Famous for its hot springs and majestic mountain setting, Banff National Park is the most popular destination for visitors to the Canadian Rockies—and with good reason, it’s the birthplace of Canada’s national park system. The scenic splendors in adjacent Kootenay and Yoho National Parks, though, shouldn’t be missed. Smaller, quieter, yet over-flowing with thick wilderness, glistening lakes, rushing rivers, and jagged snowy peaks, lesser-known Kootenay and Yoho are no less picturesque than busy Banff.
Wildlife-watchers certainly won’t be disappointed in Kootenay and Yoho. Fewer crowds usually mean more animal sightings—particularly the “big ones” such as bear, moose, elk, and bighorn sheep. If you do encounter black bears chomping dandelions beside the road or bighorn sheep blocking an entire lane, carefully pull to the shoulder to observe and maintain a respectful distance. Disturbing wildlife and creating “animal jams” are safety violations not taken lightly by park rangers. Wildlife also comes on the smaller side in these parks; look for coyote, cougar, wolverine, pine martens, and marmots, too—that is if you can tear your eyes away from the panoramic peaks that fill the windshield.
To best take advantage of all the sights and scenery, enter the seamless Canadian Rocky Mountain Park system from the south at the Village of Radium Hot Springs. Follow Highway 93 through Kootenay, then head west on Trans-Canada Highway 1 toward Yoho. With plenty of campgrounds along the way, spend a few leisurely days enjoying the striking landscape. And always keep your binoculars and camera handy because you’ll definitely need them!
Kootenay National Park: “From cactus to glacier” best describes Kootenay National Park’s 543 square miles (876 km) of diverse landscape, ecology, and climate. At the south end, the temperature is relatively warm and dry; at the north end, it is fairly cool and moist. Connecting the two environs is the park’s main attraction—the 58 mile long (94 km) Banff-Windermere Highway (Route 93). Completed in 1922, this was the first motor road across the Canadian Rockies and is one long viewpoint after another! The land on either side of the road is just five miles wide, resulting in the park’s long, narrow shape. Along the way, you’ll pass hot springs to soak in, lakes and rivers to walk or picnic beside, and incredible mountain vistas.
Be sure to take advantage of the park’s many roadside pull-offs and panoramic overlooks. Each provides a unique vantage point from which to take a good long look at Kootenay’s natural diversity. Stretch your legs on the trail bordering sparkling Olive Lake at Sinclair Pass, and watch for shaggy, white mountain goats as you drive past the steep slopes of Mount Wardle. Marble Canyon is a picturesque stop. The glacier-sculpted limestone and dolomite canyon has been eroded to depths of 130 feet (37 meters) by rushing Tokumm Creek. As the canyon narrows, the water roars down through it in a series of falls. Kootenay’s literal 5,415-foot highlight (1,651 meters) is Vermilion Pass summit—the dividing line between the Pacific and Atlantic watersheds—better known as the Continental Divide. This point also marks the border between Kootenay and Banff National Parks.
One of the most unique stops in the park is at the Paint Pots. A short, scenic trail leads from a parking area over the Vermilion River to an unusual natural wonder—ponds of cold spring water stained red, orange, and mustard yellow by the iron-based mineral, ochre. Although it’s not exactly what you’d call “pretty” the site’s cultural and spiritual significance to the First Nations peoples is quite interesting. Early Natives believed that sacred animal spirits resided here and so they collected the ochre to use for pictographs, tipis, and as body paint for special ceremonies. The park probably even got its name, which means “places of hot waters” from these early tribes.
Part 2 of this article will cover a small portion of Banff National Park— Lake Louise — that you’ll drive through on the way to Yoho National Park (part 3). So if you haven’t thrown off the motorhome cover yet this year, it’s time to do just that and hit the road!
Kootenay National Park of Canada phone: (250) 347-9615
Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative information here.
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In addition to writing about her travels, Denise Seith is also a treasure hunter and loves a good latté. She and her husband own an online gold prospecting and metal detecting equipment store found at GoldRushTradingPost.com