Canada’s Rocky Mountains

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The Rocky Mountains are one of the most recognisable landscape formations in the world. There are a few classic scenes – one is Moraine Lake, another is Lake Louise and a third is the town of Banff surrounded by snow-capped peaks. The whole area reveals mountains in all their glory.

There’s never been a better time than this summer when entry to all Canadian National parks is free to celebrate Canada’s 150th Anniversary. Here’s how to make the most of Alberta’s crowning glory.

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Embarking on a road trip around Banff will reveal the mesmerising natural wonders of Canada

Winter
If you head to Lake Louise or Banff for skiing then you’ll see the mountains at their snow-covered best. It will be cold and beautiful and it’s a time for skating on frozen Lake Louise or taking sleigh rides along snowy trails.

However, you won’t be able to see Moraine Lake as the road is closed in winter – and that’s from October to mid-May because of avalanche risk.

A lot of the animals will be in hibernation, too. So don’t expect to see bears until April at the earliest when they wake from their slumbers and go looking for food.

Summer
The best-known image of the Rockies is the turquoise lake surrounded by towering peaks. It’s most beautiful near the end of summer, displaying a remarkable blue colour.

The two classic viewpoints for this is Moraine Lake and Peyto Lake, along the Icefields Parkway. Both can get very crowded on summer weekends.

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No, that's not photoshopped! The breathtaking Peyto Lake in Alberta taken from the Trans Canada Highway route

Wildlife enjoy the summer months as much as the rest of us. There are even bison (and newborn calves) in Banff National park but they have been reintroduced into remote valleys. Particularly in spring, bears can often be seen – both grizzlies and black bears.

Getting there
Canada is big. If you drive from Vancouver, expect to take at least nine hours for the 850km along the Trans-Canada Highway through Kamloops and Rogers Pass. By far the easier option is to fly into Calgary from where it’s 130km and about an hour and a half to Banff.

Staying
There are a couple of large five-star hotels in the area, but fortunately there are also many more affordable hotels and lodges around. While Banff has a justified reputation for being very touristy, there’s good reason for that. It’s a very attractive town in a perfect setting – a mountain fills the end of Banff Avenue.

We stayed at Brewsters Mountain Lodge right in the heart of Banff. Our Loft Suite was more than adequate, breakfast was included and we could walk everywhere.

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Brewster's Mountain Lodge is located in the surrounded splendour of the Canadian Rocky Mountains

Lake Louise is really a ski resort in the National Park, so while there’s a range of accommodation there aren't many outside dining options.

Jasper, 300km to the north, is another real town with a lot of accommodation and restaurants but despite being near Mt Robson, the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies at 3954 metres, it doesn’t offer the mountain immediacy of Banff.

Dining
The best meal we had in Banff was at the Bison that served farmed bison in several forms as well as other Canadian dishes such as halibut and venison.

Sushi Bistro on Caribou St offered a welcome change from Alberta’s red meat obsession and the food and service was reasonable if not inspired. The nearby tiny Block Kitchen was a pleasant surprise.

For grocery shopping Nester’s Market on Bear St is good – and has the cheapest maple syrup we found in Alberta.

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Relax, unwind and enjoy the scenic landscape from the Chateau Lake Louise

Driving
The classic drive in the Canadian Rockies is from Banff to Lake Louise then heading north up the Highway 93, the Icefields Parkway.

There are many pullouts all along the Icefields Parkway and all are worthwhile. I’d fully recomment the drive and short hike to Peyto Lake – the view really is astounding. The four adjoining National and Provincial Parks here create one UNESCO World Heritage Site. The boundary between the Banff and Jasper National parks is 124km north of Lake Louise at Sunwapta pass.

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Meet some interesting characters along the road - like a Bighorn sheep!

Towards the Jasper end of the Icefields Parkway is the Athabasca Glacier, which approaches close to the roadway from the expansive Columbia Icefield. It is said that the Columbia Icefield is the largest accumulation of ice in the Northern Hemisphere south of the Arctic Circle. There’s a bustling visitor centre here with a range of otions to get onto the ice even at the peak of summer.

For wildlife viewing you need to be on the road, any road, at dawn or dusk. One of the best routes is 1A, the Bow Valley Parkway underneath Castle Mountain, between Banff and Lake Louise. We found deer, goats and sheep over several drives but our bears were grandstanding either right by the roadside on 93 or by Banff’s city limits sign.

Just a few kilometres northeast of Banff, the Tunnel Mountain Road provides great overviews of the Bow River and Hoodoos, rather like the ones near Drumheller, Alberta.

At the end of the road, cut north under the Trans Canada and proceed along the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive. The views are grand, particularly at sunset, and there’s always the chance to encountering wildlife.

Can you improve on perfection? Take the short 12km drive from Lake Louise to Moraine Lake to find out. The Valley of the Ten Peaks was featured on the old Canadian $20 bill. It’s the only place where the scenery looks better than money. This is perhaps the best place in Canada to take a hike.

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Bears, including grizzlies, can often be seen during springtime

When planning a driving trip in Alberta it’s important to refer to the Transportation Alberta site as snow clearing and summer roadworks can require dramatic route changes.

Here are a few other sites worth visiting: Canadian Rocky Mountains TourismBanff/Lake Louise Tourism Bureau; and Parks Canada.

Reaching new heights
Flying into Vancouver and driving up to Whistler one would be forgiven for thinking that “mountain scenery doesn’t get much better than this”. It does. The Rockies are an order of magnitude greater and more inpressive than the coastal ranges.

The endless vistas of the Rocky Mountains can become rather overwhelming. There is nowhere in any 360° vista that isn’t worthy of a postcard. Sometimes we simply stopped to take a lungful of pine-rich mountain air before a sigh of satisfaction for being surrounded by such magnificence. Oh Canada indeed.

Have you visited the Rockies? Share your travel story below.

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