A road trip through western Canada
Prairies & Rockies
It’s not easy to see all of Canada’s Rocky Mountains in just 14 days. There’s so much to do, you might even need a whole year. WideOyster went on a quest to find the most beautiful spots and the most pleasant activities. For two weeks, we drove a camper for 1500 kilometers, from the prairie to the Rockies and back.
After a comfortable Air Transat flight and a hotel stay, John and I arrive at the camper rental in Calgary as early as 9am. We exchange our voucher for a huge camper and receive a swift, yet intense, briefing about the performance of our 8 eight meter long house on wheels. We can always read up at the campfire, in case we forget some of the details. For now it’s time to dive into this adventure! Which soon turns out to start really nearby.
Another one bites the dust at the Calgary Stampede
It’s the first week of July, which signals the kick-off for the Calgary Stampede. Cowboys and cowgirls from miles away are attracted to the world’s biggest rodeo. During this ten day rodeo, everyone from doctors to lawyers and council workers is wearing boots, jeans and a cowboy hat. These tough riders, with their fluttering ‘chaps’ (a.k.a. ‘snake catchers’), are up for a title in various categories. They’re either in the run winning a staying on the horse or bull contest, or for catching a running calf by lasso and tying it up, all from the back of a horse.
The crowd goes wild as the cowboy makes a smashing entrance on a staggering horse. The ‘bronco’, as the unbroke or tamed horse is called, is cutting the weirdest capers to get rid of his passenger. In which it succeeds. With an elegant wide berth the rider is launched through the sky and lands in the dust. He picks himself up, takes his hat and leaves the arena with applause. It all looks very spectacular and aggresive. Luckily the host informs us that it’s all not as bad as it seems. Each of these horses only takes a ride twice a week and spends the rest of its days frolicking in the meadow behind the stage. In the end, every tamed horse has gone through this routine. Rodeo sure is deeply embedded in this culture… Yeehaaaaaww!!
Once Populated by Millions of buffaloes
Over One Gun Trail to John Drunken Chief
We’re driving across Alberta’s prairie towards the East. The waving fields of wheat touch the bright blue sky left and right of the Trans-Canada Highway. So this is where all those emigrated Dutch farmers live. This exodus, which started after the second world war, hasn’t dried up since the Dutch marathon ice skating champion Evert van Benthem has moved here. Farms are getting scarcer though and at Cluny we veer off the highway. I’m steering the camper across ‘One Gun Trail’ in Siksika First Nations Reserve, towards the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park. The land we drive on has been the battlefield for many battles between the immigrants and Blackfoot first nations. It was here, where Chief Crowfoot made peace with the British colonials. We visit his grave on a hill overlooking the countryside. Tombstones with colourful names such as Running Rabbit, Iron Shield, Yellow Horse, Bad Head, Not Useful and John Drunken Chief are covered in goods that accompany the dead on their journey. There’s a childrens’ grave, for instance, covered in teddy bears. A bit further down, there’s a baseball glove with a deck of cards and a bottle of Jack Daniels. Someone even placed a bison skull and cowboy boots. As we exit, the sun’s already low in the sky and we continue to drive towards the mountain range on the horizon.
Tombstones with names like Running Rabbit, Yellow Horse, Not Useful and John Drunken Chief
Roads in Canada either go East-West or North-South. We’re following the North-South line to Ford MacLeod. This town still has a real historical Main Street, where the stores and homes of the first European immigrants still reside. We seem to be on the set of a John Wayne-movie, in which the bad guys -in this case- emerge from the motorcycle club around the corner. The streets are deserted, apart from a lonesome cowboy. Fort MacLeod has also been the base for the North-West Mounted Police, the strong arm that runs the area since 1867. Today, several exhibitions and presentations about the NWMP-horse can be seen in this fort built of wooden palisades.
“Head-Smashed-in-Buffalo-Jump. Just for name alone, I want to go there”
“Head-Smashed-in-Buffalo-Jump. Just for the name alone, I want to go there.”, says John whilst pointing on the map. It’s on our way and how can one not visit a place with such an appealing name! It turns out to be a cliff, where Blackfoot first nations put thousands of buffalo to the sword, back in the day. Taken over by the white people, this hunting method became so popular buffalo almost became extinct in the area. Apart from the cliff, there’s not much more to see at this place. It was, however, declared a UNESCO-world heritage site and it’s hosting an impressive museum at the ‘crime scene’.
Giddy-up & Go
You can’t have visited the Wild West without having been on a horse. It was still a surprise when rancher Dan Nelson immediately showed up with two horses. We optimistically thought we were able to spend a comfortable night in our camper before starting off on the big adventure. All the more because John has never ridden a horse before. Luckily it soon turned out to be no problem for the horses, walking around with a bunch of ‘greenhorns’-inexperienced cowboys- on their backs. Back in the camp we join a group of Canadians who’ve already come back. And they still look fresh.
It’s 7am. Our biological clock is still on Dutch time, so we’re the first people up. Well, except Dan and his 18-year old co-cattle driver Callin. Dan’s preparing breakfast, whilst Callin is chopping wood for the hot tub. This 6-person cedarwood washtub, equipped with a wood-stove, has to be fired up every morning to be at a pleasant temperature in the afternoon, to service the tired and dusty guests.
After a sturdy breakfast of bacon and beans with eggs, steak and baked potatoes, we’re off to our horses. Each of us grabs his own saddle and gear and with Callin’s help I’m soon all saddled up with Coco: a chestnut coloured beauty. John is comfortable on black and white Shawnee. With Dan leading the pack, the rest of the horses follow as we move. John’s trying all sorts of new techniques and is almost launched in the end. Back to safely joining the group then. A new panorama is displayed by the rolling hills as we go along. Behind us the shimmering plains, in front of us the sharp edges of the Rocky Mountains and Waterton National Park. We’re strolling along the Montana border. “These days we wouldn’t just cross that, if our cows accidentally cross to the other side”, Dan tells us. “If the American border patrol catches you, you end up in jail and they confiscate your livestock.”.
We enter Nelson Ranch, which was built by his grandfather in 1898 and has grown out to be a 2000 hectares home to 200 cows. As is the case with so many others in the agrarian field, during the 1980’s it has become more and more difficult to survive, which led Dan and his wife Terri to doing the trail rides. This became so succesful in the end, they now have 50 horses and are offering multi-day tours, ranging from a beginner’s level to tracks for the more experienced horserider. This last group can even join a round-up: collecting free-roaming cattle, which requires a lot of skill from the horse as well as the rider, who has to be able to maneuver between the trees at high speed, to keep up with the cattle.
Lunch break is in the tall grass alongside a creek. Callin is stretched out on the back of his horse. Evidence for his High School Rodeo-Championship title when he was 17 years old. After this lunch break things get serious. Whoever wants to, and is able to, can gallop their way up the mountain. Most of the riders scurry off like Zorro. Dan luckily sticks by the two of us and manages to guide us up the mountain with a sturdy pace. I’m gaining confidence with Coco as we move along, which probably goes for her too. We feel one another. John even finds a way to get into galopping mode, but it does look slightly different than what our tour mates looked like.
Callin grabs the calf, puts it on its back and ties its legs. I didn’t keep track of time, but this demo wouldn’t do too bad at the rodeo
“Hey Dan! Show us how you catch a calf!”, I ask, hoping to get a nice shot. Dan sends Callin, who still has to prove himself. With his lasso in his right hand, the young cowboy bolts up the hill. Hanging from the saddle and with his head right next to the horse’s, he swings the lasso around the calf’s head in a single throw. At that point, he’s already jumped halfway his horse, which immediately comes to a full stop as he pulls the rope. Callin grabs the calf, puts it on its back and binds its legs. I didn’t keep track of time, but this demo wouldn’t do too bad at a rodeo. In a golden evening hue we trot down the mountain, back to our camp. A little while later, six men and women walk toward the hot tubs bandy-legged. The warm water works like a miracle for our muscles, resulting in deep dreamy sleep once we are back in our camper.
We follow our track across the waving road the next morning, to Waterton Lakes National Park. A group of buffalo gazes at us quite indifferently as we pass by. Later on we find out that these are the last 30 treasured bison within the park. All those thousands of bison have been exterminated since the European arrival.
Waterton Lakes NP
Away from the crowds
Herten en Beren in Waterton
At Waterton, where the endless prairie finally hits the Rockies, steep rock walls are rising on both sides of the lake. The charming little town was built on the flat land at the water’s edge. Lovely wee houses dating back to the beginning of the last century are scattered amidst the green foliage. Over the years, artists and nature lovers alike have happily decided to permanently reside here. Today, tourism has really picked up, but in contrast to Banff the place hasn’t lost its charm. Deer roam free between the tourists as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.
But then: traffic jam! In the middle of nature! Campers and cars are carelessly parked on the roadside, while the crowd is staring at the forest. Accident? No, black bears! Mother Bear is enjoying her time eating berries, accompanied by her two cubs. Apparently, they don’t seem to be too bothered by the spectators, since they happily keep munching away. Mother bears can be quite aggresive when they need to protect their young and now they’ve entered within a mere 20 meters, but it does create great photo opportunities. The cubs are playful and they’re boxing in front of the cameras. Mother bear has had enough and crosses the road. The crowd is now literally between her and her cubs, potentially very dangerous, yet the people seem to be clueless. Children run back and forth as the bear cubs approach closer and closer. In the end, it’s only due to mother bear’s calmness that there are no casualties. When it comes to bears, you’re supposed to keep your distance and behave quietly. By all means: don’t run, because they’re much better at it than you are. For John it’s the first time he’s encountered a bear and he’s quite impressed by the show they’ve put on. This the real, wild Canada.
Camping in the Rockies
In Canada, it’s allowed to go camping in the wild with your camper. There’s even a special word for it: Boondocking.
The only restrictions on the rule are national and provincial parks. You also have to pay a day-entrance fee in many national parks.
For more information and booking park-campsites, go to:
After visiting Waterton, we cross the Rockies with our camper. Crowsnest Pass is ‘The Great Divide’, the dividing waterline between East and West. Rain that comes down in British Columbia will flow to the Pacific Ocean, rain that pours down on Alberta’s side will eventually flow to the Atlantic, thousands of kilometers away.
Having passed the ancient, lonesome Burmis Tree, the road continues past Frank town, which was completely swiped off the map in 1903 due to a mountain collapse. At the crime-scene one can still find a big pile of debris and a museum stocked with photos and information on this mining town.
We spend the night in Coleman, a place mostly known for it’s pit coal mines, judging from world’s largest truck on display below the pass. At first glance, Coleman isn’t very impressive. However, there are some very nice dinner places to eat some ‘road food’.
Back in Time in Fort Steele
On Kootenay Highway we pass by Fort Steele, an ancient settlement nowadays transformed into a heritage village. When it comes to North-America, this term always reminds me of a Disneyland attraction, but this is different. All houses here are original, they even smell like my granny’s home. They come in different styles, from romantic farm charm to classy high-society. Illustrated with saddle makers’ and blacksmiths’ displays, this is a surprisingly interesting stop-over on the way to Radium Hot Springs. After bathing in these thermal pools we put on our hiking shoes for a walk to the most beautiful lake of the Kootenays.
Kootenay National Park, British Columbia.
The first part of the Rockwall Trail leads through burnt woodland. We’re walking through a forest of blackened tree trunks, a surreal decor of dead wood with a lush undergrowth of young shrub. Here and there, large-leaved plants are hanging up to hip height over the pathway. Rain and wet leaves are soaking us to the butt crack. After a long climb, Floe Lake Campsite pops up, one of the Rocky Mountains’ most photogenic mountain lakes. We’ve now climbed 700 meters and the clouds are almost touching the lake. The day is coming to an end and we have to return to our camper, but I didn’t get my pictures yet. Then, the weather gods turn out to be on our sides. An orange-red hue slowly slides down the mountain range and creeps up in its reflection till both come together in perfect synchronization in the centre of my viewfinder. The lake is smooth as a mirror and the warm evening light works its magic here on Floe Lake. A happy camper crawls out of his soaking wet tent and tells us the sunrise is even more spectacular. We don’t have time to wait for that, we only have two hours left for the descent before night falls.
With a well aimed, though slightly shaky, spray of cayenne pepper from my canister, I manage to scare the black bear back into the woods at the speed of light
The next morning we have to make a decision. Go north towards the greatest attractions of the Rocky Mountains: Banff and onwards via Icefields Parkway past the Rockies’ greatest glaciers to Jasper National Park and out via Edmonton city, but with the tight time frame we’d be mostly driving, rather then enjoying ourselves. We choose to spend our final days in the Kananaskis.
We’ve seen bears several times now and I’d just decided I needn’t mention them anymore in this story. Alas, this resolution is broken instantly the moment I take a stroll around the Mount Kidd RV-park shortly after arrival, and I’m forced to use my bear spray. A black bear turns up on my path and far too close to my comfort-zone. And I even more to his. With a well-aimed, being it slightly shaky, ray of cayenne pepper from my canister, I manage to hunt the heavy black bear back into the woods at the speed of light. The bear spray is now officially the starting shot for a few days of cycling, hiking and canoeing, with a rafting-tour on Kananaskis River as a pièce de résistance.
The Kananaskis is also referred to as Calgary’s back yard. This big city on the edge of the Canadian Rocky Mountains was once declared ‘most livable city in the world’ and the proximity of the giant ‘playground for adults’ has definately contributed to that. The sharp mountain ranges form a frontier for the wide green stream valleys full of pine forests, crossed by wild-running rivers and creeks.
Kananaskis Village, where earlier this millenium world leaders gathered for the G-8 Summit.
The local community here merely consists of black bears and grizzlies, many moose, wild boars, wapiti and squirrels. Supposedly, there are even some pumas hiding out here. Mount Kidd RV-park is situated near what our map refers to as ‘Kananaskis Village’. Well, ‘village’ is overstating it, as it turns out to be ‘a collection of facilities at the provincial park’. The postman delivers his letters into mail boxes at the local grocery store, there’s a golf course, a RV spot, canoe and bicycle rental and ofcourse there is ‘The Lodge at Kananaskis’, where earlier this millenium world leaders gathered for the G-8 Summit. Whilst the greater share of tourists focuses on Banff and Jasper National Park, Kananaskis remains an oasis of calm.
All good things come to and end, as does this camper trip. In the early dawn, we blow the retreat back to Calgary. Alongside the road, a giant moose is glancing at our camper as we leave and he nods. It’s done and it’s been great.
Kananaskis Country is offering many options for both day or half-a-day walks, for hikers who aren’t geared up for multiday trips. This ranges from lowland, pine forest hikes packed with rivers and lakes to high-level mountain ridge trails.
Mount Kidd is a fun mountain to start with. The track starts directly behind the Lodge and first leads through the forest, followed by a steep grassy hill straight to the top, from which you’ll get a fantastic view overlooking the Kananaskis. The hike takes about 3-4 hours.
With so many trails to choose from, Mount Indefatigable is definitely one of the most spectacular ones. The 500 meter climb is done in a relatively short distance of 4,5 kilometers. Once you’re at the top you’ll be overlooking the Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes. The path is clearly indicated, but in some places one will have to climb a few rocks and pass a few gravel hills.
The Kananaskis offers a wide range of possibilities for cyclists. Mostly mountainbikers will be in for a good time. Almost all hiking trails to waterfalls are accessible for MTB-cyclists as well. We rode to Fire Lookout, the fire brigade’s lookout point for observing wildfires. A double-tracked wood trail zigzags exasperatingly slow up through the forest, but our efforts are rewarded! It turns out to be the most beautiful fire brigade post in Canada! From the alpine meadow you can look straight into the deep, over dark green pine forests, with Kananaskis River in the valley’s centre. The lodge can be seen in the distance, surrounded by grey shark teeth reaching for the sky from the lush, green valley. For those who don’t feel like hardcore climbing but do want to explore the mountains, E-bikes zijn een optie in de Kananaskis
1. Evans Thomas Trail: 10 km from Kananaskis Outfitters – duration: 2 hours
2. Troll Falls: duration 10 hours for the somewhat experienced mountainbikers
3. Ribbon Falls: duration 4 hours; walk the last bit to the waterfall
Summer days can be warm, too warm to hike comfortably. Those days are great, ofcourse, to slide down the river on a raft. Inside Out Experience conquers two rivers: the Kananaskis and the Kicking Horse. We choose the first one. This third-grade wildwater river is easy peasy when you’ve already done the Zambezi, but you can never have too much fun on the water. For most guests aged between 12-60, it’s their first time on a raft. Therefore, practicing paddling is required first, since it usually takes a while for the ‘river guide’ to get all peddles to point in the same direction.
Rafters are strongly taken to task at various rapids. One rapid presses you like pliers, the other one squeezes the raft into a completely different shape, the next one throws a wave right through the boat and all that while you’re paddling like crazy. A fresh dive between the trout signals the conclusion to a morning of rafting. Those who really acquired a taste for it, can continue to the next river in the afternoon: Kicking Horse…the promise is in the name
Those who’d like to see nature awaken need to rent a canoe and paddle up one of the lakes. The Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes are the most accessible ones in the area. Never driven with your canoe on the car roof? Michelle Earls of Kananaskis Outfitters gladly shows us how it’s done. Two pieces of adjusted foam and two straps keep the canoe in perfect balance on the car’s roof.
The lakes are at their most beautiful early in the morning, when patches of fog rise from the lake’s surface and blankets of cloud slide into the valley from the face of the mountains. Moose, bears and wapiti can be safely approached from the water. With the babbling water against the bow and surrounded by forests, it feels as if you’re far from civilization, even though it’s really only a half an hour drive from the Lodge. If you go out on the water early enough, you’ll make it just in time for breakfast
- Barrier Lake
- Lower and Upper Kananaskis Lakes: at 40 km from Kananaskis Village