Squeaks drifted across the cool night air as our group, each of us wearing ice cleats, slowly stepped up the side of Maligne Canyon. The sun had set long ago in this dimple pressed into Canada's Jasper National Park, but our compact headlamps shed just enough light to keep us safely on the narrow, snowy trail.
Suddenly, our guide, Aaron Marr, stopped to point out a small waterfall frozen against the opposite canyon wall. As Marr illuminated the icy sculpture for us with a massive flashlight, cameras began clicking. No one knew this eye-catching formation was a mere teaser.
We continued on for another 20 minutes until Marr stopped again, this time motioning us to duck under a guardrail, then pick our way down an icy slope to the canyon floor. We were then standing on the frozen Maligne River, he said, and needed to take care; the week's warm temps had pockmarked our path with slushy spots. "You might sink in a few inches if you step on a bad spot," he said, "but don't worry -- you won't fall through."
"It's probably a good thing we can't really see where we're going," whispered one of the older women.
Crunching and skidding, we inched down the river until Marr halted our progress again. Snapping on his flashlight, he illuminated a waterfall a mere yard or so in front of us. Its thin outer layer was frozen in a delicate, lacy sheet, while a torrent of water angrily rushed behind it into a small pool. People squealed and gasped, and then the camera flashes commenced again in earnest.
We would have stood there forever, but Marr urged us on to the next wonder -- the immense Queen of Maligne waterfall, frozen 89 feet below the canyon rim into an intricate crystalline sculpture.
Before we headed back, Marr asked us to stop, turn off our headlamps and drink it all in: The canyon's rugged, towering walls. The thick silence. The sweet, frosty air. And the deep indigo sky, now completely smothered in stars, from bright novas to the most delicate stardust.
Three towns, three styles
Sprawling nearly 6,800 square miles in western Alberta, the adjacent Jasper and Banff National Parks are among Canada's most spectacular natural treasures, attracting about 6.5 million visitors annually. While most visitors go in summer, a dedicated core heads over in winter to ski, snowshoe, hike and even climb the parks' fantastical ice formations. The parks' main base camps are the municipalities of Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper, which form a westward leaning line, with Banff at the lower right, Lake Louise nearby and Jasper far away at the top.
Banff is the party town, filled with more than 100 restaurants and bars, not to mention a wealth of boutiques and galleries.
Lake Louise is the polar opposite. Canada's highest village at more than 5,000 feet, it basically consists of one strip mall and a quaint railway station-turned-restaurant. But that's fine, because its attraction is its solitude and Lake Louise itself, an oval-shaped body of water tucked into a small depression in the Canadian Rockies.
Jasper is a wildlife hotbed. Mule deer, elk, bighorn and coyotes are seen during the winter. At the area's storied Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, it's not uncommon to wake up and find a cluster of elk quietly grazing outside your cabin.
The lure of the lake
I had long heard of Jasper, Banff and Lake Louise, and knew I wanted to experience the trio.
My trip had begun a few days earlier in Banff National Park, where I chose to set up camp in tranquil Lake Louise. I was here to revel in unspoiled wilderness, after all; partying and shopping weren't a priority. But cross-country skiing was.
Not surprisingly, the 11,000-acre Lake Louise ski area is covered with a thick web of looping trails ranging from gently sloping paths to steep, narrow tracks. I'd nixed the trails closest to the alpine ski sector in order to find the most serene sections of the park.
As the sun shone brightly overhead, beautifully illuminating Mount Whitehorn -- where the alpine skiers were undoubtedly whooping it up -- I glided across the powder for several hours, ducking in and out of wooded pockets, up steep ridges offering killer views and across tranquil meadows. The only sound I heard was my own labored breathing as I briskly pushed along, invigorated by the sights and alpine air.
Eventually the lure of Lake Louise prompted me to swap my skis for hiking boots. The village's famed lake is known for its emerald-to-azure waters, which get their eye-catching colors from tiny rock particles first crushed beneath glaciers, then dumped into the lake by meltwater streams. In the winter, these waters are transformed into a bland, grayish sheet of ice. Still, the mile-long lake, surrounded by the massive Rockies, simply begged to be explored.
The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, my home base, maintains a roughly 14-foot-wide path across the lake, edged with cross-country ski tracks. A jingle-jangling sleigh zipped along the lakeshore path, pulled by a pair of sturdy Belgians. Up ahead, a knot of folks admired a frozen waterfall at the lake's southern shore.
As I neared this group, I realized the people were actually watching two men climbing up the falls' slippery face. I joined the gawkers, entranced, as the rhythmic chinks of the men's ice axes drifted across the air.
The men eventually reached the top, and I turned back toward the lake path, where I noticed a narrow trail that branched off and leaped ashore, disappearing coyly into the woods. Intrigued, I left the crowds behind and followed. Not a dozen steps later, I found myself enveloped by a thick pine forest.
My heartbeat slowed as I deeply inhaled the fresh, spicy air and took in the impressive Canadian Rockies. Walking along for who knows how long, I was surprised to come upon a mini avalanche. And then I panicked. Back at the hotel, I'd inquired about hiking the Plain of Six Glaciers trail, which maps showed gently meandered past Lake Louise. While a pleasant hike in the summer, staff members told me it was quite deadly in the winter without a guide and proper gear, which included an avalanche beacon. I must have inadvertently picked up this path; I ended my expedition and headed to the hotel.
The next few days were a blur of skiing, snowshoeing and canyon climbs, both in Banff and Lake Louise, and then it was time to check out Jasper.
Jasper and Banff are connected by the Icefields Parkway, a scenic 142-mile stretch of highway that snakes along the Continental Divide, the Rockies' backbone. Recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its outstanding natural beauty and geological value, it's a destination unto itself.
Although stunning vistas can be seen for much of the drive, the Parkway's star attraction is Columbia Icefield, the largest ice field south of Alaska at just under 400 square kilometers. Surprisingly, you can't walk on Columbia Icefield in winter, because the season's frigid temps mean a higher risk of dangerously deep crevasses.
Columbia Icefield straddles Banff National Park's northwestern tip and Jasper National Park's southern end, and sits atop what some call a "triple Continental Divide," as its meltwater feeds streams and rivers that flow into the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Our driver pulled over so we could get the closest view possible. Scrambling up and down snow-covered gravelly craters eerily reminiscent of a moonscape, we finally neared the edge of the ice field, dazzled by the sight. Literally. The sun had slid halfway down the horizon, its rays reflecting blindingly off the glaciers and surrounding snow-capped mountains -- some of the highest in the Canadian Rockies, our guide said.
A wispy, white spray floated gently over the ice field --perhaps an inversion of sorts --while gauzy clouds stretched across the blue sky, trying their best to block some of the glare. At first I dismissed the scene as too bright, too stark, too harsh. But as I continued to gaze at it, its astonishing beauty shone through in that very brightness, starkness and harshness.
Climbing back into the bus, I knew nothing could possibly top that vista. Of course, I hadn't taken the moonlit Maligne Canyon ice walk yet. And once I did, the only thing I was sure of was that this little slice of the world was one of the most amazing I'd ever seen.
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis.