By: Susy Q
Touted in travel brochures of the 1920’s as “the greatest drive in the Canadian Rockies” for its spectacular scenery and raw natural beauty, and the first to cross the Continental Divide for motor vehicules, the Banff-Windemere Highway was regarded then as a “not to be missed” section of the “Grand Circle Tour” – originally encompassing 16 National Parks in Canada and the United States and stretching 5000 miles in length.
This Highway, only 18 miles west of the fabulous resort town of Banff, climbs steeply from the Alberta entrance up into a high elevation that separates Banff National Park, itself a World Heritage Site and celebrating its 125th birthday party in 2010, and Kootenay National Park in British Columbia. It then exits by diving from this altitude into Radium Hot Springs, BC, with a long curvy slice – but not before twisting and turning through stunning valleys and narrow passes. Although somewhat ravaged by recent forest fires in certain areas, which echo a silence in the car everytime I pass through, you become aware that you are entering something special when you first see the sign at the north entrance warning you that there is no chance for gas for the next 132km – just over 82 miles!
There are breathtaking places to stop, however.
Just south of the north entrance is the fabulous Storm Mountain Lodge. Situated right at the top of the Vermillion Pass at 1708m altitude (5624ft.), the Lodge has 14 log cabins with magnificent stone fireplaces – all originally built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the early 1920’s to promote tourism in the Canadian Rockies. Open year-round, it has a great view of tremendously craggy mountain tops and deep valleys. www.stormmountainlodge.com
Continuing south, at roughly the halfway point, located in a high altitude mountain valley across the road from the swift moving Vermillion River, is the second 1920’s tourist stop-over. The Kootenay Park Lodge was also originally built by the CPR and is now listed as an historical site. The 10 log cabins with fireplaces were eventually added in the 1930’s when the lodge needed to expand. It boasts an official Information Centre and gift shop. Open from May to September, this is a great spot to stretch your legs and grab a coffee or ice cream while checking out the Information Center’s 3-D map of the area. There are many large photos here of both old and more recent forest fire damage with sobering explanations of just how close they came to the area’s sites. www.kootenayparklodge.com
There is a wide variety of hiking trails throughout the drive, from 1 hour to several days in length, and some of which are sections of the original Passes through which the Native Peoples and early settlers crossed these intimidating mountains on foot or horseback, astonishing to be sure. If camping, whether in a tent or trailer or RV, is in your plans, then you will be pleased to know that there are several well-maintained campsites just off the Highway within both National Parks.
The highway is very carefully monitored at all times, and when certain circumstances occur, Park Services will advise with signage in plenty of time, including when wolves are on the highway, just like last week.
There are many places available to pull off the side of the road to catch your breath, all with stunning views, historical sign posts, and tidbits of information. Picnic areas abound alongside glacier-fed rivers, on cliffsides overlooking deep valleys, or next to high altitude lakes. The Banff-Windemere Highway #93, from beginning to end, is a joy ride in breathtaking nature. This road trip can take 1-1/2 hours or as many days as you like.
And the headline of “Quiet bliss”?…Well, due to the high mountain ranges all around, and reminiscent of tourism from 1923, cell phone service is unavailable.
About the author:
Susy Q has spent most of her life in the travel industry and currently hangs her hat in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Whether it be roaming around her own “backyard” or to far reaches of the globe, a weekend getaway or spending 6 months sailing the South Pacific, Susy loves everything about travel and the spirit of just going. In addition to most areas in Canada and the United States that she has visited, her list of countries that she has lived, worked, and vacationed to, is very long. She considers England to be her second home, however, after spending 10 years of her adult life living in the tropics, returning to island beaches is always a possibility.