Mid-September can be magical in British Columbia and Alberta. When it all comes together, the larch, birch and tamarack trees erupt into beautiful golden hues, interspersed among the evergreen coniferous trees and the grey limestone of the Rockies.
The season does not always cooperate, but this year (Sept. 2015), the stars aligned and autumn was / is truly perfect.
Indeed I leave home with a heavy heart as the Rockies are currently so perfect yet we know shorter days and cold weather will arrive soon.
(Nevertheless, there should be a magnificent ‘part two’ to this entry as I am flying east to Boston to share New England and Eastern Canada in the fall.)
This last trip was busy – perhaps too busy to really take time to appreciate the magnificence of the Canadian west, but we did try hard! I travelled with (guiding) a group of French speaking Canadians through the far west of their country and it was interesting to experience the landscapes through their eyes.
We started in Vancouver, but really should have begun in Calgary. Vancouver is one of the world’s great cities, but when all anticipation is focused upon the great outdoors, a city is just a city.
On this particular trip we ventured somewhat off the beaten path to a few slightly less visited regions;
A) From Victoria on my beloved Vancouver Island (BTW, lunch at the BC Parliament buildings was one of my best meals this year) we travelled north through the mural-decorated community of Chemainus, before crossing back to the mainland and continuing onto Whistler.
The resort community of Whistler is by no means a ‘hidden gem’ but the drive further inland on highway 99 towards Llilloet and interior BC is well worth the effort. This ‘Gold Rush Trail’ quickly retreats from the crowded West Coast and winds its way through the coastal mountains and down to the mighty Frazer River.
Once in the interior the landscape dries out, transitioning into the enticing Okanagan Valley. Far north of fancier resort communities, we visited Hat Creek Ranch – an original Gold Rush Roadhouse.
Perhaps even more interesting is to learn how the Kamloops First Nation survived and thrived in the area for thousands of years.
From the interior region around Kamloops we drove to Jasper and into my Rocky Mountains. Jasper is always a treat, but I would like to jump ahead to two other regions. After a night at the Columbia Icefields and two nights in Banff, we turned south;
B) on highway 40 into the heart of Kananaskis Country. This route takes visitors over the highest pass in Canada and is only open 1/2 the year. These dramatic front ranges are much less visited and often sunnier than deeper in cordillera. The visitor centre at Peter Lougheed Provincial Park is excellent and three grizzlies put on a show!
The area around the Highwood Pass, may arguably offer the best views anywhere in the Canadian Rockies and driving south, Alberta opens up into the rolling foothills of true Cowboy Country.
Leaving the seclusion of mountain valleys, the journey south on highway 22 crosses highway 3 – the windiest region in all of North America. This is an excellent time to listen to Paul Brant’s “Alberta Bound.”
Once in the far south of the Province, Waterton Lakes National Park is a must visit. Windy and small, the mostly seasonal village is virtually situated on the Montana border. The most iconic hotel in the region – the Prince of Wales – is only open for a few months, and was built by the American Great Northern Railway as a prohibition era watering hole. Cheers~
C) Leaving Waterton’s mountains to the Prairies, the land flattens out and the southern town of Cardston takes on a distinctly religious feel. Established by Mormon polygamists, the first LDS Temple built outside of the USA was established here. Just north of the Cardston is the largest First Nations reserve in Canada. It is a treat to hear Kainai-Blood spoken by this vibrant population.
Travelling north, we passed through Fort Macleod – the first fort of the North West Mounted Police and up to Vulcan! With a name that famous, it is only logical to call in to their friendly – and other-worldly – visitor centre.
Yet further north, we passed through the lands of the Sisksika First Nation and contemplated the abandoned houses that were flooded in the 2013 disaster that swamped much of Southern Alberta.
D) In the early evening we descended pass Horseshoe Canyon into the Red Deer River Valley and the Alberta Badlands.
The Rockies will always hold visitors’ imaginations, but the Badlands may be just as iconically Albertan. Highlighted by arguably the best paleontology museum in the world (the Royal Tyrell Museum), the Badlands feels ancient and hidden.
The main community of Drumheller trades actively on dinosaurs, but it all seems to work. I have travelled here for many years and the entire region remains a perfect weekend getaway with Finn. It also warrants inclusion on many more tour itineraries.
I hope my photos offer some sense of the slightly more remote areas of highway 99, Kananaskis, Southern Alberta and the Badlands.