Our Rocky Mountain Road Trip did’t start out with a bang.
Sixteen hours on a Greyhound is not anyone’s idea of fun, certainly not ours. I think the fact that they made us change buses and wait around for an hour at midnight was what made it even less fun than we expected it to be. Watching the sun rise slowly, lighting up the snow-capped mountains, made it more bearable.
We got into Calgary at 10am and headed straight to Cora’s for breakfast. The first time we visited Calgary back in 2010, we were taken to Cora’s by our Host and we were treated to the best breakfasts we had ever eaten.
After a visit to Cora’s in Toronto back in June, we were disappointed that the quality wasn’t as good as our first visit but we decided to give it another go. It was pretty darn amazing and just what we needed after that long, loooong bus trip. Unlimited coffee refills too which we DEFINITELY needed!
After picking up our rental car and some quick stops to get food and a propane canister for our camping stove, we hit the road to drive to our first stop: Waterton Lakes National Park.
Starting our Rocky Mountain Road Trip
Waterton Lakes is part of an International Peace Park that encompasses Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada and Glacier National Park in Montana, USA. It is a three hour drive from Calgary which we were recommended by a friend to drive on a smaller highway, rather than the busy and generic main highway.
We drove through flat prairie land, past ranches in the heart of Canada’s cowboy country. Gradually we started to see the mountains rising out from the flat land in the distance. After driving for three hours, finally we started climbing, surrounded by sheer rock faces. As we entered the park it started raining heavily but luckily it didn’t last for long.
The Waterton Lakes townsite has a spectacular setting, nestled on the rocky shoreline of Upper Waterton lake and surrounded by massive mountains. We walked around the tiny downtown and to Cameron Falls, a small but beautiful cascade nearby.
The camping ground located in the townsite was full so we drove a few kilometres out of the park and found a nice camping ground that was reasonably priced. As we were cooking dinner there was a short rain shower followed by a bright pink sky and numerous rainbows, even a double rainbow. We somehow managed to keep our emotions in check, unlike some people http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQSNhk5ICTI.
Someone spotted a massive bear over the fence in the National Park. The fence was fairly flimsy (to a massive bear anyway) so I didn’t sleep well that first night. Every noise I heard was potentially the bear coming to eat us.
The next day we completed a gorgeous but challenging hike up to Crypt Lake, you can read more about that here.
We only had a short time in beautiful Waterton Lakes National Park but we loved it. It didn’t feel crowded like Banff or Jasper National Parks (which we visited back in 2010) but it easily rivalled their beauty. I’m not sure why it doesn’t get the same numbers of visitors but I hope it stays like that. The wide open spaces and unhurried pace is what makes it so special.
The next stop on our road trip was across the border in Montana. Glacier National Park is consistently rated as one of the top National Parks in the States and I have wanted to visit it for ages. Luckily because the border crossing was a small one, the TSA were a lot more relaxed and it we got through within five minutes, a completely different experience than our last crossing into Detroit.
The Park Café near the St Mary entrance to the Park is known for its amazing pie so that was where we headed first (of course). After fueling up on some incredible Coconut cream pie and Boysenberry pie, we drove the famous Going to the Sun road across the Park. It is a spectacular drive and one of the best in the US according to a lot of polls. We passed by shimmering lakes lying at the foot of snow covered mountains. Waterfalls dropped into deep glacial valleys and wild flowers were abundant on the high alpine meadows.
At the highest point of the road, Logan Pass, there is a very popular Visitor Centre with numerous short hikes departing from there. We did the Hidden Lake Overlook hike which was only 5km return but very worthwhile. There were lots of ground squirrels, marmots and chipmunks along the way and we saw some white, hairy mountain goats in the distance.
Once we got to the viewpoint for the hidden lake it was lunch time so we sat and admired the lake view while eating. A few cheeky ground squirrels tried to join us and got VERY close but they were outta luck as I don’t believe in feeding the wildlife.
Our friend Austin who we travelled with in Peru and Bolivia lives in Whitefish, Montana which is just outside the western boundary of Glacier. Whitefish is a cool little town with Wild West style wooden storefronts and a tidy main street. We went for a wander then headed down to the lake, where half the town was sunbathing and swimming, before driving to Austin’s place. Austin and his housemates (all guides for a cycling tour company) put on an amazing gourmet BBQ for us, complimented with some local Wild Huckleberry beer. Great evening and we even got to spend the night in a couple of spare beds at their place – luxury!
Back into the Park the next day, we drove over to Many Glacier in the North East of the Park which was going to be our base for the next two nights. We stopped along the way in Apgar Village which is tiny, comprising a couple of log cabins selling souvenirs, a Motel and a Visitor Centre. It is situated on the lovely Lake McDonald, one of many pristine lakes in the park.
The grand Many Glacier Hotel is one of the great ‘Parkitecture’ Hotels famous in the US National Parks. This style is also known as ‘National Park Service Rustic’ and its intention is to create buildings that harmonize with the natural environment. The Hotel has a great balcony with Adirondack chairs where you can relax after a hard days hiking, watching the sun set behind the mountains while sipping a hot chocolate. We did exactly that after our 16km return hike to Iceberg Lake.
Iceberg Lake is one of the beautiful crystalline blue lakes in Glacier National Park with the added bonus of actually having icebergs floating in it. The hike was fantastic and pretty easy going. We hiked along a ridge line then through the forest, stopping for lunch at a waterfall, before emerging to the breath taking sight of the lake. There were a lot of moose along the way including a mother and baby.
We picked lots of wild huckleberries and salmonberries on the trail. Huckleberries grow locally and no one has managed to domesticate them so you can only find them in a certain areas of the USA and Canada. They are very similar in look and taste to blueberries. Delicious.
Our last day in the park we did an epic 19km hike called the Highline trail. It started at Logan Pass and traversed a thin trail above a stunning valley replete with waterfalls and small glaciers, before switch-backing up to a butte where we had lunch.
We met an older couple on the trail that had hiked to the butte and were on their way back. Apparently a Grizzly had been on the trail about an hour earlier. We didn’t see any sign of it when we were hiking up the switchbacks – we weren’t sure if we were relieved or disappointed.
After 12km we got to the Granite Park wilderness Chalet. Pretty shattered, we relaxed for a bit with cold drinks before hiking another 7km to get down to the road where a free shuttle would take us back to Logan Pass.
The hike down was roasting as a forest fire had burnt a lot of the trees the previous year so there wasn’t much shelter. After the amazing views of the first part of the hike, it was a bit boring with not much to look at except bare trees.
Until we saw the bear.
It crossed the trail about 20 metres in front of us and stopped us dead in our tracks. Mr Bear walked down to a small tree with berries and started feasting. He looked up at us but didn’t seem bothered by our presence. After watching him, spellbound for a while, we continued the hot trek down.
Luckily we didn’t have to wait long for the shuttle at the bottom. We drove back to Many Glacier Hotel to relax in their elaborate lounge before retiring to our little tent for the night.
We bid a fond farewell to the truly spectacular Glacier National Park the next morning. It is definitely in my top 5 US National Parks!
But it was time for our Rocky Mountain Road Trip to continue.
Our good luck with the weather changed when we left the US. Canada welcomed us back with a grey, cloudy embrace. Driving over the Crowsnest Pass, we left the plains of cowboy country and were back in beautiful BC.
Our first stop in BC was Fernie, a small community in the BC Rockies with a historic downtown core and a strong arts scene. We visited the Arts Co-op and I was really impressed by the quality of art displayed there.
We also went to a small museum with information about the town’s history. It was really interesting and you can see how proud the locals are of their little piece of paradise in the mountains; the community spirit is strong in this place. I really liked the feel of the town and could see myself coming back to stay a while and explore the surrounding area.
Radium Hot Springs was not much further on from Fernie so we stopped there for a soak in the thermal hot springs. There is nothing like swimming in hot pools. Growing up in New Zealand, I took it for granted as there were hot pools everywhere, but I definitely don’t anymore. Feeling relaxed, we drove another hour and found a quiet campground to spend the night before driving to Golden the next morning.
Golden is another cute little community known for its wooden pedestrian bridge (the longest freestanding timber frame bridge in Canada!) that they are very proud of. As the weather hadn’t improved, we spent the morning in the local coffee shop/book store catching up on our emails. Yoho National Park was the next stop on our road trip.
We set up camp at a basic camping ground in the park for two nights and spent the afternoon visiting the main attractions.
Takakkaw Falls is an iconic waterfall located inside the park and is truly spectacular. The sun came out as we pulled up. It is a short walk across the milky Yoho river to the thunderous Takakkaw. I climbed up beside the falls and got pretty wet from the spray.
Wapta Falls is another popular waterfall in the park but it is not as impressive as Takakkaw and it is a boring 5km return hike to get there.
Field is the town within Yoho National Park and is made up of a handful of orderly streets in the shadow of the surrounding mountains. Little colourful cottages, many of them B&Bs, abound. The only shops I saw were a small Restaurant and a Post Office. There is a small lake between town and the highway where people swim. It is a lovely little place.
It started raining as we got to Emerald Lake, British Columbia’s answer to Lake Louise. Sheltering in the gift shop, we waited it out. The lake has an island with a Conference Centre and Hotel on it, that is linked by a bridge to the mainland. We went for a walk around during a break in the weather. I love these Technicolor lakes. The colour still entrances me every time I see one.
Our first night in Yoho a big thunderstorm blew in after dinner. After sitting in the tent for a while, trying to stop it from collapsing on us due to the crazy wind and pounding rain, we gave up and slept in the car. It was more comfortable than we thought it would be but we were happy to be back in the tent the next night.
Lake Louise in Banff National Park is another lake of astonishing blue. We visited it back in 2010 but wanted to go again to do the Plain of Six Glaciers hike that takes in a historic teahouse as well as glaciers and lake views. There were a lot of cute little chipmunks and ground squirrels on the way up.
The hike followed the lake to the other end then rose up, through exposed rocks, into the mountains. The Plain of Six Glaciers teahouse is a beautiful historic two storey log cabin with a balcony where you can enjoy refreshments. Unfortunately the refreshments are REALLY expensive. We had a couple of overpriced ‘lemonades’ (read: cordial and water) then decided to hike back down again rather than up to the glacier viewpoint as it was quite cold and wet by that stage.
It started hailing on us when we were walking down, not very pleasant. After the hail stopped, Lake Louise came into view again and there was a striking rainbow hovering above it. No one else was around to see it, it was just for us. So it didn’t end up being too miserable after all.
To warm up afterwards we went back to the HI Hostel in Lake Louise Village where we had had our morning coffee earlier in the day, and had a shower. Bit naughty but we were desperate and if you walk in like you are staying there they don’t know any different.
Another amazing lake in Banff National Park (and our personal favourite) is Moraine Lake. When we first saw Moraine Lake we were completely blown away by its beauty and the quiet solitude after the crazy circus surrounding Lake Louise.
Three years later and the circus has moved to Moraine Lake.
We had to park about 15 minutes walk up the road because the parking lot was full. We had wanted to do a 5-10km hike from Moraine but as there are a lot if grizzly bears in the area, you had to have at least four people together to hike any of the trails in the area or risk a big fine (or being attacked by a bear; incentive enough perhaps?).
We did the short walk around the rock pile instead. It offers the best views of the lake and we saw lots of one of my favourite critters – the Pika.
Pikas are cute little rodents with no tail and big ears. They live in amongst the rocks and you can usually see them scurrying back and forth, collecting grass for their winter food supply. I saw in a documentary that they also eat the brains of dead birds. Ewwww.
Last time we were in Banff town it was cold and rainy. We visited the Hot springs, the majestic Fairmont Hotel and the excellent Whyte Museum as well as a couple of Banff’s fantastic restaurants. This time around the sun was out so we strolled along the walkable main street, had ice cream at Cows (that amazing ice cream place hailing from PEI) then walked along the Bow River to the Bow Falls. There is rock flour in the river so it is a pale blue. Such a nice place to sit and relax in the sun. We also went back to the Fairmont. I love the Fairmont Hotels in Canada. All of them look like castles and are so grand and impressive.
Banff is probably the most tourist choked place in the Rockies but it is a pretty mountain village none the less.
Our last stop on our road trip was Lake Minnewanka near Banff where we went for a wander before driving towards Calgary where we would be dropping the car off the following morning. It was a long weekend so we had trouble finding a camping ground but eventually we got an overflow site in Kananaskis Country.
There were certainly ups and downs on our road trip (namely the weather) but overall we had a fantastic time and managed to do some incredible hikes in between the bouts of rain as well as catching up with a friend, eating lots of wild berries, soaking in hot springs, sampling local craft beer, visiting two countries, spotting loads of wildlife and driving one of the top drives in the US. Also, no bears ate us. Not bad at all!
The Rocky Mountains continue to captivate and amaze me and we are so glad we got to visit this amazingly picturesque part of the world again. Our Rocky Mountain Road Trip was one of the big highlights of five months in Canada.
I strongly encourage anyone with a passion for hiking to visit this magical place, it is a hiker’s paradise!