It’s already been a few weeks but I am still not over our INCREDIBLE trip to the Canadian Rockies. I am known as the “hype-beast” among friends because I describe everything as better than it actually is but I promise, Canada was everything I’ve ever wanted out of a vacation and more.
Before departing for the airport, I thought I had packed everything perfectly. An entire wardrobe of clothes that could be layered, winter jackets, hiking poles, hydration packs, an emergency kit, several cans of bug repellent, and most importantly – bear spray. Our trip was off to a comical start once the TSA agent pulled my carry-on off the belt and upon inspecting it, confiscated all of our bug repellent, a can of bear spray (which is $35 a pop), and a hand chain saw, which we didn’t even know was part of our emergency kit. Oops.
We flew United from Dallas to Denver and from Denver to Calgary for ($350 round trip per person). Once we landed in Calgary around 10 PM, we went for a quick dinner at Moxie’s and crashed at the Courtyard near the airport.
Day 1: Calgary & Jasper
In the morning, we went to pick up our rental car from Budget at the airport. Fair warning here – expect about an hour long wait as the rental car places are not prepared for the recent spike in Banff tourism.
Our breakfast at OEB in downtown Calgary was out of this world! “Chasing Chickens” and the “Soul in a Bowl” breakfast poutines AND waffles w/ Quebec Maple syrup.
After picking some bug and bear spray, we set out for Jasper, which is about a five hour drive from Calgary. Once you get to the Banff boundary, you’ll be required to purchase a park pass (similar to a toll booth), which you have to have in order to drive on the Icefields Parkway running between Banff and Jasper National Parks. Upon entering the parks territory, I was astonished at how much Canada really cares about their wildlife. There is not a gas station, a billboard, or a fast food restaurant in sight. They even have overhead passes so the animals can cross the highway safely. During our drives to and from Jasper, we saw a total of five bears and a giant elk (which we thought was a moose…)
Once in Jasper, we had a fantastic three course dinner at Syrahs consisting of game meatballs, smoked bison Cesar salad, Alberta boar rack chop, walleye, and mocha almond mousse for desert. This was one of my favorite dinners on this trip so if you find yourself in Jasper, please make a reservation here. We called it an early night as we had to get up at 8 AM the next day and hike for 10 miles (which actually turned out to be 15. My bad.)
Day 2: Jasper National Park and the Skyline Trail
Our longest hike to date was 6 hours. Naturally, I figured that a two-day back country hike with no oversight or ability to get help, constantly changing terrain, and dangerous weather was the next logical step. The Skyline Trail is Jasper’s highest and most scenic trail with 15 miles of it being above the treeline, thus offering breathtaking views of glacial lakes, waterfalls, and vast alpine terrain. This trail only has two “escape routes” in case of bad weather or injury so basically if you’re unable to finish the whole thing, you’re dead.
There are two starting points on this trail – Signal Hill or Maligne Lake. All the blogs and websites I’d read suggested starting at Maligne Lake because you climb to higher elevation on the first day, making the second day easier (that’s an overstatement because the second day was still torturous). We parked our car at the northern Signal Hill trail head and took a shuttle ($30 per person) to Maligne Lake. While getting our “gear” together (two backpacks with picnic food, water, and wine, hiking poles, and rain jackets) we were showered with concerned looks by our fellow hikers, who’s packs were four times the size of ours and adorned with ice axes, tents, sleeping backs and other miscellaneous hiking trinkets. I felt like I had to keep telling people that we were staying at the one mountain lodge, rather than camping, to avoid them calling a park ranger.
The ride took about 45 minutes and we were off to a great start… on the wrong trail. Thank god for my $12.99/year subscription to the All Trails app which lets you download offline maps and enables you to always see your GPS location, even if there is no service. After realizing our mistake half a mile in, we turned around and started on the actual Skyline trail.
For the first six miles, the trail rises through the forest and is generally pretty muddy due to the constant glacial melt. The “waterproofness” of our hiking boots was really put to the test as we started walking through creeks and stepping into 6 inch deep water puddles. The boots passed the test and we didn’t need the four pairs of socks per person that I brought, although I did use them as gloves on the second day. While hiking, you don’t really notice the mosquitoes but if you stop to tie your shoe, get ready for a full-on bug attack. I suppose this was great motivation to keep walking.
Breaking through the treeline is the best reward for the steep climb and mosquitoes. The trail opens up to glacial mountain tops, green trees, waterfalls, creeks, and 360 degree mountain vistas. At one point the weather was so perfect and the views so pretty that we decided to have a picnic and take an hour long nap.
We had to be at the lodge by 6:30 for dinner so we paced our selves accordingly (or so we thought). Turns out the lodge was two miles further down and one mile to the side of the trail. We were exhausted, our joints hurt, and my traps were permanently tense from carrying 30 lbs (now a little less after drinking wine on the way) on my back. The only thing that kept us going was hunger and the promise of a place to sit down.
Staying at the Shovel Pass Lodge was 1,000,000% the right decision. Although pricey ($250 per person per night) it allows you to have a hot dinner/breakfast, a sack lunch, and most importantly, absolves you from the requirement to carry camping gear. We almost crawled into the lodge, ate dinner, finished the wine, and sipped on some Canadian Club before going to bed at 8 PM. The sun doesn’t set until 10:30 PM in the summertime so I woke up at 11 PM thinking it was 5 AM. It was a long night.
On day one, we hiked 14 miles in 9 hours, with 7.5 of those hours being “moving hours.
Day 3: Skyline Trail Day 2
We woke up at 8 AM and hobbled to breakfast, thinking there was literally not a chance we could do a 16 mile hike that day. Short of being air lifted from the lodge, we had no choice so we geared up with gaiters (protect your shoes and shins from water/snow), packed a lunch, and set out on the trail.
After a mile on the trail, we were faced with “The Notch”. I’ve been nervous about this part for a few weeks as at an elevation of 8,000 ft, there is often snow, ice, and unpredictable weather conditions. I’ve even heard of people having to turn around because they couldn’t get over The Notch. Here we were, two inexperienced hikers, with two hiking poles between us, trying to climb through two feet of snow at 8,000 ft elevation while it’s raining. After a few near death slips and falls, we were over The Notch, celebrating with a shot of Canadian Club.
The next part of the trail would have been miserable if it weren’t for our raincoats and the magnificent views. The temperature dropped to about 40 degrees with windchill and we began climbing through snow covered peaks and valleys. Looking at the glacial lakes and green covered mountain ranges helped. A lot. We ate our sandwiches in a snowy valley (where I’m convinced my hand was nearly exposed to frost bite but Kevin is not in agreement) and descended through rocks and fields towards a valley, crossing several ankle deep glacial creeks. The trail continued in the valley and after accidentally adding an additional mile (my fault) we were DONE.
16 miles in 9 hours for a total of 30.7 miles on the Jasper Skyline Trail.
We wobbled into a pizza joint (Famoso) in the town of Jasper and while waiting for a table, people subtly covered their noses. You can imagine how one might smell after marinating in sweat for 30 miles of back country hiking (the lodge had no running water). We housed 12 inch pizzas EACH. I topped mine off with two bowls of tomato bisque while Kevin opted for a pitcher of beer.
Next came a terrifying 3.5 hour drive to Golden, BC through fog covered highways along cliffs with no lights and moose/bear crossing signs. Kevin slept and played Bloons… Read part 2 of our trip here!