By Zachary Flynn
11 days, 10 nights, 3 towns, 3 hostels, and somewhere between 15-20 roommates in total… it was hard to keep track. The 250,000 steps and 170 km hike were easier numbers to track; my phone took care of that.
The mountains seemed like the perfect balance where the communities didn’t lock themselves down, but they were still mindful of the ongoing pandemic – and it seemed like all of the visitors were respectful of that, too.
The first stop on my trip was in Jasper. I spent 4 nights at the Jasper Downtown Hostel, where I spoke to one of the staff members about how they were keeping their business alive during COVID and a dramatically reduced visitor population.
He explained to me that while many of the dorm rooms could sleep 7-8 people, only one ‘group’ was allowed to occupy a bunk set. So myself, as a lone traveller, got a bunk set all to myself. A group of three would take up two sets. Masks were required in all public spaces; I could borrow a dining kit with a plate, bowl, cup and silverware that I was responsible for cleaning and returning at checkout. I was given my own linens for the duration of my stay; aside from that, I could do what I wanted.
On paper, all of these precautions seemed smart, but I kind of had to push back the thoughts reminding me that I was sharing the same doorknobs as all of my roommates, sharing the same co-ed bathrooms and showers as all of the people on my floor, and sharing the same kitchen space as everyone else in the building. Oh – and when everybody’s cooking and eating breakfast in the morning, masks were practically non-existent, although people did make attempts to socially distance themselves.
Jasper also has both indoor and outdoor mask rules, so people in the main commercial area downtown had to wear masks when they were out on the sidewalks too. I’d read in the newspaper that the RCMP had been doing some public-awareness work with those who didn’t comply, though I saw maybe one or two officers in my five days in town.
I absolutely loved Jasper. The small town meant that I could walk 5 minutes to any bar or restaurant for supper, plus the bars were always open late so it was never an issue if I hiked until sundown, showered at the hostel and then went for dinner at 9 or so.
The trails were beautiful, too, and I was never fighting for parking. I’d usually start my day with a hike around 7:30 or so, hike for a few hours, and then head off to a new location for the afternoon and early evening.
The only time I found myself in a crowd was at the Jasper Skytram, and while they cut their lift occupancy and required you to pre-purchase tickets online, it was about a 30-minute wait inside the crowded mountaintop building as people waited for their spot to head back down. Masks were obviously required. This was also the only place in Jasper I had my temperature checked.
I spent a couple of nights in Lake Louise, wanting to hit a few hiking spots on the way down to Banff and the longer I spent south of Jasper, the more I missed it.
I stayed at the Hostel International in the town of Lake Louise. At the hostel, I only had one roommate and the two of us had a half-bathroom to share. The showers were out in the hallway, with about a dozen or so rooms sharing four showers.
As with Jasper, masks were required in all indoor public spaces.
The eating situation was very different, though. While the kitchen was roughly twice as large, they put a maximum capacity of three for the room and you had to reserve a spot, so while I stored some eggs, milk and other cold-store items in there, I didn’t spend much time cooking for myself.
As for dinner, most of the local restaurants were temporarily closed, with hostels and hotels being the only ones to have their restaurants open. The hostel’s restaurant closed at 9:30, and with my hiking habits not having me ready to eat until 8:30-9:00, I found myself eating at Lake Louise Inn’s bar two of the three nights I was there, enjoying the hostel’s restaurant on my last night. They served a good breakfast the next morning, too.
The hiking situation was also incredibly different.
It was a fight for parking each and every morning with Lake Louise parking full by 9 a.m. I learned this the hard way on my first day there. I spoke to a parking attendant who said that the parking at nearby Moraine Lake usually filled up by 5:30 a.m. That cancelled my hiking plans around there.
Unpopular Opinion: Banff is overrated.
I stayed at the Hostel International Alpine Lodge while I was there – up near the tunnel mountain campground.
The town itself was extremely busy. You had to drive and struggle to find parking downtown if you wanted to go shopping, find a bar or go for dinner, and you had to drive to do anything.
The hikes were mediocre, though I think after a week in the mountains, maybe I was just used to it. Tunnel Mountain was decent, but more of a hill than anything and Sulphur mountain was incredibly crowded and developed, unlike Whistlers Peak in Jasper. Some of the better hikes in Banff were 15-30 minutes out of town.
For a town so busy, there were very few bars serving food in the evenings, and the hostel’s restaurant was closed, so I had to travel to eat. Most restaurants heavily marked up their food, aiming for tourists who would spend $28 on a burger, and most kitchens closed at 9:30. It was difficult to find cheap(er) evening dining.
The kitchen setup at the hostel was incredibly weird, too. They had the same max capacity as Lake Louise, but the kitchen didn’t open until 11 a.m., so most of my days consisted of an early hike with trail snacks for breakfast.
On the bright side, I didn’t have a roommate for my last two nights there.
I took this trip to get away, having been cooped up in and around the city for months on end. I’m more of an introverted person, so the peacefulness of Jasper, the quiet trails and the relatively quiet town was exactly what I needed. Lake Louise and Banff felt like more tourist hotspots and while I don’t regret going down for the few days in each town, I wouldn’t do it again any time soon.
Solo hiking through the mountains was incredible, and as long as you carry bear spray, know what to look out for and make lots of noise, there’s not much to worry about.
I felt like each town handled things quite well with everybody complying with both indoor and outdoor mask rules, social distancing inside restaurants, and the odd temperature check at the larger attractions. Once you get over the fact that you’re sharing rooms, doorknobs, showers and bathrooms with complete strangers, it’s not so bad. Just remember to sanitize.
And as for COVID, I booked a test for the day after I got back, which thankfully came back negative.