The Stone Gods: Motorcycling Banff

Seeking transcendence (and hot chocolate) from the saddle of a motorcycle in the Canadian Rockies. From the February 2001 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine. ** Text & photos by Jamie Elvidge.**

Ever forget your place on the planet? Get a little big for reality's britches? Well, cosmic salvation doesn't always entail a pilgrimage to India. There are a few places set aside in the province of Alberta, Canada, that'll do the trick. You may not find a maharishi, but you can't miss the stone gods...mountains, so old and immense they shout a fundamental missive: "We are big, and that makes you very, very small."

Our little re-awakening occurred as we began a ride south through the linking National Parks of Jasper, Yoho and Banff. We entered Jasper from the east on Highway 16 after loading up on coffee, pastries and local wisdom in Hinton. It was recommended that we take a side trip to the neighborhood swimming hole, so we wound our way east on Miette Hot Springs Road to investigate the hottest healing springs in the Canadian Rockies. Although a little more civilized than we expected, the road in (along the Fiddle River) was worth the time. The sun was shining and the day was young. We still felt big.

Back on Highway 16, headed for the township of Jasper, we encountered a tremendous amount of wildlife—especially elk and mountain goats. Although delightful at first, we quickly realized these animals aren't wild at all, and they're certainly not scarce. They're a bit of a teeming mass and rather indifferent in their predator-less existence. But everyone on the road stops anyway and we all photograph them in whirring unison.

Things were about to change though. Seems there was some nasty weather building over the park, and there was a chance Highway 93 between Jasper and Banff was likely to close. This meant one thing for the folks driving with a roof over their heads, but for us, without a roof, or hotel room waiting, it meant another: adventure. We dug for our rain suits, our winter gloves and neck warmers. And there in the uncovered parking lot of Jasper's BP station, the heavens reminded us that thunder has nothing to do with Harleys—and rain can fill a street faster than a faucet fills a tub. We motored out onto the now empty streets toward Banff and the only available hotel room the soggy phone book could summon. It was 179 miles away.

Creeping up the wide, arching highway into those massive craggy mountains with the weather swirling around evoked a powerful sense of fragility. We felt small, cold and vulnerable—suddenly peers with the elk and mountain goats we'd recently gazed god-like upon. The weather may have intensified the rather spiritual effect of the cathedral-like peaks and ancient blue-white glaciers, but I believe a sunny day in these parts would just as easily bring one to his or her proper size. These Northern Rockies are more than John Denver could make sense of in a song.

We stopped in the barren parking lot of the Columbia Icefields visitor's center to shiver and debate about layering. In normal weather you can rent a seat aboard a tine-driven Snowcoach and trek out onto the ancient ice. There are actually 30 glaciers in the field, which can be as deep as 1200 feet. Year markers dated to 1870 evidence the Icefields' contraction.

The thunder, lightning and rain were with us almost constantly for the first 80 miles of our trek, but late in the afternoon the sun occasionally broke through to illuminate an alluvial fan or snow-covered peak. The trumpets would play in my head for a moment and I believed there was hot chocolate at the end of the tunnel.

By the time we merged with Trans-Canada Highway 1 north of Banff it was late. We were chilled by the weather yet warmed by the beauty of this place. Interestingly, elk are such a road hazard in these parts Alberta built a 20-foot fencing system which incorporates land bridges for the animals to cross the highway. On a whim, we decided to enter Banff on the less trafficked Bow Valley Parkway. It was an improvement over the four-lane road, but we were dodging the big deer all the way.

Banff is an exquisite destination and one that's been drawing the masses since the 1800s when the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) was the only means of traveling. In fact, the CP built the Banff Springs Hotel, where we stayed, and many other chateau-like establishments across Canada. In 1888, it was the largest hotel in the world with 250 rooms. Some 1700 guests can lodge in the palatial digs these days (hence the reason we found a vacancy). And yes, it cost us a bit of cash ($140), but man, it was worth it. There's something about staying in a lavish resort that makes our existence as human beings seem...well, rather sublime. Or maybe it was the gourmet hot chocolate. Oh, and by the way, look at all those stupid elk outside, soaking wet and mowing the lawn for free.

Wherewithal

  • Don't Miss: Jasper Tramway, Lake Louise and Victoria Glacier, Bow River and Takakkaw Falls, Castle Mountain, Sulphur Mountain Gondola or Vermilion Lakes
  • Season: Some hotels are open year-round, but most scenic roads are closed mid-October through April
  • Road Notes: Nice, wide highways with pullouts for all those elephantine RVs. Beware, some tar patches on the roads are slick even in mild weather

Resources
Jasper National Park
(780) 852-6176
Jasper site

Banff National Park
(403) 762-1550
Banff site

www.worldweb.com (an awesome travel-assist site for U.S. and Canadian travel)

If you'd like to share your favorite ride that is 100 to 500 miles long and includes at least one interesting stop, send details of the route and your contact information to _Motorcycle Cruiser, 6420 Wilshire Blvd. Floor 17, Los Angeles, CA 90048-5515; or e-mail_ Jamie.Elvidge@primedia.com.

For more descriptions of our favorite motorcycle rides and destinations, visit the Rides and Destinations section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.