The road from Calgary to Golden, B.C. is...well, golden...and one of Canada's true national treasures. The trek through two national parks is one thing, but the trip down memory lane is quite another.
CALGARY– The road to the Rockies unfolds like a vision. With the fast food signs of Calgary fading in the rear-view mirror, the snow-covered mountains loom in the distance. It takes almost 30 minutes to get there.
The heart beats a little faster when the highway finally snakes through the first mountains on the road to Banff, Lake Louise and Golden, B.C., which just happens to be my favourite three-hour drive in Canada.
There are other great drives in this country – the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia, the Sea-to-Sky Highway between Vancouver and Whistler, the road through Wakefield in the Gatineaus, the Gaspe, the road to Long Beach on Vancouver Island and Ontario's Loyalist Parkway – but nothing matches the majesty and spectacle of a daylight trip through two national parks, Banff and Yoho.
National Geographic magazine has called the Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper "one of the world's great scenic holidays," but I beg to differ. Maybe it's personal, but a recent drive from Calgary to Golden certainly didn't change my mind.
With each passing kilometre, the memories came flooding back.
The first time I travelled this road was in 1967 when I was a 16-year-old hitchhiker riding in the backseat of a stranger's car. My face was pressed against the window as I watched the mountainscapes unfold around me. I was awestruck.
The best time I drove at least part of this road was in the early 1990s after my son's mother had asked me to visit him in Banff where he was working at a hotel.
"See if you can get him to focus on a career or something," she said. "He can't be a ski bum his whole life."
So I drove the rental car to the hotel where my son was just getting off work after an overnight shift on the hotel's front desk. "I gotta get some sleep, Dad," he said. "Can we do something later this afternoon?" No problem.
On one of those big, blue-sky days that made every detail of every mountain stand out in high-definition, I drove out of Banff and up to Lake Louise. Castle Mountain stopped me in my tracks. A massive wall of reddish craggy rock, Castle Mountain looks like a J.R.R. Tolkien vision interpreted by the classic illustrator Maxfield Parrish – too beautiful to be real.
Beyond that, of course, was Lake Louise, a stunningly beautiful setting for a holiday resort with turquoise waters reflecting an arc of rugged snow-topped peaks.
It was weeks until I called his mother – to tell her I was seriously considering becoming a ski bum myself, and I don't even ski.
Earlier this month I was on that road again, to visit my son who has moved just over the border from Banff to Golden, B.C.
Continuing west along the Trans-Canada Highway north of Lake Louise, one soon enters Yoho National Park and the wonderful sights continue. It is worth stopping in the small town of Field, about 40 kilometres west of Lake Louise, where everything is dwarfed by the massive peaks all around.
Golden is another 57 kilometres beyond Field, a drive that takes you quite literally through some spectacularly rugged terrain. In fact, the new stretch of highway approaching Golden splits one enormous rock in half just before it crosses the Park Bridge, which doesn't even feel like a bridge when you're on it.
When you get to the bottom of the hill, park at the viewpoint and look back to see the amazing structure you have just driven over. And you can walk along the old highway beside the river to get a closer look at the bridge as well. While I have been down that road at least a dozen times in my life, I was reminded of a few things on that 265-kilometre trip from Calgary to Golden:
Gazing up at the mountaintops can be dangerous to a driver's health on roads that rarely go in a straight line. If you want to look at the scenery, pull off the road. Of course, this will turn a three-hour drive into one of five hours, but it's worth it for all the great photographs.
One might assume that an oil-producing province like Alberta might have cheaper gas but that would be wrong. The prices at the gas pumps in Alberta were exactly the same as Ontario. British Columbia was about eight cents higher per litre. So that Calgary-Golden-Calgary trip in a standard rental car cost $75 in gas.
Anyone considering driving through Alberta should be aware that drivers in that province firmly believe that the speed limit is 10 km/h faster than anyone else on the road. It's a bit of that cowboy mentality and it certainly explains why they despise photo radar.
So, when you see that car or truck racing up behind you, just let it go flying by – and take some comfort in the fact that you're on vacation enjoying the sights while they're working. So how did that visit with the son go? Well, we spent a couple of days at his place beside a lake in the mountains on the southern outskirts of Golden. We went canoeing and took a long hike along the top of a spectacular canyon.
By the end of the visit, I was darn near ready to forget about the return trip to Calgary. Something about those mountains affects me that way.