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Alaska Road Trip Week 2: Calgary to Anchorage

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Banff National Park

Maybe you heard: we’re driving from Austin to Alaska and back over two months of insane road tripping in our trusty little Prius. We wrote about what the first week was like in this post, but the second week of our Alaska road trip is where it started to get epic. Real epic.

Because day 15 is when we left Calgary and backpacked in Banff national park, day hiked in Jasper National Park, and finished the drive to Alaska.

There were mountains! There were turquoise lakes! There was snow! There were animals galore! There was very little sleeping in the passenger seat for fear of missing the epic views out the window or the moose or bear by the side of the road. And all of it was 100% thrilling.

Backpacking in Banff

While stocking up at a local outdoor store on some last-minute supplies like bug spray and water purification tablets in Calgary, we were informed that we had picked a very inconvenient weekend to visit the national parks a mere hour and a half outside the city: Monday was a civic holiday, which meant loads of people would be taking off on Friday to enjoy an extra long weekend of national park shenanigans. And we hadn’t planned ahead or booked anything in advance.

Then, upon arriving at the visitor center in Banff, a ranger told us it was the busiest weekend of the year. Wow. What timing we have, hey? But even after hearing this news, we were not to be discouraged! Our plan was to show up, see what backcountry campgrounds were available, and take whatever there was. If there was nothing, well, we’d do a bunch of day hikes and make the best of it. We didn’t have any particular trails or campgrounds in mind, (It’s Banff: everything offers spectacular views) so we just moseyed in and asked the ranger what she had for us.

She came back with two nights at Paradise Valley Campground. It was practically guaranteed not to be booked because you could only reserve it day-of and only for two nights at a time because bears frequented the trail. If a hiker reported an encounter, only hikers in groups of four or more were permitted to book the site. No one had reported an encounter, (maybe we would be the ones to do so?) so we had our site for two nights! Huzzah!

Backpacking in Banff
Backpacking in Banff!

And when I say this was the most awe-insipring trek I have ever made, I am not exaggerating. Josh has backpacked in mountains before (in the Colorado Rockies), but I hadn’t. Not mountains like these, anyway. Mountains in the Southwest just aren’t the same. And while our Grand Canyon rim-to-rim backpacking trip was the most epic thing I’d done so far (and will always hold an awe-inspiring place in my heart), these were the Canadian Rockies! I can’t tell you how many times the view literally took my breath away. I mean actually took my breath away. As in, I had to punch myself in the chest to remember to inhale. My eyes may or may not have been very soggy and blurry a few times.

The snow-capped mountains, the cracking sound of avalanches in the distance, the smell of pine, the rush of crystal clear water and roaring waterfalls, the challenge of scrambling up mountainous rocky passes…Photos just can’t capture the immensity and magic of the place, but dang if I didn’t try:

Banff National Park
Banff National Park
Banff National Park
Banff National Park
Banff National Park
Lake Moraine, Banff National Park
Lake Moraine, Banff National Park

After we hiked out, we enjoyed the view of Lake Moraine, (so freaking blue!) bawked at the cost of an hour canoe rental, ($120/hour!) magically found a parking spot at Lake Louise (not quite as stunning as Lake Moraine), and then drove a few miles outside the park to freedom camp at a riverfront park where probably a hundred RV’s and tents were congregated for the same reason. This is what happens when all the campgrounds inside the national parks are booked. There were no bathrooms, so I’m not ashamed to say we peed in a literal pot (actually it was a disposable plastic bulk peanut butter container) in the front passenger seat. And yes, we have done this before. Namely, while traveling around New Zealand for five weeks in a van we bought. So yes, we’re perfectly comfortable with this kind of dirty backpacker squalor. Judge if you want; we don’t care. We slept in our car because we didn’t want to bother with the tent again.

Jasper National Park
Five Lakes, Jasper National Park

 Hiking in Jasper

We woke early the next morning and drove back into the parks and headed toward Jasper National Park. We planned to just do a few smaller hikes and then grab dinner in the town of Jasper and be on our way. So we stoped to check out Athabasca Glacier, took a very short walk to marvel at Sunwapta Falls and picnic with peanut butter banana burritos, (you know: when you don’t have bread for a sandwich or the desire to slice bananas so you just spread peanut butter on a tortilla and wrap up a whole banana and eat it like a hot dog?) and then took a ranger’s suggestion and hiked around Five Lakes.

Sunwapta Falls, Jasper
Sunwapta Falls, Jasper National Park

They did not disappoint. As promised, the trail winds around five lakes that are all varying shades of blue and turquoise, each with their own stunning views. I mean, just look at this place:

We found a good handful of vegan-friendly restaurants and a health food store in Jasper where we stuffed our faces because we’d been eating ramen and trail mix for three days. The town didn’t look quite as trendy as Banff, but we were in a rush to hit the trail when we passed through that village, so we didn’t get to explore as we may have liked. Properly refueld, we headed out of the park to sleep in our car in the parking lot of a Hinton Brothers grocery store (which had port-o-potties outside for the overnight campers so we didn’t have to pee in a pot again…).

Freedom camping
Freedom camping somewhere near the Yukon/BC border in Canada

The Road to Alaska

After that, the drive continued to be breathtakingly beautiful. Especially after Fort Nelson. Which does have a Tim Hortons with the Beyon Meat Sausage breakfast sandwich, so that was a surprising win! After that is when it got really serious. We saw a bear, moose, mountain goats, deer, and a bobcat along the road. A bobcat! And no, we don’t have a photo. Mostly because until we were right up next to it we thought it was a coyote, which isn’t nearly as exciting. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

There were mountains and valleys and it was far from boring but devoid of traffic. We found free lakefront campgrounds where we pitched our tent, stopped in Watson Lake to meander through the Signpost Forest, tried to get some work done in Whitehorse, the last propper city before Alaska, grabbed lunch at Poor Creature, the only vegan restaurant in town, and continued on our way! The best stop? Probably Liard Hot Springs where you can get a $5 day pass and spend as long as you want soaking in the hot springs. Divine.

Watson Lake Signpost Forest
Watson Lake Signpost Forest
Liard Hot Springs
Liard Hot Springs

When we hit Alaska, we camped one more night (Anchorage is still about 6-7 hours from the border) before completing the drive into the city where we promptly visited the Hoarding Marmot, a popular used outdoor store, and scheduled dinner with a high school friend, with whom we would spend part of the weekend. Faces sufficiently stuffed, we relaxed at our host’s place. The Alaska adventure was just beginning!

Welcome to Alaska
Welcome to Alaska!