Moraine Lake Road Closure Highlights Parks Canada's Difficult Balancing Act
How do you protect a place while also encouraging Canadians to visit it?
Trying to get a photo of Moraine Lake that doesn’t have other people in it certainly isn't easy
One of the things that happens when you go outside nearly weekly for decades is that hikes, skis and adventures gradually seep into one another. (It’s a good problem to have!)
The details of one summit or car ride or parking lot or ski tour or paddle or night spent in a tent bleed into one another, unless there’s something memorable to help the trip stick out — say the time we got snowed on while camping or the time Annalise got too involved in a conversation and was paying zero attention to where she was going and got Cailynn lost on the way down Prairie Mountain, of all places. (Lessons were learned.)
A mountain trip that has most definitely not become fuzzy in our memories occurred nearly two and a half years ago. It stands out for many reasons: it was the earliest we’ve ever gotten in our vehicles to drive to a hike (3:45 a.m.), the busiest we’ve ever seen a trailhead, and the strangest mountain parking lot experience we’ve ever had (it felt like a tailgate party).
It was September 2020 and we were doing a larch march in Banff National Park’s famous Larch Valley. The trailhead starts from Moraine Lake, which we described as “Insta-famous” when we wrote briefly about the adventure in our first ever edition of Go Outside. (Shoutout to our loyal readers who’ve been with us since Day 1 💗.)
While we haven’t been back to Moraine Lake since that trip, it has sparked ongoing discussions between the two of us ever since about our national parks, what makes a spot popular, and the tricky balance between helping people go outside while also keeping our wild spaces wild.
These topics were brought to light earlier this month, on a stage much larger than conversations between the two of us, when Parks Canada announced private vehicles will no longer be allowed on the road that leads to Moraine Lake.
This news came after 5,000 vehicles a day were being turned away from Moraine Lake over the summer. (The parking lot fits 100 vehicles and was full around the clock, with an average of 900 vehicles per day able to actually park at Moraine Lake, according to Parks Canada.)
We’ve got no shortage of opinions about this change (spoiler: Dealing with congestion at Moraine Lake is a long time coming and this closure is a sign of what’s to come. Frankly, how we recreate in Canada’s National Parks needs a rethink.)
There are so many threads to pick apart here. Moraine Lake felt so far off from the solitude and peace we typically find when we head outside. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
For many people, Moraine Lake is a first introduction to Alberta’s incredible wilderness. Is it an accurate representation of what going outside in Alberta is like? Does it matter? What if Moraine Lake’s job is to serve as a stepping stone that introduces people to nature?
What role does social media and geotagging play in driving people to the exact. same. spot. for the exact. same. photo? What is the role of Parks Canada and local tourism organizations to urge people to visit different trails?
Who are our National Parks for? Banff National Park is 6,641 square kilometres. More than 96 percent of this land is undeveloped wilderness.
Search Moraine Lake on Instagram and this is what you’ll see
Annalise was interviewed by both The Guardian and the Toronto Star about the changes at Moraine Lake and we encourage you to read the features linked above, which detail that crazy parking lot experience we had in the fall of 2020, and dive further into the tensions occurring in our National Parks.
Albertans love going outside. They love their parks. It’s their church: they’re special, sacred, peaceful and energizing places,” Annalise says in The Guardian piece. “They love it. But they’re asking, ‘What about my children? And what about my grandchildren?’
“Parks Canada needs to make some big changes going forward in order to preserve these spaces for future generations.”
These tensions are not new. Banff was Canada’s first national park and it was established with tourism top of mind. (We highly encourage you to listen to this podcast about The Secret Life of Banff.)
Today, the mandate of Parks Canada is to “protect and present nationally significant examples of Canada's natural and cultural heritage, and foster public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment in ways that ensure the ecological and commemorative integrity of these places for present and future generations.” In other words, to protect places while also encouraging Canadians to visit them.
Annalise wrote a feature story more than a decade ago for a business magazine about the limits to growth in Banff and Jasper National Park and the decades-long juggle between tourism and conservation. The piece, which is no longer online, included details about the (then proposed and since approved) plans for a via ferrata at Mt. Norquay and the Glacier Discovery Walk in Jasper (which has since been renamed the Columbia Icefield Skywalk).
The paragraph that ended the piece seems just as relevant today, 12 years after the article was published.
"It really is true that once people connect with these places, it can be transformative," says (Former Banff Field Unit superintendent Kevin) Van Tighem. "That experience can become a part of who you are for the rest of your life." He receives letters from passionate Canadians every time a controversial decision is made within the park, letters he will no doubt receive when a decision is made about Mt. Norquay's proposed via ferrata, and letters his colleagues in Jasper will receive if the Glacier Discovery Walk goes ahead.
Van Tighem says such letter writers derive their passion for Canada's parks through their personal experiences with them. "They've backpacked here, they've hiked here, they've seen wildlife here, and it's become a part of who they are," he says. "As a result of that, they're motivated and committed to making sure we don't mess it up for them. That's what we want more of. We want every Canadian to feel that way. And the best way to do that is to give every Canadian those very same kinds of experiences."
Annalise and Cailynn in Larch Valley, circa 2020
I think the question about the role social media plays is really interesting because that's how I first learned about Moraine Lake (I'm from the UK). I visited a few places in Banff that I'd first seen and read about on Instagram, and that trip inspired a career change so those last couple of paragraphs are spot on with how people connect to these landscapes. Parks Canada, or any land managers of popular spots, have a tough job because it's fantastic that so many people are interested but we need to protect these places for the future. It'll be interesting to see how the ban on private vehicles works out.
I’ve been thinking about this vehicle ban and having taken the shuttle year year (morning trip went well, evening return trip took over an hour because of crowds), and I’m thinking I’ll avoid the Lake Louise/Moraine area this year. See how the shuttle system with this personal vehicle ban plays out.