C A N A D A
Have you ever thought about a place with open roads, endless ‘holy’ moments and the most phenomenal nature you’ve ever seen?
Well, spoiler alert, Canada is all that. And so much more.
Call me a maple syrup, elk obsessed, Tim Horton’s pumpkin donut and fresh air fiend any day.
I’ve just come back from two of the best weeks of my life and I have Canada to thank for that … just kidding, the company was alright too. I don’t know if it would have been the same without my designated camper driver, personal poached eggs chef, fire maker and eager bear spotter side kick. What I do know is that I would have ended up lost and in a lot more trouble if I didn’t have him keeping me on track (not even exaggerating, I’m the worst with directions and time management).
There’s obviously a lot of land in Canada… 9.985 million km² to be exact. We only had two weeks so centred our adventures around British Columbia and Alberta. We landed in Vancouver, completing our jet lagged looked with tired and sleep deprived eyes (after flight delays, flight cancellations and all that other stuff that comes with such inconveniences) and a hunger for some wholesome adventures.
We had done some research on the best time to visit Canada and it seemed that start to mid fall (September/October) seemed to coincide with the tail end of the busy summer season and the transitioning of tree foliage from lush shades of green to the beautiful bright yellows and burnt oranges characteristic to the autumny (not an official word) seasons in Canada. Also, quite conveniently, this finding matched up nicely with our annual leave within our work schedules... And who were we to ignore fate and the universe’s greater plan for our Canadian escapades?
Though we started in Vancouver, we picked up our camper soon after landing and our visit was therefore short lived. Vancouver is apparently the one of the most livable cities in the world. I’d also like to slip in and say Melbourne and Sydney are up there too. As are Vienna and Osaka. I came across the least liveable cities in the world and I’m relieved to say none of those are on my soon to see bucket list! We did eventually make it back to test out the validity of these immense most liveable city claims and you can find what we did in Vancouver towards the end of this post (if you make it that far).
Planning our trip was unexpectedly time consuming. The thing was that the more we researched, the more we found to do. Hikes, waterfalls, bridges, campsites, lookouts, gondolas, sunset spots, coffee places, cafes, things to eat, the so called ‘must sees’ and everything in between. There is literally SO much to see and do. It’s so easy to become overwhelmed and feel like all the time in the world isn’t enough to truly discover everything Canada has to offer. And I guess you’d be right. I’d recommend at least two years to truly cover all the gems in this country. But, to give you a helping hand, I thought I would structure this post according to our original itinerary and annotate it according things we found along the way, what we missed out on and why some things just weren’t practical. And because things could get a little chunky, I’ve split it up into two parts.
So, without further ado, here’s part one.
Pick up campervan
We hired our camper home from Escape Campervans. Escape Campervans was founded by Rob Mewton, an entrepreneur, surfer, and traveller from New Zealand. In 2009, Rob made his way to the US and brought a part of his culture with him – campervans. Today, they have 12 locations, over 600 vans, and the same adventurous spirit that started the whole journey. Whilst most of these locations are in the US, they also have one in Vancouver, Canada (where we hired ours).
It was kinda expensive to be honest and might have been similar to the price of hiring a car and staying in hotels instead. But, in saying that, I always weigh up expenses against experiences and whether I’ll ever get the chance to do them again. I’ve wanted to explore Canada for as long as I can remember and the likelihood of getting another chance to run a ruckus around Canada in a groovy camper, adventuring at my own individual leisure and letting impromptu moments guide me along the way, seemed slim and made the decision to invest the dollars in this Canadian escapade much clearer in my mind. Also, it probably saved us heaps cooking our own meals rather than eating out and it’s kinda fun being inventive with a stove… even if you end up with a lot of dishes! If I remember, I’ll try to include what we cooked for dinners and some pros and culinary hiccups we encountered along the way!
As a side note, Escape Campervans were amazing! Conventional pick up for the vans is normally between 1pm and 4pm on the selected day of pick up. But, like I mentioned before, we had some unplanned flight horrors that were out of our control and they were very flexible with our pick up time the following. This meant we could crack on in the morning the day after rather than waiting until the afternoon to pick up the camper. They gave us heaps of information, vouchers, brochures for Canada and also had these boxes with miscellaneous items that you could grab for your camper (and save money on buying these things at the supermarket).
Here’s their website if you wanted wanted to check it out: https://www.escapecampervans.com
VANCOUVER TO CAPILANO SUSPENSION BRIDGE
(30 minutes drive)
Unfortunately arriving a day later than anticipated meant we had to skip this activity and trek on. I am genuinely devastated that we couldn’t do the bridge as all the pictures looked bloody amazing. Here’s the information I had on my itinerary and it’s helpful to know this stuff if you’re doing up a budget or tight on time.
Adult (18-64 years) $53.95
Senior (65 years and over) $48.95
Student (17 years plus a valid ID) $39.95
Youth (13-16 years) $16.95
Child under 6 years free!
Tickets are valid for one year from the date of purchase and can be used on any day!
If you’re just staying in Vancouver, or don’t have a car, you can visit Capilano Suspension Bridge using a free shuttle service that runs from various locations in Vancouver to the bridge all year round. The schedule for the various seasons can be found on their website. Alternatively, you can catch public transport (bus routes #236 or #232) or drive there if you have your own car.
CAPILANO SUSPENSION BRIDGE TO BRANDYWINE FALLS
(1 hour and 40 minutes drive)
Brandywine Falls is a perfect pit stop for those travelling through the Whistler area looking for a short walk to some spectacular falls. The trail starts from the parking lot and crosses a covered wooden bridge. After crossing the river, head right, just 500m (1640 feet), crossing train tracks along the way, until you reach the platform overlooking the magnificent view of the waterfall. The falls itself drops approximately 70 metres and the surrounding cavern features rockslides that have crumbled from the walls over hundreds of years. The trail continues a short distance past the platform for a view of Daisy Lake.
* There is a 5.8 km loop track that takes you down to the bottom of the falls that I would have liked to do if we had some more time. The trail is called ‘brandywine trail’ on the AllTrails app and it’s pretty moderate apparently.
Where did the name brandywine come from?
Not known, or at least not confirmed, is the origin of the name Brandywine. The most popular story of the name was reported in The Vancouver Sun in 1946 by Wallace Gillespie who in turn was quoting a man named Cliff Thorne who lived in the Squamish area beginning in the 1890s. In this version dated to 1910, Jack Nelson and Bob Mollison, two surveyors for the Howe Sound and Northern Railway (which became part of the PGE Railway), wagered a bottle of brandy on which of them could more accurately estimate the height of the falls. When the height was later measured using a chain Mollison had the closer estimation and Nelson bestowed the name Brandywine Falls in memory of his lost wager.
Another account of the naming of Brandywine Falls comes from a source closer to home. Alex Philip claimed that Charles Chandler (known locally as Charlie and famous for blowing up his own outhouse) and George Mitchell were passing through the area on their way to trappers cabins and stopped at the waterfall for tea. One had brought a bottle of wine and the other a bottle of brandy and both were mixed in with the tea in a billycan. After drinking this concoction the two are reported to have passed out for an entire day.
Another side note, check out the cool design of our camper! The vans were originally white but they were sanded down and reincarnated into their new psychedelic designs by different artists. We fell in love with our campervan and bystanders noticed it too. You can easily spot one and wave at them when you pass them on a road or campsite!
our campsite for the night
We had three options up our sleeve: Cal Cheak campsite (South of Whistler), Squamish campsite (South of Whistler) or Rainbow Lake (North of Whistler). We chose Cal Cheak as it was the first one we checked out and there was a few spots free there when we pulled up. These campsites are often run on a first served basis and there’s no pre-booking possible. Cal Cheak is a paid campsite and the park attendant normally comes around once you park up and collects the fee. I think Cal Cheak is $13/night … but no one came around the night we were there so it turned out to be a cheeky freebie! The campsite had basic facilities like a toilet, bins and a table and chairs with each spot. There is, however, no showers or electrical connections available so pack a shower or some baby wipes and extra layers to keep you warm during the night.
We went pretty ambitious our first night and decided to do burritos. It was easy enough: cut up an onion, one capsicum, some chilli and a few cherry tomatoes and fry them up in some oil. Add in cooked rice, burrito sauce (or salsa) and the seasoning mix. But add to this some rain in an exposed van kitchen and you have a recipe for some tricky cooking. We (and by we, I mean Matt) managed to create a shelter using some black bin bags over the rear doors but it did start to falter towards the end and we had to retreat inside. The burritos were actually delicious. We added the mix to our flour tortillas, added cheese and guacamole and repeat for the further burritos we made! Pro: very tasty. Con: very messy and quite a bit of washing up.
CAL CHEAK CAMPSITE TO WHISTLER
(15 minutes drive)
Whistler is home to many meandering trails and ancient forests of British Columbia’s untamed wilderness that beckon casual adventurers and outdoor purists alike. We planned on doing the Peak to Peak Gondola in Whistler but Mother Nature had other plans and decided to chuck down buckets and buckets of rain. Unfortunately this meant that we were forced to make Whistler a mere stop en route to the next destination: Kamloops.
But before we venture on, here’s the website for the Peak to Peak Gondola in Whistler: https://www.whistler.com/activities/peak-to-peak-gondola/ Here, you’ll find prices, information about the attraction and answers to most questions. Apparently, it’s not just an awesome way to soak up some birds eye view rays but also a great way to see bears (from a very safe distance).
WHISTLER TO KAMLOOPS
(4 hours drive)
We did a little detour at Nairn Falls Provincial Park to break up the driving and get some steps in. It’s a short walk (about 30 minutes) to a tumultuous flowing waterfall that sprays water from wall to wall with its sheer force. It’s a popular spot and there was campervans all over the car park and people of all ages and dogs of all sizes wandering around. Despite this, the trail is relatively quiet and there’s spots along the trail to allow for two way traffic. Here’s some snaps from our walk.
Eventually we made it to Kamloops. Kamloops is pitched as a four-season adventure playground. From April to November the weather is perfect for hiking and biking trails, paddling lakes and rivers, and experiencing local culture. From mid-December to March, you can indulge in downhill skiing or explore winter trails via snowshoes, cross-country skis or bike. Admittedly we probably didn’t give Kelowna the chance it deserved. We were short on time so kinda just drove through and continued to a place called Paul Lake Provincial Park, 30 minutes north of Kamloops. There’s this walk we did that provides an unreal view of Paul Lake. It’s 30 minutes each way. If you stay at Paul Lake campsite, you can easily access the walk … and if you’re like us, you can park right up to the entrance at number 83 to save on some walking. We did the walk towards sunset and there was no one else on the trail. We were a little spooked and packed our bear spray just in case… turns out tree stumps look deceivingly like bears during dusk and had us walking promptly back to our camper!
We made another little pit stop at Lillooet en route to Kamloops. It was the very definition of redneck central. It came complete with a Sunday retro vinyls market, cheap motels, mowers used as modes of transport, a trophy car show and, to top it all off, there were cars rallying down the main road, hazards on, engines revving and beeping their horns. It was eye opening to see the contrast of this place to touristy places such as Whistler, Banff and Jasper, and makes me wonder whether they all think the English spend all their time drinking tea with the queen (which is kinda half true).
The campsite was basic like the one at Cal Cheak and cost us $18 for the night. There was heaps of spaces to choose from when we went there and the park attendant just came around after we had parked up to collect the fees. Everyone is super lovely and helpful in Canada and they’re happy to answer any questions you may have scribbled down in your inquisitive mind pad.
* Other camp site options we had were Lac Le Jeune Park ($23/night) or Inks Lake (an unofficial area that locals use but will likely turn into something official soon).
* Other walking trails include the grassland loop at Peterson Creek Nature Park (1.1 km flat gravel loop perfect for people off all abilities) and Battle Bluff (a challenging 4.8 km single track trail that’s considered as an ideal spot for sunrise in Kamloops). We chose the trail at Paul Lake Provincial Park but would have loved to do these too if we had more time!
Sticking to the Mexican theme, and making use of the ingredients we brought the night before, we chose to do nachos. Making the mixture basically followed the same process we used the previous night. We then stuck the corn chips in the frying pan, added our mix, some cheese, let it heat through and then added lots of guacamole. Safe to stay that we got our fair share of avocado this holiday! Pro: easy and didn’t have to buy many extra ingredients. Con: we probably overate and our food comas made it difficult to move and do the washing up.
PAUL LAKE PROVINCIAL PARK TO JASPER
(5 hours drive)
This was a big driving day so we broke it up with a cheeky visit to Tim Hortons for coffee and donuts and a supermarket top up for goods for our lunches and dinner. I found Canadian food items to be so weirdly priced … like things you’d expect to be quite pricey were disproportionately cheaper than some basic items like fruit and vegetables. Or you’d end up paying much more for a smaller packet of vegetables (insert outrage about paying $7 for a small pack of peas) than you would for a larger packet… it was like they were forcing you to buy in bulk or buy fries instead of peas. Also, if you didn’t already know, there’s a ‘National Park’ levy fee for every day you spend in the National Parks. I’m not sure of the specific cost but we paid $75ish for the five days and four nights we spent in Jasper/Banff/Yoho National Parks. They give you a receipt print out and you stick in on the inside of your windscreen for the time that you’re in the national parks.
*Actually, after some more research, I found that adults pay a daily fee of $9.80 CAD, seniors $8.30 and youth $4.90. This adds up pretty quickly and fortunately you can pay a fixed fee for your entire carload of $19.60 per day. Canadian national park entry fees do not apply to people simply driving across a park with no intention of stopping. Rather, it covers the time where you actually visit the overlooks, hiking trails, and other attractions. Those who try to avoid paying the fees become subject to big fines, so I probably wouldn’t recommend it.
The lady at the national park point gave us a booklet about Jasper, filled with handy information about wildlife, trails, maps and what to do in the general area. We decided we would first do a walk to and around Pyramid Lake in Jasper. The walk starts at the car park just across the leisure centre at Jasper and took us around two hours return (although we did stop and take photos and then returned via the road because we were short on time). Here’s a picture of our trail map.
We spotted some elk along the trail and spent a little while (or more than we would like to disclose) trying to catch a glimpse of this bull elk. As you can see, his antlers were nearly as big as his body. And this was enough to keep us at a distance. Some other trail goers had alerted us to his presence a few moments before we rounded a corner to find him. They said that it’s currently mating season so the male elk are getting defensive about their ladies and it’s best to keep a safe distance. Bull elk are particularly territorial and are renowned for being sore losers. A male elk that loses to his superior counterpart in a antler-off will often turn around and look for something or some(unlucky)one to take his anger out on. The trail walk to Pyramid Lake is easy and snakes through the trees with some sections that require you to cross parts of the road. The walk to Pyramid Lake also encompasses Patricia Lake so you get two lakes for the price of one!
There’s a few campsites around Jasper to choose from. But, unlike the ones we had stayed at previously, pre-booking wass permitted and highly advised. We booked our campsite about a month prior and we were so relieved we did. The site was called Wabasso Camping Ground and we paid $21.50 per night. The site had toilets, tables and chairs, a fire pit you could use (for a fee) and waste removal facilities. It was quite lively but they had quiet times between 11pm and 7am so it’s really peaceful and so easy to drift off to sleep.
Here’s a site where you can find information about Wabasso and other campsites in the area: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/ab/jasper
Straying from the Mexican side of things, and dipping tastebuds into a cuisine from the other side of the world, we decided to try our luck with making risotto. And despite our own initial preconceived judgements on how many things could go wrong with making a seemingly complex dish, it was an easy (nearly) one pot wonder and we ended up making it again later in the trip! Partly because it was easy … but also because it we had a whole heap of risotto rice left over. Turns out there’s no such thing as a small serving of risotto rice in Canada. We made mushroom and pea risotto which, unsurprisingly, contained mushrooms and peas… and a few extra ingreadients like stock and shredded cheese at the end to give some extra tastebud points. We fried the mushrooms, added the peas, some risotto rice and the stock (which was just soup stock we got from the supermarket) as required and the product was pretty scrumptious by normal dining standards, let alone camper kitchen standards.
JASPER TO LAKE MALIGNE & MEDICINE LAKE
(50 minutes drive to Maligne Lake)
Our alarms were set for an early start so we could make it to Lake Maligne to rent kayaks and paddle on the lake. The morning was very misty and there was SO many elk out in town. Apparently elk and other animals make their way into towns and nearby surrounding regions during the fall because bears are on the search for extra calories before they shut their body systems down for their annual hibernation in Winter. The result, herds of elk and the occasional moose chilling by Tim Horton’s, followed by a flock of tourists and their cameras.
The good news about our early start: we made it to Maligne in very good time. The bad news: the kayak shop closed up for the year the very day before!! It was like a big old kick in the bucket list guts. We tried to charm some people down by the waterside to let us use their kayak for an hour but had no luck. We were left to admire the beauty of the lake (which, in hindsight, wasn’t such a bad thing).
LAKE MALIGNE TO MEDICINE LAKE
(20 minutes drive)
If you are driving from Jasper, you drive past Medicine Lake on your way to Lake Maligne. So we just backtracked and made our way to Medicine Lake to cook up some brekky to cheer us up. And this is where the remedial effect of pancakes and maple syrup really worked its magic. We pulled up at this pocket spot beside Medicine Lake and had this view all to ourselves … for a little while anyway.
MEDICINE LAKE TO JASPER SKYTRAM
(30 minutes drive)
From our brekky spot, we headed back towards Jasper and up to the Jasper SkyTram. Jasper SkyTram is the longest guided aerial tramway in Canada. It offers views of six different mountain ranges, the town of Jasper, numerous lakes and the beautiful Athabasca River. You ascend to see all the beautiful vegetation, watching for all kinds of wildlife, as you gently climb towards the upper station that is located 7,425 feet above sea level. An experienced guide accompanies you for your trip up and back, sharing a few insights about the area, it’s history and the wealth of wildlife nearby during the ride. There’s a summit trail to the top of Whistlers Mountain you can do once you reach the upper station. It was freezing the day and snowing at some points so we decided to have a drink in the restaurant at the station instead of walking to the summit. The trail is 1.4km and is supposed to take around 45 minutes return. Sounds easy enough!