The Canadian Rockies

Moraine Lake (Banff)

Moraine Lake in Banff National Park

I enjoy the scenery and outdoor activities available in the mountains. One mountain range I’ve never been to and plan on eventually visiting is the Canadian Rockies. It would be easy to assume that what merely makes the Canadian Rockies “Canadian” is that they’re north of the border. But there are also a number of other factors that make the Canadian Rockies distinctive from their American cousins to the south.

Lake Louise and Victoria Glacier

Lake Louise and Victoria Glacier in Banff National Park

The Canadian Rockies are much closer to the Pacific Ocean, which makes them much wetter than the American Rockies in Colorado and Wyoming. Combined with their more northerly location, they have been historically much more heavily glaciated than the American Rockies and still are today. In addition, the Canadian Rockies are made of more easily eroded sedimentary rock instead of the harder metamorphic rock in the United States.

The heavier glaciation and softer rock makes the Canadian Rockies much more easily carved by ice than the American Rockies and gives them their distinctively vertical shape, with expansive U-shaped valleys in between the mountains compared to the V-shaped valleys more common in the United States.

Whereas glaciers are small and rare in the American Rockies, they are large and extensive on the Canadian side, expanding at times into large “icefields” that stretch across many mountains and are many square miles in size. Many lakes at the edge of glaciers typically contain “glacial flour”. This is a milky white sediment fine enough to remain suspended in the lake and lend a distinctive opaque turquoise color easily recognizable to the Canadian Rockies. Finally, the increased moisture results in especially thick, green foliage and often misty, cloudy days when compared to the drier, sunnier American Rockies to the south.

Peyto Lake

Peyto Lake in Banff National Park

Seven contiguous parks make up the Canadian Rocky Mountains UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are the four National Parks Banff, Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay, and the three British Columbia Provincial Parks Mount Assiniboine, Mount Robson, and Hamber. In addition to the spectacular scenery, Jasper National Park also contains the Burgess Shale, one of the largest and most important fossil beds in the world and invaluable to modern science’s understanding of biological history on Earth.

To the south is the fifth and last National Park in the Canadian Rockies, Waterton Lakes, which borders Glacier National Park to the south in the United States.

Morant's Curve on the Bow River

Morant's Curve on the Bow River

In 1932 the two parks were combined into the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and in 1995 it too was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Connecting Lake Louise, Alberta in Banff National Park to Jasper, Alberta in Jasper National Park is the 140-mile long Icefields Parkway, completed in 1940. It is intended specifically for sightseeing and commercial vehicles such as semi-trucks are prohibited. The Icefields Parkway accesses the Columbia Icefield and has frequently been called the most beautiful drive in the world.

Like many of their famous American cousins across the border, the Canadian Rockies National Parks were created primarily by the railroad industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to produce a market for tourism. In this case establishment of the parks was the result of the Canadian Pacific railroad, which is still synonymous with the area and built many of the magnificent hotels that dot the region.

Banff Springs Hotel

Banff Springs Hotel

Information about the Canadian Rockies can be found in various Canada-themed books at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. A few of the TSCPL books that inspired this article are Florian Schulz’ Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam, Marion Harrison and Peter Thompson’s Explore Canada: The Adventurer’s Guide, and Reader’s Digest’s Through the Great Canadian Wilderness.


4 thoughts on “The Canadian Rockies

  1. Brian, thank you for this post! It reminded me of going to Banff as a child and visiting with my parents. It is truly breathtaking and worth numerous trips. Staying in the Banff Springs Hotel is marvelous as well, and (at least when I was there) perusing Banff on a rented bicycle is one of the best ways to view its quaint qualities.

  2. The Icefields Parkway sounds somewhat like Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. And the hiking trails in the Canadian Rockies must be spectacular. The photos you chose are incredible, Brian. Wow.

  3. Thanks guys. One of my very first books as a child was about North American railroads and it had some great pictures of the Canadian Rockies. I have been interested ever since.

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