Susan O’Keefe, senior manager of content marketing for Nat Geo Expeditions, recently visited the Canadian Rockies with her husband, Michael, on a National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures trip. “We were blown away by the sheer beauty of the area. From mountain peaks to massive glaciers and Tiffany blue lakes, there is spectacular scenery everywhere you look,” she says of the trip.
For 12 days the couple made their way from Calgary to Vancouver (the trip runs both eastward and westbound). They made plenty of stops along the way, including Banff and Jasper National Parks and Whistler and Victoria, British Columbia. Here are her tips for making the most of a visit to, and through, the Canadian Rockies.
This sounds like a dream trip. What was your favorite activity along the route?
The white-water rafting trip down the Elaho-Squamish River in British Columbia was a thrill. Both physically demanding and exhilarating, the trip allowed us to traverse terrain otherwise inaccessible and catch amazing views of the world’s most glaciated mountain range. Midway down the river we were invited to climb up a rock ledge and jump into a pool of chilly blue water.
That’s certainly an adventure—thrilling and chilling. What’s another must-see spot?
Moraine Lake, framed by 10 craggy mountain peaks, graced the back of the Canadian $20 bill until 1993. Along with Lake Louise in Banff National Park, these two glacially fed lakes are uniquely beautiful and make any ordinary lake seem colorless. Both lakes are vibrant turquoise-blue and ringed by snowcapped peaks. At their base, the scent of fresh pine hangs in the air.
Amazing. When we get there, what should we do?
The hikes in the area provide some of the most picturesque landscapes on Earth. At Lake Louise, trek to the historic Lake Agnes Tea House, built by the Canadian Pacific Railway as a refuge for hikers. At the top, you’re rewarded with hot tea, homemade desserts (try the apple crumble), and sandwiches made with thick slices of brown bread baked each morning in an old army propane stove. Though the log cabin has been rebuilt, many of the tables and chairs date to the original 1905 teahouse. Wondering how they haul goods up here? A helicopter stocks flour and sugar once a year and staff hike up fresh supplies a few times a week. Relax on the outdoor patio before continuing on to Little Beehive or making the 2.2-mile descent to Lake Louise.
The glaciers you mentioned sound incredible. Were you able to explore them?
We definitely did. Hiking the Athabasca Glacier, one of six toes of the Columbia Icefield, is a bucket list adventure. Though many people visit the 3.7-mile-long glacier at its base and walk a circular interpretive trail, it isn’t until you traverse the actual glacial mass that you gain an understanding of its movement and the impact of global warming. During our guided walk, we peered into deep, dark, blue crevasses, measured ice melt over the past month, and filled our water bottles with refreshing glacier water. Markers printed with different years (as early as 1942) indicate how far the glacier has receded—about 15 feet per year.
There must be all kinds of wildlife in the Canadian Rockies. Did you spot any on one of those great treks?
It’s hard not to see wildlife in the Canadian Rockies. Animals roam roadsides in search of berries, so you can often spot them right from your vehicle window. While driving through Jasper National Park, we had to stop a few times to let mountain goats and caribou cross the road in front of us. Curvy, grass-covered overpasses along the Trans-Canada Highway enable wildlife to safely look for food and migrate during the breeding season. Large mammals—grizzly bears, wolves, and moose—prefer the overpass bridges, while black bears and cougars amble through narrow underpasses.
At Blue River, halfway between Jasper and Kamloops, we glided along jade-colored waters on boats. There we watched black bears swim (we even caught one relieving itself on a sandy beach) and an adult moose and two babies wander the shore. Other wildlife spotted: elk, bighorn sheep, marmot, bald eagles, and adorable tiny ground squirrels, who always seemed to appear during our picnics.
Do you have any extra tips for travelers venturing to the mountains?
When the sun finally sets, don’t forget to look up. Jasper National Park is considered the second largest dark sky preserve in the world and hosts stargazing events throughout the year. Around 10 p.m. one evening we timed a late sunset with a dip into the Miette Hot Springs, located in the park. The historic springs, sacred to First Nations people and frequented by settlers, are surrounded by wilderness and offer the perfect perch for stargazing. The 104°F water contains sulfate, magnesium, calcium, and other minerals, and the soak soothed my tired muscles after a day of hiking. My advice is to remember your own swimsuit or rent a vintage-style one that harkens to the 1920s.
Road trips give you the opportunity to explore so many places along the journey. Did you have a favorite day trip?
On the western coast of Vancouver Island, we took a long coastal hike in East Sooke Regional Park—a wilderness area with sweeping views of the Olympic Peninsula. The hike starts in a temperate rain forest and then traverses the coast overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We watched the early morning mist clear, revealing blue skies and sparkling Pacific waters, before spotting bald eagles soaring overhead and exploring a salmon trap shack from the early 1930s. After that, we stopped for a picnic and a swim in a nearby cove.
With all those hikes, you must have indulged in lots of great food. What dish would you suggest other travelers try?
In Victoria, beeline to the Commons, across from the legendary Fairmont Empress hotel, for local Kusshi oysters paired with crisp Sauvignon Blanc from the Okanagan Valley. The delicate, briny oysters and citrusy white wine are a welcome treat after a day of hiking. Time your oyster slurping for the late afternoon, when the restaurant has a “buck-a-shuck” special.
Victoria sounds like the place for seafood. What else should we experience while we’re in the city?
The Inner Harbour in Victoria is the city’s heart and soul. Like a choreographed ballet, the water taxis, ferries, and seaplanes put on a spectacle as they navigate the busy harbor. Hop on one of the jaunty yellow taxis or passenger ferries to get your bearings and glimpse colorful, floating home communities, the neo-baroque parliament building (with its 33 domes), and paddlers racing dragon boats. Tip: The taxis will bring you to 14 stops around the harbor, including Old Town and Chinatown.
Did anyone on your trip make it particularly meaningful?
It wasn’t one person but rather our entire group that enhanced this trip for me. Led by a personable local guide, our crew of a dozen travelers hailed from England, Ireland, Finland, Austria, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand. It’s true that the Canadian Rockies scenery was jaw-droppingly beautiful, but the connections with my fellow travelers, and now friends, made the trip deeply fulfilling.
Traveling with a great crew always makes the experience that much better.
It really does. From motivating me to join a bracing white-water rafting trip to making steep hikes more enjoyable, this fun, adventurous group shared stimulating experiences, meaningful conversations, and lots of laughs.