How is it possible? How can they all be so jaw-droppingly, picture-perfect blue? The vast rivers and lakes beside the saw-toothed Canadian Rockies of central Alberta are an otherworldly, electric shade of turquoise. Staring at them makes you wonder if you walked out of reality and into a surreal Instagram.
While visiting backcountry Canada was never high on my life list, several adventurous, outdoorsy friends thought otherwise. I’m grateful I joined them in June on a weeklong visit to Banff, the home of Canada’s oldest national park, one of its best known and most popular. I’ve taken trips expecting “good.” This was one of the most delightful I have ever had, an experience akin to falling completely in love.
Some experiences were daunting. Hikes up the inexhaustible trails can be grueling. With significant wolf and bear populations, this is not a petting zoo. It is worth the effort. It will help form your definition of scenic beauty.
Canada has more lakes, rivers and forests than any other nation, and Canadians, not prone to hyperbole, call this its most breathtaking area. And how. If this panoply of beauty isn’t God’s country, there’s no such place. The epic mountains on all sides rival the Matterhorn majesty of the Alps. (In fact, it was Swiss and Austrian mountain guides who introduced skiing to the area in 1909.) Spending a week wandering the Continental Divide triggers the kind of joyful awe that we can all use more of in our lives.
There’s a sheer beauty to its no-signs, no-graffiti barrenness. Everything feels unbelievably huge and unpopulated as if it didn’t exist on Earth, but on a distant planet far from people. The province of Alberta comprises 255,000 square miles, about three times the size of Minnesota; with 4 million people, it has about a third less population.
Even the visitors don’t ruin the effect. Banff National Park deservedly drew 3.6 million visitors in its 2014-15 season, most of them Albertans and other Canadians.
Back to those heart-melting azure streams and ponds. Geologists say their shimmering hues are caused by sunlight refracting against glittering silt-sized rock flour constantly deposited at the lake bed by thundering waterfalls. I’m not buying that explanation. I think it’s a gimmick hatched by Canadian tourism authorities to make the shores around Banff National Park some of the most photographed locations on the planet, just like they added the area’s ski resorts and four-star hotels. Or else it’s an iridescent miracle, like the Northern Lights, which I am convinced do not strictly stem from charged particles colliding in the Earth’s magnetic field. Elemental mysteries such as these deserve more than technical explanations.
Our home base was Banff and its adjacent Banff National Park, a truly extraordinary institution about a 90-minute drive north of Calgary. It was the first national park designated in Canada and the third in the world.
The area was settled at the end of the 19th century, having been “discovered” in 1883 by three workers building the Canadian Pacific Railroad who immediately recognized the commercial potential of its mineral hot springs. They offered rare swimming pools in a country whose lakes are eternally too cold to breaststroke. Its status as a sacred site to local First Nations people didn’t weigh heavily on the men’s conscience, so they built a fence around the Cave and Basin natural hot springs and started building a tourist cabin.
Two years later, the prime minister created a 10-square-mile reserve around the area for the Banff Hot Springs, launching Canada’s national park system. Banff National Park, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, covers 2,500 square miles, very little of it scarred by human meddling.
We spent every day of our stay meandering in beautiful serendipity. Stunning Lake Louise and baby blue Peyto Lake are a good hour’s drive north from Banff, and the Icefields Parkway, where you can walk directly up to limitless tons of pristine glacial ice, is a lot farther away. But we motored there along the jagged spine of the Canadian Rockies, seeing imposing mountain vistas that rewarded us tenfold. It was so scenic and filled with caribou that I would have been happy if we had crossed the route by dog sled.
The tidy tourist sanctuary of Banff in the Bow Valley is the highest city in Canada, with an elevation just under a mile. It’s an environmental enthusiasts’ mecca, offering uphill hikers not prone to altitude sickness a splendid view of the surrounding countryside. If you prefer high-level trips without physical exertion, ride the Banff Gondola to the viewing decks and trails atop Sulfur Mountain. Climb a few thousand feet higher and you pass the tree line, proceeding to slippery snowfields that make June feel like a good time to be wearing ice crampons.
That was the top mission for my companions, who decided that sightseeing from ground level was not enough. We would climb a mountain. Not with crampons and rope, but hiking shoes and sweat and shortness of breath and vertigo and group momentum.
The average American walks about a flat mile-and-a-half per week. We’d show them.
We went clambering up to the shoulder of nearby Mount Edith Cavell, a prominent peak considered the area’s second hardest to hike, and the loveliest. We marched up and down a total of about 6 miles along serpentine switchbacks, nearing its 11,000-foot peak, me following at my own glacial pace.
Several high-profile grizzly attacks in the area this season were thankfully nonlethal, but they had me feeling like one of those unfortunate toddlers who wander through a zoo enclosure and into the lair of a carnivorous animal thinking about lunch. To keep hundreds of local bears away, we carried a noisy reindeer sleigh bell (I thought of it as the dinner bell) and a can of pressurized pepper spray (for me to carry and shoot as needed, although I have never squirted anything but bug spray). We did not encounter anything but mountain goats and enviably fast rival Alpinists, whose sudden approaches from behind made me as fidgety as deputy Barney Fife with his revolver drawn.
Our nine-hour climb to the top and descent across the back was punishing at the start and terrifying at the finish, where we slid across sloping mountain fields of small loose stones, primed to avalanche away wherever a footstep encountered them. I expected to end the death march as broken as those rock fragments, with a small memorial bearing my name at the base of the crags. Did I mention the shoe-skidding snow bluffs?
Having survived, I have to say the endeavor was awesome, lifting me above old fears and introducing me to new levels of confidence. If anyone invites you, the correct response is, “Sounds great! Let’s go!”
Before peak tourist season, Banff is a charming town of about 9,000 inhabitants, cool enough that Sports Illustrated shot its annual swimsuit edition there in 2011. Its wide streets are home to art galleries, antique stores, a nice selection of eating establishments, pubs and a couple of late-night dance venues that crowd up even midweek.
Just a pleasant stroll away is the extraordinary Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, a castle-like grand hotel in Scottish baronial style almost too vast and beautiful to be taken seriously. Its gigantic reception rooms, huge foyer and panoramic dining-room vistas of the countryside were constructed of marble and stone 125 years ago by the Canadian Pacific Railroad for Victorian gents and golf course putters of comfortable means.
“If we cannot export the scenery, we will have to import the tourists” to experience moose, mountains and Mounties, railroad baron Sir William Cornelius Van Horne reportedly said. The stately pile’s guests have included King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, Marilyn Monroe and Winston Churchill.
My less-celebrated group stayed at a wonderful century-old Airbnb four-bedroom house directly facing the swift, scenic blue Bow River. It was pretty opulent, too. The closest relative to a mansion that you can hope to find in a village, it was the ancestral home of the prosperous family that founded the nearby Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, one of the best collections of mountain art in western Canada.
The galleries host a charming collection of old landscapes, modern art and community memorabilia such as moccasins and old-school camping tools, and offer guided tours through Banff’s most historic buildings. The museum even houses a vintage helicopter with a small bubble cockpit that visitors can climb aboard.
The chopper is indoors and unable to take visitors up to the alpine zone, or I would have reserved it for an afternoon sightseeing ascent rather than wearing out my boots. I have warm memories of my toe-jamming, knee-pounding visit up Mount Edith, but I’m not nuts.