Explore Giants in the Canadian Rockies: Alberta's National Parks

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Deep in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, you'll find our superstars. Call them Alberta's A-list. In movie terms – they're our blockbusters, our mega crowd-pleasers . . . the ones that lure millions of visitors to gawk at their grandeur, their rugged wilderness, their endless wildlife. We're talking about Alberta's five national parks, nestled within our Rocky Mountains. But Albertans aren't the only ones puffed up in pride. Just ask the UNESCO World Heritage committee and they'll tell you why three out of Alberta's five UNESCO sites are national parks.

In this first of a two-part story, we focus on Banff National Park and Jasper National Park. Featuring the cosmopolitan mountain town of Banff and the more laid-back, pristine town of Jasper, these national parks offer outstanding outdoor adventures, cultural activities, amazing camping and lodging, intriguing attractions, five-star restaurants, fascinating history, plus easy access to wildlife. And you can journey within
the two parks along the Icefields Parkway, one of the most stunning scenic drives in the world.

Canadian Rockies Parks

UNESCO has lumped them altogether – well, seven of them that straddle both Alberta and British Columbia, and cover about 22,986 square kilometres (8,875 square miles). There's no question our Rocky Mountains pack a punch (with scores of summits topping 10,000 feet) but here's what UNESCO says: "The Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks contain outstanding examples representing major stages of Earth's history," "outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes" and "superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty."

Alberta's claim to that UNESCO fame includes the Canadian Rockies national parks of Banff and Jasper. These beauties of the national park service – along with Waterton National Park – are Alberta's highlight-reel of pure Canadiana: snow-kissed mountains, tumbling glaciers, slot canyons, turquoise lakes, towering forests, the Columbia Icefield, twisted rock columns called hoodoos, roaring waterfalls, the Continental Divide, untouched wildlife, Mounties, railroads and Canadian Pacific's (now Fairmont-owned) chateau-style hotels.

Such jewels have seduced visitors for a very long time – well, at least since 1885, the year Banff became Canada's first national park, two years after three Canadian Pacific Railroad workers found a hot spring curling out of rock crack, while building the transcontinental railroad, and changed history.

No. 1: Banff National Park

Location: 128 kilometres (80 miles) west of Calgary on the TransCanada Highway.

Population: Some 8,100 residents which swells to tens of thousands (including tourists) in the middle of summer. Banff was the first Canadian municipality incorporated as part of a national park service, and the park now attracts about 3.1 million visitors a year (69 per cent of those visit the townsite).

What's in a Name? The town of Banff is named after Banffshire, Scotland, the birthplace of two major financiers of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Where the Locals Hang: The Rose & Crown, a neighbourhood pub on Banff Avenue, is an established local tradition, as is St. James' Gate. Banff is also loaded with excellent restaurants from the four-diamond AAA/CAA high-end joints like the Eden and the Banffshire Club to more casual spots like Saltlik, Typhoon, Café Soleil and the old Mexican favourite, Magpie and Stump.

Picture Yourself Here: Few sights are as memorable as the "Castle in the Rockies," the gothic 120-year-old Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Or, take a dip where it all began – the Banff Upper Hot Springs. Be sure to poke around attractions like the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, the Cave and Basin and the Banff Park Museum.

Most Canadian Thing to Do: Mountie-spotting. You can regularly spy a real-live Royal Canadian Mounted Police in full regalia somewhere on the streets of Banff – the No. 1 photo op and one of the main attractions.

No. 2: Jasper National Park

The largest park in the Canadian Rockies, Jasper National Park is the jumping-off point for countless activities from canoeing and kayaking to backcountry hiking, golfing, fishing, horseback riding and skiing at Marmot Basin. Surrounded by a necklace of emerald lakes and majestic waterfalls, and home to many enticing restaurants and fascinating attractions, Jasper offers accommodations ranging from quaint bungalow cabins to luxurious resorts.

Location: Jasper National Park is 362 km (220 miles) west of^Edmonton; 414 km (248 mi.) north of Calgary.

Population: About 4,300 permanent residents, which doubles in the summer.

What's in a Name? In 1813, the North West Company built a supply depot on Brule Lake, which became known as Jasper House after NWC
clerk Jasper Hawes.

Where the Locals Hang: The Athabasca Hotel has been a local Jasper favourite for casual drinks or dinner since opening its doors in 1929. You'll also find locals at the Whistlestop Pub (in Whistlers Inn) and the De'd Dog (in the Astoria). For prime rib, book a table at Tonquin Prime Rib Village; for sea food, chow down at the Caledonia Grill. Cheesy pizza is best at the Jasper Pizza Place.

Picture Yourself Here: A great photo opportunity in Jasper is to pose beside the 8-foot-tall sculpture of Jasper the Bear with the Canadian Rockies in the background, then hustle down to the Bear's Paw restaurant for a morning cuppa.

A Uniquely Canadian Activity: At the Columbia Icefield, south of Jasper, you can ride a specially designed glacier bus called the "Ice Explorer" onto the belly of a massive glacier that spans 388 sq. km (150 sq. mi.). Or, for something completely offbeat, go scuba diving in Patricia Lake (on the skirts of Jasper townsite), in search of an ice barge that Winston Churchill commissioned in WW II with the thought that planes could land and refuel here. His vision, so to speak, tanked, but the history remains.

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