High and Mighty
Camping and climbing steep slopes and hiking through old-growth forest in a land of snow-clad mountain peaks and glaciers in Alberta and British Columbia, Canada
It’s early September and time to restock our RV once again, dust off the hiking boots and head out of town for Alberta and British Columbia. We hitched up our fifth-wheel and set out along one highway that links two provinces, four Canadian national parks and tons of trails. Surrounded by mammoth mountains, unspoiled beauty and epic terrain, this trip is steeped in splendor, adventure and awe.
Stoked With Revelstoke
The last time we were in Revelstoke, people were shoveling snow tunnels to get into their homes. It was January 2011, a winter of record powder for Revelstoke Mountain Resort and a ski trip we’ll never forget. In contrast, today sunshine spills over the four-square-block city center of shops and restaurants — and onto embracing peaks, one of which is our hiking destination, Mount Revelstoke National Park. Hugging up to its base is the Trans-Canada Highway, the fast-track that has linked us here from Vancouver, British Columbia, in just six hours.
On www.campingrvbc.com, the Camping and RVing British Columbia Coalition’s Website, we were able to scout out campgrounds ahead of time and, with our home-in-tow, book into the KOA, a 200-siter that’s enveloped by shady trees. With hookups, cable and a pool, it’s hardly roughing it!
Minutes away is Meadows in the Sky Parkway, a 16-mile road that climbs a mile skyward. We leave our fifth-wheel behind, since trailers and motorcoaches are not allowed on this narrow mountain road. While zigzagging around swerves, curves and 16 hairpins, the road leaves the shrinking city below and gives way to a milieu of summits. To the west are the Monashees, northwest the Cariboos, east the Purcells and where we stand, the Selkirks. Collectively, they make up the Columbia Range — warmer, wetter, steeper and 60 to 90 million years older than the Rockies.
While treated to vistas, we cleave through varied geographical zones, transitioning from an old-growth rainforest to flowery alpine meadows. Trailheads are accessible en route, but we hold out for the ones on top and, after parking in the upper lot, ride the complementary shuttle to the summit. Even Kalli, our mountain hound, gets to hop on board.
Trodden paths fan out from this pinnacle like an intricate web and cater to all abilities — from easier rambles, like Fire Tower and Sky Trail, to the more tedious trek to Jade Lake. We decide on a middle-of-the-roader that leads to both Miller and Eva lakes.
Most of this route is a breeze — a descent through wooded groves and blooming meadows, leveling out to a traversing hillside that’s dotted with mammoth-size boulders. Distant snowy summits frame the horizon, and wild critters provide front-row entertainment. Hoary marmots whistle louder than our camp kettle, protesting pikas squeal out with fury, and camouflaged grouse hoot from hidden homesteads.
The last couple of kilometers shift us into ascending gear, but we’re rewarded in the end — first by Eva Lake’s embracing valley, then by Miller’s sun-splashed island jetty. The junction to Jade Lake is a short jaunt away, but the elevation is too steep for my knees. “I guess we should head back,” I say to my husband, recalling that the park gates close at 5 p.m. “There’s a lot of uphill hoofing to do.”
Knowing the itinerary for this holiday by heart, Brent grins and responds, “Fear not, my dear, this is just a warm-up of what’s to come.”
After reading that Evelyn Berens was the first lady to reach the summit of Mount Sir Donald in 1901, I feel pretty confident that I can reach at least one of this park’s 400 glaciers. We’d just driven the Trans-Canada Highway’s 10 scenic miles (16 kilometers) from Revelstoke and are heading out on our first hike at Glacier National Park, an outdoor oasis that’s aptly named. Flanking the trail are placards revealing its legendary roots.
From 1887 to 1925, Glacier House, a posh 90-room retreat, was operated here by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Wealthy mountaineers would come from worldwide to revel in the amenities and glacial remains, with stunning hiking just steps away. Berens is portrayed in this historical photo shoot. And though her Victorian lace-up boots were no contender to my Hi-Tec footgear, she had cushier accommodations. Not that I’m complaining! Once again, thanks to www.campingrvbc.com, we preplanned our campsite, and our roving home is nestled beneath the trees at nearby Illecillewaet Campground.
Ten of the park’s 20 trails begin at this base camp and lead to spectacular ridges, vistas and glaciers. “Let’s start with Great Glacier Trail,” I suggest, when eyeing the options. “With a rise of only 1,050 feet (321 meters), even I should be able to get to this ice field.”
Initially, the century-old route is a cinch. After bridging a roaring creek, we’re canopied by spruce and hemlock. Omnipresent peaks are soon visible — some with jagged tops, others with snowy remains. Beyond a minefield of mammoth boulders, the inevitable uphill begins, and within half-a-dozen switchbacks my heart rate is turbocharged. But the ascent is short and comes with visual rewards. Waterfalls cascade from rugged crests, shadows color crevassed mountainsides, and Illecillewaet Glacier shimmers as the backdrop.
Our trail is abruptly interrupted by a stream, however, and trekking beyond to the glacier can be achieved only with some fancy footwork. “There’s just a bit of scrambling,” Brent says with encouragement. “And it’s only slippery when wet.”
I’m somewhat skeptical about the glistening boulders that now replace my solid footpath. I watch two German hikers proceed and am pretty sure they have suction cups embedded in their hiking boots. And though they’ll likely reach the glacier in short order, I’m quite content to see it from afar.
It’s 10 a.m., and I’m chilling out in a camp chair. With my eyes at half-mast, I hear the roar of nearby rapids and smell bacon sizzling on someone else’s grill.
We’ve just driven Rogers Pass, the jaw-dropping two-hour route that links Glacier National to the city of Golden, British Columbia. We’re at Kicking Horse campsite in Yoho National Park, and I haven’t a care in the world. Although there are no hookups for our fifth-wheel, we have all the other camping comforts: hot showers, piles of firewood, rainy-day shelters — and a setting that’ll lure any mountaineer. Hovering above our home on wheels are those granite beauties we came here to climb: the Canadian Rockies. Just hearing the name gets my hiking boots excited.
Early the next morning, we head up Yoho Valley, a winding route that’s sandwiched between striking slopes. We pass the Upper Spiral Tunnels, a century-old engineering feat that successfully reduced the grade for train travel. Based on the train whistles we hear, they have no problem chugging over this pass now. But on this stretch of valley road, trailers do. Bridging the lower to higher sections are Z-like switchbacks that bigger rigs are unable to master. Fortunately, our truck zips up the traverses without a glitch.
Iceline Trail is on the opposite side of the valley to Takakkaw, the second highest waterfall in western Canada, that spills 825 feet from Daly Glacier. On every one of the steep S-curves, this popular tourist attraction pops into view, and its rocketlike roar can be heard when we’re out of the old-growth thicket and into the subalpine zone.
Trails weave over this upper terrain like gray, flowing ribbons. While we head for Iceline Summit, others backpack to Celeste Lake, some farther, to Little Yoho. Under blue skies, the more we rise, the better it gets — over slabs of rubble that had crumbled from mountain faces, up granite steps and across streams that flow freely from melting snowy mantles. Eventually, we reach the Iceline, a subalpine plateau where the rugged turf meets the glorious glaciers.
Our final ascent is a pyramid-shaped mound of shale.
And from this scenic platform, we have a panorama of surrounding glaciers. Yoho, Daly, Emerald — big, brilliant and breathtakingly beautiful. “Want to do a longer loop back along the Yoho Valley Trail?” Brent suggests.
I think about my camp chair, soothing fire and waiting book. “Afraid not,” I respond. “Let’s take the quickest route down, then kick back at Kicking Horse.”
Steeps of Lake Louise
The majestic Rockies lovingly embrace Lake Louise, Alberta. Steeped in height and beauty, the peaks tower above the quaint village, cocoon our cozy campground and set the scenic stage for hikes in Banff National Park. After a 16-mile drive from Yoho National Park, we unhitch our home, lace up our hiking boots and hit the trail.
We come to an abrupt halt at the Eiffel Lake trailhead. Plastered next to bold text is a mug shot of a mean-looking grizzly. I glance at the holster can of bear spray that’s attached to Brent’s belt loop and hope he can use it like a six-shooter, if the need arises.
“It says, by law, we have to hike in groups of four or more,” I read aloud. “Do you think the four extra paws we’ve brought along will suffice?” Although our schnauzer is a great hiking hound, she clearly doesn’t meet these requirements. Fortunately, a couple from nearby Invermere does. And after leaving the aqua-green Moraine Lake behind, we chat while ascending 1,000 feet.
There’s a fork at the summit of these switchbacks, and while our newfound hiking buddies head to Sentinel Pass, we tag along with others going to Eiffel Lake. Within minutes we are out of the trees, traversing a sunny slope that overlooks the Valley of Ten Peaks. Tiny Moraine Lake is now far below, and rising from its silty shores are 10,000-foot-high mounds that loom over the predominant Wenkchemna Glacier. Some have steep crevices doused with avalanched snowfields. Many are striated and etched after eons of weathering.
The trail continues for heartier hikers, but after lunching on a rocky face that offers a panorama of Eiffel Lake, we decide to retrace our steps. While sauntering back over the view-boasting slope, our group diminishes. Some have fallen back, and others move ahead. By the time we reach the switchback junction, there are just the three of us again, counting our canine.
“Do you want to join our group?” a fit-looking German asks. “We’re headed to Sentinel Pass.” Although my legs have endured more natural step classes this trip than I thought possible, it’s our last day at Lake Louise. And this popular perch is less than 2 miles away. How hard can it be?
Sunlight glints off the golden stands that border Larch Valley Trail and the 10 mammoth peaks that we’d recently zoomed in on now beautify the backdrop. We gradually ascend to a lake-dotted meadow. Soaring to the heavens, just beyond, is an uphill climb that will truly test my previous words. Razor-sharp switchbacks etch the steep pitch, and from this lower viewpoint we can make out an ant-size human chain.
I clutch my trusty poles and proceed with the pack. Chanting the mind-calming mantra “Don’t look down,” I eventually summit this highest hiking pass in the Rockies.
From the wind-blown 12,000-foot apex, I’m breathless. And whether it’s from the thin air or wowing vista, there are two things I am sure of. Thanks to the steady stream of hikers on this trail, my husband’s six-shooter skills won’t be necessary. And after climbing these four Canadian Rockies giants — a sum of 93 miles and 40,000 feet of up-and-down elevation — I can’t wait to do it all over again.
If You Go
Banff and Lake Louise Tourism
For more than 125 years, Banff National Park has provided visitors with a combination of unspoiled wilderness, modern amenities and opportunities for active exploration. With such a breathtaking landscape, it’s no surprise that this UNESCO World Heritage Site has been nominated time and again as a must-see destination for travelers from around the world.
Canada’s largest RV dealer and RV renter has locations in Vancouver, Abbotsford, Whitehorse, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Halifax and carries everything from tent trailers to toy haulers.
Kootenay Rockies Tourism
The Kootenay Rockies are a pristine region of rivers, lakes, waterfalls, beaches, mineral hot springs, alpine meadows and snowcapped mountains. Four of British Columbia’s seven national parks are located here.
With a mission to protect and present the country’s natural and cultural heritage, Parks Canada ensures that ecological integrity is maintained for current and future generations.
Parks Canada Discovery Pass
Entry passes are required by all day visitors and overnighters in Canada’s national parks. For those visiting the parks for a week or longer, the annual Discovery Pass offers an excellent value. It can be purchased at www.pc.gc.ca/eng/ar-sr/lpac-ppri/ced-ndp.aspx or at any of the campground kiosks in the parks.
Camping and RVing British Columbia Coalition (CRVBCC)
The provincial agency and its helpful Website make it easier for visitors to search, plan, book and enjoy their British Columbia camping experience. Members include the BC Lodging and Campground Association, BC Parks, the BC Society of Park Facility Operators, the Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC, the Northern BC Tourism Association, Parks Canada, Recreation Sites and Trails BC, the RV Dealers Association of BC, the RV Rental Association of Canada and Tourism British Columbia.
Travel Alberta’s user-friendly Website and other visitor resources help travelers discover things to do and places to see year-round in the resplendent Alberta Rockies, from summer hiking to winter skiing and snowboarding. The Website includes guides to Alberta campgrounds and parks, both provincial and national, plus links for national park campsite reservations.