Banff National Park is a treasure. Canada’s first national park and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with the other Canadian Rocky Mountain national parks, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay), it is a place of unparalleled natural beauty, with a rich history and an amazing array of recreational possibilities. It also has crowds.
Drive from Calgary to Banff on a summer Saturday morning and you will join an almost unbroken stream of rental cars, RVs, pickup trucks towing boats and just about any other vehicle you can think of. The most popular spots along the Trans-Canada Highway — Lake Louise, Moraine Lake and Johnston Canyon — are fair bursting at the seams with people, something that has conservationists concerned.
Even the backcountry seems more crowded than ever. To use the backcountry in a national park you have to purchase a “wilderness pass” from Parks Canada and reserve a site at whichever backcountry campground you’re planning to stay at, but there are certain classic backpacking trips (the Skyline Trail in Jasper, the Egypt Lake and Skoki areas in Banff) where it can be extremely difficult to find an available backcountry site.
Last year, we were hoping to backpack into the remote Devon Lakes, the headwaters of the Clearwater River. The most direct way to get there is via the very popular Fish Lakes campground. It was fully booked (of course) on the dates we wanted. So instead, we hiked into the even more remote Castleguard Meadows, a stunning area on the south side of the Saskatchewan Glacier and Columbia Icefields. We saw nobody in five days. But the price of solitude was hiking an “unmaintained” trail, which meant lots of route-finding and occasional bush-whacking.
Another part of Banff’s backcountry where you can avoid crowds, but without the route-finding challenges of the Castleguard, is the “Front Ranges.” As the name suggests, the Front Ranges are the first chains of peaks to the west of the prairies and foothills, in the eastern part of the park. After the Trans-Canada highway leaves Banff townsite, it bends to the northwest, so in Banff the Front Ranges are generally understood to mean the area east/northeast of the highway.
Horse outfitters have been using the Front Ranges for as long as Banff has been a park, and its broad river valleys were used by Indigenous Peoples for centuries before that. While the Front Ranges don’t have the heights and glaciers of the Continental Divide west of the highway, it is an area of incredible beauty and definitely no crowds. In the early 1990s, I did a 160-kilometre backpack loop through the Clearwater and Red Deer River valleys with John Tuckwell, a Fellow of The Royal Canadian Geographic Society, and we saw virtually nobody the entire trip.
The Front Ranges are also where Parks Canada recently reintroduced bison into the Rocky Mountains. Specifically, the bison were brought to the Panther River valley, which is the first major valley south of the Red Deer River. So this year, my colleague Marco Baldasaro, RCGS Fellow Greg Lyndon and I planned a week-long trip through the Front Ranges that would have taken us north from Banff into the Panther Valley in the hopes of seeing some bison, then north to the Red Deer River. From there, the plan was to go west to the Skoki area and finish at Lake Louise.
A week before we left, we learned that Parks Canada had closed the Panther River valley to hikers because of the bison. As a result, we adjusted our itinerary to follow a “scenic route” between two of Banff’s three ski areas.
August in Alberta was marked by significant smoke from forest fires in B.C. On our first day, the smoke was so bad we could barely see the sun, let alone the mountains. Fortunately, the smoke started clearing our second day and by our third day, we were enjoying brilliant blue skies.