Posts in the “Jasper” category...
So, we left early, again spurred on by our guidebook, which suggested that a visit to the Wells Gray Provincial Park would be a worthwhile way to spend some time en route to our next stop, Jasper.
When I say en-route, what I really mean is 120 mile round-trip detour to land us back almost where we started, with the bulk of the journey to Jasper still to face. As it turned out however, it was indeed more than worth it.
The guidebook had mentioned a ‘bakery’, just at the beginning of the Park access road in the town of Clearwater, so this was our dawn chorus target as we struck out on Highway 5 North from Kamloops.
The Flour Meadow Bakery opens at 5am, is housed in a log cabin somewhat hidden in the trees, and is quite obviously a hub for the community. Notices at the entrance advertised for pickers to pluck surplus produce from locals’ back yards for distribution to the needy and, inside, a team of the most friendly staff rustle up a wide selection of delights. We enjoyed wholesome breakfasts and coffee refills at 50c a cup, then ordered gourmet sandwiches for our foray into the park itself.
There are a number of attractions ahead, not least of which are the Helmcken Falls shown above, but the undoubted highlight of our trip was coming across a real live bear.
The weather was by now beautiful, we could catch our first glimpses of Rocky Mountain peaks and then, while quite alone on the dirt park road, the bear lumbered from the trees on the left and began a slow, laborious pad along the roadside. Well briefed, we held back and kept the recommended three bus lengths away. As it moved toward the roadway, it took a cautious look over its right shoulder as if to check for traffic and framed its snout perfectly for an out-of-the-sunroof photograph. It crossed, walked a little further along on the right and then disappeared back into the forest. What a treat.
Wells Gray presented us with waterfalls and lakes, a close-up of a beaver dam and soaring forests. It also teased us with the first tingles of what was to come in the Rockies proper and provided a most favourable venue for our Flour Meadow Bakery lunch.
So, with a little regret at the brevity of our visit, but high hopes for what we were yet to see, we headed back to Clearwater to rejoin the ‘5’ for our hurtle for Jasper. We made time, of course, to stop at the Bakery again for coffee and cake.
As the road heads first North and then East from Clearwater, you are certainly aware of increasing elevation – much before the shoulders of the landscape around you heave themselves up to become more craggy and looming. Ahead of us lay the highest of them all, Mount Robson, and so it was that late in the afternoon we arrived in Yellowhead Pass to see Robson framed majestically by surrounding mountainsides. The National Park Center was by this time closed, but the car park gives chance for a leg-stretch and photo opportunity, albeit slightly obscured by peak-hugging cloud on our visit.
Heading East from Yellowhead brings you to the Jasper National Park gate, where a permit must be purchased if you intend to stop and visit within the Park. Permits are valid until 4pm of your planned exit day and can be extended at National Park Offices within the Park. An Adult permit is currently CAD9.80.
Descending from the Pass, it is no great distance before the town of Jasper approaches, lying within a broad valley bound on all sides by towering peaks. Our home for the night would be the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, the most famous (and salubrious) of all Jasper accommodations and built on the site of the first tourist lodgings in the area, a tented camp erected by the brothers Brewster in 1915.
Occupying a favoured position on the shores of Lac Beauvert, the hotel has been made permanent and developed into a highly-rated property of international repute. Which all rather made our experience a little disappointing. Think absent door staff, limited parking, upgrade to wholly unsuitable room (there were three in the bed, and the little one said – call yourself a 5-star hotel?), inability of hotel concessions to post charges to the main account expeditiously and a complete failure to apply the advertised rate rules (AMEX FHR) at checkout and you do question spending CAD600 for bed and two breakfasts (third person extra).
The upgraded accommodation – Lakeside Junior Suite – was well located and pleasantly furnished, with a reportedly very comfortable bed. The sofabed which had to be pressed into service was less so. The bathroom could be charitably described as pokey and the chalet-style construction was about as sound-proofed as a Millets tent. Signing up online to (free) membership of the Fairmont President’s Club before check in at least afforded complimentary (wired) internet access however.
We grabbed a quick snack in the lobby bar, served by friendly and helpful staff, before retiring just ahead of an avalanche of conference delegates arriving for a post-dinner expenses-fuelled booze-up.
The second check-out battle of the trip ensued after a very acceptable breakfast in the Meadows Restaurant, and we were untroubled once again by any door staff upon departure. Likewise, the much-advertised herds of calving elk which were allegedly a peril to all around, steadfastly refused to show a hoof.
Here again, we were presented with a false start to a roadtrip as we made tracks for Maligne Lake – the access road being in completely the opposite direction to our ultimate destination for that day, Banff.
The road commences from the foot of the Jasper Park Lodge’s own drive, and there are numerous distractions en-route to delay the traveller yet more. The Maligne Waterfalls are worthy of inspection, connected as they are by footpaths and bridges through the forest. Medicine Lake too occupies a few megabytes of the SD Card. The target however is Maligne Lake itself, hero of countless postcards and tending, in the right light, toward that famous turquoise hue borne of suspended ‘rock flour’. It rained for us.
Looking at just the right angle, from just the right elevation, with slightly more squint in the left than the right eye, we could just about detect the colouration, but after a quick scoot around the shoreline near the boathouse and a cursory examination of the distinctly second class Tatarama, we retraced our path to Jasper, passing Medicine Lake once again and then numerous clumps of tourists huddled by the roadside, apparently peering into the gloom of the forest to inspect a rapidly-retreating moose bum.
The weather presented a finer aspect for our lunchtime arrival in Jasper, a town noted for its adventure sports and peak season traffic jams. We were treated to little congestion however and, under blue skies and sunshine, we toured the streets taking in gardens and shops, the most handsome railway station and the slightly Hansel and Gretel Park Offices.
Having been impressed by the sandwiches at Flour Meadow, the Other Paw Bakery on Connaught Drive offered a similar opportunity to stock up in preparation for a picnic. We were not to be disappointed and, having refuelled the Ford, we found ourselves not half an hour later at a look out heralding the start of the famous Icefields Parkway.
With time marching on and much still to see, we travelled the Parkway a short distance before plunging downhill and West towards the old highway and the Athabasca Falls. The rock flour is clearly present here, as the vivid waters hurl themselves from placid meander to thundering verticality through a sink hole in the rock. Unperturbed by the numerous coach parties, it’s still relatively easy to find an unpopulated turn in the path from which to view this mighty force of nature at close quarter.
Leaving the massed bands of blue rinsers behind, the Icefields Parkway continues South, gaining altitude almost imperceptibly as every rise in the wide, well-graded tarmac is followed by a slightly lesser downhill run. All the while the waters which have yet to power through the downstream falls are just to the Western side – sometimes calm and glassy, sometimes racing and rapid.
The highpoint of the roadtrip, in every sense of the word, is the Athabasca Glacier itself. Approaching from the North, the nose of the ice appears to creep from behind the scree as the road rounds a sweeping meander of the meltwaters to arrive at the Glacier Visitor Centre.
From the Visitor Centre, coaches depart regularly to take guests through the ancient forest of stunted, four hundred year-old pines, to a transfer station on the lateral moraine. From here, passengers transfer to the specially designed Snowcoaches for a spectacular journey down the side of the moraine and onto the glacier itself. Flat out at little more than walking-pace, these behemoths of the ice trundle on oversized, monster truck style tyres, up towards the headwall of the glacier and the Continental Divide marked by this finger of the Columbia Icefield. From just above this vantage point, ice and then meltwater flows to the Antarctic, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and also into the cupped hands of tourists who take the opportunity to scoop up a taste of pure, pure water. To all but the most experienced of mountaineers and ardent students of geography (and then maybe even for them too) it’s a unique and fascinating experience.
This being the final tour of the day, we were treated to a slightly extended trip and, by the time we reached the Visitor Centre once again, the sun had dipped behind the mountain tops and the sparkle of a Rocky Mountain day was being overtaken by a gentle merging of colours into dusk.
In this most atmospheric of lights, the continuing drive along the Icefields Parkway takes on a different mood, with shadows lengthening and the last rays of sunlight turning isolated peaks to into glowing beacons. To this, an air of expectation grows as minds turn toward the end of the road and our target for the day – the Banff Springs Hotel.