Discover the Canadian Rockies, a world-renowned tourist destination on Calgary’s doorstep
By Sally MacKinnon
The peaks of the Rocky Mountains tower over Calgary’s western horizon. Luckily, their proximity isn’t a mirage; Banff National Park is an hour’s drive from Calgary, and the town itself is only another 20 km.
The main draw of this region (apart from scenic views) is adventure sports. In winter, that means downhill skiing or snowboarding, which you can do at Nakiska, Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village, Lake Louise Mountain Resort, Marmot Basin and Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. But, there are also a range of activities for fans of other winter sports, from cross-country skiing to dog sledding, snowshoeing to snowmobiling, ice skating to ice fishing. And for hard core adventurers, there’s heli-skiing and ice climbing.
But, that doesn’t mean the Rockies’ only attractions are outdoors. The shops of Banff Avenue and Canmore’s Main Street offer unique wares, and the Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise—majestic, 19th-century CP hotels—offer boutique shopping, dining and stately corridors to wander. History buffs can head to the Cave & Basin National Historic Site, the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, or the Canmore Museum & Geoscience Centre. And no visit is complete without a soak in their naturally heated mineral waters, which you can access at the Banff Upper Hot Springs.
1. The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
This five-star hotel was built in 1888 in the Scottish Baronial style, making it a modern-day castle in the mountains. It is a magnet for both tourists and day-trippers, who can dine in its restaurants, wander through its corridors and banquet rooms, shop in its luxury boutiques, or take part in a guided walking tour.
2. Lake Louise
One of the most photographed locations in the Rockies, Lake Louise is a glacier-fed lake with a million dollar view. During the winter you can skate on a section of the lake, use the surrounding trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, or downhill ski at the Lake Louise Mountain Resort.
3. Columbia Icefield
Both Banff and Jasper National Parks share the Columbia Icefield, a 325-sq.-km mass of ice straddling the continental divide. This is the largest icefield in the Rockies, and nearly three quarters of Jasper’s highest peaks are within view. The icefield’s top attraction is the Athabasca Glacier, which you can access on a snow coach or guided walking tour.
Off the beaten path
1. Maligne Canyon Icewalk
Jasper’s Maligne Canyon is a top summer attraction, but in winter the canyon is still a must-see. When the torrents of the Maligne River freeze, awe-inspiring columns of ice are created, some reaching 30 m high. Maligne Tours offers guided walks of this frozen wonderland, which you explore in ice cleats.
2. Kananaskis Country
K-Country has mountain peaks and tranquil valleys, but less human traffic than Banff or Jasper. It’s also located closer to Calgary, especially if you live in either the southwest or northwest. Highlights include Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes (featured in the movie Brokeback Mountain) and Kananaskis Village, which hosted the G8 Summit in 2002.
3. Caves, dogs and snowshoes
During the winter, downhill skiing reigns supreme in the Rockies. But there are also activities for non-skiers: you can explore the 4-km Rat’s Nest Cave system with Canmore Caverns, go dog sledding with a local outfitter, or rent snowshoes or cross-country skis and take on the trails at the Canmore Nordic Centre.
Before You Go…
• Dress in layers—you can peel off clothing as the temperature climbs, and you’ll trap warm pockets of air.
• Check the weather and road conditions. The highway between Lake Louise and Jasper, for example, is often closed due to winter storms.
• Have the right gear, including a first aid kit, maps and plenty of water. For backcountry excursions, consider taking a GPS personal tracking device.
• Tell someone where you’re going, and for how long—search parties are sent out when a person is reported missing.
Rocky Mountain Meats
If you want to eat like a local, you’ll have to find a restaurant that serves Alberta beef, bison or elk. Luckily, most eateries serve each of these meats and more. Here are five of our favourites:
• Cilantro, Tunnel Mountain Drive, Banff (reopens Dec 17)
• Elk & Oarsman, 2nd flr, 119 Banff Avenue, Banff
• Iron Goat Pub & Grille, 703 Benchlands Trail, Canmore
• Maple Leaf Grill & Lounge, 137 Banff Ave, Banff
• Sage Bistro, 1712 Bow Valley Trail, Canmore
Did you know?
Compared to other mountain ranges, the Rockies are toddlers. They started their rise 75 million years ago, when a collision happened between two plates in the earth’s crust. The Himalayas, in contrast, began their ascent 180 million years ago.