On Wednesday, April 11th, we saw a window in the fog and rain to leave Revelstoke and take advantage of clear skies on what promised to be a spectacular drive via Trans-Canada Highway 1. Since there’s still a lot of avalanche activity, much of the accessible areas from the highway through Mt. Revelstoke National Park were still closed for the winter. Backcountry access by heli or with a guide is still abundant though.
We were amazed at the number of snow sheds (or avalanche tunnels) throughout the park, some with over 30 feet of snow still piled upon them. These robust avalanche barriers are found on particularly hazardous stretches of roadway to maintain passage in avalanche-prone areas. Roadway crews work tirelessly throughout the winter to mitigate avalanche risk over the highway and to clear the snow when one cannot be avoided.
Our first opportunity to pull over to a trailhead that wasn’t still closed for the season was at the Illecillewaet Valley Trail system in Canada’s Glacier National Park, where we hiked with our snow spikes. Popular among backcountry skiers for its primo access to fresh powder in the steep and snowy Columbia mountains and cedar forests, the wide trails were ultra hard-packed and hardly in need of snowshoes this time of year.
As the rivers along the rest of the route started thawing, we enjoyed glimpses of the glacier-fed, bright turquoise waters of the Kicking Horse River and abundant mountain goat sightings.
Only about 228 km (141 miles) from Revelstoke, we arrived in Lake Louise… unfortunately, just as the clouds started rolling in as well. However ill-timed for the sun that day, we were pleased to find this iconic photographic landmark to be still frozen solid and perfect for cross-country skiing.
The parking lot at Lake Louise was practically full – even in April. And good luck arriving in summer… It’s recommended to arrive before 7am or after 8pm to even have a shot at a parking spot. Though the trails surrounding the lake are lovely and well-groomed (and this time of year, still Nordic ski-able), it’s a path all-too-traveled for our tastes. With the huge eyesore of the architecturally mismatched Fairmont Lake Louise hotel looming in front of such unequivocal beauty, it’s just not our kind of scene, feeling all too contrived and unnatural (let alone filled with rules and selfie sticks). Backcountry-minded folks are likely to have found other spots equally as beautiful, but without the litany of rules and throngs of other people. Just our humble opinion.
Yet…. Lake Louise was far and away more manageable for non-campgrounders like us than Banff. Note that both are part of Banff National Park, and there’s absolutely no boondocking, overnight parking, stealth camping….you get the drift… anywhere in the national park. And they’re sticklers about it, which we get. We imagine it’s tough to control the sudden swell of VANlifers once the weather gets sweeter. We found home at the yet-closed Lake Louise Campground where spots were plowed out and sites offered great views in relatively close proximity to the trails and the lake.
Banff was another story…What was once a quaint mountain town seems to have gone by the way of Vail and Aspen, with zero charm, no local culture and a full-on commercial focus. It’s been developed into Any Mall, USA, with shops and services catering solely to tourists and one predominant goal: Spend, spend, spend! Even in April, it was shoulder to shoulder on the streets, and in spite its placement amidst some unarguably beautiful scenery, we literally fled.
There was very limited parking for RVs, and all of the city streets were confined to 2 hour parking. As the city is within Banff National Park, there’s no overnight parking anywhere except the campground.
The following day brought more snow to Lake Louise and, after getting some work done at the Lake Louise Visitors Center (hurray for wifi!), we took advantage of the fresh powder on a 10k classic ski around the lake and its surrounding trails.
Visibility was poor, of course, yet it’s simply impossible to deny: Lake Louise’s setting is magical in any weather. And at the end of the lake…glaciers!
One of the trade-offs of traveling in springtime is, of course, the unpredictable weather. It’s a trade-off we’re okay with, though, and most of the time we’re fortunate enough to be able to pick exactly the perfect activity for the weather. On April 13th, we seized another great weather window to drive the Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise to Jasper. (quick video)
Everyone will tell you that this is the drive of a lifetime – and they wouldn’t be wrong. The towering snow-covered mountains and glaciers throughout Jasper National Park, the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies, are bound to elicit more ooh’s and aaaah’s than a fireworks display. The road links Lake Louise (in Banff NP) with Jasper (in Jasper NP), and the 232 km (144 mile) journey rewards travelers with epic views. It’s easily the most spectacularly scenic drive we’ve made, and is not without its share of activity stops, even in that transition between winter and spring.
Our first stopover was near Crowfoot Glacier where we opted not to ski (though it would have been perfect conditions for it) at Boyd Lake. The parking lot was full and we knew there’d be opportunities for other movement stops along the trip.
We stretched our legs at the Athabasca Glacier lookout and hiked in our snow spikes at Sunwapta Falls. Pain and joint instability that day prevented Bethany from going much more than a couple of miles but it was definitely worth the trek to the beautiful, ice-enshrouded falls undergoing their seasonal transition back to flowing turquoise blue water.
We also stopped at Athabasca Falls for a quick walk, though we had hoped to do some skate skiing or at least snow shoeing here. The winter trail guide suggested that the area has great groomed trails we could access as they close Highway 93A and track-set it for cross country skiing, but the snow had all but melted at these lower elevations as they descend into the city of Jasper.
Jasper was a little more our speed than either Lake Louise or Banff, yet their high influx of traffic in the summer months still forces them to put up their defenses toward overnight campers with two-hour parking limits and no overnight parking signs aplenty. The little town is full of coffee shops (most of which promise no wi-fi) and lots of tacky gift shops, but there’s also a lot of great outdoor outfitters. One of the best things about the town of Jasper itself is its well-marked in-town trail system, linking many parts of the city by nature trail for fat tire biking, mountain biking and hiking. The visitor’s center was a great place to catch up on some work and map out our next adventure en route to Prince George.
This time of year, we decided to take the risk of stealth camping at one of the trailheads near the Athabasca River Trail so we could go for a trail run in the morning along the river and around Lac Beauvert. The risk paid off and we made it through the night uninterrupted – but come summer there’d be no way.
We also drove up to Pyramid Lake to one of the trailheads for a rainy/snowy hike around the lake and views of Pyramid Mountain before heading for Mt. Robson Provincial Park.
The road out of Jasper National Park was beautiful and the weather cleared just in time for us to see Overlander Falls sparkling in sunshine within Mt. Robson Provincial Park. It was a short ½ mile walk to the falls; a great warm up to the much longer Berg Lake Trail, starting at the Mt. Robson Provincial Park Visitors Center (closed this time of year) just up the street.
Intermittent rain, sleet, snow and sun alternated throughout the hike along the Robson River to Lake Kinney, about 3 miles in.
A lovely, wide and rolling path, it would have been perfect for off-track skiing too, though we opted for our snow spikes to give us a little traction over the wet and quickly melting snow.
We had the trail almost all to ourselves; in prime season, this popular route requires a permit. We turned back at Kinney instead of heading on for Berg Lake so we could get on the road to Prince George to find wifi for work the following morning and make our mecca to Costco for a big diesel run.
*Pro tip: If you’re traveling through PG from the US and have a Costco VISA, make a point to buy a Costco Cash Card before you leave the US so you can still earn your Costco dividends. Canadian Costcos only take Mastercard; a bummer when you’ve got a $600 fuel fill-up…
We arrived in Prince George around 8pm, recollecting that this is the first town overlapping our last year’s route to Alaska. Prince George is dirty and industrial on the surface, but it looks like a real reboot is in the works — lots of cool, trendy new restaurants and shops downtown evoke the sense that this place is trying hard to be a key player for tourism. If we get here early enough next year, we’d like to check out their world-class trails at Otway Nordic Ski Center.
Following our Costco run in Prince George, we were off to our friends’ farm in Telkwa, BC for a few weeks of farmlife. Follow along on Instagram to see where we’ll be next.