Moraine Lake, one of Canada’s most iconic attractions, is now closed to private vehicles year-round, evoking mixed reactions. Parks Canada has announced that the lake, which is situated 12.5-kilometres from the main road Lake Louise Drive, can now only be accessed by Parks Canada shuttles, Roam Public Transit and third-party transportation providers (such as chartered buses, guided tours and taxis). Bicycling is also an option.
Parks Canada explains that the demand for the lake far exceeds parking options, as during the peak of summer 2022, the parking lot was full nearly 24 hours a day. According to Jed Cochrane, a spokesperson for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay national parks, 900 vehicles per day were able to secure parking last summer, while 5,000 vehicles were turned away. This led to frustrations and confrontations between visitors and Parks Canada staff, so private vehicles (except for those with a disabled parking hang tag) are now banned in an effort to manage visitor expectations, improve wildlife movement and reduce carbon emissions.
Coming from someone who may or may not have had a 5 a.m. minor hissy fit when she was turned away from her beloved Moraine last summer due to a full parking lot, I can confirm that a change was needed. This restriction will alleviate the stress of gambling with whether we will get to claim a parking spot. But, selfishly, us Rocky Mountain lovers, or those hoping to experience the magic of Moraine for the first time, are having mixed emotions, one of them being heavy disappointment.
Moraine Lake’s Gatorade-blue hues captivate anyone who visits. Its serene beauty has to be seen in-person to be understood. It’s the quintessential Rockies scene: surrounded by incredible wilderness, staggeringly tall mountains, with the picture-perfect blue glacier lake the epitome of tranquility.
This lake hosted the most magical moments of my Rocky Mountain road trips, and I had the privilege of visiting several times during the pandemic, when my motto was “sunrise or bust.” I would arrive before the crowds, catch that magical morning stillness, witness the clouds light on fire and the golden hues tint the mountain peaks into daylight. Sunrises at Moraine were my favourite: set an early alarm, enjoy a peaceful drive during the wee hours along that dark Moraine Lake Road (looking out for wildlife!), snag one of the limited parking spots, climb up to the rock pile and settle in for one of nature’s greatest shows.
But as COVID-19 lessened, borders opened and the crowds returned bigger than ever, the situation at Moraine Lake got a little less serene. Take it from someone who woke up at 4:30 a.m., beyond excited to see her favourite lake, only to get turned away due to a full parking lot. In fact, it had been full for hours. I was crushed, and I can’t even imagine how disappointing this would be for someone visiting and dreaming of seeing Moraine Lake for the first time in their lives, to lose that chance due to a full parking lot.
But the decision to restrict private vehicles from Moraine Lake comes with repercussions for the visitors of various forms and purposes who come to the lake and its surrounding wilderness.
Aside from those wishing to snap an Instagram picture of the lake (hey, no shame), there are also adventurers who love to make use of the surrounding natural playground. Climbers and paddlers will no longer be able to drive to the lake with their equipment. Canoe rentals are available at the lake, but it costs a whooping $130 for one hour. Speaking of cost, although the shuttle fees are only $4 - $8 per person, large families or groups will now have to pay for each member, rather than carpooling in their private vehicle. Just as the parking lot fills up quickly, so do the shuttles, and when time slots are sold out (despite Parks Canada increasing the shuttle capacity), people could resort to other ways of viewing the coveted lake, such as walking down the 12-kilometre road. This, along with bicycling—especially during the dark hours of sunrise or sunset, when shuttle service is most limited—is a dangerous risk.
Alison Karlene Hodgins | @alisonkarlenehodgins
“Alberta’s parks—both provincial and national—are jewels of the province, and Albertans and visitors alike deserve to have full access to enjoy their benefits,” he said in a statement. “Parks Canada's decision to block personal vehicles at Moraine Lake means fewer visitors to this important part of the province, less time to climb in the area and less access to the backcountry.
“Sunrise and sunset hikes or night photographer are near impossible to achieve under this plan, unless people can afford to pay for commercial transport or travel unsafely by foot or bike in the dark.”
On the bright side, at least we won’t have any more 5 a.m. meltdowns as we get turned away on the road due to a full parking lot. We can’t really blame the masses of visitors from home and abroad for wanting to witness the incredible gems of our Rocky Mountains.
Natural wonders around the world are protected by restrictions, so this is a precaution to manage the visitor experience. Preserving our planet is a global priority and controlling visitor numbers is a major part of conservation. Due to pushback, perhaps Parks Canada will explore other options, such as private vehicle permit bookings or a lottery system, for those sunrise or sunset visitors or those whom the shuttles don't suit. But in the meantime, we will have to book transport in advance. We must be grateful that these places still exist for us to visit in any capacity. Let’s remember to appreciate and protect every part of nature that we currently take for granted; it won’t all be freely accessible forever!
Visit the Parks Canada website for more information.