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UPDATED: Private vehicles banned at Moraine Lake, transit mandatory

"Taking transit or booking a Parks Canada shuttle is easy, stress-free and the only way to ensure you see these iconic lakes. Booking your shuttle in advance is required."
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Crowds of tourists walk up the stairs of the Rockpile lookout at Moraine Lake. RMO file photo

LAKE LOUISE – Private vehicles will be banned year-round on Moraine Lake Road.

Parks Canada officials say the 12.8-km scenic road to the iconic lake is closed to personal vehicles year-round in 2023, but Parks Canada-run shuttles from a park-and-ride lot at the Lake Louise ski hill, Roam public transit, and commercial buses are permitted from June to mid-October.

Jed Cochrane, visitor experience manager for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay, said the Moraine Lake lot accommodated about 900 vehicles a day last summer, while another 5,000 vehicles a day were turned away.

“We were doing 24-hour traffic control, turning vehicles away at 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock in the morning because our parking lots were full,” he said.

“People were being turned away and getting frustrated and I don’t blame them. Restricting private vehicles at Moraine Lake was the next logical step.”

Banning private vehicles on Moraine Lake Road and Upper Lake Louise were key recommendations of the Parks Canada-struck expert advisory panel on moving people sustainably. The report, released in early December, is out for public review until Feb. 5.

While the ban on Moraine Lake Road is going ahead for 2023, Parks Canada says there are no plans to do so at Upper Lake Louise at this time. However, traffic is restricted on Lake Louise Drive when volumes present a safety concern for emergency vehicle access.

Between 2010 and 2019, there was a 29 per cent increase in visitation to Banff National Park.

At Lake Louise, there has been a 71 per cent increase in traffic over the past decade, leading to significant congestion. The area also lies in the middle of core grizzly bear habitat, a threatened species in Alberta, and includes two vital wildlife corridors.

Bow Valley Naturalists say, on the face of it, reducing traffic on the road is potentially positive from a wildlife, public safety and visitor experience perspective.

However, the local conversation organization says that what is unknown at this stage is the ripple effect on the other side of the valley, with potentially more traffic now driving through the important Whitehorn wildlife corridor to get to the shuttle staging area at the ski hill.

“Secondly, transit has the potential to efficiently move more people into the Moraine Lake area,” said Reg Bunyan, a member of BVN’s board of directors.

“It’s important that Parks Canada set conservative limits on the number of shuttle seats available in order to prevent further degradation of the area’s already compromised grizzly bear habitat security.”

Wanda Bogdane, executive director of Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association (BLLHA), said an alternative transportation approach to access Moraine Lake is a good starting point because of the intensified visitation in recent years; however, it will be critical to ensure that access remains inclusive.  

“There are many different park users and we hope the new system can accommodate those diverse needs and interests,” she said.

“This includes visitors or residents with dogs, folks with disabilities, those looking to enjoy the lake by watercraft, climbers requiring early access for larger peaks, and so on.”

The mountaineering and climbing community often needs very early starts and late returns to access some of the region’s most popular routes, such as the classic east ridge and north face on Mount Temple, as well as Grand Sentinel and Valley of the Ten Peaks.

Cochrane said commercial transportation operators will have access to Moraine Lake, allowing  mountaineers, climbers, and scramblers seeking early starts outside of the 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. shuttle bus hours.

He said there are already commercial transportation options that exist, including some owned by ACGM guides,

“We actually think that this will allow some kind of niche market to develop that will take people up there after-hours in order to access these early morning alpine starts that this group is looking for,” he said.

“To be honest, I don’t think climbers and scramblers were having much success getting up there last year no matter what time they went up… everybody was really challenged to get up there.”

Parking lots at Moraine Lake and Lake Louise are often full by 7 a.m. from June to September, while roadways are congested with vehicles that create backups which can extend to the Trans-Canada Highway.

The annual fall pilgrimage of visitors to view the larches turning gold at Moraine Lake adds to the over-crowding.

Cochrane said last year, the shuttle bus system to Moraine Lake and Lake Louise accommodated about 2,500 people a day.

He said this year will see an increase to about 2,650 to 2,700 people a day with the 6:30 a.m. shuttle bus start. There will be four buses an hour running for each of Moraine Lake and Lake Louise.

“Once our parking lot is full and once the reservations are full, we’ll be communicating with people that there’s no more reservations available for Moraine Lake or Lake Louise,” he said.

“Once it’s full, people will need to make alternate plans. People will be turned away.”

A key objective of the new management plan for Banff National Park is to maintain and restore ecological integrity and ensure wildlife can safely use and move through the Whitehorn wildlife corridor on the northeast side of the valley and Fairview wildlife corridor on the southwest side. 

These corridors provide important movement pathways for wary wildlife in an area otherwise constrained by development and steep mountain terrain. In addition, the Lake Louise area is part of a core reproductive range for grizzly bears so maintaining secure habitat for bears and reducing potential for human-wildlife conflict are key objectives for Parks Canada in the management plan.

Another key goal is to improve visitor experience throughout the Lake Louise area through development of an integrated public transportation system, with one or more centrally-located staging areas and an intercept parking lot.

The plan also talks to the permanent relocation of the park-and-ride lot at the Lake Louise ski area, which was trialed last year. The ski hill  parking lot currently has space for 1,800 vehicles, but will be expanded to accommodate 3,100 vehicles under the ski resort’s  approved long-range plan.

The expert advisory panel said eliminating personal vehicle access combined with an effective public transit option in these two areas would be a significant step toward reducing congestion, improving the visitor experience and protecting these “environmentally and ecologically sensitive areas.”

“This concept has applicability in other areas of the park and may become necessary in more areas as time passes,” states the report.

Bogdane said BLLHA has suggested that the approach at Moraine Lake be highly adaptable and tests a few options as a pilot.

She said when making large system changes like this, some learnings will no doubt occur after vehicle restrictions are in place.

But, Bogdane said, by engaging with residents and visitors and businesses upfront, it is hoped that practical insights can calibrate the general direction recommended by the expert panel to ensure that visiting Moraine Lake remains “inclusive and accessible, while better managing volumes.”

“An integrated and creative approach will be needed in order to achieve all of that,” she said.

Moraine Lake Lodge was not immediately available for comment.

But Cochrane said guests of the lodge will be able to drive their private vehicles to the lake, as will individuals in vehicles displaying proper accessibility hang tags.

“Those two groups will be allowed to take their private vehicles and everyone else will need to go on shuttles,” he said.

Elimination of private vehicles is not a new concept in protected areas.

Cochrane points to Zion National Park in Utah where the canyon scenic drive is closed to private vehicles when park shuttles are operating, typically daily from March- November, on weekends in. February and March and for the Christmas holiday season.

“We’ve been talking to counterparts in other places, such as Zion National Park where this type of pressure exists,” he said.

"It’s a change and it’s always hard for people to adjust to change, but over time, this makes sense to solve the problems at Moraine Lake.”