Trip Reports: Dayhiking In Banff National Park, Canadian Rockies - July 2016
Towards the end of July after our fantastic trek in the Height of the Rockies Provincial Park we ventured on to Banff, in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. The Canadian Rockies are undoubtedly some of the most impressive mountains on the planet, like a mix of the rugged spires of the Dolomites and the wilds of Alaska or Montana. As you drive down the highways it’s just hit after hit, one awesome mountain after another. We had hopes to do some backpacking treks in Banff and Jasper National Parks, but unfortunately this proved to be nearly impossible due to a stifling new backcountry reservation policy now in effect in those parks (more on that below). So, with no option to do any of the treks we wanted to do, we spent our time doing some day hikes instead before moving on.
Though I certainly enjoyed these hikes and seeing these famous mountains, I admit I was pretty disappointed to not be able to get permits to backpack there. Not only are backpacking trips much more conducive to the photographic approach I’m interested in, but I feel that backpacking allows you to experience nature and wilderness in a much more prolonged and intimate way than brief day hikes allow. Which brings me to…
A BONUS RANT!
While the Canadian Rockies rank amongst the most impressive mountains in the world, unfortunately they are also some of the most popular as well, and have been for many decades. The majority of the most impressive central part of the greater range is encompassed in four gigantic conjoining national parks: Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho National Parks, as well as Mount Robson Provincial Park in the north.
National parks, in both the US and Canada, are typically not my preferred destinations for backpacking since they almost always involve a restrictive backcountry permitting system. You need to purchase a permit to camp, you can only camp in designated spots, and chances are the spots you want to camp are already taken. Not exactly a recipe for an authentic wilderness experience, right from the start. But since the Canadian Rockies are so thoroughly encompassed by these national and provincial park boundaries (with a just a few wilderness area exceptions) you’ve got to jump through the regulatory hoops and get your permits to backpack here.
Typically national parks will allow a certain percentage of the backcountry campsites to be reserved in advance, with the rest being held free for daily walk-in permits. This accommodates everybody: those who only have certain vacation dates can reserve ahead and be sure they can do the trek they want, while those who are unable to plan far in advance or who prefer to travel more spontaneously also have a chance to go. This is the typical situation we expected to encounter in the Canadian Rockies, and which the guidebooks also described.
So, we were quite surprised and dismayed to discover upon arrival that for many or most of the more popular treks in these national parks, the policy was recently changed in the last year or so to a 100% RESERVABLE 3-month-in-advance online system! And of course, everything we wanted to do was indeed 100% reserved, leaving us out of luck.
This new 100% reservable system is clearly unfair to a large portion of backpackers wishing to visit these mountains. Anybody who wasn’t able or willing to schedule 3 months in advance is effectively barred from backpacking in the Canadian Rockies now (at least for any of the popular routes, but the popular routes are popular for a reason, because they pass amongst the most spectacular and unique mountains). I pressed the issue with some of the rangers, and their response in support of the all-reservable system was simply, “Well, it’s such a popular route!” Well no shit, of course these treks are popular, but that is not a reason to make them completely reservable and bar everybody else; the available spaces would fill up either way.
Additionally, there are some big problems involved with the 100% online reservable system. Apparently tour companies will block reserve large portions of the campsites (which they then of course resell to their high-paying clients). One person I spoke to even insinuated that the tour companies have special insider access to pre-book these blocks before they are even made public in the reservation system. It has also been reported that there have been ticket scalpers who will reserve as many campsites as they can, then sell them later for a profit! Another issue is that people have figured out how to game the system to make their reservations ahead of their 3-month advance opening date: If you want to reserve for a certain date, you just reserve a much longer itinerary that starts 10 days or so ahead of the actual dates when you plan on hiking! Thus, you can reserve your desired dates 10 days before they should actually be available, then just sell off those unneeded preceding days you reserved. What this all means is that for most people, even when they were ready with their credit card at the precise moment the 3-month-advance reservation date is open, they find that everything is already fully booked up. So booking a “wilderness” trip is pretty much like trying to buy popular concert tickets — next to impossible.
All these reservations are handled online; even if you walk into a ranger station and there is miraculously a spot open for the trek you want, they can’t even reserve it for you — they will literally point you to a computer to book it online. My conclusion here is that this new 100% online reservation system has nothing to do with actually accommodating people, but was likely implemented simply as a cost-cutting efficiency measure. Why bother with the hassles of rangers coordinating walk-in reservations when everything can simply be offloaded to a third-party web database? Why bother with collecting fees in person when they can be assured to sell everything paid by credit card 3 months in advance? Who cares about the thousands of people who show up in Banff or Jasper only to discover that the treks they were dreaming of hiking are “fully booked”?
I’m writing this with a bitter taste in my mouth and I’m just a tourist; I can just say “oh well, that’s a bummer” and go someplace else. But I would be absolutely LIVID if I were a Canadian or even more so a local in one of the mountain towns. You’d need to schedule your entire summer’s backpacking trips by April or May! Now I know why so many Canadian hikers we met kept recommending one of the few non-national-park wilderness areas to us. It’s a sad situation really, when the locals basically write off any ideas of backpacking in their own national parks; they seem to hardly even consider it any more. This is sort of how I am in Colorado or Wyoming, but the big difference is that it’s not a big deal in these places since the vast majority of the mountains are open wilderness areas, with just a few national parks mixed in. The Canadian Rockies, on the other hand, are utterly dominated by the national parks, leaving precious few other islands of wilderness in which to wander freely without advanced reservations. Their situation is tough enough as it is, but to make all backcountry camping 100% reservable is a slap in the face to tourists and locals alike.
So… though we had intended to spend about three weeks in the Canadian Rockies, we bailed after just one and moved on to Alaska and the Yukon. If there are any other backpackers reading this and thinking about traveling to Banff or Jasper, all I can say is — you’d better plan ahead, otherwise just forget it and go someplace else.