A tour through the Canadian Rockies jumps peak to peak, revealing the charms of each destination and why locals and visitors love each stop along the route.
Markedly different than the American Rockies, the Canadian range presents another side of this camera-worthy swath of mountains that stretches between British Columbia and New Mexico. In Canada, the peaks look craggier, in part because the treeline ends well below their summits, so the rocky tops are exposed in their full relief. Cradled in alpine valleys, glacier-fed alpine lakes and rivers turn a vibrant turquoise that contrasts beautifully with the evergreens, white ice or gray-brown rocks bordering the shores. A getaway that originates in Vancouver and concludes in Banff/Lake Louise showcases the Rockies best views while also introducing travelers to lesser-known places — Whistler, Quesnel, Jasper and Kamloops — along the way.
Grouse Mountain, the city’s No. 1 attraction, lies an easy 20-minute ferry-then-bus ride from downtown and offers four-season recreation, from skiing and winter sports through late spring to hiking and disc golf in other seasons. Plus, the views from the summit and the Skyride aerial tram put the city’s layout in perspective — a patchwork of forests and parks, gleaming glass skyscrapers, and channels of saltwater that thread around the peninsula. When the clouds part in the distance, the curve of the mountain range adds a stunning backdrop. Resident Tina Fusco appreciates those “snowcapped mountains in your backyard” as well as the city’s quiet caches: “sunsets on Jericho Beach;” “coho and sockeye salmon in our fresh waters;” and “wild blackberries in the bush in the back alley.”
In town, the Vancouver Seawall stretches 14 miles from Coal Harbour to Kitsilano, welcoming bicyclists, walkers and runners. According to AAA Member Garrett Whipp, whose job brings him to Vancouver roughly 60 days per year, travelers benefit from “innumerable bike rental shops. They’re everywhere.” So, anyone can pedal the paved seawall path or the trails that wind through the temperate rainforest of Stanley Park.
For Whipp, Vancouver’s architecture and food are among the distinctions he appreciates. Old meets new in Gastown, the city’s first — and now hippest — neighborhood; the West End sparkles with cloud-kissing glass buildings; and the Marine Building near Coal Harbour recalls the days when this fine example of Art Deco was in the 1930s “the tallest building in the British Empire,” notes Whipp. He calls Vancouver’s food scene “amazing,” pointing to farm-to-table fare, caught-that-day-seafood, and noodles and dumplings that offer tasty evidence of the 43 percent of the metro population that boasts Asian heritage.
Leaving Vancouver and the Pacific Coast Range behind, Whistler and the Rockies lie in the distance. Howe Sounds laps at the views and earns a line on postcards as “North America’s southernmost fjord.” The route continues north as mountains rise on both sides all the way to Whistler, known largely to skiers, but also to kayakers, hikers and visitors seeking a little mountain R&R. Time here can be spent dipping toes into — ahem — refreshing — Alta Lake or soothing tired muscles in a hot pool at Scandinave Spa Whistler. A little rest goes a long way especially as the mountains seem to grow taller and the opportunities to be active multiply.
In Quesnel, nature surrounds guests, many who come for the trails but decide to linger in this “Gold Rush” town sited at the confluence of the Quesnel and Fraser rivers. Its rich history includes a First Nations summer fishing camp, fur trading (including a Hudson’s Bay Company post), gold mining and the Gold Rush. On the town’s outskirts, unusual hoodoos, the Pinnacles, poke like teeth inside a mouth of trees at Pinnacles Provincial Park while Dragon Mountain provides a rollercoaster of singletrack that most mountain bikers would like to keep a secret. These high points overlook the land below, but a walk along the Fraser River Walking Bridge, the world’s longest wooden truss footbridge, provides expansive picturesque views of rippling water in the foreground and mountains in the back.
The small-town feel extends to Jasper, basecamp to Jasper National Park and a western gateway to Alberta since the remote Canadian Rockies straddle both British Columbia and its eastern neighbor. Locals here take their outdoor recreation seriously, recommending adventurers soak in Miette Hot Springs or challenge themselves to rappelling more than 80 feet into a canyon. The scenery is epic, with notable mountains dominating the horizon. Mount Robson attracts the eyes of riders on the Rocky Mountaineer as the train rolls toward town; the peak, typically snow-drenched throughout the year, stands taller than any other in the Canadian Rockies — 12,972 feet! Meanwhile, locals like Pyramid Mountain at the north of town, says resident travel advisor Fawn Furlote, in part because it is easily recognized for its obvious shape and red color. Fun by day and by night, Jasper offers out-of-this-world stargazing. The northern lights shimmer brightly in this designated dark-sky preserve.
Southwest of Jasper, Kamloops occupies a stretch of valleylands sandwiched between the Rockies and the Coast Mountains and along the shores where the North and South Thompson rivers meet. Its climate is ripe for grape growing, and pinot gris is the vintage of choice although other grapes find their way into tastings along the vineyard-laced Kamloops Wine Trail. The Rivers Trail, which edges the rivers, affords excellent panoramas of the surrounding mountains.
For travelers on the Rocky Mountaineer, Banff and Lake Louise can be part of all the rail journeys, including “Rainforest to Gold Rush” and “Journey through the Clouds,” which both conclude in Jasper. A self-drive or motorcoach continues the route, on the Icefields Parkway, where one glacier after another competes for attention with the mountains they helped shape. By train from Kamloops or by vehicle from Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff should be part of every Canadian Rockies vacation. Banff, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is literally located within the boundaries of Banff National Park, meaning adventures — and stoic mountains piercing the sky — await at every turn of the head. Steam rises from Banff Upper Hot Springs, an invitation to soothe tired muscles after a morning shopping Banff Avenue or absorbing the exhibits at the Whyte Museum. Depending on the season, hiking or skiing may also provide a reason to soak. Meanwhile, about 30 miles away and still within the national park, Lake Louise dazzles with its glacier-fed, blue-green lake and scenery travelers dream of seeing. They can experience the natural beauty from all angles — at the base of Victoria Glacier while sipping afternoon tea at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise or while ascending the Lake Louise Gondola as grizzly bears wander through the wildflowers below. Such a scene is a fitting conclusion to a journey into the Canadian Rockies.
Experience the majesty of the Canadian Rockies. Visit your local AAA office or call your AAA Travel Agent at 800-750-5386 for more information.
(Traveler Spring 2018)