June 9, 2022

Walk this Way . . . In and Around the Rockies

Complicated by COVID-19, the paradox of modern tourism is that sites and areas have to be protected and promoted at the same time. Here’s what’s new this summer at hotspots in Calgary and the nearby Rockies that are striving to find that balance
Standup paddleboarding at Quarry Lake, near Canmore
Standup paddleboarding at Quarry Lake, near Canmore Tourism Canmore Kananaskis

Fake statues in Florence. A rope around Stonehenge. Virtual-reality tours of the seven wonders of the world and timed-entry tickets to some of America’s most popular parks (such as Glacier National Park).

No one is claiming that’s a future snapshot of Alberta’s parks, but Canmore and Kananaskis Country (combined) have seen a whopping 30 per cent spike in visitors since COVID began. In fact, this area saw roughly 1 million more visits than did Banff National Park in 2020.

Unable to travel internationally, Canadians (mostly Albertans) laced up their hiking boots, dusted off their tents and trekked around with Mother Nature like never before.

In 2021, more than 5 million visitors took a trip to Canmore or to one of K-Country’s 400-plus trails, golf courses, mountain peaks and rivers that comprise this massive swath of 4,000 sq. km, says Leia Cathro, BA’20, marketing manager with Tourism Canmore Kananaskis (TCK). By comparison, Banff National Park saw 3.6 million visitors, down from its pre-pandemic high of 3.9 million.

Biking near Canmore

Check trail reports before you go as some popular routes are closed for the summer due to maintenance and expansions to parking lots

Tourism Canmore Kananskis

After 27 months of on-again, off-again liberties, the healing powers of time spent outside are now well-documented. With hiking topping TCK visitors’ must-do lists, it’s no surprise that the impact of overcrowding on the province’s most popular hikes, Grassi Lakes and Ha Ling (both on the skirts of Canmore), has become a critical issue. Which is precisely why these areas (along with the Goat Creek area, Junkyard Trail, Miner’s Peak, the east end of Rundle and some nearby mountain bike trails) will be closed this summer as Alberta Parks invests $4 million in expanding parking lots, installing bus stops and trail maintenance.

Alternative hikes are Grotto Canyon and Heart Creek (for beginners); Wasootch Ridge, Galatea Lakes, South Baldy Pass, Chester Lake and Prairie View (for intermediate trekkers); followed by Yamnuska, Wind Ridge, Pigeon, Tent Ridge and Mt. Allen for advanced hikers, suggests Cathro’s partner with TCK, Bruce Marpole.

What's New and What's Back

While there may be no new trails opening this summer, there are new experiences, adds Cathro. Take Barks Canada (guided hikes for dogs and their owners in K-Country) or a high-end, customized sunrise or twilight tour with the new outfitter Canadian Rockies Experiences.

Rats Nest Cave

Drop into the belly of the earth with a cave tour into the Rats Nest, near Canmore

Travel Alberta

Festival-goers will be happy to know that Canmore’s small-town, ever-sweet Canada Day Parade is back, as is Alberta’s longest-running folk fest (in Canmore, July 30 to Aug. 1) that’s banking on being in-person this summer. For those craving something off the beaten path, drop into the belly of the earth with a cave tour into the Rats Nest, or learn to howl at the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary, run by alumna Georgina De Caigny, BSc (Eng)’11. Or, slog up Highwood Pass on your bike before June 15 (that portion of Highway 40 is closed to vehicles, but open to cyclists until then, so you won’t have to share the road with motorists).  

Avid cyclists will be delighted that a 17-km stretch on Banff’s well-shouldered Bow Valley Parkway is once again closed to vehicles from now until June 25 and then from Sept. 1-30.

New dining options in Banff

New dining options in Banff include lots of outdoor spaces such as the patio at the Rose & Crown

Banff & Lake Louise Tourism

As for the town of Banff, visitors continue to enjoy recent enhancements on Bear Street, which has added patio space and given a home to Three Bears Brewery and Restaurant and the new Jolene’s Tea House (the only organic, hand-blended tea in the Canadian Rockies). A short amble from Bear Street is the new Shoku Izakaya, Banff’s first Japanese pub, opened by a long-time Banffite chef, Stephane Prevost. Fans of Calgary’s Una pizza will find the same thin-crust cheesy wonders at Banff’s first Una resto. Also relatively new is Hello Sunshine, a sushi/karaoke joint at the end of Bear Street. Local intel suggests bellying up to the secret four-seat tiny bar that serves an ultra-exclusive omakase table.

Like Canmore and Kananaskis, Banff National Park’s concern about traffic and parking continues to be a key management issue. Returning this year is the option to reserve a shuttle to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, but it's departing from a different location — the Lake Louise Ski Resort. Banff’s transit and shuttle options service most key attractions in the park (including Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, Johnston Canyon and Lake Minnewanka). And, once again, the Roam bus service will link you between Canmore, Banff and Lake Louise.

Climbing the Via Ferrata, Mt. Norquay

Climbing the many routes on the Via Ferrata, Mt. Norquay

Jesse Tamayo

Not to be outdone, Canmore’s culinary scene has some new kids on (or just off) Main Street: Sauvage, Mumbai Local and the Das Schnitzel Haus. Although not so new, happy hour at the Malcolm Hotel’s outside sliver of a patio — that doubles as a sun trap — remains tough to beat. Yes, that’s my unapologetic plug for top outdoor patio, according to a relatively new Canmore resident — me. And colleague, Audrey Taylor, BA'12, MBA'18, adds that Bar Déjà Vu — Canmore's spin on a speakeasy — is her new favourite Rocky Mountain gem. "I love the eclectic décor . . . from the rotary phone to the perfume bottles and Furbies . . . to the top-notch cocktails like the Golden Snitch," she says.

Now that people are on the move again, Calgarians may find themselves besieged by visitors this summer. Although many tourists will still want to head west to the Rockies, there are plenty of new attractions in Calgary to keep them entertained for a few days and we mean more than the First Street Market and the brand-new District at Beltline, with its funky food hall, outdoor fire pits and umpteen micro-breweries. Depending on timing, you can still get tickets to Sled Island (June 22-26), the Calgary Folk Fest (July 21-24) and GlobalFest (Aug. 18-22).

Those who want to avoid crowds can choose lesser-known festivals by checking this calendar at Tourism Calgary, suggests Haskayne grad Alysia Kwong, BComm’20, Tourism Calgary’s influencer relations co-ordinator. After studying marketing at UCalgary, Kwong began working at Tourism Calgary several months ago, and suggests a variety of newly created passes may save you money and turn visits into a game.

For general interests, a Discover Calgary Deals Pass — loaded with discounts on attractions, experiences and restaurants — may be just the ticket. Discounts on food tours, gelato joints, Beebop doughnuts, dinner theatre, our nearby wolfdog sanctuary and the Leighton Art Centre are all neatly organized on this free pass. For those who want to experience some of Calgary’s 40-odd craft beverage makers — from cideries and wineries to breweries and distilleries — check out the new Beers and Cheers Pass which has all sorts of challenges and prizes embedded into one mobile passport.

No matter what’s on your summer roster for 2022, travellers will need to get creative if they want to avoid queues to . . . well, anywhere, whether that’s a patio in the Beltline or a back-country campsite. We hope you find this summer cheat sheet to local gems helpful.