Calgary, Banff and Jasper

Heading West



If you ever find yourself heading west in Canada, you’ll likely find yourself stopping in Calgary. The largest city in the province of Alberta with 1.4 million residents, it traces its origins back to a fort built as a focal point for the growing ranching industry. This can still be enjoyed today through the yearly Calgary Stampede.

This event is a weeklong series of rodeos, chuck wagons, animal shows and various other events taking place each July – I unfortunately wasn’t around for this but many locals have insisted I return to experience it fully. But they have warned me that this might not come cheap so if you do plan to come best be prepared to spend a bit more than you expect.

However, Calgary as we see it today really can thank the oil boom of the mid-20th century for what we see today. It is thanks to this that Calgary is modern, sleek and full of a fairly young crowd who work in oil and its related industries. Thanks to this there are a number of good bars and restaurants throughout the city, including the National, a perfect spot to spend a sunny day due to its rooftop terrace nestled amongst the skyscrapers.

The patronage of these is often a good barometer of the strength of the oil industry, with it not being overly busy when we were there. The local people are generally very friendly, especially to tourists, and whilst the stereotype of Canadians being nice may not hold true as often in places like Quebec or Ontario, it certainly does in Alberta.

Into the Wild

Majesty of the Mountains

Majesty of the Mountains

However, if you take a trip up the Calgary tower you will see the real gem of Alberta in the distance to the west. The Banff and Jasper National parks, located in the Rocky Mountains, a chain of 3000 miles stretching down the North American continent may seem small from this distance but in under 2 hours’ drive you will be well into the peaks.

And it is well worth the drive. If you’ve ever been to the Alps or New Zealand you will know that driving through mountain ranges is incredible, but Canada raises the bar with enormous peaks soaring over towering pine forests and wide blue and green lakes (though you can expect to see these frozen well into the spring, but this doesn’t detract from their beauty).

Lakes such as Lake Louise, Lake Minnewanka and Emerald Lake (the last one being just over the provincial border into British Columbia) really foster a greater appreciation of natural beauty and although the phone and internet signal may often be poor, in some ways this isolation only magnifies the spectacle.

Canadian Forest

Canadian Forest

But the sights on any travel site are not really what made this trip memorable for me. What I loved was how on every single turn of the road there was something new to see of breath-taking beauty and sheer scale. If possible I’d fully recommend hiring a vehicle to do this trip as it gives you the freedom to explore and plan your own route. We stopped by at waterfalls which weren’t marked on any maps, saw bears, wolves and deer crossing the roads (though these are mostly harmless pending some mutual respect and common sense) and stopped to hike over glaciers, mountains, canyons and beaches.

In this way we were able to make our own adventure, with many stops throughout the day to take photographs and explore. However be warned that if you’re tight for time this will be infuriating as it does feel like a waste to not fully enjoy this place. Weather is another factor that needs to be taken into account as during the winter (and after accidents such as a rockslide that happened a few days prior to our trip), many routes can be much more difficult to traverse. However, locals are more than happy to suggest alterations as to not overly impede your enjoyment.

Alpine towns and exploring the wilderness

Nestled in amongst these natural beauties are smaller towns such as Banff and Jasper, which offer year-round bases for skiing in winter through to road tripping in the summer. Aside from offering a range of places to stay, bars, clubs and restaurants, they are also full of people from all over the world, both visiting and working.

For those wanting to spend a little longer in this area many places appeared to have British, Australian and European staff, so this is well worth a look. These areas, whilst a little touristy (and thus with more inflated prices) do offer good bases from which to explore the surrounding countryside. It does however mean that everyone you meet will have interesting stories to tell you and will be able to recommend you visit places you hadn’t heard of before, and as always companions to have a drink with in a bar or over a campfire. In some ways these folk were what made this trip so special for me.

We had the chance to both stay in a regular hostel and to camp outdoors. Both were interesting options but camping is certainly not for the faint hearted! Never mind the ever-present worry that some sort of wild beast is lurking somewhere just out of sight (meaning you need to be especially careful with food and rubbish – a little disconcerting to say the least!), even into May we awoke one morning to snow falling outside the tent. But to wake up ad be immediately in the great Canadian outdoors was for me a very special experience that I would love to repeat. Camping in Normandy and Brittany won’t ever have the same thrill to it after this. But this was well worth it – who else can say they?

Canadian Frozen Lakes

Canadian Frozen Lakes

This week spent in the mountains truly was what I expected Canada to be: spectacular scenery, wild animals we in the UK could only expect to see in a zoo, incredibly friendly people and most importantly a desire to go back once again to relive it all. Cities such as Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver may be more accessible, but the wilderness holds many rewards for those who make the journey, and the best part is that I barely scratched the surface of it all.

Article by University of Birmingham student Thomas Crawford for Blog About Holidays.

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