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North America

Rocky Mountain High

Jonathan van Bilsen



June 2, 2013

Rocky Mountain High

Visitors to Canada often remark about the natural beauty of our country and nowhere is this more prevalent than the Rocky Mountains of Alberta. Truly, one of the most spectacular treks is the drive along the Ice Fields Parkway, which takes you from the alpine town of Lake Louise all the way to the remote railway village of Jasper.

I have been fortunate to have made this three times before, the first time being in 1986, and jumped at the opportunity to do yet again. When visiting Jasper many people prefer to fly to Edmonton, however driving from Calgary is only an additional 90 minutes, and the sights along the way are the most spectacular anywhere; and best of all you can do it in one day.

It will mean rising early and catching a 6:30 Air Canada flight to Calgary, but you arrive at 8:30 just in time for breakfast (or lunch, depending on how you view it). If you buy a snack on the plane you can hold out until Banff before having to stop for food. The drive is about ninety minutes and the mountains seem to grow around you.

From Banff you travel to Lake Louise, stopping for the famous photograph of the lake from the front of the Fairmont hotel. A new parking lot for tourists, bypasses the hotel, which is a shame, as half the fun was walking through the colossal lobby and peering out the cathedral-style windows at the vistas. The lake however, is just as spectacular as it always has been.

We continue along our journey weaving through some of the tallest mountains on the planet. Postcard views change with every turn and the panoramas are never boring. Not only are there magnificent sights, but there is an unequalled amount of wildlife strolling along the road. 

There is little that compares with the thrill of seeing a black bear grazing sleepily along the road and it happened twice in the first two hours after I left Lake Louise. Caribou trotted along side the pavement and mule deer were everywhere, but you never tire of seeing them. I had the pleasure of stopping to let a family of mountain sheep cross ahead of me and even saw a wolf standing on the shoulder with a “What are you staring at?” look on his face.

More than 14,000 vehicles a day pass Lake Louise and safety for the animals is a concern, as many motorists travel faster than the 90 km/hour limit. In an effort to protect the wildlife the government has built overpasses and underpasses for animals, to keep them from walking across the busy roadway.

About 30 minutes from Lake Louise, along the 230 kilometre highway to Jasper, lies famous Peyto Lake. This glacier fed, turquoise body of water is one of the most photographed scenes in western Canada and the short (15 minute) walk from the parking lot is well worth it. 

There is no end to the places you can visit, but a stop at the Columbia Ice fields is a must. It is about half way to Jasper and you should allow an hour, especially if you want to enjoy one of their famous hotdogs and ice cream. The icefields are receding at an alarming rate and I was shocked at the difference since my first visit, twenty-two years ago. Markers give a visual representation where the ice used to be and walking the twenty minutes to the edge makes it hard to believe that in 1844 the ice flow was where the highway is now.

There are several places to stay in Jasper, a town of 4,200, but if the opportunity arises the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is the one to choose. All the old Canadian Pacific hotels have a certain grandeur to them, and when you walk through the lobby of this one and overlook the emerald lake you feel as if you are walking among the railway tycoons of the eighteen hundreds.

There are two things I would recommend in Jasper: one is the cable car ride to the top of the snow-capped mountains where the views are unmatched. A large platform lets you look in all directions, including a stunning view of the town of Jasper. White, fur covered mountain goats wander down from time to time and you will need a jacket, for the temperatures drop as you arrive at the top of the world.

The other ‘must-see’ is a boat ride on Maligne Lake to visit famous Spirit Island. Discovered a hundred years ago by a New York based photographer, it is the most impressive sight in all the Rockies and certainly one of the most photographed islands in the world.

No matter what you see or where you go in the Jasper area you are sure to be mesmerized by the beauty of the landscape. What better way to travel then to experience our own country?

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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