Banff is overrated! My top 3 hiking spots that AREN’T in Banff

There, I said it.

Banff is overrated.

The more I wander and adventure around Alberta and British Columbia, the more I realize that the Rocky Mountains are so much more than just Banff.

When I lived in Eastern Canada, “Banff” was the only word that immediately came to mind when thinking about the Canadian Rockies, immediately conjuring up magical images of pristine views of stunning mountains, golden sunsets behind shadowed peaks and crystal clear lakes. Now, after my fair share of adventures in Banff National Park and the townsite as well as other towns and parks in the Canadian Rockies, I can say with certainty that Banff is not as magical as I used to think it is – mainly because it is jam-packed with tourists and a trip to the national park actually ends up being quite costly (entry into provincial parks in Alberta is free).

Banff is by far the most visited national park in all of Canada. According to Parks Canada, in the year period between April 1, 2017 and March 31, 2018, 4.2 million people visited Banff National Park. The next most visited national park was Jasper, with 2.4 million visitors, then in third place, 1.2 million people visiting Saguenay-St. Lawrence in Quebec.

I’m not saying that Banff National Park isn’t beautiful – it absolutely is and it’s certainly worth a visit. What I’m saying is I just wish that other parts of the Rockies got the recognition they deserve and enticed the same kind of visitorship and admiration as Banff.

This isn’t to detract attention from Banff in any way, but in my opinion, there are significant consequences to Banff’s celebrity status and highlighting some of the other phenomenal Rocky Mountain territory is likely to alleviate some of the concerns like a declining visitor experience and sustainability and environmental concerns.

I think the solution here isn’t to discourage visiting Banff National Park – it truly is beautiful and anyone who hasn’t yet been there has a right to see it – but rather to encourage visiting other parks.

Here are some of my favourite jewels of the Alberta Rocky Mountains that aren’t in Banff National Park.

  1. Livingstone Public Land Use Zone
    This is probably the most underrated of Rocky Mountain regions. The Livingstone Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ) is located in the southwestern corner of Alberta, mostly lying north of Highway 3. Being mostly a hiker, I’ve discovered so many hidden gems in this area, challenging hikes with breathtaking views, pristine lakes with not a single other person around, backcountry camping in that perfect, secret spot. This is by far my favourite area to adventure in and as far as hiking “off the beaten path”, there’s no better place, in my opinion.

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    The view from Mount Ward in the Livingstone PLUZ. The Seven Sisters and Crowsnest Mountain in the background, and the hole in Window Mountain in the foreground. On the way, you also pass the beautiful Window Mountain Lake at the base.
  2. Castle Provincial Park
    The Castle is Alberta’s newest provincial park, created in February 2017, located just south of Highway 3. I’ve never seen more wildlife than I have in this park. I’ve seen a Grizzly, a black bear, a fox, a frog, lots of deer and elk. One time I saw SEVEN moose in a single day! That’s certainly a hard-to-beat record for me. I feel like this park has more “breathing room” than the Livingstone and Peter Lougheed. What I mean by that it feels as though there’s more space between the peaks, with rolling hills, twisting rivers and sheltered forests intermingling with the mountains. I like that. This past summer, I’ve also found a few great Saskatoon berry and thimbleberry-picking spots, always a treat!

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    One of the Southfork Lakes. The lakes have many larch trees surrounding them and make a beautiful golden mirror-image in the fall.
  3. Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
    If you still want the proximity to Calgary that Banff boasts, then Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis is a fantastic option. I’ve had some of my favourite hikes in this park. It’s filled with lakes and astonishing views of mountains carrying on for days dotted with tarns and alpine lakes among them. It’s more populated than the other two areas mentioned above, but you still get that “wilderness” feel if you choose the right hikes to do.

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    View from the summit of Mount Smutwood. This is one of those hikes that’s actually quite popular, but it’s still so, so worth doing! The first bit is a walk through a gorgeous marshy meadow before the uphill starts. Just on the other side of the ridge we’re sitting on are two alpine tarns.

Do you agree that Banff National Park is overrated? Have you ever been to these parks and regions?

An epic birthday celebration

As far as birthdays go, Canada’s is often celebrated in a backyard or campground over hot dogs and beer. And in all fairness, it’s a perfectly enjoyable way to spend the July 1st long weekend (minus the mosquitoes).

But this year, I spent Canada Day doing something a bit more special than that, something that highlights the splendor of this nation in a very glorious fashion.

I, along with 14 others, hiked to the summit of Crowsnest Mountain, one of the most iconic peaks in Southwest Alberta.

There’s a lot of talk about Crowsnest Mountain, about how difficult it is, how scary, how dangerous and, of course, how magnificent. I concur only with the last claim. Any mountain can be all of those things if unprepared and reckless. But with the proper gear, trustworthy hiking companions and basic mountaineering know-how, this mountain, too, becomes conquerable.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still difficult! Totalling 14 km round trip, an elevation of about 2,700 m and tricky footing on loose scree and rock, this certainly isn’t a mountain to hike willy-nilly. We had experienced hikers and scramblers guiding us and everyone had helmets, proper footwear, plenty of water and layers. We were prepared, and that’s what made Crowsnest Mountain an enjoyable, challenging and rewarding hike.

On the drive up to the base that morning, the Crow was almost completely cloud-covered, making us a bit worried that all we would see is a smoky haze when we reached the summit. But hey, we’re not a bunch of Negative Nancys, so of course we kept going with a spring in our step!

You start your way in the Atlas Staging Area precisely at marker for kilometre 7. The first third of the route, you’re walking along a clearly defined path through forest where Thimbleberry bushes grow left and right in abundance.

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The first third of the hike begins in the forest along a dirt path that turns rocky.

At the end of the forest is where, quite abruptly, the view opens up to reveal the Seven Sisters Mountain, the rock-scattered backside of Crow. The first uphill bit is climbing up a scree slope where one step forward is equal to two steps back. But take it slow and steady, try to secure your footing as much as possible on the bigger rocks, and your journey will go more smoothly.

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The most daunting part of the hike, and the section that is Crowsnest Mountain’s most defining feature, is the gully. A chain at the end of the gully is a comforting help to get up the slope. Our group didn’t really use it on the way up, but coming down, was it ever helpful!

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Our group waiting in line to go up the gully.

After that, it’s much of the same hiking along a fairly well-defined rock path to the summit and by the time we reached it, the sky had cleared (mostly) and while the clouds in the distance looked pretty threatening, we got clear 360 degree views for miles and miles, as far as Chief Mountain all the way in Montana, right by the Canada/US border. In fact, looking southeast, you can line up Turtle Mountain, Table Mountain and Chief Mountain in a straight line. I’ve heard that these three peaks, along with Crowsnest, were used as wayfinding landmarks by Indigenous populations.

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The most prominent mountain in this photo is Turtle. Behind it far in the distance, you can see Table Mountain and even farther back, Chief Mountain.

At the summit, you get a spectacular look at the Seven Sisters Mountain to the north and a bit west of that, there’s Mount Ward and the window in Allison Peak. Turning southwest, you can also see Chinook Lake and, farther back, Crowsnest, Emerald and Island Lakes. It’s just sky and mountains for days on end.

After a break, a snack and hanging a Canadian flag on an empty post at the summit (it was Canada Day, after all), we started our descent. The way down went much more quickly than the way up, save for one section: the chain. See, we strategically started the hike at around 7:30 a.m., so we were the first ones on the mountain that day. When we reached the chain, our group went up one by one to avoid rockfall for a person below.

By the time we were coming down, however, there were groups who had started much later than us and were just coming to the chain section to go up as we reached it to descend. So a bit of a traffic jam formed, you might say. We spent at least an hour at the chain as we waited for other groups to climb up, and then for our own group to climb down, again, one by one. And let me tell you, climbing down is a lot more difficult than climbing up!

Slow and steady, as they say.

We reached our vehicles just as a light rain started to fall and couldn’t help but think, “Perfect timing!” The Crow certainly is a mountain I’d prefer to visit with in good weather only.

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Happy Canada Day, you glorious country!

The black and white of winter

Winter hit Crowsnest Pass with an excited exuberance at being back. November 1 greeted me with an entirely different landscape than the day before: the hum of road plows, a winter storm warning in effect, and snow – lots of it!

Mother Nature dumped about 40 cm of snow on the Pass in the past few days and while Environment Canada predicts temperatures warming up over the next few days, I think the snow is here to stay until spring.

I must admit, I love the changing of seasons, where each one brings something unique and spectacular. In winter, it’s of course the activities – the snowshoeing, sledding, skiing/snowboarding, cross-country skiing, and ahem, digging out your car. But also the comforting, cozy feeling of that first sip of hot mulled wine, the food craving for delicious, hearty stews, or the steady crunch-crunch-crunch of walking on packed snow.

With its subdued hues and colours, only in winter do we come as close as we can to seeing the world in black and white, its grayscale canvas forcing us to perceive light and shadow in a special way.

Winter is not just a season; it’s an experience.

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Crowsnest Pass, Alberta (November 2017)