Rocky Mountains High, Canada-Style
West of Edmonton and running north-south for more than 300 combined miles, Banff, Jasper, and Yoho national parks combine with several smaller parks to form the Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site, one of the largest protected areas in the world. Alberta’s three national parks alone draw almost 7 million visitors a year collectively.
Beauty is the reason: rugged mountains and alpine meadows, spectacular waterfalls, glaciers and ice fields, deep canyons, and cold-water lakes that look like mirrored holes into another universe. At home in this landscape, elk, caribou, bighorn sheep, and black and grizzly bears frequently appear – a boon for camera-toting wildlife enthusiasts – while a number of grand hotels built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 19th century number among the most beautiful, classic accommodations in North America.
Banff was Canada’s very first national park, incorporated as a tiny 10-square-mile parcel in 1885 and now grown into a 2,656-square-mile giant that’s Canada’s number-one destination. Its most famous sites are Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, both surrounded by towering, snow-capped mountains that reflect in their otherworldly jade-green waters (the product of mineral-rich silt washing down from the surrounding glaciers).
Louise has the greater name recognition due to its large ski area, its resort village, and its famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a sumptuous, turreted Edwardian dream that’s probably the greatest of the Rocky Mountain hotels. Moraine Lake, 8 miles east of Louise, is the beauty spot of choice for those seeking a less commercialized experience, with a hiking trail that skirts the lake’s north shore beneath soaring 10,000-foot peaks.
To the southeast, Johnston Canyon offers another excellent hiking opportunity, with a trail that passes between 100-foot cliffs, tunnels through living rock, crosses wooden footbridges, and comes within spraying distance of seven waterfalls on its way to a series of emerald pools known as the Inkpots.
South of here is the town of Banff, a surprisingly stylish place considering its wilderness location. The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel stands in princely splendor south of the town’s Bow River – another testament to the Canadian Pacific, with remarkable views, a great spa, a world-class golf course, and indulgent service.
Heading north, the Icefields Parkway links Lake Louise with Jasper National Park, along the way passing through a northern fantasy of hanging glaciers, deep river valleys and waterfalls, subalpine forests, and the Columbia Icefield, one of the largest accumulations of ice south of the Arctic Circle, covering nearly 116 square miles.
Jasper, Canada’s largest national park in the Rocky Mountains, has rugged scenery and a less touristed vibe. Hiking opportunities abound, with popular trails snaking through narrow Maligne Canyon and beyond, and rafting trips available on the Athabasca and Sunwapta rivers. Fishermen enjoy angling on Maligne Lake (the largest of the Rockies’ glacier-fed lakes), while the Miette Hot Springs offer soaks in outdoor pools, surrounded by forest and mountains.
West of Banff and Jasper, Yoho National Park – whose name derives from a Cree expression of wonder and reverence – is much smaller, covering about 507 square miles, with more than 250 miles of well-kept hiking trails. Its history is bound up with the Canadian Pacific, which in 1909 blasted a pair of tunnels right through the mountains.
Today, you can watch trains enter and leave at the Lower Spiral Tunnels Viewpoint, 10 miles east of the town of Field, which sits approximately at the park’s centerpoint. Here, at the park’s visitor center, you can learn about the nearby Burgess Shale fossil digs, in which creatures from the Cambrian-era sea that covered this region have been discovered on the mountaintops. Organized hikes to the site depart from town.
Seven miles northwest of Field, glacier-fed Emerald Lake is one of Yoho’s most popular destinations, a perfect mountain-rimmed spot for hiking, canoeing, and horseback riding. The area’s Emerald Lake Lodge offers the park’s best accommodations in twenty-four two-story chalets. Another 3 miles will take you to Takakkaw Falls, Canada’s second highest, with a drop of 1,250 feet.