Story and Photos by Carol Canter.
Jasper: canoes, canyons and Charming Inns
With daylight in the Canadian Rockies extending until almost 11 pm at summer’s peak, visitors can pack in long days of wondrous activity. For who wants to sleep when there are lakes to canoe, rivers to raft, trails to hike, wildlife to view and mountains to climb, photograph, paint or simply contemplate. So when we checked into Overlander Mountain Lodge, a member of Charming Inns of Alberta just outside the entrance to Jasper National Park, the setting was so dazzling that we took a 10 pm hike before settling in for the night.
The wall of windows next morning at breakfast framed an eye-opening panorama of jagged peaks, rounded domes and flat-topped buttes, snow-capped or evergreen-clad. We eyed the lodge’s expansive outdoor decks, designed for relaxing with a book, beer and binoculars, but we had signed on for an early morning canoe trip with Jasper Adventure Centre.
An hour later, our canoe pushed off from the dock onto Pyramid Lake in the early morning stillness. We paddled with a couple from Australia, guided by Jeff, a retired railroad worker, who knew these mountains intimately. We saw osprey and a golden eagle in flight and a family of moose grazing by the shoreline. As he guided us to our first beaver sighting, he put things in context. “This is the rodent that shaped Canada!” Jeff was referring, of course, to the beaver whose pelts became so valued that their pursuit by trappers played a major role in the development of both the U.S. and Canada for more than 300 years – impacting borders, westward expansion, and wars.
He also spoke of life within the boundaries of Jasper National Park, the Canadian Rocky’s largest Park and one of North America’s largest natural areas, spanning 4,200 square miles of scenic majesty. As the sun broke through the cloud layer and began to illuminate the craggy face of Pyramid Mountain, Jeff regaled us with the tale of his rigorous ascent, only to be turned back by an electrical storm just before reaching the summit. He spoke of wildlife encounters in a park that supports healthy populations of grizzly and black bears, mountain caribou, elk, moose and wolves, and of living in harmony with nature that offers magical opportunities at every turn.
Our afternoon outing, also booked through Jasper Adventure Centre, was a walk on the edge. We started at the top of Maligne Canyon, the deepest and most spectacular gorge in Jasper National Park — its walls plunge to depths of 165 feet — and descended a winding 2-mile interpretive trail past six bridges. The thundering Maligne River has eroded the canyon’s limestone walls into smooth and swirling forms, created ice falls, and thick carpets of moss from its cooling spray. Our young guide, passionate for the park’s geology and botany, helped us understand the formation of this extraordinary canyon that could be over a million years old. She seemed to be a magnet for hummingbirds and butterflies, as she showed us wild rose, Alberta’s provincial flower, harebell and purple vetch. The sixth bridge, at the confluence of the Maligne and Athabasca Rivers, was our pick up point where the van awaited. It has been a perfect one-way adventure, we agreed, as we watched independent hikers head back up the canyon to return to their vehicles.
Dinner at Andy’s Bistro, an intimate 40-seat restaurant in the heart of Jasper town, was the culinary equivalent of our canyon hike: majestic. Our palates were primed for what many locals agree is one of Jasper’s finest dining establishments. After all, this is the place where Jasper chefs are known to dine on their nights off. Swiss chef-owner Andy Allenbach was on a motorcycle adventure in the U.S. as we were sampling the delicacies emerging from his kitchen. We toasted to his creativity and a safe return.
The meal was a welcome culmination to a day of physical exertion, and an example of the good life in Jasper, where the best of nature and creature comforts are combined with a strong ecological consciousness. As the night was young, we followed our day of paddling, hiking and fine dining with a soak in Miette Hot Springs. The historic springs, set in a dramatic rock canyon near the eastern boundary of Jasper National Park, are the hottest mineral springs in the Rockies.
Back at Overlander Mountain Lodge, owner Garth Griffiths built a roaring fire as we sipped wines from their Wine Spectator award-winning wine list. One of the two founders of Charming Inns of Alberta 2 decades ago, Griffiths explained the concept of what has grown into a collection of 12 independently owned and operated properties. “It’s basically a tool to market a diverse group of inns with charm and distinctive personalities that are privately-owned and not well-known,” says Griffiths. “Most are run with a personal touch, and reflect their surroundings.”
Some of these surroundings, I learned by the end of my trip, are in the most magnificent settings on earth. Larger than B & B’s yet more personalized than a hotel, these inns offer an alternative to those traveling through the Canadian Rockies. The Charming Inns of Alberta website offers suggested itineraries, along with profiles of each individual property.
Driving the Icefields Parkway from Jasper to Lake Louise: The Icefields Parkway, glimmering with glaciers, etched with waterfalls and laced with lakes, is called the world’s most scenic highway. This is not hyperbole, we learn, as we travel the road’s 140 breath-taking miles from Jasper to Lake Louise.
We walk loop trails to view thundering waterfalls named Athabasca — “place where the bulrushes grow” and Sunwapta — “turbulent river” just half an hour into our drive. We stop at the Columbia Icefield 68 miles from Jasper, to contemplate the beauty and impact of this showpiece of the Canadian Rockies as it stretches across the Continental Divide. Meltwaters from its six glaciers feed three major rivers and, incredibly, three different oceans: the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic.
Weaving through the mountains and valleys between Jasper and Banff National Parks, the Icefields Parkway began as a single lane gravel track in 1931, when hundreds of unemployed men were put to work by the Canadian government. With little more than picks, shovels and horses, plus some small tractors, they created this now majestic scenic corridor. Wide, safe and spectacular to drive, the highway is the destination and the journey. So leave ample time to hike its trails, picnic its rivers and lakes, and keep eyes peeled and cameras ready for wildlife viewing. Past the Weeping Wall, meadows and river valleys, the Bow Summit is the highest point on the parkway, offering an ultimate vista point for Peyto Lake.
We grabbed a sandwich at Num Ti Jah Lodge to soak up some of its rich history and dramatic setting beside the teal waters of Bow Lake. A grizzly bear ambled past the lodge, disappearing into the woods. As we hiked the lake’s shoreline, awed by the scenery, we kept up a lively conversation to avoid surprising the bear.
Baker Creek Chalets was our lodging choice just east of Lake Louise on the Bow River Parkway. Flower boxes overflow with bright red geraniums outside honey-colored log chalets. Two-story Jacuzzi suites in a small mountain lodge have decks that open to the sound of Baker Creek’s flowing waters. All units feature distinctive hand-crafted furniture, fixtures and art with a Western flair. The owners have been acknowledged for their environmental focus, and the lodge has been honored for its commitment to heritage tourism in Banff National Park.
That night we booked dinner at the Moraine Lake Lodge, based on some powerful memories we’ve carried for over 15 years. At the time, we had bicycled up the mountain, only to be bowled over by the iridescent turquoise hues of the lake nestled into the Valley of the Ten Peaks.
We had always planned to return, and were thrilled to now enjoy a meal where the quality of every dish matched the setting. In fact, the honey-glazed venison tenderloin with crushed juniper berry and peppercorn rub, mission fig and walnut wine reduction has become another haunting Moraine Lake memory.
Arthur Erickson, one of Canada’s foremost architects, designed the post-and-beam lodge with grand windows overlooking the glacier-fed lake, private balconies off each of the 33 guest rooms, wood-burning fireplaces and a rustic elegance. The gourmet dining room’s soaring glass atrium ceiling keeps the scenic splendor a part of the dining experience.
Lake Louise to Banff: the heavenly journey nears completion
Next morning our Baker Creek breakfast “sandwich” with egg, house-made ham, tomatoes and watercress, horseradish aioli on grilled Icelandic bread was creatively delectable. So was the ambiance: early morning sunlight pouring onto the honey-colored logs, sultry Brazilian music, a display of framed black and white photographs of the lodge then and now, and a very friendly vibe. . . overall, an unexpected surprise at a log cabin lodge in the alluring Canadian Rockies. Thus fortified, we swung onto the forested Bow River Parkway for the 35-mile drive from Lake Louise to Banff, pulling over almost immediately to view a stately elk navigate his enormous antlers between the trees.
We hiked the 1.5-mile riverside trail to the upper falls at Johnston Canyon, through cool green forests of lodge pole pines, along catwalks that edged moss-draped limestone cliffs. It was easy to see why this is one of the most popular hikes in the Canadian Rockies. Interpretive signs explaining the flora, fauna and geology use quotes from one of my favorite authors. I’ll let the master, Wallace Stegner, express what we were feeling: “…it was pure delight to be where the land lifted in peaks and plunged in canyons, and to sniff air thin, spray-cooled, full of pine and spruce smells …” (from The Sound of Mountain Water).
In Banff, we stopped to gaze at the Hoodoos, pillars of sandstone eroded into strangely evocative shapes, then boarded a lake cruiser for an hour-long interpretive tour of Lake Minnewanka. This neon-blue glacial beauty, largest lake in Banff National Park, draws scuba divers who brave the chill waters to explore an underwater village, submerged in 1941 when the building of a dam raised the lake 100 feet.
An 8-minute ascent on the Banff Gondola deposited us at the summit of Sulphur Mountain. The panorama here at 7,500 feet shows why Banff, encircled with snow-streaked peaks and the Bow River, winding its milky glacial green waters through forest, meadow and town, is one of Canada’s most popular destinations.
Banff National Park salutes its 135th anniversary as Canada’s first national park.
Continue the extraordinary journey through the Canadian Rockies, this time by rail, with my story on The Rocky Mountaineer from Banff to Vancouver.
IF YOU GO: During the current Covid-19 pandemic possible Canadian travel restrictions and quarantine requirements should be investigated.