What do you do when the area is setting record-breaking temperatures for the third week running and it's too hot to hike? (Yes there is such a thing).
The Icefields of course!
Despite living in Alberta for my entire life and frequenting Banff as often as possible throughout, I have never been to Jasper. I had never even ventured north of Lake Louise.
D and I always talked about going to the Columbia Icefield, but snow and ice are just not such a novelty around here. We always said it would have to be a blazingly hot day, and a day when we wanted to take a day trip.
Done and done.
(For those not in the know, the Columbia Icefield is an attraction about 2.5 hours north of Banff featuring a large glacier. There are tours right out onto the glacier).
I had one of those guides from the Banff park gates that outlined attractions within the Park, including stops along the Icefield Parkway (Highway 93). This wasn't going to be a hike per se, but hopefully a chance to cool off. It surely wasn't going to be as hot by *glaciers*, was it?
Our first stop along Highway 93 a turnout to view the Crowfoot Glacier. One thing you just can't see here is the thickness of the ice. It's not simply snow sitting on the mountain, it looks to be metres and metres thick, like buildings would get lost in it. The glacier used to have three "toes" (hence the name "Crowfoot"), but over time the bottom toe got "lost" to warming temperatures, and the second toe will eventually suffer the same fate.
Here's a closer look at the glacier itself, and the thickness:
We pulled back onto the Highway and headed to the next "tourist" stop, Bow Pass and Peyto Lake viewpoint. The highway was a little busier than I expected, but not crazy busy. By the time you hit Bow Pass, you are truly in the middle of nowhere: there are no services, no roadside stores, no cell service. Just the beautiful, isolating scenery and the occasional other car.
The giant parking lot for Peyto Lake should have been a clue, so should have the separate road for tour buses. But it just didn't set off any alarm bells.
There's a short hike to the viewpoint. It's about 10 minutes and steady uphill the whole way, so most should be able to manage. There's a sign at the bottom advising travelers to wear sweaters or coats as the top can be quite cool. Considering it was, even here, in the highest road pass in the Park area, still sweltering, D and I laughed the sign off and headed for the viewing platform.
This is not downtown Banff, this was a viewing platform off the highway, 40 km from the nearest town (Lake Louise):
If being in the Parks teaches you one thing, it's multi-culturalism. Just on that platform I heard German, French, Russian and two different Asian languages I couldn't pin down. Even when hiking the most popular trails in and around Banff, you're very likely to hear German or Japanese. I think it's great -- if not a little surreal in the middle of nowhere.
(Clearly, if you're going to drive here, don't do it on a weekend!)
In the end I stuck my camera out and got two shots of Peyto Lake:
On the hike back down I read some of the interpretive signs posted along the way. Being at such a high altitude (2088 m/6849 ft), I expected to see a few different variations of the flowers and plants along the trail. There were a few, but others, like this Indian Paintbrush looked pretty familiar:
One interesting flower was the Western Anemone or Chalice Flower. I only remembered it because it only blooms for a short time in early spring and then goes right to seed. In climates like this one, the growing season is very brief (signs of that were evident along the trail, and many of the interpretive signs explained the challenges). Our odds of actually seeing the bloom were very slim since this area is quite cold right into the summer (so they say... I was still sweltering).
Anyway, the "pods" on these flowers post-bloom actually look quite cool, and they are everywhere:
There was also plenty of Heather. Near the foot of the trail, the growth was very green and low to the ground:
From, our next stop was Mistaya Canyon, another brief turnout off Highway 93, about 72 km from Lake Louise. Since it wasn't listed anywhere else and the turnout had barely a sign, we didn't expect much.
Wrong again. This was the highlight of the drive. From the turnout, the trail leads downhill (for a change). It's a pleasant walk through the forest and you can hear the water long before you see it, but nothing prepares you for how out of the ordinary it's going to be:
That photo is from the bridge spanning the river. The river has carved a narrow, twisting trail through the rock over centuries, resulting in this deep canyon with lots of cliffs and curves.
Here's a closer view of the canyon wall:
It's possible to hike down to where the river enters into the canyon and step out onto the rocks at the river's edge. Only then do you get an idea of how this water could have carved out the canyon... and still is:
Here's a great perspective looking back from the river entering the canyon back to the bridge:
As we sat by the river, watching the water rush into the canyon, it was almost like we could see the water wearing away at the stone. There are potholes and divots that look ready to give way at any time:
Once we hiked back to the car, I was struck by how stinking hot it still was. We were only five minutes or so from Saskatchewan Crossing, which is simply a motel with a convenience store and gas station, but it's the only such creature for hours. I'm itching to spend a few days at the motel and take in all the hikes in the area. I'd need weeks to do them all.
From here were were still a good 40 minutes from the Columbia Icefield, and it was past 4:30, so we opted to call it a day (funny, it never got cooler). We headed back to Lake Louise, only to find it absolutely overrun with people, so we opted for Banff instead. We picked a restaurant with air-conditioning, naturally.