Glacier National Park

This is the fifth guest post by Adam’s dad as Adam, Anna, Cyndi and I toured the Canadian Rockies and Glacier National Park. There are previous introductoryJasper National Park, Columbia Icefield & Lake Louise, and Banff and Waterton National Parks posts as well as one final post about our stops at Custer State Park in South Dakota. 

Back in the USA

After visiting Banff National Park and Waterton International Peace Park in Canada, it was back across the U.S. border and through customs toward East Glacier, Montana and Glacier National Park.  It only took us 5 minutes to get through customs since we were the only car there at the time. This was fantastic since we would be arriving at the campground after dark.

Along the way south, we encountered roaming cattle blocking the road, which seemed to look up at us as if to say, “Hey, what are you doing on our road?” as they continued to chew on vegetation.

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As the sun set, we came into East Glacier and had this wonderful view of Chief Mountain and another of Two Medicine Lake in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation near Glacier NP.

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An Unexpected Change in Plans

The most disappointing part of our trip was the evening stop at Johnson’s of St. Mary’s Campground. We arrived after dark and were assigned a spot that felt like we were in the off-season RV storage area with RVs lined up very close to each other, right alongside the road. Also, the bathrooms were full of dead bugs and you also had to use tokens to use the showers in order to keep showers shorter than 6 minutes. Although we originally planned to make this our home-base for the next few days while visiting Glacier National, we cancelled after that first night and headed out early the next morning to West Glacier not knowing where we would camp, but knew it would be better than Johnson’s in East Glacier.

West Glacier

We left the campground in East Glacier and drove down to West Glacier.  Given we had the camper, we could not take the most direct route, which would be on Going-To-The Sun Road due to the vehicle length restriction of 21 ft. So we head an hour out of our way down Route 2 and stopped in at Glacier Campground (just south past the West Glacier entrance) to see if they could accommodate us. Fortunately, they could and it ended up being a great place to stay.

After setting up camp, we ate lunch at a roadside food wagon called The Wandering Gringo Café just outside the campground.  Even though Adam worked at Chipolte, this place lived up to his expectations with their monster-sized burrito.

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After lunch, we went to the Glacier Visitor Center—or what we thought was the Glacier Visitor Center just inside the park area off Route 2. It was actually the Alberta Visitor Center (great placement by the Canadian tourism folks). After getting our bearings, we took the obligatory picture at the national park sign and drove to the entrance to buy a 7-day park entrance ($35 USD), then headed to the real Glacier National Visitor Center, which was essentially the hub for all our routes the next few days.

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Lake McDonald Lodge

After the Visitor Center, we drove to Lake McDonald Lodge which is nestled on Lake McDonald’s picturesque shore.  It’s a historic lodge, built like a Swiss chalet of stone with a wood-frame structure. The lobby has a massive fireplace and numerous stuffed game heads. The rustic lodge was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987.

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According to Wikipedia, Lake McDonald Lodge was initially built in 1895 and was only accessed by a steamboat that ran the 9 miles from the Apgar area to the hotel. The hotel was built during a period when the Great Northern Railway was building other hotels and backcountry chalets in the area as part of a trend by railroads to build destination resorts in areas of exceptional scenic value to attract tourists. The hotel’s name was changed to Lake McDonald Lodge in 1957, but was damaged in a Snyder Creek flash flood in 1964. It was sold in 1981 and extensively renovated in 1988-89 to restore details that had been obscured over time or damaged by the flood.

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After a short walk around and some pictures both inside & out, we drove part-way up the Going-To-The Sun Road to a hike along The Trail of the Cedars, about 5.5 miles east of the McDonald Lodge. This hike is a 1.0 mile loop hike that is an extremely popular hike so parking can be a problem during the peak season. However, there are about 3 or 4 areas in which to park within a short walk of the trailhead. This hike travels along a raised boardwalk through a forest of ancient western hemlocks and red cedars… very impressive with some cedars to grow to heights over 100 feet with and diameters of 4 to 7 feet.

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Some of the trees in this area are more than 500 years old. There are a lot of lush green ferns and mosses growing along the forest floor, which makes for some great pictures with the streams and waterfalls.

At roughly the half-way point, you can divert onto the more strenuous Avalanche Lake Trail, which we opted to do the next day.

Since Adam & Anna were looking for more hiking, Cyndi & I agreed to drop them off at the Logan Pass Visitor Center where they did an 11.9 mile hike while we went back to town for grocery shopping. The plan was to meet 4-5 hours later back at the Apgar area center since they could take the free shuttle bus back after their hike.

The Glacier Distillery

Cyndi & I headed to the town of Columbia Falls, about 25 miles south of West Glacier to restock our coolers with food and ice. On our way back, we made an impromptu stop at the Glacier Distilling Company, a mile or two south of our campground. Glacier Distilling is a craft distillery that specializes in small-batch whiskeys using local grains and pure glacial water from the Northern Rockies. We enjoyed a flight of 4 whiskeys and 4 liquors (don’t worry, it was only .5 ounces per glass) and purchased a bottle of Bad Rock Rye Whiskey.

We ended up waiting an extra hour for Adam & Anna to return to the Apgar Center since the bus they wanted to take back was full, but they did catch the very last one of the day…phew!

Avalanche Lake Trail

The next day, we returned to The Trail of the Cedars for the more strenuous Avalanche Lake Trail. It’s a short, steep climb to the banks of Avalanche Creek, and some amazing glacially melted waterfalls that rushes down the gorge. The trail continues on for another 1.6 miles to Avalanche Lake and some more amazing views. In total, this hike is 4.5 miles with a 730 foot elevation gain to 4,031 ft. Once there, the lake sits at the base of 8694-foot Bearhat Mountain, which rises to dominate the view that includes several long waterfalls cascading down the submersed timbers in the crystal-clear water of the lake; a great picture. After that hike, it was back to the Apgar Center to catch our tour bus for the highlight of the day.

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At the Apgar Center, we boarded one of the Red Buses or what is more famously known as a “Jammer”.  These vintage 1930’s buses are an ideal way to see Glacier National Park since much of the scenery is vertically-oriented, the roll-back tops are perfect for providing full views of the stunning mountains and area.

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Jammers are driven by seasoned park veterans who enjoy sharing the park with visitors. The name “Jammers” carries over from the days when the buses had double-clutch transmissions and drivers could be heard “jamming” the gears as they drove up and down the rugged mountain highway.

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Other facts about the iconic Red Buses:

  • The Red Buses Model 706 were made by White Motor Company and originally cost $5,000 each back in 1936.
  • Of the 33 buses used in Glacier National park today, 17 are from 1936, 11 are from 1937, 4 are from 1938 and 1 is from 1939.
  • Ford Motor Company donated over $6 Million to restore 33 buses to keep them in operation.
  • 2011 marked the 75th anniversary of the 1936 buses giving tours in Glacier National Park.
  • The Model 706 White Buses are the third generation of touring buses in Glacier National Park.
  • The Red Buses now run on gasoline and propane, which is 93% cleaner.
  • The fleet of 33 buses in Glacier are widely considered to be the oldest touring fleet of vehicles anywhere in the world.
  • The Red Buses, on average, transport 60,000 tourist each summer through Glacier N.P.
  • Each red bus is estimated to now be worth $250,000.

We suggest picking your day and one of the numerous routes then pre-purchasing your tickets for a Jammer since the one we tried was sold out. We ended up getting the 4-hour trip from Apgar to Logan’s Pass (about 2/3 of the way) rather the 6 hour one that ran all the way back to East Glacier along Going-To-The-Sun Road.

Going-To-The Sun Road

Our stops included Lake McDonald, Trails of the Cedars, some road-side waterfalls, and finally up to The Continental Divide at Logan Pass.

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On the way up, you get a great view of Heaven’s Peak, an 8,987 ft. mountain that is still very snow covered into July. At certain points, we could see the shimmering glacier with the sun’s reflection that made the view extra spectacular.

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You can also see the regenerating of the forest from the 1936 fire in the McDonald Valley and how the U-shaped valley between the mountains distinguish a glacial movement area from a tectonic plate uprising and water erosion of the Rocky Mountains that is more V-shaped.

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You also see West Tunnel, a 192 foot tunnel through the mountain that was built in 1926; Bird Woman Falls (aptly named waterfalls that cascades down 492 feet), the Weeping Wall, many collapsing snow packs (yes, snow even at the end of July), and the spectacular vistas of Mt. Oberlin, Mt.. Canon, and Heaven’s Peak.

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We arrived at the Logan’s Pass Center at the Continental Divide with only 15 minutes to spare so there was not much time to explore. When time was up, we drove back down the mountain side to the Visitor Center where we started. We had a great guide/driver so all-in-all, the Red Bus Tour was money well-spent.

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After a few days of great hikes and scenic drives in Glacier NP, it was yet another early start the next morning to drive across the “Big Sky Country” of Montana all the way to our final stop, Custer State Park in South Dakota.

Banff NP & Waterton International Peace Park

This is the fourth guest post by Adam’s dad as Adam, Anna, Cyndi and I toured the Canadian Rockies and Glacier National Park. There are previous introductoryJasper National Park, and Columbia Icefield & Lake Louise posts as well as additional posts about our stops at Glacier National Park in Montana and Custer State Park in South Dakota. 

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Banff National Park is Canada’s oldest national park, established in 1885 in the Rocky Mountains. The park is located west of Calgary in Alberta, and encompasses 6,641 km (2,564 sq mi) of mountainous terrain, numerous glaciers, icefields, and alpine forests.

The Town of Banff

Located at the south part of Banff N.P., downtown Banff consists of countless souvenir shops and restaurants, all along Banff Avenue, which is the main street that runs right through the middle of this little town.  Even though Banff only has about 6,000 permanent inhabitants, it receives over 5,000,000 visitors a year.

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We arrived at the Tunnel Mountain Trailer Park (5 minutes outside of downtown) in time to set-up the camper and then head back into town for a late dinner.

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After strolling around Banff Avenue, we ate dinner at the Elk & Oarsman Grill; a strong recommendation for the view of downtown and the mountain… the food was pretty good too!  I had an elk burger, Adam had a full slab of ribs, Cyndi had fish & chips, and Anna enjoyed a salad.

We enjoyed a couple of local brews too during a short rainstorm and all was at a reasonable price… including the free rainbow over the mountain during the storm!

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Hiking around Banff

After breakfast the next morning (which included bacon since there was less threat of bears in this campground), we went to see the Hoodoos, some tower-like natural rock formations that were close to our campground. Hoodoos are composed of sedimentary rock covered by harder rock so once the surrounding softer sediment erodes from wind and rain, the harder rock needles are left. The Hoodoos can be seen down in the valley and –while there is no official trail, you can walk down to see them if you have some good hiking shoes that have grip.

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We then drove 20 minutes outside of Banff to Lake Minnewanka for some more hiking to the waterfall along the awesome views of the lake.  On our way back, we encountered some mountain goats along the road and saw a black bear in another area of the park.

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We enjoyed lunch at St. James Gate; a neat Irish pub in downtown Banff. According to our waitress, the pub was actually manufactured and built in Dublin, Ireland, then shipped woodwork, artifacts and all over to Banff. It’s everything an Irish Pub should be and worth the stop for a sandwich and a pint.

After lunch, we visited the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel up the mountain from downtown Banff.  This stately castle was built in the 1880s by William Cornelius Van Horne, general manager of Canadian Pacific Railway in order to bring tourism to western Canada…and to ride his railway, of course!

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Disaster struck in 1926 when the original wooden hotel burnt down and was rebuilt larger and to its present state. It was very neat to wander the halls of this important piece of Banff history.

More Fun Around Banff

On Saturday, we drove out to what was billed as the best place to see wildlife in the area: Vermillion Lakes Drive. We thought that since we went mid-morning we wouldn’t be too late, but it was a bit disappointing in that we saw none.

We stopped on the way back though for a nice education trail called the Fenland Trail, just off the highway as you head back into Banff. This was about a 1.7 mile long, pleasant woodland loop that winds through a white spruce forest along the banks of Forty Mile Creek. There is an trail guide brochure at the trail-head parking lot and interpretive panels placed along the trail that were very informative. We also some folks canoeing and “supping”  (Stand-Up Paddle boarding) as Adam and Anna called it as we hiked the interpretive trail.

Since that was not enough hiking for the two younger members in the group, we went back and packed some sandwiches, then headed to the Tunnel Mountain Trail, just outside of town.

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The hike leads you to the top of Banff’s smallest and closest summit.  Once at the top, you get 360° views of the townsite, the Bow and Spray River valleys, the Banff Springs Golf Course, and surrounding peaks.

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According to the town of Banff website, this is a very popular “short” hike, but I wouldn’t call it short since it was 2.3 km (just under 1.5 miles) and included a 300 m (nearly 1,000 ft.) elevation gain from the lower trail-head with moderately-steep switchbacks.  You should allow 1–1.5 hours to get up or about 3 hours in total with breaks on this hike.

That afternoon, we needed to wash some clothes so Adam & Anna found a local coffee shop to check their email and Facebook account, while Cyndi & I found the laundry mat.

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A few hours later, it was dinner time back at the camper, then back up the mountain to the Banff Upper Hot Springs; a historic spa and bath house. The hot springs were discovered in 1884 and commercially developed into an attraction in Banff.  Honestly, I was expecting something a little more rustic and less of a “cement pond” feeling, but it was a nice way to wind down in the hot pool after our day of exploring the areas around Banff.

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The next morning, we got up early to break-down camp and finished our stay in Banff with Sunday worship at a cute, little church: St. James Presbyterian Church of Canada.

It was then on to Waterton Lakes International Peace Park, about 4.75 hours south of the town of Banff.

Off to Waterton-Glacier IPP

Waterton Lakes National Park is the Canadian version of Glacier National Park in Montana. Together, they make up the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (IPP), the first of its kind in the world. Waterton Lakes National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an International Peace Park, and a Biosphere Reserve. It is the only park in the world that has these three designations!

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Waterton IPP is a blend of unusual geology, mild climate, rare wild flowers, and an abundance of wildlife. It also has a nice small downtown with ice cream shops and beautiful Cameron Lake.

Red Rock Canyon

Along the way to Waterton Lakes, we stopped at Red Rock Canyon, about 10 miles northwest of Waterton at the end of Red Rock Parkway. Red Rock Canyon has unique layers of red and greenish-, tan-colored bedrock called argillite, created when the minerals are exposed by water erosion.

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There is some short self-guided hikes that lead to some wonderful waterfalls in Red Rock Canyon. We took the Blakiston Falls Trail  which is 2 km (1.2 miles) with minimal ascent, but allow 2 hours total since it’s an excellent place for photos.

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Waterton Townsite

When we arrived, we immediately headed to lunch at Weiners of Wateron, a highly-rated gourmet hot dog joint in the downtown area. Coming from Chicago (a mecca of hot dogs), our expectations were high, but this place did quite well!

Afterwards, we attempted a stroll near Cameron Lake, but it too windy to allow much comfort. I took a few pictures, then we enjoyed some ice cream at Big Scoop Ice Cream Parlor… to actually warm up.

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The Prince of Wales Hotel sits majestically up on a hill overlooking the park. It was built in 1912 as an extension to the chain of hotels and chalets built and operated by the Great Northern Railway in Glacier National Park. We didn’t have time to tour the hotel, but did stop when we saw a group of people along the road up watching a black bear grazing on the hill.

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We then continued out to one of the the wildlife-viewing roads, a couple miles outside of town. This was an hour-long commitment and we saw a few more bear and some pronghorn “antelope”.

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After three days in Banff, it was back to good old U.S. of A. and 3 days in Glacier National Park.

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Columbia Icefield & Lake Louise

This is the third guest post by Adam’s dad as Adam, Anna, Cyndi and I toured the Canadian Rockies and Glacier National Park. There are previous introductory and Jasper National Park posts as well as additional posts on our stops at Banff National Park and Waterton International Peace Park in Canada, Glacier National Park in Montana, and Custer State Park in South Dakota. 

Leaving Jasper NP to Head South

During our 2.5 days in Jasper National Park, we heard about a forest fire along Route 11, which was the main route south toward Banff.  We were advised by the park rangers to leave early the next day since the road would only be open from 10:00am to 2:00pm when safety would not be impeded. We packed up camp and left by 8:00am for our trip into the Athabasca Valley.

Athabasca Falls

IMG_4511A must-stop about 19 miles along the way is the Athabasca Falls, where the sheer volume of milky-white water through a gorge produces some amazing views. It’s about a 30-minute commitment to see the falls and their powerful water and misty sprays, but it is well-worth the time

During the summer, the milky river runs with meltwater heavy with the fine silt, the product of grinding down mountains over thousands of years. Take the nice walk across a safe bridge over and along the river. Though Adam has been to both Niagara Falls and Iguazu Falls, he still felt that the Athabasca falls were impressive. Though smaller than Niagara or Iguazu, I personally think Athabasca is unique due to the color and flow of the water from the canyon it rushes through.

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Columbia Icefields

After the Athabasca Falls, we continued south for an hour to the Columbia Icefield. A few miles past the Glacier Skywalk is the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre, where you purchase tickets to the various attractions. We opted not to purchase tickets for the Skywalk or the Banff Gondola due to our timeline for the day, but did get tickets for the Ice Explorer that actually takes you onto the Athabasca Glacier.

We started the Ice Explorer experience with a bus ride across the highway and partway up the mountain. Then, we transferred to this large ATV-like Ice Explorer vehicle that took us further up a very dusty road to the glacier. The driver-guide shared a wealth of fascinating information about glaciers, icefields and their impact on our environment during this hour & twenty minute journey.

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Once on the Athabasca glacier, we stepped out onto the ice and took in views of the glacial vistas. We were forewarned not to venture outside the designated areas as walking on glaciers can be quite dangerous due to unseen crevasses. In fact, as soon as we stepped off the Explorer, a man went knee-deep into the glacier water that they said is cold enough to cause hypothermia in less than 15 minutes. Seeing this, we gingerly trudged up to the glacier wall, took pictures and felt the glacial stream run down the edges of the safe area. We had about 15 minutes to walk around and experience a glacier before having to return to the bus with the same number of people they brought up.

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We had such a beautiful, sunny day that you could sense the glacier melting as our time ticked away. Bring your warm jackets though since the temperature on the glacier is much colder and it can very windy if you get anything less than the ideal day we enjoyed.

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Camping at Lake Louise

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Our final stop that day was Lake Louise National Park. We knew this place
would be interesting since there was an electric fence around our campground, or what I called the “bear-ier” to keep the wildlife out of the campgrounds.

While Cyndi & I prepared a dutch-oven slow roast safely behind the electric fence, Adam & Anna drove to Lake Louise and took the Lake Agnes Trail 4.5 miles and 1300 feet upwards towards the Lake Agnes Tea House. They said it was a splendid, little hike and worth the climb through the forest.

Since we were in bear country (and I’m not talking about the Chicago football team), we also attended a program later that night which educated us on the differences between grizzly and black bears. This helped us later identify both types when we spotted them… from afar, of course!

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Grizzly Bear – Hump on its back, pointed ears, round face, claw-like paws (example photo from Internet, photographer unknown).

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Black Bear – Can be black or brown, rounded ears, larger & straighter snout. (example photo from Internet, photographer unknown)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also were reminded to remove all garbage and food around our campsite (although Adam & I already knew that from our trip to Philmont several years ago).  It was a peaceful night’s sleep knowing that we had properly packed away our “smellables” (toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, non-canned food) in the SUV since we have a soft-sided, pop-up camper; not a hard-side RV.

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Hiking at Lake Louise

After a hearty breakfast the next morning, we hiked 3 km along Lake Louise to the opposite side of the famous Lake Louise Fairmont Chateau Hotel.  This was a fairly easy hike and offered great views of the lake. There were rock climbers along the way and horse-back riders for part of the hike too.

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Enjoying Emerald Lake

After lunch, we headed to Yoho National Park with its aptly-named Emerald Lake. We rented a couple of canoes ($35 1st hour) and paddled our way all the way across the lake, taking in the beauty of the glaciers and its cold, crystal clear, emerald green water. An hour was plenty to get across & back while also allowing for some extra float time.

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After canoeing, Anna convinced me to join her for a 5 km run on the loop around the lake as Cyndi and Adam hung back to read and relax. As the rain tried to creep over the mountain and our “woop-woops” got louder (to scare off the bears), Emerald Lake turned out to be a great way to finish the day before driving the last 1.5 hours to Banff National Park for the night.

 

Getting to Jasper National Park

This is the second guest post by Adam’s dad as Adam, Anna, Cyndi and I toured the Canadian Rockies and Glacier National Park. There is a previous introductory post as well as additional posts on our stops at Jasper National Park, Lake Louise, Banff National Park and Waterton International Peace Park in Canada, Glacier National Park in Montana, and Custer State Park in South Dakota. 

The first “real” stop on vacation was Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, but we first had a couple days of driving into Canada.

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Dakota Thunder: The World’s Largest Buffalo

A Long Day of Driving

We drove for 16 hours and 903 miles before stopping the first night in Minot, North Dakota. Along the way, we stopped to stretch in Jameston, ND and saw the world’s largest buffalo and White Cloud; a living, albino buffalo.

We also discovered Jameston is the birthplace of American writer and bit actor, Louis L’amour (1908 – 1988).

Due to the late arrival that night, we stayed at the Hampton Inn in Minot; a nice place to stop for a short sleep before another early start and another long drive the next day.

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When we got moving the next morning, we headed northwest from Minot for another 14 hours and 732 miles to Edmonton, Alberta for our first night of camping. Since we are big ice hockey fans, we enjoyed an unexpected “hockey fix” when we drove through Edmonton and saw the Rexall Center, the venue in which the Edmonton Oilers play. We took pictures with the statue of Wayne Gretzky, where “The Great One” started his career. We also arrived in Edmonton just in time for a 7:00pm Sunday night mass at Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples; a catholic church built in 1913. We were warmly welcomed at this unique Edmonton inner-city parish that had a aboriginal theme in its decor with many mentions of The Creator, spirit, and nature. We then enjoyed dinner afterward at a nearby Thai restaurant and drove a short distance just outside of Edmonton to Glowing Embers RV Park, a nice campground for a quick overnight sleep before another early start the next morning on the way to Jasper.

Jasper National Park 

We arrived early Monday afternoon in Jasper National Park after what seemed like a short drive of only 5 hours. We took the obligatory picture in front of the national park sign (it’s a dad thing!) and enjoyed the mountain river and lake views when we drove into the small downtown area.

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After arriving, we gathered some information from the Jasper Visitor Center (a must stop in any new town), enjoyed lunch at a local microbrewery called the Jasper Brewing Company, purchased the necessary bear spray for our hikes ($35, but never needed it, thank God!) since there are bears in the area.

We then headed over to Whistler’s Campground where we would camp for our next 2 nights.

My First Glaciers – Mt. Edith Cavell

After a quick camper set-up, we were off to the first of our many hikes on the trip: a 45-minute trek to the Angel Glacier and Ghost Glacier, both on Mount Edith Cavell (elevation 3363 meters or 11,033 feet). It was sad to see pictures showing just how much these glaciers had shrunk the last few decades. Mt. Edith Cavell was so-named in 1931 after a British nurse who helped soldiers on both sides during World War I.

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Jasper Tour Company; a great way to see the park!

The next day in Jasper, we took a guided wildlife tour with Jasper Tour Company and highly recommend our guide, Joe who made it fun and informative. He took us through waterfalls, showed us thousand-year-old fossils in rock formations, and spotted a black bear, eagle, and osprey for us and told stories of native folklore.

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Our tour also included a boat ride to Maligne Lake, the crystal-clear and glacier-cold home of world famous Spirit Island.The next time you’re in the main concourse of New York’s Grand Central Station, look up at the ceiling to see a painting of this beautiful island… or just look at this picture I took!

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After the boat ride, we packed our bear spray and remembered Joe’s advice that a couple of good “woop-woops” would scare off any wildlife during a 4.5k hike (about 3 miles) called Valley of the Five Lakes.  Anna swam (albeit very briefly) in one of the very cold, glacier-fed lakes while the rest of us cooled off our weary feet on this day near 32 C (90+ degrees F).

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Then it was back to the camper for dinner.

Torres del Paine Circuit Experience

Now that you have all the information you need after reading our Guide to Hiking in Torres del Paine National Park,  I thought I would give you a more subjective perspective of our actual experience in the park.

Let’s start with some small talk about the weather. After hearing the briefing talk by one of the owners of Basecamp before entering the park, we were fully prepared to encounter the typical Patagonian weather which may or may not consist of 4 seasons of weather in one day – sun, wind, snow, sun, rain, back to sun again. IMG_6832This sort of thing is not unheard of in the southern cone and should probably be expected basically year round, but for the most part, we had decent weather during our eight day hike.

During the first 4 days of our trek, we had absolutely fantastic weather -not a drop of rain, mostly clear skies, and low wind. Because we got sick, we took it slow for these days to enjoy the weather and try to recover quickly. The nice weather was especially good news on our fourth and longest day, when we hiked from the free Campamento El Paso to Refugio Dickson by way of the John Gardner Pass. Paso John Gardner was the most intimidating part of the trail for me. During our travels, we heard several stories of people not being able to complete the Circuit due to bad weather and consequent closures of “The Pass” making it impassable. The wind is the biggest factor, sometimes causing closures of a couple of hours, and other times closures for days. As you can imagine, this makes planning a lot more difficult. It’s not only the closing of the Pass that makes this section intimidating, but the physical aspect of getting there. When hiking from West to East on the back side of the “O”, it was a steep 2.5 hour climb up the highest (1200m) and possibly windiest part of the trail with a few ropes to help climb and poor footing towards the top of the forest. DSC04583After we broke through the upper border of the forest, we were greeted with strong sunshine and a slight wind, making us lucky enough to have nearly perfect weather to go over the pass. At the top we were even able to break and take some fun photos. Just like every mountain, the fun eventually ended and we had to follow the laws of gravity because as they say, what goes up, must come down…

Note: To remedy the steepness, some people choose to go the opposite way. This way has its own issues. Though not as steep, you still have to climb up to 1200 meters over about 5 hours. (Personally, I prefer the short and difficult route instead of the long and drawn out method.) For those that choose this way, the major problem then becomes what if you hike 3 days to get to the pass and it is closed for a few days. DSC04639Then you may not have enough food to afford to wait until it opens before continuing which means you are forced to hike 3 days back to the east side of the “W” on the same trail. Not the best situation to be in since you will be risking not seeing part of the highlights on the “W”. Some of the refugios have a small shop to buy food if you are running low, but it is mostly cookies and snacks instead of what I like to call “food with substance”.

After making it over the pass, it was all downhill from there, pardon the pun, as we hiked past Refugio Los Perros, the first refugio on the other side of the pass, until we arrived at Refugio Dickson. In total, it was 10 hours of hiking – our longest and most difficult day, but what I learned is that I would not recommend climbing the Pass and skipping a campsite on the same day. Despite these difficulties, I am very happy we did the whole Circuit instead of just the “W”. There were much less people on the back side and we met some really nice people that were hiking the same route. The next morning when we woke in Dickson, we could tell it was going to rain, which was fine since we had already made it over Paso John Gardner. Patagonia, bring it on.IMG_7363

Well, it did. It rained/snowed/sleeted on and off in between periods of sun for the next two days. As we hiked past the glaciers, lakes, forests, and seasonal swamps on the backside, we followed the advice we got from Base Camp and avoided putting on our warm, waterproof clothes, instead choosing to change hiking speed to regulate our temperature. From Dickson, we hiked to Seron where we awoke to snow the next morning then continued hiking through the muddy trails destroyed by the rain and horses which frequent the east side of the Circuit. We cheated a little bit by stopping for 2 hours in Hotel Las Torres where we ordered hot chocolate and french fries next to a crackling fire. Once we noticed how comfortable we were getting, we decided to keep hiking towards our next destination.DSC04678

Anna and I hiked up to the namesake attraction, the Torres del Paine, on our 7th morning. Most people went up before sunrise to see the towers turn red, but since we waited an extra hour, there was a lot less people when we were up there. When the clouds started to cover up the three torres del Paine, we went back down to our campsite, packed up, ate, and hiked to Campamento Italiano at the entrance to Valle Frances. We tried hiking up the middle part of the “W” (Valle Frances) on our final morning, but the downpouring rain prevented us from going all the way. In the heavy rain and wet clothes, we packed up the wet tent and literally ran the majority of the 7.5km from Campamento Italiano to Paine Grande, where we started. What was supposed to take 2.5 hours of walking, only took us 1.25 hours running through the flooded paths and rivers in our soaking wet clothes like we were in military training. Towards the end of the run, we also got a nice taste of the notorious Patagonian winds, which were almost blowing Anna over. It was quite fun, but I was glad it happened on our last day!IMG_7644

For us, the front side, the “W”, was very crowded compared to the backside, so I did not feel as isolated as I did on the back side. The easy accessibility to the park is also one of its biggest downfalls in my opinion, because it makes for a crowded trail.IMG_7123 However, the amazing scenery, giant rock formations, and glaciers make it worth visiting. Overall my favorite part of the hike was our last day running through the rain, mud and wind to our final destination. Anna even found her favorite spot in all of South America on the backside of the circuit, peering out over Glacier Grey and into Chile’s Southern Ice Field at the mirador just before Campamento El Paso. After visiting the park, I’d still recommend everyone to go despite the weather and crowded trails, because no matter what, it will be an unforgettable experience.

IMG_7110Be sure to read our Guide to Hiking in Torres del Paine before you go!

 

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