2018.06.17 Alberta: Lake Louise & Athabasca Glacier

Today was a day full of Canadian experiences.  Our party of 11 were packed up and on the road by 7:45.  Can you say ROAD WARRIORS?

The first stop of the day was at Johnston Canyon.  There were several exits to this canyon, and the first exit was closed because the road was part of the Banff Marathon course, which was happening this morning.  In fact, I saw a runner with their race bib leaving our condo at 7:20 this morning.  They don’t start their races early here like they do back home.

Johnston Canyon Entrance

Many/most of the Canadian Parks had one of these green information tents as shown in the picture, if there was not a true visitor center.  The beaver is the national animal, and therefore makes a great symbol for the Canada National Park System.  This one was staffed by three people. They take their parks seriously here.

The hike to the waterfall at Johnston Canyon was not that long, but it had a lot of elevation change.  The unique part of this hike is that is that they have built catwalks out over the river.  This is a waterfall that previously only rock climbers could get to.  So thanks Canada!  We appreciate your catwalks.

Good view of the catwalk at Johnston Canyon

Mallory and Marissa acting weird and showing off their new wool socks

Kings visit Johnston Canyon


Relaxing after the Johnston Canyon hike

Our next stop after the canyon was Lake Louise.  A lake named Louise doesn’t sound like it would be awesome, but it was only the most beautiful lake & surroundings I have ever seen.  And this is after spending the previous week seeing amazing glacier lakes in Montana and through Alberta.  Lake Louise is also a World Heritage site, just like Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.

When visiting Lake Louise, you have to arrive insanely early to get a parking spot right at the lake.  That was out of the question for us, so we parked in the overflow lot with the rest of the humanity.  We hopped in a queue to get a seat on a school bus that departed every 15 minutes.  Jerry the line operator counted off the guests in line to determine who got on which bus.  He placed an orange pylon next to us and said that the “green shirt group” would be the first group on the next bus.  An appropriate comment since we were all wearing our matching vacation t-shirts.

In line for the Lake Louise bus

As our bus navigated the parking lot at Lake Louise, he was getting irritated at the cars driving through the lot slowing us down.  He started honking his horn to encourage the other drivers to get moving.  This was met with applause by the bus riders.

Lake Louise!

This lake is bordered on two sides by enormous mountains, and the third side by the Lake Louise Chalet.  Where the two mountains meet, there are two glaciers visible.  The Lower Victoria and Upper Victoria glaciers.  The lake was renamed to Lake Louise in 1884 after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria.

The lake was extremely crowded with tourists.  The place was bustling.  There were canoe rentals that were very popular.  There was also a momma bear and her twin cubs that Stephanie and Marissa were lucky enough to see.

Kings visit Lake Louise

The crowd at Lake Louise

Not everybody was impressed.  Ellery slept through her Lake Louise experience.

Peyton’s grandfather had told her once that Lake Louise was the most beautiful place in North America. That is a valid opinion!

We caught a quick bus back to the overflow lot and had a picnic lunch in the parking lot.  Our main attraction for the day was a tour of the Athabasca glacier at 4:45.  Everything else for the day was planned with the intention of being there by 4:00.  We determined that we would have time to drive over to Emerald Lake in British Columbia, the next province over, and remain on schedule.

British Columbia!

Not long after traveling in BC, traffic came to a complete stop.  There was some type of road construction where traffic would stop in one direction, and traffic would run one-way the other direction.  We sat through several of these cycles and determined we had to get out of there.  Couldn’t risk our glacier tour for this.  Our three car caravan made a U-turn on the highway and returned to our route north on the Icefield Parkway.

There are over 100 glaciers visible from the Icefield Parkway.  The mountain range that surrounded us on this drive was unparalleled. The mountains seem larger than life, and their shape is quite unique. We also passed by a large number of lakes and bodies of water along the way.  Each one prettier than the last.

Lake along the Icefield Parkway

We arrived at Athabasca about an hour before our tour.  The tour consists of riding on a ginormous “glacier machine”, a term coined by Stephanie, and walking on the Athabasca glacier.  They first loaded us up on a charter bus up to the glacier machine terminal.  At that point, we climbed aboard the oversized charter bus.

On the drive from the terminal to the glacier, the machine stopped and the driver put it into low gear.  This was as the tour guide told us that we were about to go down the 2nd steepest unpaved road in North America.  Wow, that is the kind of fact I am looking for!  It was a 32.18% grade. Later I asked the tour guide where the #1 road was and was told it was at Pike’s Peak in Colorado.

There are 24 of these machines in existence.  22 of them are operating at the Athabasca glacier.  The other two are owned by the US and Australia and operate in Antartica.  The machines cost the tour company 1.3 million dollars apiece.  KK thinks the tours must be making them some money!

Glacier Machines

Kings visit Athabasca Glacier!

KK and PK at Athabasca Glacier

Hooray for Athabasca

One thing that visitors are encouraged to do is to bring a vessel and fill it up with glacier water while on the tour.  All of us brought along a water bottle to fill up.  Let me tell you that water was cold and refreshing.

Mallory filling up her water bottle with fresh glacier water.

There were channels full of flowing water running along both sides of the “road” on the glacier.  Really, there was quite a bit of melting glacier water running everywhere.  While the glacier has receded at a great pace since its original size was recorded over 150 years ago, the glacier ice sheet is over 250 meters thick at its greatest point.  That is a lot of glacier!

Glacier runoff

The entire experience was amazing.  Even during the time on the glacier, it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Following the glacier walk, our ticket included a trip to the glacier skywalk.  Originally, we did not understand that this was included with our ticket, and we were debating if we wanted to make the effort to go visit the skywalk.  Erin looked up the reviews, and one of the reviews said, “the skywalk brings shame to Canada”.  We have been using that line ever since.

The skywalk was a lot of fun except for the fact that swarms of mosquitos greeted us there.  This is the first experience with mosquitos since we got to Canada.

Glacier skywalk.

KK and PK at the skywalk

Marissa, Mallory and Peyton on the skywalk

Marissa, Ellery and Scott jump on the skywalk

The skywalk cost about 23 million to make.  The area they selected to install the skywalk had been home to a family of 15 mountain goats.  During the construction, the goats went away, so the deal was if the 15 mountain goats did not return after construction, they would not be allowed to use the skywalk for tourism.

We were on the last bus of tourists leaving the skywalk.  The employees stationed at the skywalk locked up the gates and hopped on the bus with us.  Again today, we have noticed that there are many Australians living here in Canada.  Our guides on the glacier tour and skywalk were mostly Australian.

Once we returned from the tour, we located Stephanie’s cell phone in our car, which was a relief, since Stephanie thought she had lost it prior to the tour.  Good news!

Picnic with Alabaster Glacier coming down the mountain behind us

From the parking lot of the glacier tour, very near the Athabasca glacier, you can see a mountaintop called “Snow Dome”.  This peak is the hydrological apex of north America.  It is a triple continental divide. The water that runs off this peak flows to three different oceans – Pacific, Atlantic, and Artic.  It is the only confirmed spot in the world where this occurs.

Snow Dome

After a picnic dinner in the parking lot, we started making our way to Hinton, Alberta, which was still several hours away.  On the route, we stopped at several waterfalls, Sunwapta Falls and Athabasca Falls.  These were both very scenic.

Sunwapta Falls

Athabasca Falls

Around 11:00pm on the way to Hinton, it was still twilight.  Stephanie was able to spot a deer approaching the road and could slow down to let the deer cross the highway.  Thank goodness for long days in Alberta!

A picture taken from the car at 10:31pm.  Still plenty light outside.

Today was a fantastic day. Scott told me that it was his favorite day of vacation of all time. That is hard to argue with.  We are blessed to be on this vacation!

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