One of the first decisions to be made when choosing a route to Alaska is where to cross the border from the U.S. into Canada. The more popular border crossings are in Washington and Montana, depending on one’s starting point. There are many border crossings from Maine to Washington, and it will depend on how much time one wants to spend crossing Canada. We chose to enter at Sweetgrass/Coutts, in Montana, on Hwy. 15 north of Shelby.
Travelers frequently ask what can be taken across the border and whether or not the vehicle and RV will be searched. As for the searching part, it is a mixed bag. Every border agent at every border is different, and it could be based on their mood, the weather, who knows? We were prepared in either case. We left our plants in the care of our daughter, Rachel, as we have heard of RVs being searched and plants being removed. We left the few pieces of firewood we had at the campground in Shelby. We did not have any fresh produce (fruits/vegetables). We did not have any firearms, tasers, mace, or weed. We did have bear spray (and Karen volunteered this information to the border agent, much to Carl’s chagrin!), but it is properly labeled. We knew where we were going and generally how long we would be in Canada. And we had our passports.
When we arrived at the border, we saw a sign that cars and RVs needed to stay to the left and we, at first, ended up in the far left lane behind two other Airstreams and a couple of cars. All the other lanes were empty, and the lane just next to ours had a green light with an auto/RV sign above it. Carl and I made the decision to abandon the left lane and venture into the second lane, thinking if we weren’t allowed to be there they would make us turn around and start again. We pulled right up to the window, handed the agent our passports, answered all his questions, and we were good to go! Less than 5 minutes!
Our first stop in Canada was at the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Museum on the way to Calgary. It was not far off the beaten path and was recommended to us by Karen’s mother who visited it several years ago. It was an interesting museum about the history of how this particular cliff was used to hunt buffalo to help Indian tribes sustain themselves through the winter months.
We then made our way to Calgary to fuel up at Costco, stock up on groceries, and spend the night at the Southcentre Mall. The mall closes at 8:00pm (at least during the week), and they have a large section of parking lot they allow RVers to stay up to 2 nights for free. There is a permit on their website, or a call to security if arriving after the mall closes will suffice. There were at least seven other campers there the night we stayed.
The next day we made our way to Banff National Park. We had reservations at Tunnel Mountain 1 Campground. Banff National Park has two little towns in it – Banff and Lake Louise. Banff is near the beginning of the park, and Lake Louise is about an hour away near the other end of the park. We stayed near the town of Banff, which is a great little tourist destination with restaurants, shops, and various excursions to lakes, rivers, and trails. Unfortunately, we both had a stomach bug while we were there, so we did not get to explore as much as we would have liked. Our highlights included a drive into town and on Tunnel Mountain Drive which is closed during the winter. We saw the large Fairmont Hotel across the Bow River. We spent a day exploring the areas around Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, and Johnson Lake. And we drove up to the Mt. Norquay Ski Resort and back down where we saw bighorn sheep blocking traffic!
(Watch our pictorial video – narration by Carl – of Banff and Jasper above.)
One morning, we drove up to Lake Louise but did not actually get to the lake. It is an extremely popular destination. We visited the Lake Louise Ski Resort where there was a large park & ride area with shuttles taking people to Lake Louise. We opted for the ski lift ride, which was fun. We had a spectacular view of Lake Louise and its surrounding mountains, and we were able to get a sense of how huge the ski resort is. It has dozens of ski trails on both sides of the mountains. The lift we were on did not take us to the very top (unfortunately), and if we were there in the winter to ski, we would take this lift up to catch another lift to go to the top to be able to access the trails on the other side.
We drove over to Lake Louise to see how close we could get. When Karen’s mother visited the area about 12-13 years ago, she drove right up to the Fairmont Chateau parking lot and parked there with no problem. Now, the hotel parking lot is for guests only, and there are huge, PAID ($21 we heard) parking lots for Lake Louise that were completely full and people were being turned away. If you MUST see Lake Louise up close and personal, either stay at the very expensive hotel or take the shuttle from the ski resort park & ride. We opted to enjoy the view we saw from the ski lift and left it at that. If we visit in the future, we may make a better attempt to see the lake.
Our next stop was Jasper National Park and, to get there, we had to drive the Icefields Parkway. In fact, Banff and Jasper are bookends to the Icefields Parkway. According to Google maps, it is about 3 hours between the towns. However, with all the stops and possible hikes to do, it can take much, much longer. In fact, it took us 6 hours to make the 3-hour trip, and we only made a few stops!
Highlights for us along the Icefields Parkway included Peyto Lake (and the .6 km all-uphill hike to view it!) and the Icefield Centre (which is about halfway up the parkway). The Icefield Centre is a tourist destination in and of itself. It has a Starbucks, a restaurant, a café, a shop, and tours to the nearby glacier and skywalk. It also has a huge overnight parking area for RVs (self-serve kiosk, $16.75/night, no hookups). The 2023 cost to take the bus to walk on the Columbia Icefield and then be driven over to the skywalk was $140.00C per person. We will be walking on a glacier or two in Alaska, so we did not do this experience. What we might have done, instead, was to make a couple more stops before the Icefield Centre then stay the night at the Icefield Centre, just to break up the long drive.
As it was, we finally arrived at Whistlers Campground in Jasper for our reservations. Since we were in this area at the end of May, there were PLENTY of campsites available, so reservations may not have been needed. I think it gets busier later in June and July. Jasper is a cute, well-maintained town. It definitely has its tourist setup, but we could tell that this is a place where people live as well.
We drove to Pyramid Lake which is on the northern side of town, and we drove a back road (which is closed during winter) to the Athabasca Falls. These Falls are near the end of the official Icefields Parkway, but since it wasn’t too far from our campground (about 30 minutes), we decided to visit it when we were feeling more refreshed. We also spent a day driving to Maligne (pronounced Maleen) Lake, hiking around Maligne Canyon along the way. We saw our first black bears of the trip on this drive! Maligne Canyon is amazing, and I’m glad we ended up hiking around it. And the drive down to Maligne Lake was worth it, even though the boat tours on the lake had not yet started for the season. This was disappointing because this lake is looonnnnggg and goes through some stunning snow-capped mountains. Carl and I will definitely take a boat tour on this lake the next time we visit the area.
Our next stop was Grande Prairie, Alberta to fuel up and do laundry before hitting the Alaska Highway!
Next installment … the Alaska Highway