Not gonna lie; it's been a stressful past few months. Work was been super busy, we found out that our landlord was selling the house we were renting to his daughter so we had to move, and I was in Chicago for two weeks helping my mom recover from surgery to remove what we know now was a benign brain tumor. Even my "fa-la-la silver linings and positive spins" self was feeling the weight of everything that was going on. Although everything worked out amazingly well (my mom's doing awesome, and we moved into a great house in a different, but just as fun, neighborhood), we were pretty pooped and jonesin' for a vacay like nobody's business. Fortunately, a few months back we booked a camping trip to Banff and Jasper for the second week of September. A week of stunning scenery and unplugging from the world couldn't have been more perfectly timed after such a jam-packed August.
That being said, there was a shit ton of prepping we needed to do for our trip, so the weeks leading up to it didn't exactly subtract from the stress level. Figuring out our campsites and intended hiking trails was one thing, but we also had a lot of camping gear we needed to buy. We already had some naturey accoutrement, but if we wanted to you know eat and stuff, we needed to get a stove, freeze dried food, bear spray, etc. etc. Being from Minnesota, and having done his fair share of backcountry camping, I trusted El with figuring out what we still needed. I also followed his lead when it came to choosing backcountry campsites, as I've camped before but never CAMPED aka hiking while loaded with gear ala Reese Witherspoon in Wild to a campsite. You could tell El was getting excited, because Paul Bunyan ordered ALL THE GEARS and got animated when we made campsite reservations with Parks Canada. After plenty of prepping, and double checking we were bringing enough toilet paper ("Do you think maybe we should bring three rolls???"-me, as if I were bringing it for the bears to shit in the forest), we shoved everything into our hiking packs and go ready for our trip out west.
We flew into Calgary, the nearest big city to Banff National Park, late Friday night and set off for the park early the next morning. Hertz upgraded us to a loaded 4x4 Jeep Sahara, and we both felt like legit bad asses in that thing. If only we had that car when we nearly died on a Macedonian mountain.... After stocking up on road trip snacks at a local grocery store and picking up some last minute goods from Cabelas (PSA: you can't fly with bear spray, so we had to get it there. You also need to sign a waiver to buy it), we hit he highway for Banff. The closer we got to the national park, the taller the landscape grew and the more scenic our surroundings became. We hit a strong rainstorm just as we were entering a valley, but that cleared up and a huge full rainbow soon took the clouds' place. Was a hell of a welcome wagon.
We drove down the main Banff Ave and through the picturesque mountain town of Banff to get some info at the visitor center. Banff Ave is the lifeline of the town and lined with local businesses set amongst bigger chains and brand name stores. The town itself is cradled by the Rocky Mountains, and it's pretty much 360 degrees of mountains anywhere you look. The Visitor Center was packed with people , most of whom looked to be retired, decked out in expensive hiking gear and presumably part of the RV Army that clogged the streets driving up to the park. Signs posted throughout the visitor center warned of increased bear activity due to it being berry season and bull elk getting feisty because it was mating season. We loaded up on front country and backcountry maps for Banff, Jasper, Lake Louise, and Yoho National Park, and the woman helping us gave us the tip of setting our odometer to zero when we drove from Lake Louise to Jasper and a map of sights along the way, each with distances clearly marked. Since there's no cell signal on the drive, this was advice we definitely planned on taking.
We walked the main strip checking things out before stopping for lunch at Banff Ave Brewing Company. Located next to a nightclub called "The Dancing Sasquatch" whose calling card is a dude in a Sasquatch suit, you guessed it, cutting on a rug on the dance floor, BABC had some impressive merch, good food, and great beer. We made the "totally wise decision that we weren't going to regret at all later" to have a fried buffalo chicken sandwich and beer before we did our first hike of the trip. Not looking to go too far from the town, we decided to do the Sulphur Mountain hike, aptly named b/c of its proximity to the Hot Springs. The parking lot was already packed with people, as the hike itself is popular but the gondola entrance is also located there. Because it's a pretty popular one the path up the mountain is wide and the ground nice and compact, making it a good starter hike for our trip. I regretted my lunch choice almost immediately after starting because no time is wasted before the incline starts up. Not only was my actual sweat mixed with meat/beer sweats, my stomach felt like it had a boxing match going on inside it. Add to the mix the fact that we hadn't acclimatized to the higher altitude, and my chest feeling like it was going to explode ala Alien (my HR was at 155 for almost the entire hike), I was a pretty pathetic sight for the first part of the hike. Although my legs were tired, the 2500 ft climb wasn't much wear and tear on the old limbs. I started to get used to the sustained incline, helped by the numerous switchbacks, and just when I felt like I was "Courtney, Tamer of Mountains", a few people zipped past us as they ran up the mountain. Talk about the thin air being let out of my ego balloon.
The views along the tree lined paths were just spectacular, and bright blue Lake Minnewanka stood out amongst the green coniferous trees surrounding it. Once at the top of Sulphur Mountain, there's a cafe, restaurant, and an observation deck where you can sit on adirondack chairs around a fire pit. The views were, as you'd expect, amazing, but there were so many people that came on the gondolas I silently cursed as they swung overhead as we hiked, we couldn't really spend much time there without feeling like we were blocking someone's view. So we masochisticly decided to climb higher up to the observation deck, where we were rewarded with a higher vantage point of the mountain peaks that peppered the horizon.
The hike down was a little rough on the knees, and despite the cooler weather we were both totally soaked with sweat by the trail's end. It was late afternoon by this point, so we grabbed some s'mores makings from the town's grocery store and a bottle of Scotch before heading to the massive Village I Campground for the night. There were plenty of people already set up at their tent pads, and after we set up our own tent, Elliot got to work on building a fire while I hunted for sticks on which to hook our marshmallows. Despite being in the FOREST, I ended up only finding tinder for the fire and one freaking stick appropriate for mallow roasting. We tried out our new cooking gear with freeze dried cheddar potato soup and scarfed down some delicious s'mores roasted on the most perfectly formed stick there ever was and sat around the fire. The campground was mostly filled with RVs, but there was the odd handful of people who schlepped their gear by foot to their site. Every time we'd pass one, Elliot would wistfully say something like "You gotta respect that" as if he was imagining some Dances with Wolves childhood memory he had. My childhood memory came in the form of a Jurassic Park car that pulled up and parked in the tent pad across from us. I'm actually surprised we didn't predict its arrival when our bottles of water started shaking. Apparently there's some RV rental place called Wicked Campers, and this glorious cinematic masterpiece on wheels was one of their options. It's the one time in my life where I seriously thought about committing grand theft auto.
After a night spent sleeping on uneven ground and interrupted by some yelling bros around 1am, we woke up just before 7, opening our eyes to some daddy long legs mating on top of our tent. "Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba!" After cleaning up in the nicer than expected bathrooms, we packed up the car and drove to that day's hike at Vista Lake. We saw our first wildlife, some female elk, on the drive as well as colorful train cars winding their way through the valley. Our hike's incredible scenery started as soon as we parked, and we stood open-mouthed overlooking Vista Lake for a good thirty seconds. Two young girls on a Discover Banff tour started the hike the same time we did, and when one of them said, "No cell service anymore", and the other one responded, "Finally!", it made me smile. We definitely weren't the only ones hoping to get away from it all.
The hike starts by immediately losing 120m in elevation before then increasing by 550m the rest of the 5km to Arnica Lake. The bright green Vista Lake was just the start of the scenery and was almost eclipsed by the bright green pine trees that seemed to go on for miles. When we started the ascending part of the trail, we found that the terrain was a lot looser than expected and some parts weren't very well traveled. As a result, I had to keep my head down so as not to walk off the edge of the mountain and couldn't totally immerse myself in the views of the trees and nearby Storm Mountain. Elliot said the whole scene reminded him of the Forest Moon of Endor, and I was hoping that the only bear we'd encounter that day was an Ewok. We saw only a handful of people during the 11km roundtrip hike, but of course some were present the ONE TIME I misstepped and slid down the hill. Fortunately, Elliot was ahead and stopped me before I took down the oncoming people like bowling pins.
The higher we climbed, the more the temperature dropped, and by the time we got to Arnica Lake, we had to put on gloves and were almost as high as the mountain's snow line. The water of Arnica Lake was so still that it created optical illusions with the surrounding trees and provided the perfect backdrop to our little lunch of Triscuits, cheese, and pepperoni sticks. We had to be super vigilant on our way back down because of the loose
rock, and our legs were shaking when we finally emerged by our car. We later learned that the Arnica Lake Trail is classified as "Difficult", which we weren't expecting for our "easy hike". The whole thing took us about 5 hours, and our bodies were definitely feeling it. We couldn't check into our hotel, Brewster's Mountain Lodge, just yet so we parked in some cozy chairs at the Rose & Crown pub and watched football while munching on/inhaling some fries. When we were finally able to check into our "decorated with dozens of brass arrows" room, we dropped off our stuff and headed straight to the hot tub. It felt so glorious, and the shower that followed even more so. Even though they just had the one Mountain Lodge, we surmised that the Brewster family was Banff's version of the mafia because their name is everywhere in town, and we kept passing Brewster sightseeing buses the next day on our way to Jasper. In my mind, I picture thugs riding up on moose and taking out innocent townsfolks' kneecaps for their furs.
We ducked into a few souvenir shops, which all pretty much sold the same thing, and grabbed a magnet with what we surmised was the town's slogan and my new Instagram caption "The mountains are calling, and I must go". Despite summer technically being over, there were still plenty of tourists walking the streets and every restaurant had a wait to be seated. I had a gin and tonic and El had a cedar plank drink at the recommended Park Distillery before grabbing dinner at Eddie's Burger Bar. Our table was a high-top with a TV showing the Bears game right in front of us, perfect viewing for scarfing down burgers, "hot tots", and fries. Everything was really good, but like most of the spots in Banff, extremely overpriced. We grabbed some Cows ice cream after dinner, disappointing compared to its PEI compatriot, and watched some of the game back at BABC before finishing it back at the hotel. Our original plan was to spend a backcountry night in Yoho, then drive the next day to Jasper and do our backcountry long hike there. We re-did the math and realized that if we did that, we'd be hiking at least 26km and driving 4 hours in one day. We did a quick itinerary change before collapsing into bed, not knowing what insanity was to come in Jasper...
Up next: September snowstorms, 30km hikes, and wiping out in a mud puddle
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