BANFF NATIONAL PARK, Alberta — “Up in the meadows of Jasper, Alberta…” Ever since I heard John Denver sing his “Rocky Mountain Suite,” I’ve wanted to experience my own cold nights in Canada. But to be honest, I couldn’t have pointed to Jasper National Park on a map. OK, let’s be really honest, I didn’t know where Alberta was either.
My husband has always wanted to go to Jasper, too, plus Banff National Park, which is only a few hours away. So last year when I campaigned that we should buy a pop-up camper, I cinched the deal by whispering the magic words: “We could visit the Canadian Rockies.” That’s how I became the proud owner of an 8-by-8-foot tent trailer.
My sister-in-law heard me whisper the magic words, too, and pretty soon my in-laws from Lake Stevens and Snohomish were coming with us.
For the Bardsley and Prescott families, summer 2018 kicked off with the adventure of a lifetime. We rode gondolas up mountains. We trekked across glaciers. We soaked in bubbling hot springs. A bear climbed one of our cars. (Good luck to my mother-in-law when she explains those scratches to her insurance company). We survived 10 days of camping with four teenagers and a fourth-grader who doesn’t like outhouses. We mined memories of gold.
There is no cathedral in Europe that can rival the beauty of Mother Nature at her peak, and the Canadian Rockies are proof of that. They are made of sedimentary rock carved by glaciers, and every viewpoint is a jaw-dropper.
Jasper is quieter and more rural than Banff. It’s a designated Dark Sky Preserve. Jasper is a great place to see brown bears and grizzly bears, hopefully from the safety of your car. We saw moose, elk, deer, coyotes, beaver, weasels and more. Animal sightings are so frequent that they are a major source of road traffic in the park.
The two national parks are about 3½ hours apart, and are connected by the Icefields Parkway, one of the most famous journeys in existence. The Columbia Icefields will take your breath away. A popular destination is the Athabasca Glacier, where you can board a Polar Explorer and step out onto the ice. For an even better view, you can walk onto a glass bridge called the Glacier Skywalk and stare down into the valley below.
Banff is the oldest national park in Canada and is the third oldest national park in the world. (Yellowstone was first.) It was originally created after hot springs were discovered at a place called Cave and Basin. Since then, a resort has grown up around the hot springs that is a posh ski town. There’s an abundance of hiking, turquoise-blue alpine lakes and activities like golf, horseback riding and white-water rafting. Banff is more crowded than Jasper and boasts a film festival and art galleries.
Jasper and Banff are both a doable distance from Snohomish County, and the American dollar is strong right now. If you pack sleeping bags and a Coleman stove with you, a one-week trip to the Canadian Rockies can be cheap.
Google Maps says that the true distance between Snohomish County and Jasper National Park is 550 miles, or 9½ hours of driving. But since we were traveling with kids and pulling our trailers, we chose to break the drive up into two days. We stayed the first night at a KOA campground in Kamloops, B.C., and arrived at Jasper the next morning.
In Jasper, we set up our tent trailer at Whistlers Campground, the largest campground in Canada. Signs were posted all over the campground that said: “Warning! Grizzly bears are hunting elk calves in Whistlers and Wapiti Campgrounds right now.” Suffice to say, we made sure to keep our food locked up in our car. My sister-in-law has a travel trailer, so staying bear safe was a bit easier for her family.
Please be aware that in 2019, Whistlers will be closed for renovations. I would suggest staying in Wapiti instead. Or, if you love hot springs, check out Pocahontas, which is close to Miette Hot Springs.
At Banff, we stayed at Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court. This was a great place for RVs because it had pull-through slots, full hookups and lovely restrooms. It was a short distance to town and on the bus route. However, if you’d like a more rural option, I’d suggest the campgrounds near Two Jack Lake. Lake Louise is also an option, but it’s incredibly crowded.
For travelers with bigger budgets, Jasper and Banff have hotels at all price points, including famous resorts like the Fairmont’s Jasper Park Lodge and the Chateau Lake Louise.
We visited Jasper and Banff in early summer. The weather ranged from the 30s to the 80s. We experience heat, rain and snow. As Pacific Northwesterners, we didn’t let weather stop us from having fun because we packed the right gear. Shorts, pants, fleece, three-in-one coats, hats and gloves — we needed all of it. On the day it poured, we enjoyed the hot springs. Most days it didn’t stay cold for long. Layers were important because cold mornings could turn into warm afternoons.
Both parks have opportunities for every high-adventure sport you can imagine. My husband and I took notes about what we would like to do when we come back in retirement. Lake cruises, hot springs, museums, fishing and bird watching — there’s lots to do for every ability level. Plus, there are famous golf courses and spas.
In 30 years, my husband and I want to come back in fall and watch the aspens turn yellow. Maybe we’ll stay at a swanky Fairmont hotel and eat wild game every night. It would be an entirely different trip and just as memorable — but with less outhouse drama. However, right now, camping with our extended family was perfect.
After more than a week in the Rockies, it was finally time to leave Canada. On our drive home to Edmonds, I took a turn at the wheel and popped in my old John Denver CD. “Up in the meadows of Jasper, Alberta…” I heard John sing. I could picture exactly what he was talking about — and it was far out.
Jennifer Bardsley is The Daily Herald’s I Brake for Moms columnist. Find her column about a too-close-for-comfort bear encounter on Page D2 of today’s The Good Life section.