Saturday, August 28, 2021

Surprise Corner, Two Jack Lake and Banff Ave

Continued from Lake Louise, The Crown Jewel of Banff

If you are an early riser like me, and have already done a few hikes and trails by lunch, you now have a few hours to kill before the sun goes down. Quite a few, actually, as sunset here can be 9.30 pm in the peak of summer, and 830 pm by late August. What do you do?

Surprise Corner

There is a small spot in Banff called Surprise Corner. Why "Surprise Corner"? Who knows ... but the sudden appearance and incredible view of the Banff Springs Hotel (known as the "Castle of the Rockies") is the incredible reward.

From this spot, the hotel has Sulphur Mountain behind it, while in the foreground the majestic Bow River cascades down into the Bow Falls. It looks like a painting, especially when you come early morning, or about 2 hours before sunset. The majestic glow covers everything with a golden hue.

This is an iconic view of the hotel, as well as of Bow River, and is found in many postcards, pictures and movies. There is a small amount of parking, and it also connects to a few trails.

There are quite a few view points once you park your car. You can walk on the road on the cliff (careful!) and see the view closer to the river. Or you can climb up a few stairs to a pavilion and take in the view from there.

When crossing the street, be careful of the traffic. And when driving, be on the lookout for pedestrians! Surprisingly, despite multiple blog posts, tweets and lots of videos on YouTube on this, Surprise Corner is still not that busy, especially in the late afternoon.

Two Jack Lake

Not far from downtown Banff, Two Jack Lake is a picturesque emerald green lake with a grand view of Mount Rundle. 

Unlike many other lakes which known for scenic views, Two Jack Lake seems to lie low under the radar, but is very popular in the summer with families.

The landscape is great for those in search of some fresh air and some distance from crowds. It's quite near to the town (about 10 minutes drive) and is a great place to catch sunset or sunrise.

During summer, visitors can enjoy swimming, kayaking, stand-up paddleboard, and hiking. We saw multiple families enjoying a summer picnic or some casual fun in the water.

Lake Minnewanka and Johnson Lake are two other lakes that are quite near to Two Jack Lake. However, Lake Minnewanka is the more famous one of these three, and Johnson Lake hardly has any visitors.

If you are doing the Lake Minnewanka cruise, it makes sense to stop by Two Jack Lake when you are done. It's a big lake, and the beach is very accessible.

 Like Vermilion Lakes, it’s another fantastic lake with Mount Rundle views.

With Mount Rundle in the back, and other small mountains nearby, Two Jack Lake is one of the most scenic views in Banff National Park. If you are into photography this is a great spot, and always makes for a great background, especially if you catch Two Jack Lake at sunrise or when the evening light hits Mt. Rundle.

Banff Ave

You will need to buy souveniers. If you have loved ones back home, you may need to buy some gifts.

What better reason that these to explore Banff Ave! You may also need to eat ... and of course Banff Ave has restaurants galore.

Our hotel was on Banff Ave, which made life considerably easier. If you have to stay somewhere in Banff, stay on Banff Ave, as close to the centre of the town as possible.

These are pretty much some of the highlights of Banff. On this trip we didn't do the Sulpher Mountain Gondola or the Lake Minnewanka Cruise, as we had done those many times before. Rather, our focus was to explore some spots we hadn't seen before. Every time you come here, there's more to do.

Up next: Highlights of the Icefields Parkway to Jasper

Friday, August 27, 2021

Lake Louise, The Crown Jewel of Banff

Continued from Moraine Lake, A Jewel of Banff National Park

During my last visit to Lake Louise in 2019, I called it a "zoo". This was in sharp contrast to my visit in 2016, when it was far less busy and in pristine condition, with ample parking any time. It was a "slice of heaven". In my opinion, the free access to national parks in 2017 simply blew up the popularity of these places, and they have not been the same since. The infrastructure simply has not kept pace to handle the crowds. 

And then Covid happened in 2020.

Last year, when the parks reopened late in the summer, anyone who visited the parks reported absolutely no crowds. This year, everyone in Canada and their relatives were visiting the parks.

And still it was relatively far less busy. This is what happens when you ban international tourists.

Our plan wasn't to visit this lake immediately, but by 11 am we were done with Moraine Lake. By that time, the now small parking at Lake Louise was full. 

No problem, I told me brother. Let's just go to the overflow parking (the Park N Ride) and buy tickets for the shuttle. That's what we did last time.

Except ... they don't sell tickets to the shuttle on site now. Why, I don't know. You have to make reservations before ... much before.

This is what greeted us as we entered the shuttle parking area.

You have to call this number, the guy told us. 1-877-737-3783. And try to buy a reservation on a shuttle bus. 

Good luck calling this number that everyone who didn't know about this was now trying to call from the middle of the wilderness. Why the hell they don't make this easy I don't know. Anyways, after 20 minutes of repeatedly getting a busy signal, we finally got through. And bought two reservations.

Tip: Buy your reservations before. Preferably online (more info here).

The good thing was they didn't care what the time of your reservation was ... as long as there was space on the bus. You showed them the email that you get (make sure you have wifi reception), and then get on the bus.

At least the bus is not a school bus any more (as was in 2019), but a proper, comfortable coach. Looks like they upgraded their system. As long as you book before, that is.

And then it's a short ride to Lake Louise.


It's still as beautiful. As ever. So gorgeous. So lovely. A slice of heaven. 

We just sat there and took it all in. For a long time. You just have to. It is that heavenly. Especially on a clear, sunny, warm day.

And you ignore everyone else. It's still ... well ... it's not that much of a zoo any more. Because there are no obnoxious international tourists. Just domestic tourists. Like us.

There's always a desi family that wore too many jackets for what was now a burning hot day. Yes, I know the day started at 4 C, but it was now 25 C. Surely, you can keep the jackets in the car? But no ... we are desis :-) 

I am sure I would do the same :-D 

But you forget all of that. ALL THE CROWD. Because this is what you came for. You can ignore everyone and everything else. No picture can do this justice.

But you try. Every one tries. This couple below had the right idea. Just sit and enjoy.

There are many hikes that start from Lake Louise. You can go to the Lake Agnes Tea House (this is about 3.4 km and goes to Mirror Lake).

And then you can continue above (and climb more) to the Beehive. This is a bit more challenging.

For us, we simply walked all around the lake. We had canoed last time, so there wasn't a desire to go again (especially since they again hiked the prices), but if you have not canoed, do go for it.

Make sure you catch the right shuttle back. You want to go to the parking lot. There's another shuttle that went between the two lakes.

Overall, Lake Louise was less of a zoo than before. If you did your reservations beforehand, you really can leave all the worrying of parking and walking behind. Just show up and enjoy.

For us, the day wasn't over. It was a sunny day, and there are a lot of things in Banff still to visit.

Moraine Lake, A Jewel of Banff National Park

Continued from Banff on a Rainy Day

It took me five years. 

The first and only time I had visited Moraine Lake was way back in 2016. Back then, I didn't have the time to see this lake properly.

"Insha Allah, something to do for next time." I had said. That next time was here and now. 2021.

Banff is a popular destination for Canadians this year. Why? No foreign tourists. Great deals to be had. No need to quarantine. Alberta has no mask mandate. Banff - a beautiful, scenic location. All of which makes for a great vacation. And yet ... expect large crowds at Moraine Lake and Lake Louise. These are the jewels of Banff National Park.

It is popular to catch Moraine Lake at sunrise. We left at 4 pm from Banff to make the hour long drive to Moraine Lake. Even at 5 pm (around an hour and half to sunrise), the parking lot was semi-full. We parked and made the trek up Rockpile Trail to the top of the hill.

Unfortunately for us, it was very cold, AND very foggy. The weather was predicted to be 22 Degrees Centigrade, but currently it was 4 Degrees. Yes ... 4 degrees. We were dressed in multiple layers, and it was still cold. People had coffee masks and beverages; we had nothing. Unfortunately, there was no coffee place open this early anywhere.

In any case, we waited for the sunrise, but the fog made it impossible to see the mountains clearly.

There were many people that early up the hill.

We could see the peaks come through the fog. It was a beautiful sight, from what was visible Photos don't do it justice. Still - it was cold. So at 8.45 am, we made our way down the hill. The cafe at Moraine Lodge opened at 9 am, and we needed some hot coffee to warm our bones.

Recharged, refreshed, we made our way back up the Rockpile trail. Notice how the fog was now dissipating, but that remnant added an eerie glow to all the pictures.

The sight was stunning. Again ... cellphone cameras do not do justice to this. Nor does ANY picture. You just have to be here to take in the beauty of this place.

We could almost see the lake now. The fog continued to decrease as the sun - and the temperature - continued to rise.

We were lucky to catch this. The sunrise view is common ... but to have a fog cast a magic glow to the site is something not that common this early in the summer. Then again .. it was a strange summer.

There were not that many people here, now. Many had come for the sunrise, and had left. The others, those who made the shuttle reservations, were slowly coming in. The fog continued to decrease.

And then the fog was gone. There was just the lake, and the Valley of the Ten Peaks. 

This is one of the most photographed places in Canada, and why not! Just look at the colour of that water! A vivid shade of turquoise that changes in intensity every time you visit. Moraine Lake is surrounded by mountains, waterfalls, and rock piles, creating a scene so stunning it almost seems unreal.

Why is the colour so blue? As per this site, when the melt water from the glacier up above starts to flow into the lake it brings with it glacial silt, also referred to as rock flour. The silt particles are so fine that they are suspended in the meltwater. It’s the light reflecting off the silt that gives the lake the intense blue colour.

You can take pictures on various points around the lake, of course. We walked around to quite a few places. Do be careful when climbing down some of the rock faces, and wear proper hiking shoes. 

Btw, can you spot my coffee cup in the picture above?

The trees add a perfect touch to some of the pictures. This is true beauty of the Canadian wilderness.

The Rockpile Trail is an easy and short path with switchbacks along the back of the moraine to the top of the natural dam. The vista from the top is known as the “Twenty Dollar View”, as the scene featured on the back of Canadian twenty dollar bills issued between 1969 and 1979.

After that, it was time for breakfast. We made our way back to the Lake Louise village.

Now, if you are visiting Moraine Lake in July and August, especially with family, and you have no desire to see the sunrise, I would recommend you make a shuttle booking for 9.30 am. You don't have to worry about parking or getting here. Drive to the shuttle park n ride, park there, and board the shuttle to Moraine Lake. The best times for pictures here are from sunrise to about 11 am in the summer. After that, you can board another shuttle to go to Lake Louise. When you are done that, you can take a shuttle back from Lake Louise to the park n ride, get in your car, and be on your way again.

Next post: the ever gorgeous, the ever beautiful, Lake Louise.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Banff on a Rainy Day

Continued from Yoho National Park, BC (During a Forest Fire!)

It is well known that the one thing you cannot really plan for, on your vacation, is the weather. Does not matter if you go to the beach or the mountains, you pray for good weather and it sucks when it rains. Despite that, there are plenty of things to do in Banff on a rainy day.

And no, I am not talking about going bowling, having a steak dinner or going to the movies. Yes, of course you can do all that. But we wanted to do some real things. After all, this rain was clearing away all the forest fires, and from tomorrow the weather was supposed to be great. So what could we do today?

Cave and Basin

If you want to learn about the cultural history of Banff National Park, this place is for you. And if you have the annual National Park Pass for your vehicle, entrance is free (for all members of your vehicle). This historic site is the reason Banff National Park, and indeed the Canadian National Park system, exists.

You can see (and sense) the heat from the water. The water is heated by geothermal activity from a depth of several kilometers within the ground. Imagine being the first explorers to discover this mysterious hot spring!

There's also small snails living in these waters that are now endangered, hence many of these hot springs are now protected property. See if you can spot the snails in the pictures above.

This poster was quite illuminating. It showed just how much our human activities have resulted in climate change, and the slow death of the glaciers.

Then it was time to descend into the Cave.

A short tunnel leads to the hot springs cavern. Be warned that the sulphur smell can be quite strong at times, especially when it rains.

The Cave and Basin is just one component of nine sulphurous hot springs on the northeast flank of Sulphur Mountain (the same mountain the Banff Gondola operates on). This very cavern is one of the first hot springs discovered in Banff by Canadian explorers early on in the last century.

Once you are done exploring the cave and the hot springs, you can climb out ... and up.

From above, enjoy the panoramic view of the mountains. We could already see some of the rain lessening, and the overcast clouds made for some dynamic pictures. Gone was the smoke and the orange hue - the skies were returning to normal.

This is the hole that let sunlight in, and below is the cave. You can see a small train that goes up the hill (it's really very small climb) to show some of the other hot springs here.

Can you see the plumes of steam from the other hot springs?

This greenish water - full of Sulphur and other minerals - was often marketed in the early 19th century as "magic water" or "healing water".

Despite the rain, the views from the trail were awesome and it was a nice walk.

This small structure was where the very first hotel was built to accommodate the increasing number of visitors to the hot springs, and soon to Banff. Which ultimately led to the creation of Banff National Park and the whole National Park system. Today, all that remains of the hotel is this indicator.

It doesn't require a lot of time to visit the Cave and Basin.  You can allow up to an hour to see the hot springs, watch the film presentation, walk through the displays and check out the upper decks that offer panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. 

Cascades of Time Garden

The Cascades Of Time Gardens are a little oasis just minutes walking distance from downtown Banff. It’s the perfect place to get off the beaten path and escape the crowds of Banff Avenue.

The gardens are built onto the hillside with pathways. They sort of "cascade" down rock steps on a trail that leads visitors through trees and flower beds, hence the name.

Entrance is actually free for this garden, which is always great. It's something to do when the skies are not clear (and of course would look even better if there was no rain).

Lunch in Canmore

Canmore is only 15-20 minutes drive away. If you want halal options, there's a few. This is Lamb Tikka Masala at one such place. 

Vermilion Lakes

If you want some solace from the busy town of Banff, the Vermilion Lakes are a perfect getaway.

You get spectacular views of Mount Rundle and Sulphur Mountain, and can get clear reflections on the huge lakes on days there is no wind. The lakes are 2.4 km (1.5 miles) from the town of Banff, and easily accessible by walking, cycling, or driving. 

Many come here to relax, or watch the sunset (pack warm clothes as the temperature falls in the evening).

Bow Falls

The song Haila Haila Hua Hua from the Bollywood movie Koi Mil Gaya was shot in and around Banff. This was of course waaaay before Banff became a popular tourist attraction, and everything going spoiled. As I am often fond of saying, even 2016 when we visited it was pristine and untouched.

This is Bow Falls. This was the first time I visited this particular location that it was NOT raining. Even on my previous visits, it happened to rain heavily the time we were visiting Bow Falls.

These are some of the few excursions you can do in and around the city of Banff on a rainy day. Tomorrow, the weather forecast is calling for bright, sunny, and 22+ degrees Centigrade. Here's hoping for a magnificent day.