Alberta

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Length of stay: 9 days
Visited: August & September 2016

Highlights:

  • Canmore Cave Tour
  • Plains of the Six Glaciers (and the Tea House)
  • Maligne Canyon
  • Hearing two avalanches on our hike to Eiffel Lake
  • Snow capped mountains and glacier lakes

With sweeping vistas of the Rocky Mountains in its backyard and commanding views of turquoise lakes fed by nearby glaciers, Alberta is what the Canadian great outdoors is all about. With a plethora of national parks scattered around the southwestern part of the province  there are endless hiking opportunities and great chances of glimpsing wildlife in their natural habitat.

Despite living in Canada for most of our lives we have yet to explore much beyond Ontario. Sure, it doesn’t help that flight prices within Canada are comparable (and sometimes more expensive) to flights to Europe. But this year we decided to pack our camping gear, fly out west, and enjoy Canada’s mountainous wilderness.

This was our game plan: we would fly into Calgary and embark on a 12 day road trip where we planned to hit up the following national parks: Waterton Lakes (in Alberta), Banff (Alberta), Jasper (Alberta), Glacier (in Montana), Yoho (in British Columbia), and Kootenay (British Columbia). Below is the map of our roadtrip where each colour corresponds to a specific national park.

Waterton Lakes National Park

Day 1: Evening in Waterton Lakes 

We landed in Calgary at 10:30a.m. We collected our suitcase (we are just that good at fitting all our camping gear into a single suitcase) and picked up our rental car. We first stocked up on supplies  (treats, food, water and fuel – all of the essentials) before embarking on a 270km drive to Waterton Lakes National Park. Situated in southwestern Alberta, Waterton Lakes is where the prairies meet the mountains. It is nestled right on the border beside Montana’s Glacier National Park. Together, these two parks formed the first ever International Peace Park  to better preserve and protect the shared ecosystem.

We entered into the park just before 4p.m and picked up our Park’s Canada Discovery Pass which allows entry into in Canada’s national parks, National Marine Conservation Areas and National Historic Sites for a full year. And all for $136.40. Since 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, admission into our national parks will be free. So our pass is actually valid for two full years. You can purchase a pass (and there are different options depending if you want a group or single pass) online or at any of the participating locations.

We drove straight to the Crandell Mountain campground to find a campsite, which are all administered on a first-come first-served basis. Along the way we saw a black bear with two cubs cross the road. Our luck continued as we rolled into the campground and snagged the second last campsite. And in a section without generators. We quickly set up our tent and headed back out to squeeze in some short hikes before it got dark.

We continued driving 15km along the rest of the Red Rock Pathway to get to the car park for two short and easy hikes. The first was to Blackiston Falls (2km roundtrip). There was some confusion as to whether this trail was actually closed or just closed to horses due to construction signs in the area. We decided to hike it anyway. A viewing platform for the falls was being installed or expanded, but it didn’t impede our view of the waterfall.

The second hike was through the Red Rock Canyon. We first hiked the Red Rock Canyon Loop (0.7km roundtrip), but it wasn’t much of a loop because the bridge to get over to the other side to complete the loop was closed. We returned the way we came and then scrambled down into the shallow canyon to walk through it. It was quite an enjoyable way to cool off from the hot weather. We managed to make it pretty far into the canyon while strategically maneuvering over rocks and around the side without taking off our hiking boots. And when we couldn’t proceed any further we finally took off our boots only to put them right back a second later after dipping a toe into the frigid cold water.

After finishing our hikes we drove back to the park entrance to drive through the Bison paddock. The paddock contains a small protected herd of rare Plains bison. There’s a road that takes you through the paddock and allows the opportunity to see bison up close from the safety of your vehicle. Driving through here was a blast from the past from last year when we were in Yellowstone National Park.

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At this point it was starting to get dark so we headed back to our campsite to make dinner. We played some cards for a bit, but headed off to bed shortly after it got dark outside. We woke up in the middle of the night to go to the washroom and were dazzled by the brilliant view of the night sky free from the light pollution in the city.

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Day 2: Morning at Waterton Lakes 

We woke up extra early at 6:45a.m to get a head start on the day. We took down our tent and just threw our sleeping pads and sleeping bags in the backseat of the car. We planned to spend the morning in Waterton before heading south of the border to Glacier National Park over in Montana. Along the drive to the Information Centre we saw a dump bear cross the road and a deer with two fawns. We have yet to be here for an entire day and yet the wildlife encounters have been phenomenal.

We parked at the Information Centre which is also the trailhead for Bear’s Hump (2.8km). The trail consists of a series of steep switchbacks up the shoulder (which resembles a  hump) of Crandell Mountain (formally known as as the Great Bear or Grizzly Medicine Mountain by the Piikani) – hence the name “Bear’s Hump”. Don’t let its short distance fool you, it’s uphill the entire way to the top. The fog/mist prevented us from seeing a panoramic view of Townsite, but it was still pretty incredible being up in the clouds. One of our favorite moments during the hike was when we passed a group of three men who had one of those little portable radios. Probably to scare away any grizzlers in the area. And they were listening to Beyonce’s Crazy in Love, which to be fair, is a pretty awesome song.

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After making our descent back down to our car we made a quick detour to Cameron Falls before heading south of the border to Glacier National Park. We planned to spend the next four days there before heading over to Banff and Jasper.

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Banff National Park

Day 3: Adventure Cave Tour of Rats Nest Cave

We left Glacier National Park  just before 7:30a.m. We were a bit late to hit the road because of a surprise sighting of a grizzly bear as we were exiting the park. It was our ideal grizzler encounter – the bear near the side of the road; us in the safety of a vehicle.

From Glacier it’s about a 400km drive to Canmore. We signed up for the Adventure Cave Tour with Canmore Cave Tours for 11:45a.m – hence the early start to the day. This caving tour company operates two types of cave tours year round: the explorer cave tour (4 hours in length) and the adventure cave tour (6 hours). The adventure cave tour encompasses all the elements from the explorer cave tour but includes an 18m rappel, additional slithering through more tight spaces, and therefore more all around time spent underground. We opted for the adventure cave tour.

Here’s a map that shows the routes of both types of cave tours where the explore cave tour follows along the red line and the adventure cave tour encompasses the additional segments along the green line.

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We checked in 10 minutes before our cave tour. We were joined by an older couple and their thirteen-year old daughter. The five of us signed (our life away through) a waiver and got all our gear in order. All the gear, minus our hiking boots and a warmer layer of clothing to be worn inside the cave, were provided by Canmore Cave Tours. This includes overalls, gloves, kneepads, a harness and a helmet with a flashlight. They also provided a 500ml water bottle and your choice of a Clif energy bar.

We then piled back into our car and followed our guide, Brent (who is quite possibly one of the coolest dude’s we’ve ever met – he’s just really into caving and climbing) to a parking lot closer to the one and only entrance to the cave. We then hiked mostly uphill for about 30 minutes until we arrived at Rats Nest Cave.

You might be thinking that the name of the cave sounds terrifying. Rats Nest Cave is obviously named that way for a reason. As the name suggests, a bunch of rats nested near the cave entrance for years. It wasn’t until someone saw a rat disappear behind some nest that they decided to investigate further by removing those nests. And lo and behold: 4km of passageways were discovered! Or something like that.

When we made it to the entrance of the cave we took a moment to get all geared up and spray our boots to prevent the spread of white nose syndrome. This was also the last spot to go to the bathroom for four hours because there are no washrooms inside the cave. We then had a scramble up some rock face to get into the actual cave.

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Once we made it to the mouth of the cave we lowered ourselves down to get to the base of the Bone Room. It involved a lot of slippin’ and a slidin’. We attached our carabiners to guidance ropes on the side for additional support. And if you’re wondering how/why all those bones are there. It’s from the rats. And some of those bones look pretty big. Which means those rats must have been pretty big.

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Once we piled down into the Bone Room our guide went through more of the history about the cave and how the cave was discovered. We then prepped for an 18m rappel into complete darkness. We had two ropes attached to our harness – one that we used to control our descent and a backup rope that was attached to our guide in case we spun out of control. The first person down (which was K) had the responsibility of removing their rope and belay device so our guide could pull it back up to use for the next person.

After we all rappelled down to the base we continued onward with our adventure. We crawled and slithered through a number of tight spaces (referred to as “squeezes”). We first crawled through a practice squeeze. It was relatively easy and the tunnel was large enough to crawl on your hands and knees. This was just a warm up for two tighter squeezes – a 6 foot squeeze and a 20 foot squeeze. Anyone who struggled with the practice squeeze or felt uncomfortable being in a tight enclosed space had the option of staying behind at this point as the path eventually loops back here. Everyone continued.

The 6 foot squeeze was exhilerating. You are literally slithering around on your belly. The space was wider than it was in height. But you did have to position yourself a certain way to ensure that your shoulders could make it through.

The 20 foot squeeze was probably the most challenging section. This squeeze is named the Laundry Chute because it is L-shaped. The best way to approach it is to go down vertically feet first. There is some ledge at the bottom where you need to sit on to to position your body sideways to get through the horizontal part of the L-shape. This was the tightest space we had to navigate. Your back is pressed against the wall. Your face is nearly pressed up against a wall. Most of it is just mind over matter.

We emerged into the Grand Gallery. From here it is a short distance to the Grotto. There were some pretty impressive speleothems (it’s just a fancy word we picked up from our guide that means cave formations. No big deal.). The cave continues onward. But the passageway is underwater for experienced cave divers only.

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We turned around at the Grotto. Fortunately we didn’t need to slither back through the Laundry Chute. Instead we went up some “escape hatch” called The Box (which is also another tight space) that bypasses the squeezes and  the section that we rappelled down. We then had to scramble back up into the Bone Room and then a final upward stretch to get back to the entrance of the cave.

Once we emerged from the darkness we took off our caving gear, drank some water and ate our energy bars. We then hiked back down to our car. By the time we returned to the shop to unload our gear it was 6:45p.m. Even though the tour is scheduled to take 6 hours we were gone for 7. That’s how awesome our guide Brent is. We were exhausted, but still buzzing from how AMAZING that cave tour was. If there is one thing we could recommend doing out in Alberta – it is this adventure cave tour through Canmore Cave Tours. Seriously. It was challenging, but worth every moment.

From there we drove to a nearby grocery store to buy more supplies before heading over to Banff National Park. We reserved a site at Johnston Canyon Campground. We’ve camped a lot over the course of our life, but this campground is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced: unlimited firewood is included with your fire permit. Naturally we took advantage of this opportunity and had an epic bonfire before crawling into our tent for bed. The only downside about the campground is its close proximity to the railroad tracks. And trains do run at all hours of the night.

Day 4: Hiking in Banff

After eating a quick breakfast that consisted of oatmeal and an apple we drove down to Johnston Canyon. Another benefit of camping at Johnston Canyon campgrounds is its close proximity to Johnston Canyon. There is a paved path leading up to both the lower falls and the upper falls (4.8km roundtrip) of the canyon. At the lower falls there is this cool viewing platform that is accessible by walking through this small cave-type hole in the wall. The canyon was formed by erosion over thousands of years of water running through this limestone-rich area.

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By the time we finished the trail and looped back to our car the parking lot was pretty much full. We ate a quick snack before heading out to the Canmore Cave and Basin National Historic Site, stopping for some pictures along the way.

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The Cave and Basin National Historic Site marks the birthplace of Canada’s National Parks. In 1885 Canada’s first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald designated this area around the cave and basin the Banff Hot Springs Reserve to protect the area. A naturally heated swimming pool, along with a number of bathhouse facilities, were constructed and were operational for 80 years until 1994. Now visitors can tour through and around the building, read about the history of this historic site, and visit the underground cave that started it all.

Afterwards we hiked around the Marsh Loop (2.5km roundtrip). It’s a flat trail that circles around a rather scenic wetland area with stunning views of a turquoise pond. Since the path is also frequented by horses and given that it was raining earlier, the path was pretty much all muddy.

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When we finished exploring the area around the Cave and Basin National Historic Site we headed back to our car, which turned out to be excellent timing because a few minutes later it started to pour. We drove back to Canmore for some additional groceries and enjoyed a late lunch indoors. We then headed back to Banff in hopes that it would finish raining by the time we returned. It didn’t. We did catch these mountain goats cross the road underneath this overpass along our drive back though.

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It’s always so disheartening to hike in the rain. Or at least to get started. We donned our rain paints and rain jackets and forced ourselves to head back outdoors. We went on a short hike to Silverton Falls (2km roundtrip).

By the time we headed back to our campsite the rain tapered off. We made some dinner and played some cards. Later in the evening we walked over to the indoor theatre for the evening ranger program on treks, trails, and epic tales. It was interesting to see the stark comparison between the Canadian and American ranger programs. The ranger programs in Canada are definitely geared more towards children. But we were thankful that it was indoors.

Day 5: Icefields Parkway Part I

The Icefields Parkway refers to an insanely gorgeous stretch along highway 93 from Banff to Jasper. It is 233km in length spanning from Lake Louise to Jasper townsite and it is no doubt one of the most scenic drives. Ever. Along the way are various viewpoints of mountains, glaciers, glacier lakes, waterfalls, and hiking trails. It took us nearly the entire day to drive to Jasper National Park. And we were only able to hit up all the viewpoints and hikes on our itinerary up to and including the Icefield Centre because we ran out of daylight.

The first pullover we made along the Icefields Parkway was 6km into the drive (so you know it’s going to be a long drive) at Herbert Lake. There is a trail that leads around the lake. But in the interest of time we just walked down to the base of the lake to snap a few photos.

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We piled back into the car only to pull over a few kilometres later at Crowfoot Glacier.

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From there it’s a short drive to Peyto Lake, a magnificent aquamarine glacier lake that is fed by the nearby Peyto Glacier. It’s a short hike along a paved path to the viewing platform. Along the way are signposts describing the flora and fauna in the area for those that need a break (it was rather hilly) or for those that just want to learn more about the plant life and animals that survive at these higher elevations.

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The trail to Bow Summit (6km roundtrip) starts near the viewing platform to Peyto Lake. We definitely saw signage for the trail. But it wasn’t very clear when (if?) we actually reached the “summit”. Bow Summit is reputed to offer better views of Peyto Lake. Maybe it was just a particularly cloudy day or something. Or perhaps bad timing with the lighting from the sun. Either way, while we could make out Peyto Lake from the “summit”, we’re not entirely sure it was worth the effort.

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We were back on the road for a short amount of time before making a brief detour at Mistaya Canyon. It’s a short hike (1km roundtrip) down an old logging road to get to the canyon. Originating from Peyto Glacier, the Mistaya river has carved its way through this canyon over hundreds of years.

We made a few more pitstops at the Weeping Wall and Bridal Veil Falls before stopping at Parker Ridge. The trail is 5.4km (roundtrip) and is rated as “easy” according to the Banff Day Hiking Guide and “moderate” according to the Jasper Day Hiking Guide. We were a little skeptical, but since both hiking guides indicated that this trail offers amazing views of the Saskatchewan Glacier, we had to check it out. The trail follows a series of steep switchbacks up an alpine meadow.

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You’ll know you’ve nearly made it to the top as it progressively becomes windier to the point that it becomes difficult to proceed. Luckily some kind people have erected these rock structures over the years to provide protection from the unrelenting wind.

The Saskatchewan Glacier can be viewed by making a detour to one of the many side paths just before the top where these wind protecting rock domes are located. The panoramic views down into the valley are simply stunning.

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By the time we returned to our car it was approaching the late afternoon. We drove a short ways to get to the (insanely busy) Icefield Center. Sure, the views of the nearby Athabasca and Columbia glaciers were phenomenal, but most people were hanging out at the Icefield Center inside. We’re not sure why it was so rammed. Maybe because there was a restaurant inside or a place to use a (heated) washroom? You can also book various excursions here for a glacier adventure or glacier skywalk. Neither seemed all that appealing. We did, however, watch a 15 minute film downstairs that was kinda artistic.

From the Icefield Center we still had just over 100km to drive to get to our campsite at Wapiti Campgrounds. We decided to just save the remaining hikes and viewpoints along this stretch for the following day when we drive back to Lake Louise.

We set up our tent as soon as we checked into our campsite. Given that it looked like we’d get more rain we decided to just drive into Jasper for dinner. Our tent was a bit damp inside from condensation from the previous night so this provided an opportunity for it to dry out inside before setting up our sleeping bags and sleeping pads. We ate at Jasper Pizza, which was both delicious and (surprisingly) not outrageously priced. Afterwards we hit up Tim Hortons to play a few rounds of cards before heading back to our campsite for the remainder of the night.

Jasper National Park

Day 6: Icefields Parkway Part II

We woke up pretty early today to ensure we had sufficient time to hit up everything on our itinerary. We first drove to Maligne Canyon. There are a series of loops depending on your level of fitness and/or how much time you want to spend here. The short/easy path takes 20 to 40 minutes and extends to the second bridge. The medium/hard path takes 30 minutes to walk to the third bridge or an hour (return) to walk to the fourth bridge. There is also a longer path to get to the fifth or sixth bridge. We hiked to the fifth bridge (4.4km roundtrip).

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We then headed back to our campsite to tear down our tent and pack away our gear. After that we were back on the road, or rather the Icefields Parkway. We pulled over at the trailhead for the Valley of the Five Lakes. This trail (4.5km roundtrip) is relatively easy and (as its name suggests) extends into a valley passing five glacier lakes.

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After returning to our car we headed over to a series of waterfalls. Starting first with Athabasca Falls. The Athabasca River originates here in Jasper National Park at the base of the Columbia Glacier. It drains into a lake that feeds into other rivers and lakes and eventually flows into the Arctic Ocean. There is path that follows beside a gorge carved out by the Athabasca Falls. The path descends down a portion of the canyon where the river no longer flows through.

We then pulled over at Sunwapta Falls (below picture on the left). We hiked a well-marked trail (2.6km roundtrip) that descends down towards the lower Sunwapta falls, which consists of three waterfalls.

Our final waterfall that we hit up was Tangle Falls (below picture on the right). You can scrambled up some  rocks and get a closer view of the falls, but we opted to just pull over and snap a couple of photos.

From there we drove towards the Columbia and Athabasca Glacier. There is a trail to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier (1.8km roundtrip) that is accessible by the parking lot across from the Icefield Center. As you drive in there are signposts showing the farthest extent of the glacier since 1908. The trail doesn’t quite lead to the toe of the glacier as it has retreated considerably over the past few decades, but the views are still incredible.

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Afterwards we headed over to the Lake Louise campground. The setup here is pretty sweet. The campground consists of two sections: one for trailers and RVs, and the other for tents. Back in 2003 Parks Canada installed an electric fence around the tent section to minimize human interaction with the bears. The fence is dismantled during the winter months to allow the wildlife to roam. We purchased a fire permit which conveniently also includes unlimited firewood. We made some dinner and played cards around the fire.

Banff National Park – Lake Louise

Day 7: Lake Louise & Plains of the Six Glaciers

We started the morning off at Lake Louise at the crack of dawn. We must have been some of the first people on the trail because we pretty much had it all to ourselves. The near-empty parking lot was also a good sign that we were ahead of the crowd. We hiked around the Lake Louise Lakeshore trail (4km roundtrip). The path is well-maintained, paved, and entirely flat.

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The end of the trail intersects with the trailhead for the Plain of the Six Glaciers (10.6km roundtrip). As the name suggests, the trail passes by six glaciers: Lower Victoria, Upper Victoria, Lower Lefroy, Upper Lefroy, Aberdeen, and Popes. The trail starts along a boardwalk before following a series of steep switchbacks up to a Swiss Tea House

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We rested at the Tea House for a bit and ordered some tea and soup to warm up our insides. There was only one other pair of hikers by the time we arrived.

There is an additional trail that extends for 1.5km (one way) beyond the Tea House to Abbot Pass Viewpoint which leads to the Lower Victoria Glacier which we regrettably skipped.

On our descent back down we passed hoards of hikers. By the time we returned to Lake Louise it was crazy busy. And the sad part is is that most people there probably never set foot off the paved pathways. As we were leaving we noticed that the entrance to Moraine Lake was blocked off. I guess they were limiting the number of vehicles in the area. In light of the high traffic in the Lake Louise area we decided to skip the crowds and visit the nearby Yoho National Park in British Columbia for the afternoon.

Day 8: Lake Moraine & Eiffel Lake 

Similar to yesterday we spent the morning hiking in the Lake Louise area of Banff National Park. We drove down to Moraine Lake, which is apparently prime grizzly bear territory. Most of the trails here require hikers to hike in groups of four or more during the summer and early fall when grizzlers are the most active.

We first walked along Moraine Lake (3km roundtrip).

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Near the start of the path lies a trailhead to a number of longer hikes in the area. All of which require group access. By the time we looped back to the start of Lake Moraine there were two other pairs of hikers waiting at the trailhead. One pair wanted to go to Eiffel Lake and the other to Larch Valley/ Minnestimma Lakes. The six of us introduced ourselves, strategized about trail conditions, and decided to all hike together to Eiffel Lake (10.2km).

The trail follows a series of steep switchbacks upwards until you reach a fork in the path. The trail to Larch Valley and the Sentinel Pass continues upwards. The trail to Eiffel Lake lies to the left and is relatively level from here on out. The trail crosses through the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Even with a layer of light layer of fog surrounding the mountains, the views were nothing short of spectacular.

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The trail further extends beyond Eiffel Lake to Wenkchemna Pass, but no one in our group seemed all that adamant about continuing onward. We rested at (what we deemed to be) the end for a bit and while we were eating our snack we heard an avalanche. Granted it must have been a small one. But it still sounded impressive. It sounded kinda like a rumble of thunder. A few moments after turning around we heard another avalanche rumble off into the distant. So eerie. It started to lightly snow on our descent back to Moraine Lake.

As with yesterday, by the time we finished our hike the parking lot was full. Someone jumped at our spot seconds after pulling out. We returned to our campsite for a quick lunch before heading over to Kootenay National Park in British Columbia.

Day 9: Homeward Bound 

Despite our complaints about the cold weather, we’re sure going to miss it. Apparently Toronto is in the middle of a heat warning with temperatures exceeding 30°C. Yesterday it went up to a high of 7°C in Banff. We were wearing our mittens and hats.

We woke up early to the beat the morning crowd for the showers. When we returned to our campsite we dismantled our tent and threw everything in the back of our trunk. We stopped at a parking lot close to the airport to pack our gear away properly as it was both warmer in Calgary by about 7-8 degrees and dryer. We then checked in at the airport for our flight back to Toronto.

Goodbye mountains. Hello heat wave.

L&K

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