The Best of the Canadian Rockies
Updated: Jan 24, 2020
Road Cycling from Banff to Jasper, Alberta
I didn’t really know what to expect when I first thought of designing a self-guided group cycling trip. Ten days, nine friends, cycling and touring through the Canadian Rocky mountains - It was quite the undertaking and had potential to be either disastrous or incredibly fun. Alberta, Canada was an area that I had explored ten years earlier. The memory of the glacial-blue lake water and soaring peaks were still so vivid that I often dreamed of returning just to share the experience with friends. I had done one other week-long cycling tour. But it was with an organized, professional group and financially, was somewhat of an 'investment vacation'.The friends that I wanted to take along to Alberta were on mixed travel budgets at the time. So doing it ourselves was the most likely way to get everyone interested. So I made up a suggested travel itinerary of all the incredibly scenic spots that I wanted to see again, booked modest hotel rooms ten months in advance and put the proposal out to nine friends who were either avid cyclists or pretty much always up for some sort of adventure. They all practically jumped on the opportunity. (See our full Canadian Rockies itinerary here.) The week that I spent in these iconic National Parks was a fantastic blur of exquisite teal-blue lakes, rugged mountains and gushing waterfalls. And the list below describes some of my favorite highlights from this incredible area that I think no traveler should miss, whether on a bike, in a car or driving a RV.
The Most Beautiful Lake
This is a tough choice right off the top. I was continually stunned by turquoise-colored lakes and icy–blue rivers almost every day. My head was on a constant swivel as I pedaled my way North on the Icefield’s Parkway, trying not to miss anything. And when I took the time to go a little extra distance off the main road, I was typically rewarded with glorious natural sanctuaries that left me staring quietly in awe. Amidst the obvious contenders were Lake Minnewanka, Peyto Lake, Maligne Lake, and of course Lake Louise. But my personal favorite was Moraine Lake, just outside of Lake Louise. On the morning of our ride, My husband and I decided to get up early to beat the anticipated tour bus frenzy that would have us inhaling fumes on the narrow road up to the lake. So at 7:30, and with very little coffee, we got on our bikes as the sun was coming up, and pedaled the eight tough miles up to the lake. I should clarify that the first two miles were the major grind. The rest, although uphill, seemed like moderate rollers by comparison. We marveled at the landscape of the Valley of Ten Peaks unfolding in the morning sun as we made our way slowly to the lake. I have never seen anything like it to this day. It was quiet and serene and the sight and colors that greeted us, I cannot describe accurately except by photos. Moraine Lake has got to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. We walked around in stunned silence, not quite believing that it was real. What was it like to have been the first people to discover this lake? Can you imagine the awe? If you are ever in Lake Louise area, you must make it a stop. And go early. The experience will have a long-lasting effect on you.
The Most Beautiful Waterfall
Waterfalls are everywhere in Banff and Yoho National Parks. There is the infamous Bow River Falls in Banff, Athabasca Falls near Jasper, then Sumwapta Falls, Takakkaw Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and dozens of random falls that range from trickles to outright plunges all along the route leading to Jasper. But the one I enjoyed the most was Johnston Canyon Falls. I love this are because it's located parallel the highly trafficked Hwy 1, on less popular Hwy 1A. It has a lovely picnic area where you can stop to have lunch and the walk through the canyon to the falls is short (1 mile or 3 mile RT to lower and upper falls respectively), has a well-maintained boardwalk and anyone can access it easily.The entire walkway provides a beautiful, up-close look at the rushing blue water below.
The Best Little Mountain Town
At the start of our trip, we spent two days in Banff, followed it by two days in Lake Louise, then a night en route near Athabasca Glacier and finally ended up further north in the town of Jasper. I enjoyed Banff for the variety of restaurants, the the hike up to the Sulfur Mountain Gondola and of course, the beauty of the 100 year old Banff Springs Hotel. But there were a lot of tourists, and in general, I felt it was expensive compared to the other two towns in the area. But if you do take the time to travel further North, past Lake Louise, you’ll find a quaint little town with casual outdoor patios and roof top pizzarias, all surrounded by gorgeous mountain views. In addition, this little town is much quieter, with far less traffic, and has more of an outdoor – community feel than Banff. So for all of those reasons, Jasper gets my vote.
The Seat with the Best View
I am not sure what it was about this trip, but I noticed that I had some pretty good kharma when it came to getting seated with awesome views. Whether we walked in at the right time to mountain-view lunch seats at the Banff Springs Hotel or window seats over looking Moraine Lake for a post-ride brunch, we always somehow managed the most scenic seats in the house. Halfway through the trip, we stayed at the Ice field Chalet (now called Glacier View Inn) across from Athabasca Glacier. And as our good fortune continued, we awoke the next morning to see the magnificent white icefield glistening in the morning sun right across from our room. And in Jasper, we were gazing at mountaintops from a rooftop pizzeria one night and granted a scenic window view from a quiet Greek restaurant on another. I was starting think that all those years I had waited 30 minutes only to be seated near the kitchen door of a sub-par diner, was starting to come back around. It’s difficult to say what the best view really was. But after looking back at my pictures, I'd have to say that the seat with the best view was the one from my road bike as I cycled North along that parkway on Highway 93. I labored up long, steep hills, hunkered down over my handlebars. And when I stopped to catch my breath and turned to see what was behind me, I was rewarded with heart-pounding views of massive blue-grey peaks and ice-covered slabs of granite. As one rider put it so aptly, “sometimes the best views are not what lay ahead, but what you left behind.”
The Biggest Hill Climb
I had to pause and think about this one. There was the 8-10 mile slow grind up to Peyto Lake Overlook that had me counting pedal strokes to get me through the last 100 yards. And there were the many short, but steep rollers on the route between Banff and Lake Louise. Then there was that LONG continuous climb Nic and I muscled through on the way to Maligne Lake, including a short, steep grunt that had me rocking my handlebars as I pedaled in my smallest gear to get to the top. But I think I will have to give the climb between Village Road and Chateau Lake Louise my vote. And it was only 2 miles long. The way Lake Louise is set up, the hotels and most restaurants are down low at one level. And the lake, Chateau Lake Louise, and the road to Moraine Lake were up above you at another level. So between those two areas, was a steep, winding road that just never seemed to end. Nic and I rode it 3 times during our stay there. Once we rode it en route to Moraine Lake. Then we rode it again to go see Lake Louise and hike to the tea house. And finally, we rode it a third time with the group to leave the area and access a quieter connecting road that was closed to vehicular traffic. And each time was a 'GRUNT'. So that hill gets my vote.
The Most Scenic Stretch of Road (aka my favorite Ride)
This is another tough choice because each day of cycling was so incredible and each day had its rewards. But the two sections that stand out for me were the forty mile stretch we rode from Lake Louise to Peyto Summit and the road from Jasper to Maligne Lake. The Peyto Summit ride on Highway 93 was the quintessential Canadian Rockies ride of the week. It was hilly, it was scenic, and the route was lined with ridge lines and glaciers too many to count. Our cycling day turned into an adventure as rain overtook us and we rode the last cold, wet miles to shelter and lunch at Mosquito Lake campground. Weather in this area can change rapidly, even in August. We shivered through our meal, wrapped in fleece and parkas while choking down brownies and cokes in order to revitalize. And then we stripped back down to our cycling clothes and continued our ride as the sun reappeared. Be prepared.The weather in the Canadian Rockies can change hourly, even in Summer. (see here How to Design your own Group Cycling Tour)
Unquestionably, that day's ride was truly epic for a variety of reasons. But my favorite section to ride was from Jasper to Maligne Lake. It was my last day of cycling on the trip and Nic, I summoned the determination to ride the 35 uphill miles to the lake with one other rider. The others in our group opted to sleep in, meet us there by van and then ride the downhill back. This ride was as beautiful as it was tough. The sky was blue, the air was cool, and there was no traffic.
Maybe it was my favorite ride because it was the last one. The ride where I really got the time to reflect back on just how fantastic the week had been. Maybe it was my favorite ride, because after a week of not seeing much wildlife, we finally saw a mother black bear and her two cubs amble across the road. And maybe it was my favorite ride because at the end of that long climb, there was this incredible crystal green lake with a glacial backdrop so alluring, that Nic and I immediately jumped on a Maligne Lake boat tour to explore it further. And what we witnessed on that tour almost seemed unreal. Spirit Island is said to be the most photographed spot in all of Canada. Being there, I could see why. Pictures don’t do it justice. This ride was a great way to spend one of our last days in this remarkable area, and summed up everything we had experienced in one fantastic 35 mile stretch. And that's why it gets my vote.
The Most Satisfying Experience
I love to plan trips. And even more, I love to plan trips that include my friends. I had a vision and it all came together. And the trip exceeded every expectation I thought I had. I did learn a few lessons on the trip. Mainly, that if you pick the right people, you don’t have to worry about every detail once the ball gets rolling. It was incredible. Once the plan was set into motion, it pretty much continued on auto-pilot. Meaning, everyone who went on this trip, was so independent, excited and flexible, that the days flew by seamlessly. And I witnessed a never-ending stream of smiles from my fellow cyclists. I can’t even begin to describe how much pleasure I get out of seeing other people enjoy something I had a part in creating. I get even more satisfaction when new, unplanned and spontaneous things emerge due to the cascade affect of everyone’s enjoyment and positive energy. And it happened every day.This adventure turned out so much better than I has hoped. And I thank my travel buddies, especially my husband, for that. Yes, my friends saw the outcome of the all of the hard work. But he had to live with, and witness, all the planning, the excitement, the fretting over details, and even a few minor meltdowns that were quickly healed with many hugs. To my husband and my friends who took on this adventure, thank you for making it such a cool experience. It’s a trip this woman will never forget.
“The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) is Canada’s only nationwide environmental charity dedicated solely to the protection of their public land and water, and ensuring the parks are managed to protect the nature within them. This organization works to protect well-known areas such as Kananaskis, the Whaleback and the Castle Wilderness. They also offer environmental education in the classroom and interpretive hikes in nature to foster a new generation of environmental stewardship”