Some National Parks you’ve likely never heard of. Congaree in South Carolina, Guadalupe Mountains in Texas, Isle Royale in Michigan, and Kobuk Valley in Alaska come to mind as lesser-known to the general public. Others, everyone seems to know, and have at least a postcard-worthy picture of in their mind’s eye. Yellowstone in Montana, Yosemite in California, Arches in Utah, and Denali in Alaska comprise a portion of the All-Star team of America’s National Parks. Just a few hours north of the border lies one of the few Parks in Canada almost universally known and beloved, and rightfully so: Banff National Park in Alberta. Banff offers fabulous hiking, skiing, camping, and resort accommodations, is situated just 90 min from Calgary, and is almost as popular in the winter months as in the summer. Even its name evokes an almost ethereal sensation (it’s the double ‘f’). If I sound like a shill for Banff’s tourism board, it is because the natural beauty and modern amenities offered within this single Park are notably remarkable. My visit was hampered a bit by two days of rain, but what little I was lucky enough to experience captured my imagination.
Day 1: Rockbound Lake (Castle Mountain, AB)
Departing Calgary was somewhat bittersweet, as I had fallen in love with the city, her landscapes, and the mindbogglingly generous hospitality of her inhabitants. After doing some overdue grocery shopping and hitting considerable rush-hour traffic on the way out of town, I arrived in the Banff area around noon. With my campsite near Lake Louise, I’d intended on embarking on a long loop hike in that area, but as I passed the ludicrously full overflow parking lot for Lake Louise on Highway 1 between Banff and Lake Louise, I swiftly reconsidered my course of action for the day. Pulling into my pre-reserved campsite (the entirety of the campground is surrounded by a low-current electric fence for bear deterrence), I set up my tent and took a few extra minutes to secure my extra rain tarp over the tent. While the tarp would not cover my two-person tent completely, it was probably the best decision I made during my entire Banff excursion.
I quickly hit the road again, backtracking 25-30 minutes south to the Rockbound Lake trailhead near Castle Mountain along Highway 1. The weather was absolutely perfect for a day-hike; 70 degrees, not a cloud in the sky, a slight breeze, and the smell of evergreen in the air. Given that Rockbound Lake was a somewhat offbeat hike, situated halfway between Banff and Lake Louise and not considered a ‘must-see’ destination in the park by many online resources I’d perused, I did not expect the parking lot to be filled (surprise – it was…). I was able to secure the last available offroad spot near the entrance to the lot (likely illegal, but about 8 other cars were doing the same thing, so I figured I’d roll the dice), and calculated the amount of time I would need to complete the 11-mile roundtrip trek. Four hours was my estimation, which proved accurate.
On the way up the trail, I soon realized why the parking lot had been so full; a Chinese tour group had made the Rockbound Lake Trail their project for the day, and between 80 and 100 hikers in their group were descending as I made my climb. Though I do my utmost to be accepting of other cultures and nationalities, one particular aspect of this group began to irk me: They all hiked on the left side of the trail. Despite my repeated efforts to stay on the right, as is the custom while hiking in North America, dozens of their group insisted on descending on the left, causing a great deal of confusion for me and the small handful of other hikers not belonging to their expedition. This minor annoyance was not sufficient to substantially affect my mood, however, and I soon found myself flanked by a towering wall of mountains after clearing the first few miles of thick pine forest. The shrill cry of a hatchling bird of prey, likely an eagle, pierced the silent forest trail every few seconds as it implored its absent parent for sustenance. At this point, I had passed the vast majority of the large hiking group, who, evidently starting much earlier in the day, had nearly completed their descent. A few miles of gradual incline are followed by a brief flat respite, and the hike is capped off by a dizzyingly steep set of switchbacks leading to the eponymous Rockbound Lake.
The water level in the lake appeared somewhat low, but this fact did not affect the enjoyment of the beautiful juxtaposition of jagged rock peaks and the serene waters reflecting a perfectly azure blue sky. Fifty yards to the left of the trail, adjacent to the lake, three male bighorn sheep grazed carelessly in a grassy field, not bothering to pay the least attention to the handful of humans lingering nearby. I spent a few minutes crouching near some rocks, watching the animals enjoy a late lunch, paused to absorb the tranquility of the almost empty lakeshore (it was nearing late afternoon), and gaily returned down the trail to my car.
Day 2: Lake Agnes to Plain of Six Glaciers Loop (Lake Louise, AB)
During my previous day’s drive past the bursting Lake Louise overflow parking lot, I made an important mental note to arrive at Lake Louise proper (no overflow lot for this intrepid traveler) early the following morning. As luck would have it, the drive from my campground was less than ten minutes, and I dragged myself out of my warm tent just in time to arrive by 7:30 a.m. In the 20-minutes it took me to pack a lunch, fill my hydration bladder, apply adequate sunscreen, plan my route on the map, and use the restroom near the parking area, the lot became nearly full by 7:50 a.m. The Lake Louise viewing area near the swanky Fairmont Chateau (I can only dream of enjoying the comforts of a hotel of this caliber) was chock-a-block full of photographers, selfie-takers, and what appeared to be members of the same group of Chinese tourists I’d encountered the previous day. I quickly snapped a few photos on my camera, wondered to myself how many of these visitors would be hitting the nearby hiking trails, and set out on my day’s quest to visit both the Lake Agnes and Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouses before the forecasted rain arrived that afternoon.
I opted for Lake Agnes first, as it involved the greatest degree of incline (which I typically like to knock out in the morning, if at all possible), and only passed four or five fellow hikers on the way up the trail. The climb to Lake Agnes Teahouse took exactly an hour from the trailhead at Lake Louise, and I found that I was neither sufficiently hungry to order food, nor sufficiently thirsty for a hot beverage (being sweaty from the steep climb) to stop and continued onward. The trail passes The Beehive, which was honestly somewhat less impressive than I was expecting, but eventually connects to the Plain of Six Glaciers trail, which makes up for this disappointment in spades.
The gorgeous glacial mountain backdrop seen from the shores of Lake Louise bursts into the foreground as soon as the trees part, and the trail begins to wind its way up toward the rocky peaks past rushing streams of snowmelt. I’d been the only hiker along the path from Lake Agnes to this point, but a score or so more arrived at the junction via the Plain of Six Glaciers trail, and we began to slog up the steep, wet gravel trail together to reach the Teahouse. This establishment was much busier than the first, and also decidedly more rustic. It is located far enough up the trail that employees spend days at a time in adjacent cabins. As I was still too hot from the hike to consider a hot beverage, I purchased a raspberry lemonade and a slice of soft, freshly baked bread to sip and munch on from the porch.
From the Teahouse, the Plain of Six Glaciers Lookout can be reached a mile or so up an even steeper, rockier passage. A number of middle-aged couples discussed and executed a plan to turn around from the Teahouse, but I would not be denied my prize of the views from the Lookout. In contrast to my experience at North Cascades National Park (see previous post), my determination paid off, and these spectacular views awaited me upon my arrival (along with about eight other adventurers).
Almost as striking as the incredible landscapes along this hike was the number of European visitors I encountered. During the entire five hours I spent on this trail, I barely heard a word of English (outside of the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse). The vast majority of hikers were speaking French, and a great many more conversed in German, Spanish, Dutch, and an Eastern European language I couldn’t identify (perhaps Romanian). On numerous occasions, I pulled over to the side of the trail to let a group of hikers pass in a narrow section and received a chorus of ‘Danke!’ instead of the expected ‘Thank you!’. After hiking behind two German women for some time, I greeted her sudden fit of sneezing with ‘Gesundheit!’ to which she smiled in somewhat sheepish bewilderment.
A sprinkling of rain chased me on the entire return journey to Lake Louise, and I arrived at my car just as the precipitation graduated from a light shower to a full-blown rainstorm. Despite the best efforts of my rain fly, the combination of the outside rain and inside respiration conspired just enough for me to endure a somewhat damp night’s sleep. Hiking Lake Louise’s gorgeous trails earlier that day more than made up for the minor discomfort caused by the rain, however, and the changing weather patterns all but guaranteed the dispersal of any remaining wildfire smoke in the area.
Day 3: Banff Upper Hot Springs & Town of Banff
“A little rain never hurt anybody…” “Yeah, but a lot will kill ya.” – Robin Williams, Jumanji
I have absolutely zero recourse to complain about the light-to-moderate rainfall I encountered over two days in Banff, just weeks after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the Texas Gulf Coast and days after Hurricane Irma laid siege to the Caribbean and south Florida. I endeavored, then, to make the most of a wet situation and take a soak at Banff Upper Hot Springs in the morning. For just about $10 US (converted from CAD, of course), you can gain admission to the Hot Springs, rent a towel, bathing suit, and locker, and make use of their locker room facilities which include a hot shower. For a vagabond camper such as myself, any opportunity to bathe must be joyously seized upon, and I enjoyed a thorough rinse both before and after the soak in the pool. The Hot Springs themselves are nothing more than a glorified hot pool, but much like a Hot Pocket can appear as a filet mignon to a starving man, so too can a hot pool appear as heaven on Earth for a cold, grimy traveler.
I didn’t mind the fact that I was the only unaccompanied bather in the pool (nearly everyone else had arrived as a couple), but my heart sank as, within minutes of my arrival, my supposedly water-resistant-to-30-meters Casio watch, a staple of my wardrobe and my daily timekeeper, filled with water and began to malfunction. I removed the now useless timepiece from my wrist and sat, sulking, for another hour until deciding to let the fifteen or so loving couples enjoy their time together without my surly mug lurking about. One young man did not seem sorry at my departure, as I believe he thought I was eyeballing his shapely blonde girlfriend (which I admittedly was, but much less so than the dozen, beer-gut-sporting, middle-aged lechers on the other side of the pool).
The remainder of the day was spent hiding out in the Banff Public Library, followed by some souvenir shopping, mostly in the form of locally distilled spirits…