The Rockies Rock! (Part 1)

Trip Start May 06, 2010
Trip End Dec 17, 2010

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Where I stayed
Youth Hostel Town Centre

Flag of Canada  , Alberta,
Friday, June 18, 2010

Following on from Calgary I visited Banff which is a beautiful little town set in the foot of the Rockies.  I had three free days to myself which I used to wander around the little shops in the town and to do a bit of walking. The shops in Banff are mainly geared towards tourists but the town does not have a tacky feel to it at all.  It is in fact very charming and I could have happily stayed there for weeks. (Incidentally, they have a couple of amazing sweet shops there so if you have a sweet tooth (like me!) then they are a must visit!!!) 

On my second day I walked up to the Banff Gondola which is a cable car ride that takes you to the top of Sulphur Mountain.  The weather was however pretty miserable so rather than waste money to see clouds I returned to town in the hope that the weather the following day would be better.  On my return walk I discovered a woodland trail which went to the Banff Springs Hotel, close to the town centre, so I took that rather than the roadside path.  The walk was lovely and at one point there was a large deer resting near the edge of the path which stayed there while I took a couple of photos.  It did not seem at all bothered by my presence in the woods.  The deer at home run away whenever you get in close proximity to them so I was quite surprised by this deers behaviour but having since had a few encounters with deer here, I have learned that her behaviour was not unusual. 

The Banff Springs Hotel is a beautiful building.  It was designed by a Scottish architect and looks very similar to castles in Scotland with lots and lots of turrets.  The grounds are lovely too so if you visit Banff and are well off then it would be a lovely place to stay.  I think it costs around $220 per night so unfortunately a $30 per night hostel had to do me!

The following day the sun was shining and I took my woodland trail back to the Banff Gondola where I passed two deer who refused to move off the path, one of which posed very nicely for a couple of photos!  At the Gondola I realised that you could hike up the mountain so as firstly, I enjoy walking and secondly, it saved me a $30 cable car fee, I walked to the top which took me just over an hour and a half.  The path was very nice to walk on and just got a little steep towards the top but it is a mountain so that is to be expected!  At the top there were a group of Americans who had got the cable car up and, who being typically American, started to cheer me on to the reach the summit suggesting I might run to the finish line.  I duly obliged them, which seemed to really shock them that someone could run after walking up a mountain so I have to admit I found it quite amusing!  I hope they felt especially lazy!!

The top of Sulphur Mountain, (8,140km) lets you take in views of Banff and Lake Morraine on one side and rolling hills on the other.  There is a little weather station that you climb to which gets you to the highest peak.  On the way back I thought I would chance my luck and see if I could get on the cable car without paying!  Naughty I know, but I'm on a budget here!  I got to the car loading point when someone sprang out of a booth and I thought I had chanced my luck too far and started to reach in my bag for my purse when she just asked if I wanted a photo taken which was politely declined before I was then led into a waiting car.  BINGO- free ride down- get in there!

On reaching town I went for a walk along the Bow River to Bow Falls which was very pretty and I then returned to the hostel for a well deserved rest.

Two days later I joined a Moose Tour ( to do the 4 day Athabasca Tour which takes in Banff and Jasper National Parks.  I had the most amazing time on this tour and highly recommend it to anyone visiting this area.  Our guide, Shelly, was fantastic and her enthusiam and love for this area just bounced off the rocks and radiated into you.  You do however, not need encouragement to fall in love with the Rockies.  The sheer beauty of this part of Canada is breathtaking and I loved every second of being there.

On our first day of the tour we drove just out of Banff to visit Minnewanka Lake.  We were really lucky in that the miserable weather that had been shrouding Banff for the previous few days had subsided and we had been treated to glorious sunshine in it's place.  We could therefore see the tops of the mountains in the distance which had been impossible days before.  We had a quick briefing from our guide on the tour and got to know our fellow travellers a little bit before heading back into Banff to pick up supplies for lunch that day and breakfast the following day.  We then headed to Two Jacks Lake and then onto Lake Louise, the most famous of lakes in the Banff area.

On arrival at Lake Louise you can instantly see why it is the most photographed lake in Canada.  The water was an amazing blue green colour, unlike anything I have seen before, and the mountain backdrop makes the lake look spectacular.  The only thing that spoils Lake Louise ironically is the large amount of tourists which are there making it difficult to get a photo which doesn't have other people or tour boats crowding it!!  Shelly told us that although it is the most visited lake in Canada most people spend under 20 minutes there, simply rolling up in tour coaches, taking photos and moving on.  We however weren't doing that!  Oh no, our tour was not about being tourists but experiencing the Rockies so we hiked up a 3.5 km trail that led to two further lakes higher up in the mountain- Mirror Lake and Lake Agnes.  The trail cuts it way through a forest and is very well maintained and easy to walk on.  There are vantage points of Lake Louise dotted along the trail and the views are beautiful.  The lake seems to constantly change colour and appeared a much deeper blue green from higher up than it had done down at lake side.  We stopped for a couple of breathers along the way, the trail is quite steep!  Our first stop was Mirror Lake.  This lake is very small and is surrounded by trees and from here Lake Louise is completely obscured from view.  At Mirror Lake a young couple with a collie dog were trying to set up their camera on a timer to take a photo of themselves.  The dog was perfectly well behaved whilst his Dad rigged up the camera, posing perfectly, sat still looking into the lens but the moment his Dad moved to get into the picture himself, he got all excited and wouldn't stay still!  It was very funny to watch. He ruined many attempts by continously furiously wagging his tail and rolling on his back, 4 paws in the air!!  Shelly stepped in and took a photo for them but the dog, who obviously dotes on his Dad, kept turning to get his attention and never managed to perfect his earlier model pose! 

There is a waterfall further up the trail which allows another rest point and a photo opportunity before ascending further to Lake Agnes.  At Lake Agnes we had lunch sat on the boulders and got our first sight of wildlife.  Marmots, small furry creatures were in amongst the rocks.  They camoflauge in so well that they are difficult to spot.  They are famous for making a very shrill whistling noise when alarmed but it is quite rare to hear them do it.  We were told that after lunch we were being left to explore on our own for an hour or so and had the choice of going back down to Lake Louise or going higher to what is called the Big Beehive where we could get excellent views of Lake Louise, Mirror Lake and Lake Agnes.  We chose to climb to the top of the trail so that we could get the best possible views.  Just before we left we heard a shrill whistling sound emitting from the rocks.  We all looked to see where it had come from and then Shelly told us it was the marmot.  The couple with the dog were walking along the rocks behind us and the marmot had been alarmed by the dog, who unleashed, was sniffing around as it had caught the marmot scent.  The marmot disappeared quickly into the boulders and the dog realised that it wouldn't be able to get at it so moved on.  When we left the marmot was just resurfacing and we were able to get some nice close up photos of it.  Shelly said she had never heard the marmot call before so considering the extensive amount of time she spends in the mountains, we really had been treated to a rare event!

The hike to the Big Beehive (total hike is 5.2 km) takes you up steps and it is a bit tiring following on from the initial hike to Lake Agnes.  The colour of Lake Louise is totally different yet again and the other lakes are visible in a panaraomic view which also takes in the snow capped mountain range behind.  The views are beautiful and the climb is well worth it. Tourists who stay only 20 minutes at Lake Louise are really missing out!

Back on the bus we journeyed towards our Hostel for the night which was to be a wilderness hostel called Rampart Creek.  En route we passed Crowfoot Glacier which is vast and very beautiful.  It was covered in a thick layer of snow despite it being June and we then went on to Bow Lake nestled in Bow Glacier before heading to our last stop of the day Mistaya Canyon.

A sign at the entrance to the Canyon informs you that the Mistaya river rises in Peyto Lake where it leaves a flat bottomed valley before plunging into Mistaya Canyon.  As you go down the trail towards the canyon you can start to hear the noise of rushing, rumbling water and then you catch your first glimpse of water torrenting between rocks.  The sound is amazing and the speed and force of the water is incredible.  The rocks which line the canyon are are scarred with deep ridges, a result of many years of water erosion and are in themselves a sight to see. There is an amazing array of different shaped rocks all telling their own story of the movement of the water.  At the bottom of the canyon the water flattens out into a river bordered with lush green trees and in the distance, snow capped mountains are framed in the backdrop. The site is a beautiful spot to take some time to sit and enjoy being with nature.   

After visiting the Canyon we travelled to the hostel, Rampart Creek. As it is a wilderness hostel it uses a massive solar grid to gain power and there is no mains water.  The toilets are located down a path outside the main buildings.  It is a proper toilet but it sits over what is basically a very deep hole in the ground.  There is no flushing and you use sanitiser to wash your hands after use.  These types of toilets are the norm in the rockies and after a couple of visits you get used to them and it is actually a surprise to see a flush when you get back to the urban areas.  The main concern for a lot of my fellow travel companions was that outside meant bear territory so nobody was keen to need the loo in the middle of the night!  Bears have been on the site but it is quite rare and there are sensible precautions that people must take so not to encourage the bears to pay a visit.  Those are no food or drink outside, no rubbish outside and no toothpaste outside either!  Bears like the taste of it apparently!! 

We actually caught our first sighting of a brown bear earlier that day.  He was crossing the road we were driving along so we obviously stopped a safe distance from him until he had completely crossed.  Unfortunately for me I was sitting right at the back of the van so I couldn't get a decent photo of him.  By the time we drew alongside him he was in the vegetation at the side of the road so all I could get was a bit of a bear image but not a very good one!!  It was just amazing to see him though.  You go on these tours hoping to see bears so to see one on your first day was "awesome" as they like to say in these parts!! 

Shelly had also told us what you were supposed to do if you were faced with a bear in the wild!  If it's a grizzly you play dead and stay as still as possible for as long as you can.  They will check if you're dead by pawing at you and rolling you around a bit but if you are able to not react then you'll be OK.  Big IF!  They also stay in the vicnity and come back to check the spot you "died" in to see that you're still there some time after they first come across you.   You have to play dead for many hours in some cases until you are absolutely sure that the bear has moved on.  Shelly told us one guy had to wait over 24 hours!  If it's a brown bear then you do the opposite and be very alive!  You have to make loads of noise and wave your arms about and try and make yourself appear as big as possible so they back off.  For either species you don't run, you don't go in water and you don't climb trees as they will outrun, outswim and outclimb you every time.  Some tourists wear bear bells which you affix to your back pack.  The noise is supposed to scare the bear away but locals actually call them dinner bells as they say they let the bear know where you are and to a bear humans mean a potential food source.  (Not necessarily that the bear wants to eat the human but they know that humans carry food so they will investigate to see if they can get anything to eat- a bear picnic!)  The bins in this area of Canada are all bear proof.  To open the lid you have to insert your hand up inside a channel and push a latch.  If they were normal bins the bears would be in them in seconds and would be hanging around them all the time waiting for their next meal!

Tourists have their part to play in ensuring that bears stay in their territory and do not invade human areas but unfortunately many tourists do not see their role and behave in ways to actively encourage the bears to seek out human habitats.  Many tourists get out of their cars when they see a bear on the road so they can get a better picture and are therefore allowing bears to be comfortable with human proximity.  Some tourists have been seen, unbelievably, giving their children food to give to the bear and placing their kids on the road to get a photo of them with the bear!  One of the guides saw a mother put her toddler on the road inbetween a mother bear and it's cub at which point he lost it with her and told her exactly how stupid she was and I can't blame him. How irresponsible is that?!   I'm sure they wouldn't leave their kid with a Rottweiler but a bear- no worries!

Because of behaviour like this bears just see humans pointing a camera at them and driving off which is not very scary for them so they are getting the message that humans are no threat.  Humans giving them food when they stop at the roadside, tells the bears that humans are linked with food and therefore encourages them to investigate human areas.  Whilst these tourists think that seeing a bear up close is great and feeding it is fun and they might have fantastic photos of one, they are not seeing the bigger picture.  A bear that gets too close to humans is a dead bear.  Any bear that invades human territories will be shot as a safety precaution.  It's grossly unfair that our species is responsible for this. The bear is only following natural instincts, as a supposedly superior species, humans should know better.  I'll take my blurred image any day if it means these fantastic animals will still be in the rockies 100 years from now for other people to enjoy.

Getting back to the hostel, Rampart Creek, it is so named as there is a creek running behind it sourced from water running down the snowy mountain above!  We dipped our toes in the water and it was freezing!!  The surrounding area is very quiet and peaceful and very pretty.  When you first find out that you're at a hostel like this and you're not going to able to have a shower, you're not enthused but when you actually get to these places you really don't care!  The surroundings make you forget about everything else. They have a sauna there and a camp fire so that's more than you get in most hostels.  I really enjoyed the stay and fully believing that bears visiting the sight would be very rare indeed, I did do a midnight toilet run... and survived!!
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