The Canadian Rockies are known as a winter wonderland, but when the snow melts, the wildlife puts on an awesome summer display

When I was a little girl, my View-Master was my favourite toy. The reels you slipped into it were tickets to a virtual world tour. With every click to a new frame I strengthened my desire to travel. Big landscapes always looked best and I was besotted with my reel on the Canadian Rockies. As seen through the View-Master, the glacial lakes that pool between those immense snowy peaks looked so intensely colour-saturated that I thought they couldn’t possibly be real.

Thirty years later, on a road trip from Calgary to Edmonton via the Icefields Parkway I discovered that their hyper-blue hue is indeed true-to-life

Two friends and I begin our trip in Calgary, home of the 1988 Winter Olympics, where we pick up a four-wheel-drive rental, get used to being on the wrong side of the road and head out of town. It’s summer, and the large metal-framed ski jumps that were purpose built for the Games stick out of the hillsides like half-finished rollercoasters.

Our mascot for the trip, Flappy the Beaver. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Our mascot for the trip, Flappy the Beaver. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Our first stop is Rafter Six Ranch Resort, a working horse ranch just off Highway 1, about 75km out of Calgary. A huge log lodge and various cabins are set in a large grassy meadow at the foot of the Rockies. The ranch has strong ties to local First Nations communities – it’s worth chatting to the owners, the Cowley family, about the ranch’s rich history. We enjoy a sedate guided trail ride along the Kananaskis River before having a steak dinner served to us by a cowboy in a black hat.

At night, Rafter Six’s horses are free to roam. Next morning, over breakfast, we watch as they are rounded up and gallop en masse back to their coral.

Before hitting the Icefields Parkway, we decide to take a scenic helicopter flight to get a sense of the scale of the Rockies. Kananaskis Heli Tours fly us across the Bow River and up into the mountains. Frighteningly, we head straight toward a sheer mountainside before the pilot uses a lee wave (or updraft) to lift us safely up and over the peak. It’s an exhilarating journey.

The Rockies from a helicopter. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
The Rockies from a helicopter. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Driving the Icefields Parkway is just as astonishing. We spend the next five days winding our way between areas renowned for their ski fields, such as Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper. I’m a skier, so at first I wish I’d come in winter (the runs look great) but the Canadian summer offers visitors something unique: a chance to see big wild animals in a big wild landscape.

At various times we see elk feeding at the side of the road, caribou crossing a river and black bears disappearing into the woods or feeding on dropped grain along a railway track. Happily, we don’t see a grizzly up close. Sadly, we don’t see one at all.

An elk by the side of the road. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
An elk by the side of the road. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

After one day-long wildlife-spotting tour, we return to our accommodation at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge to find a herd of about 20 elk lazing on the lawns. We have to walk through them to get back to our rooms. They just turn their heads and stare at us as we pass by. It is a surreal experience – it must be what it feels like to be a foreigner in Australia, seeing strange animals such as kangaroos going about their business in the wild. I’d always assumed elk horns were bare and hard like elephant tusks, but up close you can see they are covered in short felt-like fuzz.

Families with young kids would get a kick out of how many cute little mammals there are to spot in the Rockies. We take a gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain in Banff, where curious golden-mantled ground squirrels come out to greet us. In Fiddle River, we see tiny least chipmunk babies sitting in the branches of small bushes, eating berries. On the banks of Medicine Lake we witness two marmots “hugging”.

Armies of chipmunks swarm around our feet, appearing and disappearing out of nowhere, on seemingly every mountaintop we visit

But it’s the lakes that have the biggest impact on me. Large and dead still, Alberta’s glacial lakes are truly, really, eye-poppingly and intensely jewel blue. A tour of Peyto, Maligne, Emerald and Medicine Lakes – not forgetting the charming Lake Louise with its gorgeous lake-side chateux – has a calming effect (especially outside peak tourist season!). As an Australian, the visual impact is incredible. You just don’t see colours like that here – outside of the Barrier Reef at least, and certainly not inland.

Panoramic photo opportunities abound. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Panoramic photo opportunities abound. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Now I’m back home, friends look at photos of that trip and ask if I’ve used Photoshop to bump up the colour in the lakes. It truly is one of those things you have to see to believe.

Do it yourself

How to get there: Air Canada offers daily non-stop international flights from Sydney to Vancouver. There are multiple daily flights to and from Calgary and Edmonton that will re-connect you with your return flight home from Vancouver. Go to aircanada.com for latest deals.

Athabasca Glacier by Ice Explorer. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure by Ice Explorer Tours. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Where to stay

• Rafter Six Ranch Resort: Bed and breakfast packages available in this beautiful ranch resort, as well as wilderness camping and trail riding; raftersix.com

• Fairmont Resort Hotels: The most luxe way to tackle the Icefields Parkway is to do a “Fairmont Crawl”, staying in truly special hotels along the way. The Fairmont Banff Springs is like a Scottish baronial castle, complete with turrets. Chateau Lake Louise is a fairytale hotel beside a gorgeous glacial lake – in summer, you can canoe it, in winter you can skate on it. The more boutique-style Jasper Park Lodge comprises luxury cabins in a picturesque setting. Go to fairmont.com for more info and latest deals.

Fairmont Banff Springs. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Fairmont Banff Springs. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

• If you’d prefer to save money by camping out, there are many campgrounds (many with heated cabins) along the Icefields Parkway. Try travelalberta.com.au for more accommodation options.

Must-do experiences

• I cannot recommend highly enough a joy flight over the Rockies. Kananaskis Heli Tours: Open 8am–8pm. Twelve minute flights for $129 per person; six minute introductory flights from $65 per person; rockiesheli.com

• Learn more about the First Nations of Canada at the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum: 1 Birch Ave, Banff; buffalonationsmuseum.net

• Take a walk on a glacier by heading out on the Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure with Ice Explorers Tours. The Athabasca Glacier is truly beautiful; brewster.ca

A life-size diorama featuring the sun dance ritual. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
A life-size diorama featuring the sun dance ritual. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Resources for travellers

For more information on travelling the Icefields Parkway, go to icefieldsparkway.ca

For more information on what to do in the Canadian Rockies, visit the Tourism Alberta website: travelalberta.com.au

NOTE: This story was originally published in Australian House & Garden magazine

Angel Glacier, Alberta. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Angel Glacier, Alberta. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles