Banff, AB area

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Banff, AB area

Post by johnspeth » October 8th, 2019, 8:11 am

I was lucky enough to score a no-cost timeshare condo for a week in Canmore, AB. My wife and I eagerly flew out to Calgary to visit my sister and her husband for a week of hiking and generally yukking it up. It turned out the week was extremely frustrating and satisfying at the same time. I present the highlights here.

Here's a view from our condo window:
First light view from my condo during breakfast
An early season storm that dumped huge amounts of snow in the Rockies to the south of Canmore frustrated my hiking. Canmore got the fringes of the dump. I had a few candidate bucket hikes to knock off but my total lack of knowledge of the area meant I had to be conservative to be safe. Much of what I planned was just not comfortably approachable: 4-6 inches of new snow obscuring trails, daily cold weather so no snow melt, daily snow flurries, extremely vertical mountains, unfamiliar with the rock type. Luckily my sister salvaged the week with excellent suggestions.

First day: Johnston Canyon near Banff, a nice safe hike that everybody could do to get the week started. Nice bootable snow at the start, way too slippery after the weather warmed and the snow had been packed down by hundreds of other visitors.
Johnston Canyon near Banff
Second day: Drive the Icefields Parkway to the visitors center. It was a very cold morning with temps in the teens. There is so much to see and even more to do. We needed to do it in one day so there was no hiking but lots of stopping and picture taking. The big destination is the Icefields Visitors Center with a stunning view of the Athabasca Glacier.
Athabasca Glacier at the Icefields Visitors Center
Canada has decided that the glacier must generate revenue. For a large amount of money, a tour company will take you on a bus along a paved road at the top of the lateral moraine seen on the left. When the road ends at the glacier, a fat wheeled sno-coach will drive you across the glacier to a flat area about a half mile in. The vehicles are large and noisy and constantly operating. It was disgusting but the place was still beautiful if you could pretend they weren't there.

We were lucky enough to see Mistaya Canyon in the early morning cold with reasonable solitude. It's a short walk from the parking area. The edges at the top of the canyon walls are legally accessible so I would imagine the place would be crawling with visitors when the sun gets to it. We shared the canyon with one other person.
Mistaya Canyon along the Icefields Parkway
Third day: Lake Minnewanka near Banff. We chose this hike because the snow was slow to melt and the trails were accumulating ice as the snow was packed by foot traffic. A relatively flat lake hike seemed like a good idea. The highlight of this day was the still warm grizzly bear poop right on the trail. The discovery prompted a discussion of continue vs. retreat. Returning hikers ahead of us reported hearing bear grunts in the woods and bear warning signs posted by Parks Canada. My wife and I retreated at that point. My sister and her husband decided to go on another mile.
Fresh grizzly bear scat (8 in end to end, 5 in tall)
Fourth day: Solo hike to Rummel Pass via Rummel Lake in the Kananaskis area near Canmore. I love hiking in snow and the several cars at the trail head told me that it was probably safe. Nobody from my group would join me. The word I got from hikers was that the Rummel Pass extension trail should be easily findable but it wasn't so I had the great fortune of having to navigate visually in the snow. I had a blast. Here's the frozen over lake from a small moraine above the lake.
Rummel Lake in Kananaskis area
On my return from the lake, I crossed paths with four Spruce Grouse on the trail (two females, a strutting male watching over the females, and a young male a minute or two down the trail). The females looked like ptarmigan to me so I naturally assumed they'd explode to escape. Instead, they just ignored me. Just getting past them was not what I expected. They had little to no fear of me so I slowly tip-toed past them to give them time to step aside. The male was always puffed out.
Spruce Grouse near Rummel Lake
Fifth day: We went into full tourist mode to visit Lake Louise. We arrived at 7 am to get a parking spot. It was cloudy with snow flurries most of the day. Our destination was the tea house on the usually crowded Plain of Six Glaciers trail. The scenery was stunning all the time. My wife couldn't hike the icy trail so she and I turned around before reaching the tea house. My sister and her husband went ahead. They were the first visitors to the icy cold tea house.
Glaciers on blocks from the Plain of Six Glaciers
The day ended with high tea at the Chateau Lake Louise. It was fun to do that. The Chateau provides a memorable and high quality experience. I'll probably never do it again though.

Some retrospective thoughts:

The area is immense in size with five contiguous national parks and a number of designated wilderness areas and provincial parks. The US has nothing close to it in size and beauty. It's truly a global gem. I wish Canada success in protecting it.

By the end of the week I felt under-equipped because many folks, particularly locals, were carrying pepper spray. I was denied access to two trails due to a cougar attack on a pair of dogs on a trail just 5 miles from Canmore city (the Ha Ling and East End of Rundle trails). [One unleashed dog was killed, a leashed dog was attacked and survived, pepper spray was used, the poor cougar was killed two days later - one more reason to leave pets at home when hiking] You can buy pepper spray locally, and even borrow it from some hotels. You can't bring it on an airplane.

The touristy areas (that is, easily accessible areas) are highly stressed by tour buses bringing 50 or more people per bus. Canada does what it can to manage the density but, in practical terms, one must get going early to get a reasonable chance at solitude while hiking. We did 4 out of 5 early days with trail head arrivals between 6-7 am. That seemed to get us the solitude we wanted. It was late low season so I hate to think what it's like mid summer.

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Re: Banff, AB area

Post by bobcat » October 13th, 2019, 3:53 pm

Thanks for the report. Glad you got to see some of the sights, anyway! The tour buses and crowds are nothing new, of course. It's been that way for decades - I'm always astonished at how well the parks cope with it.

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retired jerry
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Re: Banff, AB area

Post by retired jerry » October 13th, 2019, 7:26 pm

"I'm always astonished at how well the parks cope with it."

They could require buying a permit online before going there

and have a limited number of people to make the experience better for the few people that "win the lottery"

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