Cycling the Icefields Parkway: Jasper to Banff
After spending a whole day baking chocolate chip cookies and savoury muffins (we still have a terrible fear of being hungry!), we were ready to board the two night Alaska Marine Highway passenger ferry from Haines, Alaska to Prince Rupert, Canada. The wonderful thing about this ferry is that you can sleep wherever you please (although perhaps not in the kitchen!). We chose the solarium, a section on the deck with heat lamps and an abundance of rickety old lounge chairs. On the deck we met a father and daughter duo who had cycled from the top of Alaska, and who were heading to Vancouver. We shared stories of our adventures (and bear sightings!), and tips for adding excitement to meals - ‘steal the hot sauce sachets from roadhouses!’ Other people chose to set up tents or sleep on the carpeted areas indoors. But like the rest who had chosen the solarium, we had the perfect spot to whale watch - we saw so many! Throughout the day we would stop mid-conversation and say, ‘oh look, there’s another humpback. Oh and another one!’
Much as the ferry ride was an adventure, we were happy to dock in Prince Rupert. We spent a couple of days relaxing and restocking, before catching the train to Prince George. Our ten hour train journey turned into a seventeen hour epic, as we had to keep stopping for freight trains which have right of way over VIA Rail trains. We arrived in Prince George (the town with the highest crime rate in Canada) very hungry around midnight, where we were greeted by a very enthusiastic night manager of a hotel. ‘You guys want some two minute NOODLES? Noodles? Yes! I’ll get you some NOODLES!’ Midnight noodles in our hotel bed it was! The next morning, after a bit of sleep, we boarded the train again and continued on to Jasper.
In Jasper we leapt off the train and into the arms of our two good friends, Mike and Ashah. We were so happy to see them! We went off to the local brewery to catch up, before heading to our campsite for the night.
The next day we got up early and made a beeline for the bakery (an excellent place to start the day before a big ride). We started cycling slowly uphill towards Maligne Lake, a famous location about 50kms north of Jasper. We found a lovely spot by a creek for lunch and sampled some freeze dried hummus - incredible! By the time we reached Maligne Lake it was 5pm and we still needed to hike/bike 5kms to our campsite at Evelyn Creek. After a couple of hours of cycling and pushing the bikes along a muddy trail, we eventually found our campsite by a creek. After setting up the tents we cooked a quick pasta dinner and crawled wearily into our sleeping bags.
We woke to the sounds of pounding rain on the tent the next morning and opted to skip breakfast in favour of getting off the trail as soon as possible. What had been an uphill slog through damp trails the day before was now a very slippery mud bath back to the main road. Back at the Maligne Lake visitor centre we found some shelter and made coffee and breakfast.
The ride back to Jasper from Maligne Lake was a delight - down hill the whole way, with a quick stop at a raging canyon (the rain was really heavy by then). The best part, though, was arriving back in Jasper, and ordering 5 large pizzas at a local diner - delicious!
The next day we ran around doing jobs and getting ready for our next section of cycling from Jasper to Banff. Jamie and Mike enjoyed a quick mountain bike on the local trails as well!
As per tradition, we didn’t leave Jasper until 11am the following day - bumbling around with wet tents and second (third?) cups of coffee. But finally we left!
The road started flat, winding along the river before undulating along for the rest of the day. We passed waterfalls, lakes, canyons and lots of cheeky squirrels.
We stopped at Honeymoon Lake for the night, where we met Michael, a German cyclist who shared our campsite. He told us he usually dines on cliff bars and salami sticks for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For our dinner we made Pad Thai, mulled wine and smores, (melted marshmallow and chocolate between wheat biscuits). We certainly don’t travel light when it comes to food!
The next morning there was a dusting of new snow on the mountains, which made beautiful arrow reflections on the lake. We certainly needed to cycle faster this morning in order to keep warm! We stopped at sightseeing points along the way, hunting for a glimpse of mountain goats (but mostly hunting in our panniers for chocolate!). At lunchtime we took refuge from the cold in a campground cooking shelter, where a friendly guy traveling with his Brazilian in-laws cooked us mini potatoes on a camp stove. Spurred on by the power of the potato, we cycled through a beautiful valley and then up a mountain pass.
And then the famous Columbia Icefields!
Exhausted from the day’s efforts, we went straight to the campground to cook dinner - an amazing sweet potato curry made by Ashah. What a champion she was, carrying potatoes all the way from Jasper! We gobbled up our dinner and hot chocolate (‘nip of rum anyone?’), before climbing into our tents to sleep. The next day we wandered to the glacier and had lunch at the visitor centre (where we surreptitiously pocketed many free sachets of mayonnaise!).
We cycled on another 10kms to the Hilda Hostel, an unstaffed cabin, off the road, over a creek and under some snowy mountains.
While Ashah and I worked on a puzzle, Jamie sprang off through the trees down to the creek to have a very quick wash (it was probably about 2 degrees outside at this point!). Ashah and I opted for a bird bath in the sink (Mike was haberdashering some repairs to his clothing an equipment with a handy travel sewing kit). We made dal and chapati, and played scrabble - happy to be indoors and out of the cold.
During the night it had snowed a little, but by morning it had all melted. We sped off down a steep hill, in awe of the additional snow on the mountains along the road.
We stopped for coffee and chocolate by a clear blue river and saw a BEAR FOOT PRINT in the sand. The first we had seen in a long time!
We took the rest of the day slowly - everything was so beautiful that we had to keep stopping to take pictures.
A little bicycle yoga?! Why not!
That night we (sneakily) stayed at Waterfowls campground, which had just closed that day for the season. It was one of the most beautiful campsites we had been to. We camped in a gorgeous campsite by the lake and enjoyed the peaceful surrounds without any other campers about.
The next morning was chilly. We packed up camp quickly and rode 10kms to the next campsite, which was bathed in glorious sunshine, for our second morning coffee. Although it was warmer, the little lakes in the campground were completely frozen. Jamie managed to break a beautiful flake of ice off one of them!
We cycled on until we reached our most breathtaking picnic spot so far - Peyto Lake. We avoided the crowds and perched on the edge of a cliff for lunch.
Peyto Lake was soon followed by Bow Lake, which was also stunning. Today we didn’t cycle very fast as there were too many incredible sights to take in. Eventually we got to Lake Louise, where we were very excited about a shower and a burger. Unfortunately the campground was booked out but a friendly mountain biker named Greg told us we could set up our tents at his campsite. We are still astonished at how friendly and accommodating people are. We gratefully accepted and after setting up tent we went straight for a shower and a burger (we didn’t eat the burger in the shower!) and some wine.
The next day we hiked the Plain of Six Glaciers, which included a walk around Lake Louise and a climb up to a teahouse nestled on the side of a mountain.
The teahouse was a perfect picnic spot, aside from the very cunning squirrels! The squirrels were very plump and quite confident, and kept trying to get into our food bags. I even had to wrestle with a squirrel for my banana. (The squirrel won!). After securing our food safely away from the squirrels, we continued on to the end point - a beautiful view of glaciers and rocky mountains (and a very tiny Lake Louise in the background).
That night we cooked sausages. We ended up going to bed covered in sausage oil and grease. Luckily Lake Louise campground is surrounded by a very heavy duty electric fence to keep the bears out, or I think they would have found our sleeping bags very tasty…
The section from Lake Louise to Banff was the last day of riding for Ashah and Mike. We had such fun zipping along the road, passing old railways and turquoise rivers.
That night we celebrated our ride with a Mexican feast and margaritas!
Although Ashah and Mike had finished their last day of riding with us, our adventure with them hadn’t ended. In Banff we packed our hiking packs full of warm clothes and three days’ worth of food for the Mt Assiniboine hike, just out of Banff. We woke up early and caught the free shuttle to Sunshine, a ski resort with a fancy gondola. While we were waiting for our connecting bus (we couldn’t afford the gondola!), we wandered into the cafe for a coffee. After accidentally setting off the alarm and sheepishly running out of the store, we realised we had “LEFT THE COFFEE BEHIND IN THE HOSTEL!” Luckily a friendly barista came to the rescue. She trotted into the cafe, deactivating the alarm and gave us some freshly ground coffee to take with us. Relieved that we wouldn’t have to struggle through the next few days decaffeinated, we hopped onto a yellow school bus, which took us up the mountain to the chairlift. Under the chairlift there was a friendly deer; when I went to take out my phone I realised that in the excitement of getting on the chairlift I had lost it! I frantically went back down the chairlift searching for it but to no avail (however there was the most gorgeous black Labrador puppy training to be an avalanche rescue dog, so not all was in vain! Many pats were had!).
The start of the Mt Assiniboine hike was glorious (although a little bit wet!). Autumn colours were everywhere - so many oranges and yellows! The 22km hike that day was beautiful, and our campsite at Og Lake was stunning. A passing hiker mentioned that they had seen a bull moose swimming the evening before.
No moose were spotted, except for the chocolate mousse Ashah whipped up for dessert. Yum!
The hike the next day wasn’t quite as long, only 17kms. We had a picnic by Magog Lake, and made cowboy coffee, (coffee thrown straight into a saucepan of hot water and then poured into cups).
Every now and then, through the low clouds, we saw Mt Assiniboine above the lake. We took advantage of the rain-free weather to dry the tents, (I ran around the lake using the tent as a cape - an remarkably effective way to quickly dry it!).
After our lunch our hike continued along a horse trail. The more scenic hiking trail is closed at this time of year to prevent grizzly bear encounters; indeed there had been a recent attack on a hiker on one of these trails). We weaved between raspberry bushes and over creeks before eventually arriving at a little campground in the woods. Exhausted after our hike we quickly boiled water for our dehydrated dinner of “Shepherd’s pie”, before crawling into our sleeping bags and falling asleep by 8pm.
The last day was a cruisey 14kms to the Mt Shark trailhead, although it rained most of the day. We found an excellent Spruce tree to shelter under at lunchtime, where we enjoyed strong cowboy coffee and the last of our chocolate supplies. By the time we arrived at the trailhead we were quite wet and very happy to see our shuttle bus driver, who drove us the hour and a half back to Banff. Upon arriving back to Banff, Jamie received a text message on his phone, which read, “Hi Gabi, hope you enjoyed your hike! We found your phone under the start of the chairlift. It’s at the Sunshine Resort ticket office. All the best, Julie - Sunshine Resort”. Incredible news! I was so happy (the deer hadn’t eaten it after all!). That night we celebrated our journey and adventures between Jasper to Banff over rum and nachos. Ashah and Mike flew out the next day, leaving us with a care package of dark chocolate almonds, mulled cider spice mix, fire starters and a family-sized block of Whittaker’s coconut chocolate. Little did we know that we would be in much need of the above over the next chapter of our journey…