Advice from a trip to Alberta
I had some time to kill in Vancouver (where I've been studying) before a summer school commitment started so I decided to drive over to Alberta to Banff/ Lake Louise area and see what the fuss was all about. I have so much to say about this trip but I’ll give you the highlight reel of the weird and wonderful things I encountered, and maybe some pearls of wisdom from me!
I guess my first piece of wisdom is sleep more than 4.5 hours the night before you’re going to drive for 4.5 hours. That’s important, and a lesson I have now learned. Because of a late night plumbing issue in my apartment block and picking my car up early from my lovely friends that let me park my car in their lot I had not had enough sleep to tackle this drive. Luckily I’d arranged to stay at a friend’s house in Kamloops the first night and not drive the nine-ish hours to Lake Louise in one go. But it was still a struggle for me, I need a good 8 hours to function properly. Around 1 hour before I got to Kamloops I was having to use my hands to widen my eyes as all I could think about was how good it would feel to just rest them for a little bit. I should have napped. That might be my piece of wisdom actually: Naps are usually a good idea.
So I got to Kamloops safely and crashed out pretty early in the evening and was on my way around 9am the next day. It was already sunny and I couldn’t face 438km to Lake Louise with no sunglasses so I was that person who buys sunglasses from the gas station (I had personally always wondered who would do that, now I know). This drive was SO BEAUTIFUL. It had everything. Kamloops has a desert aesthetic with parts of the rock even looking like the Grand Canyon. As I drove on I got to Salmon Arm and the other towns around the beautiful Shuswap lake and its surrounding rolling green hills. Not long after Salmon Arm I got my first glimpses of snow-capped peaks- despite seeing these every day in Vancouver I got very over excited because these were ROCKY MOUNTAIN PEAKS. A different type of peak all together. My next stop was in Revelstoke for lunch and a coffee, then on to the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
To get to Lake Louise I had to drive through Mt Revelstoke National Park, Glacier NP (the Canadian one) and Yoho NP. Oh my gosh, I was not ready for the views. I was awe struck the whole time. It was beautifully sunny so the snow-covered peaks and glaciers shone a bright white against the bluebird sky. I stopped at Roger’s pass which goes through Glacier NP. I parked my car at the summit pull off. I climbed on top of my car and sat on the roof staring at the view and enjoying my Tim Hortons donut I had saved for later- one of the most Canadian moments I have ever had. Being May it was construction season on the mountain roads so I endured a few one lane traffic areas meaning long waits in a line of traffic. But it just meant being forced to stare at the scenery, which I can’t complain about. That night at my hostel in Lake Louise I crashed out early again, to be honest I was like a kid at Christmas that thinks the sooner they go to bed the sooner the next day will come.
Yoho National Park
On my first full day in the Rockies I was meeting my friend who was also traveling around Canada, she was getting a bus to Lake Louise and we had planned to drive up the Icefields Parkway to go to Peyto Lake-a popular lake in the Rockies, from the popular viewpoint it looks like the shape of a wolf’s head. I greeted Anneke off the bus and we headed straight for the parkway up to the lake, only to be greeted by a very small orange sign ‘Road Closed’. Damn. We quickly decided we weren’t going to be bitter about not being able to drive a really scenic highway with high chances of seeing bears and moose and our intended destination and that we’d drive West to Yoho National Park instead and just stop at any points we wanted to along the way.
The first stop we decided to stop at was Takakkaw Falls. We saw it from the car as we approached the campground we were going to park at to get a better look at it. I’m not even kidding here, but we got out the car, looked upwards to the cliff where we’d spotted the falls, and they were gone. Dried up. So far this day we were not having great luck with our adventure. I’ve since googled this falls, it’s pretty majestic when it’s not turned off.
Not much further West was Yoho National Park so we drove to Yoho NP and drove along to Emerald Lake. As we were pulling up to the parking lot we noticed a big coach behind us. You know what that means. Hoardes of slow moving tourists. We parked up real quick and legged it past the coach as the door was opening. We wanted to get to the view points before they were swarmed. Mission was a success. On our way back to the car we walked past a woman taking a photo of her kids, not in the direction of the lake or the mountain view, but next to the Emerald Lake Lodge sign with a map of the premises.
Emerald lake is this big lake surrounded by towering mountains with an island in the middle where a hotel sits. In the summer, I guess it’s a beautiful blue/green colour but it was still frozen. I was irritated to see that in the small amount of the water that wasn’t frozen over I could see garbage at the bottom (a Starbucks cup- classic). We walked to the back of the Lodge grounds, fantasised about staying in one of the cabins here then found a viewpoint where we took photos of each other in various poses, including a yoga one despite the fact neither of us do yoga. Yoho-ga more like, get it?
From Emerald Lake we drove to the natural bridge which is on the same road. This road by the way is really stunning- Either direction you drive down it you see a great big peak at the end of it. It was also very quiet so it made for great pictures of us running down the centre of it (I obviously don’t mean to promote running down the centre of roads but it worked out for us). I was disappointed with the natural bridge as it turns out you can’t walk across it- you have to cross an unnatural bridge to view it. However, it had bright blue glacial run off water running through it so it wasn’t completely awful.
That evening after Anneke had left on her bus to Calgary I was bored with nothing in mind planned to do. I decided to drive to Banff, because why not? It was only a 40 minute drive East down the highway to get to Banff- on that drive I passed 3 separate cops who had pulled over people for speeding, Alberta seems pretty tight on this. Which is weird because I obey the speed limits here to a fault and I always get angry drivers behind me and speeding round me annoyed at me for being so law abiding.
I got to the Banff exits (there are 3) and I missed the first one figuring that probably wouldn’t be the one to the main town (it was). The second exit said it was for industrial traffic which is obviously not me. I got off the highway at the last Banff town exit then saw a sign for Lake Minnewanka (is it okay that I find this name so funny?). I’d heard about the lake from my parents visit in September and the great thing about travelling alone is you can have completely your own agenda without answering to anyone else’s schedule, so obviously I swung a left and headed off to see the lake. On the way up the hill I stopped at an overlook and spotted a deer from afar and felt very accomplished with my nature spotting ability. I got back in the car and turned the corner and promptly had to stop for two small deer taking up the road in front of me, my nature spotting ability is clearly not really needed when you’re in Banff.
I parked up at the lake parking lot and headed down to the shore. The lake was mostly frozen over still but the light blue of the water was still recognisable through the ice. It must be so vibrant and beautiful in the summertime. This lake has a large main slanty mountain behind it that dominates photos of it, I believe it’s called Mount Inglismaldie.
There was a lot of low hanging cloud around when I set off from Lake Louise but coming from Vancouver I didn’t think much of it. It seemed pretty bright so I wasn’t expecting any rain really. However, I’d only been on the shore for a matter of minutes when I started hearing the pitter patter of rain. It was the kind of fat raindrops you hear and see around you on the ground before you feel them. I headed back to my car and got pretty soaked in the process of just walking the couple of metres back to the car. Lake Minnewanka has a dam and a road over it that you can drive on. It was raining but I still wanted the views so I decided to drive over the narrow dam road. I got over the dam and parked up the car with a view of my rain soaked windscreen and behind that the lake. I had a small emotional moment as I watched the rain run down the window and listened to Ed Sheeran.
Then I realised I should probably try to get into Banff to get gas before it got dark and I got confused and lost. I drove back along the road down to the highway intersection and I’m going to be honest and say I was seriously concerned that I was going to have a crash.
The rain hadn’t let up at all so my wipers were working overtime, but even when they ‘cleared’ the rain the view was blurry. The car windows had started fogging up which didn’t help the visibility at all. I really don’t know much about cars but I was pretty sure that if the car windows fog up you can put on that heating setting that just heats up the front window of the car. So, I pressed that button. It made it so much worse, the whole windscreen basically turned white with condensation, and I’m still driving at this point with cars behind me and infront of me but I can barely see anything. I slowed right down and focused on following the yellow line diving the road. Luckily before I bought Carly (yeah that is my car’s name, yep I know it’s lame) a mouse had chewed up a bit of the padding in the driver’s seat (doesn’t seem lucky, but bear with me) so I’d tried to re-stuff it with a bathroom sponge. In a moment of genius (if I do say so myself) I grabbed said sponge and frantically wiped the front window and cleared my view. I don’t really get scared when travelling alone, like I don’t expect things to go wrong but I was genuinely scared at that moment.
I navigated my way in to town and after a few loops of the same roads I eventually located a gas station to fill up and then a parking space at the local supermarket (sorry IGA I just really needed somewhere to park and it was so busy). I headed to Starbucks for a reassuring hot chocolate to give me strength to get home. I also looked for a ‘I got lost in Banff’ car sticker but couldn’t find one, shocking. Luckily the rain let up on the drive home and instead of doing the sensible adult thing of just driving straight home along the highway I took a detour to the Bow Valley Parkway because it was dusk so I wanted to look for bears (see travelling alone is great, I didn’t have to justify my bear hunt agenda to any travel companion).
The parkway follows the same route as the highway but has a slower speed limit and has places to stop and take in the views and points of interest along the way. These include Johnston Canyon Falls, Castle Mountain lookout, Storm Mountain lookout and a small tribute to the internment camp victims. I was so surprised to learn there had been an internment camp in Banff in the First World War and that its Ukranian captives had built a lot of the road I was driving along!
On the drive home I saw no bears. Despite stopping and staring into the meadows/ hills/ forest whenever I saw anything remotely bear shaped or coloured. Just to be clear if I had seen a bear I would not have approached it or left my vehicle. This is also important.
Lake Louise at Sunrise
This is a promising title for a section isn’t it? Sounds delightful, right? I got on well with three sisters from Ontario in my hostel room so the 4 of us decided we would go up to Lake Louise to see the first light of the day light up the mountains over the frozen lake. So that next morning we woke up with our alarms at 5:15, we didn’t make much sound at all. I left to go to bathroom and when I came back the kind of odd old lady (no literally like easily over 60) who was in the bunk above me had turned her light on and sat up in bed. She started asking us all the questions like why where we up? Where were we going? Was it an arranged tour? She had really weirded us out the night before and we didn’t want her to eventually invite herself on our little trip so we answered as briefly as we could then got out of there.
Mary drove us up to Lake Louise, which I hadn’t been to before. Don’t get me wrong it is so beautiful, it’s nestled between high mountains and the Fairmont hotel in one direction, but at a cloudy “sunrise” it was nothing special. We took pictures, enjoyed the views around the lake and waited for the sun to burst through the clouds for a while then, slightly disappointed, we headed back to the village for breakfast.
After breakfast at around 7:30 we went back to our hostel room. I was at the front of our group and opened our room door to find he strange old lady lying on my bed. I’m not joking. She had laid her comforter over all my belongings on my bed (hairbrush, makeup, clothes) and had laid on it and her pillow ON MY BED. I was in shock as the girls piled in behind me to be greeted by this weird situation. She bolted up and kept repeating “I thought you’d gone to the Icefields, I thought you were gone”. Like, okay lady, but is that a reason to lie on my bed? I have stayed in only a few hostels before but I definitely didn’t think this was typical hostel practice. She then announced to Sandy that out of all of the beds Sandy had the best mattress, and did she realise that she’d had the best mattress? I don’t know about you but this seemed to me like pretty incriminating evidence that she had Goldilocks-ed the beds in our hostel room. Needless to say, we were shook. She left soon after that announcement. But only to make another appearance that evening to our same room. But that’s another story.
Well that’s a day or so of my Alberta trip. I hope I’ve inspired you to travel to the Canadian Rockies, and hopefully not put you off hostels forever.