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Banff Park, Alberta

Banff Springs Hotel


Friday, April 16

We were up bright and early and on our way to the airport to catch a flight for Calgary. The weather was again spectacular, so we had a great view of the mountains all the way. Calgary was, by contrast, flat and still brown from the winter. A bright red Ford Explorer was waiting for us at the Alamo desk, and we set out immediately for the enticing white peaks in the distance.

Not wanting to miss any of the local scenery or an ice cream shop in Cochrane called McKay's that came highly recommended, we skipped the main highway and took the auxiliary road through the farmlands into Banff. McKay's was all it was cracked up to be—delicious! They had every flavor you could imagine, and then some. Have you ever tried tiramasu ice cream?

The first of many critters to greet us on our sojourn through the Rockies were the bighorn sheep, who were liberally scattered along roadsides wherever we went. They didn't seem especially bothered or impressed with our arrival,  so we headed straight for the Banff Springs Hotel (pictured above).

Warning: Canadian Pacific Hotels can be habit-forming. The Empress in Victoria was the first we visited several years ago. Sticker shock overcame our urge to actually spend the night, however. On our trip to Quebec last year, we did decide to stay one night in the Frontenac. After that magnificent experience, we could hardly pass up the opportunity to spend another night as royalty in the Banff Springs Hotel and Spa. And we couldn't very well stay at a spa without doing the spa thing. If you've never pampered yourself with a massage and a few hours in the hot pools, then you haven't yet lived. It is heavenly, and a great way to relax into your vacation.

Real estate is location, location, location. Those early CP folks sure knew how to pick their spots. The Banff Springs sits nestled in the pines on the side of a mountain that overlooks the Bow River and a panoramic vista of the nearby snow-covered peaks. To the right is a view from one of the parapets.

Energized from our stint at the spa, we checked out of the hotel and went to explore the park.We decided to tackle Tunnel Mountain, which featured a 2.2 kilometer hiking trail to the top. The trail started out deceptively easy, but by the time we reached the top, we were huffing and puffing a bit, not only from the rather steep incline, but from having to climb over and around rocks. The view was worth the exertion, however. On one side, we looked down over the Banff Townsite & the hotel, and on the other, we saw a spectacular vista of the Bow Valley. On the way up, we kept company for a time with a young lady of British origin who had just finished up a seven-month work arrangement with one of the local tourist establishments. She was getting ready to spend some of her earnings on a well-deserved two-month vacation around Canada and the U.S. before heading back home to the U.K. We saw quite a few of these young adventurers during our stay in the Rockies. They go out there, work for nearly nothing, live within very basic means, and have fun hiking, skiing, climbing, etc. They seemed very happy and stress-free (and untarnished by corporate influence!).

The color of the water in the Canadian Rockies is absolutely amazing. You may think I doctored these photos up to look more brilliantly colored, but I swear that what you see is what you get. The minerals in the rocks of are a certain type that cause the silt, ground up and carried by the glaciers and deposited at the bottom of lakes and streams, to appear emerald green to turquoise blue when viewed from above. The farther north you go, the more brilliant the color. According to one young tram operator we talked to in Jasper Park, the early spring is when you see the most brilliant colors—when the spring thaw occurs, the rivers become torrential and churned up, at which point the color becomes brown, and stays that way well into the summer months.

For the next five days, we based ourselves in a cabin in Castle Mountain Junction, in the heart of Banff Park. (THE actual Castle Moutain is pictured to the right.)  There aren't too many folks travelling around these mountains in April, and so, aside from a few other hardy souls, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. This was a really neat place—what you think of when you envision "cabin in the woods," complete with wood stove.

As you can see from the snow on the ground, it was still somewhat nippy out...well....not really, but we thought a cabin with a wood stove would be fun and romantic. A roaring fire in a cabin is fun and romantic. A roaring fire in a small cabin gets downright toasty, and along about midnight each night, we had melted down to little pools. At which point, we opened the windows to cool off. And just when we had finally drifted off to sleep, the train tracks, located about 100 yards from the cabin, would produce a train, complete with three or four toots of the whistle. And then we'd drift off to sleep again, and along would come the train again, with its whistle—every two hours or so, all through the night. And by around 3 a.m, the fire had died down for long enough so that we were freezing and it was time to get up and close the windows. We did this for five nights. Well, hey—you don't get to stay in a romantic cabin in the woods with its own train very often! If you like cabins with wood stoves and don't mind the midnight meltdowns, the 3 a.m. icicles, and the trains, Castle Mountain Village is for you. Crazy as it might seem, we'd do it again.

Sometimes your imagination prepares you for something other than reality. This was certainly the case with Lake Louise. Lake Louise is billed as one of the premier locations for beauty in the Canadian Rockies, with the Chateau Lake Louise (supposedly another CP castle) looking out over an emerald green lake. Well, the first disappointment was the lake—specifically its size. When I think of "lake," I think "big."We discovered that many of the lakes in the Rockies are little more than large ponds (by my upstate NY standards at least), but we really did expect that Lake Louise would be more spectacular than it turned out to be. To be fair, it was cloudy the day we visited, and there were a couple of feet of snow on the ground, but we found a pond even smaller than some of those we had already seen. The ice was starting to melt a bit, but we didn't see emeralds, sapphires, or any other gem-like colors sparkling from the depths. The lake was small and gray—and no, the above photo is not a black and white. The Chateau, while nice, seemed like a poor country cousin after the impressive Banff Springs. Perhaps we should try another visit in the summer months to find out what we were obviously missing.

We had one totally rainy day during our two week trip—a day so irretrievably rainy that we had to find "sort of" indoor things to do. That was the day we spent doing our laundry, exploring the shops in the Banff Townsite (which was a good half hour drive from Castle Mountain), and visiting Cave & Basin, which was where the Banff resort got its start. The original hole in the ground where a couple of guys stumbled on the hot springs is still there—just as smelly as it was in the late 1800s when they found it. The smell of sulphur is so overwhelming that it's a wonder anyone could stand to immerse themselves in the water for any length of time. The old pool (pictured) isn't in use anymore except by some snails who hang about the place. The highly sulphurous warm water apparently does wonders for the area vegetation, which becomes lusher and greener as the amount of sulphur (and its odor) increases.


Big Horn Sheep


Bow River from Banff Springs Hotel


Bow River


Castle Mountain



Castle Mountain Village





Lake Louise--small and gray



Cave & Basin Hot Pool


Cave & Basin stream


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