The David Thompson Highway is described as “one of the finest drives in Canada”. It is a gateway to the Rockies yet few people know about it. Andrew Sunter came upon it during a weeklong mountaineering course and shares his views.
I ‘discovered’ the David Thompson Highway during the summer when I was doing a climb to Mount Cline (3361 m) just east of Banff National Park. The trail to the Mount Cline basecamp takes about 4-5 hours and when you reach it the setting is spectacular with gigantic boulders all around and towering peaks above. You almost feel like you’re on the moon. It is crown land, not part of a national or provincial park, so there are no services but that adds to the atmosphere. I started wondering why I hadn’t been there before and in fact knew very little about it.
So I started doing some research. The hike to the basecamp, in fact, is just one of many trails along this Hwy (and a strenuous one at that). There is a great choice from leisurely nature walks where you just enjoy the scenery to treks down old logging roads and along wild rivers. There is a short and superb trek to Siffleur Falls where there is a sheer drop into the gorge. This is also the access area to the Siffleur Wilderness Area, backcountry that is suitable for skilled backpackers and horse travellers.
The short gravel road into Crescent Falls is considered to be one of the best in the area. And there are many routes for experienced trekers to take over the passes into both Banff and Jasper National Parks.
Guidebooks are available so you should do your own research before attempting any of these hikes. While you’re in this great Canadian wilderness and have it almost to yourself, you do have to remember that the trails are not groomed or marked and that with wilderness comes bears. So be prepared.
You find David Thompson Hwy off the Icefield Parkway (the Hwy that joins Banff and Jasper) at the Saskatchewan Crossing, which is in the northern part of Banff National Park and about two hours from the town of Jasper.
The Hwy itself follows the North Saskatchewan River. As you drive along you pass Abraham Lake, one of Alberta’s largest reservoirs, Bighorn Canyon and Crescent Falls. The Hwy passes through an old mining town of Nordegg (where people go to ice climb) and then slowly descends for about 85 km down the eastern slopes of the Rockies to the town of Rocky Mountain House. You can continue from there to Red Deer and then take the Queen Elizabeth II Hwy to either Calgary or Edmonton.
The Hwy is well maintained and there are wide shoulders that would suit bikers. Aside from hiking and climbing, the area is known as a place to fish and canoe. There are some campgrounds along the road but in peak season they can fill up very fast. Some people set up their tent or park their trailer on crown land, where there are no formal services but some have fire pits and seats out of logs.
The route also has historical importance for it was along this section of the North Saskatchewan River that five fur trading posts were established. The Hwy was named after David Thompson whose work as a cartographer helped to open up the Canadian west.
The setting couldn’t be better; you’re not competing with the crowds of the national parks; a grocery store and gas station are not far off. So next time you’re in the neighbourhood give it a try!
Photo credits Andrew Sunter
© Riding the buses 2012