Jasper to Banff

by Continental Club on July 30, 2008

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.

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