Hikes at Dawn from Historic Hotels in the Canadian Rockies

Posted By Mike Padgett

Aug. 4, 2012

LAKE LOUISE, Alberta – Summer sunrises in the Canadian Rockies are among the best work of nature’s saints and angels. They make the air brisk and refreshing. They return colors to the forests and mountains.

One morning in mid-July, before dawn, I cross a Canadian castle’s empty lobby. My goal is sunrise photos along an icy and primeval lake. Exploring the previous day, I found several spots for photos on the trail bordering Lake Louise.

When its namesake lake is smooth as glass, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is reflected in water the color of turquoise. Dawn’s dew dripping from evergreens along the shore causes occasional ripples in the lake.

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

My fuel for the hike is a cup of caffeine and the anticipation of a few keeper photos.

This morning in the Rockies is overcast. The aroma of tree bark compost in the hotel flower gardens greets me as I exit the hotel. A grounds worker and I exchange greetings. She is watering the poppies and other flowers from the tank she pulls with her garden tractor.

Vibrant Icelandic poppies add sparkle to hotel gardens at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Out on the trail, I share the dawn and the forest’s aroma with two other early morning hikers. This is grizzly country, but the bears shouldn’t be a problem.

I hear a distant train whistle. The haunting sound is part of the region’s heritage. As in the American West, railroads were major players in the settlement of the Canadian West. The Canadian Pacific Railway in 1890 built a guest chalet that years later became the Chateau Lake Louise. The railway also is linked to the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel in the town of Banff, less than an hour’s drive to the southeast.

Lake Louise and its historic luxury hotel are in a remote storybook setting far from sirens and traffic and airports. Occasionally, we hear helicopters. Pilots offer tourists bird’s-eye views of forests and jagged peaks. They fly over glaciers feeding into a turquoise lake that, on summer afternoons, is dotted with red rental canoes.

The lake trail is an easy walk. Water percolating from the hillside trickles across the trail and into the lake. The tree line partway down from the mountain peaks marks the end of soil for the forest.

There is no time on this hike to find the end of the lake trail that threads its way up the mountain and onto glaciers. There will be a future visit.

This turquoise jewel of a lake greets us each morning. One day, with the sun’s rays touching the glacier in the distance and reflecting in the lake, several hotel guests (lower right) rush to the lake’s edge to photograph the day’s spectacular beginning. I capture this image from our hotel window. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Several times, on clear days, we hear what sounds like thunder. One morning, the rumble greets me as I turn off my 5 a.m. alarm. We learn later the sounds probably came from avalanches of snow and ice high in the mountains.

The rumbling startles us on another morning hike. My Best Friend and I had become separated on the lake trail, each concentrating on photos. She is back on the trail, around a bend. I glance at a man paddling his rental canoe not far from shore.

He freezes in mid stroke. I follow his gaze upslope beyond the head of the lake to Mount Victoria and Victoria Glacier. Slowly, the man resumes paddling. We see no avalanche.

A hotel worker later explains that unless you see an avalanche, by the time you hear it, the avalanche could be over. Sound travels much slower than light.

Canada’s rural scenery

Lake Louise is less than a two-hour drive northwest of Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway. The drive across the prairies and into the mountains goes too quickly.

A few miles west of Calgary, I spot a herd of Hereford cattle on a sloping pasture in the distance. The rural scene brings to mind Canadian author Wallace Stegner’s writings about his boyhood in the early 1900s in southern Saskatchewan.

The highway takes us across rolling fields of grain and grasslands painted shades of green by spring rains. Occasionally, the blue skies over the prairies are dominated by thunderheads taller than the Rockies.

Alberta’s History

At the lakeside chateau, we soak in the region’s history. We marvel at the determination and grit of explorers, miners and railroad workers whose roles were key in the westward expansion in North America.

An afternoon view of Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Native Americans called the lake Ho-Run-Num-Nay, or Lake of Little Fishes. We learn that in icy freshwater lakes, fish grow at slower rates.

In the early 1880s, the lake was named Emerald Lake by a guide packing supplies ahead of construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1884, it was renamed Lake Louise in honor of Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, daughter of Queen Victoria.

The original chateau erected by the railway in 1890 housed a dozen guests. Today, Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise has 554 rooms.

Winters in the Canadian Rockies

In the silence of the forest, standing next to an amazing lake, the tasks and deadlines waiting back home fade into the background. We hold hands. Share photo ideas. Dodge mud puddles on the trail. It is so quiet and still, we whisper.

For a time, until others follow us on the trail, we are alone in an ancient forest surrounded by jagged mountains cradling a lake fed by glaciers. We discover that the lake will change color, depending on the time of day and whether the sky is clear or cloudy.

A peaceful morning view of Mount Victoria reflected in Lake Louise. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

We learn that during the long winters, the lake freezes thick enough for skating. Ice sculpture competition is a major event.

To countless generations of Native Americans, this lake was part of their world. But to European explorers, and the armies of settlers, ranchers and others who followed them, this lake’s color made it unique.

Lake Louise gets its color from the “rock flour,” or silt, suspended in the water. The silt is created by the grinding action of glaciers for eons on mountain rock.

We wander through the hotel. We find the hotel’s photogenic arching picture windows that the railway in the early 1900s featured in Art Deco travel posters and postcards.

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise’s giant arched windows offer views across Lake Louise. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Lake Louise and its mountain chateau have an international following. Several bus tours arrive during our short stay. One evening, while waiting for our dinner reservations one, a group of 13 Australians moves through the Glacier Saloon’s swinging doors ahead of us. We hear visitors whispering and talking in several other languages from Asia and Northern Europe. Several guests, like me, wander through the hotel, camera in hand, admiring the design and construction.

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise’s lobby at dawn. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

This grand hotel surrounded by nature is an exhilarating stop on Canada’s trail of history. But after a few days, our time here is over. We pack and head southeast 56 kilometers to Banff.

Along the highway is a paved trail for cycling and walking. We pass several helmeted hikers traveling on roller skis, which resemble shortened skis with rubber wheels. Maybe they use roller skis and ski poles in warm months to keep in shape for cross country skiing during the winter.

We pull off the Trans-Canada Highway at the Banff exit and drive through the picturesque town, following signs to the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. We cross the Bow River bridge and head upslope on the winding road. The historic hotel towering above the forest soon comes into view.

Living History

Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, with more than 500 rooms, is another of Canada’s premier historic properties. One of its most popular rooms is Mount Stephen Hall, a favorite across Canada for weddings and other events. Its giant windows look out across Bow Valley. A suit of armor stands in a prominent corner of the room decorated with antique-style European furniture.

The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is designed like a Scottish baronial castle. Tour buses often pull up each morning to collect their passengers. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

The existing hotel was built “by the Canadian Pacific Railway in stages between 1911 and 1928,” according to a brass plaque greeting visitors. The hotel’s origins date to 1888 when a wooden structure was opened for guests by the railway. More details about the history of the hotel and the region are available at www.fairmont.com/banff-springs, and at www.gotobanff.com/history.php.

Mudslide blocks highway

After we check in, we stop in Rundle Lounge for a late lunch. It was about 3:30 p.m. Our table next to the window overlooks Bow Valley and Bow River. A sudden afternoon thunderstorm sends restaurant guests on the patio scrambling inside. The rain creates temporary waterfalls streaming down Mount Rundle, which rises to about 9,700 feet.

Later that day, we learn the storm causes a mudslide that blocked the four lanes of the highway about 2 kilometers west of Banff. We passed that location an hour earlier.

The closure of the highway for several hours sends more traffic into Banff where, according to news accounts, motorists book all remaining empty hotel rooms and create more business for local restaurants. The highway was opened the next day.

Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel’s Mount Stephen Hall is referred to as one of the most popular rooms in Canada for weddings and other special events. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Another hike at dawn

A few minutes after sunrise one morning, I walk to a place offering a view of the river’s falls, called Bow Falls, and the elegant hotel.

It was a Sunday, a perfect morning for sunrise photos. I start up the stone steps adjacent to Bow Falls. No distractions. No one else is at the viewpoint. But a minute later, I’m surprised by a jogger approaching from the other direction. She passes me and makes her way down the steps to the parking lot next to the river.

The viewpoint is downslope from the hotel. At the top step, mist rises from the river’s falls, which are heard long before they are seen. The falls are just upstream from where the Bow River meets the Spray River.

Behind me, the hotel sporting Canada’s familiar flag is bathed in the new day’s rays. The morning sun spotlights the historic hotel rising from the woods.

The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel surrounded by the Canadian forest. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Echoing through the trees were the occasional songs of birds, including the sounds of the raven. One could say the raven’s voice was created when the Great Spirit was in a grumpy mood.

Summer days in Banff are changeable. At sunrise Monday, the day began with wet streets and a partly clear sky. Then the sky clouded over. In the distance, mountain peaks vanished twice behind a curtain of rain. By day’s end, the sky was overcast again. High temperatures hovered around 60 degrees.

During our stay, we drove to a viewpoint called Surprise Point. It’s on the other side of Bow River from the hotel. The route is a short drive back across the bridge and along the other side of the river. The location offers a view of the hotel and beyond, up the slopes to the top of Sulphur Mountain.

Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, from near Surprise Point across the Bow River. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Other summer activities at the two Fairmont hotels include trail rides, aerial tours, hiking, rafting, golf, tours of the hotels and visits to the glaciers.

At both hotels, the employees – the bellmen, the housekeeping staff, the wait staff and their managers – are friendly and attentive. Their smiles, courtesy, interesting conversation and graciousness brighten each day.

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Aug 4th, 2012

One Comment to 'Hikes at Dawn from Historic Hotels in the Canadian Rockies'

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  1. Gorgeous photos and marvelous evocation of the Canadian Rockies. Great post.

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