By Steve Bergsman
To say that my wife and I happened upon the Cathedral Mountain Lodge in the Canadian Rockies is a bit inaccurate. You have to know about it to find it since it isn’t marked well on the Trans-Canada Highway. If you’re coming west from Alberta and you get as far as the town of Field, you’ve traveled about a half-mile too far. Make a U-turn in Field, come back to that one turnoff that doesn’t look like much and you are on your way. Another clue is that the big precipice with the icy peak just beyond the Kicking Horse River is Cathedral Mountain.
Not far off the Trans-Canada Highway, the lodge occupies an idyllic spot alongside the Kicking Horse River, which in spring and summer is in full run since it is fed by glacial runoff. The water is too cold except for the heartiest of fish, but eventually the waters will make their way south, warm up for salmon, combine with other rivers and end up as part as the Columbia River system in the United States.
The river was anointed with its picturesque name because a 19th century explorer in the area was kicked by a horse and thought to have died. When the wanderer was being lowered into a grave, he suddenly awoke. Feeling refreshed, he finished his mission, helping to discover the Kicking Horse Pass, which the Canadian Pacific Railway used when building the transcontinental lines through here in 1885.
Cathedral Mountain Lodge is made up of a modern central dining and meeting building surrounded by individual cabins, all erected log-cabin style. The cabin my wife and I enjoyed boasted a loft and wrap-around veranda. Since the evenings are often cool, the main building provides an outdoor fireplace and seating area overlooking the river. It’s a pleasant spot for a beer before dinner after a dusty hike or an evening nightcap.
As with most lodges in the Canadian Rockies, dinners are famously delicious. The lodges compete to serve the grandest meals, and Cathedral Mountain has a reputation for fine cuisine. I have particularly fond memories of the tender bison steak I ate for dinner one night.
The major reason for singling out Cathedral Mountain Lodge is that it sits in the center of the beautiful Yoho National Park with many extraordinary vistas and nature sites within a short drive. The turnoff that was difficult to locate puts you on the road not only to the lodge but also to the Takakkaw Falls. This is a gorgeous ride cut through a deep forest that occasionally breaks to reveal stunning mountain vistas. The elevation climbs gradually except for one wickedly sharp series of three switchbacks that’s so tight the tour buses have to take the middle section in reverse because they can’t make the turn. The 20-minute ride from the lodge is well worth the trip because Takkakaw (the Cree word for “it is wonderful”) is the second-largest waterfall in western Canada, falling 1,260 feet.
A short walking path leads to the base of the falls, and by the time you get there, it seems as if the temperature has dropped 10 degrees because of the mist that circulates from cascading waters. The other interesting phenomenon is that the water hits a ledge and seems to bounce upward, looking like a watery version of Fourth of July fireworks.
The origin of the falls is the Daly Glacier section of the Waputik Icefield, which can be seen atop of the surrounding mountain. From the ground it seems as if there has been a cut in the rock, allowing for a stream to spill over the edge of the mountain.
A number of trails have been cut along the back of the surrounding canyon, but I was warned that these are fairly strenuous hikes. My wife and I opted instead for an early morning walk to a different waterfall.
About 30 miles to the west of the lodge is the cutoff for Wapta Falls. Once again this is badly marked, so you need to get good directions and know where you are going. From the cutoff, keep going to a parking area. From there the walk to the falls is less than a mile.
Although not as high as Takkakaw Falls, I found the Wapta Falls much more dramatic because it is a horizontal cascade. In the spring when the Kicking Horse River reaches here it stretches almost 100 yards across. Either because it’s hard to find the turnoff or because of the lengthy walk, fewer people make the hike.
We saw no wildlife, but in a couple of places on the trail we found broken tree branches and twigs entwined with the fur from a black bear. Our paths had apparently crossed but at different times that very morning. I don’t know where the bear went, but after we saw that, we headed back to the lodge.
IF YOU GO
For further information: Cathedral Mountain Lodge — www.cathedralmountain.com. Rates range from $170 to $350 per night.
Where else to stay: After an extended weekend staying at lodges in the Banff and Yoho national parks, we ended our visit to Alberta and British Columbia with a night at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, the iconic castlelike structure on the Bow River in the town of Banff. This is more luxurious than the lodge but also offers numerous hiking trails through the forests around the hotel: www.fairmont.com/banffsprings/
Also worth seeing: Not far from the Cathedral Mountain Lodge is one of the most famous train-spotting locations in the world, the spiral tunnels. To circumvent the steep, dangerous grade of the Continental Divide, Canadian Pacific Railway carved into the mountains two three-quarter-circle tunnels with milder gradients. Lengthier trains enter and exit the tunnels at the same moment — impressive.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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