The Great Sandhills, Alberta, and Banff National Park

Extravagant Trek to Alaska and Thereabouts: Day 3

The Great Sandhills Panoramic

This morning we awoke early and made our way south to the Great Sandhills. What a bizarre sight! While much of the sand dunes (many of which were at least ten meters in height) were grass-stabilized, there were several very sandy regions that made me question whether I was truly in Canada. The photos we took could appear to be from the Sahara, at least as far as I would assume since I haven’t been there…yet. ;-)

Sand Dune with Driftwood

After a nice morning hike through the Sandhills, we drove another forty or fifty kilometers on dirt road into Alberta and eventually to Medicine Hat. Because the dirt farm road we used is uncommon for most travellers (obviously), there was no Alberta sign. We’ll have to snap one at the British Columbia border to match the last provinces.

Veronika and me in front of the Alberta welcome sign

From Medicine Hat we drove straight through to Calgary, jumped on the bypass, then drove through the gorgeous Canadian Rocky Mountains into Banff National Park. I was excited for Vee since she hasn’t seen many mountain ranges before, and these were incredible!

View from the Gondola

When we arrived into the town of Banff, we made our way to the Banff Gondola off Mountain Road. The Gondola is a set of capsules (that happen to look a lot like the ones on the ferris wheel on the pier in Seattle) connected to a huge ski lift, essentially, that bring you to the top of a very steep mountain. At the top of the mountain is a round building with a gift shop, cafe, restaurant, and an amazing view of Banff. After taking in the view from their flooded observation deck, we took the footpath to the neighboring peak to check out the comsmic ray observation station, which was moderately interesting. Dusk was upon us, and we needed to setup camp. When we took the Gondola back down, I realized that there were hiking trails that worked their way up the mountain, so the gondola isn’t necessary if you want to see the same view and save yourself about $40 CAD/person.

View from the top of the mountain

After reaching the ground safely, once again, Vee and I walked next door with our bathing gear to experience the natural hot springs. It’s hard to think they were “natural,” though. The signs say that the water is 100% natural spring water heated to between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius by geothermal activity, but they added chlorine, which makes sense given the probably 75 to 100 people there, but was disappointing to me anyway. It really was just a pool like any other public pool, with life guards, kids, tile, and no running. Perhaps we’ll find a better hot spring later in the trip.

Since it was already dark by the time we finished the hot spring, we made our way into town and stopped at a local pub called Rose & Crown. The food was mediocre at best, the service wasn’t great, and the beer I ordered, Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale by Oland Brewery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was not an IPA.

After dinner, we were exhausted. We drove to our campsite in Johnston Canyon in incredible pitch-black darkness. On the way we found several caribou grazing on the side of the road, who were completely unphased by our speedy vector. But why should they? They stood far taller than my car.

We eventually made it to the campsite, set up the tent, ensured our dental health, then crashed hard into our pillows.

My overall impression of Banff National Park: Overcrowded tourist trap.