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Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

A Hiking Trip, September 2008

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Each September I take a hiking trip. For many years, I have gone to Glacier National Park in Montana. While the views in Glacier would be pretty hard to beat, I felt like it was time to see something new. This September I went to Banff National Park in Canada. While Banff did not manage to replace Montana in my heart, it was a beautiful place and had many wonderful things to offer.

Day One: September 4, 2008 - Travel Day

Travel Day is just plain hard. Especially when that travel involves getting up at 4 am to catch a 6 am flight from Knoxville to Charlotte, followed by a 4.5 hour flight from Charlotte to Phoenix, followed by a 3 hour flight from Phoenix to Calgary, followed by a 2 hour drive from Calgary to Banff National Park. Talk about exhausted! Between the early hour that I woke up, the many hours of flying/driving, and the multiple time changes, it was only 2:30 pm when I arrived, but I felt like I had been up for days!

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Did that stop me from getting a little hiking in on the first day? Not me! I am the energizer bunny. I keep going and going and going. We arrived at Johnston Canyon Resort inside Banff National Park around 5:00 pm. I grabbed my pack and headed up the short Johnston Canyon Trail. The trail is part hiking trail, part suspension bridge - a feat of engineering suspended in a gorge. It was beautiful. The water had the deep blue color so common in glacial areas, a product of "glacial flour," super fine rock particles that are suspended in the water giving it an unnatural blue color that is simply beautiful. The blue water rushed down the center of the gorge and bright green moss grew up the rocky sides. The colors were bold and took my breath away. The gorge was deep and cool and after being cooped up all day, the walk was exactly what I needed.

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After a couple of hours, it was time to clean up for dinner. Dinner was at Baker Creek Bistro, about 10 miles up the road into the park. The bistro was a cozy log cabin with a soft candlelit interior and a roaring fireplace in one corner. I tried a Grower's Pear Cider, something new to me and absolutely fantastic! Light and fizzy, it tasted like a crisp, fresh pear, and it packed quite a buzz too! For an appetizer, I had their oatmeal crusted trout cakes. They were out of this world. Dinner was a bison meatloaf with mashed potatoes and onion straws. Dessert followed, a blackberry, blueberry, and apple crisp topped with ice cream.

I could have died happy after that meal. It was simply perfect.

The night was spent at Johnston Canyon Resort in a simple, cozy cabin. After what seemed like about 97 hours, Travel Day was finally OVER.

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Day Two: September 5, 2008 - Lake Louise/Plain of Six Glaciers/Highline/Big Beehive/Lake Agnes Hike

The day started at the Lake Louise Chateau. Today's hike would take us along the shoreline, up the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail to a hike-in Teahouse. A small backtrack part of the way down the mountain would then connect us to the Highline Trail, an ungodly steep switchback trail up to the Big Beehive Lookout. From the Big Beehive Lookout, another steep switchback trail heads down and around Lake Agnes to the hike-in only Lake Agnes Teahouse. From there, the trail makes a short descent back down to Lake Louise and the Chateau.

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We started early, mainly to avoid any crowds and had the trail to ourselves. Well....for a little while. Hearing something rustling behind us, I turned to see a grizzly bear had taken up behind us on the trail. He was young, maybe 2-3 years old, and about 300 pounds. Holy Shit.

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Not really knowing what to do, we just kept walking forward. It wasn't really like we had a choice. The bear didn't seem really happy about the whole thing either. We were all just sort of stuck. The trail was bordered by the lake on one side, so there was no exit that way. The other side rose up a steep rocky embankment, so no exit there. The only exit was to go all the way back to the trailhead at the beginning of the lake. Well, the bear was between us and the trailhead, so I sure wasn't going that way. The trailhead was at the Chateau, where about 40 busloads of Asian tourists were milling around snapping pictures, so the bear sure as hell wasn't go there either. We were all forced to just keep moving along.

Eventually, the bear found a place where he could peel off and he did. For the next 2 hours, I swear, I must have looked behind me every 5 minutes.

The walk up through the Plain of Six Glaciers was beautiful. It was a cloudy day, but there was a mist hanging in the mountains and the mountaintops were shrouded in clouds.

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As we neared the Teahouse, the trail became a series of steep switchbacks on a rocky ledge. About the time my calves started SCREAMING for me to stop moving already....I saw the Teahouse. I think this guy was the official welcoming committee.

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What a treat! The workers at the Teahouse hike in and stay 5 days at a time. All of the cooking is done with propane. They have no electricity. Just about the time we walked in, it started to snow! Good timing. I had a hot cup of Chai Tea and it was just what the doctor (and my screaming calves) ordered.

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Unfortunately, what goes up, must come down. It was hike-in only and that meant hike-out only. With a light snow falling around us, we made our way back down the steep, rocky switchbacks. I swear, I think going down is actually harder than going up for me. My 38-year old knees don't like it! There were cables in the rock along some of the narrower spots, but I didn't really see why. I'm pretty clumsy and even I could manage to walk on that ledge without a cable.

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We trudged up and up and up the Highline Trail just to find that when we arrived at the Big Beehive Lookout, it was a whiteout. It was snowing hard and you couldn't see anything. Our original plan was to stop and eat lunch at the Lookout. Well, it was cold and wet and I decided I wasn't hungry enough to sit in the mud. Even though it was past lunchtime, we kept walking. Now it was down, down, down steep switchbacks from Big Beehive to Agnes Lake. The snow and clouds pretty much obscured any view, but I could see enough to know how absolutely gorgeous Lake Agnes must be on a clear day. We wound our way around the lake, getting wetter by the minute, and finally arrived at the Lake Agnes Teahouse.

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With visions of a warm, dry seat by a crackling fire, even if it meant I had to buy a $4.75 cup of tea and a $5 scone, I bounded up the steps with new energy....only to be totally deflated when I realized there were about twice as many people packed into that little Teahouse as there were seats. Apparently, it's a pretty easy walk up from the Chateau and every idiot in a pair of Reebocks and Parka was packed in there trying to stay dry. I saw people in dress shoes, for goodness sakes. Grumbling to myself that "real hikers" should get some sort of special priority seating, I waited my turn to get a cold, wet seat outside so that I could eat my lunch. No one even came to wait on us, they were that busy. Oh well, what are you gonna' do?

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We made our way down to the Chateau and pushed our way through HOARDES of tourists. I mean, this place was like Disney on crack. So freakin' crowded. I hate crowds. I also hate people that show up to a National Park and never get farther than the lobby of their fancy hotel. Who sit inside a restaurant eating prime rib and apple pie in front of a large picture window, looking at the beauty that is so close to them, but never actually setting foot out in it. I don't understand those people. And suddenly, I was surrounded by THOUSANDS of them. I would have preferred to be with the bear again.

To soothe my nerves and warm my hands, we slipped into the Glacier Saloon. After a glass of warm Canadian whiskey, I was good to go. And go I did. I got the hell out of there.

Dinner was at the Outpost Pub in the Post Hotel. It was a good, casual meal in front of a big fire, which was nice. The food was good, but nothing spectacular. We checked into our cabin at Paradise Lodge and it was perfect. Quiet & cozy, I spent the rest of the evening curled up in front of the fire with a good book.

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Day Three: September 6, 2008 - Sentinel Pass Trail

After breakfast, we headed over to Moraine Lake to hit the Sentinel Pass trail. It was cloudy again...and cold. The first stretch of the trail was a healthy climb and about 30 minutes into it, I realized something bad. Very bad. I had left my camera battery in the charger. In the cabin. 30 minutes back down the stinking mountain and a 15 minute drive back to the cabin.

I had to have it. I literally jogged all the way back down (ouch, knees, OUCH!), ran to the car, drove like a madwoman back down to the cabin, got the thing, drove back, and jogged back up the trail. I was heaving like a beached whale by the time I got back, but I had the battery. Much to my dismay, the first several miles of the trail were steep switchbacks up. Aren't there ANY trails in Banff that don't go straight up???? There were a lot of people too. I hated that. After several miles, the trail leveled out a bit in a beautiful valley literally surrounded by towering, snowcapped peaks. It was majestic. It was still cloudy, though, and I hated knowing just how beautiful it must be on a clear day and knowing I wouldn't get to see it.

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After a while, we came into an open area with huge mountains on every side. There were a couple of small lakes. The entire area was rocky and covered with.....SNOW. Yep. Snow. About that time, the snow started falling. I looked up ahead and saw a steep climb with the faint zig zag of a switchback snaking it's way to the top. I laughed and actually said, "Look, some idiot decided to go all the way up there...." That was just about the time I realized that was MY trail and I too, was about to be an idiot going "up there."

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It was cold. It was rocky and slippery. It was long. It was worth every step. Once on top, the views stretched to infinity in every direction. Deep valleys and jagged peaks were visible on every side. A 360 degree, stellar view was my reward.

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The trip back down was hard on the knees, but I made it. The hike was a "there and back" hike, which I don't like as much as a loop, but the scenery does look different going in the opposite direction. It was snowing hard by the time we got back down and snowed on us all the way back to the trailhead. I was wet and cold again, so we headed into the Moraine Lake Lodge and grabbed a hot bowl of potato soup to warm up. That hit the spot. After I made my way through about 300 tourists standing beside their tour buses snapping photos of a mountain they would never know the joy of setting foot on, we headed back to the cabin for some much needed down time.

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The Baker Creek Bistro was so good, we headed back for another dinner there. I was hoping magic would strike twice, and it did. I ordered a cedar plank baked brie with garlic marmalade that was served with fruit and bread, the "cheese monger's mac n'cheese," and a ginger sticky cake with toffee sauce and beer ice cream for dessert.

After all that walking and all that food, I was done for.

Day Four: September 7, 2008 - Icefields Parkway Drive & Wilcox Pass Hike

After 2 days of hiking, my knees needed a small break, so we decided to drive the Icefields Parkway and do a short hike only. First stop was Laggan's Bakery to pick up a lunch for later. I grabbed a roasted turkey and cranberry sandwich and peanut butter brownie to go.

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The Icefields Parkway is an incredibly scenic highway that runs from Lake Louise to Jasper. Every few miles, the scene changes, new mountains emerge, ice blue lakes pop into view, small waterfalls flow toward the road. It's a feast for the eyes.

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We only drove as far as the Icefields Center (not all the way to Jasper). We made a stop to view the Athabasca Glacier. They actually shuttle people up to it and let them walk on it. It seemed sort of cheap and touristy to me. Instead of a beautiful, natural glacier, I saw a big, dirty, muddy ice chunk obscured by buses. There were some beautiful views of the mountains and glaciers from the Center.

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We headed back toward Lake Louise and stopped to do a short hike, Wilcox Pass. Promising to offer long hike views in a short hike distance, it lived up to its promise. The beginning of the trail wound through a quiet, mossy green forest, the trail crisscrossed with the roots of the enormous trees. After a short climb, the trail opened into a a gently sloping meadow up to a pass. The views were phenomenal in all directions.

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I stood at the top and the wind blew against my back. I couldn't hear any sounds except the wind and my own breathing. I stretched out my arms, and I felt like I was flying....

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After getting back to Lake Louise, we headed to the Lake Louise Station for dinner. The restaurant is inside an old railway station and is filled with beautiful, antique woodwork and glass. A large fireplace warmed the room from one corner. I had a giant bison burger and fries. I can't explain it, I was just craving a burger. For dessert, it was a strawberry-rhubarb pie. Good stuff!

Day Five: September 8, 2008 - Citadel Pass Hike

First thing, we stopped at Moraine Lake to walk to the top of the rockpile and see the views. On the way there, we happened upon a black bear having some breakfast.

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On our last hiking day, we opted for Citadel Pass. You have to take a shuttle up to the top of Sunshine Village, there is no road access. After being dumped by the shuttle, everyone else headed for the easy Rock Isle Lake trail and we had Citadel Pass all to ourselves. FINALLY! I had gotten rid of the crowd.

The first few miles of the trail went through a flat valley, filled with beargrass and surrounded by mountains. It seemed to stretch forever and there wasn't another person as far as the eye could see. It was close to heaven.

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After several miles, the trail descended steeply to Howard Johnson Lake. The view simply took my breath away. Mountains towered in the distance, the lake glittered in the early morning sun below, and the tiny puffs of beargrass caught the light and shimmered on the hillside.

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After reaching the Lake, the trail continued for many miles up toward the pass. With each mile, the views became more amazing. It was hard to take it all in. It also got steeper and seemed to take a really, really long time to get there!

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Finally, we reached the pass. It was beautiful. Snow covered mountains surrounded us on all sides. The green hills rolled and tumbled down into the valley. Huge rocks were strewn about the hillside. It made a perfect place to stop for a while, eat some lunch, and just enjoy the beauty and solitude.

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A "there and back" trail, we then turned and made the long way back. This was the first truly clear, sunny day of the trip and the views in both directions were stellar. We only saw about 3 other people the entire day.

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We shuttled back down the mountain and stopped in Banff for dinner at Melissa's. I had Canadian Stew and bumbleberry pie. Is it just me, or do I eat a lot of pie?

Our flight was early the next morning, so we drove to Calgary that night and spent the night in the Delta Hotel at the airport. When I had to get up for my 6 am flight the next morning, I was really glad I had made that decision!

Day Six: September 9, 2008 - Time to Go Home

The bad news was, it was time to fly the 9 hours it would take to get home. The good news was, we had First Class Seats. That sure softens the blow!

I liked Banff National Park overall. The scenery was great and the people we encountered were as nice as any I have ever met. There were also much better dining and lodging options than you find in Glacier National Park.

The downside: crowds, crowds, crowds and way too many "touristy" things. I could do without that. It just seems wrong and out of place to me in such a pristine environment.

Unfortunately, it was back to the "real world."

At least until the next trip.....

Posted by vicki_h 18:56 Archived in Canada

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Once again, superb pictures and descriptive but succinct writing. Thank you for posting.

by donjasjit

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