Western Canada: Oh, Yoho

Continued from The Road To Golden

Note:  Our trip to Canada was taken in May 2008

We left our cozy base in Banff’s Lake Louise, drove the length of Kootenay National Park, took The Road to Golden, and headed back up through British Columbia’s small and stunning Yoho National Park.  

Darn good set of choices.

Yoho, a name given to this park in 1901, is the native Cree expression for “awe and wonder.”  Got that right:  From Golden, BC, the 1 takes a spectacular rise up into Yoho, full of incredible sights.  

Within two minutes up the hill, we screeched to a halt, took a quick u-turn, and narrowly escaped a run-in with an oncoming RV — all to see seven Bighorn sheep, posing as if to raise the flag on Iwo Jima.  Sadly, our car spooked them all.  

Have you ever missed an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime photo?  I mean, I managed to snap them as they strode away…but still.  

Besides the wide-open skies and soaring, snow-capped mountains, the Bighorns, elk, and occasional grizzly bears, there are tiny little ground squirrels and chipmunks aplenty.  But there is only one Emerald Lake.

Emerald Lake is an amazing teal green, fed by mineral deposits from the mountains all around it.  Its color is distinct from the kelly green of Kootenay’s Olive Lake and the pale cerulean blues of Banff’s Lake Louise and Peyto, and draws busloads of tourists to its edges.  

We skipped the hullabaloo by setting off on (part of) the hour-long woodland walk around the perimeter, listening to the water gently lap the shore, peppered with tiny yellow glacier lilies.  Tall trees arc over the path in places, creating some quiet woodland shade.  

Up in the mountains at the north end of the lake is the legendary Burgess Shale. Discovered in 1909 by an American paleontologist and then-Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, this massive fossil bed contains millions of incredibly well-preserved (and some still unclassifiable) ancient invertebrates.  

The discovery of the Shale eventually led to identification of the Cambrian Explosion, a period of evolution where nature seemed to be trying out and then scrapping a whole bunch of wild ideas for tiny creatures.  Originally the sea floor, the mountain-top Shale has proven to contain many of the same creatures found in a similar fossil bed in China’s Yunnan Province.  Since this discovery, many of the tourist buses here contain groups from China.

There’s a beautiful lodge and conference center at the lake where you can stay in a room that looks out over both the lake and the Shale, and in summer you can borrow one of their rowboats and glide out on the water.  It could be horribly overrun in the high season, but pre-June, it seemed like it would be a truly romantic place to wake up in the morning.

Five minutes back down the road, we explored the Natural Bridge.  Here the ice-blue rapids of the Kicking Horse River rush so fast that they’ve heavily sculpted the rocks both around and beneath it.   The river here used to flow over the top of the rock, but over time pushed its way through to form a, well, natural bridge.

Here in the Rockies, they calls ’em like they see ’em.  

There’s a catwalk that runs across the river, allowing you to see the bridge from a few sides, but you can’t walk across it; you might be swept away and tossed to a rocky, horrifying death.  Better to, um,  stand idly by and feel the cool spray of the rapids.  

Back on the 1 and ten minutes up is the town of Field.  An incongruously tiny town set in a huge valley floodplain with gorgeous, snowy Rockies all around, Field suffers from B & B overload.  Every other structure, and in some cases every one in a row, is a funky little bed and breakfast.

A late 1800s town that originally survived via mountaineering tourism, eventually as a conduit for the miraculous mountain railroad, and now as an artisan center (and apparently, place to sleep), hard-packed Field feels a little like a set from Northern Exposure.  You half expect a moose to wander through town at any moment, and I’d lay money that just such a thing happened shortly after we drove away.  Just another missed photo opportunity.

It’s only twenty minutes back up to Lake Louise, through a swath of towering white-capped mountains that give way to meadows of snow melt and prairie grasses.  You might take this time to talk about everything you’ve just seen, or like us, stare out the windows in dumbfounded silence at the thought that this beauty has always been here — it was just waiting for someone to build the road.

* For more photos from Yoho National Park, click here.


Continued in Johnston Canyon

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