Monday, April 1, 2013

What to see in the Western Canadian Mountain Ranges

This is by no means a comprehensive list.  But at the same time, I think it's worth listing off some of the sights that impressed us the most, given that no trip to mountains of BC and Alberta is ever long enough.

Lussier Hot Springs
If you've never sat in a hot spring and aren't a fan of water parks, this is your best bet in the area around Radium Hot Springs.  Avoid Radium!  It's over developed and is like sitting in a public pool.  This is all natural and hopefully it stays that way.

View from the Big Beehive
Nobody ever told me that I needed to see the Big Beehive.  I'm not sure why it was never mentioned.  Sure the view overlooks the Trans Canada as it follows the Bow River.  That doesn't detract from the beauty though.  Wow!

Bald Hills Summit
Another off season beauty.  A long, but rewarding trail. I recommend departing from the trailhead around 10 or so; that way you'll have as much time as possible to enjoy the view from the top.  Just pack a lunch and stare out into the endless wilderness.

Meadows in the Sky Parkway
Sure, it's a just a short jaunt up the Trans Canada.   But don't let that fool you - the scenery is disproportionate to the effort it takes to get here.  There's even a shuttle bus to take you directly to the fire tower lookout trail, providing access for nearly anyone who wants to experience this place.

Plain of Six Glaciers
While the tea house is definitely not without its charm, you shouldn't forget to see its namesake. This is the reason the tea house is here people!  Try to come late summer, around noon, so you can catch the glacial avalanches.  You'll feel the thundering snow deep in your core.

Peyto Lake
This spot has an aura that you'll never forget for the rest of your life.  If you manage to escape the crowds at the main look out, you'll have the opportunity to stare out in wonder at Peyto's impossible blue hue with nothing but the pikas and ravens to keep you company.  Transcendental.

The Entire Icefields Parkway
Wow.  My wife says the Icefields Parkway is emblematic of Canadian Wilderness - a vast, pristine treasure trove of beautiful scenes, many of which can be easily accessed by car.  There is some remarkable scenery here.  But if you put in a little effort and venture past the first loop or the first lookout, you may find you have the amazing views all to yourself (especially in the off season)

Wilcox Pass
While there's probably a point where hiking here gets monotonous, we never reached it.  Just a phenomenal place to visit in the off season, where the crowds are small, but the scenic value (and solitude) can be enormous.

Lake Louise at Dusk
Everybody has seen a shot of Lake Louise from the Chateau Lake Louise during the day.  But how many have seen Lake Louise at Dusk?  I imagine most people have taken shelter in their warm cocktails in the chateau's swanky restaurant at this point of the day, but they don't know what they're missing.  Head to the western shore and watch the moonrise from one of the many trail-side benches.  You won't regret it.

Review: E.C. Manning Provincial Park - Lightning Lake Campground

View from Cascade Lookout -
many of the distant peaks are located in the US
Location: 3 hrs from Vancouver or the Okanagan
Website:  BC Parks
Map: Campground Map or Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Car camping at this campground, backcountry available elsewhere in the park
Grade: B
Stargazing: Very good, if you can make your way to the lake at night
Summary: A nice campground in a fantastic park.

Thoughts: It was a good start to our camping experience - a great horned owl positioned itself just above our picnic table to get a better look at what we were doing.  It was too dark for photos, but the memories will suffice.  Not that these owls are in any way rare, but having one calling out, sitting at the fringe of your campsite gives you a sense of wilderness (even if he was just cruising for scraps).  E.C. Manning park is beautiful spot that is probably well-loved by Vancouverites during the peak season, and fairly well attended by visitors in low season (the campground was probably half full on this Saturday night in late September). A fun fact - Lightening Lake campground is just 10 km from the US border.  There is no shortage of backcountry camping sites in Manning, and hiking opportunities abound.  There is also a beautiful drive you can take to the Cascade Lookout, then further on to the Subalpine Meadow trail, which offers some spectacular views.

Why is there a trail running through
these sites?
The Lightening Lake campground succeeds where many car camping parks have failed in the past. They do a pretty good job of providing good understory to improve privacy and sites are reasonably well spaced out.  The staggering of sites isn't perfect, but if you try hard enough, you can probably position yourself so that you aren't peering into other peoples sites. One interesting feature is that there seems to be a trail running behind the sites in the southern part of the larger loop; good for connecting parties requiring multiple sites, but I can't figure out why else they would do that. I'm sure most people don't want strangers traipsing through the back end of their campsites, so it's a bit odd.

The shore of Lightening Lake
If you can make your way down to Lightening Lake at night, you might be able to catch a good glimpse of the stars.  Otherwise, I'm not sure how much success you'll have.  There is also a trail around the lake (the Lightening Lake Loop Trail, funnily enough) but it looks dreadfully boring since you're just circling the lake.  There are plenty of great trails to be discovered in this part (unfortunately, due to time constraints, not by me), why would you waste 2 hours circling the same view?  The Lake does seem to have a nice picnic area, and might be a nice change of pace to set up for breakfast, watch the sun rise, stuff like that.

Map of Subalpine Meadow Area
What I can highly recommend is the drive to the top of Subalpine Meadow, which has one short loop (for those in rush) that can give you a taste of the scenery in this park.  If only there were enough time in a 2 week tour of the western mountain ranges to fully enjoy a place like this.  But I must say, my friends, 2 weeks is probably not enough time to spend in this park alone, given the hiking and camping options available here.  For those who are just searching for a fun weekend in the outdoors, you're sure to find something that suits your desires in Manning park.  For those who plan on staying longer, I envy you.

Review: Vaseux Lake Provincial Park

View of Vaseux Lake
Location: 30 minutes south of Penticton
Website:  BC Parks
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Strictly Car Camping
Grade: C+
Stargazing: So-so, but some washing out from the lights of Penticton and Kelowna
Summary: Convenient to wine country, but painfully close to the highway
Park entrance from our campsite
Thoughts: If you're making your way around wine country, there is no shortage of bed and breakfasts that are happy to gouge you for a stay in one of their quaint, wall-papered rooms.  Okay, gouge is a bit strong, but as I stated previously, there are options for staying in wine country so that you can focus your spending on the most important aspect - the wine.  Vaseux Lake Provincial Park represents another option.  This is a first-come, first-served operation, with the operators stopping in on occasion to ensure you made your payment (though we just deposited it in the collection box - nobody showed up to check us in).  It's also located very close to the bird sanctuary of the same name, so close that you can hear them from the shore.

The sites are all oriented along the shoreline, giving each camping group access to a little spot of shore.  This is a wonderful thing too, considering the view that you get of the cliffs across the shore.  While we were happy with the lake access, the main problem with this site is that you're tightly sandwiched between the highway and the lake.  It's a span of no greater than 20 meters from lake to road, so you're guaranteed to have highway noise if you sleep in a tent.  But solitude and serenity were not the intention when the Vaseux Lake park was set up; this spot is strictly a stop over for drivers and potentially wine aficionados looking to sleep on the cheap (hello!).  It's a great place to rest before venturing into the spectacular Cascade Mountains area, which is just to the west.  Another good thing about this park is that it tries to provide you with some basic privacy by including some shrubbery between sites - with mixed results.

Stairs from our campsite to the waterfront
Sure, it's not glamorous, it's not remote, it's not quaint, and it's not chi-chi.  Vaseux Lake is inexpensive, reasonably well planned (given the limited space it uses), conveniently located in the middle of wine country and has some very nice natural scenery to make you forget that you're sitting on the roadside. Worth the $16, for sure!
Campfire on Vaseux Lake