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Banff National Park: Johnson Lake and the Bow Valley/Hoodoos trail


Sometimes one’s journey makes unexpected turns, which is true in life as well as in travel.   As fate would have it, my career has taken me from Spokane in Eastern Washington to Calgary, Alberta, in Western Canada. The new job is interesting and offers great promise, but of equal importance to me in making this move was that I would be just over an hour’s drive from my beloved Canadian Rocky Mountains!

Among my earliest memories as a boy are of time spent vacationing in and around Banff with my parents and siblings. Having grown up on the prairies, the massive rugged Rocky Mountains were quite a novelty to me and I loved looking at them and walking their slopes and valleys. Over the years, if anything, my love of mountains has only grown. I’ve had the good fortune to explore many of the world’s great ranges — the Andes, Alps and Himalayas — but I think there is no part of the world more beautiful than Alberta’s Rocky Mountains (if so, I haven’t been there yet).

So with my bags only partially unpacked from the move, I took time to do some hiking near Banff. It was still quite early in the season and the jagged peaks of the mountains were shrouded in snow and ice, though Banff was dry and snow-free. The day was sunny, cool, and great for hiking. I was able to complete two fairly easy trails near Banff town-site, each offering a unique experiences and wonderful photographic opportunities, which I thought I’d share with you.

Mt. Rundle viewed from Johnson Lake

1) Johnson Lake
Situated less than a ten minute drive from Banff, off the Lake Minnewanka Road, Johnson Lake is easily accessible and beautifully situated, with wonderful views of Cascade Mountain and Mt. Rundle visible on most of your hike. The trail is predominantly around the lake-shore, so it’s quite flat and of good quality. The forest surrounding the lake contains old Douglas fir trees, some creeks, and abuts a large wildlife conservation area. The circuit is less than 3.5 km (about 2 miles) and very easy to do (about an hour, depending on your speed and how often you stop to take photos).  I saw a number of waterfowl, mostly loons, but no larger animals (though seeing some elk and bear wouldn’t be a surprise).

There is a large picnic area near the parking lot where I had lunch, which would be a good destination for those who want to enjoy the scenery even if they don’t want to hike. The lake is also be a good place to canoe or kayak. In warmer weather it’s popular as a swimming beach.

Hoodoos and the Bow River Valley

2) Bow River / Hoodoo Trail Starting at the Surprise Corner parking lot on Buffalo street, adjoining the town and just across the river from Bow Falls and the majestic Banff Springs Hotel, this trail is mostly a stroll through a forest on the slope or base of Tunnel Mountain, accented with a few spacious meadows that provide panoramic views of the Rockies.  It offers changing views of majestic Mt. Rundle, the fast flowing Bow River and its valley, and at the end some unusual rock formations known as Hoodoos.   Depending on how far you go, it’s about 9 kms (6 miles) round-trip, and while mostly flat and very easy it has some short moderate ascents, especially as you approach the Hoodoos. The trip takes about 3 – 3.5 hours.

While deer and elk are commonly seen in Banff’s meadows, I didn’t run into any this trip.  I was especially pleased to see the profusion of crocuses starting to bloom along the trail.   I did see a few hawks and dozens of ravens riding the thermals in the Bow River Valley.

The destination of the hike is the a collection of eroded stone columns known as hoodoos. Hoodoos are composed sedimentary rock covered by harder rock that is harder to erode. Differential erosion leaves the hoodoo standing as the softer sediment around it erode away, not unlike Devil’s Tower in Wyoming (though with a generally softer rock).

A great day in a great place! Can’t wait to get back for more!

(Click on thumbnails to enlarge photos, right arrow to advance slideshow)

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