September in the Rockies
There cannot be many places in the world where in the space of two weeks, in more or less the same mountain range (OK, so I am not a geographer), you will see such a variety of different landscapes. From the granite faces of Banff, through the red rocks of Glacier National Park and high grasslands of Montana, via the brittle, yellow, steaming cliffs of Yellowstone, finally to the awesome beauty of the Grand Tetons around Jackson Hole. We certainly did not expect that almost every day of the trip would at one point or another take our breath away.
Which was not exclusively due to the beauty and vast expanse of the landscapes. Fabulous single-track rides in Banff and Jackson and extensive hikes through the weird moonscapes of Yellowstone certainly contributed their bit. So did the pervasive nagging concern that there might just be a bear waiting around the next corner. In the event, the closest we ever found ourselves, knowingly at least, to one of those cute furry creatures was about 100 yards “ watching him through the thick of a wood from the safety of our van. There was, however, certainly no shortage of other wildlife: ridiculous numbers of elk, several herds of bison, quite a few coyote, marmosets, chipmunks, the ubiquitous squirrels, and even one enormous moose bull. And that was just the side show.
Our group assembled in Calgary. Charley, our American guide “ master of the van, of Mexican gourmet food and of the most insane singletrack rides “ and Alasdair, ever patient and circumspect (and undisputed king of the most improbable bike manoeuvres), took us through the plans for the coming days and without much further ado we loaded up and headed for Banff. There we set up camp for several nights, exploring whatever single track routes had not been claimed by berry-seeking bears by day, and frequenting hot springs (nice!) at night. To prevent premature saddle soreness a day’s hiking took us up to spectacular vistas over Lake Louise (on the way down we passed a Korean Men’s Choir bizarrely singing Austrian folk songs on the lake front). A long (largely) downhill road cycle from the massive Athabasca glacier concluded our time in Banff, and we headed South towards Glacier National Park, just on the border between Canada and America.
On the way there we stopped at a place with the rather interesting name ˜Buffalo Jump Head-Smashed-In’, which is a cultural centre of the Blackfoot Nation. Between Charley, a treasure trove of knowledge on native American history, and the wonderful guides at the centre, this little detour turned into an incredibly interesting (if somewhat depressing) learning experience. You walk away with the feeling, or rather the conviction, that you are neither in Canada nor in the United States at all, but rather in a land that has always belonged to, and shared between, the native people and the bears.
The stop in Glacier itself was brief, but long enough for some wonderful hikes through shrubby hills to waterfalls gently cascading down bright red rocks. Thus refreshed we embarked on the longest driving leg of the journey “ Montana is surprisingly vast and maybe not so surprisingly empty, apart from the cattle grazing down the seemingly endless grassy hills. But at the end of it all we were rewarded with Yellowstone National Park. Walking and camping on an active volcano is truly unique. Wherever you go there is thermal activity “ bubbling mudholes in the ground, brightly coloured hot springs, smelly lakes, steam emerging from the ground in the most improbable places, and, of course, the geysers (and four days isn’t quite long enough to run out of ˜geezer’ jokes). My personal favourite was the ˜boiling river’ “ a glacial runoff being joined by literally boiling water from inside the volcanic furnace, resulting in little pools in the middle of the river that have constant perfect hot bath temperature (if you ignore the odd currents of freezing cold or boiling hot water). Sitting there during sunrise while a herd of elk skips by on the shore was one of the most magical moments of the trip.
By now, however, we were getting a little desperate to get on some bikes again. Our next destination “ Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons “ proved to be perfect for that. We started with some rides up and down a beautiful canyon that had tracks for every taste and ability. After a couple of days of extremely fun playing around in there, a full-day hike was thrown in, though not exactly for rest and recreation! 20 miles, 9 hours and a 10,000ft pass later we had certainly worked harder than at any point on the bikes, but the scenery and the blissful serenity of lunch on the Lake Solitude before the final ascent more than compensated for the effort. Having fallen into bed rather early that evening, we woke up to nothing less than a snowstorm the next morning. This threw a whole new light on our planned biking adventure in the Black Canyon! Charley took us half way up the mountain in the van. Up there it already looked like winter wonderland, and although the tracks were getting a little treacherous, the ever thickening snowfall made for an atmosphere so special that it defies description on paper. I just hope that future Skedaddlers will have the same luck of freak weather for that one last day in the Rockies.
After a final day’s driving through the hinterlands of America, in the flats of Salt Lake City, surrounded by the Wasatch mountain range, which (so the geographers tell you) is not a part of the Rockies, we were all still overwhelmed by the richness of the previous two weeks. I, for one, could have gone straight back to Calgary to do it all again. And did I mention the fabulous ales in the microbreweries all along the way?