Banff Sundance and Stewart Canyon Hikes

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One of the best things to do in Banff, and the cheapest and healthiest thing, is hiking. There are so many hikes in the area that range from short and fairly easy to long and strenuous. When planning my trip, I decided to maximize the easy hikes and make judicious choices when it came to the moderate hikes, since I knew I only had so much energy in my body.

I chose to start my hiking vacation extravaganza with the Sundance Canyon hike, which was deemed easy in my guide book (though moderate at the trail head, but often times those recommendations are a bit more cautious and geared toward the very casual hiker). The description of the Sundance Canyon hike sounded very pleasant, since about half of it is on a flat or gently uphill paved path, some of it along a nice river with mountains in the background. I thought it would be a good way to get my body ready for more difficult hikes down the road, and get my first taste of Banff scenery.

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I started the hike in the mid afternoon, figuring I would take a couple hours to do the hike, which is a loop hike up to and past a waterfall, through a forest, and down through the forest, back to the paved path. I had some concerns for my own fitness and stamina when I started off on the flat, paved path and was struggling a bit. I had been exercising in advance of this vacation to prepare, and wasn’t expecting to struggle at the outset on an easy hike. Though I didn’t realize it then (though I should have), I think this was just my body’s way of adjusting to the change in altitude. Even though I knew Banff National Park was in the Canadian Rockies, it never really occurred to me to look at the starting elevations for these hikes, even though I took careful note of elevation gain on the hike.

Banff National Park sits around 5,000 feet elevation, which is not enough to feel just walking around, but is enough to feel when doing some vigorous exercise, like fast walking. So part of me was thinking my poor performance was JUST a fitness thing, and not partially an altitude acclimation thing, but I continued the hike.

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The initial walk along the river was really nice, and there were often benches along the river to allow you to take a rest and take in the wonderful view of mountains reflected in the river directly in front of you. Once past the river, the path remains paved, but starts a gentle incline uphill. You know you are about the start the more hiking portion of the hike once the paved path ends and the dirt path takes over.

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You cross a small river almost immediately and the path starts to ascend up the river until you come to a wooden bridge going over the waterfall. This is the highlight of the hike in terms of beautiful nature. If you were pressed for time, it would make plenty of sense to stop here, get your fill of the waterfall itself and the view of the canyon from the bridge, and then turn around and go back from where you came. I was honestly surprised at how quick it was to get from the start of the dirt path to the top of the waterfall. I was expecting something more strenuous, but the short, steep hike up to the bridge is the most steep uphill of the hike.

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I decided to do the rest of the hike, even though I had heard it wasn’t as scenic as the waterfall. The path initially parallels the river as you go deeper into the canyon, but eventually the path takes you upward and through a forest. It’s at this point the path starts wending its way back, but through forest. I knew at some point, the midpoint (such as it is) was going to be a viewpoint of the surrounding valley through the trees. This view isn’t marked with any sort of sign, but you know it when you see it. It’s at the point where the trees open up, and there is a wooden fence that lines the hilltop, so you don’t go too far and slide down the hill.

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Once you reach the viewpoint, the path continues and winds its way steeply downhill through a series of switchbacks, until you find yourself back at the trail head for the dirt trail and then just take the pavement path back to your car. This is a fairly easy hike, and I think it is a good one to start with. The views are nice, but not astounding, so I think I would have been a bit disappointed if I had done one of the hikes with amazing views, and then did this one, which has comparatively fewer awe-inspiring vistas. I thought it was a good choice to start small and then work my way out to the longer hikes and better views.

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The Sundance Canyon hike started my hiking vacation, and the Stewart Canyon hike effectively ended it, at least from a hiking perspective. So these two, relatively easy hikes served as bookends for my vacation. I did the Stewart Canyon later in the afternoon, though due to a variety of reasons (mainly because I wanted to visit someplace else for sunset), I only did a part of this hike. But it was enough to see this is as a pleasant hike, though not overwhelmingly beautiful. Like Sundance Canyon, this is a good introductory hike to the area, because it is pretty easy, and doesn’t have the jaw dropping views that you will see later. So doing this hike at the end was not going to fill me with the same wonder as if I had done it at the start of my vacation. However, I chose to put this
hike at the end of my vacation, because at the start of my vacation, the area was still under bear restrictions. Meaning, that the trail was open, but if you went beyond the bridge over the river and followed the path up the canyon, you had to be in groups of four or more, because hungry bears were more likely to be prevalent in the area. The bear restriction was going to lift before the end of my vacation, so that is why I did it on my return to Banff.

The hike starts at the shores of Minnewanka Lake, which is one of the largest lakes in the Banff area, and you can take a boat tour of the lake if you so desire. By the time I had returned to Banff at the end of my vacation, it was like fall foliage was in full bloom, and the tree leaves had turned a golden yellow.

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The hike initially takes you along the lake shore and past some picnic tables and fields into a rocky, rooty path. It’s not as rocky as I have experienced, but you do have to watch your step at times (and be on the lookout for mountain bikers, because they like this path as well). The trail takes you along the lake, and then around and up the Cascade River that feeds the lake from Stewart Canyon. It is impossible to get lost on the trail, and you know have hit the end of the free portion of the hike once you hit the bridge that crosses the river. There are plenty of signs that point out the bear restriction if you go further, even though that restriction had been lifted by this point.

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After walking a bit along the canyon trail, I got the sense that while the canyon trail is pretty, I wasn’t liable to see anything that I haven’t seen before, since I had done numerous canyon hikes by this point. So I made the decision to return even though I only did about half of the hike. The hike itself is pretty easy, but keep in mind the dates for bear season, and plan accordingly if you intend to be in the area during bear season.

Banff National Park Below… (or at least close to it)

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Banff is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited. It’s yet another reminder of how much beauty there is in the world, and how lucky I have been to be able to visit some of those places. One of the nice things about Banff is how easy it is to visit. It is a convenient 90 minute drive away from Calgary on a major highway, and so many of the places you would want to visit are easily accessible (with even more remote and wild beauty for those willing to hike some miles away from their car). It’s one of those places where I was consistently awestruck, even just driving down the road (thankfully there are many pull out places to stop and take in the beautiful nature).

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But beautiful nature doesn’t only exist above the surface at Banff, but also below it. Ever since I was a kid, I have always been fascinated with caves and underground caverns and rivers. It was always interesting and mysterious what lay beneath the surface and what sort of hidden treasures (and dangers) awaited. When possible, I love to visit caves, and over the years have visited some very interesting ones. Probably the best caving place I ever visited (pound for pound in terms of maximizing your cave loving buck) was the town of Waitomo in New Zealand. I was able to visit normal dry caves and take in the rock formations in one cave, take an underground boat cruise to see some glowworms in another cave, and even do some cave tubing, rappelling and some spelunking in other caves. For those who enjoy caving, but on the more tourist level, it is a great place to visit.

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So when I was looking through my guidebook to see what other activities were available beyond hiking, my eye caught on a cave expedition tour. Now-full disclosure- the cave is not within the bounds of Banff National Park, but it is accessible from the town of Canmore, which is only about a 20 minute drive back down the highway from Banff town. It’s easily done on a day trip from Banff, which is what I did. After looking through their tour offerings, I decided to go bold and do the Canmore Cave Adventure tour, which is a tour that lasts about six hours, four of them underground. It’s the most extensive tour they offer, though they also offer a shorter Explorer tour that visits the same cave, but not as much.

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Now, in hindsight, I likely should have either selected the easier tour, or waited until the last day or two of my vacation to go. But as it was, I did the tour the second full day of my vacation, which proved to be a bit of a challenge for me. I know I am not in as nearly good shape as I was several years ago when I visited New Zealand. I knew there was an advertised 40 minute hike uphill to get to the cave entrance, and I knew it was four hours underground scrambling over rock formation and squeezing through holes. But what I didn’t really appreciate until a few days in to my vacation, was the altitude.

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Even though I knew Banff National Park was in the Canadian Rockies, I didn’t really stop to think about the typical altitude of the town and surrounding area, which is roughly around 5,000 feet (not counting the altitude from hiking). That’s not enough to feel just walking around, but it is enough to feel when doing strenuous exercise, particularly if you aren’t in the best of shape, like me. So I have to admit that part of me wanted to turn back and go home, but I didn’t because I had no way of getting back to my car at the tour office. I really did struggle on the 40 minute hike to the cave, since it was all uphill. Sure, we took plenty of breaks, but it didn’t escape my notice that I was the only one who really needed one. At the time, I was wondering why I seemed to be out of breath so much, because even though I am not in the greatest of shape, I thought I was in better shape than my huffing and puffing would suggest. It was only later when I checked the altitude level of Banff and it dawned on me, that my body was simply becoming adjusted to exercise at higher altitudes.

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After a short break to water up and gear up at the cave entrance, we entered the cave. Since I am clumsy and not sure footed, I was very careful in my walking and often times would slide down the rocks on my butt. It is super easy and fun to slide down the rocks, not really thinking about what I would need to ascend (which I would realize later). After our initial short descent, we then had the opportunity to do a 60 foot rappel down the cavern. I wasn’t really scared or anything, because I have rappelled many times before, and I know the ropes hold. But even still, it was a bit unnerving at times, because the cavern wall was very slippery and uneven, and I ended up getting tangled a bit in the ropes before making my way to the cavern floor.

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The rest of the tour was just exploring different areas where our guide took us (and later,
avoiding the groups who came later on the Cave Explorer tour). It was fun to see the different rock formations, though I was still feeling a bit embarrassed, because I was the slowest and least fit of the group. For the most part, that didn’t really mean much, though there were a few tight squeeze areas I simply couldn’t fit through. I tried my best, but I started balking when I felt like I was getting stuck.  So I didn’t force my way into areas if it wasn’t relatively easy for me.

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After giving my positive feedback from the guide that I felt I could do it, he took us through the Laundry Chute, which is a very tight, rock tunnel that changes direction, is a super tight squeeze for some, and can only go one way. Meaning, once you start down the Laundry Chute, you couldn’t change your mind and return. You could only go forward. There was a spot that was super tight, and for a brief moment, I had visions of getting stuck there and having to be rescued. That fear was compounded by the fact that I was having trouble just getting enough air (again due to the altitude, and my lack of acclimation and fitness at that point). I am not normally claustrophobic, but something about being trapped in a cave tube when I couldn’t get enough air was deeply unsettling to me. Thankfully however I was able to slide through it and continue the tour.

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The final part of the tour was exiting the same way we came, which was an interesting
challenge. What was a fun slide down the rock getting into the cave proved to be a slippery and frustrating climb up the slick rock. At this point, I was tired, dirty, thirsty, and just wanted it to be over with. But I mustered some inner strength (plus the nice boost my guide and another dude gave me) to crawl up the rock via the rope. After that it was just a matter of taking off the gear, getting lots of water, and walking down to the cars (which was obviously easier than hiking up the trail).

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Overall, I am glad I did it, even though in hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have chosen that particular cave tour, because it was a bit out of my fitness level. Now, the good news is that if I can do it, you probably can too. Plus I was very lucky to have a super helpful, kind and encouraging guide with the name of Max. He was definitely a positive force for me, without being annoying or cheerleady. I still love me some caves, but I probably should improve my fitness level before I do another spelunking tour. But it does make a nice day trip and change of pace from hiking if you are visiting the Banff National Park.

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To relax after all that exhausting caving, I spent a couple hours unwinding in the hot pools at Banff Upper Hot Springs. My tired body loved the warm heat, and my eyes loved the gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains.

Banff National Park Above…

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For the past couple of years, Banff National Park in Canada has been on my must see travel list, and due to needing to burn some vacation days, I had the opportunity to visit this past September. For me, September was the perfect time to visit, because the weather is still pretty decent, the crowds are thinning (though they were still pretty strong the middle of September, but by the last week of September, they were just a shadow of their former self), services are still available (though the gondola to Sunshine Meadows shut down a few days before I arrived) and the fall foliage is out, but the snow hasn’t really hit (though it started snowing a day or two after I left, so I timed it right).  Since I had two weeks, I decided to split my time for several days in Banff city, several days at Lake Louise, and a few days up at Jasper National Park. I figured that would give me the greatest diversity of nature views and hiking opportunities in the area.

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Even though I think Lake Louise has more beauty bang for your buck, there are definitely plenty to see and do in Banff town area itself. I had originally planned on going hiking in the Sunshine Meadows area, because that is considered the premier hiking place in the area, but in my research, I somehow had missed that the Sunshine Gondola shut down a few days before I arrived, and I couldn’t see another way of getting to the summit (I was in no condition to hike the few thousand feet elevation gain to get to the top).

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So I pivoted and decided to take the Banff Gondola up to the top of  Sulphur Mountain for an expansive view of Banff town and the surrounding valley. Since my research said that the gondola gets really popular around late morning, I went early morning shortly after it opened and had zero wait and few other tourists to contend with. So for a blissful period of time, I could take in the view in silence (though battling the at times fierce wind at the top) and without having to fight crowds for nice views.

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The view from the top was lovely, and even though there were clouds, the view wasn’t socked in, and the clouds added some personality to the photographs. From the summit, you can take a short hike on boardwalks to the weather tower not far away that gives you different views of the area. It is pretty easy to walk, since they want to make it as accessible as possible. Beyond the views and some exhibits, there are also a couple restaurants if you want to eat or snack up there, and overall, it is a good way to pass a couple hours before taking the gondola back down.

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If you like waterfalls (I happen to love them), Banff National Park is chock full of them. Most of them are accessible from a reasonable hike, but one waterfall in town is just right along the main river and easily accessible. Bow Falls isn’t a large falls (the drop is only about 30 feet), but it is a wide, pretty falls, and there are a couple of nice viewpoints to take in the falls.

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The first viewpoint I went to was on the west bank. It has a large parking lot, easy for accommodating tour buses (there were a couple when I first arrived, but they were gone shortly after). Right from the bank, you have a nice view of the falls, and a short, kind of steep hike up some stairs will take you to an even better viewpoint that overlooks the falls.

The west bank viewpoint alone is good, but if you want a different perspective, you can drive to the east bank viewpoint at Surprise Corner. This viewpoint has a smaller parking lot, but you cross the road and head to the top of a small hill for an expansive view of Bow River, Bow Falls, the surrounding hills, and a very photogenic view of the famous Fairmont Banff Springs hotel (that looks like an old castle).

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Another beautiful area worth your time is the Vermilion Lakes which are within walking distance from the town, or you can drive them. I visited them twice, once at the beginning of my tour, and once at the end. The first time I visited, it was on my first full day of Banff, and I visited them as an aside while doing the Fendland Trail hike. I started from the train station and walked to the trailhead, which was only about 400 meters away.

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The nice thing about the Banff area, is that is possible to walk most places. The Fenland trail was super easy and flat. It winds its way through the forest and alongside a river, and it was one of the best and easiest places to watch elk feeding. I happened upon a couple female elk feeding in the forest and was able to see them from a safe distance, and in the parking lot, there were more than one elk feeding, and attracting crowds of photographers. I knew wildlife viewing was possible in the area (and it wouldn’t be my only time seeing wildlife), but it is still sort of trippy to see these huge animals feeding close by.

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The trail to go the Vermilion Lakes is an offshoot from this trail, and the “trail” itself is not a trail but rather a road. So you can walk along the road, or choose to bike, or drive. The first time I walked, and I made it to the first two lakes. Part of it was I wasn’t sure how many lakes there were or if the road was a throughway. I had checked on a map, but it wasn’t the best map. So, not knowing everything, I decided to turn back after the first two lakes, but I certainly got to enjoy a gorgeous view.

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The road is flat and easy to walk, though at times, I felt the cars weren’t as considerate as they could be to people walking alongside the road. The lakes are a series of small lakes, some of which seemed to be connected by creeks. They are set within a peaceful wetland area, with a nice backdrop of mountains. I read how gorgeous they are at sunsets, which I imagine, but of course, it would still require a colorful sunset, which was a rarer commodity when I visited, because most days were rather cloudy.

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At each lake, there are some benches to sit and contemplate the beauty in front of you, and there was an unhurried quality to my visit. Because I was just getting my body used to hiking multiple miles every day- and coupled with being unsure how far the Vermilion Lakes went- meant that I turned back after the second lake, but I knew I had to come back and visit. Due to travel requirements and such, I decided to come back to Banff town and spend the night on my last night in Canada (to make it an easier drive to the airport), so I resolved to stop once again at the Vermilion Lakes, but this time drive the road, and see if there was anything I missed on my first visit. And there definitely was.

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First off, even though it had only been a week and a half since I visited, the fall foliage was very noticeable (all around the area, not just here), and the marsh was now awash in  reds, oranges, and yellows. And since I visiting closer to sunset on a nice day, the colors of the sunset just added to the soft autumn tones of the scenes.

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There are actually two more lakes past the second one, though there is a gap between the two sets, which is more noticeable if you are walking (hence why I turned back the first visit). Plus the road ends in a turnaround at the last lake (though the bike path continues further if you were biking the trail), so there is no doubt you have reached the last lake.

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I was just taken aback by the colors and the beautiful scenery and didn’t want to leave. In fact, it was more of a challenge to maximize the waning daylight and see the two lakes I hadn’t visited before (which in my opinion were a bit prettier than the first two- if I was forced to rank them), and not spend too much time at one and miss the other.

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If you are in the town of Banff, it is so easy to stop at the Vermilion Lakes, that there is really no excuse not to, especially if you love gorgeous, colorful nature that is also peaceful and contemplative.

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Norway in a Nutshell- Bergen to Oslo (Winter Edition)

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When I planned our winter trip to Norway, I tried to develop an itinerary that was comprehensive and made sense. I mean, we started up in the far north of Tromso to maximize Polar Night. Then we took a cruise down the Norwegian coastline to Bergen and spent a few days there. Now it was time to make our way to Oslo, where we would spend the remaining days of our vacation.

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There are a variety of ways to get from Bergen to Oslo, but I chose the route that seemed the most fun, and gave us the greatest opportunity to see the beautiful Norwegian landscapes, though this choice was far from the cheapest. Tourist offices in Norway offer a wide variety of day trips and multi-day trips, and one of their most popular day trips is called Norway in a Nutshell. There are a variety of versions of this trip, with different routes and itineraries, all of them designed to give the traveler the most bang for their buck and see as much as possible of that route in a given day (though you can extend a trip by stopping in one of the various towns for a day or two).

Norway in a Nutshell-7Norway does a pretty good job of offering winter tours, though for obvious reasons, they aren’t as extensive as summer tours. But they do have one winter Norway in a Nutshell, and you can do it from Bergen to Oslo or Oslo to Bergen. Both itineraries are the same in terms of stops and even in terms of trip length. I booked it in advance with my travel agency, and they took care of everything, including arranging for our bags to be picked up. That option took a load off my mind, because I was just picturing my poor mother dragging her suitcase through the Norway snow and ice (or me dragging both of our suitcases) at every stop and wrangling them onto buses, boats and trains. But nope, you can pay extra to have your bags picked up in Bergen, and they will be dropped off for you at your hotel in Oslo. It’s not the cheapest option, but I would rather spend money for peace of mind and convenience, so all we had to carry were our day packs.

 

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The day trip from Bergen to Oslo starts early and ends late. We left Bergen by train early in morning, just as the rising sun was turning the snowy winter landscape blue. By the time we got off the train at Voss, the sun was completely out. From there, there is a marked bus from Voss to Gudvangen. The bus trip was also very beautiful, as everything was covered in snow (which it wasn’t in Bergen). The bus dropped us off at the tiny, tiny village of Gudvangen. We had some time to kill before our boat arrived, so we took the time to take in the awe inspiring views. We were at the end of a fjord, and the tall, snow covered mountains surrounded us. But to make the view even better, the water was super still and clear and provided these astounding reflections of the mountains. It almost looked surreal.

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Our next part of the trip was an electric boat ride through Naerjoyfjord, which is one of the smallest fjords in Norway. The passageway is rather narrow by fjord standards, but it packs a lot of beauty into such as small area. It was pleasantly chilly out on deck, but the never ending beautiful views made it all worth it. The boat ride lasts roughly two hours and ends at the tiny, but pretty village of Flam, which is off yet another fjord, Aurlandsfjord.

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The town itself was covered in snow, and it looked the picture of a charming, Norwegian traditional village. We had a pleasant lunch and then just walked around taking pictures, doing some shopping and just relaxing.

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It is here that part of me wished I had chosen something differently. See, when you sign up for the trip, you are given an itinerary, with departure times and tickets. Our departure out of Flam via the Flam Railway was scheduled for after 4 pm in the afternoon, which would have been perfectly fine in the summer. But in the winter, it was right around the time it would start getting dark. In fact, the sun was definitely low by the time we departed Flam, and it was completely dark by the time we arrived at Myrdal. Part of me wished we had taken the earlier train out of Flam, just because the views from the Flam Railway are supposed to be spectacular, and it is considered to be one of the most beautiful train rides in the world.

20190123_171941-1But even though we didn’t get to see EVERYTHING, we saw enough and I felt we got our money’s worth. The one fun thing is that there are a couple short photo stops on the Flam Railway, the longest being at the Kjosfossen Waterfall. This waterfall is one of the most popular stops in Norway, and I was worried that we wouldn’t stop at the waterfall, because it would be dark by that point. But fear not, stop we did, and the waterfall was lit up with colorful lights. It certainly looked like it was frozen over, and it would have been fun to see in daylight, but it was still good enough in the dark.

 

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The Flam Railway ends at Myrdal, and from there, we picked up another train to Oslo. We still had some hours to go before getting to Oslo, but at this point, all we had to do was sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. We didn’t arrive in Oslo until after 10 pm that night, so the full day trip itinerary takes over 14 hours. I’m sure it is even more beautiful in the summer, since the sun is out for so long. But I think it is still a worthwhile trip in the winter. If you love beautiful winter landscapes, you will definitely get your fill on this particular day trip. It is probably the most beautiful way to get from Bergen to Oslo, or vice versa.

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Winter Views of Bergen, Norway

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After our three day cruise from Tromso to Bergen, we spent three days in Bergen to see the sights. Bergen is the second largest city in Norway, and it’s on the western coast set among a variety of fjords. It’s a major port area for cruises, shipping and the like. It’s been around for hundreds of years and has a perfectly charming harbor area (fodder for another blog post).

While the ground view of Bergen’s Old European buildings has its charm, it’s also great to get away and see Bergen from afar and above. Lucky for those of us who love a good viewpoint, there are two different viewpoints to see Bergen within easy access of the city center. Both give similar views, but different enough to make both worth your time.

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The entire time we were in Norway, I watched the weather forecast closely, because the weather could greatly affect our excursions. Bergen in particular had some of the trickiest weather. Sure there was snow in Tromso (and eventually in Oslo), but Bergen was the “warmest” city we visited. And when I saw warm, I am definitely grading on a curve. The temperature never rose above the high 30s, and it was often lower, but it was still warmer than the other places we visited. In fact, there had been days of rain before we showed up, but while we were there, it did snow on occasion.

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Since I am a travel planner, I had to work out our Bergen itinerary in advance, because due to times and weather, I wanted to fit in everything we wanted to see in the time we had to do them. First up on our first full day in Bergen was a visit to Mount Ulriken. This mountain is one of the highest in the area at 642 meters, and you get to the top via cable car. The cable car can be reached by either a 45 minute walk from the city center or about a 15 minute bus ride. If I knew for sure where we were headed, AND if I knew the weather was going to hold out, we might have walked to and from the cable car, because I love to walk on vacation. However, I wasn’t exactly sure the destination, plus the weather forecast only had clear skies for about two hours in late morning, so I felt it was best to take the bus.

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Lucky for us, two of the busses that stopped at the cable car stopped just around the corner from our hostel. Bus 2 or 3 with a stop at Haukeland Hospital N will get you close to the cable car. You cross the street and walk up the hill. The hill is a bit steep and we were feeling the incline, but it only took about 15 minutes to get to the base of the cable car. We were visiting mid morning on a Sunday (chosen because Monday was a maintenance day and Tuesday we had a fjord cruise planned) and there was no line for the cable car. So we hit the mountain top within about 15 minutes of getting to the base.

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The cable car raises you steadily up and as it nears the top, you can see more and more of Bergen city come into view. Ulriken is about 3 kilometers south of the city center, so the city view is a bit askew from the mountain top. Once you’re up on top, there are plenty of hiking trails, some of them easier and some more difficult, which are easier to do when there is no snow on the ground. Even though there was limited snow at the Bergen city streets, since they were at sea level, but just several hundred meters up above the sea and you are in knee deep snow. It made it a bit challenging to walk out to a view point to take some photos, but we got there.

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We were up there enjoying the views for about an hour, but soon after that, the wind picked up and the clouds rolled in, just like the weather forecast predicted. So it was time to take the bus back to the city center, and ensconce ourselves in a variety of art museums to hide out from the falling snow.

The other viewpoint over Bergen, Floibanen, is actually right in the city center, so if you only have time for just one viewpoint, this is the one to do.  It’s closer to Bergen, plus it has more extended hours year round (open until around 2300). We had always planned on going to it, but we had a free afternoon AND the sun was shining high in the sky, so we figured why not go watch the sunset over Bergen?

You reach Floibanen via funicular, which leaves about every 15 minutes from the base. Some of the funiculars make stops on the way up, so you can get a sense of how the streets climb up the hills toward the top of the mountain and there are whole neighborhoods you don’t even realize are there.

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Once we hit the mountain top, the weather was brisk and cold and the sun shining over the city. It was rather beautiful to see the city spread out before us with the sun lighting everything up. I can’t say it is PEACEFUL up there, only because there are so many people. You have the tourists, but you also have schoolchildren and those who come up the mountain after work or school to do some skiing.

We had plenty of time to kill before the sun set, so we decided to walk around and enjoy some of the trails. Like Ulriken, Floibanen is covered in trails (in fact, you can walk between the two mountains, which would take you about five hours) and you can choose your own adventure for walking. If you wanted, you could walk the roads from Floibanen all the way down to the harbor area, but we just wanted to enjoy some of the beautiful nature.

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There was plenty of snow up top, but unlike at Ulriken, the snow was tamped down enough that you could walk on the trails. Walking on the trails was a refreshing, almost magical experience, because it really was like a winter wonderland up there, reminiscent of Tromso, because the snow was pure white and lit up the trees around you.

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We only walked to a nearby lake that was 500 meters away, but it made for a brisk afternoon walk. Once we got to the lake, it brought back memories of when I visited during the summer 10 years ago. The walk around the lake was very nice, because it was covered in snow with some tracks (animal or human we weren’t sure), that gave the impression the lake was thick enough to walk on. However, we weren’t reckless enough to make the attempt, because the last thing either of us needed was to fall in a freezing cold lake and need to be fished out by the authorities.

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By the time we made our way back to the viewpoint, the sun was getting close to setting, so we got some cocoa and settled in to watch. As with every sunset, it is always a crap shoot. Sometimes sunsets can be colorful and awe inspiring, and sometimes they can just be there and the light falls below the horizon. That was the sunset we encountered. Nothing spectacular, but it was still pretty.

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We did other things in Bergen, but the viewpoints over the city are also worth your time.

Cruising down the Norwegian Coastline in Winter

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When I first started planning our winter trip to Norway, I wanted to create a balanced itinerary that enabled us to see some of the things I hadn’t seen on my first trip to Norway with seeing some of the same stuff again, only in the light of winter. For my mother, it was all new to her, so whatever I came up with was going to satisfy her desire to see Norway. So of course I wanted to make this trip as seamless as possible. I’ve done tours where I have spent a lot of time traveling between sights, and I wanted to make that as fun as possible, especially since I was setting up a fairly ambitious itinerary. I mean, I knew we HAD to see Tromso, mainly because of the opportunity to see the Northern Lights (accomplished), but also because I hadn’t spent that much time seeing it before. It was only a few hours cruise stop on my first trip and I wanted to spend some time up there and enjoy as much as possible, because there is a LOT one can see up in the Tromso area. I knew we had to see Bergen and Oslo, because they are basically must do cities on a Norway trip.

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To make it fun and to maximize seeing Norway’s beautiful nature, we decided to link it all together with a series of tours and make the journey to each next stop part of the fun and not just as a slog to get to a destination. Starting in Tromso was the best bet, because that meant we started in the Far North where there was a lot of cold and snow and limited daylight.

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Traveling south from there meant that each day would get a tiny bit warmer (though it wasn’t really noticeable except for the three days we were in Bergen) and certainly longer days of daylight. The best option (though certainly not the cheapest option) was to take the Hurtigruten cruise south from Tromso to Bergen. I had taken the cruise north from Bergen to Kirkenes in the summer about 10 years ago, so I knew how this was a great opportunity to relax and see the Norwegian coastline in peace and intersperse it with some shore excursions.

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If you want to do a Norway cruise in winter, the easiest option is the Hurtigruten cruise (there area many, many other options in the summer, though those are more traditional cruise lines). The Hurtigruten cruise has been operating in Norway for decades, and it is more of a very nice ferry line and not what you would consider a typical cruise. I mean, the Hurtigruten is a working ship that transports goods to many of the tiny seaside towns- some of which are extremely hard to reach outside of a ship. There aren’t as many typical cruise activities (no casinos, all night buffets, waterslides and whatever else they are coming up with on cruises these days), but it is a great opportunity to relax and enjoy the beauty of the Norwegian coastline. If you want to maximize shore excursions, Hurtigruten offers a wide variety. But if you just want to plop yourself down in one of the lounge chairs on the upper deck and watch the world float by while reading a book or checking out the Internet, you are free to do so as well.

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Considering our first three days in Tromso involved some long days and nights with activities, cruising down the Norwegian coastline for three days was a great opportunity to relax and recharge. Sure our embarkation night in Tromso was a long one, since we weren’t able to board until after midnight (a fairly easy process if you have reservations), but after that, it was pretty much on our own time. Most of the time we just read books, enjoyed the view and took pictures outside on the open deck (you always needed to keep your winter gear nearby in case you wanted to outside). Usually I am very go go go on my vacations, trying to get a lot in, but cruising kind of forced me to pump the brakes. Outside of the meal times, and occasional disembarkation at a stop, it was just sort of blissful peace.

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The cruise will stop for a few hours at some of the larger cities, such as Trondheim, Tromso and the like, but many of the stops were for only an hour or less. Most of those places were just smaller villages, giving the ship enough time to offload some materials and give cruise goers a chance to look around. Honestly, outside of our stop at Trondheim, we really didn’t get off the ship.

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However, we did want to take advantage of our three hours in Trondheim to see the city, because it really is worth a visit. There is a lot to see and do there, but you only have a limited amount of time, especially if you decide to walk like we did. The cruise offered a Trondheim sightseeing tour, but I am not sure if they stopped in many more places than we did. The southbound Trondheim stop is from around 0630 to 1000. That SOUNDS like a lot of time, but it really isn’t. First off, if you want to enjoy breakfast, you won’t be getting off the ship at 0630, and even so, in winter, the sun doesn’t rise until around 0900, so it’s not like you are going to be able to visit much at that hour. Plus the day we stopped, the wind and snow were blowing pretty hard, but we persevered. We had enough time to make a short 20 minute visit to the Nidaros Cathedral, which is one of the main attractions in Trondheim. The cathedral opened at 0900, so I figured we had enough time to visit and then briskly walk the 30 minutes back from town to our ship. We did make it and all, though we only had about five minutes to spare, but that was enough.

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After first disembarking, we made our way from the harbor area to the center of the Old Town, and we actually arrived at the cathedral before it opened. Since we had some time to kill, we walked the few hundred meters over to cross the Gamle Bybro or Old Town Bridge and get some nice photos of the Bryggen, which is a collection of colorful 18th and 19th century buildings along the canal. I remember my summer visit to Trondheim allowed me more time to walk around and explore that area, but not this trip. You can see a decent amount in three and a half hours, but it is more challenging when it is dark, but also that everything is closed. I wish our stop could have been in the later morning or the afternoon, but you can’t have everything (the northbound stop at Trondheim is later in the day, so you can maximize your visit). I wished we could have visited the Archbishop’s Palace or the fort overlooking the city, but it was still an enjoyable visit.

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Stopping in Trondheim was sort of the highlight of our cruise, and later that day, we saw the actual sun above the horizon in more than a week. It was interesting to see the gradual lengthening of daylight. The first day we were in the Lofoton Islands, which were beautiful, but we had the same limited daylight we had in Tromso, which unfortunately meant we didn’t get to see Trollfjord while we were cruising. But each day, the amount of daylight got both longer and brighter until we were actually seeing the sun on our last full day before arriving in Bergen.

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I am glad we did the wintertime cruise, as it was a good counterpart to seeing Norway in the summer. I think Norway is beautiful all year around, and worthy of a trip anytime. Sure there are some things that are seasonal specific, such as seeing the Northern Lights only in winter, and really only being able to take some longer hikes in the summer, since many of the paths are covered in deep snow in the winter. But many things are good all year, such as cruising the Norwegian coastline. It’s a great, peaceful and easy way to see parts of Norway that aren’t easily accessible on a land tour, and traverse great lengths of the country.

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Beautiful Blue Light of Tromso, Norway in Winter

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As I’ve talked about in previous blogs, there is something very beautiful and beguiling about the blue light of Polar Night. Since the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon, the light casts a soft shadow. Sure you aren’t in pure darkness 24 hours a day, but you also don’t have the sun beaming down on you. So it’s like hours of a soft dawn or a soft twilight that can feel otherworldly, especially in the morning when the initial rising light is a very strong blue that gradually lightens towards mid day. That blue light contrasting with the brilliant white of the snow really does make you feel like you are in some Narnia-style winter wonderland. It’s also the presence of the snow that makes everything look and feel lighter than it actually may be. At the the height of the day, you wouldn’t necessarily even realize that the sun is not actually above the horizon, because it is plenty light, but it certainly doesn’t stay that way for long-only a few short hours. That is reflected in that any day tour activities in Tromso in winter will likely end around 1500, because that is the time it starts getting actually dark. I personally found the long hours of darkness to be very cozy, filling me with thoughts of snuggling by the fireplace or by long walks in the refreshing, bracing cold, but I know that extended hours of darkness can drive some people up the wall.

While you could likely rent a car reasonably easily in Tromso (especially if you flew into town), I don’t think it was especially useful. First off, there is the matter of parking, since it’s not like there are vast swaths of parking in town (though, there apparently is a pretty large UNDERGROUND parking lot on the edge of town, in the center of this mass of underground tunnels that help you navigate into and out of the city-a rather interesting engineering marvel that saves the beautiful environment). Plus there is the matter of driving on hard packed snow. Probably because snow is present for many winter months, it is just easier to pack down new snow and not plow it out of the way. This prevents large, unwieldy piles in snow along the road, and just turns the roads into snow roads. I can only imagine that since most Americans aren’t used to or comfortable driving on hard packed snow, it is simply easier to not rent a car and get around town on your own.

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So honestly, it is much easier simply to take a guided tour out to see the Tromso environs. There are many, many offered; you just have to find the one that is right for you. They all see the same essential areas, so you will have plenty of opportunity to see the many, many beautiful fjords, beaches and snow covered hills.  While all of the Tromso environs are beautiful in my opinion, there isn’t a specific must do landscape point or anything like you see elsewhere. It’s all just general beautiful nature. We elected to do another day trip with Creative Vacations, just because their Blue Light tour sounded like what we were looking for in terms of seeing some beautiful Tromso winter landscapes.

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Since there isn’t THAT much daylight during the winter in Tromso, the entire tour is only about six hours long. But those are the six hours where there was the most light. After being picked up by our tour van, we headed out to their studio to get into some snowsuits. At first I was skeptical that I needed a snowsuit. I mean, this isn’t like their nighttime aurora tours where you just stand around in the cold for hours on end. But I soon came to see the wisdom of the snowsuits. It had snowed a fair amount in the days before our tour and there were places by the side of the road where it just naturally piled up high. While we never had to hike far to see some of the beautiful views, we did have to hike some. That often meant hiking through knee high drifts of snow, and it was so much more comfortable to be hiking through that in a rented snowsuit and boots, rather than my own regular pants.

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After getting suited up, we headed out on our sightseeing tour. The bulk of the tour was centered around Kvaloya Island, which is one of the many islands around Tromso. We made many, many stops along the way to take in beautiful fjord views and beautiful mountain views, beautiful snow-covered lake views and eventually we ended up at a beautiful snow laden beach.

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Our guide was pretty good telling us where we were and giving some of the backstory on the sights. She had to manage speaking to us in English and the rest of the tour group in Spanish, all the while she is a native French speaker (which kind of hints at some of the diversity in the seasonal tour guide personnel, since they aren’t all native Norwegians). I know we stopped at a view to see the longest fjord in the area, but I honestly don’t remember the name (it might have been Lyngenfjord, but I don’t know). Of course it is hard to get a good, accurate view of any scale while you are just looking at one part of a fjord. As would become more clear later in our trip, getting a good and photogenic view of a fjord was a matter of careful placement, since it is too easy to just get a flat picture of a fjord without really capturing the true beauty and scale of it.

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Along the way, we saw some reindeer lounging in the snow. It wasn’t a large group or anything, but it was still fun to see some reindeer, not exactly in the wild, but also not really on a farm either. Since we had limited days in Tromso, we spent more time focusing on beautiful nature views, and didn’t take in any of the many reindeer tours that involved feeding reindeer or sludging with reindeer.

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One of the nice things about this tour, and of Tromso in general, is that it is not heavily populated when you get out of the main town. Sure there are some very good roads that ring the fjords, but they aren’t overly crowded, since the small villages that dot the fjord areas aren’t heavily populated (at least in winter, I can’t speak to what it’s like in summer). That facilitated us stopping wherever we wanted along the road (pulling off it so we didn’t become a traffic hazard) to get some really nice views.

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Since it is winter and everything is covered in snow, sometimes it was a question if the vast expanse of snow we were looking at was a snow covered meadow or a snow covered lake. I think most of them were lakes, like the huge Lake Storvatnet we photographed.

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Our turnaround point for this tour was the tiny, beach side village of Grotfjord. We had a chance to relax, walk along the beach and enjoy some lunch. It was also a great place to see what little sunlight there was. Truthfully, this was our last day in Tromso and the sun did rise above the horizon for about 30 minutes. But because of the surrounding hills, we couldn’t see the actual sun (and wouldn’t for another week, until we moved farther south in Norway), but we saw this beautiful pink light very low on the horizon. The combination of the small points of pink light mixed with the surrounding blue light and offset by the pure white of the snow made for an enchanting and scenic landscape background.

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The best views of this light was on the beach in Grotfjord, because the clear day made for some colorful, almost painterly reflective backdrops of the beach and surrounding village.

By the time we got back from the tour, it was pure dark, but it made for a leisurely and beautiful final day in Tromso.