British Columbia: A Road Trip Through the Canadian Rockies

The turquoise waters of the ironically-named Vermillon River in Kootenay National Park. photos by Jim Reynoldson.
The turquoise waters of the ironically-named Vermillon River in Kootenay National Park. photos by Jim Reynoldson.

Finding Freedom Up North

By Jim Reynoldson

The man was on fire! Exploding into a karate kick, the chubby, middle-aged Elvis impersonator was belting out his rendition of “Hunk of Burnin’ Love.”

As the sun was setting on the shore of British Columbia’s Okanagan Lake, the crowd at the annual Penticton Elvis Festival was eating it up.

The cooler evening air creeping in, this was the first time all day I hadn’t felt on fire. Summers in the Okanagan Valley can be very warm and dry – especially when road-tripping in a car sans air conditioning.

Earlier in the day – just after arriving in Penticton and just before checking into the hostel – my girlfriend (Stacy) and I cooled off by floating the channel flowing south from Okanagan Lake.

For $10, Coyote Cruises (215 Riverside Drive) rents out inner tubes and life jackets, and then supplies the bus ride back to Penticton.

The channel flow is extremely slow, but the leisurely float was a welcome respite from a long day of driving from Washington state.

Families of ducks visit each group of inflatables looking for handouts, as scores of suckerfish swim just below the flotilla of sun-drenched tubers along the shallow, 90-minute route.

Wine, Llamas, and Poor Canoeing Skills

Wildlife overpass in Banff National Park
Wildlife overpass in Banff National Park

Hitting the road north from Penticton, Highway 97 snakes its way between long, slender lakes. Drenched in sun, the hillsides sloping toward the lakeshores are dotted with vineyards. Non-pretentious and welcoming, Quail’s Gate was a wonderful introduction to Okanagan wines for the non-connoisseur.

Immaculate grounds, old-world charm, and a stunning view of Okanagan Lake make Mission Hills worth a visit, as well.

Once through densely populated Kelowna and Vernon, the landscape opens up into serene countryside. Late in the day, we arrived at a very rustic, bohemian hostel (HI-Shawsup Lake, on the Trans-Canada Highway). Creeping down the gravel driveway, we noticed a pair of llamas tied to trees and happily munching the foliage.

Turns out, these llamas are residents of the hostel – along with two rowdy kittens and very friendly dog. This interesting hostel has a hippie summer camp feel, with a location right on the water and some unique dormitories housed in converted rail cars.

Glaciers above Lake Louise - Banff
Glaciers above Lake Louise - Banff

With just enough daylight left, escorted to the shore by the resident pooch, we took advantage of the free use of a canoe and headed out into the channel separating two arms of Shawsup Lake.

While our adventure started out leisurely enough, it soon became clear that the current was much stronger than anticipated.

We found ourselves being taken downstream, under a bridge and toward another section of the lake. Several attempts to pull upstream proved fruitless, and degraded into some sniping over who was or wasn’t paddling correctly (in one of those relationship-testing moments couples encounter while traveling).

Should we keep trying, or just hike back up the road carrying a very heavy canoe? Ultimately, hugging the shore and clinging for dear life to branches on the bank to prevent losing ground, we made our way back to the hostel for a well-earned slumber.

Wolves, Marmots, and Grizzly House – Oh My!

Heading east past the picturesque mountain towns of Revelstoke and Golden, in the foothills of the Rockies, the increasingly rugged terrain evoked wildness.

The Northern Lights Wolf Centre (1745 Short Road, in Golden) gives visitors a unique chance to see and experience some of this wild in the form of its resident grey wolves.

We took the simple $10 tour – viewing the gorgeous canines in an enclosure and listening to an informative talk from staff conservationists, not to mention hearing these wolves in a beautiful, spine-tingling howling session.

For $295, however (and by appointment only), visitors are able to walk with and photograph the wolf pack and staff in the forest… truly something I wish my budget had allowed!

Arriving in Banff, a first look at Lake Louise is a study in contrasts. This gem of turquoise waters, peacefully plied by a handful of canoes, is a background of postcard serenity.

Meanwhile, in the foreground, the lakefront is abuzz with tourists seeking the perfect photo and peppered with Clark’s Nutcrackers flittering between groups, looking for handouts.

Cave Basin.
Lake in Cave Basin.

Lake Louise is the starting point for a handful of incredible hikes – but the one I was most excited aboot (I was already thinking Canadian) was the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse hike.

Originally built in 1927 as a stopover for mountaineers, the teahouse is only accessible by trail via a nearly 7-mile (round-trip) hike. As we hiked around the lake and up toward the teahouse, we were greeted everywhere by wonderful photos ops. Below us lay Lake Louise – shrinking in the distance, the massive Fairmont Lake Louise Hotel on its bank.

Up the trail from us, a furry marmot leisurely strolled across the path – lingering just long enough for us to snap several shots. A bit parched (we made the mistake of not bringing water), a friendly Canadian lady – by way of South Africa, she explained – was nice enough to share her water and an encouraging, “It’s not much further!”

Oh, but it was (or so it seemed) much further. But once the teahouse came into view, we felt a sense of accomplishment.

As expected, the tea, cake, and various other treats were expensive – but sometimes, it’s all about location! With stunning glaciers hulking above us, we relaxed on the porch to enjoy the fruits of the labor before the return hike.

Trying to pack as much sightseeing into a day as humanly possible, we set out to drive the iconic Icefield Parkway. I was pleasantly surprised how little traffic cruised along the highway, especially for a beautiful July day.

It seemed only minutes passed between pristine lakes and other roadside viewpoints – but the highlights in my view were Mistaya Canyon and Peyto Lake. Peyto Lake, from the viewpoint above, has the most distinctive shape of any lake you’ll see in the Canadian Rockies, the far end resembling the head of a wolf.

Mistaya Canyon is modern art gouged by the ancient hand of nature – curved layers of limestone carved by the raging glacial runoff thundering through it. Breathtaking!

Back in Banff by nightfall, we decided to try a unique dining experience. The Grizzly House (207 Banff Ave.) is a carnivore’s dream! The list of meats on the cook-it-yourself fondue menu is remarkable – everything from rattlesnake to alligator to ostrich. Hot stones placed at our table, I chose a fleshy trio of caribou, wild boar, and buffalo – delicious, lean meats seared right at my table by me.

The elegant interior of the historic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
The elegant interior of the historic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel

Short of hunting these magnificent animals yourself, the Grizzly House is about as interactive as dinner gets.

Canadian Independence, Eh!

After a good night’s sleep, we awoke to fresh mountain air and a birthday party.
It was Canada Day – and the festivities in Banff to celebrate Canadian independence (in 1867) began with a very inexpensive ($2 CN) pancake breakfast in the gardens of Canada Place.

Right across the road from our hostel (the Banff Y Mountain Lodge, 102 Spray Ave.), we loaded up on pancakes, eggs, sausage and juice – and spent the cool, sunny morning singing “O Canada” with the locals.

While yesterday was about hiking and road trips, this day was all about the town of Banff. My favorite thing about Banff is that you can park your car and enjoy a full day of activities on foot. If the crowds get to you, a ten-minute walk in virtually any direction will leave you communing with nature in near-solitude.
We began our walking tour of Banff strolling along the forested trail bordering the Bow River.

Seeming to rise out of the woods, the massive Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel (405 Spray Ave.) came into view. The historic architectural icon of Banff is every bit as impressive today as it must have been when constructed in 1888. From the grand ballrooms to the ornate staircases to the verandas with magnificent valley views, it’s worth spending some time touring this marvel inside and out!

The lush wetlands of Vermillion Lakes in Banff
The lush wetlands of Vermillion Lakes in Banff

Back in the town center, the holiday celebration (along with the temperature) began to heat up with some great performances. Fiddle players from the Calgary Stampede, colorfully costumed Ukrainian folk dancers, and a number of musicians performed throughout the day – followed by a parade, flanked by sun-loving (and very patriotic) Canadians waving flags and cheering.

In the hours preceding twilight, we decided to pounce upon a bargain. At Blue Canoe (corner of Bow Ave. & Wolf St.), located right on the river, a day-end special gets you two hours of canoe rental for the price of one.

As established earlier, we’re not exactly expert paddlers, so the extra time was a real bonus. Banff offers a huge area for canoeing: the Bow River, the Vermillion Lakes, and the adjoining 40-Mile Creek (not actually that long). The water in all three areas is very calm – and while we did find ourselves “up a creek”, this time it was low-stress.

The creek opens up to the large (but extremely shallow) Vermillion Lakes, bordered by grassy wetlands. This a great place – well away from town – to view grazing wildlife. This entire route is fantastic for beginners who may be apprehensive about setting off in a canoe. It’s safe, slow-current, and low-key.

The Canada Day fireworks extravaganza fittingly capped off our last night in Banff. Booming and sizzling and whistling overhead, the display lit up the pretty mountain town one last time before morning – and I couldn’t help feeling that our neighbors to the north have good reason to love this country.

JimJim Reynoldson is a freelance writer and an avid traveler in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

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