Canadian Rockies by Motorbike

With Canada celebrating its 150th birthday in 2017 by extending free national Parks Canada passes to anyone in the world img_6564_cr(they’ll even send it by post to any address, it appears) – I wanted to pass along my tips and insights for those wanting to do a Canadian Rockies road trip.  When I was researching for my own motorcycle camping road trip, there was some information I could not find, so hopefully this fills in some of the blanks.

I went in the summer (three weeks across July-August), and had more rain than I was expecting, so was appreciative of my waterproof gear.

I knew there were wild animals, of course, but not of the array that signs indicate frequently may cross the road at any time: img_6726deer, elk, moose, mountain sheep, livestock, and even ducks.  On some major highways, such as outside of Banff, there are wildlife over- and under-passes, which have actually been very successful as animals have actually learned they are safe crossings and utilize them, keeping both themselves and motorists safe.

Here are some places I think worth tarrying, and some notes and tips on camping and food.

Jasper and Banff National Parks and the Columbia Icefields, BC and AB.  The increased interest in this mountainous region on the borders of the British Columbia and Alberta provinces means there is accessibility and options for all levels of adventure and comfort.  img_6662_crThe Icefields Parkway is the corridor between Jasper and Banff, and crosses through the national parks that bear the towns’ names.  The experience of riding, exposed and vulnerable, between the high, steep mountains closing in and walling either side, gives a tangible sense of scale.  I would recommend traveling both directions on the road, north to south and south to north, at different times of day, for different perspectives of the glacier capped mountains of rugged rock and strata, that seems to change geologically along the route.   Before 10am, the streams and rivers are an incredible teal hue; after 10am, as the sun begins to melt the snow and glaciers, the water flow begins to look more like chocolate milk.

  • Camping notes:
    • I was told all of the Jasper and Banff National Park campgrounds have food lockers, which was helpful to find out once there, as I could not find any information online beforehand.
      • Some of the campgrounds like the Columbia Icefields Campground are less expensive, first-come-first-served. Toilets are vaults but are kept pretty clean, and there are not showers.  However, I went to one of the reservable campgrounds in the park, and they let me shower there, at no cost.
  • Food notes:
    • The closest (basic) grocery store options are in Jasper and Lake Louise, then of course Banff. There is a cafeteria and restaurant at the Columbia Icefields Center.
    • If you bring a bear resistant food canister, see my important note below under “Camping and Food: Notes and Tips”.
  • To-do:
    • Walking up to the Athabasca glacier, which is across the road from the Columbia Icefields Center, 5583_a_crthere are markers showing the shrinking of the glacier, which is sobering. People are not supposed to walk onto the glacier without a guide, but a lot of people disregard the notice.  Hopefully they will not fall into the millwells; being lowered into a crevasse was definitely an awesome experience, but I’d only want to do it properly anchored.   Options then are some guided walking tours, the giant tour buses, or with a mountaineering guide, which is what I did with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures, who rent out gear including boots, and also let me mail them my climbing gear so I did not have to carry it the full length of my motorcycle road trip.  More information on my mountaineering experience is here, and I highly recommend such an experience to really see the beauty of glaciers and the Canadian Rockies, which you cannot get just stepping out onto the Athabasca glacier or wandering down the main roads.imgp5621_cr
    • The crowds trying to park at Lake Louise bring out the worse in people. I was glad my motorcycle could squeeze anywhere.
    • Jasper is a smaller quieter town, with Banff being more trendy and home to the Banff Center, home of the annual Banff Mountain Film Festival, which sends the winning films on tour so you can be inspired locally.  The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies is also in Banff, and tells a history of the region.
    • Nearby is the Takakkaw Falls, recommended to me by another motorcyclist who was in the campsite adjacent to mine one night. He warned me that there were some extremely tight turns; so tight, I had to wait for a van to do a seven-point turn just to clear it.  Not all of the road to the falls are that windy, and as a destination it was not as special as say, Yosemite’s waterfalls, but hey, if you’re there…

Kananaskis Highway 40 in Alberta was recommended to me by a couple of motorcyclists, but one of them advised me to turn around if it was raining, because it would then start snowing at a certain elevation of the road.  Of course the day I had the opportunity to ride it was quite stormy, so that route is still on my list.

Bellevue Underground Coal Mine tour in Bellevue, AB was really neat to see, some equipment still hanging around, old phones from different periods still in the walls, the different angles of wood beams and even old rail iron used for reinforcement. img_7001_cr

Open-pit, mountaintop removal coal mine tours are also possible.  I got to see Teck’s Fording River Operations in Elkford, BC hosted by the city’s chamber and commerce.  In nearby Sparwood, you can even stand directly next to (or under) the giant mining trucks; my head only made it to the axle: the tires alone were twice as tall as me. img_7457_lev_x_a_cr

The Frank Slide in Frank, AB, near Crowsnest Pass, was quite an experience to ride through.  The gaping of the slide on the mountain is on one side of you, while surrounding is the wide boulder field that buried part of the town in 1903.  The interpretive center is worth going to, as well.img_6911_cr

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Fort MacLeod, AB.  Native Americans would essentially trigger stampedes in the bison herds, direct the bison over cliffs, so that the bison would die in a pile as they fell below.  At first I thought this cruel, but going through the museum there, I learned the Natives actually utilized these cliffs few and far between across centuries, when the wind and conditions were just right, and they did this with spiritual respect to the bison.  Several tribes would gather and work together, and mimic natural predators of bison to start the stampede.  They’d then direct the herd to the proper cliff point.  All parts of the animals would be processed and used by the tribes, and that is what the Natives would survive off of during the winter months. img_7161_cr

Waterton Lake National Park, AB is right above America’s Glacier National Park in Montana.  Waterton Lakes National Park is one I want to spend more time in, it was so beautiful, and at the time I went, the golds and reds and greens in the rock and the plants of the landscape all perfectly matched and complemented each other.  A local told me Waterton often gets overlooked, which makes it a quieter place to enjoy nature’s beauty. img_7663_cr


Camping and Food: Notes and Tips

Overall Canadian campgrounds are quite clean, even their long-drop, vault toilets.  Even when camping cheaply, it’s much more common for campsites to have showers (even free showers) than you’re likely to come across in the comparable camping in the US.  From asking around and my own research, there does not seem to be camp-anywhere kind of areas such as America’s BLM and NFS lands; the backcountry camping options in Canada seem to be designated for backpacking routes.

It was hard for me to find any information on whether campgrounds had food lockers, IMG_1631which is more important if one does not have a car to keep food in (which may not be the wisest anyhow depending on how aggressive and clever bears are).  Supposedly all of the Jasper and Banff National Park campgrounds do have food lockers.  Some other campgrounds I stayed at did not have food lockers, so I was glad I had a bear resistant food canister, which I would keep a bit away from my tent at night, or in the common cooking shelters, which were covered areas with walls on three sides that make cooking more comfortable when it’s raining or there are other less ideal weather conditions. img_1385_cr One bit of advice on the bear resistant food canisters.  I would remove the food canister from my motorcycle when hiking, in case a bear decided it wanted to get at the food, at least it would not knock over my bike.  At one trailhead I left the food canister several feet behind my motorcycle – but when I came back, it was gone.  It was a very stressful couple of hours, as it was right before my mountaineering course, and I had special vegetarian food in there that would help me stay fueled during the three days of the course, and the nearest food options were quite limited, especially for easy camping vegetarian food.  In the end, Parks Canada staff are required to confiscate any visible food, even if in a bear resistant food canister.  Although my canister was properly closed, because it was translucent and food was visible, the Parks Canada staff took the food.  They said to cover it next time so it’s not visible – with a towel, whatever – and then they can leave it be.  Or, get the more expensive black opaque food canisters.  Luckily my missing food was the most exciting thing for the Parks Canada staff at headquarters that day, and within a couple of hours of almost fun detective work, I was reunited with my food.

Canada seems to have quite a bit of holidays especially during the summer, so if your destination is a popular one, it may be good to reserve a campground or arrive early on the holidays.

My most perfect camping experience in Canada was at Bridge Lake Provincial Park’s campground in BC.  I got the campsite right on the edge of the lake, slung my hammock between two trees on the water’s edge from which I ate my dinner, and could see from my tent my motorcycle, my hammock, and the lake through the trees.  The only other thing that would have made that evening more perfect was if I had my banjo with me.  Next time.