Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2021
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Yoho and Banff

Yoho is a Cree word of exclamation, so it's no surprise that Yoho National Park -- a small sister park to Banff and Jasper -- will leaves visitors exclaiming in wonder. The park, spanning a good 1300 square kilometres, is on the western side of the Continental Divide and boasts some of the most spectacular scenery in the Rockies.

Travelling west to east, you'll first encounter the splendid Emerald Lake, which gets its name from its brilliant alpine water surrounded by 3000-metre peaks. The hiking trails are fabulous. To truly get a feel for just how ancient and monumental the natural world is, you can hike up to the Burgess Shale where swirling, fractal-like marine fossils dating back millions of years are etched into the alpine cliffs. You can find accommodation at the lodge and at cabins along the water; canoes are available for rent.

From Emerald Lake, travel up the Kicking Horse Valley, past the dramatic Cathedral Mountains and Mount Stephen. Here the Yoho and Kicking Horse rivers meet and a 13-kilometre drive up the winding valley brings you to the Takakkaw Falls. This incredible cataract tumbles 255 metres out of the side of the mountain in a dramatic drop. Fittingly, Takakkaw means "wonderful" in Cree. Like Emerald Lake, it is easily accessible from the main highway.

The third and most spectacular wonder of Yoho is Lake O'Hara. It's not nearly as accessible as the previous two, but it's well worth the trip. Because of the region's fragile ecosystem -- it has been identified as an important grizzly bear habitat and wildlife corridor -- it is under careful stewardship. Day hikers, campers, as well as lodge and cabin guests are brought up in limited numbers in buses that must be booked three months in advance. Parks Canada does hold several standby seats and campsites for last-minute bookers, but it's best to reserve.

Glacial Beauty
However you choose to see Lake O'Hara, you will be rewarded with excellent hiking possibilities and gorgeous scenery. The lake basin is on the western side of Mount Victoria and Mount Lefroy -- the famed peaks so often photographed from the other side of the Continental Divide as the backdrop to Lake Louise. Although there are numerous hiking areas in the mountains around Lake O'Hara, the best place to start is with a walk that circumnavigates the lake; glacial run-off has transformed it into a jewel of chilled turquoise.

One of the most popular day hikes in the area is the Lake Oesa trail. With a vertical ascent of 240 metres, it is steep in places but can be managed by any reasonably fit person with a good pair of hiking shoes. My trekking party included my eight-year-old daughter and my 68-year-old mother. While my children found it fairly easy to scamper up, my mother did find parts of it challenging and her walking stick was very useful.

The trail winds around Lake O'Hara, offering breathtaking views over the lake and the Seven Veil Falls. It then progresses up past three smaller alpine lakes and a raging waterfall. Marmots scampered everywhere over the rock falls, and they were not the only creatures to cross our path; we spotted ground squirrels, chipmunks and even pikas. The summit was truly breathtaking. While we were there, Lake Oesa was all but ice-covered, with the chilling air hovering barely above 5°C -- and this was in July! At 2275 metres, the lake is set against a base of glaciers, fabulous rock formations and peaks that tower above it at 3400 metres. The view was an amazing sight and well worth the climb.


Beyond Banff
Yoho's neighbour, the more popular (and thus more populated!) Banff National Park, boasts some of the most beautiful mountain scenery anywhere in the world. One of the most dramatic and famous mountain lakes is, of course, Lake Louise, named after Queen Victoria's imperious daughter. While it is certainly a must-see, you'll find yourself sharing your views and walks with thousands of others; in fact, by midday in July and August the area teems with tourists, cars and tour buses, to the tune of up to 10,000 visitors a day.

Yet just 13 kilometres off Lake Louise Road, around Temple Mountain is the even more stunning Moraine Lake. It is only half the size of Lake Louise but is nestled in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, which are all over 3000 metres. I highly recommend renting a canoe for a dramatic ride. It takes about an hour to circumnavigate the lake; even in summer its glacial waters are not much above 6°C, so don't plan on taking a swim!

Less crowded and less developed, Peyto Lake is another stop you won't want to miss. It is just off the Icefields Parkway and only a 30-minute drive from Lake Louise. A steep, paved 10-minute walk affords stunning views from a look-out high above the lake.

Without the White Cloak
Those with more time and energy should consider a trip to Sunshine Meadows. This alpine meadow spanning the Continental Divide becomes the Sunshine Ski area in winter, but in July the slopes are blanketed with thousands of white and yellow flowers which are joined by more dramatic hues in August. In summer access is restricted and tourists can book a spot on the small bus that departs hourly from the Sunshine Village parking lot near the gondolas.

At the top of Sunshine Mountain are the amenities of the day lodge and access to many kilometres of well-marked paths that take you across the meadows. The trails take you to high alpine lakes (Rock Isle Lake is particularly noteworthy) and to views of ridges and peaks of the surrounding mountain ranges. On a clear day, you can even see Mount Assiniboine to the south, often called the Matterhorn of the Rockies.

Besides mountains and lakes, Banff also has the splendid Johnston Canyon, which is easily accessible and offers a dramatic walk along the canyon bottom, with catwalks that hug the sides of the 30-metre-deep gorge. High up along the Johnston Creek bed you can view a couple of raging waterfalls. The lower falls are about a 45-minute round trip; the upper falls, double that.

After a day of hiking and canoeing, what better way to ease your aching muscles than to soak in the 40°C waters of Banff's Upper Hot Springs on Sulphur Mountain. Long before Canadian Pacific Railway workers discovered the Cave and Basin Hot Springs at the foot of the mountain, First Nations considered the springs to be sacred waters -- a place to cure illness and sustain health.

Throughout the park, the varied vegetation and magnificent scenery is not all that you'll be rewarded with. On our visit we saw elk, moose, mountain sheep, deer, grizzly cubs, several black bears as well as the ubiquitous marmots, squirrels and chipmunks. We recommend at least a week's stay in Banff National Park, to allow you the time to explore not just Banff but the adjoining national parks of Yoho and Kootenay. You will not be disappointed!

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