During a summer tour from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Banff National Park in Alberta, these RVers found great beauty between the raindrops.
By Frederick Charlton
Early in July our motorhome crossed the Canadian border north of Bellingham, Washington. We cleared customs with no problem, and the favorable exchange rate when changing U.S. dollars to Canadian dollars was a real bonus. (The rate has averaged $1.50 Canadian per $1 U.S. for the past several months.) We were ready for our long-anticipated drive from Vancouver, British Columbia, to the Canadian Rockies, including Lake Louise and Banff National Park.
My wife and I brought along a childhood friend of hers who lives in France, and treated her “” and ourselves “” to an extended tour of the North American West, with the Canadian Rockies as the piece de resistance.
A short drive put us at one of several RV parks just east of Vancouver, where we learned that it, and others, were completely booked. A square dance convention takes place there in July, which attracts many RVers. The campground host made some calls on our behalf, and found us space in an attractive RV park in Port Moody, just 20 miles east of Vancouver. We could travel into town from there with the little Chevrolet that we tow behind our motorhome.
At dinner that night we began plotting the next seven days, checking maps and adding up mileage. Our Canadian maps were all in kilometers, but with a calculator we were able to convert them into miles by multiplying kilometers by 0.62. We figured that the drive from Vancouver to Banff National Park would cover approximately 550 miles.
Our main goal was to experience the Canadian Rockies, but we also wanted to spend some time (two days) seeing Vancouver and its neighboring island town, Victoria. It would not be a thorough investigation by any stretch, but it would be enough to satisfy our curiosity. As it turned out, we covered quite a bit by taking bus tours of each city.
The Vancouver bus tour gave us a good look at this city of more than a half-million people. Tour highlights included visits to two of the town’s most popular attractions: Stanley Park and Queen Elizabeth Park. Stanley Park encompasses some 1,000 acres on a large peninsula that juts out from downtown Vancouver. Among its virtues are grassy fields (for cricket players), gardens, tree-lined pathways, an aquarium, a visitors center, and an unusual and colorful display of hand-carved totem poles.
Queen Elizabeth Park features the highest point in Vancouver, offering splendid views of the city and its harbors (the city is literally surrounded by water). A popular spot to visit is the sunken Quarry Gardens. We saw several wedding parties having their photographs taken in this setting. With summer flowers in bloom, and the colorful gowns of the wedding parties, it was a truly festive spot.
Other tour sights included Chinatown (second in size to the one in San Francisco, California); Vancouver Harbour, with its Alaskan cruise ships; and English Bay, where expensive condos overlook the Strait of Georgia. To conclude our tour, we enjoyed a beverage at the Cloud Nine Revolving Restaurant on the 42nd floor of the Empire Landmark Hotel. It provided yet more stunning views of this attractive city.
The ferry ride the next day to Victoria, on Vancouver Island, took 1-1/2 hours. For this excursion we took our towed car onto the ferry and were able to drive into town from the ferry slip at Swartz Bay. Once in town, we parked the car and took another tour, after first having a delightful luncheon on the patio at the Fairmont Empress Hotel. Just visiting the hotel is an experience in itself. It opened in 1908 and remains impressive, inside and out. Through the years it has been modernized and continues to rate as a five-star luxury hotel.
We passed by many places on the afternoon tour, not having enough time to go through the various museums or the Parliament buildings in their parklike setting. We marked this quaint town down for a return visit. On the way back to the ferry landing we stopped at the famed Butchart Gardens, where the Rose Garden and Japanese Garden made the visit worthwhile.
To The Rockies
From Vancouver, the town of Kamloops was our first stop en route to the Canadian Rockies. We began by following Trans-Canada Route 1 for 80 miles to the town of Hope, where travelers can select from a choice of roads. Route 5 is a four-lane highway and offers a much shorter drive to Kamloops. However, the cashier at our fuel stop told us to stick to the longer Trans-Canada Route 1, as it follows the more scenic Fraser River Canyon and the historic Cariboo Highway along the Thompson River.
We were glad we followed that suggested route. It was a spectacular drive, marred only by an occasional rain shower (somehow one expects rain showers in the Pacific Northwest), which cut down on our photo stops.
We drove leisurely, with frequent pauses to admire the canyon views, and arrived at the Kamloops campground at around 5:00 p.m. The day’s run was 250 miles, which left us tired enough to settle for a light supper in the motorhome.
We started early the next day and continued on Trans-Canada Route 1, now directly east toward the Canadian Rockies. The road from Kamloops to Banff National Park is labeled a “scenic route” on the map, and it more than lived up to its billing. We lunched in a roadside park near Sorrento, with a good view of Shuswap Lake. Hills now gave way to more mountainous terrain, with elevations up to 7,000 feet. The lakes in this region were narrow, almost like fiords, with cliffs rising directly from the shores. We passed Salmon Arm “” sure enough, it is a popular salmon fishing center.
Another 100 miles and we hit our next checkpoint, the town of Revelstoke, situated on the western edge of Mount Revelstoke National Park. Glacier National Park (the one in British Columbia; not Montana) is located a bit farther east. North of town is the Revelstoke Hydro Dam, which controls the flow of the Columbia River “” its headwaters are north in the Canadian Rockies. Dam tours are offered, but we opted to spend a half-hour at the Revelstoke Railway Museum, a fascinating place with one of the largest Canadian Pacific Railroad steam engines on display. Photos and legends describe how this magnificent railroad was built through the mountains.
Our destination was the town of Golden, 90 miles farther east, which we determined would be a good jumping-off place to reach Lake Louise and Banff. These were slow miles, as we were well into the Rockies, heading for the 4,300-foot Rogers Pass in the heart of Glacier National Park. Despite the clouds and rain showers, which seemed to come and go every hour, the snow-covered tops of nearby Mount Dawson (elevation 11,000 feet), and Mount Moloch (at 10,100 feet) made their majestic appearances.
Our campground at Golden was the prettiest we had found, situated on a high, level shelf overlooking a valley with mountains beyond. The RV spaces were nestled among tall and fragrant pines. This was our base camp for exploring Lake Louise and Banff National Park for the following two days.
Beautiful Lake Louise
Lake Louise is only 50 mountain-climbing miles from Golden. Even though we came over Kicking Horse Pass at 5,400 feet, the highest we’d driven so far, it was a relatively easy drive. Trans-Canada Highway 1 is well-engineered and well-maintained. It began to drizzle from time to time, but beautiful shafts of sunlight would break through to play on the snow-laden glaciers above our route.
Before reaching our destination we crossed the British Columbia-Alberta provincial border “” which is also the Rockies’ Continental Divide.
Lake Louise is located in Banff National Park, more than 2,500 square miles of preserved acreage. Parts of the national park (pronounced “Bamph”) are situated in each province. Lake Louise and the town of Banff are on the Alberta side. Lake Louise is a small village as well as a lake, both situated in a large bowl surrounded by towering cliffs and mountains. Our goal was to visit the Chateau Lake Louise, a former Canadian Pacific Railroad hotel. Like the Empress, it is large and impressive, but its exterior appearance is almost ungainly.
Inside, the scope and grandeur of the lobby and adjoining public rooms created a feeling of elegance “” and, perhaps, of history. This place has recently undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation. At the far end of the lobby and lounge area, large windows overlook Lake Louise and its signature blue-green water. Between the hotel and Lake Louise, pathways were flanked by blooming gardens.
The lake is smaller than we had imagined, but its setting is breathtaking. Sheer granite cliffs rise from the lakeshore. Above the cliffs, 11,000-foot and 12,000-foot peaks, laced with glaciers and late spring snow, soared farther skyward. A few rain showers swept through, but in between we managed to capture this awesome setting on film.
We lunched at a hotel restaurant overlooking the lake. Considering that summer room rates run from $330 to $500 for double occupancy, we were pleasantly surprised that our lunch bill averaged only $25 per person. However, a glance at the dinner menu persuaded us to retreat to the motorhome for our own dining experience.
By the way, our average cost of a night’s stay in a campground while we were in Canada was approximately $16 in U.S. currency. Camping is available in Canadian national parks on a first-come, first-served basis. Sites range from primitive to some with water and electrical hookups. At Lake Louise, you can choose from a full-service campground called David Thompson Resort (403-721-2103), as well as other sites. Contact the Banff/Lake Louise Tourism Bureau (listed below) for more information.
The next day we took the towed car to another scenic wonder called Moraine Lake. Situated approximately 10 miles south of Lake Louise, it is reached via a twisting, two-lane road. A moraine is formed when a glacier gouges out a shallow ravine and then melts, leaving the depression to hold any boulders, sand, or gravel that it once carried. The moraine also can be deep enough and wide enough to hold springs and snow runoff, thus becoming an alpine lake.
That was what we went to see “” and it was well worth the slow, careful drive to get there. As we rounded the last sharp turn, the pure turquoise waters of the lake sparkled in a sudden burst of sunlight “” a moment we captured in our memories. Reflected in the lake were the glacier-clad mountains, forming a dramatic and unforgettable view.
Moraine Lake Lodge presented great views of the lake and offered dining and a gift shop. We opted, however, after hiking around the shore, to find a photogenic spot for an al fresco luncheon “” and put the whole scene on film.
The clouds returned before long, and we reluctantly left this alpine wonderland, hidden in the fastness of the Canadian Rockies.
A view of Banff
Banff was on our agenda for our final day in Banff National Park. This little town is only 35 miles from Lake Louise, but it was another 50 miles from our campground spot in Golden.
Lake Louise had another attraction we had wanted to try: a gondola ride with a bird’s-eye view of the town, the lake, and the Canadian Rockies. But dark clouds settled in as we arrived at Lake Louise that morning, and the gondola temporarily shut down.
So it was on to Banff, where we arrived in time for lunch at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, another built in the classic style of Canadian Pacific hotels. Our luncheon was in the Rundle Lounge (named for a nearby mountain peak), which overlooked the Bow River valley below the hotel “” a marvelous view with a golf course along one side, and the majestic mountains on either side of the valley. And the sun actually was shining, bouncing off the snow on the mountaintops.
On a terrace below, a military band was forming for a concert. Our waiter identified it as the Royal Army Cadet Band. Just as they were ready to launch into their first number, a rain squall hit, scattering the band members and the audience that had gathered. So far, this had been a frustrating day.
However, it improved. Since we were not able to take the gondola ride in Lake Louise, we found another near Banff, at Sulphur Mountain. A break in the clouds gave us a chance to ascend to the observation deck, an 8-minute ride from 5,000 feet to 8,000 feet. From that vantage point we could see the showers moving off to the east, with a couple of short-lived rainbows hastening them on. A westerly sun gave incredible views of the surrounding Rockies. It was certainly worth the $18 we each paid to get to the top.
Other visitors recommended the sight-seeing cruise on Lake Minnewanka, which is only 5 miles from Banff. But at that point we were out of time. We drove the motorhome south on Provincial Route 93 to our final campground in British Columbia, near Windermere Lake. For now, we had run out of rainstorms “” and out of superlatives to describe this once-in-a-lifetime visit to the Canadian Rockies.
If You Go
Information about crossing the Canadian border is available from Canadian provincial travel bureaus and at many Web sites on the Internet, such as www.canadaonline.about.com/cs/customs and www.ccra-adrc.gc.ca.
The British Columbia and Alberta travel bureaus listed below also provide maps, suggested itineraries, lists of campgrounds, and more. In addition, all major campground directories (Woodall’s, etc.) contain listings of campgrounds in Canada. Check FMC’s “Business Directory,” printed in each January and June issue, and found online at www.fmca.com, for a list of FMCA commercial member campgrounds in Canada.
P.O. Box 2500
Canada T5J 2Z4
Banff/Lake Louise Tourism Bureau
P.O. Box 1298
Canada T1L 1B3
Tourism British Columbia
P.O. Box 9830
1803 Douglas St., Third Floor
Canada V8W 9W5
Suite 210 – 200 Burrard St.
Canada V6C 3L6