Rocky Mountain Road Trip: Calgary to Banff

Rocky Mountains

Do you remember your first trip? First flight? First time you saw a mountain? When my parents led me across Canada, they created indelible experiences that I could one day share with my child. Now, that day has come and with his eyes full of wonder, we talk about where we could travel. Like any good prospector I look to the west, and prepare for a father-son adventure in Alberta.

“What? That…is amazing!” He exclaims as he stares out the window in disbelief during take-off. He is awestruck by air travel and the shimmering lights on our descent as we touch down in Calgary for an auspicious beginning.

In the center of the hip, revitalized East Village is the Alt Hotel. Easy and swift check-ins make it ideal. They’re very savvy here—modern but friendly, and contactless before that was even a thing. We settle into our cozy, brightly-lit room, and gaze out at the Bow River below in anticipation of tomorrow.

Igor Kyryliuk and Tetiana Kravchenko, unsplash

Our breakfast of champions is hatched by Chix Eggshop. Billed as a fast-fine diner, it’s conveniently located adjacent to the hotel lobby. Our Falafel Scrambler is a healthy power bowl of crunchy falafel, luscious eggs and avocado wedges with ruby red tomatoes and a crumbling of vegan feta cheese, all tossed in a lemony-fresh creamy labneh. The French toast pie is heaven on a plate. Stacked with a rich and yummy brown sugar and vanilla custard, my son’s silence while enjoying this velvety smooth indulgence is the highest compliment.

We can feel the buzz. Alberta is the largest producer of honey in Canada; fifth largest in the world. Longer daylight hours in summer and expansive alfalfa and canola farms keep bees happily doing their waggle dance. For a true taste of place, it’s only fitting we visit a local apiary. At Mob Honey, located just up the street from the Alt Hotel, we don protective suits and step into the hive. With bee smokers in hand to pacify our hosts as they swarm us, we learn about the extraordinary efficiency of their behaviours and communications. Our sweet ending comes in a jar of a wild raw honey mix of clover, alfalfa, canola, aster and dandelion that we spoon with delight.

Mob Honey

Setting our coordinates for the Mesozoic era, we head out on the highway. Endless fields of yellow canola wave to us as we leisurely pass through bucolic country side en route to the Badlands. And one heart-stopping speeding-ticket later we arrive at the famed Royal Tyrell Museum. Time was, Drumheller was tropical, a diversity of dinosaurs flourished, and now within this bedrock of history lies a wealth of fossils that have made Drumheller the Dinosaur Capital of the World.

When my three-foot son stands next to a twelve-foot dinosaur leg, our imaginations set us adrift through time. Like kids in a Jurassic playground, we run from one interactive exhibit to the next. With mad scientist grins, we digitally mix and match head, tail, front and hind leg composites which, according to calculations, make the legs of our Parasaurolophus too weak for it to get very far. In our fossil workshop we create our own clay fossil of a Raptor’s claw. It is unlike any other museum. Here we stand where dinosaurs once roamed.

A short jaunt leads us to the Hoodoos—tall chimneys of soft rock that looks like giant king oyster mushrooms. Both the kid in me and the kid with me beam knowing-smiles at each other and bolt up the steep slope of the mesa. “You’re it!” He slaps me as he rushes past. Together we climb. Up top we look down, and his sense of wonderment is matched only by his sense of accomplishment. The sheer joy of climbing up and down together, relying on each other, and sharing the exhilaration is profound.

Hoodoos, Drumheller
Jake Warren Hozey, unsplash

Back in Calgary at Charbar, Rocky Mountain proteins meet an Argentine-style asado in culinary matrimony. Sidling up to the bar in front of a wood-fired grill we gear up for a feast. The key ingredient is the smoky essence from the mesmerizing 900° hardwood coal and fire pit. Local sour dough is grilled, brushed with olive oil and lavished with a brilliant crunch of pistachios and creamy avocado. These guys know how to walk the guac! Traditional Argentine empanadas— baked not fried—are scrumptious, savoury pockets of tenderly slow cooked Alberta beef. Nine spiced half chicken is so cluckin’ crisp and juicy with its chorus of notes from the smoke and all the spices that enliven our palates. Short ribs practically melt off the bone into a chimichurri and charcoal-roasted bliss of apples and greens. A true taste of Calgary.

At sun-up we hit the road for the mountains with a detour to Chinook Rafting for a river run through Kananaskis. Excited to be among other young families, my son has no clue what he’s in for. Anchored up in front of the boat he peacefully admires the picturesque river before us, not knowing that in a few short moments he will become our wave blocker. In an instant, our slow-moving flow picks up speed. He starts to get excited and nervous—for what, he does not yet know—until suddenly, “Woosh!” We are sucked down into a vortex; our raft folds up like a taco; we’re shooting down a fury of rapids, paddling hard, while my son, turns to me slowly in total shock, completely drenched, with an expression of horror transformed into elation and confidently nods, “Again! Again!” Nothing can prepare you for your first white water rafting experience, and as we glide through swells, I watch his screams of laughter and am overjoyed.

Chinook Rafting, Kananaskis
Chinook Rafting, Kananaskis

Warm and dry we continue to Banff. As the Rockies come into view, his eyes widen. “Look it!” he gasps. As the road unfurls sights never before seen, the majesty of the mountains evokes enchanted whispers of “Wow” from the back seat. Our Alive Pass enables access to several activities from our river paddle at the Banff Canoe Club to our therapeutic soak in the Upper Hot Springs, but we begin with Alpine Air Adventures Rock Climbing at Sunshine.

Strapped into our gear, we take turns on the cliff wall and, like The Little Engine That Could, he coaxes himself upward. It’s a mental challenge. All the safeguards are in place, but you still have to figure out your next move, exercise focus, balance and trust. I cheer him on, but now he’s stuck—afraid to climb higher; afraid to let go and swing down. Daddy to the rescue. I climb up to him—higher than I’m comfortable going—hold him and, with a kiss, tell him, “You can do this, my boy. I’m right beside you.” Inch by inch he climbs. His confidence grows and, together, we make it to the top. “I did it!” He cries out. And the look in his eyes as we sit there hugging, and catching our breath, is worth the world.

rock climbing
Climbing Sunshine

Time to view Banff from above. Seated within the glass bubble of the Banff Gondola we’re pulled up Sulphur Mountain. Full disclosure: I don’t do heights! Maintaining a brave face is my challenge right now as we soar ever higher. The views are extraordinary. He looks right and left, up and down, as though he is filling his eyes with the sky. At 2290 meters up the boardwalk is much cooler than below, still we walk the 1km route to the meteorological station, and stare in amazement as rain falls from the clouds on only one side of the mountain.

Our window table at the Sky Bistro keeps us on the edge of our seats, and the farm-to-summit menu keeps us proudly rooted in pan-Canadian cuisine. Rich velvety chowder generously ladled with mussels, clams, salmon and prawns, and bejeweled with tobiko reflects the sophistication of the west coast. The smoked Angus striploin with its robust juicy flavours, and the bison tenderloin tartare, lean and slightly sweet, with crisp capers and a beautifully radiant pickled egg yolk are sublimely textured dishes true to the Rockies. But it’s the 48-hour sous vide confit duck wings, lightly crisped and drizzled with honey and Saskatoon berry puree that could make us run up this mountain. While the gondola ride back down is equally exciting, my little mountain climber is tuckered out.

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Juniper Bistro

A new day brings new experiences, beginning with the best views from the base of the mountain over breakfast at The Juniper Bistro. We share the savoury comfort of shakshuka, eggs simmered in a za’atar spiced tomato sauce; and fluffy, wholesome French toast stuffed with apples, brie and candied nuts. Each bite is more flavourful than the one before, and yet we sit in silence, hypnotized by the mountain range before us. So perfect and pristine, it almost looks photoshopped.

The clean crisp morning air beckons a ride. We rent bikes from Banff Adventures and leisurely cycle through the woods and along a narrow road passing the Vermillion Lakes, stopping at small docks to relax and breathe in the calm, before heading back to town to stroll among shops.

To complete our wild west experience, we’ve got to get on a horse. Banff Trail Riders leads us into the back country for an unforgettable trail ride through the wilderness.

Banff TrailRiders

Opting for the horse-drawn wagon ride, we sit up front listening to the clopping of horses’ hooves. Pine trees stand like combs in the gleaming sunshine. Arriving at 3 Mile Cabin we toss horse shoes, and run around trying to lasso each other before we’re called for dinner. The juicy cooked-to-order steaks and buttery baked potatoes of our Cowboy Cook-out is a feast for kings.

There are endless ways to experience Banff, to appreciate unspoiled environment away from crowds, to enjoy a beautiful meaningful moment.

(Continue to Part 2: The Kootaneys.)

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