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The splendour of autumn in the Rockies

While a stay at the Fairmont Banff Springs is a special treat, the beauty of autumn in the mountains is a treasure freely available to all.

I can’t remember the last time I took a break in late September: there was always school for the kids, choir rehearsals starting up again, and work vacation time all used up for the year. 

But this year, in the abnormal world of COVID-19, an autumn getaway is a possibility. And what a glorious time of year it is to enjoy the rugged beauty of the Rocky Mountains in Banff National Park, to marvel at the shimmering yellow/gold needles of the larch tree—a shot of sunshine bursting forth from among the evergreens--and to bask in it all from the grandeur of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Last month’s camping trip (no electricity, no running water) this ain’t. 

Though Albertans have embraced the staycation during COVID-19, Travel Alberta reports tourism spending is expected to fall about 63 per cent in 2020. That's a fraction of last year’s $8.9 billion in revenue supporting 22,000 businesses and nearly 73,000 tourism jobs across the province. To bump up tourism this fall, Travel Alberta has created 30-second vignettes to share on its social media--spots like Edmonton and Jasper are featured, as are cycling and hiking in Banff.

For Albertans looking to travel this fall, there’s a silver lining to the downturn in tourism: ample room to meander on quiet trails, to shop and dine in less-crowded towns, and—as at the Fairmont Banff Springs—a rare chance to luxuriate in a world-class resort hotel at a substantial discount. While it’s still a special occasion getaway, the hotel is only at about 40 per cent capacity since COVID-19 and through the shoulder season, so there’s likely no better time to have the heated outdoor pool to yourself, or to enjoy a nearly-private wilderness tour. 

Even with the sore back side which followed, I have no regrets for taking in the resort’s 13-kilometre guided cycling tour around the Banff Springs Golf Course on a recent glorious autumn evening. The hotel's activities leader Marissa led the way, offering insights on the area.

Tunnel Mountain over yonder? No tunnel in it. It was once the plan to bore through the rock, she said, and while that never happened, the name stuck. At a stop near the turquoise glacial waters of the Bow River, we learned the Wolf Willow growing along its bank is how the river got its name. Indigenous peoples once used the hardy plant branches to make bows, she said.

"It's rutting season--don't get too close," said Marissa, as we pedalled near a herd of female elk grazing on the golf course. The area’s top buck paced nearby, his majestic antlers and swagger worthy of a photo stop. The moment provided a much-needed break for the knees of one who hasn’t been cycling in a very.long.time. Did I mention the hills? We’re in the mountains after all. 

The next day’s wilderness walk on the Spray Trail was more my speed—a two-kilometre amble along the Quarry Loop near a tributary of the Spray River--offering a sense of the task of those who hauled the area's rundle stone to build the chateau-style hotel. The walk was also another chance to marvel at the sparkling larch tree. At this time of year, there are hikes dedicated to gazing at the changing larch--something only possible for a few weeks each fall before frost hits and the tree's needles drop.

History buffs will be enthralled with the iconic hotel's heritage room, documenting its rise to prominence. In 1888, William Van Horne had a vision to build an impressive hotel at the convergence of the Bow and Spray Rivers, in what is now known as Canada’s first national park. Constructed by the Canadian Pacific Railway in stages between 1911 and 1928, the luxury hotel became one of the top mountain getaways and was a vacation retreat for the well-heeled--even Marilyn Monroe played the golf course while filming a movie nearby.

Visitors here flock to the hotel's Mount Stephen Hall, a favorite for wedding receptions thanks to its original stonework, stained glass windows--even a Scottish knight in armour and throne or two. (The hotel offers free tours on the storied history and architecture of the grand structure).

In summer and fall, visitors can add a cherry on top of their stay with afternoon tea or an alpine massage. In town, a scenic gondola ride up Sulphur Mountain or a peaceful kayak trip along the Bow River are great options too.

But with resort activities an inclusive part of a hotel stay, why not take advantage of the trails, a swim or tennis game, before enjoying a pleasant stroll into town? Fitness class, yoga and even geocaching are on offer too. Or, like in my case, you can linger over a sumptuous breakfast at the French-inspired Vermillion Room. Steak and creamy scrambled chive eggs with hollandaise never tasted better. Perhaps it’s the view, the mountain air or the bustle of the brasserie, but feeling relaxed and invigorated all at once makes a four-hour drive from Edmonton beyond worth it. 

The most breathtaking spot here--though it’s tough to choose--has to be the terrace view behind the Rundle Bar, where Mount Rundle and Cascade Mountain cradle the Bow River below. One could take a signature Rundle Gin or Cigar Box cocktail (bourbon, spiced rum, chocolate bitters and more) onto the patio and take in that view forever. Just saying. I might’ve tried. 

Which made a two-night stay at the majestic ‘castle in the Rockies’; the Fairmont Banff Springs, beautiful and bittersweet. Who wouldn’t want to stay a little longer, to take in the  lavish 130 year-old landmark that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?   As a bonus this year, the hotel courtyard plays host to weekend concerts—opera, symphony, local singer/songwriters--another reason to make a fall trip to Alberta’s mountain parks. 

While a stay at a luxury property like the Fairmont Banff Springs is truly special, visitors instinctively know it's the mountains and autumn scenery that are the superstars here, and those are freely available to all. 

Van Horne said it well. “Since we can’t export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists.” 

Put an autumn visit to Alberta's mountain parks on your must-do list. There's no chance of disappointment.