A few years ago I spent a year living in the town of Banff. During that time I had the opportunity to explore the backcountry of Banff National Park and the other Rocky Mountain national parks – skiing, hiking, camping and treking in the wilderness.
The natural wonders listed below are a collection of my favourite places in the Canadian Rockies (in no particular order). I was inspired to write this post by reading the 36 Natural Wonders of New Zealand.
1. Morraine Lake
The surreal blue waters of Morraine Lake and the backdrop of snow-capped peaks in the Valley of Ten Peaks is a sight to see. The ten mountain peaks in the background run along the Continental Divide, which marks the border of British Columbia and Alberta.
Morraine Lake used to be on the back of the Canadian Twenty Dollar Bill. The colour of the water is due to the refraction of light off the glacial rock flour that is continually deposited in the lake. Since the lake is at such a high elevation, approximately 1,885 m (6,183 feet), the road is only open from June to September. The rest of the year you have to ski in, which takes about two hours (no snowmobiles are allowed in Canada’s National Parks).
2. Mount Robson
The highest peak in the Canadian Rockies at 3,954 m (12,972 ft) is Mount Robson. What’s remarkable about this mountain is how high it rises above the valley – the vertical rise is almost 3 km from the base to the summit.
The glaciers around Mount Robson also provide the headwaters of the Fraser River, which flows 1,375 miles (2,213 km) to the city of Vancouver where it reaches the Pacific Ocean. There is a good hike around the back on the Berg Lake Trail.
3. The Columbia Icefields
The Columbia Icefields is an icefield along the Continental Divide. It covers 325 km² in area, is 100 to 365 metres (328 to 1,197 ft) in depth and receives up to seven metres (275 in) of snowfall per year. Its melt waters flow into three oceans, the Arctic Ocean to the north, Hudson Bay to the east (Atlantic Ocean) and south and west to the Pacific Ocean.
There is excellent hiking in the area and you can take a 80-minute tour on the massive Brewster Ice Explorers that are specially designed for glacial travel. The best time to experience the icefields is on the Full Moon Trek, which guided by the National Park Rangers.
4. Spirit Island on Maligne Lake
Maligne Lake is one of the most beautiful sites in Jasper National Park. The 44 km (27 mile) lake is renowned for the colour of its water and the three beautiful glaciers surrounding the lake. Spirit Island at the south end of the lake is one of the most photographed locations in the world.
5. Lake Louise Ski Area
Some of the best views in Banff National Park can be found at the Lake Louise ski area. In the winter, you can see the mountains along the Continental Divide across the valley and the smoke billowing from the chimney of the miniature-looking Chateau Lake Louise. In the summer, there is hiking, grizzly bears and amazing wildflowers. Lake Louise is consistently rated the most beautiful ski resort in the North America.
6. Mount Assiniboine
Mount Assiniboine, also referred to as Canada’s Matterhorn due to its pyramidal shape, is the highest peak in the Southern Rockies at 3,618 m (11,870 feet). It is a long six-hour trek to walk the 27 kilometres to Lake Magog at the base of the mountain. There are no roads in the area. However, there is a beautiful lodge (if you have reservations) and camping nearby. You can see a good view of Mount Assiniboine from the top of Goat’s Eye or Continental Divide at Sunshine Village ski resort.
7. Takakkaw Falls
Takakkaw Falls is the largest waterfall in the Canadian Rockies at 384 m (1260 feet). This makes it the second-highest waterfall in Canada after Della Falls on Vancouver Island. Takakkaw is a loose translation from Cree, meaning something like “it is magnificent.” It is fed by the Daly Glacier which is part of the Waputik Icefield. This means the waterfall is at its best during the warm summer months.
8. Cascade Mountain and the Banff townsite
Banff is certainly a little piece of paradise. Sitting at an elevation of 1,463 m (4,800 ft), it is the community with the second highest elevation in Canada, after Lake Louise. The town is located along the Bow River at the convergence of 5 major valleys and wildlife migration corridors. The town’s main street Banff Ave. is aligned so that the view of Cascade Mountain is right down the middle of the street. Cascade Mountain is 2,998 m (9,836 feet) high and it takes about 10 hours to hike to the summit and back.
The town of Banff is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Canada, attracting close to 5 million visitors a year. Some popular activities in the area include white water rafting, hiking, mountain biking, relaxing in the hot springs and skiing at the local resorts Sunshine Village, Norquay and Lake Louise. You can also do day-trips from Banff to other ski areas like Kicking Horse, Revelstoke, Castle Mountain and Panorama Resort. The town is also renowned for having a wild nightlife. I guess that what happens when you can get a pint for a $1 and a high-ball for $1.75 on the locals nights.
9. Mount Rundle
Along with Cascade Mountain to the north, Mount Rundle is one of the two most distinctive mountains around the town of Banff. It is a fun and grueling 9-hour hike to the summit at 2,948 m (9,672 ft). The top part of the mountain (above the tree-line) is called the Dragon’s Back and it is a sketchy scramble to the edge to peer over the side of the mountain where it drops 1000s of feet to Banff Springs Golf Course below.
Coming down Sulphur Mountain road from the Hot Springs and RimRock Hotel, there is a smaller peak near the Bow River that appears to pointing to the heavens (or maybe it’s just my imagination). Also, there is a beautiful waterfall coming off the mountain in the spring on the Banff Spring Golf Course side.
10. Lake Louise
Lake Louise is a popular tourist town at the southern end of the Icefields Parkway. The town is very laid back and the Chateau Lake Louise is a beautiful resort to walk around. The must-do hike in the area is to the Beehives and the mellow atmosphere of the English Tea House in the mountain wilderness. This picture is taken from the Lake Louise ski resort across the valley.
11. Castle Mountain
Castle Mountain marks the half-way point between Banff and Lake Louise. Although it looks like a difficult hike from the front, it’s an easy scrambled up the back side of the mountain to the summit.
The river bend below Castle Mountain is a great starting point for rafting down the Bow River. It is a relatively smooth 3 hour raft in the summer from Castle Mountain back to the town of Banff.
12. The Northern Lights
The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, is a natural light display in the sky caused by the collision of charged particles directed by the Earth’s magnetic field. The best time to see them in Banff is in August and September, usually at 3 a.m. or just before sunrise.
13. Cave and Basin National Historic Site
This is an interesting place because it is where Canada’s national park system began. The Cave and Basin natural hot spring was “discovered” in 1883 (previous expeditions had recorded references to site as early as 1859) by two workers building the Canadian Pacific Railway who saw its commercial potential. The fact that it was a sacred site to the local First Nations didn’t seem to bother the worker’s conscience so they built a fence around the site and started constructing a cabin for tourists.
Conflicting claims on the site prompted the Canadian government to intervene and in 1885, Prime Mister John A. MacDonald declared a reserve of 26 square kilometres around the Cave and Basin, creating the Banff Hot Springs Reserve. This was the beginning of Canada’s national park system. There are nine natural hot springs along Sulphur Mountain in Banff and a number of hot springs in the park including Banff Upper Hot Springs, Radium Hot Spring and Miette Hot Springs.
People used to swim in the Cave and Basin, until an exotic snail known as the Banff Springs snail was discovered and the government closed the swimming pools to protect this endangered species. The Upper Hot Springs on Sulphur Mountain by the RimRock Resort Hotel is the place to go.
14. The Wildlife
Banff and the Canadian Rockies are one of the best places in the world to see wild animals in their natural environment. In and around the town of Banff you will regularly see Elk, Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goats. Hiking in the mountains you’ll come across grizzly bears, black bears, mountain caribou, moose, wolves, hoary marmots, wolverines, bald eagles, beavers, owls and cougars.
15. Peyto Lake
Photo Stream: Peyto Lake
Peyto Lake is one of many jaw-droppingly beautiful lakes on the Icefields Parkway.
There you have, the 15 natural wonders of the Canadian Rockies. Honourable mentions go to: