The Ultimate British Columbia and Canadian Rockies Road Trip (Part 2 of 3)

This is the second part of the story about my 2020 ultimate road trip to British Columbia and the Canadian Rockies. You will get a closer lo...

This is the second part of the story about my 2020 ultimate road trip to British Columbia and the Canadian Rockies. You will get a closer look at the two most iconic national parks in Canada - Banff and Jasper -  the number one reason most overseas visitors come to Canada. Both are located entirely in the province of Alberta, but we also will take a quick detour into the neighbouring Kootenay National Park to see its gorgeous Marble Canyon.

The first five days of the road trip were covered here - Part 1

Day 6: Banff National Park and Marble Canyon. 
If you've come all the way up to visit Banff National Park, you can already pat yourself on the back.  The park is quite a drive unless you are flying to Calgary. But your job isn't over until you see Moraine Lake at sunrise. The moment when the sun gently touches the mountain peaks towering behind the lake with its golden, almost reddish rays will take your breath away. Simply put - Moraine Lake is the more picturesque mountain lake in Canada and perhaps in the whole world. So is it worth waking up at 5 am to catch sunrise? Absolutely!
A word of caution - arrive at least 30 minutes before sunrise to get a parking spot and find a good place to watch or photograph the "light show". We arrived at 5:40 am and there were only a few parking spots left. The best picture spots on the rock pile have also been taken.
The actual "light show" lasts for about 10 minutes from the moment when the sky becomes pink to when the mountain peaks at a backdrop are all lit up.
After sunrise, you're pretty much down to a few options: you can hike one of the trails, have breakfast at Moraine Lake Lodge, paddle a canoe or leave to explore the rest of the park.
As for the hiking, the Moraine Lake Lakeshore trail (1.5 km / 1 mile one way, easy) seems like a good option, but most of it will still be in the shadow early in the morning.
Another hike - the Consolation Lakes trail (2.9 km / 1.8 miles one way, easy) - promises nice views of high alpine meadows, enormous talus slopes (a very slippery mountain incline with lots of small avalanche rocks) and a glacier. Had we had about more two hours, we would definitely hike that trail. But if you can spare at least a half-day at Moraine Lake and don't mind doing some workout, go for either one of the moderate hikes: Lake Annette (5.7 km / 3.6 miles one way), Eiffel Lake (5.6 km / 3.5 miles one way), or Larch Valley / Minnestimma Lakes (4.3 km / 2.7 miles one way). Note that when the group access is in effect (usually mid-July to mid-October), hikers are legally required to travel in a tight group of four or more to protect from grizzly bear attacks and to minimize disturbance to those animals. The research has shown that groups of less than four people including lone hikers are more likely to be eaten by grizzly bears in the area.
Renting a canoe at Moraine Lake or Lake Louise is the biggest rip-off single most overpriced attraction you can find in the Rockies. The rates start at $95 and $125 plus tax per hour respectively. Wait. What? Why? Why-y-y??! (The person struggling emoji). But you know what - people are still lining up to rent a canoe and even paddle in the rain. 
If you have a jam-packed agenda like we did, you'd better go straight to Lake Louise after seeing the sunrise at Moraine Lake. Luckily, the parking lot there is much spacier, so at 9 am we weren't scrambling to find a spot. Expect to compete with other people on a boardwalk for a good photo shoot though.
Pay tribute or even have a glamorous breakfast at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise which brought fame to this place in the 19th century.
Missing out on hiking the Agnes Lake trail (3.4 km / 2 miles one way) would be a huge mistake. 
Although heavily trafficked, this forested trail is only moderately difficult, offers outstanding views of Mirror and Agnes lakes and - best of all - doesn't require you to bundle up with other hikers due to grizzly bear danger. A great option for solo hikers. 
Most plants you find at alpine meadows can only thrive at higher elevations.
We had our delicious breakfast at Agnes Lake Tea House built in 1901 by Canadian Pacific Railway as a refuge for hikers. They sell filling tuna sandwiches besides famous biscuits and a gigantic selection of leaf and herbal teas (sorry, no coffee!). By the way, all fresh food carries up in the staff's backs, so be generous with your tips and take your garbage with you. 
Those who hike up the Big Beehive trail (1.6 km / 1 mile one way) from the tea house will be rewarded with the most outstanding views of Lake Louise. Beware that the trail becomes pretty slippery when wet.
Most people are drawn to Lake Louise for its surreal turquoise colour. 
The reason for such a colour is pretty simple: flour-like sediment is carried in the glacier melt and washed off to the lake. Then the sunlight bounces off these sedimental particles yielding what we see as blue and green hues.
After such a splendid yet physically demanding hike, you will likely want to change the scenery a little bit. How about visiting a canyon? Johnston Canyon seems like a great option, but only if you have a bike with you or are willing to hike 6.5 km / 4 miles each way. Due to COVID-19, a stretch of the Bow Valley Parkway (Hwy 1A) between Castle Junction and the Town of Banff is closed for motorized vehicles. 
What if you don't have a bike or time to hike what looks like a day trip worth of effort? Then head out to Marble Canyon at the neighbouring Kootenay National Park (on the BC side of the Rockies) which is only a short 30 min drive from Lake Louise. Watch out for something unique on the way there - famed wildlife overpasses across a busy highway. According to Parks Canada, there is a "learning curve" for animals to start using wildlife crossings after construction. For cautious animals like grizzly bears and wolves, it may take up to 5 years before they feel secure using newly built crossings. Elk were the first large species to use the crossings, even using some while they were under construction! There are 6 overpasses and 38 underpasses in the Banff area - the largest number of wildlife crossings in the world!
Marble Canyon is a truly magical place! As you walk up the Vermilion River, it gets deeper and deeper.
At the end of the trail, the river makes its epic fall underneath your feet forcing the rocks to tremble. 
Have you seen kissing squirrels? 

Day 7: Jasper National Park. 
There are two groups of people: those who prefer Banff National Park over Jasper National Park, and those who prefer Jasper National Park over Banff National Park. But the truth is: while they are different, they are equally beautiful and worth exploring. 
The road that connects the two parks is called the Icefield Parkway, one of the 10 most scenic drives in the world. Definitely, my number one in Canada so far. 
If you're not constrained with time, pace yourself to explore its numerous points of interest including Athabasca Falls, Sunwapta Falls, Columbia Icefield, Glacier Skywalk, Saskatchewan River Crossing, Bow Lake, Peyto Lake and others. The drive is definitely long (232 km / 144 miles), but won't be too tiring. 
But if you're trying to see Jasper National Park in just one day (who would want to do that?), be ready to wake up early in the morning and drive all the way to Maligne Lake to catch a morning boat tour to the famous Spirit Island. You can explore other attractions on the way back. 
Like pretty much all the attractions in the Banff-Jasper area, it's not a bad idea to book your boat tour in advance. Especially, during the COVID-19 pandemic as the tours operate at a reduced capacity. 
One attraction which I missed in 2020 was the Columbia Icefield Adventures with a giant 6-wheel truck driving right onto the glacier. It's been closed since July 19, 2020, after a tragic accident happened killing 3 people in a deadly truck rollover. Police are still investigating the cause, but rumour has it that the vehicle got hit by a rockslide. 
Taking a boat to Spirit Island makes for a very relaxing journey. Maligne Lake is the longest lake in the Canadian Rockies (22.5 km / 14 miles) and the second-largest glacier-fed lake in the world (after Lake Baikal in Siberia). 
Maligne Lake is surrounded by towering peaks over 3,000 m / 10,000 ft high and five hanging glaciers.
The views are simply stunning!
It takes about 30 minutes to reach Spirit Island by boat. 
The canoe is another option to get there, but be ready to paddle for 4 hours each way and fight choppy waters on a windy day. The lake is still frozen in early June, so you can imagine how cold the water is. 
When you finally get to Spirit Island, you'll realize that it's not an island - it's a peninsula! And you absolutely can't step on it as this place is sacred for First Nations that lived in the area.
What you'll also realize is that, sadly, half of the trees on Spirit Island are dead. Jasper National Park is under a massive attack of mountain pine beetles from BC that have been killing pine trees in the park like crazy. The beetle has been able to successfully spread due to unusually warm winters during the last decade. Banff National Park was also plagued with this insect, but a swift cutting of infested trees stopped the spread.
Only recently (in 2019) has the population of mountain pine beetles seen a decline, the first time in 6 years.
Those trees that survived the infestation are burned by wildfires. Long and dangerous fires that can only be extinguished by rain or snow. 
Maligne Canyon is a worthy stop on the way back to Jasper Village and the Icefield Parkway. People frequently encounter black bears and even caribou in the area. 
If after visiting Marble and Maligne Canyons you think you've seen it all, Athabasca Falls will make your jaws drop again. Where they lack in height, they definitely make up in crude power!
A series of short trails and a few bridges will let you enjoy the cascades from different angles. 
Visiting the Athabasca Glacier, the most accessible glacier in North America, was my last and the most favourite stop of the day. Make sure you dress for winter-like conditions as staying next to a gigantic glacier is like getting inside a fridge. 
The Athabasca Glacier is one of the 6 glacier tongues fed by the Columbia Icefield, the largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies. Waters from those 6 glaciers end up in all three oceans - Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic! 
Due to high elevations, most of the precipitation falls in the form of snow (up to 7 m / 23 ft per season). As you can imagine, that much snow cannot melt during a short cold summer so over time it gets packed into ice.
The reality fuelled by accelerating climate change is that the ice melts faster than it can accumulate now. As a result, the Athabasca Glacier shrinks by about 5 metres / 16 ft per year! 
The receding glacier leaves barren rock moraines that resemble the Arctic tundra. You probably remember how passionate I was about Nunavut I visited in the summer of 2019, so seeing some of the same flora was such a delight to me. 
Sadly, the glacier is quickly disappearing, so hurry up to see it while you can. 

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