Thanksgiving in the Rockies: Banff to Valemount

Hardly able to enjoy the wonderful town of Banff, I was up at the crack of dawn!

One downside to studying abroad in Canada has been the fact that all my classes have either been at 9:30 or 10am, which has deprived me of the sleep I love so much. By now, you’d think I’d be conditioned to getting up at ungodly hours when people ask me to but it’s still tough! Even more so when you consider the line for the breakfast buffet at the hotel was so long I would have missed the bus if I had queued up, so I didn’t even manage a cup of tea in the morning. Boo!

Luckily, I still had leftovers from the supplied breakfast we were given the previous day, and our first stop – Sulfur Mountain – was essentially on Banff’s doorstep. We would be taking the gondola (cable car, not boat!) all the way to the top of the mountain.
The ride up was… uncomfortable but exhilarating. You queue up for a gondola pod, hop in with three other people, then the door is closed by workers (turns out there are a lot of Australians in Banff – who knew?) and you shoot off up the mountain. You wobble in the wind as the distance between you and the ground grows at a fast rate. I imagine it would be quite nerve-wracking for someone who is afraid of heights! My pod mates and I had fun spotting things that had fallen or been dropped from the window. I’m still wondering what the owner of the pair of shoes did about getting home…
The top of the mountain (2,451m for the curious – a little over a third of Kili, which seems to be my go-to measurement for mountains now) was freezing cold, even with us wrapped up warm in our coats and scarves. Another snow flurry started up as we began our walk up to the top of Sanson’s Peak from the gondola station.

I wish I could say this was a hike but unfortunately the route has been made highly accessible with wooden steps and decking. Probably for the best though; it stops anyone slipping off the mountain (arguably faster than the gondola!) and keeps the wildlife from getting too close.

But the view from the top was gorgeous. You’d be hard pressed to find a better (and more accessible!) view of Banff and its surrounding mountains.

I really can’t stress the temperature enough though. I must seem like a wimp to any native Canadians but this was my coldest October ever, despite being cocooned in the same thermal coat that I took to Africa. Back in the warmth of the gondola station, I bought a souvenir – a wooden totem pole of a thunderbird and a killer whale – which will join the Asian and African elephants from my other big trips this year once I’m home.

Back down at the base of the mountain, we were picked up by the buses and drove to the northern part of the park to Bow Lake – another unreal body of water. I know I sound like a broken record but these colours are not altered in any way! Gorgeous!

There’s a little lodge on the lake’s shore which was selling souvenirs and hot chocolate. It also had a small museum and even a real stuffed bear (sadly the only bear I’ve seen while I’ve been in Canada!). We took refuge in the warmth away from the biting cold after returning from another quick hike.

No matter how much I wanted to, there was never enough time to stop and take in all the beautiful the landscapes. We were back on the bus once again, resenting having to leave but also excited to see what could possibly come next…

And Peyto Lake was beyond my wildest imagining.

Of all of the lakes we visited, Peyto was my favourite. You could see right down the Bow Valley from the viewpoint.

Continuing up the highway, our next stop was Athabasca Glacier and the Columbia Icefield. The icefield, behind the glacier, feeds six major glaciers in the Rockies and is about the size of Paris. It’s massive. And dangerous.

Athabasca Glacier is far more accessible and is actually the most visited glacier in North America. Not just viewed but set foot on, thanks to these immense snow coaches.

It’s still just as treacherous on the glacier so tourists are limited to just a specific area of the ice that is made safe each morning by experienced workers. As we made our way up on to the ice, our glacier guide explained that an uncomfortable number of bodies have been found in the glacier from people who think it’s safe to walk on and end up falling into crevasses…

By the time we reached the exploration zone, we were thoroughly frightened and only walked where we were told. We still had a lot of fun slipping on the ice and throwing snowballs though!

We were even treated to some more snow!

Being at such a high altitude meant we were at the treeline. Our glacier guide told us that the trees rarely get enough warmth to grow at the rate you’d see at sea level which means they can look a little stunted, but given enough time they can grow just as tall. It’s a survival method that has kept the forest around for a long time now. They actually tested some of the trees, our guide informed us, and  despite their appearance, found that the forest has been beside the glacier for over a thousand years.
Back at the visitor centre
Once we were off the glacier, we continued on the highway up to Jasper. We were greeted by some beautiful elk at the roadside as we drove in!
Although similar to Banff, Jasper had a much more laid back feel to it… Not that I got to experience much of it. We were only there for another pitstop, so after spotting The Old Man in the Mountain, we spent our time wisely and headed to Tim Hortons!
© Juraj Zamborský
By the time we crossed over back into British Columbia, night had fallen. Everyone was taking the chance to get some well deserved rest. Despite our grumbling stomachs, we had a long drive to Valemount before we would be fed… our long-anticipated Thanksgiving Dinner!
Our Valemount hotel centrepiece – the closest I got to a moose!
Throwing our suitcases into the last hotel room we’d stay in, we dashed back out to the bus and were taken to our dinner. Ever the international trip, we found ourselves in a Korean restaurant that had been transformed into a Thanksgiving buffet for us all! Besides the usual Turkey dinner with all the trimmings, I also got to try pumpkin pie! Delicious!

There was a small bonfire to celebrate afterwards, then we headed back to the hotel (a long, scary walk in the dark!) to grab our things and find a liquor store for drinks. Valemount being such a small town and it being a Sunday, we struggled to find anywhere that was open but finally, after walking to the other side of the town(!), we found an open shop.

Back at the hotel with a bag of wine (students, eh?), we ended up having a hot tub party that later became a pyjama party! A great way to end our last night as a group!

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