I really missed being in the mountains, and eagerly anticipated the rush of crossing into the Canadian Rockies. After a month of wandering through American and Canadian prairies, Leah and I were more than ready for a change in scenery, but it came with a dose of anxiety.
British Columbia was on fire at several National Park locations, and much of the smoke and ash that was rising into the high air was now drifting toward us, acting as a blue sky spoiler.
A gauzy gray veil had settled over the mountains surrounding Banff, cloaking the distant peaks like a cruel magic vanishing act.
There was little to be done about many of the fires that were burning out of control, so essentially, we were at the mercy of the winds to give us back our views.
We secured reservations months ago for a coveted trailer court site inside the park, but could only manage to snag two overnights, as this was the park’s busiest time of the year. Our biggest concern: salvaging two precious days in a park so vast, with so many highlights to choose from, while wildfires loomed over the horizon.
As luck would have it, we overshot the turnoff to our campground on Tunnel Mountain Drive with no chance of u-turning with a twenty-eight foot Airstream in tow. I drove on until a turn-in appeared a short distance up the road featuring Banff’s only hoodoos– overwhelmed by the grandeur of Mount Rundle and the beauty of Bow Valley.
Once we settled into site 818, we drove to town in search of recommendations from the Visitor’s Center staff, and came away with an avalanche of maps and brochures, along with a strong warning about bear activity in the park. Apparently, August is known for offering the best berries for bears in Banff.
With the haze blowing west and sky beginning to brighten by 5:00 pm, we headed out to Johnson Lake–a favorite for paddlers, and the warmest alpine lake in the park for swimming at 50º F.
But we were content to hike the loop around the lake and gaze at Cascade Mountain in the distance before calling it a day.
On our return ride to the Airstream, we were surprised to find a small herd of bighorns grazing by the side of the road…
…while an elder patrolled the perimeter.
The following day–with fires raging to the southwest of us–we planned a trip to the north country in search of clear skies. A leisurely ride along the Bow Valley Parkway (from the Village of Banff to its terminus at the Village of Lake Louise) gave us plenty to see, with several stops along the way—most of them intentional…
and one of them unexpected.
We eventually arrived at Lake Louise via park shuttle on the advice of a park official who claimed that the parking lot by the lake was bulging with traffic chaos, which turned out to be an understatement. Even the road to Moraine Lake, an off-shoot of our shuttle route was barricaded to all traffic.
The short trail to the Lake revealed a sea of people on the boardwalk jockeying for position with selfie sticks–each one vying for the iconic pose with Mount Victoria in the background. As if in a trance, I stood in awe of the scene, my focus rapidly shifting between the splendor of Victoria Glacier and the vivid turquoise water, and wondering if any photograph could ever capture the beauty I felt honored to witness.
It was only after somebody tapped me to snap their picture that I came to my senses. Of course, they gladly returned the favor.
Leah and I elected to hike the Fairview Trail, a one-mile ascent through a spruce forest offering commanding views of Chateau Lake Louise. There was no vacancy at the hotel that day, despite room rates ranging from $450 to $1100 per night.
Equally shocking was the rate for canoe rentals at the boathouse.
But avid seafarers were undeterred, as reservations were unavailable for the next two days.
At 5:00 pm the barricades to Moraine Lake were lifted, once again making it acceptable to drive the distance to an overflowing parking lot. We passed car after car haphazardly leaning into a drainage ditch along the roadbed in lieu of a formal parking space half a mile ahead. Consequently, we were road-sharing with fearless pedestrians who were determined to make a pilgrimage to the lake, come hell or high traffic.
For many, it was equivalent to a religious experience…
While some bridesmaids found it titillating.
The next day we awoke to a hazy sky. The fires in Kootenay National Park were spreading south of us, causing thousands in BC to evacuate. We were scheduled to pack up and leave by 11:00 am, but on a whim, I challenged the campground attendant to search for cancellations and find me an extra day.
And she did!
While I would have preferred to stay put at #818, the site was promised to another. The best she could do was to place me next door in #816. It meant having to unhook all the utilities, and hitch up the Airstream only to pull it 50 feet, but I wasn’t complaining. I can’t imagine a faster move!
With our bonus day, we cruised the Vermillion Lakes Trail, stopping to admire Mount Rundle, considered the most photographed, painted, and climbed mountain in Banff.
After debating our next objective, we elected to drive a short distance into BC to inspect a waterfall from above at Marble Canyon in Kootenay–as long as it wasn’t on fire! However, as if by providence, an attendant was lifting the parking barricade to Johnson Canyon as we were approaching the turn-in, and we quickly detoured to one of Banff’s signature trails.
We followed a paved trail bordered by arrow-straight pines…
as it transitioned into a cantilevered walkway, steadily climbing along a fast and meandering stream, where it culminated in a bridge across a torrent of cascading water…
…that lead through a narrow low-clearance tunnel.
“I’d make sure to protect my head if I was you,” I advised Leah.
We battled through the claustrophobia and B.O. until the passage opened out to an onslaught of gushing water.
By this time, Leah’s arches were giving out, and we would have called it a day, but we pledged to make good on our original plan, so it was off to Kootenay we went.
Marble Canyon was a slow assent along a canyon of rock, where the water was steadily dropping lower into the gorge beneath our feet, and every step brought us closer to the source of the roar.
The only thing left to do was to hike downhill to the stream, and feel the alpine water rush over my feet, as I watched the clouds race across a clear sky.
We borrowed from Bow Valley Provincial Park, next door to score an extra day in Banff and it paid off–the weather cooperated, the smoke dissipated, and the scenery elevated our mood and our feet.