by Jim Byers
I’m standing in a pretty mountain bowl with small hills all around dotted with white and yellow flowers.
The sky is that famous shade of Alberta blue and the deep grey hills are patchy with winter’s leftover snow. Our guide, Thalia Christou with White Mountain Adventures
, points out the yellow Alpine Butter Cups and the western anemones, which look like yellow and white crocuses but grow interesting, fuzzy bits to stay warm. They look like they’ve grown hair in summer, causing Christou to refer to them as “hippie hair flowers.”
We spot dozens if not hundreds of holes belonging to social and very adorable Colombian ground squirrels. They’re quite used to humans and will scramble over your shoes and likely into your knapsack if they smell food. A nuisance, perhaps, but better squirrels than a black bear, I figure.
Chrstou also points out what she calls “migrating tree stands” near the Continental Divide, where you’ll find the boundary between Alberta and British Columbia. Trees grow in a particular spot in the meadow, but the winds here are strong and the seeds scatter away from the wind. New trees grow downwind from the “parents,” thus causing the tree stands to “migrate” along the direction of the prevailing winds.
The meadow and the relatively easy hike up from the bottom of the Sunshine Meadows
ski hill are beautiful. But they’re nothing compared to what we find a half hour or so into our hike at Rock Island Lake. It’s a truly magnificent spot; a round, high-altitude lake framed by massive, jagged peaks in the distance and the brown/black stained rock of a formation called The Monarchs. No wonder Lonely Planet has called this the top hike in Canada.
We stop to admire the view briefly before heading around the northern edge of the lake. We find a small clearing on top of a small hill to take a rest and soak in a view of the lake from on high; a magical quiet filled with rock and tree and sky and deep green trees. The snow is streaked in pretty formations on the rock, making the scene perhaps more striking than in mid-summer.
The main hikes at Sunshine Meadows start at the bottom of the ski runs high in the mountains, around 7,200 feet in elevation. You can walk from the main parking lot 500 feet below if you like, but it’s about a 90 minute to two hour climb through the forest. Most folks choose the shuttle, which takes only five minutes and costs about $26 for adults and gives you awesome views of the surrounding cliffs and rock formations.
Most of the path is a wide affair with gravel, but it thins out a bit as you go further. They have placed plenty of benches and even a couple outhouses along the way, which makes things much more comfortable for tired kids or older adults. You can do a hike on your own but they also have guided hikes of various types and even yoga hikes and wildflower photography hikes.
The Sunshine Meadows lodge, where you get the shuttle to the mountains, is maybe 10 minutes past Banff as you head toward Lake Louise. You can get a shuttle to the hill from Banff if you wish. Bringing a sandwich isn’t a bad idea (the squirrels will love you) but you also can try fine food in the lodge at the bottom of the hiking area and again in the main building down at the parking lot.
Sunshine Meadows has 110 runs in winter but they don’t make any snow, preferring to let Mother Nature do most of the work. It’s not nearly as physical a trip, but the views at Moraine Lake might be the most spectacular on the planet. It’s only a short drive from Lake Louise, rising up a road lined with spectacular forests. There are a couple of nice views along the way, so try not to rush things.
The real treat comes at the end of the road. You’ll find a small parking lot in front of the Moraine Lake Lodge
. From there you can walk a few feet to the edge of the lake and drink in a truly wondrous sight; the deep blue-green waters of Moraine Lake backed by enormous jagged mountains that rise some 5,000 additional feet into the air. They seem to be leaning in over the top of the water they’re so close.
Lake Louise is stunning, but I’d have to give the nod to Moraine Lake when it comes to sheer beauty. There are people here, for sure, but it’s almost certain to be less crowded than Lake Louise, especially if you take a walk along the edge of the lake or take a short hike up a large hill that rises up behind the lake, across the road and across a small stream from the parking lot.
You can rent a canoe for $50 from the folks at Moraine Lake Lodge. It’s a superb investment, as you can almost get within reaching distance of the mountains and also can paddle down to a small waterfall that tumbles down from the mountains near the bottom of the massive Fay Glacier at the end of the lake.
To your left, the majestic rock formation known as the Tower of Babel rises up into the pure mountain sky.
Native Canadians, along with the squirrels and bears and eagles and elk, had this area all to themselves until white folks stumbled upon the lake in the 1880s, Moraine Lake Lodge GM Michael Clark tells me.
The property, which is normally open from June through September, was a primitive fishing camp in the early 1900s. They then added cabins and a proper lodge. Major renovations were done in the late 1980s, and you’ll now find a sensational and serene mountain lodge at your disposal should you choose to spend a night or two.
There are 33 units, 18 of them deluxe king cabins. The emphasis is on mountain décor, with lovely burgundy pillows and outlines of Rocky Mountain bears in the light shades. Most rooms have fireplaces and some have small sofas, but they’re not really geared for more than two people or perhaps three per room.
It’s not cheap; prices tend to run $500 a night and up. But that includes breakfast, free Wi-Fi, free use of the canoes, free guided hikes and three-night-a-week interpretive talks on birds or animals or other nature topics. The talks take place in the library, where you’ll find cozy furniture and spectacular mountain views and a large stone fireplace.
They have romance and gourmet getaway packages with meals included if you like. I didn’t stay the night, but I did get a chance to eat dinner. I had wonderful elk with sweet, braised red cabbage along with excellent roasted veggies and potatoes. The lamb and seafood chowder were equally impressive, as was the salad with artisan greens, pistachios and cranberries.
The main room has large panes of glass looking out to the patio and the mountains. In good weather, I can’t imagine a finer patio in Canada.
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