After a few years of Brian talking about a trip to the Canadian Rockies, one finally materialized this summer. We decided on two backpacking loops (one in Jasper and one in the Banff area) along with day hikes to take in the maximum beauty of this place.
Our crew flew into Calgary on Friday night without incident (other than almost losing Bryan) and assembled at the airport. The six of us managed to stuff all of our gear and nine days of food into our seven-seat van and make it to the hotel. We headed out the next morning, full from a breakfast buffet. Not long into the hour and a half drive into Banff, the mountains appeared on the horizon. That was the start of a nine-day photography bonanza.
We planned our trip to allow the first full day for driving and pulling off to look at all of the amazing sights along the way- the turquoise waters, blue-tinted glaciers, the striking, craggy mountains that rose up all around us. We went stopped at Bow Lake, Peyton Lake and Athabasca Falls. We finished the day with a short hike up to Parker Ridge. This popular path was fairly quiet due to our late start. With 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains and a Glacier, it was definitely a good intro to the Canadian Rockies.
We spent the night at Whistler’s front country site near the town of Jasper where some of our neighbors ignored the fire ban and extreme fire danger signs. We got up early the next morning to fit in some more sight-seeing before starting our first backpacking loop. Our main stop was the Toe of the Glacier where you could walk right near the bottom of the Athabasca Glacier. For $180, you could actually get a tour on the glacier, but we sat that one out.
We fit in another day hike on Wilcox Ridge where we were again afforded spectacular views for minimal effort, spotted a herd of mountain goats and got up close to some bighorn sheep.
Around 3:30pm, we began our first backpacking loop at Nigel Pass trailhead. The trail began along a fire road and eventually started climbing gradually through Nigel Pass. About a mile and a half before camp, we were offered a great view of the valley we were about to drop down into. We rolled into camp around 7pm after nearly 7 miles of hiking. The site, Boulder Creek, was along a river. We stopped our neighbors for the night (who obviously did not have all of the proper permits) from starting a fire, once again during a fire ban. We all turned in pretty quickly after dinner.
The next morning we discovered that an acrobatic squirrel had gnawed its way into my food bag that had been hung with the others on the permanent bear lines they had at camp. No breakfast or cookies for Kylie :-( Luckily Andrew and Karan shared some food with me.
We hiked fairly closely together with one can of bear spray between us. The trail climbed steeply for a short while up to a small falls and then continued gradually through Jonas Pass with impressive mountain flanking both sides of the trail and stream next to us. We came upon an antler that had been shed by some elk and promptly posed for pictures with it on our heads. The five of us caught up to Bryan at the top of the pass and breaked for lunch to enjoy the view. A short time later, it became clear that the Pass itself was not the major draw here- Jonas Shoulder was. A few of us paused to get some water pouring right out of a spring next to the trail and Erik spotted some tiny hikers at the top of the shoulder. That’s where we were headed. The climb was the most significant that we had come across on this trip but the expansive views numbed the effort. I’m not lying when I say that I nearly shed some tears at the beauty of it. Especially after days of sharing the sights with hundreds of other tourists, it felt amazing to have this one to ourselves.
Our group spent around an hour at the top of the shoulder taking in the views of the valley we had just ascended and the one on the other side we were headed towards. We had a very pleasant descent across the open fields down into the evergreens to Jonas Cutoff where we paused for another break. The trail then climbed back up towards Poboktan Pass. The afternoon heat and sun took its toll on this climb but we were treated to more expansive views at the top. Erik stopped a few times to check out the sheep- oops, I mean rocks- with Brian’s monocular.
We descended deep into the valley to reach our campsite for the night, John-John, which felt like it was nestled between two steep rock walls. Our neighbors this night was a family with two young daughters who seemed to be having a wonderful time in the woods. On the way to get water, Brian “lost some skin” and required a little first aid care from Andrew. I performed my own first aid on my hole-ridden food bag.
The next morning was clear and cool at first. We hiked a few miles along Brazeau Lake. Erik and Andrew took a dip in the frigid water while the rest of us lounged on the edge. In the late morning we started to notice the sky was looking hazy and the mountains were obscured. It took us a little while to conclude that smoke was rolling in. We lunched along the fast-moving river. Well, most of us did. The persistent bees seemed attracted to Bryan’s neon green shirt and forced him to move up the trail. The rest of the day was fairly flat. Some of us arrived at the Four Point campsite, completing the loop part of the Brazeau Loop (which is really more of a lollipop). As we waited for the rest of the group we spotted a bat out in full daylight, a hawk nearly swoop in on two people filtering water from the river, and a killer squirrel that was gathering mushrooms and hiding them in a nearby tree.
Even with a full 17 mile day, we made it back to camp at Boulder Creek in good time where we had dinner and chatted with the site’s other resident for the night. I packed the rest of my food into empty cooking pots to ward off any hungry squirrels. The next morning we found that the squirrel had helped himself to one of Erik’s Clif bars and chewed through my bag to get to my garbage leaving a few more holes to patch.
It was a chilly morning and we all set out at different times to climb back up the pass. We had been looking forward to seeing this area in the morning with the low sun lighting up the mountains opposite to what we saw a few days before. But due to the smoke, this was not to be. We stopped at the top of the pass after a river crossing to regroup. As we waited, the sun peaked out over the mountain in the shape of a small pink circle. We enjoyed the pink sunrise which then devolved into a faux photo shoot. Our ideas of how to pose with the sun kept out-doing the next.
The rest of the hike out went smoothly. We finished up before 11.
From there we drove down to our chosen day hike, Helen Lake. It was a casual 1,800 foot ascent. The views were still hazy from the smoke but our surroundings were varied and spectacular. A few lakes here, a couple mountain ranges there, and the steep and foreboding Cirque Peak towering above us.
Our hiker hungers had kicked in so we treated ourselves to dinner at the Outpost Pub in Lake Louise before heading to the Lake Louise Campground for the night. The campground itself was interesting. It is set on an island surrounded by an electric fence to keep the bears away. For us, after five days of hiking, it's most attractive feature was the showers.
We slept in the next morning but got up to stop at Lake Louise itself. Despite the early hour, it was already pretty crowded with tourists, both the lake itself and the shores. We still enjoyed our own photo shoots. Bryan was photobombed by a tourist dressed in a tight t-shirt and short-shorts who kept taking camera-timed selfies in the same funny pose close by.
After Lake Louise, we were planning to check out Moraine Lake but the road up was closed by the time we drove at 10am due to the lack of parking.
With some extra time, we decided to grab more food and supplies in Lake Louise Village, which was easily becoming a new home base. Fully restocked, we started the drive to the trailhead of our second loop which started in Banff and continued into Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park. The drive included more than an hour along a heavily dusty and bumpy dirt road.
We started our hike a little after 1pm with about 8 miles to camp. The smoke seemed to have cleared some and we enjoyed the easy terrain while keeping a sharp eye out for bears. Five of us heeded the ominous grizzly warnings while Bryan hiked ahead. A few miles into the hike we came upon a beautiful stream with deep pools perfect for swimming but the temperatures had cooled and no one felt much like a dip. About an hour later smoke began rolling in and once again turned the sun pink. It continued to get more smoky as we hiked the last few miles to camp. The air smelled thickly of fire, the sky turned red and it began to rain ash. Despite my fears that we would be engulfed by flames as we slept, we set up camp. I thought I saw a bear next to camp, but Erik, bear spray in hand, determined it was just another couple of hikers camping next door.
We congregated in an open field near camp to watch the red sky and eat dinner while trying to avoid ingesting too much ash. Our neighbors, a couple from Colorado joined us.
The next morning, the sky no longer looked like Mordor. In fact, it seemed much clearer out than it had been in days. Due to the grizzly risk, we hiked close together. We discovered that the trail we were planning to take to Lake Magog was closed during the summer due to bear-mating season. Instead, we took a parallel horse trail that was not mostly flat, despite suggestions otherwise from our previous night’s neighbors. We arrived at Lake Magog and Assiniboine Lodge around 10:30 am as some of the lodge’s residents were preparing to board their helicopter ride back to the trailhead (we learned that for $175 each way, one can fly to and from the lodge- not an unpopular option). Set on the far edge of Lake Magog, the glacier-covered Mt. Assiniboine was very impressive.
We decided to set up our tents and have lunch before heading out for our planned day-hike of Windy Ridge. As we passed by the lodge on the way out, we learned that just 30 minutes before, park officials ordered that the park be evacuated due to a spreading fire danger. We would be allowed to stay the night but had to leave the next morning and could not go on with our planned day hikes.
Our crew was bummed but all agreed that this was not the worst place to have to spend an afternoon. We trekked back to our campsite to break down and reset up in a field closer to the lodge in case there was an emergency. At 4 pm, we gathered at the lodge to enjoy “tea time.” “Beer and cake time” would be a more apt description. For about $10 US, we were treated to a cold beer and three sliced of delectable cake. Considering the overhead costs of helicopter transport, we were satisfied with this deal. After tea time, Brian napped while the rest of us explored a few of the nearby lakes and practiced rock-skipping skills. In the evening we cooked in the well-stocked, designated cooking hut next to the lodge’s cabin and most finished their whiskey.
The next morning, we walked back over to Lake Magog for a view of it and Mt. Assiniboine in the morning light. We marveled at how different in looked at that time; it was stunning.
We had originally been planning on tagging Nub Peak before heading to the Marvel Lake campground but with the day hike out of the question, we would have only 8 miles or so to camp. Instead, we decided we would hike all the way out to the trailhead. Luckily, we were able to follow the rest of our planned route for the day over Wonder Pass, which offered up some sweeping views. From the pass, we descended down to the brilliantly green colored Marvel Lake. We took a leisurely lunch break and napped at the lake’s edge.
The rest of the hike went smoothly. We took another break by the nice swimming holes and this time most of us we ready for a dip. We were slightly surprised at how many people we had seen hiking in as we were hiking out. Although the campsites outside of the provincial park were still open, the areas with the views were closed. As we neared the trailhead, it started to look a if some of the further off mountain were obscured by smoke again.
We finished our hike around 4:30 pm and cleaned up as best we could in the supremely dusty parking lot before heading off to find a place to spend the night. Within 15 minutes, we were enveloped in the thickest smoke we had seen yet. The sun turned pink once again. We stopped at a front country campsite to see if we could stay there. As soon as we opened the car door, the smell of smoke was as strong as if we were standing next to a bonfire. The combination of that and the extreme dust made it a bit hard to breathe so the site was vetoed.
We headed down into Canmore to find dinner and keep searching for a place to rest our heads. As it was a holiday weekend, all of the campgrounds and most of the hotels were completely booked. We ended up nabbing a $300 hotel room for the night that was just down the street. It had a shower and just enough space for us. What more could we ask for?
We got up early on our final day determined to make it up to Moraine Lake, which we had missed out on before due to the parking situation. At 8:30 am, we pulled up to the turnoff that had been closed days earlier and were excited to see that it was still open. However, as we got closer to the lake, traffic stopped. Cars were parked all along the narrow road creating a mayhem that we weren’t willing to deal with. We turned around and found a small pull off to take a few pictures before moving on.
After one more stop in our favorite place, Lake Louise Village, we drove west to Yoho National Park for a little more sightseeing. Emerald Lake was nice, but Takakkaw Falls was the highlight of the day. It basically was an immense volume of water flowing through a narrow gully and a free-fall of 900 feet! And then, it was time to drive back. There had not been a hint of rain the whole nine days we were in Canada but as we near Calgary it started to sprinkle. We enjoyed one final Canadian meal at an Indian restaurant, got Bryan into his AirBNB for the night, and dropped off our trusty van before heading to catch our flights.
Thanks to Brian for getting this idea started, Andrew for his endless service behind the wheel, Karan for making sure we got where we needed to go and Erik & Bryan for coming along with their good spirits and singing voices. I will definitely be going back to this area!