David Thompson Highway
The only community between Rocky and Banff National Park is Nordegg (population 100), 85 kilometers (53 miles) west of Rocky. Established in 1914, Nordegg was a “planned” coal-mining town. The streets were built in a semicircular pattern, centered around the railroad station and shops. Fifty miners’ cottages were built, all painted in pastel colors. Gardens were planted, two churches and a hospital were built, and a golf course was developed—miners had never had it better. But the mine closed in early 1955, and by summer it had been abandoned.
The original townsite has mostly disappeared, but remaining mine structures are preserved as a National Historic Site. The Nordegg Historical Society, made up of many former residents, operates the Nordegg Heritage Centre (403/721-2625, mid-May–Sept. daily 9 a.m.–5 p.m., free) in a two-story former school building along the main street. Also in this building is the Miner’s Café, where the soup and sandwich special is $8, and the sandwiches are stacked and delicious. Freshly made fruit pies are an easy choice for dessert.
Uphill (within walking distance) from the museum complex is the original townsite, now with only a few buildings still standing. Visitors are free to wander around at their leisure, but ask at the heritage center for a map. Continuing up the hill is the mine infrastructure, much of which still remains. The only access to this section of Nordegg is on a guided tour. These depart twice daily through summer, and are booked through the heritage center. Neither tour goes underground, but the longer version ($8) takes in the briquette processing plants and mine entrances. Call ahead for a schedule.
A good option for budget travelers is HI–Nordegg (403/721-2140, www.hihostels.ca, dorms $24–28, $65.50–73.50 s or d), also known as Shunda Creek Hostel. Affiliated with Hostelling International, this huge log chalet in a wilderness setting has a fully equipped kitchen, dining room, fireplace, hot showers, and an outdoor hot tub.
West from Nordegg
Twenty-three kilometers (14 miles) west of Nordegg, an unpaved side road leads eight kilometers (five miles) north to Crescent Falls, where there is primitive camping. Back on the highway, the brilliant turquoise water of Abraham Lake, one of Alberta’s largest reservoirs, comes into view. Don’t stop for a photo session just yet, though, because the views improve farther west. Aurum Lodge (45 km/28 mi west of Nordegg, 40 km/25 mi east of the Banff National Park, 403/721-2117, www.aurumlodge.com, $149–199 s, $179–229 d, self-contained units $189–249) trades on an eco-friendly stance and wonderfully scenic location overlooking Abraham Lake.
Owners Alan and Madeleine Ernst used recycled materials wherever possible during construction, natural light streams into all corners, the kitchen uses a wood-fired stove, and much of the waste is recycled. But don’t imagine some backwoods cabin without running water—it’s a comfortable and modern lodge. Rooms in the main lodge are simply decorated, but bright and immaculately kept. Cozy self-contained cottages offer a bathroom, kitchen with woodstove, and lots of privacy.
David Thompson Resort (403/721-2103 or 888/810-2103, www.davidthompsonresort.com, May–mid-Oct., unserviced sites $21, hookups $31–38, motel rooms and cabins $101 s or d) provides a variety of lodging options. The bathroom facilities were in need of an upgrade at the time of our research trip for this edition, but as a trade off there’s a unique open-sided bar that opens for karaoke each night and then again in the morning for a pancake breakfast. Other facilities include a playground with massive slides, Frisbee-golf course, restaurant, and gas station.
At the south end of Abraham Lake, Kootenay Plains Ecological Reserve protects a unique area of dry grasslands in the mountains. The climate in this section of the valley is unusually moderate, making it a prime wintering area for elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and moose. For thousands of years, the Kootenay peoples would cross the mountains from the Columbia River Valley to hunt these mammals and the bison that were then prolific. Because of the dry microclimate and its associated vegetation, mammals are not abundant in summer.
Two designated wilderness areas near the west end of Highway 11—White Goat and Siffleur—afford experienced hikers the chance to enjoy the natural beauty and wildlife of the Canadian Rockies away from the crowds associated with the mountain national parks. Both are protected from any activities that could have an impact on the area’s fragile ecosystems, including road and trail development. No bridges have been built over the area’s many fast-flowing streams, and the few old trails that do exist are not maintained. The only access to these parks is on foot, meaning they are lightly traveled.
The main trail into Siffleur Wilderness Area begins from a parking area two kilometers (1.2 miles) south of the Two O’Clock Creek Campground at Kootenay Plains; it’s worth mentioning for photogenic Siffleur Falls, four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the highway. For more information contact the Department of Tourism, Parks and Recreation (403/845-8349, www.albertaparks.ca).
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition