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The Northwest Loop

The scenic route from San Francisco to Jasper National Park

Story by Steven Yan June 21st, 2015

2 countries, 5 STATES, 3206 MILES, 12 DAYs

Steven: "How did we decide to go to Banff?"Cecilia: "You wanted to go to Banff."

And so we went. Sometimes the simplest decisions are the best.

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farms of wheat and wind

We spent our first night at Cottonwood Canyon near the Oregon-Washington border. Cottonwood Canyon sits along the John Day River, off the beaten path along Hwy 206. It's surrounded by miles of wheat fields and windmills. If you close your eyes and listen to the wind whistle through the fields, it sounds like the ocean.

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Mt. Adams in the background.
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Neska at Cottonwood Canyon after our first night on the road.

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"i would like to have seen montana."

Our second day took us along the Columbia River Gorge, through the arid SE corner of Washington, past Lake Coeur d'Alene in Idaho, and on to Glacier National Park. The Montana countryside was a beautiful expanse of fields, hay rolls, and farms.

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We spent the night at Apgar Campground in West Glacier, along the shores of Lake McDonald. When you're putting in 10-11 hour drives each day, dinner gets pretty simple. We had leftover pizza from Capone's Pub in Coeur d'Alene, which we found on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.

Lake McDonald, Glacier NP
Not exactly gourmet, but it fills the belly.
Our campsite at Apgar

going-to-the-sun road

We planned to reach Banff the next evening and rose early the next morning. Our route to Alberta took us through Going-to-the-Sun Road, which is one of the most scenic drives in North America. The road is only open for a few months out of the year and can accumulate as much as 80 feet of snow at Logan Pass, the highest point at an elevation of 6,646 feet. We had the road all to ourselves in the early morning light.

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The morning view from Going-to-the-Sun Road
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Oh, canada!

After a peaceful morning negotiating the hairpin turns of Going-to-the-Sun Road, we decided to shy away from the main route through Calgary and instead turned off the main highway towards Waterton Lakes, taking Highway 40 along the east side of the Kananaskis Range. With storm clouds closing in quickly, I was a little worried heading into a remote and unknown highway. The view and drive were worth it.

Glacier NP in the rear view mirror.
We stopped for a breakfast of eggs and Hawaiian bread outside Waterton Lakes.
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They made absolutely sure we had bear spray at the Canadian border.
So much for GPS. My maps only covered the US and a completely random part of southern Canada.
The skies threatened to pour all afternoon. A curious farm with miles of fenceposts and hats along Hwy 40 and the Kalkanaskis Range.
Highway 40 along the Kalkanaskis Range.

two jack lake

Our favorite campsite of the whole trip greeted us in Banff. Two Jack Lake is a smaller lake connected to Lake Minnewanka with tent sites right along the shore. The sky threatened rain the whole time, so I put up our tarp to be safe. Of course it never rained.

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The water of Two Jake Lake is insanely clear.

I picked the right morning to hike to the opposite side of the lake to capture this shot of Mt. Rundle.

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puddle jumping

In the Rockies, you would be remiss to go to just one lake - there are chains of glacier-fed lakes that flow into each other. We visited Moraine Lake and made the short hike up to Consolation Lakes on an overcast morning.

Unlike their American counterparts, Canadian national parks allow dogs on the trails with few exceptions. Neska loved being in the mountains and stayed at the end of her lead, eagerly trotting ahead of us up the trail. All of the hikers that we passed commented on her pack and red boots.

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Pup in boots
Consolation Lakes.
Cec negotiating the rockpile along Consolation Lakes
The classic shot of Moraine Lake from the rockpile.

lake louise and plain of six glaciers

Having conquered the Consolation Lakes hike, we tried our hand at a longer hike the next day - the six hour Plain of Six Glaciers hike above Lake Louise. Cec isn't much of a hiker, but was a good sport and we made it most of the way to the tea house.

Looking back along the glacial runoff that feeds Lake Louise. Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise in the background.

Paddling a canoe on the aquamarine waters of Lake Louise was more our speed.

The milky glacial rock flour that gives Lake Louise its brilliant turquoise blue color.
Cec makes the climb along the Plain of Six Glaciers hike. Lots of horse poop to avoid.
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Neska #notimpressed

HEADING NORTH

The next day we were treated to yet another epic North American drive - Icefields Parkway which connects Banff and Jasper National Park. We enjoyed a relaxing lunch along Waterfowl Lake.

Enjoying the view at Waterfowl Lake along Icefield Parkway
The view from behind the camera.
Peyto Lake from Bow Summit, the highest point along Icefields Parkway
Banff in the rear view mirror
Onward to Jasper.
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into the wild

The park ranger at Wapiti put us on notice immediately. "The elk are grazing in the campsite, and it's elk calving season. So the bears are hunting them." Not five hours prior, we had departed from a campground fortress at Lake Louise lifted straight out of Jurassic Park - entirely surrounded by electric fencing and cattle guards at each entrance to keep unwanted bears at bay.

Jasper was a different beast. It was wild and exposed. We would spend the next few days camping among wild herds of grazing elk, clutching that bear spray a bit tighter than we had in Banff.

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10 PM in Jasper and the sun hasn't set yet.

wildlife all day

Our time in Banff was surprisingly lacking in wildlife sightings. Jasper, true to its more wild nature, made up for this as we saw nearly all of the wildlife we would see on our drive to Maligne Lake.

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Coyote
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Lovely Maligne Lake with its beautiful boathouse. Easily one of my favorite spots on this road trip.

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We spent a good part of the day exploring the shores of Maligne Lake by canoe. We pulled up on the shore to let the pup play and were soon greeted by a curious deer, who wasn't afraid of Neska's barking and actually walked closer to investigate.

Maligne Lake was easily our most favorite spot on the trip. Maybe some day we'll return and do an overnight camping trip.

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Cec also became Insta-famous.

Who is your favourite adventure buddy? Photo by @steeveage at Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park | #explorealberta

A photo posted by Travel Alberta (@travelalberta) on

On the drive back from Maligne Lake, we couldn't believe our luck when we came across a group of bighorn sheep. The front shots of these bighorn sheep are probably my favorite photos of all time, because I had to hustle past a line of cars to get them.

Sheep butt. These animals are so accustomed to humans now -- they don't budge.
Bighorn sheep, rolling deep.
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welcome to...

Our trip took us across six different state, provincial, and national borders. Oregon wins for best welcome sign. Try a little harder, Idaho?

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Footnote: Photos taken with a 5D Mk III and iPhone 6s
Alberta, Canada