- Written by Dan
A National Treasure
The Canadian Rockies are no doubt one of Canada's National Treasures. Hostelling International has 13 hostels dotted throughout the Canadian Rockies. Ideally placed for anyone travelling between Banff and Jasper, our Wilderness Hostels offer a unique and back-to-basics experience, as well as some of the world’s most stunning scenery and outdoor activities.
Whether you are headed out to enjoy summer hiking, cross-country skiing in the winter, or a cycling trip along the Icefields Parkway, these hostels are an ideal base year-round. Anthony Brook from Hostelling International shares a few insights about guiding and hiking in the wild of the great Canadian Rockies.
A hike to remember
A few years back, I was asked to take a travel writer for a really impressive hike. No problem, I thought, this is Lake Louise, after all. I felt Larch Valley/Sentinel Pass was a sure bet. The writer was quite experienced and had travelled the world. With her miles came a bit of the “been there, done that” attitude. As we were driving to the trailhead, we chatted about the places she’d been, the things she had done, and the activities she had planned for the Banff and Lake Louise area.
As we neared our destination, I told her that I felt the Canadian Rockies had some of the most magnificent one-day, car-to-car, hikes in the world, and that this hike, Sentinel Pass, was just about the best bang for the buck in the area. The conversation stopped. She was politely quiet. I think I heard her eyes roll back in her head.
The hike starts on Moraine Lakeshore, where the Ten Peaks tower 3,000 feet over you, and are reflected in the lake’s impossibly blue water.
The five-hour hike begins with a kilometre of switchbacks through the trees, but there are plenty of rest stops to enjoy the view of hanging glaciers, avalanches and the Tower of Babel. A welcome bench greeted us at the top of the climb. We then followed the path to the right, and entered a larch forest. This hike is particularly stunning in autumn when the larch tree’s needles turn a startling yellow before dropping off.
After passing through the larches, we entered a bucolic subalpine meadow filled with wild flowers native to the Canadian Rockies. Here, the peaceful beauty is contrasted by the massive grey limestone cliffs of Eiffel Peak. We walked through Larch Valley, and emerged from the tree line at 7,500 feet. Small alpine tarns (lakes) are to the right and front, Sentinel Pass is at the back of the valley, and Temple Mountain is in your face, standing at 11,600 feet. The switchbacks to Sentinel Pass look daunting but are much more forgiving than they appear. The grade is shallow, and you’re at the top in half an hour. I always make sure I am in front of my guests when they crest the pass so I can turn around and witness their reaction. “Been there, done that” was quiet again, but this time it was because her mouth was hanging open. Sprawling in front of her was the aptly-named, Paradise Valley. I later read her article. She agreed with me!
One of the Canadian Rockies best kept secrets
Like many people, I moved to the Canadian Rockies for the skiing. Unfortunately, I found skiing was not as available in summer as it was in the winter. Being from Ontario, I had difficulty adjusting to the lack of warm water sports, during those few sunny weeks between ski seasons. There was a lot of talk about climbing and hiking, but most people just stood by the lakes and rivers and stared at them. I was surprised that very few people canoed. Canoeing in the Rockies seems a well kept secret. Whether you’re putting in on one of the many lakes, floating down the Bow River or crashing through a set of rapids, you can be pretty sure you won’t have much company.
I’m not sure why more people don’t take advantage of this unique mountain experience, but I’m OK with that. I’ve spent many lazy days floating the 60 kilometres from Lake Louise to Banff, and with the exception of a class 2 rapid at Red Earth Creek, I rarely spill my beer. If that is a bit long, you can always stop for the night at HI-Castle Mountain Hostel.
A sportier trip along the Bow starts at HI-Mosquito Creek Hostel. From where you join the Bow, you’ll progress downstream to Bow Lake. From Bow Lake, you’ll go another 12 kilometres to the big bend in the highway, 7 kilometres above Lake Louise. The trip involves non-stop stick handling, plenty of sweepers, rapids and rocks. Take a tough boat, and make sure you know where the take-out is; a trip through Big John’s Canyon, just above Lake Louise, would really spoil the day.
Stretches of the Athabasca River just above and below the hostel are also well worth doing. Just make sure you portage the falls. My fellow paddlers might be angry that I’m spreading the word, but there is plenty of water and solitude out there for everybody.
what else do the rockies hold?
If you like to travel on two wheels, you’re in luck. There are over 190 kilometres of mountain biking trails in Banff National Park alone, and you’ll find an abundance of road riding options, including the Icefields Parkway itself. And, if you’re planning to use a bike as your mode of transport, you’ll find HI ’s Wilderness Hostels offer perfect rest stops en route.
Ice walks, ice climbing and ice fishing
Winter paves the way for fun activities in the snow and ice. This area plays host to amazing ice climbing and walking, and enthusiasts from all over Canada and the world head to the Rockies to climb ice-covered canyon walls. Fancy some fish for dinner? Whether you’re a novice or old-timer, the many lakes of the Rockies offer excellent ice fishing.
We suggest going with a guide for the above activities; they know the area, and have all the correct equipment.
Plus so much more...
We have not even mentioned rafting, caving, horseback riding, wildlife spotting, sleigh rides, snowmobiling, ice skating...the list goes on and on! Visit travelalberta.com for more exciting recreation opportunities.
There are so many fantastic hikes in the Canadian Rockies that they can’t all be named here—I advise you to get a guide book. Here are some of my favourites. They have differing levels of difficulty, and are close by the following hostels:
HI-Kananaskis: Rae Glacier, Rawson Lake, Pocaterra Ridge
HI-Banff Alpine Centre: Edith Corey Pass, Cascade, Mount Bourgeau
HI-Lake Louise Alpine Centre: Sentinel Pass, Tower of Babel, Temple Lake (if you can find it!)
HI-Yoho: The Iceline, Whalesback
HI-Mosquito Creek: Helen Lake, Bow Hut
HI-Rampart Creek: Sunset Pass, Nigel Pass
HI-Hilda Creek: Parker Ridge
HI-Beauty Creek: Stanley Falls
HI-Athabasca: Athabasca Falls
HI-Jasper: Whistlers Mountain, Old Fort Point
HI-Maligne Canyon: Maligne Canyon, Opal Hills