A Breathtaking Helicopter Tour of the Canadian Rockies

Soaring high above the Canadian Rockies was a vacation highlight for this Maritime couple.

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Canadian Rockies helicopter tour
Photo: Desiree Anstey

Touring the Canadian Rockies—by helicopter!

My husband Terry and I travelled from Prince Edward Island to Banff a few years back for a week’s stay. We originally planned a helicopter tour departing Canmore, Alberta, on the Wednesday. After checking the weather reports and seeing that it was meant to rain and cloud over, I rescheduled for Monday morning. Monday dawned as a cold but cloudless morning—perfect for flying over the Canadian Rockies. Once aboard the helicopter, I was illuminated by the sun as it peeked over the mountains and warmed the inside of the small vessel. There was a loud hum that broke the silence of the snow-capped peaks as the spinning blades sliced through the thin air. I caught a glimpse of my breath in the light and then it disappeared.

This was something I had wanted to do for a long time, and it turned out to be everything I expected and more. As we soared over the Rockies, the peaks were shrouded in glamour and mystery.

It was the first time Terry and I had been in a helicopter and he was slightly nervous so I reached for his hand. But this was the way the Rockies were meant to be seen—the ice-fluted faces, the howl of wind across razor-sharp edges and the adrenaline rush that follows. It was a humbling feeling being out here on that crisp and clear morning.

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Canadian Rockies from overhead
Photo: Desiree Anstey

A bird’s eye view of the Canadian Rockies

The Rockies, spread across the horizon, were like nothing we had seen before. From that angle, the mountains dwarfed everything around them. I craned my neck to see Mount Assiniboine, known as the “Matterhorn of the Canadian Rockies,” which towers high above the continental divide, and is surrounded by glaciers and ice falls.

There was Bow River Valley, and the Columbia Icefield, the largest uninterrupted glacial mass in the mountains. These mountains were formed from sedimentary rocks that were pushed east over new rock strata millions of years ago. Erosion from water and ice has worn away the contours of the land, helping to shape the mountains we see today.

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Soaring peaks of the Canadian Rockies
Photo: Desiree Anstey

Up, up and away!

I couldn’t help but find it strangely satisfying to encounter such wide open spaces, where even GPS devices may not help you find your way back while hiking the terrain. As I gazed out over the tips of each shimmering summit, blanketed in white, the frozen glassy rivers below and the vastness of the sky above, all the trivial problems of the world below were forgotten in one glorious moment.

They were so close, I felt as though I could reach out and touch each peak. I caught a glimpse of elk grazing in the valley below.

I didn’t want this tour in the sky to end, as it was wonderful to be lost and found at the same time. It’s something Terry and I won’t soon forget.

Here’s what you can expect to see touring the Canadian Rockies by train.

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Peaks of Canadian Rockies
Photo: Desiree Anstey

Back on solid ground

The next day, we decided to hike along Johnston Canyon, which is nestled in the heart of the Bow Valley Parkway. Our boots crunched through the snow as we walked along the steel catwalks suspended above the canyon floor, pausing briefly to catch our breath and soak in the turquoise-coloured ice sculptures every few metres. At the end of the canyon trail, there was a frozen waterfall where climbers, on a belay with boot crampons and picks, scaled the curtains of ice while tackling the overhangs and vertical sections with grace and precision. We continued on our hike in the shadow of the mountain, through the valley covered in fresh powdery snow, and to the “Ink Pots,” where we could hear the soothing trickle of water under the ice. (Check out 10 more great Canadian hikes.)

On Wednesday morning—our original day planned for flying—we happened to get a phone call to say all flights had been cancelled because of the poor visibility, so it was just as well we had rescheduled that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! We’d hired a car for our trip, so we wound our way through the scenic, snow-capped mountains on either side of the road to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. On arrival, it felt as though we had stepped into the pages of a fairy tale. Silhouettes of people contrasted against the glittering white snow spread like a blanket over the lake. The sun poked through the surrounding mountains, warming the air and highlighting the ice sculptures that lined the front of the chateau. Terry and I hiked around the lake, while a horse and sleigh carried a handful of people through the pine forest.

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Desiree and her husband Terry
Photo: Desiree Anstey

Skiing and snowboarding on Mount Norquay

On Thursday, we went skiing and snowboarding at Mount Norquay, which lies northwest of the town of Banff. This is one of the smaller ski and snowboard resorts in the area, making it less crowded and a local hotspot. It was my first time skiing, so I took a two-hour lesson to learn the basics. Terry knows how to snowboard, so we parted ways as he caught the chairlift up to the steep peak.

At first, I was extremely nervous about what to expect. I remember thinking, why on earth am I doing this? But my ski instructor was excellent. She was Australian, and knew exactly how to put a beginner at ease, teaching all the basics before progressing from there.

After my lesson, I was confident enough to ski on my own, and went slowly down the slope, zigzagging my way to a stop. I did this a few times, before we wrapped up for the day. Skiing is something I will definitely do again.

How well do you know your peaks? Take our Canadian Rockies quiz and find out!

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Hidden Ridge Resort, Banff, Canadian Rockies
Photo: Desiree Anstey

Exploring Banff

We stayed at the Hidden Ridge Resort (above) in Banff for the extent of our trip. This beautiful resort is perched high on the edge of a mountain overlooking the small tourist town. Each condo had a fireplace, ideal on those cold, wintry nights. (Discover more unique things to do in Banff.)

The town of Banff is a beautiful touristy place, small enough to walk around and browse the shops, cafés and restaurants. One of my favourite places to eat was Tooloulou’s for breakfast. I enjoyed vanilla bean crepes drenched in fresh fruit, cream and jam; then, there were the fluffy waffles—the menu had a wealth of options and I was never disappointed. This place got so busy for breakfast that we learned quickly to either come very early or later on in the day. Terry’s favourite restaurant was the Saltlik Banff, an upscale place where we dined by candlelight one evening.

Although this was our first visit to the Canadian Rockies, it was such an incredible experience that we’d both like to return to this scenic destination in the future.

Next, this gorgeous gallery of Alberta scenery will have you packing your bags.

Originally Published in Our Canada

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