Heli hiking in the Canadian Rockies is a spectacular way to experience stunning back country scenery. Heli adventures are an exciting way to get close to the scenery.
The beagle sitting next to me leans over to look out of the window as the helicopter hovers above a stunning blue-green lake. We’re flying over the Canadian Rockies close to Saskatchewan River Crossing – between Jasper and Banff National Parks – above a stunning glacier-chiselled landscape of soaring peaks and plunging tree-covered valleys.
Below us is one of the world’s most beautiful drives, the 229km Icefields Parkway that connects Jasper and Lake Louise passing rivers, waterfalls, 3,300m-high peaks and glaciers.
The scenery on the drive is jaw dropping and many of the natural wonders, such as the Athabasca Glacier, are easily accessible. But the disadvantage of travelling along this route is it’s almost impossible to avoid the tour bus crowds at popular scenic lookouts and walking paths.
The best way to avoid the crowds is to take a detour away from the main route and explore the back country.
The back country of the Rockies is a hidden world of secret mountains, glaciers, rivers, marshes, woods and meadows.
For those exploring on foot, the steepness of the terrain, distances and isolation makes it inaccessible to all but the most experienced hardcore hikers.
An easier way of exploring the back country is by helicopter. Helicopters are used to whisk visitors into the mountains for a variety of activities such as fly-fishing, skiing, horse-riding, marriage proposals and picnics.
On my heli-hiking adventure with Icefield Helicopter Tours, my fellow passengers are highly experienced hiking guide, Andrea Petzold, and a beagle that belongs to the pilot and loves flying.
As a shimmering turquoise lake comes into view, the dog barks its approval of the scenery. In Canada, dogs are allowed in national parks as long as they are on a leash.
But helicopters are not allowed to land in national park zones. So the pilot puts the helicopter down on a glacial cleft amidst towering majestic peaks, 2000m above sea level, just outside the national park boundary in the Front Range of the Rockies between the White Goat and Siffleur Wilderness areas.
Standing on the edge of the mountain, I feel like an ant in a football field, an insignificant dot in a timeless landscape of peaks and valleys.
“The Rockies is one of my favourite places to hike,” says Petzold. Petzold is a certified hiking guide with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides and has climbed more than 20 peaks in the Canadian Rockies including Mt Logan, Canada’s highest mountain.
Heli Adventures Easy walking
Most people think heli hiking is reserved for extreme adventurers. But there’s nothing further from the truth. Landing high and walking downhill takes the slog out of hiking.
You only need to be of average fitness to enjoy views that are usually only seen by those prepared to hike for days.
On our hike, the trickiest section is the initial downhill stretch where we clamber carefully over uneven boulders. But the rest of the way is along marked paths.
We cross trickling streams where the finely crushed rock on the ground is smooth with lichen and moss. We hunt for marmot burrows and listen for their whistling calls.
The brown and gray rodents hibernate in alpine burrows for nine months of the year.
“There are a large variety and abundance of big animals. This season I’ve seen several big bears with cubs, a moose, elk with large racks and big-horned sheep,” Petzold says.
The geology of the Rockies is as fascinating as the wildlife. When she’s not hiking, Petzold works as a contract geologist for a database company in Calgary.
On our walk, she points out different types of rock that make up the Rocky Mountains.
“The amazing thing about this particular area is there are five types of rock here,” Petzold says. We spot all five types on our walk: conglomerate, reddish sandstone and purple quartzite boulders.
Most obvious is the limestone, built up 360 million years ago from the remains of tiny animals that lived in a tropical sea, and dolomite, a reservoir rock vital to Alberta’s oil and gas industry.
Lower down, the landscape is a picture of conifer trees and thick knee-high shrubs but we’re a little late in the season to see flowering meadows of wild moss campion, saxifrage and white dryad. Petzold says August is the best time of the year for flowers.
We stop at a vantage point to eat the sandwiches, nuts and fruit that Petzold has packed for us.
Sitting on a rock, looking down at the “Lake of the Falls”, the view of the glistening lake surrounded by rocky peaks takes my breath away.
The lake’s vibrant colour caused by rock flour, fine rock particles ground by water erosion and washed into the lake by streams.
I wish I could bottle the pure air and the clean icy water.
At a clearing near the lake, Petzold radios the helicopter base. We kneel in silence as we wait for the helicopter.
Minutes later, the whirring of rotor blades crescendos into the tranquillity and a tornado of dust swirls around us as the helicopter lands.
We’re whisked away on another magic-carpet flight back to civilisation.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of Canadian Tourism Commission
Air Canada flies from Sydney to Vancouver. One of the most scenic ways to travel to Alberta is on The Rocky Mountaineer’s Yellowhead Route from Vancouver to Jasper. The train winds past majestic snow-covered peaks, scenic valleys and dramatic canyons.
The Rocky Mountaineer has two classes of service: RedLeaf, which has reclining seats, large picture windows and meals served at your seat, and GoldLeaf, with two-level glass-domed coaches that offer panoramic views on the upper level and an elegant private dining room below. You can rent a car from the Jasper and arrange to drop off the vehicle at Calgary Airport.
Hiking season varies each year depending on the weather (usually July to September). Wear sturdy hiking boots and to dress in layers as the weather can change suddenly.
Watch a video of our hike here: