Road trip? Hiking trip? It can be both easily if you choose the Canadian Rockies as your destination. The mountains are about 900 km from Vancouver, so getting there and back can be a fun road trip too, while being in the mountains you can hike to different peaks or lakes every day. One option to get there is by train, but we rented a car for the time of our trip to be flexible with the transportation as our free time was limited.
Day 1. Vancouver – Kamloops (430 km driving)
We didn’t drive from Vancouver to Kamloops the shortest way, but definitely on one of the most spectacular, on the Trans Canada Highway. It is one of the world’s longest highway systems with its 8000+ km length across Canada. We drove on the part of it from Vancouver, but it starts on Vancouver island already. I must note that when I write highway, don’t picture two multi-lane roads separated by hedges from each other. In Europe you would simply call this Canadian highway a national road or something like that, but not a highway. It’s only specialty the white-on-green maple leaf route markers sign. Every highway has it’s own boards that depict symbol of the road that can be animal or plant (at least so far we’ve seen only such symbols).
The highway leads through the southern part of Fraser Canyon. It gets dryer and dryer as you go more north and have higher altitude. The granite walls look great, especially if you like railways. The railway tracks run on both side of the canyon and you can observe extra long trains. The shortest one I’ve seen had only 150 railway wagons (and 3 locomotives) which means the trains are easily 2.5-3 km long.
If you are not that much fun of the railway, you can just have a stop at Hell’s Gate where the canyon has very steep walls and according to my colleagues it is one of the best spots to watch salmon migrating back to the rivers as it is very narrow.
After Cache Creek the road turns to Thompson Valley. Another, very very dry valley with the long Kamloops Lake. If the rain is not pouring and you reach this part in brightness, you can enjoy the views for sure.
Day 2. Kamloops – Golden (360 km driving) and hiking to the Cinnamon Ridge
After spending the night at a roadside motel we woke up to sunny weather. By the way, the motel was nothing like in the movies. First I was afraid that it will be very crappy, with all the assets from the bad horror movies as they even looked like that from outside, but it was a positive surprise. Everything was neat and nice. Apparently better motels have pool and hot tub as well. The room was also well equipped with fridge, microwave oven and coffee machine. I was so surprised that I forgot to take pictures of all the motels inside 😀
We have visited the Cinnamon Ridge where we planned a short hike. It became a bit longer when Katalin did some unsuccessful shortcut and now we also know why not to touch a cactus. Ever. And definitely don’t grab it. Even after many days it gives you unpleasant aches if you did not (or could not) remove all the needles. Besides the extra adventures the place is very lovely badland like, with great view to the extra long trains.
Day 3. Golden and hiking in the Glacier National Park
The Glacier National Park is part of the Selkirk Mountains (Columbia Mountains). The trailhead at Illecillewaet Campground has many information boards about the railway, the railway building history and also some artifacts. The national park became famous elite holiday place when the railway had a luxury stop, a hotel with every kind of services there. The mountains, the glaciers, the nature were a perfect getaway from the cities for the rich.
Nowadays it is only a hiking destination, the railway runs in a tunnel under the mountains and the once upon a time famous Glacier House had been closed a long time ago. Since the railway went through a tunnel under the bridges, less guests were visiting the place. However, it was necessary to build the tunnel, as the avalanches often blocked or even destroyed the tracks. And not only the railway traffic had problems with the snow. This section of the highway has the most avalanches in whole Canada.
The weather was cloudy, but we still decided to climb up to the Abbott Ridge (2274 m a.s. l). In the first part of the hike the mountains and glaciers were hiding and sometime showing themselves for a short moments between the clouds. Fog, clouds and snow were everywhere. I really enjoyed the winter scenery. Later the sky cleared up a bit and we had a view over almost the whole park from Abbott Ridge. On the way down we had a bit of sunshine which melted most of the snow from the trees and on the ground. On the trail we met with four other people. Perfect day in the nature!
We drove back to Golden, to a small town with big railway traffic. The motel we stayed had a hot tub, similarly to the one in Kamloops, and this time we even tried it. We arrived hungry and we didn’t want to go outside of our warm room. Luckily, we managed to order pizza online, without any working phone number, so we could enjoy the rest of the evening in the room.
Day 4. Golden – Radium Hot Springs – Banff (240 km driving with short stops)
We left Golden in the morning and had a short spa visit at Radium Hot Springs, at the edge of the Rocky Mountains. The hot spring is not as good as the ones in Hungary. There is a normal swimming pool with rather warm water, a warm pool and a hot tub. The pools are real pools, the only advantage for them that they are outside and you can see the rocks from them. Considering that it was a cloudy October Monday, there were many people soaking themselves and even more came later when we left
After a short dip we continued our way to Kootenay National Park through Sinclair Canyon. We took quick photo stops here and there and had short walks. Rivers, glaciers, mountains. The only cultural stop we made was at ’Paint Pots’ to check the ochre beds. Already the Indians (called First Nations in Canada) used them as body paint and during the last centuries ochre was collected from this area. Nowadays you can still see the old pools where the iron rich water flew, the beds they made from the mud to get the coloring and some machinery as well. The mining was banned totally when the national park was established. Near to this heritage there is the Marble Canyon, but don’t be mistaken. Not a real canyon and we haven’t seen any marble either.
What else can you notice immediately in Kootenay? The remains of the forest fires. There was a huge outbreak in 2003 and 17 000 ha forest burned. Nowadays you can see the burned, fallen or still standing charred trees. Among them the new seedlings are growing and making the are green again. The forest is returning. The Marble Canyon trail was meant to show results of the fires.
After leaving Kootenay National Park, we entered to Banff National Park. As the weather became perfect, we had few more photo stops before checking in to our hostel in Banff.
Day 5. Banff – Bow Lake – Banff (180 km) and hiking to Dolomite Pass
Our accommodation for the next 5 nights was in Banff. The hostel was pretty cool: well equipped kitchen, laundry place and social hangout place besides the dorm rooms. There could have been more toilets, but that was my only concern.
Banff is like Zakopane of Tatra. The only difference is that it is surrounded by high mountains from every direction. The similarities are that every local lives from tourism, the city is full with souvenir shops, hotels, inns, restaurants and tour operators. Luckily we were not in high season, so it could be tolerable. It also means that the weather was totally unpredictable. One day it was +10°C and sunny, another day freezing and snowing.
We decided to stay so long in Banff as it is easy to reach every trail we wanted to hike from there and there is not many other options within Rocky Mountains. Most of accommodation places are located in Banff and Jasper and there is no budget options elsewhere.
The first hike we did lead to the Dolomite Pass (14.6 km Distance, 5 hours). We were aiming the Cirque Peak beforehand, but due to the snowclouds and low visibility, we changed our route from the Helen Lake. The hike is quite easy, just it was very muddy. After the lake it became very wet as well for a short distance.
When we reached the Dolomite Pass it started to snow more. The views were pretty spectacular, but for me the best part of the hike was to see probably spruce grouse/trail chickens (Falcipennis canadensis) from veeery close. One of them was just enjoying the snow next to my feet. First I was afraid that it will fly away, but didn’t seem to be bothered by us, so we took millions of shots of it. On our way back we have seen even more of them around the same spot.
Day 6. Banff – Columbia Icefield – Banff (350 km) + hike to Parker Ridge
What to do on a snowy day? Check out more glaciers! We decided to drive a bit more, because the weather was supposed to be get better there and check out Athabasca and Saskatchewan just to name two glaciers from the Columbia Icefield.
Athabasca Glacier is a location of a big tourism business. If you pay, you are taken up by bus near of the foot of the glacier. It is probably possible to take some amazing shot from there. As it was not our first or last glacier, we didn’t even considering paying for it. We just had a walk from the parking place up to the river which is formed from the melting ice.
The biggest attraction was not even the ice cave entrance we could see, but our first ever seen avalanche. An enormous amount of snow run off from the top of one of the side glaciers to the main valley. It started small, and first we thought it is a waterfall, but soon we realized it isn’t. Luckily (or unfortunately?) we were very far from it, but we could take few pics from the happenings, although not from the beginning.
The weather was still very cloudy, but we decided to hike up to Parker Ridge (6 km, 250 m elevation gain) to check out another glacier: Saskatchewan. Unfortunately we could only see the upper part of it behind the clouds, and some km in the valley where it is already melted and just the debris left. We haven’t seen the edge.
On our drive back to Banff the clouds were much higher than in the morning, so we could enjoy bit more the views.
Day 7. Banff – hiking the Cory Pass loop
Another cloudy day. With only few minutes of driving we reached the parking lot near Bow River. Today’s goal was to reach the Cory Pass. During the first few kilometers we had a lovely view to the Bow River, Trans-Canada Highway, railway and Banff while ascending. The route later zigzags up on the edge of the forest and in clear weather you can see the mountain tops as well, but we only seen the valleys and not even the bottoms of them.
Before the Cory Pass we walked on very narrow trail which has steep downhill on our left. That was the point where the trees had great snow cover. It looked lovely, but I still think it was the least spectacular hike among all we did during the last days. First we passed two junctions with trails that head up to Mount Edith, then we finally reached the Cory Pass which was above the clouds! Amazing pictures time! There were two other guys up who had similar ideas and took photos of the peaks showing up from the clouds.
After admiring the view we continued on the trail down from the pass on the other side. It was very snowy and a bit slippery. The route was surrounded by stone pillars, called Gargoyles Valley, but we could only see the closer ones because of the cloud sitting in the valley. We could hear stones and rocks moving and falling. Karol even spotted one flying above me. I got a bit scared and we sped up.
After a kilometer we reached a part with big rocks. We followed the footprints in the snow, but we realized they lead the wrong direction, so after this short detour and about an extra 100 m elevation loss and gain we found the correct way to Edith Pass. The rest of the trail was rather flat, slowly descending. There were a lot of fallen trees out of the trail. The last kilometers were in the forest without any views. The loop took us about 7 hours and was much more spectacular then I expected. I fell in love with the mountains every day.
DAY 8. Banff – surrounding of Lake Louise – Banff (140 km driving + short walks)
We woke up to snow. A couple of centimeter covered the trees, the roofs and cars even in Banff. And it was still falling, reducing the visibility close to zero. The mountains disappeared behind the snow clouds. It was a perfect time to do some lazy, low altitude walk around few lakes.
The first one we chose was Moraine Lake near Lake Louise village. It should be a pretty place in good weather, steep mountains surrounding the lake and a lot of tourists came even in the snowy weather. I can understand the ones with small kids choosing the trails around the lake, but I am surprised that younger people were so amazed by that view. Sometimes I wish they would know how many of similar pretty lakes they could see on a longer trail in the mountains, as we do, while meeting with almost nobody. At least those places can keep their calmness.
We had a stop at the old railway station at Lake Louise. They now operate a restaurant in the vintage train cars – we didn’t try it though, because it was closed on most days as we were out of season.
The next pretty lake we checked out was Emerald Lake, in Yoho National Park. It had amazing color even in the snowy weather. A perfect family holiday destination with its holiday lodges.
The next stop was at the place called Natural Bridge over the Kicking Horse River. The water is disappearing and reappearing between the rocks. Worth to take few pictures.
Our last stop was a waterfall, Takkakaw. It has two steps and together they are over 600 meter tall. You can walk there from the parking lot in 5-10 minutes without any elevation differences.After these very touristy attractions we headed back to Banff, to spend there our last night.
DAY 9. Banff – Vancouver (850 km)
- renting a car
- don’t even ask, prices are about 80€ per day… If you have a friend with a car and freetime, it is like a jackpot!
- fuel is pretty cheap, 0.7-0.8€ per liter. In Vancouver it is about 20% more expensive!
- motels and hostels starts from 40€ per night for 2 people
- staying in tent is possible in the national park, but you have to pay a few dollars per night. (if it had been warmer (i.e. above 0°C) weather, we would definitely do it, but not during late autumn. Maybe we are too old?
- entrance tickets
- you can manage with your normal expenses. In hostels you can cook and there are supermarkets in Banff.
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