Banff and Yoho, Alberta and British Columbia

For my last full day of vacation in the Canadian Rockies, I would be exploring more of the sights in Banff National Park and then heading on to the nearby Yoho National Park. For that matter, I would also be stopping briefly in Glacier National Park (the Canadian version) as I began my journey back towards Seattle. These parks served up a new collection of high mountain peaks, towering waterfalls, and glacier-fed lakes to explore. The sheer size of the natural wonders out here constantly kept me surprised, as a seemingly endless number of mountains seemed to stretch onwards no matter where I went. More adventurous hikers could spend weeks or even months trekking through these parks without seeing everything that they had to offer. I'd be doing my best to cover a lot of ground in the limited time remaining, catching only a small slice of the wilderness.

I was up early as usual, off to get a fast start for another day of sightseeing. In a reprise of the ride that I had taken a couple days earlier back in Jasper National Park, today I was starting out by riding the Banff Gondola up to the top of Sulphur Mountain. The cable cars would take me up to this mountain ridge overlooking the town of Banff from the south, providing some of the best views of the region. I had checked when the Banff Gondola opened during the previous day and arrived right at 9:00 AM, once again taking one of the first cars up to the top of the lift. It had rained the previous night but the sun was out and shining again on a glorious summer morning. As the gondola rose up the side of the mountain, I was able to see the town of Banff spread out below me off to the northwest. The Fairmont Banff Springs was visible sitting next to the river, resting in the morning shadow cast by Tunnel Mountain.

There was a small observatory station at the top of Sulphur Mountain with a viewing platform and a gift shop. This was a fantastic place to look down at the town of Banff, and in the years since this trip, I've seen professional photographs taken from this exact spot pop up again and again in nature-themed stock image collections. Everyone seems to agree that this is a particularly beautiful spot. To the northwest, it was easy to see how the town of Banff wound its way around the intervening bulk of Tunnel Mountain. The Bow River could have been a turquoise ribbon tying a knot around the town. Back behind Banff, the much taller form of Cascade Mountain looked like an adult supervising the playing of a child with its toys. This lookout had a circular setup that allowed visitors to look outward 360 degrees in all directions, and although the view wasn't as interesting elsewhere, there was still a rugged appeal to having so much wilderness visible. Looking to the west, I could see the tiny shape of the Icefields Parkway heading off towards Lake Louise. Otherwise it was trees and mountains as far as the eye could see.

While I was up on the top of the observation deck, this pair of small planes flew past over the town. They weren't flying very high in terms of elevation and cleared the mountain ridge where I was standing by only a hundred or so feet. I'm sure that the views from up there were absolutely incredible as the planes flew past Banff, but it might have been safer to be a little bit higher up. More than one of the nearby mountains were taller than the height at which these planes were flying.

There was one other attraction up here at the top of Sulphur Mountain, a historic weather observation site located a short distance away from the modern buildings. I made the five minute walk to the little stone structure, where a local man had once made the climb up the mountain from the town, on foot, every single day to record the weather on the heights. That was an act of serious dedication. This was also a good place to glance back at the observation deck itself, looking a little bit like a spaceship with its enclosed glass restaurant. All in all, it was more than worth the small cost to take the ride up here on the Banff Gondola. I understand this attraction can get pretty busy in the summer, and I was glad that I'd been able to take the ride first thing in the morning before the crowds showed up.

After finishing up with the Banff Gondola, I hopped into my rental car and drove back north along the Icefields Parkway again, all the way back to Lake Louise. Just north of the town, the highway divides with the Icefields Parkway continuing further north up to Jasper National Park and the Trans Canada Highway splitting off and heading to the west. I diverted off in this direction, crossing into British Columbia again and soon entered Yoho National Park. This is a much smaller park and essentially constitutes the British Columbia portion of Banff National Park (which is located in Alberta). First up in terms of attractions here was the huge waterfall knnown as Takakkaw Falls. I was able to see and hear this natural phenomenon from a long distance ahead of time, with the waterfall easily visible from the access road that led up to it. The path that led to the falls crossed over the river that the waterfall generated, which had a milky white color from more glacier runoff. It churned and frothed over the rocks in the riverbed, still seemingly agitated in the wake of the big drop.

The short path from the parking lot led directly up to the base of Takakkaw Falls. Water from the Daly Glacier falls nearly 300 meters / 1000 feet from the cliffs above down to the rocks in a breathtaking natural spectacle. The word "Takakkaw" is apparently translated from the Cree language to mean something along the lines of "it is magnificent", and it's easy to see how the local First Nations peoples would have described the waterfall in this fashion. The flow rate of the water wasn't as great here as some of the other waterfalls that I'd seen, but the vertical height of this spot was very tall indeed. The path led right up to the base of the falls and I was able to walk almost directly underneath the pounding water. The air was full of spray kicked up by the falling water, misting up my camera and fogging up several of the pictures taken here. And I should mention the sound of the falls as well, which thundered through the local canyon and drowned out all other noises. Takakkaw Falls was a little bit off the beaten path but well worth visiting.

Something that was very much on the beaten path was the attraction pictured above known as the Natural Bridge. This is apparently what the name suggests, a natural bridge of stone that arcs across a series of rapids in the river. Maybe it's because I had just come from Takakkaw Falls, but I found Natural Bridge to be underwhelming. While it was nice enough to walk around here and the forested alpine scenery was as pretty as ever, this whole region was full of the same gorgeous natural landscape. This little rock bridge just wasn't all that interesting. This is something that travelers through Yoho National Park can safely skip, although since it's right in the middle of the park on the main road they'll probably end up stopping here regardless.

A short distance away from Natural Bridge was another one of the featured attractions in Yoho National Park: Emerald Lake. This is the largest lake situated within the park's boundaries, and as the name suggests, it's known for its distinctive shade of green. The waters of the lake truly did look green-tinted, most closely resembling Lake Louise from my visit there the preceding day. This was due to more rock flour particles caused by glacier runoff, the same thing that was turning all of these mountain lakes into interesting shades of blue and green. There are hiking trails that surround Emerald Lake and I had planned to walk for at least a short distance around part of the lake to get some more views of the mountains encircling it. However, you'll probably note from these pictures that it started to rain heavily while I was standing on the shores of Emerald Lake, and I wasn't willing to spend the next hour hiking around while getting soaked. I've done it plenty of times before but not on this particular day. I checked out the Emerald Lake Lodge, a very nice (and expensive) hotel located on the banks of the lake, and moved onwards.

I had another wildlife sighting about an hour later on the road: this group of mountain goats came bounding down the side of the hill and passed right next to my car. I came close to hitting one of them because I wasn't expecting a big animal to come flying out of nowhere down the side of a steep slope! They walked past close enough that I was able to get some decent pictures in the process. Maybe not quite as exciting as stumbling across the grizzly bears in Jasper National Park, but this was still pretty cool.

Eventually I reached Glacier National Park after an hour's drive from Yoho. To be clear, this is the Glacier National Park of Canada, a small protected area overshadowed by the larger parks of Jasper and Banff to the east. This is separate from the Glacier National Park in the United States that can be found several hundred miles to the south in Montana. These particular pictures were taken in Rogers Pass, a national historic site in Canada boasting more of the spectacular mountain scenery that I had come to expect. The signs here explained that the snow can sometimes pile up so deeply in the pass during the winter that artillery pieces are used to blast a route through. Even here in the summer there was quite a bit of snow lying around at the higher elevations. The entrance to the park had a small museum in this wooden lodge with more information about the wildlife that could be found within the park boundaries. Hopefully if I ran into any more bears like the statue out in front, it would be from the safety of my car again.

It was already midafternoon by the time that I reached Glacier National Park, and that ruled out doing any of the longer hikes in the park. I decided that I would take a shorter and gentler path to the Meeting of the Waters, a place where multiple rivers joined together. This trail was an easy walk through dense evergreen forests paralleling the course of one of the mountain streams. This trail also took me past the stone foundations of what had once been a large building known as Glacier House. It was another hotel built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1890s, as a place for visitors to stay while traveling through what was a remote wilderness at the time. However, unlike the other Fairmont properties that I had visited, which had been preserved and became luxurious modern hotels, Glacier House was eventually abandoned and torn down when the railroad line switched to a different route and left the area stranded. It was a sad fate to see the ghosts of an old building and think about what could have been. As for the Meeting of the Waters, two rivers joined together there in a series of frothing white rapids. It was a nice reward at the end of a short walk.

After completing that minor hike, I drove on westward towards my destination for the evening. I was staying at a hostel again, and I had picked a location that would save me some driving time the following day as I continued to make my way back towards Seattle. Thanks to the magic of Internet searches, I found a hostel in the tiny hamlet of Squilax on the shores of Shuswap Lake. This was about half an hour's drive east of Kamloops in central British Columbia. When I first arrived at the address, I wasn't sure that I was in the right place. This cramped little brick building that contained a rundown general store was the hostel?! But sure enough, the sign did say that it was a hostel, and it turned out that I was indeed in the correct spot. This was something of a hippie abode for free-spirited people, with the hostel comprising a collection of buildings that were located in the backyard behind the general store. It was also an animal-friendly location, with a cute dog that greeted visitors and llamas in the backyard to help with composting. This was certainly different than anywhere else I'd been on the trip.

This hostel's claim to fame was a series of three old railway cars that it had somehow acquired and hauled onto the property. These railroad cars had been converted into places to stay for the night; I would be sleeping in one of the trains for the evening. The interiors had a full (if cramped) kitchen in the front and then a series of bunk beds in the back. There was even a ladder up to the tiny second floor where a conductor had originally sat in the single chair. When I had seen this advertised, I knew that I wanted to stay at the hostel just for the uniqueness of the experience. Unsurprisingly, it wasn't crowded at all and the rate was incredibly cheap, I think something like $20 for the night (and that was with a slight markup for staying in the train car instead of one of the other rooms). On a beautiful summer evening it was quite pleasant inside the cars. I opened up the windows and enjoyed the refreshingly cool air.

The hostel was also located on the shores of Shuswap Lake, an unheralded little body of water tucked into the hills east of Kamloops. This is a lake used for boating and fishing by locals but would otherwise be unknown to anyone who didn't live in the area, a far cry from famous spots like Lake Louise. The lake was a deep, dark blue completely unlike the glacier-fed lakes that I had been seeing recently. The hostel had a dock that ran down into the waters of the lake, and I headed down there to relax after getting my sleeping stuff unpacked inside the train cars. The sun was setting in the west and I was treated to a delightful two hours on the shores of the water as the light slowly faded away. I read a book here until it became too dark to see, and it was an absolutely perfect way to bring the day to a close.

That was essentially the end of my trip through the Canadian Rockies. I completed the drive back to Seattle on the next day and took my evening flight back to Baltimore without any further issues. I was incredibly glad that I had taken the additional time to extend my trip to the Pacific Northwest with this extra week in the Rockies. It hadn't been very expensive at all, pretty much just the cost of the rental car and the minimal hostel prices, while I had been able to experience some of the most picturesque scenery on the continent. For Americans like myself, the Canadian Rockies are often overlooked because they happen to be located outside of the continental USA. However, this region is easily reachable in a day's long driving from Seattle, and the sights in Jasper and Banff National Parks are well worth visiting. If anyone has been to Yellowstone and is looking for a comparable wilderness paradise, this is a wonderful place to explore next.

As always, thanks for reading. These travel reports would be pointless without anyone to share them with.