Jasper – a place to return to

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The Lonely Planet guide introduced us to Jasper with: ‘take Banff, half the annual visitor count, increase the total land area by 40%, and multiply the number of bears, elk, moose and caribou by three. The result: Jasper, a larger, less-trampled, more wildlife-rich version of the other Rocky Mountain parks.’ With this in mind we had booked to camp here for 4 nights over the Labour Day long weekend (which we’d been advised by posts on trip advisor would mean that everything would be booked and crowded). Fortunately we’d booked because yes, the campsite was full. But crowded? Nope. And our awesome campground, Whistlers, described by LP as a ‘not particularly private mini camping city’ we found to be excellent. We had a private spot with shady trees, friendly squirrels visiting us and best of all, hot showers!

We loved Jasper and could easily have spent a week there. I never understood families who go back to the same place on holiday every year. There are so many great places around the world to visit, magical holiday destinations, why would you waste time re-visiting the same place over and over? Well, I get it now. For me, I hope Jasper will be a place I revisit over and over. The national park is centred around a town of the same name which has a great community vibe (the bicycle race, Tour of Alberta was passing while we were there and so the locals were out and loving it), great Ranger’s information centre (gorgeous stone cottage building and really friendly, helpful staff inside), excellent eateries and a shop called Nutters!

Of course cool town Jasper has a shop with a super cool name!

Of course cool town Jasper has a shop with a super cool name!

While the park itself has miles and miles of challenging and rewarding hiking trails begging to be explored AND we got daily glimpses of the Canadian Rockies big 5 (deer, elk, moose, wolf and bear)! It’s a special place and so ill try my best not to go too overboard in sharing some of the (many) highlights of our time in Jasper.
Hiking
Sulpher Skyline: Our first hike was the steep 8km return walk up the Sulpher Skyline. The weather forecast was poor for the day so we’d decided to just to do a short walk about an hour along the track and then turn back and spend the rest of the day watching the rain from the Miette Hotsprings. However, after getting to the halfway marker and no rain yet I couldn’t turn back with the summit apparently so close, so we ploughed on.

Beautiful colours on the Sulpher skyline

Beautiful colours on the Sulpher skyline

Poor Mitch with his injured knees had a hard time with the really steep, rocky path but wow, what a view from the top! Looking down over the Fiddler River valley, Utopia Mountain and Ashlar Ridge was quite spectacular even if the threatening clouds were gathering. It was pretty cold and windy at the peak and after watching an extremely tame chipmunk dash in and out of the rocks and across our shoes we headed back down to the warmth of the hot springs!

Rewarding views after a steep climb to the top, Sulpher skylin

Rewarding views after a steep climb to the top, Sulpher skylin

Old Fort Point Loop: this was a much easier 4km loop close to Jasper town but with great views across the valley. We enjoyed sitting on the chairs positioned at the top, having a moment to just take it all in. A great walk to get a feel for the town and surrounds.

View from the top of old fort point

View from the top of old fort point

Opal Hills Loop: noted as one of the steepest trails in Jasper, this 8km loop took us way up to the snow line where we could look down on Maligne Lake. We walked up through the trees, being mindful about bears as we were in prime bear territory and came out into the meadows where we hopped across streams and caught sight of a few deer as we ventured around the top and back into the woods. A fantastic day hike.

Getting up into the snow on the Opal Hills hike

Getting up into the snow on the Opal Hills hike

Wildlife
The most thrilling wildlife encounter came just as I wasn’t expecting it on exiting the ‘washrooms’ in the carpark before we set off on the Opal Hills Loop. I looked up to see a huge black bear crossing the empty (except for our car) park. It looked at me, I looked at him and I backed up, squealing for Mitch to hurry up as there was a BEAR, a real BEAR just 20 metres away! Alas, another car pulled in and the bear was scared off. Still, it was terribly exciting to see a bear in such close proximity, and after seeing it up close I was actually more relaxed about coming across one on the trail. I think it took away that silly fear that we get of the unknown.

Bugling elk on island in the river

Bugling elk on island in the river

We also happened to be in the park for elk rutting season. We saw a number of the huge males with their big antlers and their ladies, in fields and most spectacularly, on an island in the middle of the river. They make an incredible noise when they are bugling, it’s quite eerie, haunting and almost sounds painful. I’m not sure if it’s to warn off other males, or to attract more lady friends..
In addition we spotted caribou, mountain goats and numerous deer throughout our stay. Even the local radio stations, which we like to tune into to learn about the local community happenings, were called ‘The Bear’ and ‘Eagle FM’.
Activities
We had an action packed day where we went horse riding around Lake’s Edith and Annette with a wonderful guide who told us a lot about the area, pointed out bear scratchings on the trees and entertained us with jokes and riddles.

Tommy and Fargo getting friendly after our hack

Tommy and Fargo getting friendly after our hack

It was rather chilly so we were glad of the long wax jackets they leant us for our ride on Tommy and Fargo. Afterwards we warmed up with a coffee in front of the huge roaring fire in the lobby of the Fairmont where we also appreciated 2 hours of free wifi! As the sun came out we ventured back outdoors to pretty Pyramid Lake where we hired a canoe and went for a paddle much to the unhappiness of the teenager who was responsible for the hiring and clearly not too happy to have customers!Jasper pyramid lake We were really lucky to be in town to experience a ranger led evening out into the park at night to experience Jasper’s dark sky preserve. The evening started at 10pm in town, with our small group of about 10 people (can you believe more people didn’t take advantage of such an amazing, free event?!) looking up at the stars while in among the lights of the town. Now Jasper’s quite a small town and they are going to lengths to upgrade the street lights to ensure the light only points down and us LED technology, so we could still see quite a few stars but could still manage to count how many were out. Next, we drove in convoy back out to Pyramid Lake where we put on as many warm clothes as we had and walked out to the island where there were no lights at all and looked up. What a difference, only about 8km out of town and there was a blanket of stars, impossible to count. The ranger had decked us all out with a pair of binoculars and it was amazing how much more clearly you can see the stars with a simple pair of binoculars. He entertained us with the myths and legends behind the different constellations and although our night was cut short by increasing cloud cover it was a fantastic evening and incredibly informative. We lay on our backs, gazing up into the night sky, identifying constellations and feeling so incredibly tiny in this vast universe, what an experience!
Food
And then of course, there was the food. No blog post is complete without some mention of some tasty morsel. We sampled some local beers at the Jasper Brewing Co which were highly enjoyable. More noteworthy was the food alongside. We had an enormous portion of poutine, a Canadian speciality of chips with gravy and cheese curds. Anything with gravy gets my vote but this hearty combination was the perfect accompaniment to a few beers.
On the only rainy evening we decided to treat ourselves to dinner out and left our camp stove in the car. We stumbled across Syrahs and as their first diner’s at 6pm were given a lovely table by the window. It was quite a fancy place starting us off with a fish cervice amuse bouche, followed by freshly baked bread rolls with seasoned butter. We then shared a hearty venison stew with gnocchi and the vegetarian plate. Both simple, yet delicious, with clear attention to good seasoning. Mitch finished the evening with a sortilege – whisky and maple syrup. Excellent food, perfect service and a great atmosphere.

I don’t expect that we’ll get back to Jasper on this trip but I’m already thinking it would be a great place to experience in the different seasons. We were there late summer so that gives us spring, autumn, winter and well, probably mid summer too!

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The Road Trip Begins!

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We took the Amtrak train from Portland to Seattle which we found a great way to travel at $30 each, big comfy chairs, free wifi and best of all, gorgeous views out along the Pacific coast. The service was so impressive we even arrived in Seattle 20 minutes early! This bonus time was soon outweighed by having to wait 45 minutes for our bus out to the suburbs to our Airbnb for the next two nights. We’d hoped to get Servas hosts for Seattle and Vancouver but many people were away, already hosting or it was simply an inconvenient time. One of the challenges of travelling with Servas. However we struck gold with our back up of really cheap airbnb’s in both cities. Our Seattle host, Janina, went above and beyond, cooking us breakfast, giving us lifts across the city and lending us her discount card for attractions. At $45/night perhaps we were better off not having Servas here?!

Chihuly Garden and Glass
We only had one full day in the city but it left a positive impression on us.

Space needle - imagine what people thought of it in 1962?!

Space needle – imagine what people thought of it in 1962?!

We started out early at the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition in the Seattle centre (the former space for the 1962 World’s Fair) which Seattle has done a fantastic job of converting into a number of tourist attractions including Space Needle, the Experience Music Project museum, a family friendly science centre and art buffs delight – the Chihuly exhibition.┬áThe incredible display tells the story of local glass sculptor Dale Chihuly’s life and shows a number of his works. They are massive pieces of blown glass, beautifully coloured and hung together to form big shapes reflecting the sea or flowers or abstract forms. Chihuly is also fascinated by glass/green houses and there is an amazing garden display outside, just below space needle which is absolutely gorgeous. It’s only a small exhibition and its not very backpacker budget friendly at $19/head but we were lucky to get some money off with Janina’s discount card! Despite the high cost I would definitely recommend a visit, something unusual and unlike any art display I’ve seen elsewhere.Seattle Mitch at Chihuly

Seattle food scene
Next up was the free walking tour where we learned about Seattle’s love for Happy Hours, the story of chief Seattle and of course, Starbucks. The tour conveniently finished at lunch time close to Pike Place market where we sampled some of the city’s best food offerings – a delicious salmon pate pastie from Piroshky Piroshky, definitely worth the wait in the short queue, and then a 4 dish sampler of different chowders from Pike Place Chowder.

Clam chowder sampler

Clam chowder sampler

Two of which were very tasty, the other two rather average so I would say not worth the much longer wait! When in Seattle we felt we had to go to Starbucks (the chain which had to close nearly all of its stores in Australia because the coffee isn’t up to Aussie standards!) and we thought we’d visited probably the highest Starbucks in the world on the 40th story of the Columbia Tower – coffee with a view and without the cost of going up Space Needle!

Enjoying an iced Starbucks coffee in its hometown

Enjoying an iced Starbucks coffee in its hometown

For an alternative view of the city we headed to Kerry Park (note, this isn’t really a park but a strip of grass) which nonetheless affords a fantastic view of the cityscape, harbour and islands. Definitely worth the climb! Getting weary we retired to REI, the outdoor shop every American had recommended for us to stock up on camping gear for the next stage of our trip (a 6 week road trip, primarily camping in National Parks making our way from west to east across the North American continent). After an hour of extensive research we were hungry again and so found a diner recommended by our tour guide. It was pretty dark and grungy but the burger was good and the Mac and cheese hearty and warming.

Seattle's grungy diner food, don't knock it til you've tried it!

Seattle’s grungy diner food, don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!

The road trip begins
We left Seattle in Beatrice, an upgrade to a large Nissan Altima sedan and our stead for the next 6 weeks, as the wind and rain came in, and headed north for Vancouver. Our first stop was back at REI on the way out of the city to buy the camping gear we’d researched the day prior and then we were truly off with the Canadian Border in sight.

Crossing the border

Crossing the border

The border crossing was quick and fairly uneventful despite us carefully ensuring we had our ESTA’s, car rental agreement, dates for coming and going all sorted, the friendly immigration officer was only interested in our passports. That evening we got the Canada Line train (which by the way is an excellent form of public transport to get around) into the city to meet Gwyn, the cousin of some family friends, for dinner and to get the local’s lowdown on Vancouver. We had a lovely evening and I enjoyed sampling the strange Canadian drink of a Caesar. It’s pretty similar to a Bloody Mary except rather than tomato juice, they use clamato juice. That’s right, a mixture of tomato and clams! Sounds gross but actually there isn’t a strong fishy flavour and topped with a gherkin, it went down quite nicely. As so many people have been generous to us on our trip Gwyn was no different and as well as giving us some great local advice, treated us to dinner.

Finding family friends in Vancouver

Finding family friends in Vancouver

Chinatown
Despite the horrendous forecast for heavy rain the following day we woke up to a hint of blue sky and so headed back into the city for the free walking tour of Chinatown.

Entering Chinatown

Entering Chinatown

Unlike some of the other free walking tours we’ve done, Vancouver doesn’t run their general one everyday so we were doing a specific neighbourhood. I had no idea that Vancouver had such a high Chinese population of approximately 40%. Many of them came over in the gold rush and we heard stories of a fairly turbulent history with strict and harsh immigration policies. Chinatown itself was pretty quiet, not the bustling narrow streets you see in Sydney, perhaps because it was a Sunday? Anyhow, the deserted streets added to the sense of melancholy as we heard stories of how the Chinese were treated and we came away from the tour feeling somewhat despondent. However, worth a mention are the lovely Chinese gardens where the tour ended which are free and deserve a look if you’re in the area.

Chinese gardens

Chinese gardens

Stanley Park
Despite the grey clouds the forecast rain was still holding off so we caught a bus over to Stanley Park. The park is huge and offers plenty of recreational space with paths for walkers, cyclists, and even rollerblades around the perimeter with great views back to the city and across the harbour. There is also a wonderful display of totem poles in the middle of the park and we picked up our road trip mascot, Monty the Moose from a great little gift shop.

City view from Stanley Park

City view from Stanley Park

Totem poles, Stanley Park

Totem poles, Stanley Park

Roller blade lane! Stanley park

Roller blade lane! Stanley park

As luck would have it a friend from back in Canberra happened to be in Vancouver that night too so we arranged to meet Claire and her friend for dinner by the waterfront. Despite being far from the Berra we had a crazy Canberra moment when Claire’s friend turned out to be one of my water policy colleagues from DFAT! We enjoyed hearing tales of their 4 day kayak trip near Vancouver Island and their close up encounter with the orcas – something we’ll have to bookmark for next time!

Flexible plans and beautiful campsites
We left Vancouver early to make the most of ‘one of Canada’s most scenic road trips’ – the sea to sky way from Vancouver to Whistler. Unfortunately the bad weather had finally caught up with us and the low cloud and torrential rain prevented us from enjoying much of the scenery. We were glad to have invested in waterproof trousers and wellies which meant we still ventured out to visit BC’s third highest waterfall at Shannon Falls Provincial Park. We had planned to have our first night of camping in Whistler but after a break for coffee and salted caramel slice it was still pouring with rain at 4pm and the weather was supposedly better further east where we were headed the following day. Rather than chase the sun, we escaped the rain by pushing on and we’re so glad we did as we stumbled upon a beauty of a campsite at Marble Creek.

Mist rising off the lake, morning of our first camp

Mist rising off the lake, morning of our first camp

There were only pit toilets and picnic benches for facilities but that meant there were only about three other campers besides us and it was beautiful to camp right next to the river and lake. We went to sleep with the sound of coyotes howling and awoke to the beautiful sight of the mist rising off the lake. We were so happy we’d swapped rainy Whistler for this!
Lake Louise
By driving further on the rainy day it meant we had a shorter drive to Lake Louise the following day. Only about an hour into the scenic drive, twisting around a mountain pass, Mitch spotted a big moose ambling along in the field next to us!

Ok, so we weren't quick enough with the camera for the real deal..

Ok, so we weren’t quick enough with the camera for the real deal..

Monty wasn’t the only one in the car to get excited by our first Canadian animal sighting! We arrived late afternoon to Lake Louise campground in Banff National Park and joyed by the lack of rain we decided to stretch our legs with a walk around stunning Lake Moraine. The reflections in the turquoise waters of the surrounding mountains are just beautiful.

Lak Moraine

Lak Moraine

As we were there quite late in the day we missed most of the tourists and there were only a few other people on the trail walking their dogs. Now this is worth a mention. In both Canada and the U.S. it is allowed to bring your dogs, kept on leads, into the National parks! We love this! It would be so great if we could share the wonderful walks in Canberra’s surrounding parks with our dog, Skye. It was lovely to see people on camping holidays being able to bring their pets along the for the fun. We had a quick stop at Lake Louise which is also very pretty and looked longingly at the Fairmont Lodge right on its banks but at more than $500 a night for a room, it was back to the campsite for us backpackers!
The icefields parkway
Described by National Geographic as ‘one of the world’s most spectacular driving tours’ we were thinking that we were cursed to have bad weather for the second time in a few days for these scenic drives. However, knowing that we had a second shot at the drive on our way back from Jasper meant that we didn’t have to do everything on the first day. It turns out the wildlife don’t mind the rain and eagle-eyed Mitch was at it again, this time spotting a wolf on the road side just before it ran across a few metres ahead of us! It’s such a thrill to see wildlife in their natural setting. Moments we continued to experience over the succeeding days. Our first stop was about half way along at the Columbia Icefields where we did a loop walk up to the toe of impressive Athabasca Glacier. It started to snow a little which made it feel all the more atmospheric but the freezing temperatures meant we didn’t hang around! A bit further on we visited both the Sunwapta and Athabasca waterfalls. Both pretty and worth getting out to stretch the legs but with Niagra Falls on our itinerary we’re saving ourselves to be wowed there..
Mt Edith Cavell
Now, what is definitely worth a side trip is a drive up to Mt Edith Cavell which we were fortunate to take based on the fact that I’d seen a postcard of the view in the Icefields visitor centre, strangely it wasn’t mentioned in either our lonely planet guide or the icefields parkway leaflet. A short 1.5km return walk will take you along the ‘path of the glacier trail’ toward the great north face of Mt Edith Cavell and the most beautiful glacial lake. We arrived at the viewpoint just as a lump of ice came crashing down the mountainside into the lake. It is an absolutely beautiful spot and a must if driving the parkway.

Mt Edith Cavell, glacial lake, photo doesn't do it justice. One of the most beautiful views.

Mt Edith Cavell, glacial lake, photo doesn’t do it justice. One of the most beautiful views.

Our final destination was Whistler campsite just outside of Jasper but I’ll save Jasper for the next post. It deserves the spotlight all to itself..