Alaska Road trip 2017 – Banff National Park and Columbia Icefields…Days 30-31

We were nearing the end of our wonderful Canada/Alaska Highway/Alaska adventure.  We had one last tour scheduled for Banff NP and the icefields in Jasper NP.  We had stayed the night at Tunnel Mountain campground in Banff, which was on a hill above the town. Our tour was at 9am, as we left the campground, we noticed how beautiful the mountains looked.  Unlike the previous day, it was a sunny morning.  As we stopped at the overlook, we got a rare treat of listening to elk bugle in the crisp fall air in the valley below.

We got to the meeting spot a bit early and we weren’t sure we were in the correct place.  We wandered into McDonalds for breakfast, used the wifi and realized that we met in the parking area just off the main road.  While we were waiting the city police came by and told us that we would need to park for the day down by the river.  So Jim hustled down and parked the pickup so we wouldn’t get towed.  We met Edmund who would be our Tour guide as well as our driver for the day.


As we drove to our first stop at Crowfoot Glacier, Edmund gave us the history of the park.  In 1670, England granted a charter to the Hudson Bay Company and the area became known as Rupert’s Land.   In 1858 James Hector, a Scottish geologist was leading the Palliser expedition for the Canadian railway, trying to find a suitable path to connect the east and west areas of Canada and discovered the beauty of the area. In 1885, Banff National Park was established to protect an area hot springs, thus it was relatively small at only 26 square km.  It became Canada’s first national park and the 3rd in the world.  In the early 20th century, roads were built and the railroad constructed the Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise.  Through extensive advertising, the area became a popular tourist attraction.  The present area of the park is 6,641 square km or 2,585 sq miles.   The area encompassing the national parks of Jasper, Banff, Yoho, and Kootenay has been declared a World Unesco site.

The present highway was constructed in the 1930s to get men back to work after the Great Depression.  The jobs paid 30 cents per day and most of the work was done by hand as there were only 10 tractors for the entire project.

The first tour was organized by the Brewster brothers in 1892.  It was a 3 week trip by horseback from the towns of Banff to Jasper.  Today, Brewster is one of the largest tour companies in Alberta.

With our history lesson complete, we made our first stop at Crowfoot Glacier.  The bottom toe of the glacier has receded.

Edmund showed us pictures of the what the glacier used to look like.

Our next stop was at Bow Lake.  The reflections were awesome.

The lake is fed by Bow Glacier.

At the northern edge of the lake is the historic Num ti Jah Lodge.  This is an interesting place.  It was originally a one story lodge.  It was determined that the first floor would not be able to handle a second floor being built on top of it.  So the owners built a new first floor and then put the old first floor on top for the new second floor….interesting

We stopped for lunch along the Bow river.  Much to Jerie’s dismay, we had not marked the correct box to choose our wraps so we were given vegetarian (very heavy on the tomato sauce). Jim was able to spot mountain goats on the cliffs high above the river.

We continued our drive north, stopping at the overlook of the Bow River.  This was also the place we were yesterday when we hiked to see Bridal Veil and Panther Falls.

Our next stop was Columbia Icefield Visitor Center. There was a display talking for the Columbia Icefields.

We enjoyed the welcome signs for both Jasper and Banff NP.

There were numerous historical pictures about the road construction, tourism, and the movies filmed in the area.  We also learned that the Columbia Icefield takes 50 feet of snow to create 1 foot of glacial ice, which is compacted and all the air bubbles are gone.  The Ice Field is leftover from the “Big Ice Age” that occured 10,000 years ago.  From exploration into the world’s ice, the Malakavinch Cycle was discovered.  It states that there is a 2000 year Ice Age cycle.  The earth has had an ice age or cooling period, of varying degrees, 20 times in the last 2 million years.  This is due to a 100,000 year egg or oval path around the sun.  The Columbia Icefields last experienced a Little Ice Age from 1600-1850.  The Columbia glacier is from that Little Ice Age.  In 1890, 2 German explorers who were on a 19 day trip to discover tall mountains, found the Columbia Icefields on day 6 of their journey.  If you think of an Icefield as the palm of your hand and your fingers are the glaciers extending outward.

With our newly learned information on glaciers and icefields, we were excited for the next part of our tour.  We were going to take the snow coach and drive out on Columbia Glacier.  Edmund waited at the visitor center as we had to board a Brewster tour bus to travel to the nearby transfer depot.

Once at the transfer depot, we were assigned to Bruce who drove Ice Explorer 532, the only green one in the fleet.  There are only 23 Ice Explorers world-wide.  All are in Banff except one that is at the South Pole.  They are built in Alberta, can hold 56 passengers, and at one time were repaired by a company in Burley, Idaho about 90 miles south of where we live.

The transfer depot is built on the glacial moraine.  To enter onto the glacier we had to drive down a 32% grade with an 18% angle degree.  This is currently the steepest road in use in the world.  The next steepest is the road up Pike’s Peak in Colorado, which we have also been on.  The Ice Explorer is 6 wheel drive.  We drove down the road in 1st gear with a transmission brake.

At the bottom of the grade, there is a “bath tub” that the Ice Explorer drives through.  This is to wash off the dirt so that it will not get on the glacier.


The Ice Explorer wash or bathtub

At the glacier parking lot, we were given 20 minutes to look at the exhibits, take pictures and enjoy the experience.



The ice and surrounding glaciers…

It was covered in clouds, but nearby Snowdome is one of only 2 peaks in the world, that their watershed goes to 3 different bodies of water.  It’s water goes to the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic Oceans.

We had a great experience with the Ice Explorer.  We met up with Edmund at the visitor center and started our drive south back to Banff.  However, Edmund still had some interesting stops for us.  Peyto Lake had a beautiful color due to the glacial flour, which is the bits of rock that are finely ground as the glacier moves over it.  There was a unique board with a hole so that you could accurately look at Peyto Glacier.

Our final surprise….Edmund, who is Irish, played us a song on his recorder.  It was a great way to end the day.  Awesome tour.

The next morning we headed north towards Yoho NP, but stopped at the Banff city sign…we also brought along some delicious caramel corn we bought the night before.

Heading north out of the town of Banff, you can see Castle Mountain.  It was original named castle mountain by James Hector.  From 1946 – 1979 it was known as Mount Eisenhower in honor of the US President for his service as a general during World War II.  The Canadian public wanted it changed back to its original name of Castle Mountain.  The mountains are made of sedimentary rock which once were at the bottom of a large ocean.  The sea floor was thrust upward and sea fossils can now be found on top of the peaks.

Banff also has a series of wildlife arches.  These were built to help wildlife walking from one side of the highway to the other without interference or collisions with vehicles.  There is a roadside exhibit dedicated to the walkways, with minature examples.

Due to its popularity, the park service runs a bus system.  You park at a lot approximately 3 miles south of the entrance and then you are transported to either Lake Louise or Moraine Lake.  However, you can not go from one lake to the other.  You must come back to the parking lot and board a different bus.  A bit confusing….

The view at lake level was great with Victoria Glacier in the background.  However, we decided to hike to Fairview Lookout for a better view.  It indicated it was only 1 km, but it was a lot steeper than we anticipated, much huffing and puffing.  However, it was worth the view!!!

The Fairmont Chateau at Lake Louise was developed in the early 20th century by the Candian Pacific Railway.  The hotel has been added onto and remodel several times, with the most recent addition opening in 2004.

We hopped back on the bus to the parking lot, changed buses and headed to Moraine

The larch were in their fall colors, so it was very busy.  Larch are pine trees that lose their needles in the fall, but before they fall, they turn a brilliant golden color.

For a better view we climbed the Rockpile.  Today was all about climbing, but this one was short.  We did scramble over the rocks at the top..

The view was breathtaking.  We could have sat there all day.

Everyone was taking “candid” shots, so we took a few too…

With so many people, the wait for the bus was about an hour.  We wandered into the gift shop to buy a drink.  With our trip coming to a close, we thought it was fate that we found these bottles!!!

Our time in Banff and Jasper NP had come to a close.  We were on our few days.  It had been a whirlwind of memories but we still had a few more adventures…

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