The Canadian Rockies have been looming on our horizon for a while, and it takes at LONG while to get there.
Where the the northern boundary lies is vague. The general range continues pretty far north with expanses of rolling forested hills spreading the rocky peaks further apart the farther you go.
We will start at Liard Hot Spring. It’s far north – just barely over the Yukon border into British Columbia. I reserved a campsite in advance and was pleased to find it ready and waiting though the campground was full. Of course we rolled in late in the evening; dinner time. But, who has time for that when a cool playground and hot springs are waiting. We each grabbed an apple, our swimsuits, and a towel. The kids loved the playground. It seemed new and had a lot of fun nature theming. I convinced them to abandon it after about a half hour and we walked the 1km to the springs.
There is a nice boardwalk most of the way and changing rooms at the spring. It is built up enough to make it user friendly but not so much that the natural ambiance is gone. The hot water spills over a small mineral terrace into a large pool. Only one long side has been built up to make a solid edge with stadium seats / stairs leading into the pool. There is a nicely done little spillway emptying into a more natural pool that is cooler as cold springs join the hot water from below. This pool is dammed by some logs and backs up a secondary creek for a bit.
We spent most of our time in the natural warm pool – the nearer we got to the mineral terrace the hotter the water (obviously). The kids loved it that it was deep enough to swim, and there were a few logs floating around to hang on. They also loved exploring down the creek. The colder the water got and narrower the banks, the more mysterious and exciting it all became.
In the morning we slept in and pushed our 11am checkout time. I refilled our water and parked at the public parking so we could swim some more. The kids never tired of swimming in the hot spring, but a thunderstorm pushed us out so we got on the road.
We quickly found ourselves in the mountains near Muncho Lake. There wer beautiful rocky peaks to drive over, pretty alpine fields full of wild flowers, and the brightest blue lakes. The scenery was only usurped by the wildlife! There were bison all over the place, and more bears, and mountain goats. The crazy mountain goats! These guy wouldn’t get off the road. Twice we came upon a pack of 10 or so goats and their little ewes, but the pesky things wouldn’t budge. They were licking something, perhaps minerals, off the side of the road. I had to beep and nearly run them over before they begrudged me enough space to go around.
Following the pretty mountains was a vast expanse of suck. A huge, and I mean ginormous, area of pine forest. Of course it’s beautiful in its own way; it’s natural and large and apparently full of oil as I passed a few oil camps. But, for a driver it is just blah. Trees alone the highway as far as you can see – like a long hallway for 2 days. Only rarely did we come to a view to see trees on slightly rolling big hills as far as the eye could see. I could only think of the original pioneers – the east coast log cabinners who braved the area over the Appilachian mountains and described it as a never ending dark forest. It still exists up here between Foet Nelson and the end of the Alaska-Canada (AlCan) highway in Dawson Creek. I’m sooooo glad I didn’t start that direction (westward) or I would’ve lost my mind on day 2.
I woke early and drove into Dawson Creek in time for downtown to open. This day was Zoe’s birthday! We had some cake and gifts I was hiding in our microwave, but I also let her choose something at the local toy store. She picked these super cool glittery tattoos you paint on yourself.
So, Jasper is a town and a National Park. So is Banff. They are synonymous – the town and the park. It feels like a more European way to do a park. Hike a bit, get a drink in town, bike a while, shop in the evening. You aren’t limited to park concessions like a US park. It’s cute. There is backcountry, too, for those seeking a wilder experience. I’m not sure I have an opinion on which method is ‘better’; differences are good. Crowds are flocking to national parks these days, so obviously people are craving the outdoors.
You can’t really get to Jasper town without paying to get into the park, or this year, by ordering your free Canada Parks Pass. It’s the 150 year anniversary of the Canadian parks, so passes are free – you can order them on the website, and it’s delivered to your house (even USA addresses). I was waved right through the entrance gate by pointing to mine hanging from the rear view mirror.
I booked us ahead at the Whistlers campground, but needn’t have. There was plenty of availability for camping at both here and in Banff for those who don’t need any kind of hookups. Whistlers was perfect for us. There are elk grazing in the grassy places near the large playground and shower house. The sites were spread nicely, and if you want a fire you purchase an $8.80 permit which includes all the wood you need. We got one that first night and Avi setup the fire! We roasted marshmallows. The kids had fun just running around the camp and playing while I washed our filthy (top o’ world dirt) bikes as best I could.
The next day we biked some of Jasper’s nice trails along the river and into town. The town is great. Cute, not overly matchup, livable. Low key. There were a few bus tourists, and a ton of RVs in the lot, but people were spread nicely. It sits prettily at the base of a huge mountain to the north; its full of hiking and mountain biking trails. To the south, other ranges rise and begin the upward journey toward the icefields. It’s a nice blend of forest covered and rocky peaks. In town we found two great little grocery stores, plus lots of dining and shops along two parallel streets about 5 blocks long. That’s it. The visitor center sits near one end and has a wonderful grassy park at the front facing the train station. We had a picnic lunch here. Mommy tapas- cheese, crackers, carrots, and some delicious BC cherries.
It was lovely and as I was packing up the kids climbed a short tree. Like, super short. Earlier in the day Avi was a good 25 ft up into a huge pine tree at the campground – a massive tree like the three that graced the front corner of my grandparents house. Anyway, the one in the park was short, like shoulder height branches, and both kids are very capable tree climbers so I was mostly paying attention to packing up our lunch when Avi fell out. Badly.
The story I got later was that he was swinging out on the branch and just slipped – it happens. He landed hard on his back, knocked the air out, and really clunked his head from the back and then, somehow that is vague, also flipped forward to clink his forehead. I let him lie a bit ill we knew naught was broken. I had the med kit and got him some arnica for bruises and breath easy oils for gathering his breath, which really helped him clarify. It was quite the bang up, so we healed up, waited, and he had an ibuprofen.
Nixing our afternoon hike was obvious, but biking back ‘home’ 5k to the campground first seemed daunting. He eventually felt well enough to walk the bikes, and then slowly wanted to ride, so by the time we were back he seemed normalized, though I didn’t let him climb anything the rest of the day.
The campground did have a fun trail with obstacles that we enjoyed together, and the elk near the playground were so bold as to come munch right out front of the boys bathroom. It shocked Avi pretty good.
After a couple nights in Jasper we drove the Icefields parkway southward to Banff. It was cloudy this day, unfortunately, but still beautiful. We stopped for a couple short hikes to waterfall canyons and some view points but our goal was the glaciers.
At the huge Columbia glacier I insisted that, despite the cold drizzle and strong wind, we would hike the trail to the toe. No complaints from the kids on that one; it was that cool! Such a massive glacier field and wild rocky desolate surroundings. It was thought provoking to see signs along the way marking the glacial extent in years past – quite receded this one is.
We went to the Icefields Center expecting a visitor center or museum and learning experience, but were quite disappointed to see it’s mostly a hotel/restaurant/commercial center that feels like a train station with people crowding along for bus tours and skywalk tickets. There was a national parks counter for questions and an artistically done, yet not educational, video, but it’s not worth the stop.
We picked up a hitchhiker named Julia; a nanny from France taking time off from her family in Kelowna. She was fun to have along for a couple hours, and even joined us hiking down to a cool water cut canyon. We parted ways in Banff.
Oh, Banff. This place is gorgeous. It’s certainly more upscale than Jasper was, more matchy-matchy log facades. It’s more sizeable, too with lots more hotels and tourist buses. The surroundings are amazing, though, and mostly make up for the crowds. It sits in a low point along a wide river with three or four rocky peaks all around and always visible.
We splurged on dinner at a vegan restaurant called Nourish. It was delish. We walked around town, and the kids got some fancy popcorn, then we drove a few miles out to our campsite in Two Jacks campground, which sits at the base of a huge exposed rock mountain. I was glad to have booked ahead for the piece of mind, but it wasn’t necessary. We had a fire and marshmallows and slept like babies in the cool forest air. Banff has some great access to towns and trails via public buses and bike trails, too.
Our second day in Banff, we attempted some hikes. The first one was closed for construction. The second was closed for crowds! We couldn’t even get in the parking lot. So, we went back to Two Jacks lake and spent the day playing in the water. It wasn’t what I had in mind, but the kids had a blast and we really enjoyed ourselves. They found a little island just out from the shore, waded out and claimed it as their own. They settled on naming it Wapiti Island – and just after that declaration a real wapiti (elk) bugled for us! It was confirmation and the perfect end to a day in the Rockies.
From here we head eastward where the mountains quickly drop away into rolling grasslands. I cannot overstate the beauty and expansiveness we’ve experienced driving south along this spine of the continent.