Vancouver to Calgary: A Road Trip in the Rockies

In what would become a highlight of our entire trip we decided to spend the final days of our journey driving across the Canadian Rockies from Vancouver to Calgary. The route is an iconic one, following Highway One out of Vancouver and up into the mountains of British Columbia. Although it’s possible to divert via the Okanaga Valley to the south or Jasper to the north we decided to take the most direct route through the middle. After many months of travelling we were weary and keen to minimise time spent in the car.

That said the journey was still 1,000km long and after a fair amount of research and discussion with family in Vancouver we decided on the following itinerary:

  • Day 1: Vancouver to Salmon Arm (462km)
  • Day 2: Salmon Arm to Canmore (411km)
  • Day 3-4: stay in Canmore
  • Day 5: Canmore to Calgary (112km)
  • Day 6-7: stay in Calgary
  • Day 8: fly back to Vancouver
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Our route across the Rockies

Although not widely known as a top destination we were finishing the trip in Calgary as we were staying with an old school friend of Claire’s. En route we would also spend 3 nights in Canmore, a small town close to Banff right in the middle of the mountains. Banff is well up there as one of Canada’s highlights and although we wouldn’t be able to stay in the town itself – accommodation had either sold out or was too pricey – we would only be 30 minutes drive away. As it turned out Canmore offered just as spectacular mountain scenery and was also just as close to all the things to do in the region.

Step 1 was to hire our car. Given we’d be spending around 4-5 hours driving on each of the first two days I requested a slightly larger vehicle to make things more comfortable. What I got upon arrival at Avis in North Vancouver was essentially a bus. It was hard to know if it was a free upgrade or a practical joke but regardless I now had the keys to a vast, 7 seater Dodge Grand Caravan. By Canadian standards it was nothing special given a man isn’t really a man unless he drives a flatbed truck but for me with my penchant for the smaller, nippier city numbers it was right in at the deep end. Getting out of the car park told me all I needed to know about the car’s turning circle although fortunately no-one was watching. However once actually on the roads things started to make more sense, and after I had reset my spatial awareness assumptions my bus actually became quite fun to drive.

With car hired and bags packed (not just any old pack but effectively the penultimate pack before we headed back to the UK) we set off after Amber’s nap during the afternoon of 27th April. The all important weather forecast was pretty good although Claire’s family had been keen to warn us that conditions on the route can change fast, a fact we soon saw for ourselves later on that first day.

Driving in Canada is a very civilised affair with very little of the impatience and frustration of driving in the UK. Speed limits are typically well observed and no one seems to be in a rush to get anywhere. In London, if you pause even momentarily after a red light changes you will get honked and probably verbally abused. In Canada, cars behind will simply wait patiently until you move off. As we made our way out of Vancouver and started ascending into the mountains we enjoyed both this relaxed pace and as well as the relative emptiness of the roads.

After a couple of hours or so we got our first taste of the changeable weather, with a impromptu snow storm in the mountains. Not long after we also saw a sign warning us of dangerous conditions ahead. We didn’t give it too much thought until much later on when suddenly, as we went over the brow of a hill, we saw a police car parked across the faster of the two lanes on our side of the highway. Not long after we saw 3 cars had crashed, 2 on the other side and 1 on its roof in the central reservation. The reason for the crash soon became apparent when we suddenly hit a patch of snow and ice on the road. Fortunately my instincts kicked in and I didn’t brake too hard, instead gradually slowing the car down and avoided losing control. But it was a very swift reality check. Even on well maintained highways with little traffic, conditions can still be dangerous, and it was extremely sobering to see the extent of the accident that we had just passed by.

Thankfully the rest of the journey was reasonably uneventful and we arrived in Salmon Arm later that afternoon.

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View from our apartment in Salmon Arm

Our home in Salmon Arm was part of a wonderful house built by its owners that had been featured in a number of architecture magazines. Using local wood throughout it was a calming and comfortable place to stay after a long drive. The only downside, unbeknownst to us at the time of booking, was that it was effectively a suite with no dividing doors between bedroom and living room. Not for the first time on the trip the evening was spent eating dinner in the dark in silence. Although it sounds quite depressing we were watching the first episode of Netflix series Narcos so it was actually pretty enjoyable. We’ve heard of parents that, when staying in hotels hide in the bathroom silently drinking wine after their children go to sleep, so things could have been worse, or better depending how you look at it.

The real problems of sharing a room with Amber only really reveal themselves in the mornings when, without us even moving, she inevitably sniffs our presence and wakes at the crack of dawn. This morning was no different, and she was up some time around 5:30. So it was an early start and a very relaxed morning with Claire and I taking it in turns to catch up on some sleep. We had planned to start the second leg of the road trip in the afternoon after Amber’s nap (she is probably the only child in the world who won’t sleep in cars).

So it was around lunch time that we set off, heading ever eastwards into the Rockies and ultimately to our destination for the next 3 nights of Canmore. This section of the drive was, in short, jawdroppingly beautiful. The highway cut through the wide open valleys, dissecting mountains either side that grew gradually more dramatic. Jagged, snow covered peaks were all around us and as went approached Banff we remarked that it was possibly some of the most beautiful scenery we had ever seen. The weather had been truly kind to us – the sun was out and cloud cover receded as the day went on. Four and a half hours after leaving Salmon Arm we arrived in a sunny, warm Canmore and checked in to our accommodation, never tiring of looking around us at the stunning landscape.

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En route to Canmore

We had a wonderful time here, spending our days doing short hikes into the surrounding mountains, taking a ride on the Banff gondola to get a birds eye view of the local area and pottering around Canmore town which, despite having the reputation as being Banff’s poorer sister, was lovely.

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One of our strolls close to Canmore

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Looking down on Banff

And yet, in the face of all this natural beauty, I also had the single most physically painful experience of the entire trip after deciding to go running one morning and completely (and I mean completely) underestimating the temperature. Despite the days here being warm and sunny we were still in the mountains and it was still April – as such the mornings were very chilly. As I set off around the town I immediately felt the cold in my fingers and within just a few minutes they had started to feel numb at the tips. In what was clearly an error of judgement I decided to push on, trying to ignore the fast spreading numbness. In a futile attempt to retain some warmth I alternated between shoving one hand in my mouth while I clenched the fist of the other. 30 genuinely harrowing minutes later I returned home to what I thought would be blessed relief and a warm, cozy house that would soon have my fingers back to normal. What I failed to realise was that the “thawing” of numb fingers is exquisitely painful – the very process of warming up felt like my fingers were being crushed with a vice while at the same time being held to a fire. It was excruciating. I generally regard myself as having a reasonably high pain threshold and have also suffered mild frostbite after getting stuck overnight near the top of Mont Blanc on an ill fated climbing trip. But that was nothing compared to “finger thaw”.

Fortunately this was the only blip on an otherwise beautiful 3 nights in Canmore and it was with an element of sadness that we had to leave when we continued our journey east.

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All the key ingredients for a fantastic time – beer, Amber, mountains and biscuits

Only 1 hour by car but a world away from the majesty of the Rockies lies the city of Calgary, or “Cowtown” as it’s known to residents. Thousands of Canadians relocated here to take advantage of the booming oil industry with the population increasing exponentially from the 1970’s. During the boom many skyscrapers were built and the skyline now resembles the archetypal North American downtown with a cluster of tall buildings laid out in grid formation.

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Views of downtown Calgary

In Calgary we were staying with the parents of one of Claire’s oldest school friends. The warmth and generosity with which they opened their house to us was something we were incredibly thankful for. We even had our own little hideaway in the basement where Amber could sleep happily in a hallway while Claire and I took the bedroom. I think they thought we were mad, if not a bit cruel, to stick our daughter in a hall, but it was warm and cozy and meant that she actually slept through consistently until 6.30am each day.

We spent our time in Calgary with Claire’s friend Trishia, her partner Chris and her 1 year old daughter Chloe. Claire and Trishia had barely seen each other since school, so this reunion, in Calgary of all places, was pretty unique. As a wonderful taste of Canadian hospitality Trishia’s husband took it upon himself to spend his time feeding me huge amounts of meat which given we were in “Cowtown” primarily involved burgers and vast slabs of steak. I accepted the challenge gratefully.

On our second day in the city we went on a day trip to visit the “Badlands” – an area a few hundred kilometres east of Calgary and the start of the near endless prairies that stretch across the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. We drove on a very straight road through very flat countryside until we reached the town of Drumheller, located amongst strange rock formations and a lunar, desert like landscape.

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It goes on like this for a long, long time

Here, of all things, was a world renowned dinosaur museum, being as it was in a world renowned region for paleontological discoveries. Amber is very into dinosaurs and so this museum was a massive success. She loved running through the vast halls filled with skeletons and replicas and roaring at the dinosaurs – it must have been by far the most extensive collection of dinosaur bones in the world and we had brilliant couple of hours there. We even left with a new member of our clan – Mr Triceratops, a very glittery and soft dinosaur toy kindly given to her by Trishia and Chloe that to this day retains a prized place in her cot.

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Take her

Our time in Calgary and indeed our entire trip was fast coming to an end. A day or so after the dinosaur museum we dropped off our trusty Dodge Caravan at Calgary airport. That car had been a joy to drive, chugging across the Rocky mountains and out the other side. Into the prairies and the Badlands, through sun and snow and rain and hail. And so around 1,000 miles later we parked at the airport and said goodbye. Our flight to Vancouver would be our penultimate flight of the entire trip. After what seemed like a year that would never end, we now had 2 days in Vancouver to savour before we took our final flight back to the UK and to home.

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Flying back over the Rockies on our way to Vancouver for our final days of the trip

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