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CANADA’S CROWN JEWEL PARKS

September 15, 2006
Filed under Camping Destinations

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Four Canadian national parks and one Alberta provincial park are clustered together in a majestic tiara known to many as the Crown Jewels of the Rockies. Collectively, they offer the perfect location for weeks of camping adventures.


Experienced travelers have heard of Jasper and Banff National Parks, but few people recognize Kootenay or Yoho National Parks. Fewer yet have heard of Peter Lougheed Provincial Park that borders Banff. Each offers rich and unique attractions that make a visit a requirement on any serious camper’s “it” list.

Banff National Park

Attracting five million park visitors per year, half of which visit in July and August, Banff may sound too crowded, but the park encompasses 2564 square miles (twice the size of Rhode Island, half the size of Connecticut) of seemingly endless mountains, glaciers and river valleys.

Different attractions lure people to Banff. You can watch black bear feeding in a meadow speckled with wildflowers in the morning, play golf in the afternoon, have dinner at a five-star restaurant, then crawl into a tent for a night under inky black skies filled with more stars than you can count.

Is hiking your thing? More than 1000 miles of park trails allow trips into solitude. Water lovers seek Banff for white-water rafting adventures or a quiet afternoon on a serene lake fishing or canoeing. Bike enthusiasts find Banff full of extensive trails and roadways to fill their needs. You can get your fill of these and many more outdoor adventures, and check out the Banff townsite’s numerous eclectic shops and boutiques.

Three Banff attractions are must-sees. Lake Minnewanka, near the Banff townsite, is the park’s largest lake; popular for boating, fishing, sailing, picnicking and camping. It’s a great area for hiking or simply soaking in scenery. If you don’t have your own boat, rent one along with fishing tackle for a day on this 12.2-mile-long lake.

Lake Louise is a picture postcard, emerald-colored lake that glaciers carved out of the mountains centuries ago. Called “Canada’s diamond in the wilderness,” you can stroll around the lake or just sit on shore and absorb the unparalleled beauty. Then have High Tea in the Fairmont Château on the lake’s eastern shore. Built by the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1890 as one of several elegant passenger destinations, the Fairmont was completely refurbished in 1990.

Ten minutes north of Lake Louise is Moraine Lake. Envision an aqua-green lake set into a valley of 10 mountain peaks dominated by Mount Temple (11,500 feet), Canada’s third highest mountain peak. You can spend a day here soaking in the beauty, canoeing, hiking the shoreline or climbing into the high country.

Jasper National Park

Follow the Ice Field Parkway north from Banff and soon you enter Jasper National Park. Within a mile of the park entrance you’re at the Columbia Icefield, one of the only glaciers in the world accessible by vehicle. Take a short hike to the toe (leading edge) of the 125-square-mile glacier, a guided climb on it, or a specially designed bus for a glacier thrill ride you’ll not soon forget.

Think Banff was big? Jasper National Park is bigger, spanning 4200 square miles of awe-inspiring, scenic splendor. Athabasca Falls, a short 15-minute drive south of the Jasper townsite, is a spectacular waterfall complete with a perpetual rainbow-like spray. If you forget your camera, you’ll regret it.

Mount Edith Cavell, 18 miles south of Jasper (open from end of June to October) is one unforgettable mountain. Stepping from your vehicle, you’re standing at the base of an 11,033-foot peak climbing straight to the heavens before your very eyes. It’s a popular attraction for mountain climbing, serious hiking or wandering among subalpine meadows.

Open year-round, Maligne Lake (30 miles southeast of Jasper) is the second largest glacier-fed lake in the world – 14 miles of crystal-blue water nestled in glacier-studded mountain peaks. Spend a day on do-it-yourself hikes, fishing, or canoeing, or take one of the tour boats that operate on the lake.

Yoho National Park

The Cree Indian expression Yoho means “awe and wonder,” a perfect description for this place of rock walls, shimmering waterfalls and towering peaks. With only 507 square miles, Yoho seems diminutive when compared to Banff and Jasper. The park makes up for it with unparalleled scenery and attractions that literally take you back in time. Straddling the Continental Divide and the Alberta, British Columbia border, the park is where ancient glaciers and oceans converged. You can see marine fossils dating back 530 million years, then hike trails traveled for centuries.

Here, time is measured not by a wrist watch, but by the sun’s position in the sky. A short hike to Takakkaw Falls, the third highest in Canada, is a must. Two other must-see sites are the natural rock bridge spanning the Kicking Horse River, and the Hoodoos, immense boulders precariously balanced atop tall pillars of glacial till.

Kootenay National Park

Bordering Banff National Park on the southwest, this British Columbia National Park seems bigger than its 543 square miles. It is a land rich in diversity, from glacier-covered peaks along the Continental Divide to semi-arid grasslands in the Rocky Mountain Trench.

Up for a strenuous hike where the reward is a view photographers dream about? Stanley Glacier Trail is a 3-mile climb leading you to an impressive hanging valley and glacier. For those seeking less taxing exercise, the park has numerous interpretive trails, giving visitors insight and perspective on the parks extensive flora, fauna and history.

Kootenay is a place where you can witness nature changing before your eyes. Two major fires occurred in the park in the last decade, scorching large tracts of the landscape. Some see a disaster; others see a living laboratory filled with examples of how the natural world is constantly evolving and regenerating. Summer’s warmth prompts tall stands of brilliant pink fireweed growing among scorched timber, a renewal amid blackened timbers.

Radium Hot Springs greets visitors at Kootenay Park’s west entrance. The 110-degree water boils from red-rock mountainsides, offering respite for weary travelers or those wanting to sit in a pool and watch bighorn sheep on the mountains above. If you travel up the highway a short 10 miles, the pass will offer a stunning vista of the Kootenay River Valley. It’s a favorite turnout where the landscape of snowcapped peaks stretch over the horizon, making even seasoned travelers stand in wonder.

Peter Lougheed Provincial Park

One of Alberta’s largest provincial parks, Peter Lougheed borders Banff on the south and is an outdoor recreational mecca in a mountain setting extending more than 310 square miles. With an extensive system of hiking trails, the park offers everything from low-impact wandering to high-altitude backpacking where all hints of civilization are soon behind you.

Travel over Highwood Pass, the highest drivable mountain pass in all of Canada. In the park’s southeastern corner, Highway 40 climbs to 7310 feet, affording travelers the most accessible alpine area in all of the Canadian Rockies. Check out the interpretive trails through the Highwood Meadows. Bicycle enthusiasts tout Highwood Pass for unmatched views and little vehicular traffic.

Kananaskis County offers everything for the nature lover, or those wanting to vacation near nature. Golf courses, fine dining and shopping are available in nearby Canmore. Diehard campers, however, love Peter Lougheed Park because, unlike Banff, it attracts fewer visitors. Many say the park offers the best of both worlds; solitude and easy access to civilization’s amenities.

Scenic vistas, replete with endless snowcapped peaks, surround you. Wildflower-carpeted meadows invite hiking or roadside picnics. Mountain lakes tempt you to fish, canoe, or take long, romantic walks along the shoreline. Wildlife roam freely in high basins, as intrigued by and unafraid of you as you are of them. It’s a dream adventure… it’s the crown jewels of the Canadian Rockies.

Websites that can help you plan a visit to Canada’s crown jewels:

Banff: pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/banff/ and /discoverbanff.com

Jasper: pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/jasper/ and /discoverjasper.com

Yoho: pc.gc.ca/pn-np/bc/yoho and britishcolumbia.com/ParksAndTrails

Kootenay: pc.gc.ca/pn-np/bc/Kootenay and kootenay-national-park.travel.bc.ca

Lougheed: cd.gov.ab.ca/enjoying_alberta/parks/featured/kananaskis/parks_lougheed.asp

DON’T FORGET YOUR BINOCULARS

Jasper offers extraordinary wildlife watching akin to that found in Yellowstone National Park or Africa’s Serengeti. Elk, big horn sheep, deer, coyotes, and dozens of different bird species are commonplace. Expect to see black bears, caribou, and mountain goats. If luck is with you, you’ll see a grizzly bear or wolf. The other parks have their fair share of wildlife, too.

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