Thursday, 21 January 2016

The Truth about the Icefields Parkway

The Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway in Alberta, Canada must be one of the most blogged about destinations in Nth America, if not the world. When I was researching our recent trip it seemed like every second Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and blog post I came across was about the parkway. There is a reason for this - the scenery is stunning, it is a great place for wildlife spotting, it is easy to get to and almost everything can be seen right beside the roadway. It is hard to imagine anywhere in the world where there are so many glaciers, alpine lakes and spectacular views so easily accessible.


Sadly, however word has got out - there are a LOT of people. Two million visitors come to the parkway each year. Along with the beautiful scenery you will find crowds, large tour groups, traffic, parking hassles and everything over-priced.  This is a destination being overwhelmed by those who love it most.

A few things you can do to avoid the crowds


  • Skip the tours and travel independently -  Don't be frightened to hire a car and drive yourself. The parkway is a sealed road in good condition for its entire length and most of the major attractions are right next to the road. The only part we found at all challenging were the steep switchbacks on the side road leading up to Mt Edith Cavell - but just allow extra time, take it slowly and you won't find it a problem.
  • Stay out of town - This is especially true of Lake Louise. Lake Louise itself is beautiful but the traffic leading from the village of Lake Louise to the actual lake gets so bad the road can become a parking lot. We stayed in a bungalow park called Paradise Lodge & Bungalows. It was clean and comfortable and had the great advantage that it was only 1.5 kms (1 mile) from the lake. It was mostly uphill so I'm glad we never actually had to walk it but at least that option was open to us.
  • Visit the big attractions early or late in the day - Try to plan your trip so you don't hit the big attractions in the middle of the day. Again, this is especially true of  Lake Louise.  Arrive much after 10 am in high season and you may not be able to park. 
  • Don't go in high season - I am not suggesting you drive the parkway in mid-winter, although that would be fun, but at least try not to visit in July and August unless maximising your chances of warm weather and sunshine is your main priority. If you are happy to chance a bit of bad weather then September, after the US Labor Day holiday (the first Monday in September), might be worth considering.

Stay out of town and avoid the crowds.

The Icefields Parkway  


The Parkway runs from Jasper to Lake Louise. Without stopping it is a three and a half  hour drive. Click here for a map. You will however, want to stop - again and again!  At an absolute minimum allow three days to take in the sights.


Jasper and surrounds


Jasper was much smaller than I expected. Only a fraction the size of Banff, at the other end of the parkway. It has a small town charm, spoiled, sadly by too many visitors. The upside of being a tourist centre is that facilities in Jasper are excellent. You won't have any trouble finding a place to stay, eat, shop or get information but book your accommodation ahead in the summer months.

If you want to get away from the crowds,  stay out of town. There are quite a few lodges and hotels outside town where you can feel a bit more like you have the place to yourself. We stayed at a lodge with a beautiful setting across the road from the Athabasca River. In the evenings we would take a glass of wine and relax in outdoor chairs next to the water. 

If you do stay out of town be aware that parking in town can be hard to find, especially in the middle of the day.

Athabasca River, Jasper, Alberta
The spot on the Athabasca River where we would sit in the evenings.

Cycling (and walking) in Jasper - 


Click here for a link to Jasper's Mountain Biking Guide in PDF form or pick up a hard copy at the Visitor Information Centre.

The Wapiti Trail running for 4.7km along the Athabasca River south of town is an easy and picturesque route. It was perfect for us to commute into town when we didn't need to take the car.

By far the best trail we found was The Athabasca River Loop running along the river then back past Annette and Beauvert Lakes.  It was particularly hot the day we did this cycle and we were treated to the sight of herds of elk cooling themselves off in the river. 

The trail is marked as numbers 14 (The Red Squirrel Trail), 7 (The Athabasca River Loop), 13, 4 and 7B on the Mountain Biking Guide. It sounds complicated but it is easy to find once you are there. Just keep the river on your left on the way out then loop back past the lakes on the way home. The track circumnavigating  Beauvert Lake is especially pretty and the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge nestled up against the lake makes a great spot to stop for lunch.  



Beauvert Lake, Jasper
Beauvert Lake, Jasper


Edith, Annette and Beauvert Lakes - 


If you don't have a bike it is still well worth the drive or walk from town to see these lakes - (see 'Cycling in Jasper' above). They are just lovely, especially Beauvert Lake and because Edith and Annette Lakes are quite shallow they are warm enough to swim in. As with almost everything in Jasper, parking is limited so try to get there either early in the morning or late in the afternoon.


Jasper, Alberta
Edith Lake (or maybe Annette Lake) - I have no idea which.

Mount Edith Cavell -


This is a 'don't miss it' sight. The 14.5 km road up to the parking area below the north-east face of the mountain is slow with switchback after switchback but the view, once you arrive, is stunning. 

The Path of the Glacier Trail leads from the car park to a viewing platform above Cavell Lake, a glacial lake fed by the Angel Glacier. It is a relatively easy 1.6 km round trip where you will be rewarded with a view of the light green water of the lake. The Angel Glacier hangs like the Sword of Damacles above the lake, waiting to fall at the slightest provocation. If you are lucky you will see chunks of ice calve off and crash into the water. We heard the unmistakable crash of ice while we were hiking but as luck would have it we were higher up the mountain with our view blocked by trees.

The Cavell Meadows Trail, the turn-off to which is about half-way along the Path of the Glacier Trail, is a moderately strenuous hike, particularly if it is hot. You need to allow at least three hours and take plenty of water but the view at the end is well-worth the effort. Looking down from above the lake you will feel like you have hiked to the roof of the world.


Cavell Pond, Jasper
Looking down on Cavell Lake - notice the floating chunks of ice.

Medicine and Maligne Lakes - 


For all those animal-spotting tragics out there like me, the road to Maligne Lake is heaven on earth.  I knew mid-July would not be the best time of year for seeing animals. Unless you are up at sunrise it is just too hot - and David doesn't do sunrise. However the parkway has such a great reputation for wildlife spotting so I was quietly hopeful. 

Coming in to Jasper from the north we saw groups of bighorn sheep and a small herd of mountain carribou beside the road, but my personal holy grail of wildlife spotting (after finally seeing a platypus in the wild) was to see another bear, preferably from the safety of our car. About 6 pm one evening, a few hours before sunset we set out for Maligne Lake. The lake is about an hour's drive from Jasper. 

Just as we reached the halfway point at Medicine Lake I caught sight of my first bear. She was walking along the opposite side of the road beside a long queue of cars. Because the cars were between us and her, and she was walking in the opposite direction, I didn't get a great view. David, who was driving, got none at all. There was nowhere to stop or turn around safely and we figured by the time we did she would probably be gone.

I need not have worried. A few kilometres down the road we found another bear. This time she was on our side ambling along, eating wildflowers and heading in the same direction as we were. There was plenty of room to pull over safely and watch her. She soon collected an audience of half a dozen cars or so, each one playing a bizarre kind of automobile leap-frog as she wandered along oblivious to us all.  We watched her like this for at least half an hour outlasting everyone else until we were the only car left. At times she was not more than a couple of metres from the car. I was in animal-spotting heaven. Needless to say we kept the windows safely wound up.


Black bear, Medicine Lake, Jasper
'Our' bear.


Maligne Canyon - 


Despite its name Maligne Canyon is nowhere near Maligne Lake. Only 7 km from Jasper on the road toward Maligne Lake it is a spectacular gorge carved into the limestone with depths up to 50m and width in places as little as 3m. There is an easy, paved trail following the top of the canyon with some spectacular viewpoints or, for the more energetic, a much more arduous walk down to the Maligne River. There is a tea-house with grumpy staff but a lovely terrace at one end of the car park.


Maligne Canyon, Alberta
Maligne Canyon

The Jasper Tramway - 


The Jasper SkyTram climbs 1,000 metres up the north face of Whistlers Mountain, taking seven minutes to arrive at the upper terminal. I have included it here for the sake of completeness. Like almost everything on the Icefields Parkway we thought it was over-priced but since we decided not to go on it I really can't say whether it is worth the $37 CAD entrance price or not.


From Jasper to Lake Louise 



The Icefields Parkway is all about scenery - spectacular, breath-taking alpine lakes, waterfalls, mountains and glaciers, especially glaciers. The word stunning does not even begin to do this landscape justice. Click here for a downloadable map.


The Icefields Parkway
We got stunning weather on the parkway but smoke haze from nearby bushfires made it hard to get good photos.

Athabasca Falls - 


The Athabasca Falls are 32 km south of Jasper. It is not width or height which makes these falls spectacular but rather the sheer force of the water roaring over them in a boiling cauldron of nature's power.

20 km south of the falls watch for mountain goats just near the turn-off to Honeymoon Lake. There is a natural deposit of salt here which draws them.


Athabasca Falls, The Icefields Parkway
Athabasca Falls

Sunwapta Falls - 


25 km past the Athabasca Falls are the Sunwapta Falls where the turbulent water is almost as impressive as that at the Athabasca Falls.


The Athabasca Glacier - 


Sadly, this is where the crowds really come into their own. The Athabasca is the most visited glacier in North America. With hardly any effort you can walk almost up to its face. There were plenty of other tourists on the path when we did this but it was not so crowded that the experience was spoiled. 


Athabasca Glacier
A close-up view of the Athabasca Glacier


However, call in to the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre across the road from the glacier and you will see what I mean about crowds. The Icefield Centre is the ticketing and departure point for Brewster's Ice Explorer Tours and Glacier Skywalk.  If either of these tours is on your itinerary, leave yourself plenty of time. While we were there, hundreds of people seemed to be queuing first to buy or collect tickets, then again to enter the tour departure area, and then again to actually board the tour vehicles - it was chaos. Perhaps a stiff scotch or a couple of valium might be a good idea to handle the stress.


Icefield Centre, Icefields Parkway
Visitors queuing for tickets at the Icefield Centre

Icefield Centre, Icefields Parkway
After queuing for tickets the visitors had to queue again and again!


Peyto Lake -

You will have to get out of the car and walk uphill for about 10 minutes to see Peyto Lake but it is worth the effort. From the viewing platform at Bow Summit you can look down on what must be one of the loveliest lakes in the world. When we saw the lake in mid-July it was a turquoise blue but fine rock particles suspended in the water reflect different parts of the light spectrum at different times of the year depending on how much 'rock-flour' is in the water. This changes the colour of the water from intense green to blue-green.

The trail from the parking area to the viewing platform is quite steep but there is parking for tour buses and the disabled at the top of the trail much closer to the platform.


Peyto Lake, The Icefields Parkway
Peyto Lake


Bow Lake and the Crowfoot Glacier


Almost as lovely as Peyto Lake, Bow Lake is a few kilometres further on directly beside the road. Between Peyto Lake and Bow Lake the parkway climbs to its highest point at Bow Summit. At 2,069 m (6,790 ft) this is one of the highest public roads in Canada. From here you get a great view of the aptly named Crowfoot Glacier.


Lake Louise and surrounds


If, somehow, you manage to avoid the crowds at the other attractions your luck will run out here. 10,000 visitors a day come to Lake Louise in summer. Not only does the car park fill up by mid-morning but from time to time the road is closed just beyond the town in order to relieve the congestion. 

Don't, however, let this put you off visiting either Lake Louise or the nearby Moraine Lake. Arrive early or late and you won't have the place to yourself but at least you'll be able to park. In mid-July, David and I visited Lake Louise once after about 5 pm and once about 10.30 am and were able to park both times. The parking at Moraine Lake is more limited but again by arriving in the late afternoon we were able to find a spot.


Maligne Lake, Alberta
Canoes for rent on Maligne Lake - don't expect them to be cheap.


You could always try to avoid the crowds by staying at the Fairmont Chateau which sits in solitary splendour on the shores of Lake Louise. However, the Fairmont has 550 rooms. If you are looking for private, intimate surroundings you are unlikely to find them here. A quick walk around the back of the hotel led us to the sight of tour bus after tour bus lining up to disgorge hotel guests and their luggage. 


Lake Louise, Alberta
'Just us' - and about a thousand other tourists at Lake Louise. 





The Fairmont at Lake Louise
The Fairmont at Lake Louise

Cycling (and walking) in Lake Louise Village -


Click here for a PDF brochure on cycling trails in the area. The 7.1km round trip Bow River Loop (Ride No: 29) running along the river bank is flat, easy and picturesque. Between mid-May and mid-July part of the trail is closed to protect bears but it is easy enough to cross the river and avoid this section.


Cycling at Lake Louise
Cycling in Lake Louise Village

The Bow Valley Parkway


The Bow Valley Parkway runs from Lake Louise village to the outskirts of Banff. Running parallel to the Trans-Canada Highway it is a lovely scenic route. Watch for bears early in the morning or in the late afternoon. Even during the day we saw several deer in the shade of the trees not far from the road.


One of 'our' deers -at least I think it's a deer - on the Bow Valley Parkway

Tips and tricks and things to know 

  • Click here for a map you can download.
  • Fill up with petrol (gas) before you set out. There is only one petrol station on the Icefields Parkway. It is at Saskatchewan River Crossing, roughly half way between Jasper and Lake Louise.
  • Unless you are camping, plan to stay at either end of the parkway - Jasper then Lake Louise. There is very little accommodation on the parkway itself.
  • The Icefield Parkway extends across the Jasper and Banff National Parks. You will be required to pay a fee to enter them. One fee covers both. There are various different passes ranging from day passes to yearly Discovery Passes.  Try to decide beforehand what sort of pass is most economical for you because you won't have a lot of time to think through the options once you reach the toll gates. It is worth knowing that if you have purchased a day pass to any other Parks Canada National Park within the previous 30 days and you still have your receipt then you are entitled to up-grade to a higher value pass. Click here for current fees to all Canadian Parks and here for frequently asked questions.
Note: David and I stayed at and travelled along the Icefield Parkway at our own expense. 

56 comments:

  1. It is a beautiful back yard we have and you have experienced the height of the tourist season. So beautiful and so crowded. The crack of dawn really is one of our top tricks and although the weather can be challenging spring and fall are better bets. We stayed at the Chateau in early May and pretty much had the place to ourselves, save for Australian tourist groups. :)

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    1. Haha about the Australian tourists. I sometimes wonder whether there is anyone left at home. Overseas travel is our national hobby. D and I normally try to travel out of season but we combined the Icefields parkway with Alaska, as many Australians do, and D was paranoid about trying to get the best weather we could for Alaska. In the end we got a heat wave. We did have a wonderful time though and I thought the Icefields Parkway was fantastic. I envy you being about to just pop up to Lake Louise and enjoy it without the crowds.

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  2. Wow Lyn, what a spectacular part of the world. All the lakes and mountain scenes are just stunning. I haven't been there yet, but it's definitely on my list.

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    1. It was one of the most beautiful places we have ever been.

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  3. It's an amazing sceneries. Thank you for taking me there through your great photos. With those ice glaciers, it must really be that cold. I don't know the feeling because i live in a tropical country.

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    1. Ironically it wasn't cold at all. David and I went in mid-summer and we struck a heat wave but you could feel the cold air blowing of the Athabasca Glacier as we got close to it.

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  4. Those falls are awesome. What a beautiful scenic area & it's nice to see so much green grass as we're in a drought here in Tasmania. Our lawns are a nice shade of brown at the moment. The photo looking across Lake Louise at The Fairmont is a really great photo & it looks like a very impressive hotel, at least I assume it's a hotel.

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    1. Yes, it is a hotel and I was pretty pleased with the way the photo came out. Tassie maybe in drought but it can't seem to stop raining here in Sydney. Pity we can't send some of our clouds down to you.

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  5. I'm not sure why the crowds there surprised me - it's a beautiful place to visit. I guess I always thought it was so vast that people could spread out more.

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    1. If you are a camper or back-country hiker I am sure you could get away from everyone else but we don't camp (or hike much) and we did go in high season so the crowds were not really a great surprise.

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  6. I never ever tire of the mountains. We live only an hour or so away, and sometimes drive out for the day. Your blog and photos are great - made me want to get back out there!

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    1. I envy you living so close. We live in Sydney, Australia, which is beautiful but those glacier covered mountains were in a class of their own.

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  7. Wow - how stunning! And that bear is a little too close for comfort. What an experience!

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    1. Needles to say we stayed firmly in the car. Surprisingly, not everyone else around us did the same.

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  8. This has been on our list for a while - it's the crowds that keep us away. We were thinking either May or September for a visit, and you sealed the deal for us! Your photos are just magical! I especially love the one with all those colorful canoes.

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    1. It really is a balancing act between maximising your chances of good weather and avoiding the crowds. Sue Slaght, a fellow blogger, says in the first comment on this post that in early May she had the place to herself. She is however a Canadian and may be a bit more used to arduous winter weather than the rest of us mere mortals.

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  9. It is the same situation in Yosemite and other popular National Parks. I went to Yosemite this last summer and it was not that bad at all by waking up early and securing a parking space. Also, people then to congregate in certain areas. Like you mentioned, it if wise to visit those areas earlier and then, stop by less crowded areas.

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    1. I am not sure that there are any less crowded areas on the Icefields Parkway but getting up early and also going to places in the late afternoon worked fairly well. There were still crowds but they weren't intolerable.

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  10. The Parkway looks stunning. Too bad about the many visitors, although it looks like there were some gorgeous natural features to make up for it.

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    1. Yes, it was truly stunning and the crowds didn't affect us that much because we drove ourselves and didn't try to join any tours.

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  11. As someone who has traveled the Icefields Parkway in the middle of summer, I definitely agree with all your tips!

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    1. I would love to go back one day but when we do I'm going to try to make it slightly out of season.

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  12. It is such a dilemma as a travel writer to share destinations that are little known, and then become really popular. It looks as though The Icefields Parkway has not suffered from too much exposure. Must add it to what is one ver long list.

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    1. When you compare it to Europe the whole of North America is relatively undiscovered. You get other tourists and crowds at some places but nothing like on the scale of Europe.

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  13. I'm so glad you managed to avoid the crazy crowds for a good deal of the time and that you got to see your bear(s)! I've never seen one in the wild and would love to but I'm also rather scared of meeting one at the wrong time. When I finally get the chance to get to this part of the world I'll be taking your advice on how to make the most of this gorgeous part of the world and reduce the crowd time.

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    1. I hope you see a wild bear one day and like us it is from the safety of your car - lol.

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  14. Reading this brings back happy memories, especially the photo of Peyto Lake :) I still think Maligne Lake is the most magnificent sight of nature I've ever seen. Wish I'd got to see more of the area, but this is the downside of seeing the Parkway from a tour bus!

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    1. Being in our own rental car meant we could spend as much or as little time as we wanted in each place and, best of all, return to the places we liked most but it does require a lot more planning than joining a tour.

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  15. When my children were small their teacher sent them a postcard from this area and it's been on my list since. Someday! And hopefully in the off, or shoulder, season!

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    1. I hope you get there. It is one of the most beautiful drives in the world.

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  16. This road trip made it to our top 5 in U.S. and Canada, and for good reason. All your tips about how to avoid the crowds are spot on. We visited in late August and they were thinning out, except for Lake Louise. That was a nightmare. Ironically, just up the road and over a piece Banff way, we had the most enjoyable Sunday morning of the entire trip on a virtually deserted lake - Two Jack Lake - much more beautiful than Lake Louise. I loved Banff, Pete loved Jasper. No matter what your taste, this stretch of the Canadian Rockies has it.

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    1. I don't quite know why, perhaps it was the day of the week, but we struck significant crowds in Banff. We were having lunch with fellow bloggers and they had booked a place they knew so it wasn't a problem. We had our bikes with us, parked out of town and cycled the last couple of kilometres along the shore of the Bow River to avoid the traffic. It was just beautiful. There was a stretch where we were able to watch people in canoes enjoying the sunshine. One of the best things about travelling with bicycles is that it is often possible to avoid the worst of the traffic.
      I don't think we got to see Two Jack Lake - something for next visit.

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  17. What fantastic tips and must see's, this is definitely a region I would love to see for 2016. And of course in the off season, thanks for a lovely write up.

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    1. It is heaven on earth for photographers. You would love it.

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  18. Gosh - these tips are perfect - thanks! I've always wanted to visit this region, but the sheer number of people puts me off. Now you've shared your tips, I shall be sure to take your advice. Lake Louise looks stunning.

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    1. Lake Louise is stunning even with the crowds of people but arriving early or late in the day does help a lot.

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  19. Wow, what gorgeous scenery! Looks like a great place to break out the bikes.

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    1. It was, even for us leisure cyclists. We found some great easy, flat trails.

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  20. Great shots! Lovely!
    Thanks for linking up at http://image-in-ing.blogspot.com/2016/01/eat-your-greens-fruity-ones.html

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  21. Gorgeous! How lucky that you were able to go there!
    http://travelingbugwiththreeboys-kelleyn.blogspot.com/2016/01/a-joyful-surprise.html

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  22. What beautiful scenery! Sorry the smoke hazed up your photos but they are still very pretty. I would imagine that the coolness of the glacier would be refreshing on a hot summer's day.

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    1. We were actually quite lucky with the smoke. The fire was at Maligne Lake, not far from where we saw the bear. If it had started a day earlier the road to the lake would have been closed and we would not have seen the bear.

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  23. What a great experience this must have been for you, good thing that you were able to stay away from all the crowd and have so much fun. You captured some very good pictures.

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    1. The Icefields Parkway has some of the most stunning scenery in the world - especially if you like glaciers.

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  24. It looks beautiful! I bet it is busy. The switchbacks sound scary!!! :) We'll have to try to get there some day.

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    1. It is beautiful and the switchbacks aren't too bad as long as you take them slowly and carefully.

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  25. What an absolutely beautiful place! I'm astounded by the landscape. Al of those people, though! Wow! Thanks for sharing it with us at Photo Friday!

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    1. The Icefields Parkway really is nature at its best, isn't it.

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  26. What a great country we live in. We've come pretty close to bears when fishing and they really don't care for humans, they either go about their business or run off. Unless they're ill, that's another story, better safe than sorry.

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    1. That is comforting to hear - that they run-off. The only bears I have ever seen have done just that, either gone about their business or run-off, I am pleased to say.

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  27. We were there in early Spring and there were no crowds. We were very lucky evidently. Such a gorgeous place in the world. Love your "deer" photo. The animals were spectacular in Spring with very cute bambies and moose.

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    1. Spring and Autumn are definitely the best times of year for animal spotting. We went in summer because we joined it up with a trip to Alaska and David thought the weather would be better in summer. It was, but sometimes it was too hot.

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