CANMORE: THE BEST KEPT SECRET IN ALBERTA'S ROCKIES
Look up. Turn a 360°. You are totally surrounded by high mountains; majestic, craggy, peaks. You might be seeing them unclothed, stark and defined against a vivid blue sky in summer, or covered with sparkling, pristine snow in winter. If you are here in the fall, look lower down to the tree line to see the vibrant yellows and oranges of the autumn leaves dotted among the dark greens of the firs and pines. Or maybe you are able to hear the rush and roar of streams and rivers swollen with snow melt in the spring. Whichever season you visit, the mountains look different, so there's always a lot to see - and even more to do.
When you think of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, Canada, you usually think of Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper National Parks. But no more than ten minutes from Banff's park gates (and 45 minutes west of Calgary) there's a small valley community called Canmore. In the shadow of world-famous Banff, Canmore is often overlooked. But those who discover this sleepy little town consider it just as beautiful-it's definitely more peaceful-and it provides access to all of the same opportunities and activities you'll find in the better-known National Parks of Banff and Lake Louise.
Nestled in the Bow Valley corridor on the banks of the Bow River, Canmore is surrounded by such peaks as the Three Sisters, Ha Ling, Lady Macdonald, and the Rundle Range - each with its own history and legend - and each with its own recreational opportunities.
The waters of the Bow run clear, cold, and sparkling through the middle of town. You'll immediately notice the deep teal-turquoise blue of the water caused by the glacial silt minerals created by the Bow Glacier. High up in the mountains, this icy giant grinds its endless way ever-so-slowly into Bow Lake, the headwaters of its namesake river. The Bow River flows through Alberta, joining the South Saskatchewan River to eventually empty into the Hudson Bay in Northern Manitoba - a distant two provinces away.
Because of the surrounding mountains, and the long narrow valley, Canmore has its own mini-ecological system and you may find as much as six to ten degrees of temperature difference between here and Banff or Calgary. And certainly, the amount of snowfall can fluctuate between these two towns as well. So whenever you visit, be sure to bring a variety of clothing - it's been known to snow in July - though you could just as easily encounter a heat wave.
If you come in winter be prepared for 'weather'. It's a beautiful time to be in the mountains, and it's cold, but dressed in the latest lightweight insulated clothing, you are cosy-warm. Layers are best in all seasons, so plan to add or remove garments according to the conditions; you certainly don't have to feel like Buffalo Bill in his heavy and cumbersome buffalo-skin coat of yore.
You can indulge in whatever form, and level, of recreation and activity you prefer in and around Canmore: from a grindingly tough hike up Heart Mountain, to a gentle stroll along the river bank paths. You can take your bicycle (or rent one) and choose between exhilarating high mountain trails or the gently undulating paths and roadways in the town.
If you are looking for extreme adventure, explore the Grotto Mountain caves with qualified guides, "… the most gruelling workout I have ever experienced," said Jason, a recent visitor. Or catch a rafting experience on one of the 'mild to wild' rivers in the vicinity and get soaked. The Canmore Nordic Centre, built for the 1988 Winter Olympics, is a major training site for cross-country skiing and cycling, depending on the season. Beginning in late summer you come across athletes-in-training, whipping down the mountainside roads on their roller skis until, when the snow flies, they move to the trails - and skis. While you are here, you can try out one of the centre's public trails for yourself - biking or skiing - and rentals and lessons are readily available for both activities. And let's not forget the golfers. Canmore has three 18-hole courses - one down in the valley, and the other two perched high on mountain ridges at either side of the valley. Just imagine the views from each hole as you lift your head to follow your drive. If you want more, there are a variety of other courses within an hour's drive of Canmore and of course, there's the world famous Banff Springs course within twenty minutes.
If your main recreation is shopping, Canmore's stores offer great choices - from unique gifts representing Alberta's prehistoric past (the Ammonite Factory), to inexpensive souvenirs (the Dollar Store). Main Street also houses several high fashion establishments with name brand clothing as well as a couple of specialty children's stores, including a consignment outlet where you'll find "hardly-worn before outgrown" clothes of all sizes. So you don't need to spend a fortune on that little snowsuit before your visit - and it will be constructed especially for the weather. There's no shortage of shops to tempt your tastes and tease your bank account!
When it's time to relax, and eating is on the agenda, Canmore's restaurant choices range widely from chain pizza joints and fast-food outlets, through to the family-friendly, family-run, Toshy's, serving good home-cooked food, and lots of it. Liz and Alan and their four children from North East England are living out their dream here and you'll always find a warm welcome from Liz or one of their daughters who all work in the front - Alan's in the kitchen cooking. Try the lamb chops - he prepares them to perfection!
For serious gastronomists, Canmore offers some of the finest restaurants in the province. For breakfast, if you want it all, try Chez Francois and, like the regulars, order the breakfast platter which provides you with a taste of favourite items from the menu. Your ears will tell you that this restaurant is patronized (and served) by French-speaking young people from Quebec who come to the area to work all summer so that they can ski all winter. The Radisson Hotel is the hands-down local favourite for Sunday brunch buffet, or, if your appetite can't handle that much food, ride, drive or walk across the valley to the Summit Café where the locals, families and active folks, go for natural food, tasty sandwiches, and scrumptious soups. If you do happen to be partial to a hearty bowl of soup, the soups in Canmore are legendary - tasty, creative and rib-sticking - and they're made with the freshest ingredients - locally grown where possible. Winter is long and soups are a staple at almost every eating place in this mountain town.
Many regulars passing through town, head to the French Quarter for their Cajun/Creole fix, and most don't leave without saving room for the bread pudding - try it! The Quarry Bistro is another favourite for the dishes created by the exquisite combination of local ingredients. And Crazyweed Kitchen (with its grass roof), Murrieta's (on the second floor for an unimpaired view of the mountains), Rustica Dining Room (high up by Silver Tip golf course), and the Sage Bistro (a rustic log cabin) all offer the finest dining - each with its own individual flavour and style. For every taste and budget, you can find vegetarian, oriental (Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese and Chinese), pasta (Italian), soup and sandwich, and coffee and tea shops. At Rocky Mountain Bagels, on 8th, while enjoying your bagel and coffee, you will always find writers with their journals or laptops, and often a group of musicians jamming away a Saturday afternoon - their small children jigging in time to the beat. A week or so in Canmore can quite easily be planned around the eating establishments (more than enough for a different one each day), so just be ready to loosen your belt a notch - unless you have plans for an energetic exercise program to work it off.
Whatever you decide to do in Canmore, just be aware of the other residents - the wild animals were here long before we arrived. The Bow Valley is a major wildlife corridor, and you are just as likely to come across a grizzly bear with this year's cubs while you are hiking, as spot a coyote strolling down the middle of the deserted main street and hanging a left on 7th Avenue, when you leave your restaurant to find your car. (It's true! We saw it.) Bears, coyotes, cougars, deer, lynx, big horn sheep, wolf, and a couple of resident elk herds roam free and share the area with humans - so be alert on your hikes and walks. These animals are not out to spoil your holiday; they are not really interested in you at all, unless you happen to get between a mother and her young, or you find their food cache. Do obey the "trail closed" signs, and check out the suggested safety precautions developed by the local wildlife officials. Pick up a "Bow Valley Wildsmart" brochure (to be found all over town) and you will learn about the habits of those other Bow Valley residents and how to govern your activities and behaviour.
Don't forget that the bodies of water command just as much respect as the animals - if you fall out of your canoe on a local lake, you wouldn't drown in it - you'd freeze to death first! (A fact shared tongue-in-cheek, but with some truth, on a summer boat trip on nearby Lake Minnewanka.)
Canmorians (as the locals call themselves) love their winter sports almost as much, maybe even more, than their summer activities. So follow their lead and, if you are inclined, you can ski downhill or cross-country, you can ice skate on the frozen community lake that is kept cleared of snow and often has music playing from the loudspeakers. You can play ice hockey there, by picking up a shinny game - there are unspoken rules that the hockey players limit themselves to a specific area of the lake and they are always aware of the little ones tottering around on their skates. You can curl, snowshoe, or experience a sled-dog ride muffled up in blankets, watching the vapour of your breath in the frosty air while the team pulls you, silently gliding along an icy trail through the woods.
And never, ever, think that you can't come in winter - you would miss out on a huge visiting window with a whole variety of activities and exciting experiences that are fun and exhilarating.
Face winter head-on and you won't even notice it - well, not much, anyway!
IF YOU GO:
Checking weather: (www.weathernetwork.com).
Photos by Ann Jordan-Mills (1-4) and Michael W. Jordan (5)
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