Drive to Banff National Park
June 16, 2015
Banff, AB, Day One in Tunnel Mt. Village 2, Banff National Park, #119
Eight years one month in our bus.

We were ready to venture further north into Alberta to visit Banff, Canada’s first national park established in 1885. The Canadian Rockies extend northwest from Waterton Lakes Nat’l Park on the US-Canadian border. The northern end of Waterton is defined by AB-3, the Crowsnest Trail leading west from Medicine Hat and Lethbridge to the magnificent Crowsnest Pass in Waterton.

The Cowboy Trail is famous for back country vacations on ranches that offer a wide variety of experiences in a beautiful wilderness setting. The Cowboy Trail on AB-22 leads northward along the east side of Rocky Mountain Forest Reserve and then the east side of Kananaski Country. It crosses the Trans-Canada Highway (AB-1) in Cochrane (west of Calgary) and continues on the east side of the Rocky Mountain Forest Reserve all the way up to Mayerthorpe (west of Edmonton).

AB-40 branches west off of the Cowboy Trail and then extends north through Kananaski Country until it joins AB-1 at Canmore (west of Cochrane). AB-1 joins AB-93 and continues north passing through Banff and Lake Louise in Banff Nat’l Park and then AB-93 continues north passing through Jasper in Jasper Nat’l Park. Beyond is the Willmore Wilderness Park.

We couldn’t hope to see all of this territory so we decided to concentrate on Banff and Lake Louise in Banff National Park. The town of Banff is 80 miles west of Calgary. Canmore is on the Park’s east boundary while Lake Louise guards its west flank. Highway 40 east of Canmore is the main route into Kananaskis Country.

I would have loved to drive west on the Crowsnest Trail and then north on the Cowboy Trail and then take AB-40 through the mountains of Kananaski but it was still closed due to snow conditions — just as the Road-to-the-Sun was closed in Glacier. So we followed the Crowsnest Trail to Fort Macleod and then turned north on AB-2 towards Calgary where we turned west on AB-1 to our destination campground in the town of Banff.

The day was mostly overcast with low clouds. In the afternoon the clouds got higher with glimpses of blue sky and periods of sunshine. We retraced our route from Lethbridge to Fort MacLeod on AB-3, the Crowsnest Trail. Shortly after we pulled onto the highway we came to a stop with traffic in front of us. Rush hour? No, an accident. We were lucky. We were stopped before an exit and police routed us off the highway and onto a parallel frontage road where we were able to drive to an entrance beyond the accident. Everyone who drove past the exit was stopped behind the accident and had to sit and wait for the road to be cleared. I think it involved a car that tried to cross the median to make a U-turn. I’m not sure, but the scene was filled with crash and emergency vehicles.

The delay for us was not long and we exited onto AB-2 north, passing the exit to Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump at 10:45 PM. The drive north on AB-2 was uneventful. We needed fuel and found a Flying J in Nanton, AB. The sign said it would be on the left and we were afraid we’d have to cross the two-lane divided highway. However, in Nanton the median became very wide with businesses located in the center, including Flying J.

While Dennis fueled up the Bus, I changed into jeans and a longsleeve shirt and put on my Columbia fleece jacket. It was windy and cold outside. Within the huge travel plaza, I walked the dogs some distance away from the fuel pumps towards a grassy strip at the edge of the plaza by a road. We passed a restaurant and cautiously crossed a gravel entrance down which trucks passed with thunderous abandon. The grass strip was a fairly wide oasis between the gravel entrance and a side road. Once safely on the grass, the dogs ran happily back and forth on their 20′ extended leashes. I wrangled the dogs and felt happy for them, but wondered how a quiet metropolitan bookworm ended up being around trucks all of the time. It seems weird.

When we started back to the pumps I didn’t see our Bus. Dennis was finished and had pulled out. I turned and walked out into the middle of the plaza where trucks stop temporarily. Dennis came around the corner and waved us to where he wanted us to go. It was very windy as he stopped to pick us up.

At noon we continued north. My maps were not detailed enough and I had no Wi-Fi for Google Maps to guide me. I should have turned on my iPhone. There are bypasses around Calgary but eventually you have to get on AB-1, the Trans-Canada Highway. We came to two exits for Banff and Co-Pilot chose Deerfoot Trail so we took that towards the NE. This seemed wrong so Dennis came to another Y and took the NW fork although Co-Pilot wanted him to take the NE fork. We eventually took a road back to AB-2 N because I didn’t have maps to know what would happen if we stayed with Dennis’s choice. I could see that AB-2 crossed AB-1 but at that point heading west it becomes a city street, not a highway. The Co-Pilot alternative would take us in a big northwest circle loop around the city beginning east of Calgary and then dropping south back to AB-1 on the west side of Calgary.

At 1:00 PM I saw a sign for Banff and chose to beat our way through the city on 16 Ave NW. This turned out well as it went straight west with no weird turns. It gave us a glimpse of Calgary as we entered Bottomlands Park to our left with Winston Heights Mountview and golf courses on our right. It was a city street with traffic lights but we passed the residential areas of Balmoral and Crescent Heights as well as SAIT Polytechnic and North Hill Centre. As we approached the University of Calgary (where the Olympic Oval was built for the 1988 Olympic speed skating venue) we crossed Crowchild Trail NW (AB-1A) which, as an alternative route might have done us very well.

But our route wasn’t too bad. We passed the Canada Olympic Park, the facility that hosted bobsled, luge, ski jumping and freestyle skiing. As we crossed the Bow River, city streets with traffic lights eventually returned to open highway on the west side of the city. Driving was easy as we left the level prairie and began to gain elevation. The immense rocky peaks came into view as we crossed AB-22 south of Cochrane and approached Ghost Lake near Morley on the north side of AB-1 and the Ghost River Wilderness beyond.

The Trans-Canada Hwy climbed northwest and turned southwest to parallel the Bow River and the Bow Valley Trail as we entered Bow Valley Provincial Park. At the north edge of Kananaski Country, we passed the junction of AB-40 with Kananaskis Village 30 miles south of us in the Kananaskis Range.

Looking northwest towards Mt. Fable and Mt. Townsend beyond.

Looking northwest towards Mt. Fable and Mt. Townsend beyond.

We passed Exshaw and the Lac des Arcs and saw the gigantic Copperstone Resort north of the highway before passing Dead Man’s Flats. The river and the highway made another bend towards the northwest as we passed Canmore and entered the Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park, the facility built for cross country skiing, biathlon and Nordic combined events. All of this is spectacular country and we could easily spend many summers exploring these areas.

At 2:24 PM we arrived at the Banff National Park entrance gate. We bought two individual Canadian annual park passes (you can’t buy one for a couple as in the US) and got a map of Banff and the campgrounds — but I didn’t have time to look at them as Dennis pulled out.

Is it us? Are we getting old? We left at 10:00 AM and I thought we’d have a fairly easy trip of about three hours. Wrong. We arrived at our campground at 3:30 PM after many difficulties and I was a basket-case by the time we got settled. It wasn’t the five and a half hour drive that did me in; it was the constant navigation difficulties.

I was worried about exits and how to find our campground. I had some telephone instructions from Reservations but they seemed vague and I had no really good detailed maps. My instructions were to take the third Banff exit. This seemed to be a direct route to our address on Tunnel Mountain Rd. Co-Pilot agreed saying we should exit at Mount Norquay Rd. So we passed the first exit, Banff Ave. As it turned out, this exit would have been the best one to take.

We didn’t see the second exit because it is only an exit as you go east, not west. It is an exit called Compound Rd and leads to an Industrial Area so it does not inspire confidence. We came to what we thought was the second exit but it was the third. It said “Norquay” but not Mount Norquay. At this point Co-Pilot froze and didn’t tell us to exit so we passed it. We soon saw that we’d passed the last exit to Banff.

So near and yet so far… I was extremely tired and dispaired that we would not reach our campground anytime soon. Instead, we were speeding towards Lake Louise on a highway constructed above a river canyon between tall mountains. Exits looked to be few. If we did take one, would it lead us up a narrow canyon road to some distant location? How would we turn around? How many miles would it take for us to find a turn-around?

The easy way to approach Village 2 is to take Banff Ave.  The hard way is to take Mt Norquay Rd. through the town of Banff.  The really hard way is to turn around at Hwy 1A Bow Valley Pkwy!

The easy way to approach Village 2 is to take Banff Ave. The hard way is to take Mt Norquay Rd. through the town of Banff. The really hard way is to turn around at Hwy 1A Bow Valley Pkwy!

At 2:45 PM, we took the first exit we saw and prayed that it would cross the highway. It was Hwy 1A, Bow Valley Pkwy and it did cross under the highway and allowed us to get back on Canada 1 headed east. Six minutes later, we took the Norquay exit into Banff. It soon became clear that this was not the best approach to the Tunnel Mountain Campgrounds. We had to navigate our 65′ of big rig and toad through the narrow, congested streets of an old mountain town beset with a great deal of traffic and many oblivious pedestrians. Norquay bends around the south side of town and then loops east to become Tunnel Mountain Rd. It did not remain Norquay however so I had to try to read street signs and street directions for Tunnel Mountain Road. Norquay became Lynx St and then we turned left on Buffalo St. and left on Banff Ave and then right on Wolf St and finally left on Tunnel Mountain Road, which ultimately led us out of town.

There is no tunnel on Tunnel Mountain Rd.  It makes a loop to the south from the east end of Banff Ave to the west end in downtown Banff.

There is no tunnel on Tunnel Mountain Rd. It makes a loop to the south from the east end of Banff Ave to the west end in downtown Banff.

We passed Village 3 and then Village 2. I thought my reservation was in Village 1 so we passed 2 and kept going. A very small sign for Village 1 said “no hookups” and Dennis didn’t see the number 1 so HE PASSED IT! I saw the 1 as we went by. I could have screamed. After that we found no place to turn around. Eventually we came to a T-intersection at Banff Ave. A right would take us to the highway. A left would take us back to town. We turned left and continued to look for a place to turn around. There were none. We emerged back in town amid traffic and congestion and we didn’t know how to get back to Tunnel Mountain Rd.

Somehow we ended up at a deadend and made a right into the Banff Park Museum driving on a parking lane parallel to Bow River. It was narrow and pine tree branches scraped our roof. I saw a road sign for Lynx and told Dennis to turn right. This put us back on Mount Norquay Rd and we drove back to the highway. We entered going east and this time we saw the “second exit, Compound Rd” but it said nothing else so we continued and took the correct Banff Ave exit. A left at Rocky Mountain Resort put us back on Tunnel Mountain Road and we proceeded cautiously looking for Village 1. We saw it and pulled into the gate at 3:30 PM.

Village 1 is a primitive campground with no hookups designed for smaller Class B Motorhomes. At the gate I said that our reservation was for #236. We talked to two obliging young men with French accents. They said we should go to Village 2 down the road. They said we could turn around in a dump station loop. One offered to run ahead to show Dennis where to turn around. It was terrifying with a drop on the right and trees in the center. Only a master driver like Dennis could have done it without having the car hit a tree. I was afraid we’d go off the drop but he was afraid the car would track shallow and hit a tree. We made it out and back to the highway. A few miles down the highway, at 3:40 PM we finally turned into Village 2 a large RV park designed to accommodate Class A motorhomes.

We pulled up to a crowded entrance station. There were several busy clerks at each window. I had reservations for a week but since they were booked up it involved three moves within seven days. Our check-in gal asked if we would like to stay in one spot for the week instead of having to move three times. We agreed. She put us into #119 and said we should be clear of the trees and be able to have our satellite. Oh good!

It was easy to find our site as the campground is laid out in long lanes of 100 site numbers each. Site #119 is a right side pullout parallel to the lane. The lane is a long tunnel lined with lodgepole pines. On our right, beyond a narrow strip of trees and grass is an entrance road and beyond that is the Tunnel Mountain Road highway. At the end of the tunnel we can see one tall mountain peak set against clouds and sky. Essentially, we have no view and no privacy. We also have no satellite. We are not in the open as the reservation clerk thought we might be. By then, we were too tired to care. We got set up and we both accepted the lack of technical luxuries philosophically. We are in for a week with no Wi-Fi and no TV. Ohmigod. Maybe it will be good for us.

We survived this harrowing experience with a minimum of shouting and anger. In fact, I think Dennis was worried about me. I felt very responsible for our navigation but I had no tools and I felt helpless. The signage in Canada is dreadful. Everything is too small and too late. Also I made a mistake in that I was not sure of the village number. I have grown too reliant on my iPhone and Google maps. I resolved to be better prepared with old fashioned maps!

We were hungry and needed to eat something easy and fast to prepare. We microwaved hotdogs and served them on toasted cheese bread with warmed up leftover boiled Idaho potatoes. Dennis remembered that in honor of our German dinner in Portland, we had purchased a jar of sauerkraut at Safeway in Lethbridge. It looked like some serious sauerkraut: Bick’s Bavaria-Fest wine sauerkraut (choucroute au vin). Generally, I read and Dennis watches TV when we eat. This time I pushed my iMac aside so I could see Dennis at his desk. We actually talked during dinner. It was all delicious.

Our motorhome as seen from the access lane parallel to lane 100.

Our motorhome as seen from the access lane parallel to lane 100.

After dinner we walked the dogs down the lane eastward up to the perimeter of Village 1. For pedestrians, the lanes are all connected. We walked back past our original reserved site, #236, where we saw that we might have had satellite but might not. The site is no big improvement over what we have.

We did not miss TV because we fell asleep about six o’clock and then woke at ten o’clock! We sat in the living room and looked out the couch window. How could we see out the window? Because the sun was just setting and twilight lasted another forty-five minutes.

We’d seen lots of warnings about keeping a clean camp and not attracting bears. Dennis was worried that they’d smell the dog food in our basement (even though it’s in a bin) or the other packaged food we keep there. We finally decided to sleep with our windows closed to lock in tempting odors. I guess we went back to sleep about eleven-thirty.

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