One of the many great things about Banff National Park is how accessible it is from the outside. It is only an easy 90 minute drive from the Calgary airport, and is situated along the Trans Canada Highway 1, which wends its way through the park. In fact, if you keep following Highway 1 past the Lake Louise exit, you will soon find yourself crossing the border into the province of British Columbia and into Yoho National Park.
When I was planning this vacation, I intended to use the remainder of my work vacation hours, and from that, it was just a matter of crafting an itinerary to fill all those hours. I wanted to have as much variety as possible, while taking into account a desire for hiking and the like. And once I realized just how centrally located Banff is, I realized I could maximize my park visiting experience. I already planned on spending a few days in Jasper National Park to the north, but looking through my travel guide, I realized that there is another national park just west of Banff- Yoho National Park- and it was chock full of beautiful nature to see and do. Once I saw that there were a couple of nice waterfalls to hike to, I was all in.
Yoho National Park is super easy to get to, super easy to navigate, and is well worth your time if you have seen all that you wanted in Banff National Park. I won’t go so far and say that Yoho is as beautiful and awe inspiring as Banff, but it has a lot to offer, and makes for another notch in your national park belt while visiting the area.
Like I said, Yoho National Park is bisected by Trans Canada Highway 1, just like Banff National Park, so it makes it easy to visit all the sites. To make it easy on myself, I visited each site as I came to it, figuring I would save Emerald Lake for my final stop that day.
My first stop was just a road pullout, but it had some good views of the Spiral Railway and some good information about it. What is currently Trans Canada Highway 1, used to be the rail line that connected British Columbia and Alberta. While it is a pretty easy highway for a car to drive, it can be very challenging for a train, because of the steepness of ascending to the mountain pass. Hence why the Spiral Railway was completed.
It is an interesting bit of engineering design, inspired by a Swiss design of the same nature. Essentially, instead of a single straight railway that goes up the mountain and requires a lot of train engines to push the load, an internal spiral railway was cut into the mountainside. It basically doubles the length of track to get up the mountain, but it does so by creating these gradually ascending railways that spiral through the mountain, eventually coming out on top of the mountain pass.
There are two places you can see the tunnel that is cut into the mountainside- the Upper Railway and the Lower Railway- and if you time your visit properly, you can see trains actually maneuvering through the railway cutouts. As it stands, there are two different areas you can see it cut into the mountain, though most of the railway is hidden, because it was constructed inside the mountain. But is still a fascinating engineering marvel to behold.
My next stop was at Takakkaw Falls. These falls are the second highest falls in Canada at 836 feet, and during the spring runoff, is basically gushing tons of water. But even in the more off season in the fall, the falls are still an impressive site. Reaching the falls involves driving along an eight mile road that is at times narrow with some interesting road switchbacks (I’m glad I was in a compact car, and not a large RV) to reach the trailhead. I could see the falls from a distance as I approached the trailhead, and there is ample parking, since it is such a popular spot to visit.
The walk to get to the base of the falls is only half a mile and it’s on flat, paved surfaces, so it is easily accessible. The trail gets a bit more uneven as I approached the base of the falls and was looking all the up the cliff side to see the impressive water drop into the river and flow away. There are numerous beautiful viewpoints along the trail that provide nice photo opportunities of the waterfall.
Once back in the car, I kept driving along Trans Canada Highway 1, stopping every so often at pullouts to take pictures of the astounding beauty of the river and the surrounding mountains. It is not noticeably different from Alberta province, but the natural beauty is still enough to give me pause.
My next stop proved to be a bit harder to find. I was going to hike to the Wapta Falls, and had the basic directions. However, I never saw a sign for a turnoff to the waterfall, so I overshot my target and ended up at the nearby town of Golden. Even though I was farther than I wanted to be, I figured this was a good spot for some lunch, before heading back to Yoho National Park to try and find this waterfall.
It was a combination of rereading the directions in my guide book, and checking Google Maps to realize just where I needed to go. The road to the waterfall is easily accessible from the main highway. However, due to construction immediately around the turnoff, I didn’t see a sign to turn left as I was traveling west on the highway. But there was a sign (plus I was on the close lookout for the road sign) that told me to turn right off the highway as I was heading east back towards Alberta.
The road to the trailhead was rather bumpy and muddy, but still negotiable with a compact car. When I got to the parking place, I was a bit surprised to see how full it was. Sure, the parking lot isn’t HUGE, but it shows how this hike is pretty popular.
The initial part of the hike is flat and easy, though it definitely got muddy in spots. I can never figure out how there could be this huge puddle in the middle of the trail, but I see it all the time. There were boards put down in some places, and large rocks to navigate in others, but there were times, when I just had to brave it and pick the least muddy path and hope that I didn’t slip and fall into the mud, or get my boots gunked up with too much mud.
The trail is only listed as a 30 minute walk to the waterfall, which isn’t that far. However, my body was still a bit tired from my previous days’ hikes, so I wasn’t walking as fast, and I was starting to wonder just where this waterfall actually was.
It was right about then when I came up to the overlook, high over the waterfall. It’s really more of a fence that borders the trail down, where I could look down and see the rushing waterfall. Wapta Falls isn’t as tall as Takkakaw Falls (98 feet), but it is much wider (490 feet), and more picturesque. Part of my body was super tired and wanted to stay up top, but the other part of me wanted to get closer, so I descended the trail. It’s a pretty steep downhill in parts (which I knew was going to be a huffer to ascend back later), but it wasn’t that long before I was at the midpoint of the waterfall views.
This view is much closer and is an extraordinarily beautiful place to just take in and admire the beauty and feel the spray from the waterfall. From here the trail gets faint, but I could see that it was possible to descend, because I saw some people right on the river’s edge. I toyed with the idea of going down to the bottom, but I didn’t really want to get wet (the wind was blowing the spray pretty hard toward the shore), and I wasn’t motivated for the steep climb back up the trail, so I decided to stay where I was and just enjoy the waterfall views from a bit of a distance.
My last stop of the day was the Emerald Lake area, which really was two stops. The first one is the Natural Bridge, which is pretty much what it sounds like. Due to the amazing power of water to erode anything, holes were cut into the rock, and over the years, a natural rock bridge has formed over the rushing Kicking Horse River. I keep using the word beautiful to describe the sites, but it is true. There is just so much natural beauty in these Canadian national parks, that I just wanted to stay there forever.
This was mid afternoon, and my visit had come up on a tour bus packed with camera wielding tourists,but thankfully they dispersed soon enough, so it wasn’t quite so noisy. There are many places around the Natural Bridge to admire the rock formations and the rushing water, and it makes for some pretty photo angles. I could even approach the edge of the river yourself, though of course I wanted to be careful so I didn’t slip and fall in.
My final, final stop on my day trip to Yoho National Park was Emerald Lake itself. It is another example of a blue-green lake in the area that is such an eye popping color because of the glacial rock powder at the bottom of the lake, much like Lake Louise and Lake Moraine . By this point, it was getting late in the day, and I knew there were only a couple more hours of daylight to enjoy everything.
Emerald Lake has a lodge and a restaurant (though it was closed for a private function the day I visited). It also has a trail that circumnavigates the lake and makes for a nice walk. Though there were plenty of tourists at some of the sites nearest to the parking lot, soon enough I almost had the trail to myself (or at least only a few tourists).
The trail took me through an avalanche path, which makes for some nice illustration of the environmental effects of avalanches. But for the most part, the trail is flat, level, and gave many opportunities to sit on a bench and take in the smooth lake and the surrounding high mountains.
On my way back to my car, it started to rain for a few minutes (certainly not uncommon in these parts of Canada in September), but what could have been just an annoyance proved to be a photographic opportunity when a rainbow broke out, and the clear, flat surface of the lake provided a nice mirror image of the rainbow. It made for a very pleasing end to a long, but successful day.
If you are staying in Banff National Park for several days, definitely consider a visit to Yoho National Park. It is very easy to reach, especially if you are based out of the Lake Louise area, and it offers many natural pleasures, including my favorite- waterfalls, to behold.