Western Canada #05 - Banff National Park
Western Canada #05 – Lake Louise
After Crossing the Continental Divide at Kicking Horse Pass we headed down the eastern side of the Rockies and into Lake Louise.
Banff, Jasper, Yoho National Parks
Lake Louise Lodging
We had booked a room for several nights at one of the hotels near Lake Louise. But, no it was not at the Château Lake Louise that is right on the lake. It would have been wonderful to stay there but not at over $600 per night. When we visited the area 30 years ago the Chateau was quite run down (still too expensive) but had really seen better days. Since then they have added a whole new building and completely remodeled the original building, including putting in private bathrooms instead of making you go down the hall.
So we opted for the Lake Louise Inn just down the hill from the lake. The hotel is a rustic looking affair with stone exterior (at least around the front entrance), and much as you would expected in a summer/winter alpine tourist area. But the room they gave us was quite problematic. Okay, let me paint you a picture. You have the lobby/check-in/ restaurant area which is in a three-ish story building that extends laterally with guest rooms. Now behind the lobby area, put in a large glass room with an indoor pool with the pool deck at the same level as the lobby. Now, on the other side of this glassed in pool, take out the glass wall and build a 3 story building full of guest rooms, some of which overlook the pool and some overlook the mountains. Got it so far?
Okay, now convert the basement of this new building which had (most likely) been for staff and perhaps some conference rooms into guest rooms. On the “mountains’ side dig out some dirt to allow a window where you could see the sky up at a steep angle – I guess at least you could tell if was raining or not. On the pool side of the basement, they also put in windows but these windows look out at the side of a concrete wall which holds in the pool and if you look up you can see the glass roof of the pool area and opposite you can look at people eating in the 2nd floor restaurant – which of course means they can look into your room as well. Now, seal these windows so they can’t be opened and don’t provide AC in the room. Instead give guests a small desktop fan. Guess which room we got? Guess which hotel was fully booked (holiday weekend in Canada) so there was no option to upgrade?
What ticked me off was that they did not disclose what the room was like when doing the booking. They only said it was ‘interior view’. Not that said interior view was of a concrete wall two feet away with restaurant people looking down into the room from over the top of the wall. They did upgrade us to a mountain view room for the last two days of our stay so all was not lost.
But, we were there to see scenery and not stay cooped up in a hotel room. We used our several night stay at Lake Louise as a base for excursions to many different parts of Banff and Jasper national parks, including several visits up to Lake Louise itself. So, rather than going chronologically as I usually do, I’ll do it section by section.
Lake Louise is one of the most well known natural features in Canada. Lake Louise was called “Lake of the Little Fishes” by the Stoney Nakota First Nations people. But, when the British came through they renamed it to Lake Louise after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria.
The one thing that has made Lake Louise so famous is the creation of the Chateau Lake Louise. This grand hotel was built by the Canadian Pacific Railroad in order to encourage people to venture across the continent on the newly constructed transcontinental railroad. In the US the same thing was done. Since its construction around 1900, it has undergone a fire in 1924 that destroyed one wing, and several additions and remodels. A new wing was added in 1913 and is the oldest existing portion of the hotel. Another wing came along in 2004. When we visited 30 odd years ago the hotel was quite run down but now it is once again a sparkling gem.
It seems though that they really want to keep the riff-raff out. At each entrance are signs telling you that access to the hotel is for guest staying there only. And, at the doors are staff members enforcing the policy. So, we didn’t attempt to get inside even though we probably could have as we were staying at their sister hotel down the hill.
Lake Louise is on the eastern flank of the Bow Range which runs pretty much the entire length of Banff National Park at an elevation of 5,249 feet and has a surface area of 222 acres. It is one of many glacial lakes in the area formed when the North American Ice Sheet receded at the end of the last ice age. What happens is this. A glacier is a river of ice – albeit as very slow moving. As the ice scrapes rock off the sides of the valley and the debris gets trapped in the ice or rides along on top of the ice. As the ice gradually flows down the valley eventually it gets to the head of the glacier where the annual melt rate more or less matches the annual flow rate of the glacier. So, all the rock debris falls off the front of the glacier and after a while builds up into a ridge called a moraine across the front of the glacier. Some of these moraines are quite large. Later on when things warm up the glacier retreats up the valley and the moraine is left behind. Many times the moraine forms a dam blocking the flow of water melting off the retreating glacier resulting in a lake being formed behind the moraine. Lake Louise is one of these.
What makes glacier feed lakes so attractive is the aqua marine to turquoise color of the water. The color of the water comes from rock flour carried into the lake by melting glaciers. What happens is that as the glacier grinds along down their valley, they scrape the rock surface with such weight and force that the rock is pulverized into a fine powder which gets infused into the ice and is called ‘rock flour’. When this ice melts the rock flour infused water creates the distinctive color associate with glacier fed lakes. Of course in order to get the true glory of the color of glacier feed lakes it helps to be able to see the water surface. When the lake is covered in ice and snow the affect, well, just isn’t there. And, being late May the lake was 90% ice covered. Some patches of open water were open near the shore on the sunny side but for the most part the lake was ice covered.
On our visit in late May, spring was still pushing winter away to make room for summer. Most of the mountains were will full of snow but the valley’s were more summer like and snow/ice free. In between though, it all depended on elevation and orientation to the sun. Some lakes were completely clear of ice while others where solid ice. Lake Louise split the difference. Along the edges the ice had melted but the entire middle of the lake was still covered in ice. However, the ice filled lake was no deterrent to a crazy Aussie we encountered as we wandered along the shore who just had to take a dip in the lake.
Ice giving way to spring on Lake Louise
Fairview Mountain reflection in Lake Louise
Chateau Lake Louise & Spring Ice
Fairview Mountain reflection in Lake Louise #2
Tilted uplift of Fairview Mountain, Lake Louise
Crazy Aussie takes a dip in icy Lake Louise
Speaking of moraines and their lakes, a bit south of Lake Louise is one actually called Moraine Lake. Okay, side bar time; when referring to a specific lake, why is the word “lake” sometimes before the name (Lake Louise) and sometimes after (Moraine Lake)? Doesn’t make any sense to an engineer. Anyway, this one is Moraine Lake and is nestled below Mount Babel.
The road to Moraine Lake starts near Lake Louise and is a bit under 7 miles on a gorgeous road that heads south past Mount Temple and then turns into a valley where it climbs up to Moraine Lake. Along the way you are in verdant green forests and about half way up the valley to Moraine Lake a vista on your left opens up to a spectacular view across the valley and into a side valley with the Tower of Babel, Mount Babel and Panorama Peak. I guess I’m not the only person taken by this view as what had been a shoulder-less road magically acquired a long parking strip along the side with the view in an area where there weren’t trees blocking the scene.
Moraine Lake Rd with Bow Range
Mount Babel from Moraine Lake Rd.
A bit further up the road we arrived at Moraine Lake. Here there is a small lodge that also has a restaurant and cabins for rent, but alas, they were still finishing up some renovations and had not yet opened for the year. But, when turning around to look at the lake it was obvious why they don’t open till later in the year. Except for one small section, the lake was frozen solid. Not only that but there were people walking on the ice way out into the lake so the ice must have still been pretty sturdy. I’m not sure why this lake was so much later in melting than Lake Louise but I’m sure the nearly 1000 foot higher elevation has something to do with it. But, frozen solid it was.
Moraine Lake owes its existence to the same process as does Lake Louise but tends to have less rock flour – not that you could see the water color through the ice. This lake sits in a valley called Valley of the Ten Peaks and not that I counted them at the time, but there certainly were many sharp peaks visible around the lake. Reflections of these peaks in the water must be stunning but being covered with ice and snow we were not afforded this treat.
Frozen Moraine Lake
Bow Range from Moraine Lake
Lake Louise Ski Resort
Just across the valley from the Lake Louise Village is the Lake Louise Ski Resort. Obviously it is mainly used in the winter for skiing but in the non ski months they keep one of the lifts open for sightseeing. One day we took the ride up to see what could be seen. The lift in operation is one that goes half way up the mountain. In the winter you can transfer to another lift to go the rest of the way or take different lifts that go higher in one shot. But this was the only one open and for our purposes it was all that was needed. On this lift they have both enclosed gondolas as well as open bench type options. On the way up we took an enclosed gondola but on the way down opted for the open air chair.
From the top you have a grand view of pretty much the entire Bow Range as well as the Bow Valley. You can see across the valley to Lake Louise and the Lake Louise Chateau and the mountains that surround it.
Lake Louise and Chateau Lake Louise
Bow Range from Ski Resort
They are called the Rockies for a reason
Panorama of the Bow Range
Bow Valley Parkway
The Bow Valley runs up the middle of Banff national Park. In fact Banff might just as well have been called Bow River Valley National Park. The TransCanada Highway (CA-1) runs right up the middle of this valley. If you enter from the east (Calgary) you first come to the city of Banff Springs. From there the multilane highway heads north to the Lake Louise area where it again turns west and heads up over the Kicking Horse Pass we talked about before.
The stretch between the city of Banff Springs and the Lake Louise Village is a freeway style highway that goes up the valley to the west of the Bow River. But the old 2 lane road went up the valley on the east side of the river. This old road is now known as the Bow Valley Parkway (route 1A) and is well worth the drive if you are not in a hurry. It is 31 miles long through the forests with many interesting stopping spots. The speed limit is in the 35 mph area so don’t use this road if you need to be someplace by a specific time. You can spend the best part of a full day on this road if you include time for stopping at overlooks and for a short hike or two.
We spent the best part of a day meandering down this road from Lake Louise down to of Banff Springs stopping along the way to see the sights. One of our first stops was at the Storm Mountain pull off. Storm Mountain is across the valley and turned out to be quite photogenic.
Storm Mountain from Bow Valley Parkway
This is the same viewpoint which turns out to be one of the most photographed locations of trains through the mountains. But as no trains were forthcoming while we were there I didn’t wind up getting one of those “postcard’ shots, but here’s one I got off the internet. Maybe you’ll be luckier if you visit.
Classic “Postcard” shot from the Internet
Barely a mile or so further south we pulled into the Castle Cliffs / Escarpments Castle pull off which offered a grand view, to the east this time, of an impressive ridge.
Castle Cliffs & Eisenhower peak
As we continued on down the parkway, we came to yet another pull off and parking lot. This one was way more popular than the previous ones we’d stopped at for several reasons. First this was the entrance to the popular Johnston canyon and like named trail that leads you to both lower and upper Johnston Canyon Falls. But more importantly this pull off has bathrooms with flush toilets not to mention a little lodge with a restaurant - both of which we were in need of. But the line for the restaurant was a bit long so we decided to take the hike before getting some lunch.
This canyon has been around for about 8,000 years during which time it has carved a nice little canyon into the rock. It is one of the most popular walks in the park in all seasons (snow shoes in the winter) with several waterfalls and unique walkways clinging to the sides of the cliff along several sections of gorge. The lower falls are less than a mile and according to the sign can be reached in 20 minutes. But we got there in around 40 minutes. The upper falls are another half mile or so with some more elevation gain. But, lunch in the restaurant at the trailhead was calling us so we decided to forego the upper falls and just see the lower falls. Hey, it’s the same water, right?
Trail to Lower & Upper Johnston Canyon Falls
Lower Johnston Canyon Falls
After a nice lunch we continued south on the Bow Valley Parkway. The parkway merges with the TransCanada highway (CA-1) a few miles before the Banff Springs exit. Along this short stretch is the Vermillion Lakes scenic overlook. The lakes themselves are a bit swampy and at that time of day not all that photogenic, but this view point offered some very nice views of the mountains along the other side of the valley.
One of the mountains you can see from here is Mt. Rundel. This mountain is a dramatic depiction of how uplift can tilt an entire landscape to a 45 degree angle. It also shows what causes those dramatic sharp peaks we’ve been seeing in the Bow Range. When you look at such an uplifted mountain from the shear side (the left in this case) you don’t see the 45 degree slope (on the right in the photo) but rather the vertical edge of the uplifted terrain and at the top are sharp edges where the rock broke away from what remains in the valley below.
Mt Rundel showing uplift
Another mountain (not sure of its name) from Vermillion Lakes Overlook.
I hope you enjoyed reading this episode of our Western Canada trip and that you’ll come back for the rest of our journey. Next time we’ll be driving up the Columbia Ice Fields Parkway and into Jasper National Park.
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website.
http://www.danhartfordphoto.com/western-canada-trip-favs (subset of images)
Thanks for reading – Dan
(Info from Wikipedia and pamphlets gathered at various sites along the way along with attraction websites)
Keywords: alberta canada, banff national park, blog, bow valley parkway, canada, canadian pacific railroad, candadian rockies, canyon", castle cliffs, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogwca, johnston, lake louise, lower johnston falls, moraine lake, mt. rundel, storm mountain
Dan: As usual, your photos are breath taking and so beautifully composed. Some of these bring back memories of a wonderful week I spent in the town of Banff several years ago. Now I want to return!
Hi Dan -
Great to read your blog and see those shots through the Park and along that amazingly scenic parkway. When I stood at the edge of the lake in late April a few years ago, it was mostly melted, so got to see the expanse of bright blue water and the great reflections.
At that time, the Chateau had a huge ice sculpture out in front.... and was still part of the Fairmont chain. I ignored the "guests only" and got into the oldest wing - wow, the wood floors, walls, sconces, stairs - just amazing. But your shot of the Crazy Aussie was perfect.
The Bow Range is indeed an amazingly spectacular site, and worth visiting - actually fairly easy in that you can drive along and see all the views without hiking for days. Loads of glaciers to marvel at as well.
thanks for the tour!
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