I’d like to start this post with a big HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my grandpa, who is turning 97 today! Love ya, Gramps!
Speaking of family… It’s been a long time since I’ve traveled with my mom. That’s a shame, since she’s a teacher and has the entire summer off, but my somewhat nomadic lifestyle (combined with past summers spent traveling Europe and then the Western U.S.) has made it difficult to plan a rendezvous. I was quite pleased to plan a Canadian adventure with her this summer, and we were able to combine sightseeing in the Canadian Rockies with a visit to some long-lost relatives. We only had about a week, but we covered a lot of ground!
We flew separately into Calgary. I was pleasantly surprised to walk out of customs to some classic cowboy tunes, played by a live band! While waiting for my mom to arrive, I got a quick lesson in cattle roping. It’s a lot harder than it looks!
The Calgary Stampede
The first item on our to-do list was the Calgary Stampede, an annual rodeo and fair held right in downtown Calgary. The city is sometimes called “Cowtown” or “Stampede City”, and we saw the pride for this event everywhere during our visit. My favorite example was the cowboy hat-shaped swing set in a park! The Stampede is a huge event, drawing tourists from Canada and all over the world.
You could compare The Calgary Stampede to a state fair in the U.S., with the addition of the famous rodeo. We attended on a Sunday afternoon, which turned out to be free admission day. The place was so packed we could barely move through the crowds, so we quickly grabbed some overpriced fair food and headed to our seats at the rodeo.
The Stampede began with a First Nations (Canada’s term for Native Americans) ceremony, which you can see below. There were also fireworks and galloping riders bearing flags.
We enjoyed a few hours of bucking broncos, barrel racing, tie-down roping, and steer wrestling. Chuckwagon racing is another well-known Stampede event, but I’ll get to that later. These cowboys and girls vied for large sums of money, competing for up to a million dollars in prizes.
After a cowboy’s bronco riding time is up, he attempts to grab onto a nearby horse wrangler for a dismount. This guy almost didn’t make it!
After checking into our hotel, we explored a bit of Calgary’s river trail system, which is quite extensive. The next morning we headed into the mountains. Due to Canada’s 150th anniversary, free entrance to all of the national parks was a highlight of our visit!
Yoho National Park
As the weather was quite cloudy, we decided to start our Parks Canada exploration with Takakkaw Falls, in Yoho National Park.
Tumbling 1,260 feet, this picturesque waterfall is one of the largest in Canada. Takakkaw means “It is magnificent” in Cree. The waterfall is fed by a glacier and icefield, too high up to see from the bottom of the valley. It’s a short walk from the parking lot to the base of the falls, but be prepared to get wet if you want to get close! The sun peeked out just in time to make our visit even more enjoyable.
Next we stopped at Emerald Lake, the largest body of water in Yoho. As you can see, this is a prime spot for tour buses. A canoe rental will set you back $60 CAD. I would love to stay at the lodge here someday, perhaps after I win the lottery.
It started to rain, so we headed back to Lake Louise to check into our hostel. We found HI Lake Louise quite pleasant, set in an idyllic spot just off the main street. The hostel was a 2 minute walk from the river and a 5 minute walk from town.
HI Lake Louise is definitely an alpine hostel – simple but clean and comfortable. We ate at the attached cafe, Bill Peyto’s, and explored the hostel’s common room, fireplace, sauna, and fully equipped kitchen. We were in a 6 bed dorm, and the first night we had roommates from Switzerland and Germany who had just come back from a hike high above Lake Louise. Our second night we shared a room with a family of 3. When I asked the little girl where she was from, she said very proudly, “We are from Chinese!” She was so adorable! The family also had matching pajamas and toothbrushes. Although you’re never guaranteed the best quality of sleep in hostels, you always meet interesting people.
Lake Louise is tiny. The town consists of a Visitor’s Center, a small grocery and liquor store, a few cafes, a well-stocked sporting goods shop, and a few places with handmade souvenirs and postcards. The pint-sized bookstore had a phenomenal selection, and the cafes had great options for all dietary needs, but be prepared for ski town prices if you shop here. You can park at the Visitor’s Center and take a shuttle to Lake Louise, as the parking lot near the lodge fills up quickly. We were staying in town, so we just got up early and drove to the lake.
Lake Louise was already getting crowded by the time we arrived, so I’d suggest getting there soon after dawn if you want a scenic shot of the lake! There are also large numbers of ground squirrels and chipmunks that will fearlessly walk right up to you in search of food. I know you think they’re cute, but there is a fine for feeding wildlife in the parks, so please don’t encourage the little buggers.
Lake Agnes Teahouse
The weather did not appear to be in our favor during our visit to the Canadian Rockies. The clouds persisted, and we later found out there was a smoky haze due to multiple wildfires in nearby British Columbia.
Hoping it would clear later in the day, we began the steep hike up to the Lake Agnes Tea House. The hike is about 4.5 miles round trip, with an elevation gain of 1,200 feet. Kids, dogs, and backpackers alike panted up this grueling path, one of the most popular and well-traveled trails in this area.
Lake Agnes was a stunning example of an alpine lake. Oddly enough, we met some fellow Iowans here!
There was a long line at the teahouse, but we quickly discovered that we could just walk into the Tea House and grab any empty seat. We assume the people in line didn’t know this, or perhaps they just wanted to eat scones by the lake. In any case, we read about the Tea House as we waited for our pot o’refreshments. As you can see, they had quite a selection!
The Lake Agnes Tea House was built in 1901 by the Canadian Pacific Railway, and has been serving tea since 1905. Once a year, a helicopter delivers flour and other dry goods, but fresh supplies are hiked in every day by the staff, and all trash is hiked out. It’s a family-run enterprise, and a live-in baker begins work at 5:30 each morning to bake fresh scones and other goodies. The Tea House has no electricity. The stove is fed by propane, and as you probably guessed, they only accept cash. I feel bad for the waitresses, because they probably have to pack pounds of Loonies (nickname for the Canadian dollar) out at the end of the summer!
After the much easier hike down and a picnic lunch by Lake Louise, we returned to our hostel for an afternoon nap. The weather was still cloudy, so I gave up on my planned visit to Moraine Lake, about half an hour’s drive from our hostel.
We explored the riverside trail, passing a restaurant in an old railroad station, a campground, and signs about bear activity. Uh oh! As I had forgotten my bear bell and we didn’t have any bear spray, we wandered a bit further and then crossed to the other side of the river, hoping civilization would keep the bears away.
On our way to Banff the next day, we made a stop at Johnston Canyon, which is between Lake Louise and Banff on the less-traveled Bow Valley Parkway. This route is popular with bike packers, as it’s quite scenic and easier to pull off for a view.
The trail along the canyon was stunning. We were at times almost level with the water, which was a brilliant, cool blue. We hiked to the Lower Falls before becoming surrounded by a tour group. I’d recommend doing this near dawn or dusk to avoid large groups of people, as the walkway is very narrow in some places.
We arrived in Banff in the late afternoon. We parked our rental car at our hostel and didn’t move it again until we left town! We found Banff Town to be quite walkable, with great signage to all of the major points of interest. We stopped at the Parks Canada Information Center to collect a few maps.
For our only full day in Banff, we rented bicycles. Banff Town is very walkable, but there are also fantastic bike trails to get to points of interest a bit further from town. Never thought I’d rent a hipster bike, but the bike shop had a tour group coming in, so these cruisers were the only bikes they had left! Mom and I needed a bit of practice, but found them to be decent bikes for a leisurely day. We stopped for a bit next to the Bow River, to get our bearings before our first official stop.
Cave & Basin National Historic Site
We visited Cave & Basin, a 10-15 minute ride from town.
In 1883, three railroad workers discovered the “Cave”, now located under the grate in the photo below. The men subsequently claimed the land rights and built a small cabin to protect their investment. These were the days of therapeutic thermal springs, and the men knew they had discovered something that could pay off.
The railroad men didn’t know that two other men had previously discovered the hot springs. After the location of these hot springs became well-known, people started arguing over the rights for the land. In 1885, the Canadian government purchased 10 miles around the area, and declared it the Banff Hot Springs Reserve. The public ownership of this land led to Banff becoming Canada’s first national park. In 1912 the water from this site was bottled and sold, and a naturally heated swimming pool operated from 1914-1994.
The wooden walkway winds around the natural hot springs, which smell very sulfurous. Don’t touch the water, as the endangered Banff Springs Snail lives here. The path continues back down to the main building, which houses the museum exhibits. You can also walk into the main cavern, and look down onto the original swimming pool from an observation platform.
This national historic site is well worth a visit, and although you can’t soak in these hot springs, there are some a bit further up the mountain.
We had lunch by the river, then visited Bow Falls. We locked up our bikes and hiked up several steep staircases to the lookout point, then down more stairs to the area below the falls. On our way back, we spotted a herd of fearless elk grazing in the forest.
Next we visited Cascade Gardens, on the grounds of the parks administration building. Unfortunately, the upper portion was under construction, but it was still impressive.
The river trail was quite peaceful, and we enjoyed our day pedaling around Banff.
We spent our evening at the Banff Upper Hot Springs, which surprisingly didn’t smell sulfurous at all. We chatted with a honeymooning couple from South Dakota, and then rode the bus back to our hostel ($2 each way from Banff Town).
For our final morning in Banff, we paid a visit to Lake Minnewanka. It was really hard not to call it Lake Minnewaska, which borders my mom’s hometown in Minnesota!
At many of the spots we visited, we noticed these green tents set up. They’re portable, and the rangers have to set them up and take them down every day. We stopped at this one and asked the rangers quite a few questions. Turns out the guy in the hat spends his winters working for a heliski operation! Like most parks jobs, the rangers here are just seasonal. We commented that we’d seen a lot of young people working for the parks, and they told us there had been a big effort to hire local youth for summer jobs. What better way to celebrate the parks?
We relaxed on the dock, until the first horde of people appeared for the lake cruise. Canoe rentals here were outrageously expensive. Maybe next time we’ll bring our inflatable kayaks!
We hiked around to the first point, to enjoy our lunch on a rocky outcropping near the water. If you want total peace and quiet, come before the hourly lake cruises begin.
Below, we’re showing off our new Parks Canada hats. We figured we had visited the parks for free, so we may as well support them with some merchandise purchases! We also thought the beaver logo was pretty cool.
We continued along the lakeshore. I put up my hammock for a bit, and we enjoyed the scenery and crystal clear water.
About a mile in, we stopped on a bridge to admire a deep ravine below. Signs stated that bear activity was high farther along the trail, so we opted not to continue. To our surprise, we took a final glance across the bridge and saw a small group of mountain sheep staring right at us! They clearly wanted to cross but were afraid of us, so we backtracked to the other side of the bridge and sat up on a rocky overhang, hoping they would be able to pass by. They tentatively walked toward us, sprinting as they got close to our end of the bridge. Sadly, the last little one got spooked and ran back to the side they came from, bleating for his family as he ran parallel to them along the gorge.
We hope he found his mom!
If you’re not into family history, feel free to skip this part…
After our relaxing morning in Banff, we drove to Medicine Hat, Alberta to visit a long-lost relative! Since I didn’t even know where this place was until we planned the trip, here’s a map.
Long story short, my mom has spent years doing genealogy research, trying to figure out where our ancestors ended up. One of her relatives (her great-grandmother Julie) disappeared from all records after leaving North Dakota in the early 1930’s. No one knows where she went. She was lost for a long while, until on a whim, my mom started searching records in Canada. She eventually stumbled across burial records for Julie and her husband, who were buried in a cemetery in Medicine Hat, Alberta about 10 and 20 years later, respectively.
We had a little bit of information, with plot numbers and such, but upon arriving at the cemetery, we were unable to locate their headstones. We were about to give up and come back the following day, when Mom spotted a man checking the sprinklers if he knew anything about the plot numbers. As it turned out, Mike was the owner of Medicine Hat Monumental, a company that crafts and installs memorials, or headstones. He was able to direct us to the exact spot our relative was buried, in a plot without a headstone. We left flowers for Grandma Julie, and thanked Mike for taking time out of his Friday evening to help us.
It was great to find our long-lost relative’s grave, but there is still more sleuthing to be done. We still don’t know why the couple ended up in Canada, especially since they moved in their 60’s. Did they move for a job opportunity, or to escape drought? Mom thinks they didn’t speak much English, only their native languages of Norwegian and Swedish. We can only assume they went to work on a ranch or homestead, and died without money for a marker. Maybe someday we’ll learn the truth, but it seems unlikely.
The next day, we braved the heat and made a brief stop in nearby Redcliff. A woman in Medicine Hat mentioned that anyone can walk into a designated room in one of Redcliff’s many greenhouses, pick out fresh veggies, and drop coins into a collection can. We munched on crisp cucumbers, spicy radishes, and sun-kissed tomatoes on the drive back toward Calgary.
The last leg of our trip was centered around a tiny farm community, about 40 minutes NE of Calgary. Here we met some other distant relatives – my mom’s second cousin Newton, his sisters, and his wife and son. We sat down to a delicious homecooked roast, fresh vegetables from the garden, and local berries. Delicious! It was wonderful to chat with our relatives who grew up on the property, formerly a cattle ranch.
Newton was a great storyteller, and he regaled us with tales of the olden days, before the cattle were fenced in. When he was young, each fall the men would go out to round up the cattle, and a big event was held to sort and auction them off. Sounds much like the American West. He also showed us a book, where the cattle brand from each cattle ranch in Alberta is recorded and preserved, and old family photos.
We also watched Chuckwagon racing, live from The Calgary Stampede. Newton explained the history of the event, which began many years ago, when cowboys would eat dinner, throw everything back into the cook’s wagon (the Chuckwagon), and race back to town for their Friday night entertainment!
Mom and I took a walk around the farm, and we spotted a great horned owl perched in the barn. We returned the next day for some more family time and food. I have to admit, this place made me miss Iowa. Those peaceful fields just felt like home.
We were sad to leave, but our trip had come to an end. One week in Calgary, Lake Louise, and Banff was just not enough. We said our farewells, and left on the edge of a thunderstorm. We explored downtown Calgary a bit, and flew out early the next morning to our respective homes.
What a trip! Mountainous landscapes and welcoming family, what more could we ask for?
What’s the next big adventure? I’m headed back to Iowa soon for a wedding, and Jake and I are visiting Europe for a few weeks this fall!
Other than that, it’s 100+ in Phoenix right now, so we won’t be doing anything exciting for a while. Enjoy your summer!