Explorer's Trail in the Canadian Rockies

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Written by bike posted on Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

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Peyto Lake is just one of the few highlights on the David Thompson Trail.

Peyto Lake is just one of the many highlights on the David Thompson Trail.


I would take my time with this trail, which commemorates David Thompson, one of Canada’s great explorers. Famous for his 1806 to 1808 expedition, Thompson discovered the Athabasca Pass that runs through the Continental Divide. Traveling up the North Saskatchewan River, this intrepid explorer went where no one had gone before, creating a trail that has excited many a traveler since.
Start your trip in Stettler and head west on Highway 11 to the junction of Highway 93. Stettler is the home of Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions, which has a steam train that runs through numerous towns during the summer months. The train boasts some really great on-board entertainment, such as Wild West shoot-outs, fine dining and story telling. Take the train or drive to enjoy some really beautiful prairie farmland, foothills, historical sites and wilderness areas.
From Stettler, drive west to Red Deer where you will find a wonderful town nestled into the Red Deer River. Visit Waskasoo Park, Heritage Ranch, Kerry Wood Nature Centre, Fort Normandeau and the Red Deer & District Museum to really fill out your vacation. If golf is your game, be sure to try the course at the Riverbend Golf Club.
Slightly west of Red Deer you will find Sylvan Lake, with its sandy beaches; boating, fishing and camping facilities; a large marina; three golf courses and waterslides on the rushing rapids. Spend a night and then continue west to Rocky Mountain House which dates back to the late 1700s. The first fur trading post was built here, at the junction of the Clearwater and North Saskatchewan rivers. David Thompson used this pioneer town as a base of operations while he explored the region. Along with its deep historical roots, the town boasts a modern feel and has all the amenities to make your vacation travel everything it should be.
Take some time to visit the National Historic Park. You can take a tour of four old forts, a great visitor’s center, and an old buffalo paddock. Book yourself a guide for a wonderful canoe or rafting trip down the North Saskatchewan River to get a really good feel of the history and vast geography of the region.
Driving from Rocky Mountain House on Highway 11, you will appreciate the terrain as it becomes densely forested towards the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies. You will encounter the singular town of Nordegg, which was once a booming coal mining area until the mines closed in 1955. There is a wonderful museum in an old schoolhouse that provides daily summertime tours of the old town and mine. Be sure to take out your golf clubs to enjoy the excellent nine-hole course.
Continuing on Highway 11, you will dip and wind towards Crescent Falls and Bighorn Canyon. Just beyond lies one of Alberta’s largest reservoirs, Abraham Lake. Enjoy the translucent waters as I did by spending some time picnicking on the shore. Back on track, you will arrive at the Kootenai Plains Natural Area where David Thompson traded with the Kootenai Indians in 1800. Take time to seek out the hiking trails here. They will lead you to amazing sites such as Siffleur Falls and Canyon along with numerous mountain passes and backcountry treks. Whirlpool Point Lookout is a perfect vantage point to get that world-class photo of you standing way above the North Saskatchewan River with the mountains framing the scene.
Stay west as you head towards Saskatchewan River Crossing where the trail actually ends at the beginning of Banff National Park just at the junction of Highway 93. Thompson went from this point in 1807 over the Rockies by following the Howse River into what is now British Columbia.
You can decide to head north towards the Columbia Icefields and on to Jasper. Then go east to Edmonton on the Yellowhead Highway for another Canadian Rockies adventure. You can also opt to go south towards Peyto Lake and on to Lake Louise, Banff, and ultimately Calgary. Either way, the drive will meet your every expectation, and more!
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