Breaking into Banff

They were right there; they always had been. For millions of years they’ve stood, inspiring and pushing us to greater heights. Standing stoic and proud, they finally greeted me. It felt like they had always been so close, just beyond the horizon, out of sight. As I soaked in the view and seared it into my mind I felt wonder fill my soul. From far away they had looked so small. Their snow capped peaks blending in with the clouds. But now that we were breaking into their ranks, they commanded my attention. Towering above, they cast their vast shadows to all caught between them and the sun. Doing some research online, we discovered an alternate route into Banff National Park. Many reviews mentioned the frustration of taking #1 TransCanada Highway, often holding nothing but slow transport trucks and steady streams of tourists (us being two of them).  So we jumped at the chance for a different road. Highway #40 added a few hours onto the trip, winding its way west from Longview, snaking north through the park all the way to Canmore. But even the drive from Calgary to #40 was fun, consisting mostly of ranches, backroads, and small communities. We stopped in Longview for some pictures before heading on.

Highway #40 provided stunning views. Shortly after we turned on, we encountered an elderly couple in a sports car.  The top was down and they were heading north just as we were. The man driving had an ice-cream cone in hand, doing about 20 kilometres under the speed limit, clearly enjoying his surroundings on this perfect sunny day. Feeling the same sort of relaxation, we opted not to pass for a few kilometres, taking the same slow pace. They were one of the only cars we saw the whole drive into Canmore. Along the way we also found an abandoned train car in a field, clearly the victim of a fire.

As we took our first kilometres into the park new friends and views made themselves open to us.

Mistaking this mountain sheep for a goat, we chuckled as this little guy wholeheartedly ignored us for the duration of our meet.

We also ran into numerous herds of cattle. They are free roam here (although confined within certain areas via Texas gates). We even ran over a pile of dung, a particularly big blob landing square on the windshield. That was lovely and made for quite a laugh.

A little over an hour into our trip up #40 we came across our turnoff for the Smith-Dorrien Trail. As we passed Elpoca Mountain a sign marked Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and we took it, looking for our gravel road. We soon found our way and were off to Spray Lakes Reservoir and some surprising views.

Snacking along our journey, we eventually made it to the main reservoir lake and stopped by the shore. We started to see more traffic here, including fishermen and dog walkers. Considering how close we were to Canmore we didn’t find it surprising given the scenery of the area.

What we didn’t realize was just how high up were on the shores of this lake. As we followed the road out we realized we were halfway up one of the mountains surrounding Canmore. It was incredibly windy as this natural cut into the mountain seemed to serve as a choke point for the gales to come howling down. I ventured out of the car for a fast snapshot down into Canmore, not staying long. I was legitimately afraid of just how strong this wind was – I could barely keep my feet at times.

We drove down into Canmore and explored before setting off to our final destination for the day – Banff. After walking around and exploring our campsite a little, we headed to the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. Here, a natural hot springs blesses the land with warmth, allowing countless species of life to exist that normally would not survive in the harsh interior climate.

That night, after a relaxing trip to the Banff Upper Hot Springs pool, we settled down at our campsite for a fire. The campsite was well situated on Tunnel Mountain, giving many of its inhabitants fantastic views. About halfway through the night our neighbour rode up on a motorcycle and asked us if we wanted to see a Bull Elk and his herd. Obviously, we said yes and he gestured where we could find them. We had heard his bugling all night but had not realized just how close he was. A short walk led us right to him. He was taller than me at his head and his antlers were massive. It was quite the sight and we gave him the distance he deserved. The next morning was our big hike. Having a good friend who lives in Aylmer, Ontario the Aylmer Lookout Hike over Lake Minnewanka piqued my interest. The description called for a straightforward hike along the shores of Lake Minnewanka for about 8 kilometres before a steep climb of altitude (1,000 metres) done in about 3 kilometres. Before this hike the longest we had done was the Spirit Sands (about 12-15 kilometres in sand) but we thought that this one would be a good challenge. The Lookout provided views over both sides of Lake Minnewanka and was the site of an old fire lookout. We were sold and packed snacks, lunch, quite a bit of water and planned 8 hours for our excursion.

After a short distance from the parking lot we came across a bridge to cross a small river flowing from Lake Minnewanka. The clear water beckoned us to jump in, its temperature easily cloaked by its baby blue glisten.

The path along the shore was at times elevated quite high up and provided some great views across the lake. We continued along this rocky trail for quite some time.

Eventually we came across a makeshift bridge over a small river. From the erosion you could easily tell that in the spring this small river would be turned into quite the monster. Our turnoff up to the fire lookout was just a few hundred metres after the bridge and we started our ascent, excited for the payoff to come.

The final stretch.

There aren’t many words to adequately fit the scale of the view up there, but it was one of the best of the trip thus far, if not the best. The few kilometres uphill to get to there were somewhat tough but it made it all the more worth it at the top. We spent a little over an hour up there, eating lunch, taking in the view, and just enjoying life. Here are a few of our photos. We highly recommend this hike to anyone looking for some adventure.

Listed under the “experienced hikers” section of the pamphlets we had, the Aylmer Lookout Hike was considered one of Banff’s more challenging summer season day hikes, due to its length: a 23 kilometre round trip. Eight hours after our start (including the one for lunch), we dragged our weary legs towards the CR-V. I took off my hiking boots and just sat in bliss. We had travelled to a beautiful place and were considered “experienced hikers” now, so obviously we knew we could do anything! Giddy at our triumph, we set our sights to Tunnel Mountain for a hike the next morning before leaving for Lake Louise. All that and more in the next post coming from Jasmine. Adios for now, Aaron

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