For many travellers in the world, the Canadian Rockies are a bucket-list-worthy destination. Calgarians’ unique accessibility to this spectacular area makes it the perfect location for a day trip or weekend getaway, especially during a time of travel restrictions that limit our vacation options.
The mountains are undeniably amazing year-round, but for many, fall is the best time to get out and visit. Mid-September to early November provides a front-row seat to the changing fall foliage along with perfect hiking weather — and this fall is no different. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic still at the forefront of our minds, many are wondering what to expect. Most mountain towns in the region are ready to welcome visitors again and have actively taken steps to keep your next visit not only exciting, but also safe.
In Banff and Canmore, extra room was made for the pedestrians who visit these popular areas by closing large roads to vehicle traffic in the summer, but that has been reversed as we head into the fall. However, the Bow Valley Parkway from Highway 1 to Castle Junction will remain closed to most vehicle traffic until further notice. Only those with a confirmed reservation at Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows (which is only open until mid-month) can drive on the road, ensuring much less traffic at the always-popular Johnston Canyon hike and giving cyclists and hikers the opportunity of a lifetime to enjoy the traffic-free parkway.
Just like in the city, many mountain region businesses have changed their practices and offerings, and implemented maximum occupancies within their brick and mortar locations and heightened sanitization practices across the board. Most accommodations in the region have increased cleaning standards to match the most stringent hospitality cleaning protocols. Many of the towns in the mountain region have also implemented indoor mask-use policies, so don’t leave home without yours.
At press time, spas, including the Kananaskis Nordic Spa at the Pomeroy Kananaskis Mountain Lodge and the Willow Stream Spa at Fairmont Banff Springs, had opened with limited services, and the Kananaskis Nordic Spa had introduced Bluetooth enabled wristbands to track guest numbers in the space. To that point, the steps taken to ensure that the health and wellness of all that visit are well thought out and constantly evolving to meet the ever-changing situation. Before heading out to the mountains, get informed by visiting local information pages and staying up to date with Canadian Health Services guidelines surrounding travel. Advanced planning and booking is more important now than ever.
The good news is that a huge array of the best activities in the mountains are tailor-made for social distancing and take place outdoors so are still a good choice for visitors this fall. Hundreds of kilometers of hiking and biking trails criss-cross the national park. The larch-viewing hikes in the Canmore area truly steal the show during fall, but you may want to try for a weekday trip or a less well-known trail as this will likely be an even-more popular activity this year. Paddling on one of the many mountain-backed lakes is also still a great option. The Banff Canoe Club rents canoes, kayaks and SUP boards by the hour.
If you’re looking for more structure in your mountain getaways, many guides and tours are still operating. There are even some new tours, including White Mountain Adventures’ guided hiking adventures at Fortress Mountain available until mid month. From easy to moderate, these exclusive small group tours take you into wilderness normally only accessible by foot or with a special permit — and with the Sunshine Mountain gondola closed this season, this is the only assisted access to high alpine meadows in the area.
Plan ahead though, advises Rachel Ludwig, interim CEO of Tourism Canmore Kananaskis. “Most of our activity providers reduced group sizes and offer private tours,” she says. “Therefore, it is recommended to book ahead of time.” This is also true for hotels. Many local businesses need the notice, and are changing and adapting on the fly — booking ahead will help you avoid disappointment. You can even book your Parks Canada passes online to avoid contact at the gate.
But, if all else fails, the weather doesn’t agree or a quick escape is the plan, scenic drives through an emptier than usual mountain region may be enough to satisfy your itch for adventure.
Moving forward, there will likely continue to be a dip in the number of visitors coming through the mountain regions. While this will undoubtedly be hard on regional operators, according to Leslie Bruce, president and CEO of Banff and Lake Louise Tourism, this offers a unique opportunity for Calgarians. “This is a really special time for Canadians to take advantage of the new and unique ways to experience the park and we’re really excited for visitors to be able to enjoy those,” she says.
There are also deals a-plenty for Albertans. Visit the Travel Alberta website, travelalberta.com, and click the “Travel Offers” tab to see some of them.
While some things have changed, the beauty and inspiration of this place are still present. Taking the time to venture a short distance outside of the city is the escape that most of us need right now, making fall the perfect time to safely explore nature and enjoy solitude away from crowded places.
Check Before You Go
Alberta – travelalberta.com
Canmore – explorecanmore.ca/worththewait
Fernie – tourismfernie.com/welcome-back
Jasper – jasper.travel/coronavirus-update
What’s New in the Mountains
COVID-19 hasn’t slowed the growth of the mountain dining scene. Here are a few newly opened places to grab a bite while you work your way through the Rockies.
Part of the Pursuit Collection hospitality group and located inside the Elk + Avenue Hotel, Farm & Fire focuses on farm-fresh ingredients from Canadian producers. The drink menu includes Pursuit’s own vodka made by Eau Claire Distillery, and its private-label house wine made by a Niagara winery. The menu boasts simple and delicious dishes including slow-roasted and wood-fired meals prepared by executive chef Scott Hergott and his team.
333 Banff Ave., Banff, 403-760-3298, farmandfirebanff.com
This parlour and lounge has a small-bites menu filled with shareable dishes (including some vegan and gluten-free options) meant to foster conversation, alongside an extensive boutique cocktail and drink selection. Aside from the good eats and locally crafted beer, the Radiant also offers a unique space and stage to highlight Banff’s arts and culture, setting itself apart from the rest of the Banff scene.
101, 111 Banff Ave., Banff, 403-985-0730, theradiantbanff.ca
Rocket Pie primarily serves up Neopolitan style pizzas. The curated menu also includes a few other options — lasagna, calzones, salads, meatballs and tiramisu. In most places, a pizza joint in a shopping plaza minutes from the highway might be an uninspiring place to eat. Instead, here you get stunning mountain views and food focused on fresh ingredients well prepared.
101, 304 Old Canmore Road, Canmore, 403-675-2865, rocketpie.ca
The Fairmont Banff Springs reopened its lobby bar in July after a $5-million renovation. It now includes a two-storey main bar with a rolling library ladder, a private speakeasy space hidden behind a moving bookshelf and an all-new menu focused on local producers. The Banff Springs’ traditional afternoon tea service has also returned to the Rundle and is served Friday to Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
405 Spray Ave., Banff, 403-762-2211, fairmont.com/banff-springs
[This story has been updated from its print version to remove the reference to the Lake Minnewanka Loop, which did not ultimately feature a lane set aside for cyclists as previously stated.]