Rocky Mountains

By Penny Redward
18 July 2010



There are some great guided walking trips available from New Zealand but if you are thinking of doing it your own way, buy or hire are two options.  Second hand campers are extremely cheap in comparison with NZ and having family to visit and five months to spare we decided to buy.

Through the Canadian equivalent of Trade Me (Kiijii) we bought, a 1989 six berth camper with a 7.5litre  Ford motor and all that goes with it – fridge, freezer, furnace, double bed etc. Admittedly we did nearly get taken in by a scam so one does have to take care.  Family helped us register, insure and fit it all out – the total cost being NZ $15,000 which we were pretty pleased with.  It does look old in the line up of monstrosities that fill the car parks here but everything works and it suits us fine. Also it’s pretty thirsty on petrol but petrol is cheaper here.

We met some NZers who had only six weeks to spare so they hired a lovely new two berth camper – and it set them back the same amount – yes, NZ$15,000 and no chance of selling it at the end of their time.  I’m sure there must be some cheaper deals if one looks around.

Motor homes are not the only option of course – many of the 80% of Canadians who enjoy camping, use a tent.  With the whacking great allowance of 44kgs of luggage per person allowed on flights into USA and Canada it means you could bring a fair amount of camping gear with you.  If  preferred,  hire a car or bike and do it that way.

Camping: – When to go?

Although Canada has a rather short camping season – June to early October if you are lucky – it does fortunately coincide with our winter.  We had heard The Canadian Rockies get horribly overcrowded in summer so decided to go there mid June before school breaks up.  We came in at Jasper with perfect weather and certainly no major crowd problem.  The trade off is that half the camp grounds don’t open until 21st or 24th June and a few of the walks “Trails” were still closed due to snow (or hungry grizzlies)  and the wildflowers were yet to reach their peak.

The camp grounds however are a real treat – the national or municipal (read DOC or Regional Council) – have a fairly standard layout. There are large parking areas for each site surrounded by spruce, fir and pine trees, a picnic table and a fire pit.  In many you can hardly see your neighbours.  The camps are spotlessly clean and generally near a lake, river or in the Rockies, a thumping great mountain.  Very few have power.  Don’t be put off by the number of camp sites – in one with 146 sites, I had to walk over a kilometre, through forest,  back to the registration block to pick up my camera battery that was charging there!  Fees are not cheap but you pay per site – so for six of us in one camper it is the same as for one or two in a tiny tent; NZ$20 to $40.

Ian looking at lake

The Canadian campers are classic: they pull up in their huge machines or tiny tents, throw a red and white plastic table cloth over the picnic table, light the fire (generally one has to buy a permit – another $10 per night or bundle of wood)  and there they seem to sit.  They are of course surrounded by forest,  squabbling squirrels and their own dogs and cats they bring with them.  On one beautiful island camp in Alberta, before we took to the Rockies, the camp with 70 sites was full yet despite perfect weather we saw only four people on one beach, none on the next, and two ‘birders’ (who weren’t actually campers) on the trail.

If you have a timetable you can make reservations for the big camps, but only online and there is another $10 charge!  So far we have had no trouble getting a site by just turning up before noon and most of the big camps have an overflow area that is almost as good as the original site.

Tramping:  Where to go, what to see, and bears!

We had assumed we would bring our overnight packs and do some of the longer trails.  A brief bit of research revealed that there are very, very few tramping huts in the bush – there are tent pads (which need booking and a payment of $10 per person) and generally one has to cook 100 metres away from your sleeping site – there are bears you see.  We quickly decided we were too old to carry packs and tents into the wilds so settled for day hiking.

Let’s get the bears out of the way first – brown and grizzly are the order of the day and 2010 is apparently a good year for bears – bummer!  The Canadians seem to fall into one of two groups, those that are so petrified of them they don’t venture into the wild at all and those that treat the threat with complete disregard “what – no,  there’s no bears here, been coming for years and never seen one”.  And then there are the tourists, decked out with bells and bear spray – we are definitely tourists.

In fact, there are very few bear attacks – the chances are a bit like being run over by a bus in Paraparaumu  – while at least one person in Wellington gets mown down every year.  But the bears are there (just like the buses) and the Rangers are very strict. On the one hand – they can fine you for getting out of your car to take a photo and charge you $2000 for leaving food outside overnight; on the other they seem quite casual about the proximity of the bears. A notice at the last campground stated There are two bears in the camping area, if they become a nuisance we will have to remove them so please don’t encourage them… – if you come across a bear say ‘Go Away Bear’. Yeah right!   And another small hand written note tacked to an information board stating that on 9th June there were a lot of bears around – especially at the canyon viewing area (just where we were going of course) – the suggestion was that we “make noise” as we approached!

After three or four self conscious trips with our little bells tinkling away and no sign of bears, we tucked the bells back into their bags with a magnet which stops the noise.  Then one day, after seeing two bears on the road the day before, we headed off on a trail knowing we were the first to venture that way (Canadians are not early risers) and came across some rather distinct bear pooh – out came the bells!  After lunch at a glacier fed lake, watching and listening for small avalanches and icefalls, and talking with three others who came and went (with no mention of bears or tinkling of bells) we headed home quiet and fearless – then whoops –  some rather large, fresh bear prints going the way we were going – out came the bells again!  So don’t be put off by the bears – just take care.

Trails Bears aside, the trails are numerous and varied – and  “there is much more besides the mountains”: Canyons, waterfalls, lakes, rivers, glaciers, wildlife and wild flowers.

At first I found it a most unusual experience to be walking in forest without recognising a single plant.  No ferns, but trees that shimmer with the slightest wind (Aspens) and lots of trees that look like pines, sort of – some are. Others are spruce and firs. They all look very similar – tall, very tall, but generally of no great width so it doesn’t really feel like forest.  From a height all the forest seems the same, but underneath it is surprisingly lush unless the trees are really thick.  The Canadians have begun controlled burning, as in Australia, as they realised the wildlife depended on new growth.  We had visited in mid winter once and thought there was minimal undergrowth but as soon as the snow melts the grasses and wildflowers take off at a great rate.

From 2pm on 20th June it was officially summer! As summer progresses the flowers bloom as hurriedly as they can. The first snow often falls in late September. So now I find myself again in an unusual situation: walking in forest and recognising flowers that only grow in gardens in New Zealand:  Roses, violets – purple and yellow – forget-me-nots, rununculas, orchids by the ton and many, many more of course that I do not recognise.  They line the trail edges and any open space. And once above the bush line, or in patches where the forest has been burnt, there are what is called “meadows” of wild flowers, although very few of the daisy family that we find in New Zealand tops.

The wild- life like the flowers and grizzlies are apparently especially fond of dandelions. The roadside is lush with dandelions hence it was no surprise to see a rather large grizzly last week.  The Black bears like a particular variety of wild flowers.

Lake Louise area

There are a number of walks in the area but the two most popular, and particularly spectacular, are The Plain of Six Glaciers with various additional options, and The Moraine Lake – Sphinx Trail.

The Plain of Six Glaciers sits at the far end of Lake Louise – feeding the lake and providing the postcard mountain view so famous around the world.  It is possible to walk along the lake edge for 4 km then up the valley another 2.5km, getting steeper and steeper until finally – “A Tea House”!  Yuk – but in fact fine. It`s built in the log hut style and set back from the trail and it’s quite possible to pretend it doesn’t exist while you take breath and count peaks and glaciers – until of course you decide to try an American Lemonade and treat yourself to their famous chocolate cake – the Lemonade was cool and ok, the chocolate cake was an exorbitant price so didn’t get tested.

Beehive Mountain

We had decided to take the High Trail on the way and visit the “Small Beehive” not knowing what it was (a jolly great mountain of course – with slightly rounded edges),  then skirt another lake and join up with the Six Glacier trail further up the valley.  The track was well formed and only a gentle rise, then suddenly “Mirror Lake” appeared – small and mirror-like, surprisingly with a magnificent back drop of a rounded bare mountain –– just pure rock – completely free of foliage except for a sprinkling of trees on the top like a rather bad number 4.  We continued on to Little Beehive, 1½ hours from the start, and found ourselves on the top of a precipice overlooking the Ball River Valley we had driven down to get to Lake Louise village.  Great views – there used to be a fire tower there.  One very comfortable seat, and not a soul around while we had morning tea.

A short retrace of the path and on to A Lake which was only ½ an hour away.  It really is the most disconcerting experience to think you are all but alone, high in the bush, only to turn a corner and find a Tea House (yes another) in full swing with people everywhere! Even little children. How on earth had they got there? Not via Little Beehive that’s for sure – there was obviously an easier way.  Having already had our quiet cup of coffee we decided get away from the crowd and to carry on around the lake – not realising of course that all those people had come up the way we were supposed to be taking down; a set of stairways behind the Tea Room.

We set off on the rough trail around the lake towards a suspicious solid circle of mountains but there were two serious looking trampers ahead and sure enough there was a pass hidden between the peaks. – Yes, the pass did still have snow on it but a zig-zag track was visible.  One of the trampers decided to change into more suitable gear but the other tramper had taken off.  Nearly at the top of the pass the first tramper had stopped and waited for us.  In broken English he explained that he had seen rather large footprints in the snow – was it dangerous?  He was all by himself and not used to bears?  Oh no, not dangerous at all we suggested – then could he walk with us please?  The general guidelines are, that when the grizzlies are around you must walk in a ‘tight group of no less than four’ if you meet one you don’t run but stick together, raise your arms and talk gently??!!  But only yesterday  the ranger had suggested we take this route (well not exactly – I think he meant the stairs behind the tea house) and hadn’t mentioned any problems with bears.

So we three now continued to the top and a small sign pointed to Big Beehive only 700m away.  What a view it was – we were on top of the massive mound with the bad haircut – tiny Mirror Lake just visible below, Lake Louise and the Chateau to one side and more mountains everywhere.  Then back to the trail and a rather rough one now but descending rapidly and eventually joining up with the Six Glacier route.

Continuing up we eventually turned another zig- zag to reach the second “Tea House” of the day.



This was the set back one and we gratefully grabbed a space on one of the large picnic tables to eat our lunch and take in the views – six glaciers, a lake and the huge Chateau in the far distance now. Sitting next to us was a couple with two children and a white and slightly (but only slightly) subdued Samoyed dog – apparently he had disturbed a porcupine on the way up and received a face full of spines for his trouble.  The owner produced one for me to see. The spines are only about 6cm long but very sharp and the point is roughened with tiny barbs so they take some removing.

Refreshed, we decided to do the extra 1.4km hike to the last viewpoint along the ridge of a shingle bank – known as a terminal moraine it was left behind by the largest glacier. It was worth the effort and we were once again away from the crowds, far from the lake now (although still visible – the Chateau a smudge in the distance) and we were looking directly into suicide gully! –  A small valley that could take you directly to the tops, but overhung with remaining glaciers and their obvious dangers.

The track home was direct and a lot shorter along the main route alongside the lake but produced one more treat: some of the sheer rock walls were covered with rock climbers. – It was hard not to stop and stare.

Finally back to the camper. We had taken eight hours, but that did involve a lot of stops and a lot of extras.  With daylight hours so long it was never a concern and the tracks were well marked.  If you have the time, do it all.  A truly wonderful day.

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