Rocky Mountain High: Canada’s Kootenay and Yoho National Parks-
Banff National Park might be the most popular place in the Canadian Rockies, but the scenic splendors in adjacent Kootenay and Yoho National Parks can’t be beat as an ever better vacation destination. Smaller and quieter, yet over-flowing with thick wilderness, rushing rivers, and jagged snowy peaks, Kootenay and Yoho might be lesser-known, but they are no less picturesque than busy Banff.
Wildlife-watchers will especially appreciate Kootenay and Yoho. Fewer crowds usually mean more animal sightings- particularly the “big ones” such as bear, moose, elk, and bighorn sheep. Wildlife also comes on the smaller side in these parks; look for coyote, cougar, wolverine, pine martens, and marmots, too- that is if you can tear your eyes away from the panoramic peaks filling your windshield. Keep binoculars and a camera handy because you’ll definitely need them!
Kootenay National Park-
“From cactus to glacier” best describes Kootenay National Park’s 543 square miles (876 km) of diverse landscape, ecology, and climate. At the south end, the temperature is relatively warm and dry; at the north end, it is fairly cool and moist. Connecting the two environs is the park’s main attraction- the 58 mile long (94 km) Banff-Windermere Highway (Route 93). Completed in 1922, this was the first motor road across the Canadian Rockies and is one long viewpoint after another! The land on either side of the road is just five miles wide, resulting in the park’s long, narrow shape. Along the way, you’ll pass hot springs to soak in, lakes and rivers to walk or picnic beside, and incredible mountain vistas.
Be sure to take advantage of the park’s many roadside pull-offs and panoramic overlooks. Each provides a unique vantage point from which to take a good long look at Kootenay’s natural diversity. Stretch your legs on the trail bordering sparkling Olive Lake at Sinclair Pass, and watch for shaggy white mountain goats as you drive by the steep slopes of Mount Wardle. Marble Canyon is another picturesque stop. The glacier-sculpted limestone and dolomite canyon has been eroded to depths of 130 feet (37 meters) by rushing Tokumm Creek. As the canyon narrows, the water roars down through it in a series of falls. Kootenay’s literal 5,415-foot highlight (1,651 meters) is Vermilion Pass summit- the dividing line between the Pacific and Atlantic watersheds- better known as the Continental Divide. This point also marks the border between Kootenay and Banff National Parks.
One of the most unique stops in the park is at the Paint Pots. A short, scenic trail leads from a parking area over the Vermilion River to an unusual natural wonder- ponds of cold spring water stained red, orange, and mustard yellow by the iron-based mineral, ochre. Although it’s not exactly what you’d call “pretty” the site’s cultural and spiritual significance to the First Nations peoples is quite interesting. Early Natives believed that sacred animal spirits resided here and so they collected the ochre to use for pictographs, tipis, and as body paint for special ceremonies. The park probably even got its name, which means “places of hot waters” from these early tribes.
Yoho National Park-
Created in 1886 when 500 square miles were set aside to preserve its beauty, the word “Yoho” is an expression of awe and wonder in the Cree Indian language. And it’s very apparent why the park got its name! Twenty-eight picturesque peaks topping 9,000 feet (2,743 meters) and many waterfalls, including the third highest in Canada833-foot high Takakkaw Falls (254 meters)will keep your camera clicking all day.
The true gem of Yoho National Park is Emerald Lake. The water gets is dazzling color from silt that washes down from melting mountain top glaciers. Hikers will love the three-mile level trail that encircles the largest lake in Yoho National Park, and paddlers need only rent a canoe for a waterfront view of the surrounding snowy mountains reflecting on the blue-green surface. The hand-hewn timbers, massive stone fireplace, and formal dining room inside Emerald Lake Lodge are extraordinary, but with so much beautiful scenery outdoors, a lakeside lunch at Cilantro’s Restaurant is ideal.
Just off the road leading to Emerald Lake, see the awesome power of Kicking Horse River. Over time, torrents of water, sand, and gravel have worn through the solid rock to form Natural Bridge. The river is appropriately named- once upon a time, an unpredictable packhorse kicked an early explorer in the chest while he was setting up camp. Be glad you’re not relying on that kind of horsepower to see the Canadian Rockies today!
For train buffs, the Spiral Tunnel viewpoints are a must-see. Completed in 1909 after 1,000 workers labored on the project for two years, this engineering marvel reduced the original 4.5% steep grade of Big Hill at Roger’s Pass (the steepest grade of any railway in North America) to a safer 2.2% grade. No more brake failure and runaway trains! From the viewpoints, watch trains corkscrewing through figure-eight tunnels. Lower Spiral Tunnel Viewpoint has an informative display that explains the history and operation of these unique spiral tunnels.
World Heritage Site-
Kootenay, Yoho and the five neighboring national parks of Banff, Jasper, Hamber, Mount Robeson, and Mount Assiniboine are recognized as the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). That means these parks have the same international distinction and protection as does the Pyramids, Great Barrier Reef, and Great Wall of China. With such a claim to fame, you know vacationing in Kootenay and Yoho National Parks in the Canadian Rockies is truly something special!