The group flight arrives in the afternoon.
We leave Calgary and drive west along the Trans-Canada Highway, from the prairies into the Rocky Mountains to Banff National Park (180 km), which will be our base for the next four nights. We set up camp and in the late afternoon do the first short acclimatization walk up to Paget lookout. This is an old fire lookout with a crucial vantage point overlooking the Kicking Horse Pass and valley, with a view directly up the Cataract Valley to some dramatic peaks overlooking Lake O'Hara and other ranges in Banff National Park. Maybe we will see our first big animals, but certainly we will come across our first Columbian ground squirrels scavenging for their supper.
Today is a spectacular hike. We drive to historic and prestigious Chateau Lake Louise and start walking along the well-marked asphalt paths beside the emerald-coloured lake, with the Victoria Glacier visible from the far end. The lake and province were named after Queen Victoria's daughter, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta. We soon leave the tourists behind as we reach the alpine lake known as Lake Agnes (2118m) and the teahouse. From here the trail takes us up to Lake Agnes tea hut, on to the top of the Big Beehive (2270m) and finally to the foot of the Plain of Six Glaciers. We will learn about the first Swiss Mountain Guides who pioneered guiding and mountaineering in this area and their contribution to the development of Canada's first national park, Banff. Our walking distance is 20 km and the altitude gain is 740m (540m to the Big Beehive and after a descent another 200m to the end of the Plain of Six Glacier Trail). After our first full day hike, we will look forward to relaxing back at camp and our evening meal.
We embark on one of the classic day hikes in the Canadian Rockies. We start our walk at Moraine Lake near Lake Louise and walk up the Larch Valley for an incredible view overlooking Moraine Lake and the Valley of the Ten Peaks and over Sentinel Pass. We walk under the watchful Mount Temple (at 3543m, the third highest peak in Banff N.P.), and down beautiful Paradise Valley along Paradise Creek. The total walking distance is 18 km with an altitude gain of 700m - a 'loop' walk with great scenery.
We drive west across the Continental Divide into British Columbia along the Kicking Horse River and past the spiral tunnels built for the railroad, arriving into Yoho National Park. We reach the trailhead near Takakkaw Falls (380m high!), meaning 'magnificent' in the Cree Indian language. We walk up from Takakkaw Falls, ascending steeply up to the ice line trail between glaciers and tree line. The trail then maintains its elevation with spectacular views of the alpine glaciers until we descend into little Yoho Valley. Our walking distance today is 22 km with a total elevation gain of 700m.
After breakfast we take one of the most famous and magnificent drives in the world along the Columbia Icefields Parkway. It's a busy road, but worthwhile to stop at all of the 'must see' sights, including Bow Summit and Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, the Crowfoot Glacier/Bow Lake and the views of the many glaciers along the road. We may do a short walk at Parker Ridge, popular for its alpine wildflowers. The 2½ km trail (altitude gain 250 m.) gives incredible views of Saskatchewan Glacier from above. We are almost certain to see Black bear and Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep today. We set up camp in Jasper National Park, our base for the next three nights.
Jasper is much quieter and less developed than Banff and from here it is easier to get away from the crowds. Today's hike is to Cavell Pond at the foot of Angel Glacier, and ascends into Cavell Meadows, in the shadow of Mount Edith Cavell. Cavell Meadows are famous for millions of alpine wildflowers in the morning light (great for photos), and we get amazing views of Cavell and Angel Glaciers. We then follow an alpine ridge and scramble over the rocks to the summit. The walk is 12 km, with an altitude gain of 770m.
We drive this morning up the Maligne Lake Road and start the day with an interpretive walk along the limestone Maligne Canyon, a deep gorge which is fascinating all year round. We then continue driving up the Maligne River to Maligne Lake. Our hike today will be to the Bald Hills, which involves a 580m elevation gain in a distance of 14km. The trail begins on an old fire road, but branches off to zig-zag up through an old regenerating burn that gives many views down the length of the greenish-blue waters of Maligne Lake. The views to the north are no less interesting, to the sharp saw-toothed peaks of the Queen Elizabeth Range. Once above treeline, we work our way across open wildflower meadows to the crest of the ridge, which we follow to the small peak on the south end.
After breakfast we return to the Icefields Parkway, stopping briefly at the Columbia Icefields. Our next destination is the resort town of Banff, which we explore on foot - visit the famous Banff Springs Hotel or take the steep hike up to Sulphur Mountain and a gondola ride down. Leaving this tourist hot spot behind, we drive deep into Kananaskis Provincial Park and set up camp at Kananaskis Lakes, where we camp for two nights.
Today we hike to the beautiful Burstall Pass. At first we follow an old logging trail below the Robertson Glacier before the going becomes steeper. We ascend through thick forest and then arrive in a beautiful hanging valley. A final little push over the last bluff will bring us to the pass itself and if the weather permits, incredible views in all directions, including the Matterhorn-like horn of Mount Assiniboine (3,618m).
We drive over the summit of 2206m Highwood Pass, the highest paved road in Canada, into cowboy country. We stop at Longview, where Clint Eastwood filmed his movie 'Unforgiven', to buy some Longview Beef Jerky. We continue driving south to Waterton National Park, known locally as 'the land where the prairie meets the mountains'. We set up camp here (our camp for the next 3 days). If time permits, we can hike the 12km return, 450m elevation gain trail to Bertha Lake.
Waterton Lakes has its own special scenery: red canyons, hundreds of deep blue lakes, bear grass (vegetation found nowhere else in the Rockies), caves and coves formerly used by whisky smugglers. There is plenty of wildlife: mountain goats, Bighorn sheep, Black and Grizzly bears and cougars. Our first hike in the park is from Cameron Lake, climbing a forested hillside with switchbacks to Summit Lake (1930m) and then on to Carthew Pass (2360m). The trail then descends to Carthew Lakes, where it winds along the lakeshore and on to Alderson Lake. The final 7 km is a descent through the forested valley with views of Waterton Lake and the town of Waterton below; the walk ends in the town. The walk is 19 km with an altitude gain of 700m.
Our final walk is to Lineham Ridge. We follow Rowe Creek upstream, crossing it a couple of times over short log bridges. We reach Rowe Meadows after an hour and start the climb towards the ridge on rust-red argillite rock. Every metre is rewarded with a better view of the surrounding barren peaks, ice-clad mountains, lakes, ridges and the forested valleys far below. Finally we crest the ridge highpoint for a wonderful 360° panorama. Look beyond the headwall of Rowe Meadow into Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Park. Gaze south to Rowe Lakes and Glacier National Park in Montana. Lineham Ridge is 17.5km, with a 950m elevation gain. We will enjoy a group farewell evening meal at a local restaurant.
We pack up camp for the last time. On our way back to Calgary we stop at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump, a museum dedicated to the First Nations People. The site preserves North America's oldest and largest Buffalo Jump, used for thousands of years by Blackfoot Indians to run bison. Then it's a continuation of our prairie drive, back to Calgary, where the tour ends. The group return flight to London is an overnight flight arriving home on day 15.