Highlights: Bears, elk and other large wildlife, wildflowers, Bow River, Castle Mountain, Johnston Canyon, the Sawback Range.
Activities: Sightseeing, photography, wildlife watching, walking, hiking, fishing.
Location: Scenic route paralleling Highway 1 between Banff and Lake Louise. Accessed five minutes west of Banff or directly from Lake Louise village.
Time: Minimum of 1.5 hours.
The third wolf, a big jet-black male, paused for a moment right in front of us, then leapt off the road and into the ditch. For a second he hung suspended in the deep snow glancing back at us, then with a surge pulled himself free and loped off to join the others in the trees.
Backswamp along the Bow Valley Parkway
January 7, 1995
Wolf Painting © Milton Achtymichuk
Wolves are just one part of the magical allure of the Bow Valley Parkway, one of the Rockies’ most interesting and rewarding drives.
Accessed from Whitehorn Road in Lake Louise, or from the turn-off five kilometres (three miles) west of Banff along the Trans-Canada Highway, the BVP is a pleasant, narrow road with a comfortable sightseeing speed limit of 60 kph (35 mph). Travelling along the BVP from Banff in the direction of Lake Louise, the first main stop-off is at Backswamp, an interpretive stop at the three kilometre mark explaining the changing directions of the Bow River and the effects it has had on the valley. The viewing platform provides a grand vista of the swamps and the Bow Valley, and the entire area is rich with wildlife. Watch the cliffs across the road for bighorn sheep, and the swamps for elk and wolves. Immediately after leaving Backswamp the road winds into a fire-scarred forest, part of a prescribed burn lit by park wardens in 1993 to renew the aging lodgepole pine forest. The Muleshoe interpretive stop is along this stretch, and is situated in the middle of an aspen forest along an oxbow (an abandoned channel) of the Bow River. From Muleshoe, you continue onwards through typical montane forest, with lodgepole pine and Douglas fir trees lining the roadside. The next seven kilometres pass through excellent wildlife habitat, so keep on the lookout for elk, deer and the occasional grizzly bear. The road then leads out into Hillsdale Meadows, a large golden meadow surrounded by aspen trees.
On the right is the magnificent jagged peak of Mount Ishbel, and on your left is Pilot Mountain, used as a key navigational point in 1883 for the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Bow Valley. After the meadows, you begin to climb into the Hillsdale Slide, an area of rolling forested terrain formed thousands of years ago when half of Mount Ishbel slid down across the valley in a massive landslide. Nineteen kilometres from Banff, and at the fourteen kilometre point along the BVP, you reach the Johnston Canyon area. Johnston Canyon is one of the most popular hikes in the Canadian Rockies for a reason: it’s easy walking through a deep rugged canyon littered with waterfalls and rushing waters, and you can hike from fifteen minutes to three hours depending on how far you want to go.
Back on the BVP, your next pull off should be at Moose Meadows, where the forest parts to reveal outstanding views of the fortress-like Castle Mountain. The tower on the right-hand side is named Eisenhower Tower after the late president of the United States. Just beyond Moose Meadows, take in the sights of the long-abandoned ghost town of Silver City. If you look carefully between the trees you can spot the remnants of building foundations from the glory days in the late 1800s when miners flocked here to get at the silver lode rumoured to be lying beneath the hills to the right of the road. The rumours turned out to be just that, and within a few years, the boom had become a bust and the town was quickly deserted. The halfway point between Banff and Lake Louise is at the Castle Mountain Bungalows. The Highway 93 turn-off here gives you the option of returning to the hustle and bustle of the Trans-Canada Highway or of taking a detour south into Kootenay National Park towards Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia.
Coyotes are common along the Bow Valley Parkway, and often delight locals and visitors alike by hunting right at roadside.
Continuing on beyond Castle Mountain, the road follows through more montane forest and climbs up to the Storm Mountain pull-off, where you will find open vistas of the Bow Valley, Storm Mountain and the front face of Castle Mountain. The thrill of the mountains can seize you at any time along the BVP, and did so to me and my friends in 1992 when we watched two grizzly bears feasting on fresh spring grass across the road from the pull-off. Three years later, and another five kilometres down the road near the Protection Mountain Campground, repeated grain spills from Canadian Pacific railcars attracted both grizzly and black bears to within one hundred metres of the BVP.
Just eleven kilometres from Lake Louise, you pass the Baker Creek Chalets, a wonderful little resort with superb views of the towering peak of Mount Temple, one of the Rockies’ highest and most formidable mountains. From Baker Creek, the road ambles through the forest again, passing by delightful little meadows frequented by elk before climbing to the Outlet Creek pull-off. Look down to the right at the river and rail lines and the glorious peaks in the background, and you will quickly realize why this is considered to be one of the world’s most famous locations for train photography.
The final five kilometres to Lake Louise wind uneventfully through sub-alpine spruce forest, and a left at the T-intersection takes you down to the village of Lake Louise and back to the Trans-Canada Highway, while a right leads you up to the Lake Louise ski hill.