Off the Beaten Track in the Canadian Rockies

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Written by Patrick J. Smith posted on Friday, July 3rd, 2009

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If you want to stay away from the crowds when taking your vacation travel to the Canadian Rockies, there’s no better way than following the track of some of the lesser known areas. They may require a bit more energy to reach, but they are well worth the effort.

Bow Valley Provincial Park

Explore the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies.

Explore the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies.

Located in the foothills that line the route as you travel from Calgary to Banff via the Trans-Canada Highway, this beautiful park has many short walks and a large playground, making it a great place to bring the kids. Take Many Springs Trail, a one mile loop complete with signs (in English) that describe the flora and fauna that you will see along the way. The walk circles a marsh and has some hills as well as a “boil spring” with a deck for viewing. Here you can watch water boil up from below, making patterns on the water’s surface. Along the way, depending on the season, you can see ladyslipper orchids, hummingbirds, Mountain Chickadees, and Mule deer.

Take some time at Middle Lake where you will find another walking loop with larger hills. You can also park above the lake to enjoy a picnic while admiring the view. If you are there during the late spring, the nearby field will be filled with red Western Wood Lilies, a gorgeous sight to behold! You can also take another short looping trail, Flowing Water Trail, starting in the campground on the eastern side of Hwy 1X to follow the edge of the Kananaskis River. When you arrive at the far end, you will find a large beaver pond where bird life abounds. Dawn and dusk are the best hours to see the beavers and muskrat.

Getting to Bow Valley Provincial Park: Take exit 114 off the Trans-Canada Highway and continue to the junction of Highway 1X, which bisects the park.

The Burgess Shale

Get off the beaten path in the Canadian Rockies.

Get off the beaten path in the Canadian Rockies.

Located in Yoho National Park, this rock formation has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the beautifully preserved fossils found in its midst. A mere 505 million years ago, during the Cambrian period, the area was a shallow equatorial sea, and the history of the region is revealed in the fossils which continue to intrigue paleontologists and visitors alike.

You can get a better sense of the Burgess Shale by visiting the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, a 1 ½ hour drive northeast of Calgary and slightly over 4 hours drive east of Field, British Columbia. Here you will see an amazing collection of dinosaur skeletons and a model of the sea that dried up to yield the sedimentary rocks that comprise the Burgess Shale.

When visiting the Burgess Shale, you must make a reservation for a guided hike, offered by the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation. Because the formation is protected, you cannot hike the area without a guide. You must also be in good physical shape, as the hike is demanding. The hike is available from the beginning of July to the middle of September only. It is not uncommon to book your hike four to five months in advance to assure your place in the register.

Note: If you want to read up on the history of the Burgess Shale before you go, read “Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History” by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould.

Lake O’Hara

Located in Yoho National Park between Field, British Columbia and the village of Lake Louise, Alberta, this secluded area is ideal for hiking. Access to the park is restricted, which keeps the area quiet. You will need to make a reservation on the Lake O’Hara bus for hiking in the summer or cross-country skiing in the winter.

To reserve space on the bus, call the Lake O’Hara Reservations Line: 250-343-6433 up to three months ahead of time. The Reservations Line operates on North American Mountain time and reservations are payable by Visa, MasterCard, or American Express.

Note: If you miss the three month deadline for your bus reservation, there are six seats set aside for 24 hour bookings, which you may be lucky enough to get.
Call 250-343-6433 at 8am on the day before you want to take the bus. All six seats are usually taken within 10 minutes after the office has opened.

Bus fare is C$14.85 for adults and C$7.40 for youth (6 – 16). Children up to age 5 ride for free. In addition to the fare, each person is charged a C$11.85 reservation fee.

See the tranquil shores of Moraine Lake.

See the tranquil shores of Moraine Lake.

Staying Overnight
Camping is permitted in the tent grounds at Lake O’Hara, but be sure to bring all that you need as there are no grocery stores in the area. There are also two Alpine Club of Canada huts. If you want full board accommodation, including three meals a day, book your stay at the Lake O’Hara Lodge. The food is excellent and the enormous fireplace in the central lodge’s main room is cozy and inviting. There is a library upstairs, so go grab a book and curl up by the roaring fire after your day’s exploration. The lodge’s bedrooms are small and bathrooms are shared. You also have an option to book cabins by the lake. The lodge offers no liquor, but you are free to bring your own. If you want a chilled wine, just place your bottle in the lake!

Note: Lake O’Hara Lodge is very expensive. Even though the accommodations are rustic, the price reflects the serenity of the area as well as the complications in running a lodge in so isolated a locale. If you intend to stay at the lodge, you must book your reservation very far in advance, which typically means a year! If you do manage to get a booking, your bus reservation is included in the service.

Lussier Hot Springs

These natural hot springs are situated in White Swan Provincial Park, just east of Canal Flats.

How to get to White Swan Provincial Park: Take Highway 93 from Radium Hot Springs through Invermere and Cranbrook to the west of the Canadian Rockies in the Kootenay-Rockies Region.

Sunshine Meadows

Known for its display of wildflowers in July and the golden shimmer of its larch trees in late September, this beautiful area is much quieter than the Larch Valley hiking trail that heads out of Moraine Lake. To access Sunshine Meadows in the autumn, call the shuttle bus company and ask if the trees have turned. Book your spot on the bus accordingly to gain access to the starting point for your trek. The Sunshine parking lot is located 10 miles from the Banff townsite.

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