My First White Christmas - Banff National Park
For the first 26 years of my life, I spent every Christmas in Florida. I awoke to the sound of shotguns going off outside at 4 AM (our redneck wake-up call) and then rushed down the stairs to dig through the pile of presents for ones marked with my name. Growing up in a children's home meant every Christmas was especially magical with the faces of 20-30 kids lighting up as they saw what was under the tree. This year, I couldn’t make it home for the holidays and that left me feeling pretty void of Christmas cheer. In many ways, I can’t stand routine or to live a normal life, but as a southerner, it’s very hard to shake the need for tradition. The thought of spending Christmas morning with just one other person and a dog around was bizarre, to say the least.
So what did this mean? I needed to go above and beyond to make this year special. After searching Washington and Oregon for the perfect place to spend Christmas and coming up short, I spread my search to Canada. One look at photos of Banff and Jasper national parks in winter and I was sold.
The next step was to find a place to stay with only a week until our trip. AirBnB is always my first choice when traveling with Nym but all of the cabins near Banff were sold out. Our second option was to sleep in the car like we usually do, but with the weatherman predicting temps in the -10 range, we figured that wasn’t a great option. Becoming a human popsicle isn’t high on my Christmas list. At last, we found a hotel that was cheap enough to not make us flinch and that seemed to be in a great location. It ended up being the perfect choice and the location couldn’t be beaten (there were chocolate shops on both sides of it!).
With our accommodation planned out, we moved on to finding activities to do. Generally, we’re all about free tours or hiking on our own but for this trip, we knew we had to either go dogsledding or snowmobiling. We looked around for options and decided that snowmobiling was the best bargain. We fully intended on planning more activities to do but then life happened and we ended up winging the rest of our trip.
Day 1: The Drive
It bucketed snow the entire way to Banff (a 10-hour drive from Seattle). We drove until we couldn’t hold our eyes open anymore and then slept in the back of the car in a parking lot in Chase, BC. We made it to Lake Louise at around 3 PM on Friday and took Nym out to play some fetch on the frozen lake. After we’d tired her out, we drove the rest of the way to Banff and checked into our hotel. It was perfect! And though we were buggered, we decided to stroll around the town and check out some of the shops.
Day 2: Snowmobiling
Waking up bright and early, we ate a rather gross breakfast at Tony Roma’s in the lobby of our hotel. People who serve coffee that tastes like water are not my favorite. Then we met our tour guide outside of our hotel and began our ride to Golden, BC. An hour and a half later, we were hopping aboard our snowmobile and setting off into the winter wonderland behind our fearless leader.
After an intro cruise to get everyone used to the machines, we sped up and really felt the thrill of the ride. Then we’d stop for five minutes and wait for the group’s one slow poke to catch up. I don’t think she broke 5 mph the entire ride. At one point she drove way off trail and got royally stuck. We were all further up the trail, enjoying nice warm cups of hot chocolate and wondering if she’d ever catch up. Nope! We had to go back for the poor lady.
We stopped for lunch by the cutest trapper’s cabin and had burgers fresh off the grill. Then cooked s'mores on a small fire. Heaven! After lunch, we headed to a more technical trail and the guide really upped the speed. Llew and I got air as we flew up a hill. He spent the rest of the ride trying to reproduce that adrenaline rush. I held on tight to my heated handlebars, trying not to smile too much since the freezing wind was giving me a toothache. I failed, but it was so much fun that I can’t really be blamed for that.
We rode back down the mountain and took our layers of gear off before climbing back into the bus for the return trip.
Day 3: Christmas
Christmas day was full of surprises and not of them were in present form. We opened our gifts while sitting in our hotel bed, letting Nym go first. Her uncles got her WAY too many tennis balls so all of the gifts from Llew and I were promptly forgotten in her desire to play fetch.
After all the presents were open, we packed up and walked out to our car. Then we cranked it and happily drove away… NOT. We cranked it and absolutely nothing happened. Some Willis had left a light on and we found ourselves with a VERY dead battery. Fortunately for us, Canadians are literally the nicest people ever and one volunteered to jump us off.
We thanked him profusely and got in the car to discover all of our tires had low air due to the change in pressure.Then we headed for the gas station to pump them up but even after filling them, the light warning light wouldn’t go off. Driving very slowly to Lake Louise, we filled them up yet again. Victory! All warning lights off.
Testing that the car was charged enough to turn off and back on before getting out of civilization, we were stoked when it passed. Llew drove us back to the road and we headed up the Icefield Parkway toward Jasper, AB. Or at least that’s where we thought we were headed. An hour later we arrived in the town we’d gone snowmobiling in the previous day. Yes, it took that long before we realized we were driving west instead of north… It was so sunny none of the sights looked similar to the other three times we’d driven that road.
Making a u-turn, we followed the GPS’s instructions on how to get on the correct road, neither of us trusting the other’s navigation skills to get us there. When we finally did make it to the parkway, we fell quickly in love with it. The road is so winding and yet so open. Snowcapped peaks dominate the horizon while frozen lakes stretch out along the road. Our favorite stop of the journey was at Peyto Lake.
Since we’d gotten such a late start due to all of our technical difficulties, we didn’t have much time to properly explore the highway. Instead, we resigned ourselves to just enjoying the perfect weather (though VERY cold at -9 degrees) and the incredible scenery.
We made it to Jasper and grabbed a bite to eat at one of the only open restaurants. Then we started the drive home, pausing to sleep in yet another parking lot at around midnight. You can, in fact, sleep in your car when it’s below 0 outside. We don’t particularly recommend it without an extremely warm setup like ours.
All in all, our Christmas was incredibly magical. We missed friends and family being around but we made the most of the four-day weekend. We can’t wait to revisit all of these areas next summer. Don’t forget, all of Canada’s National Parks are free in 2017! Take advantage of it and explore as many as you can. Happy Holidays!