This has been a mountainous summer. Two countries, three jurisdictions, but just one time zone – mountain time (my time)!
Rather than travelling east-west, I have made several journeys from my Canadian Rockies, south through the Blackfoot Nation, into Montana and onto Yellowstone and Jackson Wyoming.
For those unfamiliar with the region, this may sound quite random, but it is a natural and honestly magnificent journey through some of America’s best scenery. This route includes such places as Banff, Waterton, Glacier Park, Yellowstone, Jackson Hole and … Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump!
The only metropolis on this trip is Calgary. A medium-sized city by world standards, but recently rated 5th best city in the world. ‘Cowtown’ or ‘Calgree’ in the local vernacular, is western Canada’s business hub and increasingly a lifestyle city. Educated, wealthy, clean and remarkably diverse, Calgary’s is best known for the (perhaps) outdated Stampede (the World’s largest rodeo) and the 1988 Winter Olympics.
As Alberta’s largest city, Calgary is a white-collar, oil city. It has an impressive rate of volunteerism and despite its conservative reputation, Calgary managed to elect North America’s first Muslim mayor.
On this trip, Calgary is the gateway to Banff and the Rocky Mountains. Of course, we visit Canmore – my home town and then visit all the typical sites in Banff.
As 2017 is Canada’s 150th anniversary, there are no park fees this year. Combined with a weak Canadian dollar, international acclaim and a major hotel catching fire this winter, our mountain towns are full. Completely full. Consequently, we have been leaving very early for sightseeing ventures and avoiding over-priced activities such as the Banff Gondola.
Visiting Lake Louise is always a thrill and arriving early is key. The Lake Louise gondola/chairlift is the best way – and best value – to ride up a mountain.
This farthest north we travel is to the Colombia Icefields as a day trip. Click here for the Icefields Parkway (and a winter handstand).
Leaving Banff, we skirt back through Calgary and drive along the Foothills. Fires in BC resulted in some smoke, but Southern Alberta really is blue-sky country. As the prairie becomes dryer and increasingly windy, we divert to one of the most import historic sites in the Americas – Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.
Globally people are aware the mighty North American Bison (buffalo) once roamed the western plains in their millions. The Blackfoot (Blackfeet in Montana) maintained a symbiotic relationship with this species for thousands of years. The subtle cliffs of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump provided the largest pre-industrial food harvest on planet earth. This is significant.
The destruction of the bison remains one of the great environmental crimes of the colonial period.
For their part, the Blackfoot have survived and it is an honour to hear their language spoken. Their (inter)national territory is larger than many current independent countries.
Turning back in the Rockies in the deep southwest of Alberta, Waterton Lakes is a shared international park with Glacier in the USA and makes a case for the most perfect mountains views.
While tired, the Prince of Wales hotel has a perfect, windy post looking south towards the lakes. The Hotel – whilst very Canadian – was American built during prohibition as a scenic drinking venue for well-heeled American visitors.
We cross the border into Montana at Chief Mountain and immediately watch for free-ranging cattle on the narrow roads.
Montana is the 4th largest state in the Union, but remains the 5th least populated. Speed limits are remarkably high and the landscapes vast. Montana is Big Sky Country.
Remaining on the east slope of the Rockies, our first night is in the Blackfeet town of Browning. I love the contrasting brown fields framed by the mountains. I would also love to sit and talk with the friendly locals in the pub, but am unfortunately out due to open tobacco consumption. I really hate smoke.
From Alberta’s deep south the previous day, Glacier Nation Park is suddenly in the United State’s remote far north. When the snow finally melts, it offers a voyage over the ‘Going to the Sun Road.’ Vehicle size is limited due to the narrow road and parking. When all goes well, this route makes a solid claim as ‘most beautiful drive in the USA.’
Logan Pass at the top of the road crosses the continental divide. Waters suddenly flow to the pacific ocean and the environment becomes greener. As we travel further south, we cross the divide numerous times and gain altitude.
Leaving Glacier Park through its west village, we continue along the western side of the Rocky Mountains, in a massive glacial trench. The American Rockies are younger than those in Canada and mighty Yellowstone looms large.
I often describe the super-volcano as a giant pimple on the earth. Imagine the Big Island of Hawaii in the middle of a continent. But even bigger. That is Yellowstone. A vast, magma-filled hot-spot that could virtually end life on our planet. Yellowstone is oddly appropriate as the world’s first real National Park. What foresight.
En route from Glacier to the Yellowstone area, Montana’s mountainous west is stunning. Flathead Lake is the largest body of fresh water in the western US and during the season fresh cherries are for sale along the road.
As small cities go, Missoula is one of my favourites. This friendly (and affordable) university city is ideally located at the convergence of five valleys. The city offers a mix of western architecture and a lively pub culture. During the hot summer days people swim and float in the river(s). For a little exercise, it takes 20-30 minutes to hike up to the ‘M’ on Sentinel mountain above the University of Montana.
Continuing towards Yellowstone, minerals become apparent in the exposed rock faces. Just to the east of the continental divide, Butte is a favourite stop of mine. I know this is often the least popular stop on this trip, but I think the city is incredibly important.
As a mining community, Butte has an interesting – and sometimes tragic – history that is echoed in its architecture, ubiquitous mine shafts and its pubs.
Butte embodies the western mining tradition. Its huge copper deposits created great wealth, spurred immigration and was a hotbed of the labour movement. It also remains the site of the most deadly deep mine disaster in American history. Evil Knievel was born in Butte.
Mining continues in the area and extremely close to town, but as is happening in the western states, outdoor sports and tourism now contribute to the economy.
Continuing with our mining theme, I always detour to Virginia City. This western gem was established because of gold and was actually Montana’s capital for a period of time during the 19th century. Its population hovers around 75 and it is perfectly permissible to wander the street with a beer in hand.
Yellowstone National Park is mostly located in Wyoming but spills over into Montana and Idaho. The park is a huge plateau of which about 2/3’s is a volcanic caldera. Some of the park is beautiful, but we really visit for geothermal sites. The ‘Stone’ is ‘Yellow’ due to sulfur.
By spending two nights in West Yellowstone (Montana) we can do the entire north loop in the park and most of the south loop. There is so much to say about Yellowstone, I may write a longer submission separately.
Travelling south out of Yellowstone – and when the weather is clear – the Teton range appears along the shores of Jackson Lake. This is Wyoming. Open, clear, dry and sparsely populated. This ‘least populated state’ in the Union is culturally western.
Located at the southern end of the Teton chain is the wild-west resort community of Jackson – the valley is Jackson Hole.
Jackson is fun, sporty and wealthy. The area is home to many very wealthy and well-known people. Politically Jackson was Dick Cheney’s base. Harrison Ford also lives in the area.
As with other mountain resort towns, Jackson is quite expensive, 100% full and lifestyle oriented. Staff is imported from the around the world during the busy season. I was sad to learn that in a community of millionaires and billionaires, servers are paid $2.13 an hour. Tipping really matters.
On every trip to Jackson, I like to hike up Snow King mountain. Even if you take the chairlift, the views of the Tetons and Jackson Hole Valley are outstanding. The scenic float trip on the Snake River is also very popular!
This entire itinerary is perfect because Banff and Jackson are natural bookends to some of North America’s most dramatic scenery. Over 1000 miles, we crisscross the Rocky Mountains and explore a super-volcano. This is my own backyard, and I am so lucky.