Monday, December 8, 2008

Banff and Calgary - Day 2

I woke to the sounds of people packing and leaving in the morning. I was groggy and tired, but also excited to start exploring. After laying in bed for a long time, I got up at 10:30, took a quick walk around to see if there were any good places to meet people and to check out the hostel restaurant. The Hostelling International Banff Alpine Centre was quite impressive. The building I was in, the new wing, had a large cavernous atrium with exposed wood beams and a gas fireplace. Each room had en suite washrooms and personal shower rooms in the hallways. It was very clean and comfortable for a hostel. Not finding anyone around after my walk, I returned to my room to prepare a day pack and go exploring. Returning to my room, I found the person who had been coughing all night tending to a nosebleed. I had a short conversation with him. He was from Switzerland and was taking a long road trip all around North America. He told me he was going skiing later in the day, and as he had a car, I was tempted to go with him, but I decided I should take it easy seeing that I was still getting over a cold and got only three hours of sleep last night.

After getting a map from the hostel, I started waking down Tunnel Mountain Road toward the town centre. As I was coming up with a plan on how to meet other travellers, I saw a girl ahead of me stop to take a photo of the beautiful mountains around us. Not wanting to spend the day alone, I jumped at the opportunity to meet another backpacker, as I always do when I am on the road by myself. Walking up to where she was, I pulled out my camera and said "That's not a bad idea! I think I'll take a photo here myself!" Although a bit contrived, it was a conversation starter. From what I have seen so far, almost all travellers are very friendly once you make contact so it is important to make the extra effort to introduce yourself to others. I found out that her name was Kimberly and she was from Vancouver. Like myself, she was visiting for just here for a few days. Since she didn't have any plans for the day, we decided to stick together to keep each other company.

After a quick stop at an info centre and a mall for a quick breakfast in a very pretty and festive downtown area, we decided to walk to the Banff Springs Hotel before proceeding to the Banff Gondola and the Upper Hot Springs at the foot of Sulphur Mountain. Although we wasted nearly an hour walking in the wrong direction, we eventually found our way. Crossing the bridge over the Bow River, we took some photos. It was very pretty there. There were tall snowy peaks in the distance, lush green pine forests ahead, and the quaint downtown area was overshadowed by its backdrop of an enormous rocky cliff with stands of snow clutcing on to the bare, steep rocky face.

After nearly losing our way again, we finally get our first glimpse of the Banff Springs Hotel. It was magnificent, a large stone building looming majestically over dense forests against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. I found it rather more severe looking than the Ch√Ęteau Frontenac, but due to the smaller size, it seemed less imposing and intimidating. Connected to it was a rather more modern conference facility, some car parks, and a kitchen with a vent spewing large amounts of steam that clung to surrounding trees as a glistening layer of ice. A helpful landscaper told us where to go for a nice view of the hotel, but I found it rather difficult to capture the feel of the place on film, simultaneously stern and inviting.

Continuing on behind the hotel, we entered the trail system which surrounds the town of Banff. It was a short hike of about one and a half kilometres to the Goldola and Hot Springs. On the way, we talked about the wildlife in the area as I read online that there are a lot of deer, elk, longhorn sheep, bears, wolves, and cougars around. I was keeping an eye out just in case we bumped into one as I haven't been in a forest in an area with such a high concentration of wildlife before. After a while, we ran into a small steaming stream and we caught whiffs of sulphur in the air. We were pretty excited as this means that we were close to the hot springs. After yet another confusing trundle around a large building that didn't seem to have any doors, we emerged out of the forest and onto a road leading to a large parking lot in front of the Banff Gondola.

In my sleep-deprived state, I was surprisingly tired, although I was surprised at the amount of altitude we gained from the trail. Seeing that Kim wasn't that enthusiastic about the prospect of hiking up Sulphur Mountain, we decided to go soak in the hot springs instead. Outside, in front of the building, there was a small pond and a bridge covered in an orange residue and filled with ice. I hoped that the hot springs were still running as I have heard that in the winter, the flow of the hot springs become drastically reduced. Luckily for us, the hot springs were still producing enough water to fill the pool that day.

The Banff Upper Hot Springs is a modern facility. The main attraction is a large swimming pool where the water from the spring is collected. From the pool, one can gaze out over the glass railings at the forested valley below and the snowy peaks around it. One of the mountains across the valley had a curious spiral pattern of rock near the top which is a testament to the geological stresses that created the Rocky Mountains. After soaking for about an hour, we decided it was time to take the gondola up Sulphur Mountain to catch the sunset. Walking out dehydrated and all wrinkled, I saw a sign that said "Maximum suggested bath time: 20 minutes."

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