The perfect trip: The Canadian Rockies
Colours compete as the setting sun sinks over the mountains behind the emerald waters of Lake Louise. (Mark Read)
A dramatic Alberta route of colossal peaks, mirrored lakes and ever-present wildlife, this leisurely road trip also includes glacier walking, cowboy nightlife, First Nations culture and hearty mountain dining.
Jasper National Park: Best for wildlife
Steam rises from dewy grass alongside the highway as the sun creeps over the forest and towering saw-tooth peaks. Drivers zip by, each casting sidelong glances into the trees. Suddenly, a hulking elk ambles across the road, bringing a comparatively tiny white car to an abrupt stop. The elk stares it down with superior, beady-eyed disdain. Humans may run Jasper, the Canadian Rockies' largest national park, but the animals rule it.
'Wildlife jams are a problem here,' says elaborately mustachioed Wes Bradford. It may be the only place in the world where the drivers seem to enjoy the gridlock. Wes worked for many years as a Parks Canada warden and is no stranger to this scene. 'Elk caused me a lot of headaches, but I've always loved them because they're such majestic animals.' Grizzlies, black bears and bighorn sheep were also regular 'workplace issues' in his former job.
Columbia Icefield: Best for glaciers
Nine crampon-footed hikers crunch up the slope of Athabasca Glacier before stopping to catch their vaporous breath. It's the cue for effusive guide Fridjon Thorleifsson to introduce the surrounding Columbia Icefield, a 77-square-mile web of six silvery tentacles between Jasper and Banff, and the largest ice cap south of the Arctic Circle.
'The Icefield is said to feed up to 80 per cent of Canada's drinking water,' he says, 'but most of this glacier's volume has been lost since the 1920s. It's still moving forward by about 20 metres a year, but it's also melting faster than ever.' He displays a crumpled photo from decades past showing Athabasca's blue-streaked tip almost nudging the roadside. Today, the road is a good distance away.
The leaden movement of ancient glaciers has shaped the Rockies' jagged landscape. From the Icefields Parkway - Canada's most scenic driving route - their monumental work is displayed in ever-larger peaks, rising like ruined castles on either side of the road. The Parkway's visual highlights also include the glacier-fed, extraordinarily turquoise Peyto and Bow Lakes.
The area's main lure has always been the chance to clamber on a glacier. Die-hards can spend up to 15 hours climbing the glacier's almost vertical north face, but moderate hikers prefer this wind-whipped, 90-minute scramble, where the spectacular views more than compensate for any burning thighs. At the 1.2-mile point, Fridjon stands at the edge of a cave-like crevasse, gripping each hiker in turn as they peer into the pitch-black hole.
'If you fall in, you'll probably get spit out eventually,' he says with a smile. Most of the crevasses are natural but, adds Fridjon, Canadian military once used the glacier for bombing practice - hikers often find rusty shrapnel 'souvenirs' on its sparkling surface.
Where to eat
Located on the Icefields Parkway, the Crossing has a cafeteria, a large dining room, a pub with a barbecue grill and a patio deck. Open April to October (mains from £6; thecrossingresort.com).
Where to stay
Num-Ti-Jah, a 1930s wooden lodge, is known for its eclectic décor and dramatic views over Bow Lake. There are 16 rooms, mostly of the superior motel variety (try to get one with a lake view). The log-lined Elkhorn Dining Room in the heart of the lodge is warmed by a fire and serves a hearty, steak-heavy, four-course dinner. The walls are lined with Canadiana, including a collection of animal heads. Open May to October only (from £125; num-ti-jah.com).
Banff National Park: Best for nature walks
'The scenery is very dramatic here, but there's also a lot more colour than people anticipate,' says Tamara Dykshoorn. The guide and Alberta local is hiking in her favourite part of Banff National Park, in the Sunshine Meadows area. At an elevation of 2,220 metres and straddling the Alberta and British Columbia border, it's the Rockies' most spectacular alpine swathe and a vast paintbox of wildflowers for much of the year. 'In summer, it's usually carpeted with reds, whites, yellows and even some blues,' adds Tamara.