Jasper to Canmore, Alberta: the world’s best drive

JASPER to CANMORE, ALBERTA – A gorgeous lodge that manages the perfect balance of rustic and luxury. One of the world’s top drives. A brand new, thrilling tourist attraction just down the road from an old favourite. And a killer, Southeast Asian style meal waiting at the end in my favourite little city.

I’ve had some marvellous days in this job. But I don’t think I can top my trip from Jasper to Canmore.

I’d spent the better part of the previous afternoon working out kinks in my laptop, but managed to make the drive from Edmonton to Jasper (about four hours with stops) and to drink in the stunning views from the top of the Jasper Aerial Traway. And I got in a short walk around the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and a nice sandwich with grilled short rib and gruyere cheese at the lodge while watching the end of Game 7 in the Habs-Bruins series.

I woke up early the next day in my lakefront room at the Fairmont just as the sun was coming up. I was banging out some notes but could see patches of orange and pink in the sky above the mountains behind Lake Beauvert, so I made a mad dash down to the water to get some shots. The stillness of the lake in the morning quiet and the light reflected from the sky and the dark, shadowy mountains and white puffs of snow made for a magical start to the day.

And then it got interesting. After wolfing down a cup of coffee and a bagel I hit the Icefields Parkway, the magical drive that takes you from Jasper south to Banff. It’s perhaps the greatest drive on the planet, far more interesting than the fabled Highway 1 drive in my home state of California, I dare say.

Within seconds I was snapping photos of a small group of elk or wapiti (I didn’t ask them) grazing on shoots of grass at the side of the road. A minute or two later I get out of my honkingly huge GMC Acadia to shoot a photo of Pyramid Mountain, just north of Jasper, and see what I think is a golden eagle resting on a rock in the Athabasca River. He (or she) takes off almost immediately but I’m left with a quiet thrill.

I’m soon easing my high down an uncrowded highway with views of sweeping bowls of black rock and pure white snow and deep green conifers and blue sky. Mt. Edith Cavell towers into the sky off to my right, and the morning mist on the towering peaks gives the scene an otherworldly feeling.

I suddenly feel like Bilbo in the Lord of the Rings, where he’s getting old and wants to recapture the glories of his youth and tells the wizard, “I want to see mountains, Gandalf. MOUNTAINS.”

I don’t know much about Athabasca Falls but the site doesn’t look far off road so I pull over. It’s less than one drive to the parking lot and then a very short walk to a powerful waterfall that slices and smashes through ancient rock in a steep, narrow slot canyon. You can’t see all of it, but what there is is hugely fierce and thundering in the spring run-off. There’s a great trail that takes you down past, and partly underneath, giant primordial boulders and past impossibly old forests with thick carpets of moss and lichen.

As I make my way south to a mid-morning appointment at the Columbia Icefields Centre, I’m stopping every five minutes or so to take more photos. I give names to mountain ranges and craggy peaks. One intriguing formation I spot looks like a giant, miles long back of a chaise lounge. I label it “God’s Recliner,” a place where the Lord could rest his soul and lean back against the east side of the valley and admire his (or her) handiwork and possibly take in a sunset.

Later on someone tells me it’s either known as the “Neverending Range” or the “Endless Range,” but I like my name better.

I reach the Columbia Icefields Centre and am introduced to head man Rusty Noble, a former Etobicoke chap who now runs the centre, meaning he’s in charge of not only the popular buses that go up onto the Icefields but the new glass-floored Glacier Skywalk that juts a few dozen metres feet out into a ridiculously steep canyon.

As we approach the Skywalk Noble tells me the idea (well, I assume they want to make money, too) was to get folks to spend more time in the area and not just gawk as they drive along. He points out displays about the local water patterns, for example, and explains how melted snow from the mountains in the area finds its way to the Pacific through the Columbia River, to the Arctic through the Athabasca, and to Hudson’s Bay and the Atlantic Ocean via the Saskatchewan River. Very cool.

He also talks in eager tones about the local wildlife, not just the bears and nimble mountain goats but also tiny birds called Clark’s nutcracker, which eats tens of thousands of seeds each year from the Whitebark Pine tree. The tree can’t spread its seeds any other way except to have the Clark’s nutcracker pierce its cones and pry out the seeds, and it’s the only bird that’s equipped to do so. So the two species are forever (I hope) intermingled.

Noble explains how the design process for the Skywalk took several years and explains how a massive crane lowered the glass walkway into place high above the river. He shows me the massive bolts that thrust 16 feet into the rock to hold up the panels.

I finally get to the Skywalk. And immediately chicken out. I got a few feet out onto the glass and was able to briefly look down at the canyon, but there was no way I was going to walk a couple dozen feet out onto this suspended glass. Lots of folks were doing it, however, including a couple in their 70’s. She was quite brave about it, but he had to hold onto the rail to get his way around, so I guess I shouldn’t feel too badly.

In fairness, I had a horrible experience with heights, getting trapped in a steep canyon in British Columbia hundreds of feet above a roaring river with almost nothing to hang onto. I managed the tram in Jasper and also in Banff on an earlier trip, despite some very strong winds. And I’ve done the Peak to Peak tram with the glass floor in Whistler. But I wasn’t going out on that glass platform.

More to my liking was the bus trip up the Columbia Icefields. You hop on a bus that goes three minutes to a staging area, where you hop on special buses outfitted with massive, $5,000 rubber tires that are kept at a very low psi so they can gain traction on the ice.

There are a couple cheesy jokes along the way but we learn how the buses are much better than the old tractor-style buses that chewed up the ice. We also find out the icefield is slowly receding and could be gone in 70 years if climate change predictions are accurate.

There are dozens of folks posing for photos in silly fashion and standing near a bright red and white Canadian flag planted on the ice field, but I manage to put aside the touristy bits and soak up the stunning views of ageless rock that’s been scoured and swept clean by eons of wind and sun and rain and snow. It’s fairly cloudy but the clouds lift as we make our way back down the hill to the staging area.

South of the Icefields are more stunning views, especially one near Nigel Creek where you stare southward down the valley and see massive mountains rising on either side and a ribbon of highway snaking through canyons of evergreens.

South of the Saskatchewan Crossing I see a sign for Mistaya Canyon and figure, why not? It’s about a 10-minute walk down a hill and then, sheer magic; another river that slices through impossibly steep narrow canyon and racing and roiling and boilng away as it dashes north. The views are nice from the pedestrian bridge, but it’s coolerl if you wander a few feet past the bridge and scramble onto some relatively, flat open rocks.

I roll into Canmore in the late afternoon and check into the Paintbox Lodge , an immaculate and beautifully designed B & B/hotel owned by Canadian Olympic medallist Sara Renner and her husband, World Cup ski champion and Olympian Thomas Grandi. There are plenty of nice touches, including fun lamps with Canadian wildlife motifs and lovely local art.

My suite is immense and has a perfect Hudson’s Bay blanket and pillows and a cool bathroom with exposed stone. It’s only a couple steps to some of the town’s best shops, and a few feet to the Bow River, which flows through town.

I have dinner that night at Crazyweed , probably the most renowned restaurant in the Canadian Rockies. They do continental dishes but also make a wonderful salt and pepper calamari with a deeply flavourful, not too spicy Thai dipping sauce. I don’t like salmon much but the salmon sashimi is marvellous. And the Thai chicken with nham jim sauce is utterly perfect. So are the five-spice short ribs.

The building is lovely, with enormous windows to let in the Rocky Mountain light and lights with black wires hanging from the ceiling.

I walk out after dinner and a plane is zipping overhead, leaving a vapor trail across the top of the deep blue sky of the Rocky Mountains as it motors east. I’m glad I’m not on it.

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