pear-shaped and turn red-orange during fall; popularly known as rose hips, these fruits are rich in vitamins A, B, C and E, and are used to make tasty jams or teas.

Wildflowers

The flowering season in the Canadian Rockies begins as soon as the snows start to melt. Though delicate in structure, the early rising glacier lily pushes up so eagerly that the stems often unfurl right through the snow crust. Abundant in montane and subalpine forests or meadows, each lily produces several yellow flowers, with six upward-curled petals. Wherever lilies occur in great numbers, grizzlies paw eagerly through the soil in search of the edible bulbs.

Within days of snowmelt, pretty purple pasqueflowers (aka prairie crocuses) cover montane slopes. Growing close to the ground on short, fuzzy stems, these brilliant flowers stand out because of their yellow centers. Later in the summer, ‘shaggy mane’ seed heads replace the flowers. All parts of this plant are poisonous and may raise blisters if handled.

One of the most photographed flowers of Glacier National Park is the striking bear grass. From tufts of grasslike leaves, the plant sends up 1.5m-high (5ft) stalks of white, star-shaped flowers that may fill entire subalpine meadows. Grizzlies favor the tender spring leaves, hence the plant’s common name.

Hike almost anywhere in these mountains and you’re bound to encounter the easy-to-recognize bluebell, with its large, bell-like flowers held up on a long, skinny stem. After flowering, seeds are produced in capsules that close in wet weather then open in dry winds to scatter the seeds far and wide.

Many visitors know the familiar Indian paintbrush for its tightly packed red flowers, but fewer know that the plant is a semiparasite that taps into neighbors’ roots for nourishment. By stealing some energy from other plants, paintbrushes are able to grow luxuriantly in desolate places like roadsides or dry meadows, where they are often the most conspicuous wildflower. Paintbrush patches are also one of the best sites for finding hummingbirds.

The big, showy cow parsnip can grow to an impressive height of 1.8m (6ft). Its huge, celery-like stalks and umbrella-shaped flower clusters, are familiar sights along streams and in moist aspen groves throughout the region. The stems are eaten by many animals and favored by grizzlies (avoid tasting yourself because of their similar appearance to other deadly species), so caution is urged when approaching a large patch.

More localized in its distribution, but sometimes confused with cow parsnip, because it has the same large leaves, is the devil’s club. This stout, 2.7m-high (9ft) plant practically bristles with armor. Completely covered in poisonous spikes (even the leaves are ribbed with rows of spines) that break off in the skin when contacted and cause infections, this plant further announces itself with its strong odor and large clusters of brilliant red berries. Despite these features, devil’s club has a rich and important history of medicinal use among First Nations tribes of the area.

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There have been 10 human fatalities from bear attacks in Glacier National Park’s 106-year history. By remarkable coincidence two of them occurred on the same night – 13 August 1967 – 10 miles apart in separate attacks by different bears. Both victims were 19-year-old females.

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Figures in 2014 for grizzly bear numbers in Alberta Province, Canada (including Jasper, Banff and Waterton National Parks) are cited as approximately 690, while up to 16,000 are in British Columbia.

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The Canadian Rockies are home to the only fully protected caribou herds in North America. Two herds with six members each roam Glacier and Mount Revelstoke, whereas Jasper has four herds, a northern one and three southern ones totaling around 125 head.

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Three members of the cat family are found in the parks: the mountain lion (cougar), the Canadian lynx and the bobcat. All are elusive and rarely seen by humans, moving mainly at night. The Canadian lynx has been listed as threatened since 2000. Lynx hunt hares, while mountain lions prefer deer.

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Synonymous with the expansive evergreen forests of Alberta and British Columbia, the Douglas fir tree is named after Scottish botanist David Douglas (1799–1834), who first visited Jasper in 1827, when he wrongly declared Mt Brown and Mt Hooker to be the highest peaks in North America.

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The mountain pine beetle is an insect that attacks and kills mature trees (turning their needles a distinctive red color). Rather like wildfires, this process is a natural part of the Rocky Mountain ecosystem and park management bodies have tried to let it continue with minimal interference.

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The Rockies feature three different life zones: the montane (warm, dry tree-filled valley bottoms), the subalpine (wetter forests of smaller stunted trees) and alpine (high windy slopes of flower meadows and barren rock).

Sidebar: Estimated Species Numbers in Banff

  • Black bears: 70-100
  • Grizzly bears: 50-60
  • Mountain lions: unknown, but widely distributed
  • Wolves: 25-40
  • Woodland caribou: 0

Sidebar: Estimated Species Numbers in Jasper

  • Bighorn sheep: 1200
  • Grizzly bears: 114
  • Moose: 180
  • Woodland caribou: 125

Sidebar: Estimated Species Numbers in Glacier

  • Bighorn sheep: 800
  • Black bears: 800
  • Grizzly bears: 300
  • Wolves: 60
  • Woodland caribou: 6

Conservation

Despite their remoteness and relatively late colonization, the Rocky Mountains parks were conceived in the infancy of the evolution of wilderness protection. And as the public perception of wilderness changed, so too have the parks. Banff was Canada’s first – and the world’s third – national park when it was inaugurated in 1885, while Jasper, Waterton and Glacier (all given protective status by 1910) were three more early beneficiaries of the nascent North American conservation movement.

The Early Conservationists

The American environmental movement was born during the progressive era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries at a time when early eco-thinkers were separating into two philosophical camps: the conservationists led by US president Theodore Roosevelt and his chief environmental advisor Gifford Pinchot; and the more radical preservationists epitomized by John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. The former proposed federal intervention in order to manage and conserve natural resources; the latter considered nature to be sacred and tourism sustainable only under strict limits.

While Muir remains an icon to modern environmentalists, it was the conservationists who had the biggest impact on the public zeitgeist during the early flowering of the North American national park network in the 1890s. In the Rocky Mountains, their chief exponent was George Bird Grinnell, an anthropologist and naturalist from New York City who was more at home mingling with the Blackfeet Native Americans and leading sorties into the mountains of northwest Montana than he was tramping the streets of Manhattan. It was Grinnell who christened the Glacier/Waterton region ‘the Crown of the Continent’ and, using his influential position as editor of Field and Stream magazine, he badgered the US Congress relentlessly for protective status. His entreaties were rewarded in 1910 when Glacier became the nation's 10th national park. In 1911 the Canadian government formed the Dominion Parks Branch (an early incarnation of Parks Canada) as the world’s first national park coordinating body, and in 1930 the National Parks Act laid down the first firm set of ground rules for conservation and preservation. The huge debt owed to Grinnell and his contemporaries by our current generation is immeasurable.

But, with conflicting commercial interests and an inordinate influence wielded by the all-powerful cross-continental railway companies, early park rules were sketchy and haphazard. Waterton once supported an oil well, Jasper and Banff flirted briefly with coal mining, and all three Canadian parks developed – and still retain – significant and relatively prosperous town sites. While the parks today still promote recreation and education as a crucial part of the overall wilderness experience, the concept of ecological integrity has taken center stage with a shift toward a more populist strand of environmentalism in the 1980s.

Contemporary Environmental Issues

Fatefully, the work of Grinnell et al was just the beginning of a protracted process. Tourism and the ongoing impact of millions of visitors trampling through important wildlife corridors is one of the parks’ most ticklish issues in modern times and nowhere is this problem more apparent than in Banff. Hosting an incorporated town with a permanent population of 8400 or so people, along with main roads, a ski resort and over three million annual visitors, Banff’s environmental credentials have long been a subject for hot debate. Comparisons with Glacier (governed by the US parks system) further south are particularly telling.

In 1996 a two-year investigation by the Banff–Bow Valley study group provided a crucial turning point in Banff’s modern evolution. Putting forward 500 urgent recommendations – a list that included everything from population capping to quotas on hiking trails – the study prompted the implementation of a 15-year development plan designed to redress the park’s ecological balance and save its priceless wilderness from almost-certain long-term damage. Almost two decades later, progress has certainly been made, though growing concerns and awareness about climate change give the issue even more urgency.

Long lauded as one of the continent’s most pristine parks, Banff’s smaller American cousin is a veritable wilderness, with no population center, no fast-food franchises and no water-sapping golf courses. Furthermore, Glacier bans bikes from all park trails, runs an environmentally friendly free shuttle service to minimize car pollution, and has barred its historic lodges from installing supposed modern ‘luxuries’ such as TVs and room phones. Not surprisingly, the park’s unique ecosystem is frequently acclaimed for its rich biodiversity, and its grizzly bear population is said to be one of the healthiest in the whole of North America.

Jasper sits somewhere between the two extremes. While it is closer to Banff in infrastructure and park policies (it hosts a townsite, golf course, pubs and restaurants), its superior size and smaller annual visitor count (less than half of Banff’s) means environmental pressures are less corrosive. Its most symbolic conservation issue is the preservation of the woodland caribou, a species no longer present in Banff, but still surviving precariously further north. Jasper Town was made a Specialized Municipality in 2001 and began drafting a similarly comprehensive Community Sustainability Plan in the late 2000s.

Despite the very developed nature of little Waterton Townsite, tourism in Waterton Lakes, the smallest of the parks, will be limited as long as the moratorium on new accommodations and buildings remains in effect.

Solutions

In 1996 a two-year investigation by the Banff-Bow Valley study group provided a crucial turning point in Banff’s modern evolution. Putting forward 500 urgent recommendations – a list that included everything from population capping to quotas on hiking trails – the study prompted the implementation of a 15-year development plan designed to redress the park’s ecological balance and save its priceless wilderness from almost-certain long-term damage. More than 13 years on and progress has certainly been made, though recent concerns about climate change have given the issue fresh urgency.

Meanwhile, further north, Jasper Town was made a Specialized Municipality in 2001 and began drafting a similarly comprehensive Community Sustainablity Plan in the late 2000s.

South of the border, the US Geological Survey’s ongoing studies at the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center on Glacier’s eroding glaciers, ecosystems and fire management policies have been equally pertinent. The future is still anyone’s guess.

Sustainability Tips

The behavior of individual visitors in the parks can play a vital role in ensuring their long-term health and sustainability. Here are a few green recommendations:

  • Glacier National Park runs a free shuttle bus designed to ease congestion on the increasingly traffic-choked Going-to-the-Sun Rd. The Canadian parks have a number of paying shuttles.
  • Stay on friendly terms with bears by using bear-proof containers and recycling bins, making noise on the trails, and giving bears a wide and respectful berth.
  • Look into local volunteer organizations. Many people work tirelessly to protect fragile park wildernesses from degradation and neglect, and it’s easy to join them.
  • By staying in a Glacier National Park–run hotel you are lodging with a profoundly ‘green’ organization, whose policies include large-scale garbage recycling, use of low-energy light fixtures and donation of old furniture to charity.
  • Jasper and Glacier National Parks can still be reached by using that classic gilded-age method of transport – the train. The VIA/Amtrak services are economical, scenic, ‘green’ and far more comfortable than an airplane.
  • Glacier’s red Jammer buses run on propane and emit 93% less pollutants than their gas-powered equivalents.
  • Stay on the trail – wandering ‘off-piste’ or bushwhacking your own path damages flora and causes erosion.
  • You can gain more in-park knowledge by talking to rangers, reading the local literature and swapping ideas with other hikers on the trail.

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When Lewis and Clark traversed America in the early 1800s, there were approximately 100,000 grizzly bears roaming the Lower 48 states of the US. Now there are around 1800 occupying an area that is less than 2% of their traditional range.

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Of all the Rocky Mountains parks, Waterton-Glacier is the best protected, listing four different layers: National Park (1895 Waterton, 1910 Glacier), International Peace Park (1932), Unesco Biosphere Reserve (1979) and Unesco World Heritage site (1995).

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Unhindered by human-created forces, wildfires are perfectly natural events that open up new habitats, promote the growth of fresh seedlings and replenish soil nutrients with decomposed organic matter. Understanding this, park authorities today carefully monitor annual blazes and let them run their natural course, unless they have been human-ignited or are directly threatening property and livelihoods.

The Human Hand

Climate change and its attendant cascade of environmental impacts, which even in a best-case scenario points to a staggering number of potential losses, is one of the most important ways human behavior is threatening these wilderness areas. However, it's far from the only one. Often, the direst threat to an individual species' sustainability, whether flora or fauna, is disguised, at least to the untrained eye, as natural and endemic. But whether it's a fungus that arrived in the early 20th century or a fish stocked in lakes by park authorities in the 1960s, invasive species can potentially alter ecosystems, lead to hybridization and decimate habitats for true endemics.

Just one example in Waterton-Glacier is the whitebark pine population, ravaged by a combination of forces, including a foreign fungus, decreased mortality of native pine beetles that feed on the trees' bark (this because warmer winters ironically mean that more pine beetles survive the cold months), and the many decades previous when best forestry practice called for fire suppression (whitebark pines need the sunlight created by canopy-destroying wildfires). The risk is not simply that attractive trees are being killed, but that healthy whitebark pines are integral to the health of their particular ecosystem.

But it is the rapid pace of warming that complicates all other conservation issues. Fires are becoming more frequent and more intense. High alpine meadows are being colonized by seedlings that formerly couldn't have survived dense snowpacks. Pika, cute rodent-like mammals, are running out of alpine tundra and room to construct their burrows to escape the life-threatening summer temperatures. Wolverines lose habitat to roam. Earlier snowmelt leads to less runoff in summer, which means streams warm and fish that depend on cold water adapt or die. Avalanche patterns are disrupted and so on and on. Research scientists worry that their surveys and studies cumulatively point to the impending loss of biodiversity. While this is a concern the world over, these national parks are both laboratories to witness and document the change, as well as ideal environments to experiment with localized interventions.

Solutions

There's no silver bullet obviously, and each park faces its own particular challenges. And no matter the prospect for small successes, what happens outside the park boundaries matters just as much. However, each national park system continues to address how to limit the carbon footprint of its visitors, improve energy efficiency and increase alternative energy use. As habitats change and shift and animals roam looking for more suitable climes, conservation authorities have looked to maintain and create suitable corridors outside the park boundaries. Large landowners have been enlisted and efforts to limit mining and oil and natural gas exploration have intensified. Volunteers are planting thousands of whitebark pine seedlings grown disease-free in greenhouses in order to restore the population of this important linchpin tree species. Fishing and boating regulations are strictly enforced to stop the spread of invasive aquatic species. And tourism-dependent businesses do their best to educate the public. After all, their survival also depends on that of the wilderness around them.