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Outdoor adventures at Canada’s Banff National Park

Banff National Park's Mount Norquay Banff National Park's Mount Norquay | Photo by Paul Zizka Photography

Posing for the perfect photo, I leaned away from the mountainside and put on my most confident face. Only two carabiners kept me attached to my safety harness, yet I wasn’t concerned—except with getting the perfect shot.

I was midway through Mount Norquay’s via ferrata (“iron road,” in Italian) course, a series of iron rungs anchored into the mountain that allows even novices—albeit brave ones—to climb thousands of feet up. From my perch, Banff National Park stretched all around me. The graceful peaks, electric-blue lakes, and miles of green pines and firs seemed the stuff of oil paintings plucked from the depths of an artist’s imagination.

“I’m hanging off the edge of a mountain, and I feel totally fine,” yelled Casey, who was visiting from Toronto with her boyfriend, Matt. “I just want to scream!” (And so she did.) A marmot whistled in the distance, seemingly cheering us on—or, more likely, annoyed by our presence—then later scampered by.

The author ascends Mount Norquay's via ferrata  in Canada's Banff National Park

The author ascends Mount Norquay's via ferrata in Canada's Banff National Park. | Photo courtesy Haley Shapley

Beautiful Banff has been turning heads since its beginnings in the 1880s, when three railroad construction workers spotted the local hot springs that would make the town famous. After the Canadian Pacific Railway advertised the area to fashionable Victorian types, Banff’s popularity soared. Today, more than 4 million tourists descend on this southwestern Alberta community each year.

I wanted adventure, however, so I indulged my passion for the outdoors and scheduled outings that took me beyond the town. I didn’t have to travel far. Just on Banff’s outskirts sits Tunnel Mountain, which somewhat confusingly doesn’t have a tunnel running through it. It does have well-graded switchbacks, sparse crowds in the evening, and panoramic views, each better than the last.

Putting away my camera became more trouble than it was worth; as soon as it was back in the bag, I’d catch sight of another scene to capture. At the top, a collection of large boulders asked to be lounged upon, preferably with picnic accoutrements in hand.

I had no time to sit, though. The fresh air and towering peaks in the distance had convinced me that the wall of people below, who resembled dollhouse figurines at the moment, were very smart to choose Banff.

I scampered down the mountain (it was getting dark, after all) and retreated to my hotel to plan my next excursion.

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Spin Cycle

Cyclists cruise Bow Valley Parkway, the scenic route between Banff and the Lake Louise area. Banff and Lake Louise Tourism / Paul Zizka Photography

Cyclists cruise Bow Valley Parkway, the scenic route between Banff and the Lake Louise area. | Photo by Banff and Lake Louise Tourism / Paul Zizka Photography

“Road biking is the new golf,” Tom Couture of Banff Cycle told me while we readied for my lesson. I’d perched precariously on bikes plenty of times, but I’d never warmed to the idea of the road style, with thin tires that seem ready to skid at any time and curved handlebars that require a hunched position. Most serious riders come with their own pedals, shoes, and seat.

I came with, well, none of that, but a willingness to try out the sport. A few minutes later, I was flying. The lightweight bike frame and aerodynamic position of my body made it easier to ride than ever before. I sped up hills, but when it came to sailing down them, I kept my fingers firmly pressed on the brakes. “You’re ruining all the momentum you’ve worked to build up,” Tom coached me.

“I know,” I replied, “but I’m staying alive.”

It began to pour, but we rode on, pushing to the crest of a hill where the Fairmont Banff Springs has been housing visitors since 1888. The castle-like hotel looked somewhat foreboding with the fat raindrops bouncing all around it; the gray clouds surrounding the structure made me feel as if I were riding into the setting of a fairy tale.

Inside, Tom treated me to a warm beverage at the bright and cheery Whitebark Café over conversation about snow kiting and just how many Banff shops have moose in their names.

Mountain Encounter

Hikers make their way up Mount Norquay. | Photo by Jesse Tamayo / Mt Norquay

Hikers make their way up Mount Norquay. | Photo by Jesse Tamayo / Mt Norquay

Nothing could beat my time on Mount Norquay, though. After making the tough decision about which color helmet to wear (I chose orange to match my shirt, naturally), our six-person group boarded the chairlift two by two for the 15-minute ride.

The 60-year-old Italian woman next to me chatted nervously, mostly about being 60 and Italian. I gave her an encouraging grin, and we pressed on. Implied danger has a way of bonding people. We soon began our ascent by foot, crossing a wooden suspension bridge and scaling rocks along the way.

The cable I was attached to via clips on my harness provided simultaneous feelings of security and freedom. And the metal handholds and footholds let me clamor over the rocks with ease as though I were Spider-Man.

As I crested the top of a rock, I caught glimpse of a shiny object being slid onto Casey’s finger. Matt was proposing, and Casey, quite verbal until now, was too stunned to say much—although she did manage to get out the “yes.” I hope the marmot makes the guest list.

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Lovely Louise

Beautiful Lake Louise is about 35 miles from Banff

Beautiful Lake Louise is about 35 miles from Banff. | Photo by Paul Zizka

My trip wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to the park’s grande dame: Lake Louise (also the name of the adjacent town), a turquoise alpine lake about 35 miles from downtown Banff. You can reach Lake Louise most quickly via the Trans-Canada Highway, but I took the scenic Bow Valley Parkway, a two-lane road known for its wildlife sightings.

Sure enough, a slowing line of cars alerted me that something worth spotting was ahead. There, I saw a black bear lackadaisically feasting on berries 20 feet from the side of the road. A few miles later, a deer sprinted in front of me, loping into the depths of the forest as quickly as it had appeared.

In summer, you can take in the Lake Louise landscape on a hike, a horseback ride, and by canoe/kayak. For this quick trip, I opted for the Lake Louise Gondola. As I boarded, I considered that the ride might pale in comparison to the views on the drive I’d just made.

But I forgot those as I spotted the aqua lake in the distance, flanked by gray mountainous triangles triumphantly standing guard, a panorama I savored over lunch at the Whitehorn Bistro, located at 6,700 feet.

If You Go

Tourism information is available from the Banff and Lake Louise Tourism Office; 403-762-8421.

What to do

Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies | Photo by Devaan Ingraham

Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies | Photo by Devaan Ingraham

Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies: In this small but worthwhile museum, learn about the intrepid explorer who settled the area. 403-762-2291.

Banff Cycle: This operation offers road bike rentals, ride support, and tours. 403-985-4848.

Brewster Adventures: Atop an affable horse, ride through subalpine forest to the edge of Lake Louise or a mountain teahouse. 403-762-5454.

Mount Norquay: The via ferrata is open daily during the summer. Guides are required. 403-762-4421.

Where to eat

The Maple Leaf | Photo courtesy Destination Canada

The Maple Leaf | Photo courtesy Destination Canada

Maple Leaf Grill and Lounge: A warm atmosphere and long menu (including a huge wine list) make this classically Canadian restaurant a choice option for a night out. 403-760-7680.

The Bison Restaurant: The menu is, as the name implies, heavy on game. Try the signature braised bison short ribs. 403-762-5550.

Nourish Bistro: Banff isn’t the easiest place to be a vegetarian, but this spot helps. The World Famous Nachos with 27 ingredients are a fan favorite. 403-760-3933.

Where to stay

Fairmont Banff Springs | Photo by Paul Zizka

Fairmont Banff Springs | Photo by Paul Zizka

Fairmont Banff Springs: The AAA Four Diamond hotel with tall leaded windows stands like a magnificent mountain fortress. Rates start at $499. 403-762-2211;

Buffalo Mountain Lodge: Buttery-soft duvets, stone fireplaces, and tall ceilings make the rooms tough to leave. Summer rates start at $129. 403-410-7417;

Brewster’s Mountain Lodge: This centrally located lodge is decked out in log furniture, Western decor, and historical photos. Summer rates start at $339. 403-762-2900;

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