The Rockies provide the common image of Canada for a lot of people – turquoise lakes, impressive peaks, glistening glaciers and thundering canyons. Around 4.5 million people visit the Rocky Mountain National parks every year – for good reason. Perhaps surprisingly, I have only been to the Rockies proper a couple of times – once on an last minute winter road trip for work, another time on the way to Edmonton and then recently again with my parents who were visiting from the UK. Every trip has been brief and left me wanting more.
Next year, all Canadian National Parks will have free entry to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. One plan we have right now is to spend two or three months in the Rockies, hiking and paddling as much as we can. For now, though, I thought I’d share some photos and thoughts from my family road trip in May.
On the road
Accessibility to the Rockies is excellent, with the two main highways travelling between major mountain ranges, passing directly next to glacial lakes and ice fields. This means that anyone can get a glimpse of the picture perfect scenery without heading into the backcountry. Mountains peek around almost every corner, somehow more picturesque than the last one. The views from the vehicle can, however, be a bit distracting for a driver, see below examples…
Up close and (sort of) personal
Just off the highway are some of the Rockies’ most iconic views, such as Lake Louise. While the views live up to their reputation, being so accessible does mean they can also be incredibly busy. Busy enough to mean that sometimes they have to shut the road due to the overwhelming amount of traffic during the busy season (late June to early September). Visiting in May was already busy enough for me, but I’ll tell you this – the vast majority of tourists do not wander further than 100m from the main viewing point closest to the car park. 200m (or more) down the path and the view is all yours.
Visiting in May was already busy enough for me, but I’ll tell you this – the vast majority of tourists do not wander further than 100m from the main viewing point closest to the car park. 200m (or more) down the path and the view is all yours.
We were very lucky with the timing of our trip in late May – usually at this time both Lake Louise and Moraine Lake would be at least partially frozen. The road to Moraine Lake does not even typically open until early June. Both lakes were completely free of ice on our visit, though the beautiful glacial blue/green colours had not come through properly yet. This generally takes a month or so after they become ice-free. We did, however, get a wonderful hint of what was to come.
The view from town
Mountain spotting doesn’t stop when the drive is over – we stayed in the small towns of Revelstoke and Radium Hot Springs which both offered excellent views of surrounding peaks. Our hotel in Radium actually upgraded us to a room with two balconies, both facing different ranges of mountains. The sunset, I can assure you, was fantastic.
Banff is a very popular stopover town for visitors to the Rockies, but I purposefully chose not to stay there. The main reason was cost – a hotel with the same amenities and space as we had in Radium would have cost three times as much. Secondly, I guessed that Banff may not be where we would want to stay. I can’t argue that it is in an absolutely stunning location but it is extremely touristy.
I was hoping beyond hope that we would see some interesting wildlife on our road trip. Thankfully all my hoping paid off, and we were rewarded with marmots, coyotes, bighorn sheep, caribou and bears. We also ran into a herd of horses on a secondary road. In total, we saw 12 bears, a mixture of black and grizzly. The latter of which I have only seen once before (running across the road in Yukon!) so I was pretty excited.
The majority of the bears were seen on Highway 93, through Kootenay National Park. This road is a lot less travelled than the other main highways through the National Parks. A small section of the highway was actually designated as ‘no stopping’ during our visit due to the amount of bear activity. We also spotted a grizzly bear with three cubs between Castlegar and Christina Lake in the Kootenays.
A summer return
As previously mentioned, our plan is to spend a good few months in the Rockies exploring the backcountry of the National Parks. Ideally, this would be during summer as then the lakes are in full colour and the snow has melted in the alpine areas. So long, Canadian Rockies, we’ll see you another time!