trip report: Canadian Rockies – decision, planning, & getting in, August 2019

Ah Lake Instagram, rather Reddit Lake, I mean Moraine Lake. The last time I visited this beautiful spot was in 2011 on a road trip, when a group of us checked out the mountains and breweries around the Pacific Northwest that eventually ended up here.

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Our joke for our drive through the Canadian Rockies was that they must sprayed LSD in the air because the colors were so unreal.

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Jared overlooking the teal Lake Louise back in 2011

I’ve meant to head back to properly explore the backcountry since then, but it seems like the rest of the world had the same idea. With the crowds, must come the permits to protect the beautiful landscape from being loved to death and effects of overcrowding. Since this current trip was planned rather last minute, the initial prospect looked like I’d have to wait to see the best and most popular spots. But with some flexibility and constant checking of the permit websites, I got to have my cake and eat it too… a big LSD filled cake.

This is the first entry of our Canadian Rockies trip series covering our pre-trip planning (1) and our travels to the Canadian Rockies (2). You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted.

index

click to expand
1 planning & research
      1.1 the decision
      1.2 planning & research
            1.2.1 permits
            1.2.2 travel logistics
            1.2.3 trail research (or lack of)
            1.2.4 travel logistics
                  1.2.4.1 flights
                  1.2.4.2 car rental
                  1.2.4.3 park fees
                  1.2.4.4 housing
            1.2.5 equipment
            1.2.6 miscellaneous
2 trip report day 0-1: getting in
      2.1 day 1: flight in to the Canadian Border
      2.2 day 2: The Canadian Border to Canmore, AB
3 trip report day 2-5: Kootenay National Park – Rockwall (video)
4 trip report day 6: Yoho National Park – Iceline
5 trip report day 7-9: Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park
6 trip report day 11-14: Mt. Robson Provincial Park – Berg Lake & Snowbird Pass
7 trip report day 15-16: Jasper National Park – Edith Cavell & Valley of Five Lakes
8 trip report day 17: Jasper National Park – Bald Hill
9 trip report day 18-19: Jasper National Park – Skyline
10 trip report day 20: Jasper National Park – Wilcox Pass 
11 trip report day 20-21: Banff National Park – Bow Summit Lookout & Peyto Lake
12 trip report day 22: Yoho National Park – Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit
13 trip report day 23: Banff National Park – Lake Louise, Beehives, & Plain of Six Glaciers loop
14 trip report day 24-25: getting out
15 final impressions, top 5, & budget

the decision

The decision for the trip came together rather last minute due to uncertainty entering summer 2019. That uncertainty meant we’d look for refundable travel plans as well. With those 2 conditions, the destination of our trip would had to lie within Southwest Airlines’ footprint, mainly around continental United States. It’s a good thing that there are plenty of places out west I wanted to visit or return to. Specifically, the Canadian Rockies, Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, Wind River Range, Northern Cascades, and Olympia National Park to just name a few. These parks are all reachable by car in the Pacific northwest, so we ended booking our Southwest flight to Spokane, Washington sitting at about an 6-8 hour drive from all these parks.

The second aspect of our decision to consider are the getting backcountry permits for last minute trips. Out of the list that most interested me, Canadian Rockies (Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, & Yoho NPs specifically) and Glacier National Park on the USA side were the top of my list. The former does not accommodate first come first serve (see section below) and the latter is typically more accommodating (hike734).

In the end, we found we could stretch out trip to roughly about 3.5 weeks in August if we spend some time working remotely. So decision we made was to see what we could get in the Canadian Rockies and head down to Glacier if we strike out. It would be a play it by ear type of trip.

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I wanted to revisit these amazing places in the Canadian Rockies.

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planning & research

permits

*EDIT 2020/6 – Due to COVID-19, check Parks Canada and BC parks for updated restrictions and booking procedures for 2020.

Parks in the Canadian Rockies regulate backcountry traffic by limiting the number of permits available for each specific campsites. As such, backcountry camping is only allowed at designated campsites. The benefit of designated backcountry campsites include food storage solutions to protect against bears and other wildlife, easier to form social atmosphere, out houses, and most likely less impact from high traffic than dispersed camping that require hikers to be well trained in leave no trace principles. A negative would be the lack of solidarity on the popular trails, but there are plenty of out of the beat path campsites you can still find to yourself.

There are 2 main sites for booking campsites for the four national parks and two British Columbia (B.C.) provincial parks that we traveled through. The national parks reservation are available online or by phone at 1-877-RESERVE in North America. Campsites reservation typically open in January for April of the corresponding year to March of the following year.

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For the B.C. provincial parks, the website is Discover Camping and reservations are open on October 1 for the following season though reservations ahead of time are only needed for the peak season.

Unfortunately there are no first come first serve permits available at both the national parks and during peak season in provincial parks. For the popular hikes, it is common that the campsites get booked up as reservations open. This was the biggest hurdle for our last minute trip in 2019 and will be so if you’re reading this for the 2020 season since those dates have passed.

With some perseverance and flexibility of schedule, it is possible to find cancellations in the calendar. This means checking the permit websites often and be willing to switch up your starting dates. That is exactly how we were able to do all 4 backpacking trips on my radar while locking down our permits merely a few days ahead of time. I’m pretty sure I ended up spending just as much on change fees as the campsites themselves.

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a history of my backcountry permit reservations and changes during our trip

A caveat to my luck may have been the wetter than usual hiking season in 2019, leading to greater cancellations. For instance when we were checking into Mt. Robson for our hike, the rangers asked us to wait for a few minutes so they can see the peak for the first time in a month.

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trail research

My hiking research previous to the trip wasn’t very well organized or in depth, mainly because of the permitting issues mentioned above, last minute decision, and the uncertainty of the open ended nature of our trip. In turn, this is probably (having just read what I wrote, it is) the shottiest pre-trip trail research section for any of my trip report. I didn’t even include this section in my initial outline because how little was planned. The main takeaway is that with a bit of time, we were able to find information about our hikes as we went. Having a good hotel and internet helped (see housing logistics below). Of course, we have some experience at this point so it’s pretty easy to pick up and do a hike. 

When I started looking, it was easy to find the classic multi-day backpacking options in the Canadian Rockies online, such as Mt. Assiniboine, Rockwall, Skyline, Lake O’Hara, and Berg Lake. A quick initial check on their availability on the permit website showed their popularity in that none were available a few weeks out. Even though we were eventually able to book campsite on these hikes, I did not research them other than being very familiar with their campsites on their respective permit websites (see above). I will discuss the specific resources I referenced in the respective trip reports in the upcoming sections (see index).

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backpacking to Mt. Assiniboine, the Canadian Matterhorn, is a popular trip

Outside of those multi-day backpacking options, I didn’t have great success finding information about the lesser known ones online. So, I just started to just scroll around the permitting website and googling available campsites. The Canada Parks permit page specifies that it should not be used to plan trips, but it was exactly what I did. Wanting to book something, I initially reserved 2 night trip out to Egypt Lake from Sunshine Village based on a trip report (Hike Bike Travel). Other options I considered with better availability of campsites included the Sawback Trail (Clever Hiker) and the North Boundary Trail (waputik.tripod.com; MyOwnFrontier filmed this later in the season). There is a long trail that transverses the Canadian Rockies, the Great Divide Trail (GDT, The Great Divide Trail Association). I thought about doing a section of it, however the permitting requirements are the same as hikers have to book each and every campsite as of 2019. None of them hit it according to a few we met and the rangers give them some grace in that regards. Some of the highlight sections are actually those popular multi-day backpacking options mentioned earlier.

In the end, I didn’t overthink it and left the job for future John to do. My mindset was we might do a road trip for a week or so in the Canadian Rockies and just do day hikes. Then head down to Glacier National Park or Waterton National Park on the Canadian side and doing a proper backpacking trip. I was looking specifically at the Glacier North Circle trail (besthike) since I was more confident playing the first come first serve permit game there.

day hikes

Looking at day hikes, the number of day hikes listed in the four National Parks can produce a lot of decision overload. That’s not even mentioning the hikes in Kananaskis County or areas just outside the those parks.

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free brochures with many day hike listings

Finding a ranger on the ground who understood that we were actual hikers helped solve plenty of those indecision. It took us a couple stops at different information centers to find the right one. It was at the Yoho information center that the awesome ranger exclaimed, “Oh you are hikers! Well then, let me tell you some of my favorites.” She did not steer us wrong with suggestions of the Iceline, stops along the icefield parkway, and even the option of day hiking up to Lake O’Hara. We didn’t end up getting to all her suggestions, but you really can’t expect to with one trip. So the best attitude is just get out there and you’ll probably see something cool.

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travel logistics

flights

This was a simple one for our flights out to Spokane, Washington (GEG). As I mentioned above, we booked through Southwest since we needed the availability to cancel and GEG was the closest airport that Southwest flew to in range of both the Canadian Rockies, Glacier National Park, and other possible hiking destinations on our list.

Added in that we have the companion pass (guide from Frequent Miler), made the two tickets very affordable.

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Our flight from Baltimore-Washington airport (BWI) to GEG was only USD$273.60 all in for the both us and our flight back from GEG to BWI was 9941 SW Rapid Reward Points and USD$11.20.

Typically to access the Canadian Rockies, flights in to Calgary, Alberta (YYC) is the most popular and convenient.

car rental

To get us the rest of the way to the Canadian Rockies and around, a rental car was necessary. The cost of a rental car from GEG was comparable to that of Calgary and other airports, so we determined flying into GEG was still the best option.

Utilizing autoslash.com, I had booked a car from Thrifty with free cancellation. Again, autoslash can track the prices of rentals and notify you when a lower option is found. However a couple days before our trip, I read that this specific Thrifty had limitations of travel into Canada, which they confirmed over the phone. So I had to book the next cheapest option with Hertz at a cost of roughly USD$200 more. The total cost for 3 weeks and 3 days was USD$1148.21. I made sure to call them as well to confirm.

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roadtripping the Icefield Parkway required a rental

The cost to upgrade to an SUV didn’t seem worth it since there were plenty of front country camping options. I also wasn’t sure about the legality of sleeping in the car at a trailhead. Lastly, I figure we’d look forward to hotel days after backpacking and hiking.

park fees

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On top of the backcountry reservation fees, all travelers visiting the Canadian National Parks are required to pay for an entrance fee. There was the option for daily or annual passes (see Parks Canada). For us, we would be spending just over 3 weeks within the park so the Family Discovery Annual Pass was the most economical at CAD$139.40. These passes can be purchased at most park entrances or online if have the time to wait for shipping.

housing

None of our housing was booked ahead of time, save for our first night once we arrived in the Canadian Rockies. For our non-backcountry days, we ended up staying at hotels in the Canadian Rockies corridor. There were several reason we chose hotels rather than more camping in the front country.

The first reason was that we both had work to do on our zero days (no hiking days) requiring good internet, it was how we got away for longer. Good internet was also useful for me to check up on hiking permits as we went along. As you can see in the permit section above, I checked often. Hotels were also convenient in that it was much easier to dry things out should they have been wet and to organize our packs for the next venture into the backcountry. Plenty of hotels also had coin operated laundry saving us trips to the laundromat. They were also good about holding or extra dehydrated food so we didn’t have to leave it in our cars at the trailhead. Also during the 2019 season, the major front country campground near Jasper, Whistlers Campgrounds, was closed for renovations. This made front country options very limited and busier. Lastly, we were traveling after all so we splurged on comforts that comes with a hotel.

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camping views could be great, but we didn’t have to hide from mosquito swarms in a hotel room

Hotels in the main towns of Banff and Jasper in the Canadian Rockies corridor were very expensive, busy, and most often full. However, there are plenty more options when we drove slightly out of the way about an hour to towns like Canmore, Golden, Hinton, and Valemount.

To further save costs, I was armed with plenty of hotel points and stay certificates. Most of the major brands had hotels here and there, but we found Choice, Wyndham, and Best Western to have the largest footprint and most reasonable point stays. A couple of tools to allow you searches are Hotel Hustle and Award Mapper. Hotel Hustle allows specific searches with actual availability. Award Mapper is easier interface that gives you the category and points needed for a booking, however it doesn’t show availability and is not always up to date and is especially the case nowadays with more hotel programs going to variable award pricing.

Choice hotels was the brand we utilized the most as we scattered 9 nights in their hotels, all on point stays. Majority of the points I used were actually purchased through their 2018 Daily Getaways Promo (bought at a rate of 0.514-0.482 cents per point, analysis by Loyalty Traveler), though they typically participate in the promo each year. The point redemption for some of our Choice hotels were so good, we ended buying more points on the spot (at the rate of 0.825 cents per point – TPG) to use for redemption as it was cheaper than any other hotel options around. We ended up staying more nights than planned because the rate.

Additionally, we used 2 Marriott credit card certificates to stay at the Delta Hotel in Banff, 1 IHG credit card certificate that was expiring to stay at the Holiday Inn in Canmore, and 1 award redemption for the nicest Super 8 I’ve seen in Valemount. For paid stays, we spent 1 night at the Rundle Mountain Lodge using Hotels.com giftcards purchased at 20% off online, 1 night in Jasper at the Athabasca Hotel, 1 night at the Super 8 in Golden, and 1 night at the Hilton Garden Inn near GEG the night before we flew out.

In total we spent 17 nights in hotels, 8 nights in the backcountry, and technically 1 night in the car.

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equipment

Our plan was to backpack a good amount this trip, but we weren’t expect too much terrain or challenges beyond the typical backcountry trip. So we had our typical loadout. We did bring along some travel luxuries including our cooler bag for food storage to accommodate our frontcountry and hotel days, laptops, a set of town cloth, extra backpacking cloth, and dehydrated meals that we had found for cheaper at home.  Southwest Airlines’ free luggage check policies made it easy to bring extra stuff.

A full list of our equipment is listed below (right click and open image in new window for full resolution) with discussion of a few items afterwards.

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The clothing listed were all the we had brought with us for the trip. Seeing how it was a bit more than 3 weeks of travel and I wanted flexibility to change our layering options, we overpacked for it. For a typical backpacking trip, I would only have 1 long sleeve to hike in, 1 short sleeve to sleep in, 1 pair of pants, 1 pair of sports underwear, 1 pair of sleeping underwear, and 2 pairs of socks.

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the base hiking layer

My layering system would be my Patagonia R1 light fleece soft shell and my rain jacket hardshell for hiking and my down jacket for camp. Unless it was very bad weather, I didn’t see a need for my heavy fleece.

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the bundled up layers

The only new equipment I tried out for the trip was switching to a quilt over a sleeping bag (Jacks’R’better Sierra Stealth 40F – nonaffiliate link).

  • The idea for the quilt was that I typically sleep very hot and I like the idea of being open up the toe box to allow my legs to have more freedom to spread out. I hate the sticky feeling of my legs from sweat. The idea of why I went with a 40F rating was for the purpose of a summer bag to complement my heavy 0 degree winter bag, especially for the hot summers in Virginia. I knew I’d be pushing the limits of the bag in the Rockies and it was indeed passable, though not always comfortable.
  • After the our first hike into the backcountry, I brought a few more layers of cloth to sleep in. They included a pair of heavy wool socks, an extra pair of pants, and a long sleeve. I alternated my down and my heavy fleece jacket for extra layer of warmth as well. The former was lighter but the latter was more comfortable. My wool hat was dedicated for sleeping as well.
  • In retrospect 40F is indeed fine for a summer bag, but I probably would go with a 20-30F and the long version for a more versatile bag to accommodate the Rockies and other alpine climates. The long version would have allow me to cocoon easier for when it does get colder. Secondly, I would look for stitching in the long direction rather than across since the down tend to move toward the sides and away from the top of the bag during the night. I wouldn’t worry too much about being hot with a quilt since the aspect of it being able to open up really helps with the stuffy nature of the mummy bag. This is also why my preference is for an open toe box can cinch up rather than a sown toe box.

Speaking of sweaty legs, this also lead us to carry a new disposable comfort item. That is a small package of wet wipes. While the lakes in the Canadian Rockies look amazing, they are freaking freezing. Might have to do with their source of a glacier. So a wet wipe at the end of the day is a nice way to clean off the sweat and grime of the day. A secondary benefit is that your trash bag will smell a lot nicer since you need to pack used ones out.

For the hikes we did, they were very well manicured and taken care of. So we didn’t end up need our long heavy duty gaiters even though we carried them for the hikes. However, if you are going further into less trafficked areas of the backcountry, they might be more useful. A few GDT hikers we gave a lift to had stories of much rougher trail than what we encountered.

Lastly, the Canadian Rockies is in bear country. So bear spray is required.

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We were fortunate and unfortunate in that we didn’t encounter a bear on our hike, only by the side of the road. However, we were on the more popular hikes. During my hikes, I typically had it in my cargo pocket so it was reachable and out of the way. Another place was my side pocket, opposite side of where I have my water since I am use to reaching it without taking off my pack. On a day hike, my back pocket would work as well but be careful if you are in an area where you can fall on your butt. One GMT hiker may have gotten his trail name this way.

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miscellaneous

money

Credit card were accept pretty much everywhere. We only ended up withdrawing CAD$180 our entire trip. Seemingly everywhere outside of the US we go now, the credit card terminals were equipped with contactless/tap to pay technology allowing me to use Google Pay or Meg’s Apple pay on our phones. Our mobile payment in conjunction with my USBank Altitude Reserve Credit Card meant I even netted 4.5% back (Frequent Miler guide) on all purchases.

hiking maps

All of the trails we hike were very well maintained and signed. They are also well labeled on any app that uses Open Street Map (OSM – links to different map download options). I used a combination of Wikiloc and Alltrails, but mostly to track my own coordinates

If you are looking for a paper topographical map, they are sold in all the information centers. I bought them for more in depth planning purposes pre-hike and as a backup on the trail. Though they never saw the light of day on the trail.

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communication

My Google Fi (referral link) plan worked as well as any local cell phone and data plan.

Since I didn’t know what our backcountry plans were before I headed out, I activated a month of my Garmin InReach Mini (Amazon affiliate link). It did not see the light of day and was just extra weight for me to carry in the end, which is good. Do note that the cost of such devices go beyond the device itself as you have to subscribe to the satellite service.

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roadtripping tool

While we didn’t use it much, I heard the iOverlander app was well supported and useful in the area.

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getting in

day 0: flight and crossing into Canada

Our flight getting in was pretty easy. It was an evening flight out of Baltimore Washington International airport (BWI), so we left a bit early to avoid the D.C. rush hour traffic. After checking in our bags, we still had plenty of time to kill. So we decided to try to go to the other terminal for the The Club Lounge (yelp), accessible with our Priority Pass from our credit card (details at Dr of Credit). Security had no issues with us going into the terminal we weren’t flying out of with our boarding passes when we said we were headed to the lounge. After dinner and drinks, we exited airside and headed to the correct terminal.

The flights were uneventful, especially since I slept the majority of the time.

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pink evening skies last for a while since we were chasing the sun

After connecting in Denver (DEN), we arrived in Spokane, Washington (GEG) around midnight. I decided against booking a hotel that night since we wouldn’t get much time there before hitting the road. Instead, I just started driving toward Canada that night. The Hertz desk was next to the luggage pickup and I had our car keys even before our bags came out.

It took us a few hours until we were at the Canadian border and it was sure fast to go through at 3am. I was kinda tired at this point and the custom officer recommended parking at the duty free parking lot. That was where we went for a few more hours of sleep.

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day 1: Canadian border to Canmore, AB

The next morning, we continued into Canada stopping at Tim Hortons for breakfast. I’m pretty that was Meg’s secret reason for wanting to visit the Canadian Rockies rather than our other options.

Our first destination in Canada was Canmore, Alberta since it was close to the first of our multi-day backpacking hike the following day, the Rockwall (details in the next section – in preparation) in Kootenay National Park. Having better hotel availability and plenty of infrastructure to help us set up was a good benefit. We actually drove through Kootenay National Park and our trailhead en-route to Canmore. Since the Rockwall is a point to point hike, hitching the short distance between the trailheads is common and was something we’d be doing on our hike. So it was good karma for us to provide a hitch to a fellow hiker on our way through.

From a hike planning perspective, this was already the second change I made as I found a couple campsites along the Rockwall open up just a couple days before our flight out. This updated rendition of our itinerary would give us this day 1 as a set-up day rather than starting right away on the trail after flying and driving in.

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green = new; red = cancelled; yellow = modified; white = unchanged

I had booked the Quality Resort Chateau in Canmore (tripadvisor) with 30k Choice Points. The comparative award redemption of the hotel was the most efficient of the available options and the comparative out of pocket cost wasn’t off by too much. Specifically, it cost 30000 Choice points, which I purchased for USD$0.00514 per point equating to USD$154.2 (see detailed hotel strategies).

It was lunch time after we arrived in Canmore, so we first had lunch at The Grizzly Paw Pub. The food and beer were ok and I don’t remember much about them. I might have not been all there that this day from lack of sleep and travel fatigue.

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the pork belly at The Grizzly Paw was more bread than pork, beer was ok but not memorable

After checking in to our hotel, we spend the rest of the day preparing visiting a couple information centers to find out more about local hikes and setting up for our first multi-day hike. This included buying bear sprays, gas for our stove, a headlamp, lighter, and a cheap pair of hiking stick for Meg. We forgot a few items on our way out the door. In Canmore, we found the cheapest bear spray & gas at Valhalla Pure Outfitters. It’s unfortunate there isn’t a system for donating and picking up unused bear spray. There are places to dispose of both used and unused ones properly, but I’m not aware of anywhere you can get bought but unused ones. Our last stop was grocery store for some non-dehydrated food before returning to our hotel to pack and turn in early for the night.

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