They say the weather changes quickly in the mountains. From experience, I know this to be true.
I’d gone to bed to a wildfire smoke-kissed sunset and woke up to a thick, zero-visibility fog that enveloped my room in the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. I didn’t have high hopes for my hike to the Agnes Tea House, but I was intent on meeting my guide at the early hour I’d scheduled.
Checking in at the wood-panelled Guides Cabin around the corner from the hotel lobby, I met up with Jeff Douglas, an easy-going, experienced mountain guide who has led guests on hikes, ski tours, and canoe expeditions for the past 15 years in the Lake Louise region.
I was excited to have a guide lead me up the trail. I’ve hiked to the Agnes Tea House before, getting caught in a soaker of a summer storm that appeared out of nowhere to pummel my family and I as we ran down the path. On this occasion, however, luck and a knowledgeable, well-equipped hiking guide would be on my side. I was going to enjoy a good day in the great Rocky Mountain outdoors, and sure enough, the skies cleared as soon as I stepped out of the hotel. It was 8 a.m. and Lake Louise and her mountains revealed themselves in all of their jaw-dropping natural glory. I started up the trail to greet them.
In this unprecedented year, tourism has been deeply affected in Canada’s most popular destinations, even in notable places like Banff National Park and Lake Louise, which ranks among the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Visit in Canada for 2021, a list sponsored by the travel-trivia mobile game, Trippzy, and compiled by travel writers and editors from around the country. (The full rankings will be released in January. Banff ranked No. 1 on the 2020 list.)
With visits by international guests severely limited during the pandemic, Canadians have had a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rediscover the country’s iconic natural places, free from foreign competition and overwhelming crowds.
I noticed this in the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, where French-speaking Quebeckers were dominant, and car licence plates were exclusively Canadian. It was evident on the local trails as well, which were steady with people but not overrun as in a normal season. While this was great for keeping physical distance from others, the reduction of nearly 80 per cent in overall tourism numbers has been difficult on the local economy and everyone dependent upon it.
Health and Safety Measures a Hallmark of 2020
When Chateau Lake Louise reopened in June after the initial lockdown period, it incorporated Fairmont’s #AllSafe health and safety protocols in keeping with Alberta’s provincial guidelines. Temperature checks, mask policies, hand-sanitizer stations, limits on housekeeping frequency, and restaurant and amenity reservations became mandatory.
The property’s efforts were mirrored at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel and within Banff National Park, where masks and physical-distancing measures became mandatory in the town’s outdoor public spaces.
The attention on health and safety has been a hallmark of 2020, and destinations, accommodations, and restaurants have met the challenge in order to assure visitors and guests that travel was still possible. In fact, Canada’s great wide-open spaces are ideal for spreading out, maintaining distance and enjoying nature.
I was fortunate and grateful to have Banff and Lake Louise almost to myself. As we ascended the trail, Douglas spoke with knowledge and enthusiasm about the wildlife and Indigenous culture of the region.
“The Stoney Nakoda people called Lake Agnes ‘The Lake of Little Clouds’, a reflection of the quick weather changes that can occur in the mountains,” noted Douglas, as I peeled off another layer, having warmed up considerably on what was turning into a pleasant bluebird day.
I caught glimpses of turquoise-blue Lake Louise, also known as Lake of Little Fishes for its population of trout and whitefish, obscured by the rock flour particles that contribute to the unique colouration of this famous body of water.
As we stopped to fuel up at the Lake of Little Clouds, Douglas announced we could continue farther up the Big Beehive Trail, where views of the lake, mountains, and changing larches awaited.
I jumped at the chance to see the golden yellow larches. Larch trees are the only conifer to lose their needles in fall, and the season is fleeting, lasting only a few weeks. Banff National Park has several excellent hiking trails for spotting larches, including Larch Valley and the Beehive Trail we were on.
The switchback hike to the top of Big Beehive summit opened up to breathtaking views of the six glaciers, mountains surrounding Lake Louise such as Mt. Victoria and Mt. Lefroy, as well as the lake itself and the Chateau at the foot of it. The sunshine beat down as I stopped to appreciate the view and snap photos in secret spots Douglas pointed out.
The benefit derived from a guide’s knowledge of local history, fauna, and prime viewpoints was made clear during my time with Douglas. As I appreciated on our hike, guided experiences offer visitors the chance to get reacquainted with the Banff they think they know.
Guided mountain adventure tours range from snowshoeing under the stars to ice-climbing for beginners, as well as long or short mountain hikes in summer or to admire fall’s fleeting larch season, opening up new natural worlds while providing valuable historical and environmental education for visitors to this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ski Amid New Alberta Terrain
During winter, skiing with a guide at one of Banff’s SkiBig3 resorts of Norquay, Lake Louise, and Sunshine Village showcases the mountains’ spaciousness and acres of snow-covered champagne powder runs. Depending upon the skiing ability of guests, the guide can tailor the tour to cover terrain most suited to greens, blues or blacks, finding runs for everyone to enjoy on the slopes.
Similar to local accommodation partners, the SkiBig 3 Resorts have incorporated COVID-19 protocols focused on health and safety, including: pass reservations, contactless payment systems, capacity restrictions, and physical-distancing measures.
This La Niña year has meant early and sustained snowfall in the Canadian Rockies, so much so that Norquay celebrated its earliest opening day (October 24) in 96 years. Meanwhile, the most anticipated opening this winter is that of the West Bowl at the Lake Louise Ski Resort.
Offering the newest in-bounds terrain in 25 years, the West Bowl features a new quad chairlift, and instead of specific runs, 17 new marked “zones” have been created with the longest being 4.7 kilometres (2.8 miles). Previous side-country and back-country slopes found just beyond the former ski resort limits are now accessible to resort guests.
In spite of the monumental challenges facing tourism destinations, the resilience of Lake Louise and Banff serve to remind travellers that as conditions permit, the natural wonders of the great outdoors in Canada’s first and most beloved national park are ours to rediscover.
MORE ABOUT VISITING BANFF AND LAKE LOUISE
Where to Stay: Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise has a number of promotional rates for winter 2021, including a discount for Alberta and British Columbia residents, who can book a weekend night in February for $292, based on a search of the property’s booking engine. Regular rates start at $404 per night. Regular rates at the Fairmont Banff Springs start at $499 for the same time period.
Hiking Tours: To participate in Jeff Douglas’s hiking tours, book via the concierge at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Rates start at $25 for adults for guided Half Day Hikes, while Full Day Hikes are $45 for adults. Children aged 8-12 are complimentary.