Active – the only way to experience the Canadian Rockies
Photos of breath-taking scenery may dominate your impressions of the Canadian Rockies, but witnessing them only through the lens of a camera seriously limits all that they offer. The passive visitor may get the photo but not the real experience of the Rockies. Getting into, and onto, them will activate more of your senses, giving you a much fuller appreciation of their appeal. Here are nine exhilarating activities that you must-do if you want to really experience the Rocky Mountains.
1. Hiking Lake O’Hara area
Lake O’Hara is the back-country staging point for a whole series of hikes among amazingly beautiful scenery that would take three or four days for the avid hiker to complete. Each hike takes you past waterfalls, up to high scenic overlooks and on to several more gorgeous back-country lakes. The jagged mountain peaks that demarcate the skyline along the Great Continental Divide you are skirting contrast sharply with the placid waters far below you.
Then, just as you’re heart-rate is calming back down from your rigorous ascent and you are soaking in the beauty of the surroundings, your heart is again startled by a ground marmot, a Stellars Jay, or any of a variety of local wildlife and birds, reminding you that you are not alone in this wonderland. But, at this moment, you don’t care. Alone, or with your furry friends, you feel like you could just sit here for hours, or even days, searing the scene around you into your memory.
But a curious spirit, gets you back onto your feet to traverse the next rocky ledge to that alternative vantage point, or another turquoise lake. You will sleep well back in your tent or lodge tonight.
2. Cycling the Icefields Parkway
Increasingly, adventurers are discovering how much more they can enjoy this outdoor playground from the seat of a bicycle. The slower pace from that of a bus, the flexibility to stop where one wills, the increased detail of the landscape that one witnesses, the fresh air and the exhilaration of exercise draw cyclists to the Icefields Parkway that joins Lake Louise with Jasper.
Cyclists will experience the road —one of the planet’s great road trips— together with hordes of tourist buses along the way, but also with the satisfaction that they are taking in so much more than the deprived passengers on those carriers. And without the stained-glass windows to diminish the view, or your seatmate’s nose, to obstruct it.
The trip is not for the faint of heart, though. Several ascents take you more than a combined 1000 m. of elevation gain on a four-day trip to Banff that averages 75 km per day. If you have the time, the numerous campsites along the way also facilitate a slower pace of travel.
3. Canoeing Emerald Lake
The vast numbers of buses and cars in the parking lot and along the roadway leading to the brilliant waters that give this lake its name, attests to its universal attractiveness. Most of those tourists will not venture much past the bridge, though. But you are not just a “tourist,” you’re an adventurer who wants a fuller experience of this majestic setting and you want to stay active, and fit; you want to limber up those canoeing muscles.
You can rent canoes on many of the Rocky Mountain Lakes — Waterton, Lake Louise, Maligne Lake, Moraine Lake – for an energetic, or relaxing, experience on their waters. All of these are delightful, but Emerald Lake is the most appealing. That’s partly because there are fewer hiking trails here surrounding the lake, and partly because some of the majestic peaks that surround it are best witnessed from its middle, or from the opposite shore.
As you venture onto the waters, you truly feel you have found Paradise. Paddle to the middle, then lie back and enjoy the warm sun on your face as you admire the Rocky skyline. You are at peace. Before long, though, you may find your peace disturbed, as your partner awakens you to avoid exceeding your rental return time.
4. Trail-riding at Lake Louise
Trail-riding is offered at many sites in the Canadian Rockies, but Lake Louise offers one of the best places to get onto the back of that horse. That’s because the trails here are designed to keep riders and hikers from bumping into each other. You may want to climb the trail to the Lake Agnes teahouse, an otherwise steep hike on foot, or head off directly to the far end of the Lake and on up part of the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail. Either way, you’ll end up with sweeping views of this iconic Lake, Victoria Glacier and Mount Temple.
If you’ve spent all of your Lake Louise time in hiking boots, though, don’t worry: good trail-riding options are also available at both Banff and Jasper.
5. Whitewater rafting the Kicking Horse River
There are plenty of Canadian rivers that offer whitewater rafting; after all, it’s extremely popular. And Canada has the some of the best rivers on the planet to enjoy the sport. But few offer the excitement of the lower Kicking Horse River just outside Yoho National Park. You can book the easier sections if you can’t handle the extreme adrenaline rush of the lower rapids. And, you can choose the tamer motorized rafting option. But to get the best experience, where you’ll feel the closest to nature -you and the current struggling together— you’ll want to try the “Ultimate Whitewater Challenge,” 22 km. of paddle rafting through class 3 to 4+ rapids of the middle and lower Kicking Horse River.
When you reach shore-fall at the end, you’ll have the satisfaction of having conquered one of the most sought-after whitewater challenges in Canada.
You can book a Kicking Horse whitewater trip from Lake Louise, Banff or Golden.
6. Hiking Sunshine Meadows
The absolutely stunning scenery of Sunshine Meadows, rated by some as Canada’s #1 day hike, is entirely missed by those who don’t get beyond the highway. Alpine meadows are the setting for the gorgeous hikes amidst some of the most spectacular peaks in the Rockies, including the iconic Mt. Assiniboine, Canada’s answer to the “Matterhorn,” and the second highest peak in the Canadian Rockies.
You can choose guided hikes of 45 minutes, 1.5 hours or 4 hours, though you don’t require a guide to enjoy the hikes, the alpine flowers, the much photographed Rock Isle Lake or to get some real exercise hiking to Citadel Peak. But you will need an advance reservation on the bus that takes you from the parking lot up to the high alpine; with a short season that may only open until after the solstice, there is a lot of competition for the space available.
7. Scrambling the Banff Via Ferrata
Via Ferrata’s are a growing trend in Europe and Canada. They’re a test of humans against the mountain in a controlled environment; a chance for everyone to be a mountain climber, safely led by a certified guide. You’ll cross suspension bridges, climb rock faces and ladders, traverse high mountain ledges and experience panoramic views of Banff and the Rockies rarely seen.
You can choose from four different routes and challenge levels that will take you take you as high as 2450 m. (8038 ft.) ASL, more than 1000 m. above the town of Banff below. No experience is necessary, but a good level of physical fitness and a strong heart are advised.
8. Trekking the Athabasca Glacier
The six-kilometre long Athabasca Glacier is the most accessible tongue of the massive Columbia Icefield, the large mass of ice that feeds three oceans. Thousands of tourists venture onto the ice daily for a brief fifteen-minute controlled picture-taking foray within a rigorously prescribed routine before re-boarding their massive Ice Explorer vehicles.
The more adventurous traveller gets a much deeper connection with this river of ice, strapping on the crampons for a guided three-hour hike over its vast terrain. You’ll peer into millwells and giant crevasses, gaze at seracs and stunning alpine vistas. It’s a world few people ever experience first-hand, but, when you’re done, you’ll have gained a deeper understanding of—and personally experienced—the panorama and power of this UNESCO world heritage site. Like most glaciers, though, it is receding, making the experience ever more urgent.
9. Hiking Waterton Lakes
You could spend your entire life hiking the Canadian Rockies! So, it should not surprise you that one-third of the active pursuits on this list are about hiking. Waterton Lakes is a much less known hiker’s paradise because the park is discontinuous with Banff and Jasper National Parks. The hikes, though, are just as spectacular!
The classic Crypt Lake trail is a moderately difficult hike that will appeal to hikers, scramblers, spelunkers and trapeze artists, rising 695 m. (2300 ft.) over its 8.7 km. length, one-way. It starts with a 20-minute boat ride down the magnificent Waterton Lake, wanders first through forest, then into the alpine region where you’ll encounter numerous waterfalls, stunning vistas, emerald lakes, rocky ledges, a ladder and even a 65-m. tunnel to pass through before emerging at the pristine, high-alpine Crypt Lake amidst rugged mountain peaks.
Tomorrow, your experience will be entirely different but equally amazing as you try the Carthew-Alderson Trail, the Lineham Ridge, The Akamina Ridge, Lower Bertha Falls or Cameron Lake, or simply relax at Red Rock Canyon.
Most of these adventures in the Canadian Rockies are options on the BC and Rocky Mountains Spectacular and the Grand Rockies Circuit trips. Waterton Lakes are visited on the Western Kaleidoscope trip, with a full day to experience one of the hikes.