The Only North American Mountains That Blow Colorado Away
My parents were professional photographers, and not coincidentally I grew up in the shadow of the most gorgeous mountains in the hemisphere. Work took them up into the mountains, especially in the summer, and as a kid I’d tag along, hauling gear and loading film. Over time, the scenery made me the world’s most spoiled pack mule.
Don’t get me wrong -- spending time around Canada’s Rocky Mountains was a privilege. But it also ruined years of other natural sightseeing for me since. Sure, this place is pretty, I’ll tell myself now. But is it as pretty as Maligne Lake? Not a chance.
The Canadian Rockies stretch 900 miles northwest from the Montana border. They began forming around 80 million years ago, making them 400 million years younger than the Appalachians. Their relative youth shows in their sharper edges and rough faces that contrast beautifully with the smooth lines of the glacial lakes they hold. These can take on downright surreal colors thanks to the microscopic bits of ground-up mountain that come off a glacier when it melts.
The lakes and peaks combined create gob-smacking scenery at any time of the year. But since a car is indispensable for visiting the Rockies, accessing their beauty is easiest in the warmer months, when the highways are clear. If the open road is calling you in the summer, a road trip to the Rockies is always a good idea. (Today’s exchange rate also makes it a great deal.) If you get in your car and go, here are the most beautiful views to chase.
The Icefields Parkway, Alberta
Banff and Jasper are the two most popular destinations for visitors to the Rockies. They are connected by a 140-mile highway that offers unobstructed mountain views on both sides. Driving the parkway might be the most sublime experience you can have in a car with your pants on.
Glacier Skywalk, Alberta
You can stop on the Parkway to visit the Glacier Skywalk, a glass-floored walkway cantilevered along the edge of the Sunwapta Valley. As you sweep your gaze from the top of a mountain to the valley floor 918 feet directly beneath you, do your best not to think of cracks.
Horseshoe Lake, near Jasper, Alberta
This is one of the best places for cliff-diving in the Rockies because of its depth and the tilted slab of rock that borders it. Essentially you get to customize the height of your diving platform. Jump in yourself or just hang out and watch daredevils do backflips off the top.
Lake Louise, Alberta
Going to the Rockies and skipping Lake Louise is like going to Manhattan and not visiting Central Park. It’s crowded, but there’s a reason it’s crowded. An extensive network of hiking trails around the lake offers an easy escape from the tour groups. If you have a few hours, a hike to the Lake Agnes Tea House is a great way to savor everything the area has to offer.
Moraine Lake, near Lake Louise, Alberta
The Canadian Rockies are lousy with glacial lakes, but this is one of my favorites. The Valley of the Ten Peaks provides a backdrop like no other. The iconic view of Moraine from the rockslide that dams the lake is an easy walk from the parking lot, or you can rent a canoe and meander down the length of the lake.
Mount Robson, British Columbia
Part of the Rainbow Range, Mount Robson is the highest peak in the Rockies, climbing almost 13,000 feet into the sky. An ultra-marathon in the area attracts the truly determined and the outright masochistic. A gift shop that sells ice cream caters to the rest of us throughout the summer.
Athabasca Falls, near Jasper, Alberta
This is the most powerful waterfall in the Rockies. Do yourself a favor and stay on the right side of the viewing fence. People have drowned trying to get an ideal photo. On a trip in my youth, my dad hopped over the barrier to get a better photo and I about lost my mind.
Maligne Lake, Alberta
Maligne is the second-biggest glacial lake in the world. I drove a tour boat here as a summer job in university and left convinced it might be the most beautiful spot on the planet. Maligne has many moods, each of them exquisite. If a tour doesn’t float your boat, you can hike around the lake on large trail network, hang out in the chalet, or even get hitched. On a scorching summer day you can also dive in, but be warned that glacial lakes don’t warm up much even in the heart of summer’s heat. Unless you’re hankering for hypothermia, don’t hang out in the water.
The so-called Three Sisters are the calling card of Canmore, a cozy town just outside the boundary of Banff National Park. Actually a single mountain named in reference to an ancient story of the Stony people, the sisters are also called “Faith,” “Hope,” and “Charity” by some, though not by anyone who has tried to climb them without adequate preparation.
Sunwapta Falls, near Jasper, Alberta
Sunwapta is the main rival to the Athabasca Falls. Actually a pair of waterfalls separated by a short hike, Sunwapta sits a stone’s throw from the Icefields Parkway. Its power peaks in the spring, when glacial runoff is at its height.
Nestled near the US border, Waterton National Park is contiguous with Montana’s Glacier National Park. It offers all of the beauty of that park and its other famous cousins Banff and Jasper with a fraction of the crowds. Its namesake lake is anchored by the charming Prince of Wales hotel, which is not far from the Bear’s Hump, a short hike still steep enough to offer commanding views of the valley and Mount Cleveland.
Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, Alberta
Possibly the most opulent building in the Rockies. Playground of the rich and famous, as well as devotees of wishful thinking.
Lac Beauvert, near Jasper, Alberta
Located at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge -- Jasper’s answer to the Banff Springs -- Lac Beauvert produces dazzling emerald colors on a sunny summer day. My dad once saw Patrick Stewart hanging out here. Who are you to disagree with Captain Jean-Luc Picard?
Old Fort Point, near Jasper, Alberta
Don’t let anyone tell you that awesome views of the Rockies require huge hiking expeditions. Old Fort Point is a five-minute drive from Jasper, and this view of the Athabasca River greets you about a third of the way up. When I lived in Jasper I used to run up to the summit after work each day, and then flirt with knocking out all my front teeth by tripping on the way down. The face of the summit was always covered in elk droppings.
Larch Valley, near Lake Louise, Alberta
Larches lurk on every mountainside in the Rockies. They blend in with the evergreens for most of the year, but in the fall their needles turn a brilliant gold. In Larch Valley, a short hike from Lake Louise, they reach a captivating concentration.
Lake McArthur, Yoho National Park, British Columbia
McArthur rewards determined hikers with one of the most serenely beautiful views in the Rockies. It takes between three and five hours to make the round trip. It’s worth it.