THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY—Once Is Not Enough

Can you have too much of a good thing? Perhaps. Can something be overdone? In some instances, maybe. But then again—an opportunity missed is an opportunity lost. Jasper was at the apex of our travels, the furthest distance on our journey. Leaving here, we would begin by retracing the route that brought us here, once again traveling that magnificent Icefields Parkway. And therein lay the opportunity. To linger awhile, camp once again within its borders, see more of the land and enjoy its offerings. No further reservations had been made, no commitments needed to be met, we were virtually ‘free as the breeze’. And so, those questions were asked. And then, the obvious answer was given.

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Our drive began with leaden skies and dark clouds sweeping through the highest peaks.

By the time we reached the Icefield Centre clear skies had broken through. Taking it as a good omen, we soon pulled over and found an ideal place to camp.

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2-6D-1626x2-IMG_2076Nestled in a pine-scented forest of dark evergreens, Waterfowl Lakes Campground is sandwiched between the Upper and Lower Waterfowl Lakes. Both lakes picturesque in different ways, this would make an ideal and strategically perfect place to camp for several days to come.

We were soon situated, with campfire glowing and dinner cooking. Ah, just give me that outdoor camping life!

Late evening is a good time to admire a mountain lake.
The air is cool, the breeze is calm and water is smooth. It brings people out . . . to fish, to paddle, to walk the scenic pathways. A string of mountain peaks lines the western shoreline of Lower Waterfowl Lake, all higher than 9,000 feet. Could this possibly be my next sunrise location?

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Indeed it was! And those rare mountain clouds made it an extra special show! At 10,790 feet, Mt. Chephren (KEF-ren) dominates the landscape and is easily seen many miles away. Although its distinctive shape resembles a pyramid—which accounts for its original name—there was already another Pyramid Mountain near the town of Jasper, so it was named after the Egyptian Pharaoh who built the second of the three great Giza pyramids.

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Attempting to steal some of Chephren’s thunder, adjacent Howse Peak stands 70 feet taller.

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Back at camp, Chris had risen and was waiting—what was on the agenda for the day? An easy drive south to the highest point on the parkway, a short hike to one of its most popular scenic overlooks.

Peyto Lake Overlook provides one of the iconic views of the Icefield Parkway. A breathtaking scene. An impossibly intense color of water. A perfect backdrop of glorious peaks. Is it worth fighting the crowds? A constant stream of tourist buses disgorging gaggles of gawkers. You bet!

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2-IMG_2067Before heavy melting of nearby glaciers begins in June or early July, the lake’s color is dark blue. As summer progresses, meltwater flows across a delta and into the lake. This water is laden with finely ground particles of rock debris known as rock flour, which remains suspended in the water. It is not the mineral content of the rock flour that is responsible for the lake’s unique color, but rather the particles reflecting the blue-green sector of the light spectrum. As the amount of suspended rock flour changes, so does the color of the lake. Peyto Lake’s color changes with the seasons.

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The lake is one of many park landmarks named for Bill Peyto, an early outfitter in this area. In 1898, Peyto was part of an expedition camped at Bow Lake. Seeking solitude (as he was wont to do), he slipped off during the nights to sleep near this lake. Other members of the party coined the name Peyto’s Lake, and it stuck.

2-G16-3244It wasn’t only the view that was stealing this show. Having found a more private overlook, we discovered a friendly critter. While I took my shots, Chris gave in to temptation. Yes, wildlife should stay wild, but only a hard-hearted hiker could resist this little beggar.

From Peyto Lake Lookout an extension trail leads further around the mountain that promised to give panoramic views of Bow Lake as well as the glacier perched above it. Besides the great view, the real bonus was almost no one seems to take it. Despite the crowds just a short distance away, we only passed one family of four and a young couple on the roundtrip hike. Canadian Parks’ statistics state that 93% of tourists never venture more than 1 km. (0.6mi.) from their cars. The Bow Summit Trail follows an old fire lookout road as it switchbacks up the mountain, giving ever increasing views of the valley below.

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Actually, mountain trails don’t get much better than this—unexpected, rewarding views with just enough elevation gain to give you a sense of accomplishment.

The sight of the sparkling, translucent waters of Bow Lake is awe-inspiring. The lake was created when moraines deposited by retreating glaciers dammed the subsequent meltwater. Flowing down from the peaks is Peyto Glacier, part of the Wapta Icefield, which straddles the Continental Divide.

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From our high perch it was a great place to have a snack and sit awhile.

It was late afternoon by the time we made it down from that high trail, but our energy wasn’t sapped yet. We decided to head down to the shores of Bow Lake, to see what a different perspective would give. Once again, Bow Lake didn’t disappoint.

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Crowfoot Mountain has the starring role here—reflecting in Bow Lake’s crystalline waters.

Oh, and have I mentioned the wildflowers along the Parkway? As if the mountain views aren’t rewarding enough, the unfortunately-named Fireweed (how could something so strikingly pretty have the word “weed” as part of its name?) seems to be the dominant flower along the road.

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Along the northern shore of Bow Lake stands a unique lodge whose origins make for an interesting story. In some respects, it is a microcosm of the history of these Canadian Rockies.

Jimmy Simpson was a wild, red-haired 19-year-old who left England for Canada in 1896. He was to become an outfitter with the reputation of being the last and greatest of the Canadian mountain men. He guided scientists, mountaineers, big game hunters and artists through the little-explored Rocky mountains. His wild character, quick wit, and tall tales of the trail made him one of Canada’s most eccentric pioneers. When Jimmy camped at Bow Lake in 1898, he vowed that one day he would “build a shack here”. Twenty-five years later he began building the first log cabin on the site and had a permanent base for his outfitting tours. He called his operation Num-Ti-Jah, a Stoney word for pine marten, a small animal similar to a sable.

In 1937, the first Banff-to-Jasper road was completed as far as Bow Lake. Jimmy, his wife Billie, and their three children began expanding on his original dream of a “shack”. With the earnings from his two daughters’ professional ice-skating tours, the building of Num-Ti-Jah Lodge began. In 1940, the Lodge had six guest rooms. By 1950, a beautiful log and stone hotel with 16 rooms stood on the shores of Bow Lake.

In the 50s and 60s, Jimmy Simpson’s reputation attracted tourists interested in hearing his stories. While Jimmy became a living legend, his son took charge of running the Lodge. Jimmy died in 1972, and in 1996 his son retired from managing Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. It is still opened today, receiving guests who don’t mind paying for a rustic, yet cozy room with no phones, TVs, or internet—just pristine views and countless miles of hiking trails.

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The view that Num-Ti-Jah Lodge faces—and our destination for tomorrow’s day hike.

I knew that Crowfoot Mountain, with its premier location jutting out into Bow Lake, had great potential. That’s why it warranted my predawn visit. Walking past the Lodge with no other early birds in sight, I started down the shoreline trail. It was a cold summer morning, temps hovering around freezing, when I found what I was looking for.

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An inlet stream reflects the first light striking Crowfoot Mountain

After a hearty breakfast back at camp, we took the trail that led to the headwaters of the well-known and scenic Bow River. Flowing through the towns of Banff and the city of Calgary, the Bow is a Blue Ribbon River, world-renowned for its excellent fly fishing.

2-G16-3258Another perfect mountain morning, Chris pauses before starting down the trail. A sight to fill you with brimming emotions—well, one of us at least.

The Bow River, perhaps one of the best examples of a glacially-colored stream in the Rockies, starts off its scenic journey to Hudson Bay in this impressive waterfall. In 1898 when the Bow Glacier was discovered, most of the headwall where the falls now occur was under ice. Since then, the glacier has retreated far enough that not only has the cliff band been exposed, but a large lake has formed at the foot of the glacier, which itself is fed by a smaller waterfall from the glacier.

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We had a good view of the falls and its glacier at the start of the trail.

2-G16-3274We soon began to cross a broad alluvial plain after leaving the lakeshore trail.

Picking our way over gravel and rocks, we more-or-less followed the upstream course of the newly-born Bow River (now a mere stream).

Then climbing up a steep gorge, we came out onto the crest of the glacial moraine. What this trail lacks in length, we soon learned it makes up for in rough going. First, came the gravel, which soon morphed into stones and rocks. No visible trail to follow, we made our own way from cairn to cairn. At the end, it was mostly scaling small boulders. Eventually I was looking across at one impressively powerful glacier-born waterfall.

2-5D-5759Thundering water, blowing mist, the falls communicate to all your senses. Falling slightly more than 500 feet, it is the largest (in terms of height and volume) waterfall along the Icefields Parkway. Usually frozen solid for 4-5 months, it challenges ice climbers to ski in and have at it. Once melted, it produces a significant volume of water most of the summer months.

 

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Although the views from the Lodge are certainly scenic, one really doesn’t get a feel for how immense this waterfall is without hiking to its base. The 5.5-mle distance might deter the casual hikers, but if you’re looking for waterfalls, this is one hike that is well worth your time!

 

 

Another new day, another sunrise shot. This time I was off to Upper Waterfowl Lake. Not easily seen from the parkway, a short forest walk takes you to it. Instead of a view from above, the trail leads to its swampy shores where it is common to view moose feeding on the abundant aquatic vegetation. No such luck on this early morning, but I did catch the light on Mt. Chephren and Howse Peak. Now let the day begin!

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Just behind our campsite, a short trail led through the trees to the banks of the Mistaya River. Flowing out of beautiful Peyto Lake, it connects both of the Waterfowl Lakes. Translated to ‘grizzly bear’ in the Cree language, it flows through a scenic slot canyon before merging with the North Saskatchewan River.

2-G16-3300Crossing the bridge, our last hike here would be to Chephren Lake, located on  the eastern flanks of its namesake mountain.

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Chephren Lake is set in a glacially carved amphitheater beneath the rugged eastern escarpment of the Great Divide. The trail to the lake crosses the Mistaya River and climbs through a spruce-fir forest.

2-IMG_2060Not too strenuous or long a hike, we found the trail consistently filled with tree roots, interspersed with boggy patches, making the hike rather tedious. We hoped the ordeal would be worth it.

As things worked out, we had barely gotten our first glimpse of the lake when foreboding skies moved in. Still, we found a log and took a rest, hoping the skies would clear. From one end of the lake, at the water’s edge, we had a tremendous view of Howse Peak.

The highest mountain in the Waputik Mountains, its nearly 11,000-foot elevation makes it higher than its neighbor, Mt. Chephren. Its height is further emphasized by rising a mile above the Mistaya River flowing nearby. It is also a formidable climbing challenge. It sufficed us to simply sit and take in its visage.

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I’ll admit—we’ve certainly taken in more than a few mountain scenes and alpine lakes on this trip. Perhaps it’s difficult to believe that with the sight of each new landscape it’s like seeing a mountain scene for the first time. Whether remarkably similar or distinctively different, the landscape holds us in its grip. Mountains have power to overwhelm us; alpine lakes can soothe the soul. And therein lies the attraction, and the draw that keeps us seeking them out. Definitely the reward for a hard-earned hike.

With one more destination yet to meet here in the Canadian Rockies, our time along the parkway had come to an end. We had drawn it out and filled each day, satisfied we’d done what we could. With the valleys still in shadows, morning light was moving down the peaks as we made our way out to the Icefields Parkway.

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As I did my research for this trip and came to know these Rockies more intimately, I happened across words written by Mark Twain. Immersed as we’ve been in these glacier-carved landscapes, the essence of his thoughts seemed to hit home.

A man who keeps company with glaciers comes to feel tolerably insignificant by and by.
The mountains and glaciers together are able to take every bit of conceit out of a man
and reduce his self-importance to zero if he will only remain within the influence of their
sublime presence long enough to give it a fair and reasonable chance to do its work.

Made more humble through the power of these mountains,
Airstream Travelers,
Melinda and Chris

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About airstreamtravelers

An Airstream Flying Cloud suits our lifestyle perfectly. The two of us are now spending several months each year on the road. We hope our posts and accompanying photos give a vivid description of where we travel, illustrating to our followers what's out there, just beyond their horizons.
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2 Responses to THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY—Once Is Not Enough

  1. libertatemamo says:

    Great round-up of this area. Plus Waterfowl Lakes Campground looks great. Do you have an idea if it would fit our size (40-foot)? The website says 25-foot max., but you never know….

    Nina

    • Hi Nina! Waterfowl Lakes is your kind of place for sure! It would be tight for you guys, but knowing you squeezed into Kalaloch, I’m not saying there wouldn’t be a place for you. We have a total length of at least 40′ and had no problem finding a site along the river to accommodate us. And it was an average-size site for Waterfowl. A large 5th wheel was next to us, but no Beasts. At least drive through and check it out before rejecting the possibility. Your fall-back option (always need one of those, right?) would be the Columbia Icefields Centre where the big RVs hole up on a concrete parking lot. http://www.albertawow.com/campgrounds/Icefields_Centre_RV/Icefields_Centre_RV_Campground.htm No hookups, BUT the view is spectacular!! Two of the most notable Icefields glaciers are literally in your face from that lot! AND it is centrally located for some of the best trails and glacier viewing. Two trails NOT to be missed are Parker Ridge and Wilcox Pass. Speaking of which, Helen Lake Trail is reputed to also be exceptional (would be convenient to Waterfowl Cpgrd), but it was closed due to bear activity when we were there. Dirty darn! Waterfowl Cpgrd is as popular as you’ll read, so get there early morning (we came from Lake Louise and arrived before noon on a weekday). Or camp at LL and take the short drive up in your car to check it out. LL is touristy (for good reason), but you can take hikes into the back country and leave most of the hordes behind. A dayhike to one of their tea houses is memorable! The farther in you hike, the more solitude you’ll find. And don’t rule out Yoho NP–an extremely scenic but no crowds kind of place! And just around the corner from LL. Also, if you’re thinking of Jasper NP, you could easily fit into Whistler Cpgrd–lots of pull thrus. And the crowds are much thinner, but in summer reserve your site. Hope this helps. I’m here in the Florida Everglades if you have more questions!

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