Wheels up right on time, always a good start to a trip. Gary and I are headed to Calgary, Alberta, Canada for a long-awaited trip to the Canadian Rockies.
We arrive in Calgary just in time for a tour briefing from our guide, Amy Fellows. Yes, Gary and I are on a bus tour. But we’ve traveled with this company, Caravan Tours, before to Costa Rica and thoroughly enjoyed having someone else do all the work. The fact that Caravan Tours is ridiculously affordable only makes things sweeter.
A Scenic Beginning
Bags at 7, bus at 8. We head south out of Calgary. This is farming country. Stunning fields of bright yellow canola, golden wheat and beautifully bundled hay dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. Tidy farmhouses, silos and barns are the only structures in view.
As we turn west, we see the Rockies off in the distance. Amy explained Alberta and New Zealand are the only places on earth where mountain ranges rise straight from the prairie without any foothills. Sure enough they do.
Just before we enter Waterton Park, our driver, Brian Lindsey, brakes sharply to allow a black bear to amble across the road. Necks crane. Cameras click. The bear turns and looks at us as if to say,s “Get your photos. I don’t have all day.” This got our juices flowing for all the wildlife to come.
Our first stop in the park is at the Prince of Wales Hotel. Google it. It’s pretty fantastic although so windy I can’t imagine staying there. Sitting on a cliff high above Waterton Lake, it’s only open in the summer. In the winter they actually have to tether it to the ground to keep it from blowing off its foundation.
The Bayshore Inn in Waterton Park Village is our home for the next two nights. It has a charming patina and sits right on Waterton Lake. After checking in, we walk to a waterfall on the edge of the village. On the way, a buck and three doe mule deer graze alongside the street completely unconcerned about the tourist paparazzi. Our room has a lovely deck on which we enjoy a nice bottle of malbec and the view before dinner.
Bus at 8. Today we’re going to Waterton Park’s American sister, Glacier National Park in Montana. There is an actual landscaped line on the border between Canada and the United States I guess we take turns keeping it mowed. It makes an impressive statement. No fence, just a grassy border. Even as friendly as our nations are, Amy tells us to behave and not attempt any humor at the customs office. We clear with no problems.
Arriving in Glacier we load onto open-roofed jammers designed specifically for Glacier National Park. Words can’t describe the beauty here. Unlike the Colorado Rockies, Glacier is dotted with actual glaciers and glacier-created lakes with water so blue it looks as if food coloring has been added. Cascading waterfalls are everywhere. Below the tree line it’s a lush green. Above, the signature Rockies.
At Logan’s Pass, which is the Continental Divide in Glacier Park, we spot five big-horned sheep up on the mountain. One of them steps out on a rock ledge as if to say, “Here I am.” In a meadow behind the visitor’s center, a mountain goat grazes. On the way down the mountain a black bear forages for berries.
Back in Waterton Park, Gary and I enjoy a wonderful meal of bison Carpaccio, grilled salmon salad and shrimp and scallop linguine at the Fireside Grill. After dinner we walk across the street for ice cream. A mule deer crosses the street beside us, and we joke we’re in a scene from Northern Exposure.
Off to Banff
Bags at 7, bus at 8. Banff is our destination today. Amy prepares us for a long day of travel. That’s just one of the great things she does, she manages our expectations beautifully. The drive to Banff is breathtaking. Our driver, Brian, is good at slowing to allow us to gawk at wildlife. We pass several small herds of female big-horned sheep that come to lick the salt from the roadways. They are not at all concerned that they’re holding up traffic.
We cross the mountain pass into Banff at 7,500 feet. We stop to stretch our legs only to learn the hiking trail across the road is closed. A grizzly is up the trail a ways guarding a carcass. He’s been there a week and shows no sign of leaving. We arrive in Banff and go straight to the Banff Gondola and ride to the summit of Sulphur Mountain. It starts around 5,000 feet and rises to more than 7,500 feet. It’s rather daunting, but the view of six mountains ranges is amazing. While we’re oohing and ahhing, Brian and Amy check us in to our hotel, the Mount Royal, and deliver our bags to our rooms. See what I mean about being taken care of? Nice.
Bus at 8. We spend the morning tooling around the Banff countryside, visiting some beautiful gardens and Lake Minnewanka and floating the Bow River. Our afternoon is at leisure so Gary and I enjoy lunch at Nourish, a highly recommended vegetarian restaurant, followed by a relaxing adult beverage on the Banff Springs Hotel patio overlooking the Bow River followed by a nap. We then stroll the streets window shopping and eventually buy a Hudson Bay tote bag. Amy has been bragging about Canadian beef the entire trip, so that evening we go to “the best steak restaurant” in Banff. Two words: ho hum. Sorry, Amy. Gary and I cap off our evening with a visit to the Banff Hot Springs for a nice, long soak.
And into the Rockies
Bags at 7, bus at 8. As much as I retain American pride on USDA beef, I stand in awe of our U.S. Rockies’ northern sisters. The drive from Banff to Jasper is overwhelming. It begins with the stunning Lake Louise where we canoe about the lake and tour the hotel. Simply spectacular. Then we drive Highway 93, aka Icefield’s Parkway, north through the most magnificent valley. For miles and miles gigantic mountains jut to the sky, blue lakes are everywhere and glaciers, waterfalls and gushing rivers are at every turn. Amy had been telling us that each day would be better than the last. She is dead on because this drive has me speechless.
It’s raining as we arrive at our accommodations for the next two nights. The Jasper House Bungalows are situated on the banks of the Athabasca River, which is gushing at a frightening pace. After dinner, I call it an early night, but Gary walks the grounds and watches five or six elk frolicking about.
Bus at 9. Amy has this wonderful seating arrangement where she switches up our seating every day. That way sometimes we’re on the right, sometimes on the left, sometimes in back and sometimes in front. It’s a very fair way to make sure everyone gets a shot at sitting up front.
The rain has stopped for now, but the overnight rain has filled the rivers and made them run even faster. On the way to Maligne Lake, Amy points out another lake and says that didn’t exist last month. She and Brian both said there is usually just a trickle of water running through that area but they had such snow in the winter and such a wet spring that the area is now a lake.
Maligne Lake is as beautiful as promised. We spend an hour or so walking the perimeter and enjoying the views. Although we had rainfall overnight, the higher elevations had snow, and the peaks are covered in white.
We spend the afternoon in Jasper. We drop in a few shops and peruse the menus at other restaurants as we consider returning to town for dinner until we learn that a cab ride is $20 one way. It’s only two miles! So, we detour to Patricia Street Deli and load up on olives, cheese, salami, bruschetta and bread for our own little antipasti feast in our charming bungalow. We dine by the soft glow of the Olympics on TV and the pitter pat of a gentle rainfall.
Big Glaciers Ahead
Bags at 7, bus at 8. Rats. This is our last full day. We head south along Highway 93. Amy told us the view would be completely different seeing the mountains from another direction, and once again, she’s right. Although we spotted several glaciers on the way to Jasper, we spot huge glaciers from this direction. The Snow Dome Glacier is one of the few places on earth where its melt feeds three oceans: north to the Arctic, west to the Pacific and east to Hudson Bay and on to the Atlantic. This glacier, along with the Athabasca Glacier and several others, are all part of the 1,170-foot-deep and 640-acre Columbia Ice Field.
We stop at the Columbia Ice Field visitor’s center, which lies at the foot of the Athabasca Glacier. We’re transported to a holding area where we then load up on massive ice explorer vehicles. The tires are as tall as I am. The explorer takes us out onto the glacier where we get out, walk around, feel the freezing cold water, admire the blue ice and snap photos. So cool.
Now, it’s really getting sad because we know the rest of the afternoon is going to be spent driving back to Calgary. We watch the Rockies disappear and the prairie appear. Amy shows us a DVD starring all our travel mates that she’s secretly made. It’s very sweet. At our farewell dinner, we hash our favorite parts of the trip. Amy hands out a list with everyone’s email addresses in case we want to share photos or stay in touch. It’s a bittersweet goodbye.
About half the group has traveled with Caravan before, so we’re seasoned bus travelers. No one has kept us waiting. No one has complained about anything. There’s been absolutely no BMW (bitching, moaning or whining). It’s all been good. Scratch that. It’s all been great.
Footnote: I was on the internet the day after we returned home. Gary called from the next room, “Whatcha doing?” “Cruising the Caravan website to plan our next trip,” I said. I’m thinking Guatemala.
Hilton Garden Inn Airport
2335 Pegasus Road Northeast
Calgary, AB T2E 8C3, Canada
111 Waterton Avenue
Waterton Lakes National Park, AB T0K 2M0, Canada
Mount Royal Hotel
138 Banff Avenue, P.O Box 550, Banff, Alberta T1L 1A7
Jasper House Bungalows
888 217-3969 or 780-852-4535
Fireside Lounge & Wine Bar
113 Waterton Avenue
Waterton Park, AB T0K 2M0
US-89, The Resort at Glacier
St. Mary Lodge
Saint Mary, MT
800-368-3689 or 406-732-4431
Corner of Banff Avenue & Buffalo Street
Banff, AB T1L 1B5
215 Banff Avenue
Banff, AB T1L, Canada
Saltlik, A Rare Restaurant
221 Bear Street
Banff, AB T1L 1B3, Canada
Jasper Brewing Company
624 Connaught Drive
Jasper, AB T0E 1E0, Canada
Patricia Street Deli
606 Patricia Street
Jasper, Jasper National Park
Alberta T0E 1E0, Canada
Northwest Mounted Police Museum
at Fort MacLeod
219 Jerry Potts Boulevard
Fort MacLeod, AB T0L 0Z0
Waterton Lakes National Park
Alberta T0K2M0, Canada
Glacier National Park
Bar U Ranch
Foothills No. 31
Banff, AB T1L 1B2, Canada
Bow River Raft Tour
Rocky Mountain Raft Tours
Banff, Alberta, Canada, T1L 1B6
403-762-3632 | Banffrafttours.com
Athabasca Glacier Tour