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Autumn in Alberta's Rocky Mountains

Copyright (c) 2006-2021 Travel Alberta, All Rights Reserved
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Fall is the season for wildlife. Grizzly bears are gorging on buffalo berries. Elk are bugling and rutting. In Kananaskis Country, the Rocky Mountain park nearest to the city of Calgary, bull trout swim up mountain streams to spawn and golden eagles ride the updrafts between craggy peaks, 10,000 passing through the area on their annual fall migration.

We call it Indian Summer in the Canadian Rockies that month or two of mild fall weather that bridges the searing heat of summer and the fluffy snow that blankets Alberta in the winter. September is often one of the best times to plan day hikes in Banff or Jasper national parks. The days are generally warm and dry, with cool nights that turn the usual green landscape into vibrant shades of chartreuse, red and gold. Bugs are gone and so are the sometimes maddening crowds of high season.

Fall is the best time to find solitude on the popular trails in the valley bottoms or to hike the higher, exposed alpine routes, with no fear of heat exhaustion. After the busy months of August, the number of visitors to the Canadian rocky mountain parks drops by 30 per cent, making it the perfect time for a day trip to easy, accessible spots like Johnston's Canyon and Tunnel Mountain near Banff or to trek up to Lake Agnes from Lake Louise. While the hike through Larch Valley, and the stunning Valley of the Ten Peaks, to Sentinel Pass is truly one of the best day hikes in Banff National Park and well known for fall colours it's also known for grizzly bears, and often only open to groups of six or more.

Another good spot for viewing the changing of the larches is Sunshine Meadows, easily accessible with White Mountain Adventures (WMA) shuttle service that leaves the Sunshine Village parking lot four times a day until Sept. 30 ($21 pp). Longer backcountry hikes can be challenging in September due to short days, cold nights and even snow but it's a great time to hike into a cosy lodge like the historic Skoki Lodge, near Lake Louise (open until Oct. 9). Or join WMA for a guided backpacking week to hike the Rockwall Highline Trail September 20-27, a popular route with lots of colourful fall vistas along the way.


Watching Wildlife

Autumn is the perfect time to point the binoculars skyward and catch one of the season's most amazing wildlife viewing sights. Less than an hour west of Calgary, just below the Nakiska ski slopes along Hwy 40 in Kananaskis Country, is the place to see thousands of golden eagles, as they ride the rocky mountain updrafts along their migration route to warmer southern climes. Park your lawn chair next to birder Peter Sherrington, and you'll get a play-by-play of this annual phenomenon, the world's largest migration of this spectacular bird of prey, by the fellow who discovered it in 1992.

Or, plan to attend the Festival of the Eagles in Canmore in mid-Oct., where experts speak and interpreters offer guided walks up Mount Lady MacDonald for a bird's eye view of the flight path. While the festival coincides with the peak of the fall migration, the eagles begin their journey in September and hundreds can be spotted by keen birders almost every day in the fall. Fall is also a great time to see another natural phenomenon in the Rocky Mountains, the spawning of the endangered Alberta bull trout (actually an indigenous char). Like the land-locked salmon runs in the interior of British Columbia, the big bull trout leave Lower Kananaskis Lake and swim up tiny Smith-Dorrien Creek in September to spawn. Hook up with a free guided hike in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park to see the big bulls flailing their tails to dig spawning nests in the gravelly stream bed or just take the short trail on your own.

Fall is mating season for other animals, too. You'll likely hear the seasonal sound of thumping grouse or bugling elk while hiking in the fall. Elk are part of the deer family but don't assume these massive herbivores are harmless. Those bulls, calling to friendly females, can hit 450 kg (almost 1,500 pounds) and in the fall season they're in the mood to attack all rivals. So keep your distance. Ditto for bears whether black or grizzlies. In fall, bears are very active, loading up on berries to prepare for a season of sleep.

Always check at park offices for warnings or trail closures before heading out, make noise and travel in a group. And don't forget to carry warm clothing, as a sunny fall day in the Rocky Mountains can quickly become a snowy blizzard.

To learn about the wolf population in the Rocky Mountains join wildlife biologist Melanie Percy for Paws in the Wilderness, a five-day tent trip with Holidays on Horseback, Sept. 10-14. Percy will use the latest radio telemetry technology to track wolves in the Flints Park area, while offering detailed information about wolf ecology during the daily rides ($979 pp).


Driving Tours and Other Deals

The highway between the towns of Lake Louise and Jasper is one of the most spectacular drives in the world, climbing over two mountain passes, past tumbling waterfalls, azure lakes and ancient glaciers. While open all year, this 230-km road also known as the Icefields Parkway can be busy in summer and challenging in winter. So September and October are perfect months to drive or even cycle this route.

While some campgrounds remain open in the fall, cold nights make hotels or mountain hostels a comfortable alternative. The best deal in Banff may be the YWCA at $65-$75 a night or book a room at Tarry-a-while B&B, set in mountain pioneer Mary Schaffer's original Banff home, and imagine preparing for winter in the country's first national park a century ago.

For a luxurious driving holiday in Canada's Rocky Mountain Parks, consider the Fairmont hotels' Cruisin' in the Canadian Rockies package. With two or more nights at each of their famous rocky mountain resorts in Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper, the driving holiday includes a CD to describe the journey and a personal concierge to plan activities from golfing and hiking to spa treatments along the way.


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Copyright (c) 2006 Travel Alberta, All Rights Reserved

Travel Alberta is the destination marketing organization for the Province of Alberta. Guided by the Strategic Tourism Marketing Council, Travel Alberta is the steward for the effective delivery of tourism marketing programs. For information about our organization, please visit our Travel Alberta industry web site at http://industry.travelalberta.com

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