When we told people we were headed to Banff National Park in Alberta to explore, we heard the same suggestion from almost everyone: drive the Bow Valley Parkway. It’s one of the best places to see wildlife in the park & a great alternative to busy Highway 1. The Bow Valley Parkway is the original route that connected Banff & Lake Louise, so the day we were headed to Lake Louise, we knew how we were going to get there.
We headed out early on Sunday morning, hoping that the quiet dawn hours would mean wildlife galore. As we drove under the grand welcome arch, we crept along, well under the speed limit, eyes scanning the sides of the road.
And saw lots of pine trees & mountains &… not much else.
Luckily, even if the wildlife is hiding from you, there are several interesting points along the way to stop.
In 1993, Parks Canada decided to do a “prescribed burn” on Sawback Mountain. Contrary to what most people believe, wildfires are actually essential to forest health. The 1993 Sawback burn helped rejuvenate the area’s Aspen trees & provide vital nutrients to the animals who call the area home.
Castle Cliffs are a majestic vista standing tall over the Bow Valley Parkway. They stand out from the surrounding area, as they’re one of the first truly jaw-dropping mountains you come to along the parkway. Take a moment to pull over & read the information sign. Americans will be intrigued that the peak furthest to the right is named after President Eisenhower.
I already wrote about our great hike in Johnston Canyon. While the canyon is accessible from Highway 1, it’s actually located along the Bow Valley Parkway. Stop for a quick hike. You won’t be disappointed.
One of the most surprising roadside educational areas along the Parkway educates visitors about Canada’s WWI Internment Camps. Because of public fear of enemy subversion, in 1914 the Canadian government established a national system of civil registration centers where enemy aliens were required to register & report monthly. If you failed to report, or tried to leave the country, you were imprisoned. In total 8,579 men became prisoners of war in 24 camps across Canada, one of which was built at the base of Castle Mountain & held immigrants from Ukraine, Austria-Hungary & Germany.
Although B & I both knew about the U.S.’s use of internment camps in WWII, we were previously unaware of this rather uncomfortable part of Canada’s history & left this education area feeling a bit down.
Wait – really no wildlife?
We drove the entire length of the Bow Valley Parkway from Banff to Lake Louise & did not see a single bit of wildlife. We were incredibly bummed, but what are you going to do? This is real life, not a zoo, & nothing is guaranteed. We headed into Lake Louise for a great day of exploring – including finally seeing our first grizzly bear of the trip.
Since we weren’t in a rush on our return trip, we decided to give the Bow Valley Parkway one more try. We slowly drove along, eyes scanning the sides of the road & yet, nothing. Until we rounded a bend just past Johnston Canyon & saw a few cars pulled off to the side. We got excited thinking the only kind of traffic jam on the Bow Valley Parkway is the best kind: a wildlife sighting!
We pulled over & scanned the dense forest. It was virtually impossible to see anything through the trees. Finally we spotted him: a black bear, about 100′ away, taking a nap on the forest floor. Every once in a while, he’d lift his head at the noise of a passing car, but otherwise was unfazed by all of us. I felt like a member of the paparazzi, taking photos with the long lens of my camera. It was really tempting to get out of the car to get a better shot, but we thought better than tempting a bear during prime grazing season.
We headed back to Banff, satisfied that we had finally seen some wildlife on the Bow Valley Parkway. Even if we hadn’t, this beautiful scenic route is well worth the slight detour.