It’s true what they say about retracing a route already taken—it’s like traveling a road for the first time. Coming from a different perspective presents views you’ve not yet seen. In our case, it was an incredibly scenic one to begin with. I’d swear the views were even more impressive as we drove in this southerly direction. I was thoroughly enjoying the trip.
It wasn’t a long drive to our final Canadian destination, an easy half-day drive at best. Just north of Lake Louise the Icefields Parkway connects back up with Trans Canada Highway 1. Heading west with Vancouver as its western terminus, we would take Highway 1 only a few short miles. Almost immediately the road starts climbing—one last mountain pass loomed up ahead.
In 1858 the Palliser Expedition brought the first white explorers to this area known as Yoho. Under the auspices of the Royal Geographical Society, the expedition was gathering scientific information of the Canadian territories across the southern passes of the Rockies of which little was known, as well as ascertaining the “capabilities” for settlement and transportation. The small group along with its native guides included James Hector, the expedition’s geologist and naturalist, who inadvertently gave the Kicking Horse Pass and River its name. While walking his horse over rough ground, he was kicked unconscious and actually thought to be dead. It wasn’t until his grave had begun to be dug that he slowly came to.
Crossing over Kicking Horse Pass was when we first noticed the atmospheric haze. Like a veil draped over the scenery, the mountains were now in much softer focus. What’s up? we wondered; and then we began to put two and two together.
The western wildfires. Multiple burning fires. All downwind. The air was thick as chicken soup. We’d swear there were fires burning just over the nearest mountains. It did not portend well for our final few days here in the Rockies.
Crossing over the Great Divide at the summit of the pass, we entered British Columbia as well as our last Canadian national park. Yoho, a Cree word expressing awe and amazement, a word well-suited for this park, is the smallest of Canada’s four national parks in the Rockies, and many think it’s the prettiest.
It is known for its wild and rugged landscape, with most of its 507 square miles inaccessible to all but the most intrepid of hikers. Massive peaks soar above alpine lakes, waterfalls shoot out from melting glaciers, rivers tumble down through steep canyons. Overcast skies or not, we were ready to pull back this park’s layers and see what sights it had to offer.
Yoho’s only watershed, fed by two icefields, is the Kicking Horse River. Wide and braided for much of its course, it bisects Yoho as it flows westward, soon to merge into the mighty Columbia River. From this river valley, vertical granite walls of massive mountains tower overhead.
The Yoho River flows down one of those steep-sided canyons, emptying into the Kicking Horse River. Just a short distance up the Yoho River Road was the campground we’d use as base camp. A very scenic location, we didn’t mind having a wide open site. Who could complain with a backdrop like this?
The history of settlement in this remote valley had its origins with the railway. After the Palliser Expedition went through, the area once again was inhabited only by the native tribes who set up seasonal camps along the Kicking Horse River. Until 1881, when the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was looking for a route to lay their transcontinental railway and sent out surveyors.
Formed in 1867, the Canadian Government was anxious to connect the entire width of their fledgling country. Building a railway all the way to the Pacific Coast would be a formidable undertaking, crossing the Rockies being the most challenging. James Hector (yes, the same horse-kicked James Hector) had explored this area 15 years earlier and was convinced that Kicking Horse Pass was simply too steep and rugged for a railway. Nevertheless, because it would make the shorter, more direct route, plus have the advantage of reinforcing Canadian sovereignty near the U.S. border, the decision was made. Kicking Horse Pass was chosen. It also sealed the fate of many unfortunate rail workers and trains for years to come.
Laying the tracks in the short amount of time the government had allocated for its construction, would necessitate the route to be a straight shoot—up the pass (soon to be called “The Big Hill”, then down). Covering an 8-mile length, it entailed a 4.5% grade, twice the standard, recommended grade. It would be one of the steepest railway lines anywhere in the world. Due to the extreme risk this track presented, a maximum downhill speed of 6 mph was set, 3 runaway lanes were added with frequent brake inspections made. Three safety switches led to uphill runaway lanes and were kept in the uphill position until the operator was satisfied that the train descending the grade towards him was not out of control. Despite all precautions, disasters occurred with dismaying frequency. In fact, the first train to attempt the run suffered a brake failure and derailed, killing three workers.
It was 25 years before a change would come about, making for a much safer route. Begun in 1906, two spiral tunnels were constructed into the valley walls under massive mountains. By diverting the line through these tunnels the track would be doubled in length while reducing the grade in half. It was the first time in railroad history that such a design was utilized. It took 1,000 men, 75 railcars of dynamite and about 1.5 million Canadian dollars to complete. It is still in use today with 25-30 trains passing through the tunnels daily.
A trail illustrating the history of the rail line’s construction on the Big Hill began just a few yards from our campsite. Called “A Walk In The Past”, various segments along the way illustrated what once occurred here. First we took the path, following in the footsteps of long-gone rail workers who lived where we’re camping today. Switchbacking up through the forest, we saw clinker deposits of cinders and soot, evidence that 15 steam locomotives passed along this track every day.
Coming to a break in the trees, we crossed over the tracks that replaced the first rail line. Ahead was a great view of Cathedral Mountain, a landmark of Yoho.
Coming back down a train whistle alerted us—one of the daily trains was making its way up the mountain! Hurry, catch a glimpse—a fitting picture for this story.
But enough of this historical information . . . it’s time to get on with the show. Smoke-filled skies or not, I was ready to drive the roads, take the trails, see what this park had to offer. Just outside the campground entrance, Yoho River Road was a good place to start. Late afternoon light accentuated the smoke-filled skies.
Fed by the Wapta Icefield in the far north of the park, the Yoho River flows through a spectacularly narrow valley, dropping more than 660 feet in the last half mile before its confluence with the Kicking Horse River.
This scenic drive dead-ended at a primitive but well-used campground, a hikers’ hostel, trailheads to a few very popular hikes, and (drum roll sounding) Takakkaw Falls, hands down, the most impressive waterfall in the Canadian Rockies. No debate about it , . . no other even comes close . . . it’s a winner and it called to me.
Meaning “It is magnificent” in the Cree language, Takakkaw Falls is fed by the Daly Glacier from the Waputik Icefield, which straddles the Great Divide. Spewing 830 feet out from a glacier-fed lake hidden from view, its waters tumble over sheer rock walls at the lip of the Yoho Valley. Some claim it is the highest waterfall in Canada, but in actuality it’s either second or third. Rankings aside, it’s in an elite waterfall category and it truly is magnificent. With the evening coming on as the sun dropped below the rocky walls, I required some persuasion to depart from the compelling scene.
Leave I must, but I knew that I’d be back before our stay here was over. This beauty deserved more than one initial visit.
Ah, but I wasn’t finished with the evening shots yet! One more special view was waiting as we made our way back down the gorge. The steep cliff faces of Cathedral Mountain happened to be catching the sunset colors. Now that’s what I call a rewarding first drive in Yoho.
Hiking trails and scenic landmarks are but two of many features Yoho has to offer. In fact, the park’s slogan is ‘Rockwalls and Waterfalls’, of which it has plenty of both. Our first full day had us heading out to take in some of its most notable offerings and Emerald Lake Road would lead us to them.
First to see is the Natural Bridge, usually crowded with tourists. At this early morning hour, we had the sight to ourselves and easily snagged a photo or three. At one time, the Kicking Horse River flowed over the lip of this rocky ledge. But a crack in the rock opened up enough to allow water to flow through it instead of over. Although not advised and even barricaded off, many people do attempt to cross over this ‘bridge’.
Our day’s destination and trailhead for the hike came at the road’s end. Emerald Lake, the largest and deepest of Yoho’s 61 lakes and ponds, is truly one of the jewels of the Canadian Rockies.
Sitting in a deep pocket surrounded by high mountains, Emerald Lake glows with a green tinge, thanks to the rock flour from the melting glaciers nearby. Situated as it is, the lake experiences frequent summer rains and heavy winter snows. Being on the west side of the Great Divide, the lake has four very different environments: a huge avalanche path, a normal forest, a dry and dramatic alluvial fan and a wetter side that supports trees more typical of British Columbia’s Interior cedar-hemlock forest zone. A 3-mile trail encircles the lake and makes a very interesting walk. Our first trail of the day.
The trail to Emerald Basin cuts off from the lake trail and follows the edge of the alluvial fan for about a mile. Our second trail of the day would involve quite a bit more of an elevation gain.
Trail’s end was a high glacial basin, where waterfalls tumbled from hanging glaciers. A rather barren valley, once we passed over the rocky avalanche slope, it was a landscape of rock and gravel. The twin peaks of The President and Vice President, named after officials for the CPR, loomed overhead.
Another day here at Yoho took us back up to the end of Yoho River Road once again. Excellent trails led out from the road’s end, and one in particular caught my interest—the hike to Laughing Falls. With a name like that, how could one resist? More or less following the course of the Yoho River, we began by walking across the rocky ground of an alluvial fan. A side trail cut off, leading to Duchesnay Lake. Known to be a favorite haunt for moose early in the day, we decided to go check it out.
A precursor to Laughing Falls was the side trip to Point Lace Falls. Not one to miss a waterfall, of course we took the half-mile detour.
A markedly different type of waterfall from those gushing out from glaciers, this waterfall was more like a series of cascades making its way down an irregular rock face. Fed by what little water remained in Duchesnay Lake, Point Lace Falls was a very delicate, ephemeral falls.
The trail kicks into high gear before reaching Laughing Falls. You’ll feel like you earned your reward on this one—making the destination that much sweeter. The Yoho River is now in view again, pummeling through steep canyon walls. We could hear the roar of water before the falls came into view.
Emerging from a narrow slot canyon, then falling about 100 feet, the water blows out of the mountainside with considerable force. As many waterfalls as he was compelled to take in on this trip, Laughing Falls still seemed to impress Chris. Of course, he had yet to see Takakkaw Falls up close, which soon that would be remedied.
The origins of the name Laughing Falls came about during the first exploration of this valley back in 1897. The waterfall obviously brightened what had become a rain-plagued experience through monotone, glum surroundings. Fortunately, the name stuck and seems fitting today under any weather conditions.
Retracing the route of our trail, eventually coming out into the open again as we made our way back along that rocky alluvial fan, the views down the Yoho Valley opened up. Nearly a mile away the scene takes in Takakkaw Falls spewing down the mountain slope. Even from this far view, you could see the power of the water. Like a moth drawn to a flame, I felt an undeniable attraction for that incredible waterfall.
Knowing what the conditions would be like when approaching the falls, we detoured to our truck, depositing backpacks and gear for rain jackets and hats (having been unprepared on my first encounter, this time we’d be better suited).
German explorer Jean Habel made the first recorded visit to the falls, in 1897. His account of the wonders he saw in the Yoho Valley prompted a visit by William Cornelius Van Horne, president of the CPR, who chose Takakkaw for its name. Van Horne was also instrumental in having this valley included within the boundaries of Mt. Stephen Reserve, the forerunner to Yoho National Park.
It is surprising how close you can get to the base of this falls, if you don’t mind getting drenched. The sheer size and power of this waterfall compels you to move in. Making a dramatic plunge to the valley floor, its waters seem to fall in slow motion. It is mesmerizing to observe. And not unusual to hear the crashing sound of boulders hitting ledges as the powerful force of its waters send them hurdling hundreds of feet down.
What gives Takakkaw much of its uniqueness is the massive roostertail that comes during the heavier flow periods in late summer. As the river of water plunges out of the slot canyon at the top of the main drop, it falls for about 75-100 feet before impacting on a protruding rock. The force of that impact compels the water to blast outwards from the cliff face by as much as 150 feet. When standing below and observing that burst is a big part of its allure. It’s not unusual to hear gasps and words of exclamation coming from others who’ve gathered around.
Yes, even Chris was impressed enough to hang around, although not quite as long as me. We took our leave of Takakkaw (not without many backward glances), bringing our time at Yoho to an end.
Back at camp later, we had looked forward to a last night’s special evening out. Winding down our stay here in the Canadian Rockies, Chris had the perfect location selected. Just across the road from our campground was the Cathedral Mountain Lodge, a collection of upscale log cabins laid out behind an impressive timber frame main lodge. Catching our interest from first sight, its design held great appeal to us. When we learned they had open seating for dinners, we knew it was meant to be.
We couldn’t have asked for a better evening. With a warm breeze circulating through the open windows, we were seated at a prime and very private table. The warm ambiance and rustic, Craftsman decor, the friendly service and delicious meal, all blended together to put the finishing touches on our two-month Canadian adventure.
And the same could be said for the next morning, although it was totally unanticipated. I don’t usually head out for a sunrise shoot on our day of imminent departure. But one look out my bedside window gave me impetus to grab my camera gear. In a flash I was backing out the truck, heading up the Yoho River Road.
A roadside pull-off was my opportune spot, to find the sun breaking the horizon. Lo and behold, just across the road, there was another compelling scene. Mt. Stephen commanded this view. Catching that golden sunrise light, its facade was all aglow. A morning in the mountains doesn’t get any better than this . . . and a fitting farewell bonus to take from the Canadian Rockies.
Taking our leave of all things Canadian,
Melinda and Chris
. . . making our way back to the U.S. of A.