Banff National Park, Canada

We got to Banff by driving up the west side of Glacier National Park, through the Canadian border, and up through Kootenay National Park in Canada. The highway that runs through Banff National Park is called the Trans-Canada Highway, or AB-1 (the “AB” is short for Alberta, the province).

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Driving through Banff National Park on AB-1

We stopped for dinner at the Juniper Bistro just outside of the town of Banff, which is located in the east-central part of the national park. The cafe is inside the Juniper Hotel, and has excellent views of the park thanks to a whole wall of windows. I’d say the food deserves the hype; my crispy duck was delicious. Plus our waiter was really helpful in telling us how to locate the climb Matt and I planned on doing while we were visiting the park, a multi-pitch sport 5.7 called Aftonroe.

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Another drive-by photo from AB-1

We stayed at the Grande Rockies Resort in Canmore, a town just outside Banff National Park on its eastern side. This place had a mean waterslide, and a very nice hot tub to boot.

The next morning, Matt and I awoke early to eat breakfast before our climb. In doing some additional research the night before, Matt had learned that the portion of the road you drive to get to the approach trail to the climb, Bow Valley Parkway or AB-1A southeast of Johnston Canyon Campground, is closed from 8PM to 8AM every day to protect wildlife. This meant we didn’t have to wake up super early since we couldn’t get to the approach trail until 8AM anyway.

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The view from the hike up to our climb, with Bow River in the foreground

We drove toward Banff, then got on AB-1A just north of town, and parked at a small pulloff to the left after driving about 8-10 minutes on AB-1A. A little overlook of Bow River was to the left of the pulloff. The approach trail started on the right side of the road, eventually crossing underneath some powerlines. It was a short hike (maybe 20-25 minutes), but very steep. We joked that Canadians must not approve of switchbacks. Already the view from the hike was pretty incredible.

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Matt on the hike up to Aftonroe

The last five minutes or so of the approach were filled with scrambling up scree. Finding the route was fairly easy since it’s the rightmost one on the wall. The rock in this part of the park is a very featured limestone, though in other areas it transitions to granite.

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One of the middle pitches of Aftonroe- slabby, heavily-featured limestone

The skies were mostly cloudy that morning, which didn’t bother us at all since that meant we didn’t have to constantly reapply sunscreen. We were the first climbers on the route, but three other parties began climbing after us. Aftonroe is popular for its scenery, accessibility, and easy climbing.

The rappels down were a little annoying; they took us almost as long as climbing up. Once when I pulled the rope, it coiled itself around a tree. Matt had to climb out to fetch it. Constantly pulling the rope also knocked off some loose pebbles, which tumbled past us and the other climbers to the ground, sometimes bouncing off our helmets on the way down.

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Spectacular views the whole way up!

At one point Matt had begun to rappel down another pitch while I was still at the anchor, and I saw what I thought was a large hawk coasting towards us. As it approached, I could just make out its white head and bold yellow beak. I shouted to Matt, “Look! Turn around! It’s a- a bald eagle!” We watched in awe as it soared past on some invisible current. Even from 40-ish feet away we could tell this eagle’s wingspan was enormous. It rested in a faraway pine for a minute or so, and then flew back past us, this time overhead, and then out of sight.

Afterwards I joked that this bald eagle probably didn’t understand its prominence in the country just south of its homeland. Do Canadian bald eagles have egos?

Eventually we rappelled all the way back to the ground, hiked to the parking area, and waited for Matt’s folks to pick us up. We got a late lunch in Banff at a little Cajun restaurant called Tooloulou’s, where Matt had the best catfish sandwich of his life, and John tried his first sazerac since the legal drinking age in Canada is only 18.

The next day we checked out of our hotel in Canmore and drove all the way to Lake Louise, which is on the west side of Banff National Park, west of the town of Banff. Lake Louise itself is an icy blue color thanks to the glacial silt in the water.

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Lake Louise & looming snowy clouds

From the lake, you could see the downhill ski runs in the trees above the Fairmont Chateau, a huge and fancy hotel on Lake Louise’s shore.

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John and Matt on the trail with Lake Louise, the chateau, and the ski area in the background

I planned for us to do the Plain of Six Glaciers hike, which begins on the paved trail that wraps around the shoreline of Lake Louise just in front of the Fairmont Chateau. We parked in a public lot and followed the flow of tourists to the lake. There were many signs for cross-country ski trails, which we saw before the signs and maps for hiking trails.

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Matt’s family on the trail before it splits off from Lake Louise

The Plain of Six Glaciers trail takes you up to the aptly-named Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, which was built in the 1920’s by Swiss mountaineers who had been hired by Canada’s Great Western Railway to guide tourists on expeditions through the Canadian Rockies.

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Matt in front of the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse

The Teahouse, surrounded by pine forest, doesn’t have any electricity or running water, so their supplies are flown in once or twice a season by helicopter. You can sit in their unlit rooms or out on the porch and order tea and biscuits, like we did, as well as other fare like soups and cakes.

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Inside the teahouse

They accept both Canadian and US dollars (there is a $2 fee for using a credit card since they have to manually write down your information, then run it once they’re back down at Lake Louise at the end of the day), so I paid with US dollars and received Canadian change.

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Our tea!

The well-marked and highly traveled though fairly rocky trail up to the teahouse is 4.3km long, with pretty steady elevation gain after the trail parts from the shoreline of Lake Louise. Horses are also allowed on the trail, though the horse trail splits off from the hikers’ trail a few times as the hikers’ trail narrows up against several steep rock walls, which can get slippery from snow-melt and rain. For the best views, or so we were told, you can continue an additional 1km to talus fields from which you can see Abbott Pass, in addition to those famous six glaciers.

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Socked in & snowy

Unfortunately for us, the weather hadn’t exactly been friendly that morning, and it began raining, then snowing as we finished our tea at the teahouse. The snow and clouds made it impossible to see any one of the six glaciers, but just through the fog we could get a sense for how massive the mountains around us really were.

A couple times on our way up we heard very loud, booming, echoing crashing sounds from the peaks to our left and in front of us. We could tell that the first one was an avalanche, with that telltale sound of cracking compressed snow, but the second one sounded more like thunder. After speaking with the waitress at the teahouse, she assured us there were almost never thunderstorms in that area of the Canadian Rockies, so it was definitely another avalanche. Because of where the trail travels, hikers are protected from avalanches, at least according to posted signs, from May to October each year.

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Matt’s parents and Matt hiking back down

The whole of the Plain of Six Glaciers hike, from the trailhead to the overlook and back, adds up to 10.6km with 365m of elevation gain, or just over 6.5 miles with just under 1200 feet of elevation gain. Next to the teahouse is a pit toilet and several benches and informational signs, so it’s a very well-developed area.

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John taking in the foggy view in front of the teahouse

After our hike, we drove to nearby Moraine Lake, which is south of Lake Louise by way of Moraine Lake Road. I had heard excellent things about Moraine Lake, so I wanted to make sure we stopped there quickly before leaving the park.

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Part of the view from Moraine Lake. See that icy chunk thing on the left? That’s a GLACIER!

The parking lot again was near the shoreline of the lake. There was also a restaurant, gift shop, and lodge all at the lake, so it was a pretty busy area. We didn’t have time to do any of the trails here, but we got out to take some spectacular photos, SAW A GLACIER (finally, right?), and bought some chocolate and matching t-shirts at the gift shop.

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Moraine Lake

Matt and I wore our Moraine Lake t-shirts (as well as our matching Deuter backpacks) to the airport the next day- it was adorable. We also think the t-shirts are kind of funny because they prominently say “ELEVATION: 6,183 FT.” which is actually more than 1,000 feet lower than where we live in Laramie.

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Matt at Moraine Lake

We had dinner in Banff on our way out of the park at a little restaurant next door to Tooloulou’s called Coyotes Southwestern Grill, and it too was delicious. I had sweet potato polenta with ratatouille, John had a thin-crust pizza, and Matt ordered the most tender of all beef tenderloins with fresh chimichurri sauce- yum!

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Crazy cloud formations in Banff

That night we drove back to Calgary, had some more doughnuts at Tim Horton’s, a Canadian institution, and went back to the hotel at which we’d previously stayed. Matt and I woke up super early (like before 4AM) the next morning to catch our flights, both of which ended up being delayed by more than two hours, but we eventually made it to Denver, and then back to Laramie.

Final thoughts: it is my destiny to open a teahouse somewhere. I’m open to location suggestions. Banff is one of the most beautiful places to which I have ever been and I can still hardly believe that it exists on this earth. If you even remotely feel an affinity for mountains, GO. NOW, before all the glaciers melt. Bring some warm jackets though, and maybe gloves. The next time we go, Matt and I would like to spend some more time climbing (no surprise there), maybe at Lake Louise.

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Majestic Banff

Love to all! Until the next adventure…

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A Brief Stay in Glacier National Park

Last week Matt, his family, and I flew into Calgary, Alberta (Canada), drove down to Glacier National Park in Montana, and then drove back to Calgary via Banff National Park (also Canada) on one big tour of some of the west’s most picturesque snowy peaks. We only had a week to see these two beautiful places, so I tried to select some of the best hikes, climbs, and overlooks.

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Driving into the park

First major thing to note- this is still early season for Glacier National Park. The only road that runs through the whole park, Going to the Sun Road (an amazing name as well as one of the world’s most amazing drives, apparently), was not even completely open yet. We drove as far as we could on the park’s east side, to the Jackson Glacier overlook, which was still quite snowy.

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Jackson Glacier, hiding under some snowpack

Thankfully the hike I had chosen beforehand, the Sun Point Nature Trail, was still accessible. We parked along the narrow Going to the Sun Road, grabbed the bear spray, and began the relatively flat, easy hike, which approached three waterfalls and hugs the edge of St. Mary Lake.

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Matt next to St. Mary Lake

The trail gets a little rocky at times, though it’s also very well-maintained. Each fork is marked with easy-to-read signs. Many of the charred pine trunks surrounding the first part of the trail are what remains of last year’s huge forest fire.

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Wildflowers + dead pines

Though much of Glacier had yet to be opened, June is prime time for waterfall-chasing because of the increased levels of snow- and ice-melt. Montana’s rivers and lakes are all about as high as they get year-round, which made the waterfalls audible from even significant distances.

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St. Mary Falls

Most of the wildflowers were just beginning to bloom- beargrass, Indian paintbrush, columbine. Everything beneath the trees was superbly green.

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Matt’s mom walking through wildflowers

Our trip on the Sun Point Nature Trail culminated in that trail’s highest waterfall, Virginia Falls. Standing near the nadir supplied us with a continuous spray and breeze.

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Virginia Falls

Though our hike had thus far been interrupted by occasional rainfall, after turning back towards the rental car, the weather escalated to thunder and lightning. Since the Sun Point Nature Trail is located between St. Mary Lake and Going to the Sun Road, there are multiple places where hikers can start on the trail. Matt’s family took one of these sooner exits back to the road while Matt and I jogged back through the more exposed parts of the hike to get to the car.

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Matt on the Sun Point Nature Trail just below Virginia Falls

That afternoon we drove around the park (since we couldn’t drive through it) to get to West Glacier and Apgar Village, where we were staying that night, at the edge of Lake McDonald. It rained during most of the drive. We ate at a typical little national park restaurant in West Glacier, then checked into the hotel and sat slackjawed at the edge of the lake.

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Lake McDonald

The Apgar Village area of Lake McDonald is enveloped in tall cedars. The lake is perfectly clear, then turns to a deep blue the further out one goes on its surface.

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Cedars over Lake McDonald

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast at the nearby diner, Eddie’s (whose confidence-instilling motto was, “Almost Everyone Eats at Eddie’s”), Matt’s parents rented a 2-person kayak, Matt’s younger brother John a single kayak, and Matt and I a canoe. The morning began sunny and promising. We circled the west side of the lake, hoping to see some bald eagles. The boat company told us a small part of the lake was closed off by three white buoys on that side due to the eagles’ nests.

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Matt’s parents in their kayak

Most of the trees along the lake were aspen or pine.

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Matt paddling with excellent form & technique

We didn’t see any eagles, but we could make out their nests in the treetops. Matt’s parents decided to turn back, and we remaining three made our way out toward the center of Lake McDonald. The further toward the center we went (why is this reminding me of Heart of Darkness?) the less forgiving the previously glassy surface of the water became. The wind picked up, and gray clouds rolled over the southern mountaintops. We tried to pick up our paddling pace, but the canoe wasn’t having it. John’s kayak, on the other hand, crested smoothly over each wave. I shouted over the sound of the wind from the back of the canoe in a threatening tone, “Matt! Morale is low!”

Once we reached the east side of the lake and found a relatively sandy spot, I requested some shore leave. As Matt stood up out of the canoe to tug it to shore, the rocking of the canoe combined with some unlucky wave soaked his already damp pants. I, in search of a cheap morale boost, laughed. We took some photos. John stayed in his wave-worthy kayak and paddled in front of us, back and forth, easily.

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John making it look so easy

We eventually made it back to the dock, reuniting with Matt’s parents. Shortly after we stood back on dry land, it began to rain those moody, fat raindrops the mountains sometimes like to sputter.

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The boat rental shop on Lake McDonald

I spent the cloudy but dry afternoon sitting in front of the hotel room at the edge of Lake McDonald, still flabbergasted by the view, drinking a beer and reading. Yay vacation!

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Are you tired of photos of this lake yet?

For dinner we drove 45 minutes to the small but charming town of Whitefish, Montana, which is located outside the park. Two of our Laramie friends, Ruthanne and Ryan, who are also originally from North Carolina, recently moved to Whitefish, so we met up for beers at The Great Northern Brewing Company, their local brewery, and Cuban fare at Mama Blanca’s. The carne asada fries were a highlight.

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Inside The Great Northern Brewing Company, L to R: Matt, Ryan, Ruthanne, and me

That night, Matt and I adventurously had drinks at the West Glacier Bar, where we tried mostly unsuccessfully to chat up all the seasonal employees- raft guides, park rangers- folks our age but slightly grubbier and more tan. The atmosphere was tinged with awkwardness; it’s so early in the season there that all the workers are still getting to know one another too. We got some hiking recommendations, commiserated about the pouring rain, and eventually turned in for the night.

The next morning we slept in while Matt’s parents rented bikes and rode some of the nearby gravel bike trails. We again had breakfast at Eddie’s, I purchased some pinecone earrings, and we hopped back in the rental car for the long drive up through the Canadian border to Banff National Park.

On our next trip to Glacier (because there will be another), I’d like to go sometime later in the season, maybe August, and backpack through the park. One friendly park employee at the bar told us the best camping was in the center of the park, away from roads and RV’s and noise. One thing is for sure- wherever I go in Glacier National Park, I’ll be sure to bring bear spray!

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Stay tuned for my next post to learn what we did in Banff.

Love to all!