Monday, August 29, 2011

Lake Louise – Banff National Park

Although it took just a little over an hour, the drive from Golden to Lake Louise, Alberta, was spectacular. The road followed the Kicking Horse River through Yoho National Park and the grandeur of the Canadian Rocky mountains. We arrived mid-morning at Lake Louise trailer campground because we had no reservation and wanted to maximize the chance of getting one of the 1st come 1st serve sites. In this we were successful as there were plenty available.

So we settled in to one of their funny back-to-back sites, where pairs of campers share a common site but face opposite directions. Oddly, whomever laid out these sites placed the electrical boxes such that virtually every camper had to stretch their cord under their rig and across their picnic area to the box. Many chose to pull in the wrong way to resolve this. Very awkward. Our cord was long enough to reach while facing the right way, so it worked out OK for us.

The icy cold and turquoise green Bow River flows right through the campground, and the trail along the river was a great place to walk or ride our bikes, with Mount Temple dominating the horizon.

This Canadian National Park allows bikes on many of the trails and dogs on all, although they are discouraged in areas frequented by bears. I wish our NPS adopted these policies. On the other hand, Banff NP is quite expensive, nearly $20/day for the two of us, whereas ours range from $0 to $25/carload/seven days. Anyway, we had a great stay at Lake Louise, and enjoyed perfect weather. The dogs loved hanging out by the river, able to wade in to cool off whenever the mood struck.

The presence of bears in the area is a popular topic – much of the signage concerns how to behave in bear country, from how to store food and dispose of waste, to how to react in an encounter and how to ward off an attack. The electric fence surrounding the tent area is testament to the reality of this concern. Around camp its black bears that follow their noses, unable to resist the delightful aromas of open fire cookery. On one of our days rangers chased bears away on three occasions. During one of those instances I was out walking along the river with Toby, on the opposite shore from our camp, and about even with our site. I noticed movement and stopped to look and there was a large black bear right where we had been sitting in the sun with our drinks the night before (where the previous picture was taken)! It drew some heat, however, and as I watched, a ranger pulled up and began to track the bear, shouting to scare it. When he got close he fired a noisemaker over the bear, kind of like a big bottle rocket with the whine followed by a bang. The chase continued out of my sight, but I heard two instances where the ranger fired several shots at the bear, sounding like large pellets fired from an air gun. Pop! Pop! Pop! All this just 100 yards from The Whale! Exciting!

On many of the trails, particularly those farther from the crowds, there is the chance of an encounter with a grizzly bear. This is, or course, more serious, and for this reason hikers are encouraged to make a lot of noise and to carry bear spray (a long range, high volume can of pepper spray). Those trails through the grizzly’s favorite habitats can only be hiked in groups of four or more, and bear spray is required.

There was lots to see and do in the area, not the least of which was the namesake lake. Lake Louise is a deep turquoise color, very opaque and quite striking. It gets its color from rock flour running down the mountainsides from melting snow and glaciers.

It’s a very busy place. An enormous hotel dominates the eastern end, and hordes of guests, tourists and outdoor enthusiasts gather to gaze at this lake in numbers reminiscent of Disney Land. Busloads of Asian sightseers pile out, rush to the lakeside, madly take and pose for photographs, then pile back aboard and rush off to the next viewpoint. It’s quite a scene. But the lake is really gorgeous, and worth elbowing through the crowds for an unobstructed view.

Equally as popular and, in my opinion, even more beautiful, is nearby Lake Moraine. I headed over there by myself to see the lake before it got crowded and hopefully take a hike up above the treeline. I was successful in the former but not the latter. I got there in the nearly frosty cool of the morning, before much wind disturbed the mirrorlike surface of this deeply blue beauty:

Even as I left my vantage point busloads of sightseers arrived and began to pour up the trail to the overlook. I didn’t so much as leave as I did escape! My plan of hiking went astray when I came upon that “Group Access” signage. I had no bear spray, and was lacking three companions. I stood around for a little while hoping a group might come along that was heading for high altitude, but all of the people were just opting for the lakeside stroll. It was not to be.

The Bow River Parkway heads from Lake Louise down to the village of Banff, of the Banff Mountain Film Festival fame. This was a nice, leisurely drive for 50km or so, with opportunities for landscape and wildlife viewing. The standout moment for us was when we came alongside a pair of male Bighorn Sheep. They trotted along the road for a while, then stopped when they came to their favorite piece of ground for foraging. Here they alternately pawed the earth for food and sparred with one another. It was amazing to watch them lock horns and butt heads in mock battle!

We paid a visit to Banff, a picturesque mountain resort town, it’s main street a busy row of outfitters, souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants.

A little further down the road and outside of the park boundary was the town of Canmore. This town had been favorably described by numerous Canadian campers that we’d run into in our travels. Unlike Banff, this is a real town where regular people live and work. It has much of the mountain charm of Banff, but without feeling contrived, and not as pretentious.

Another outing we took was up the Icefields Parkway, leading north from Lake Louise towards Jasper. Along this road are one fabulous mountain vista after another. We were particularly interested to see the Crowsfoot glacier:

And enjoyed a nice hike to an overlook over beautiful Peyton Lake:

A pretty magical place, this Banff National Park. The scenery there is among the most stunning that we’ve seen. Perfect weather, almost no insects, great hiking, biking and wildlife – a tough act to follow. Stay tuned to see how our own Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks stack up.

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