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Perfect quiet in the Canadian Rockies

By Lori Chapman, CNN
  • The Canadian Rockies provide stunning scenery and peace and quiet in the off season
  • Banff and Jasper national parks offer a rich outdoor playground to visitors
  • Hotel rates in the spring and fall are lower than during the summer and ski season

(CNN) -- It felt like we were the last survivors of a frozen apocalypse.

My husband and I were staring down the thick, bright blue edge of Athabasca Glacier, in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. We were close enough to hear water dripping from its edge to a hidden stream below.

The mountains surrounding us were snowy and silent. Beneath our feet was a rocky moonscape that had once been covered by the receding glacier. Best of all, we were completely alone.

The neighboring national parks of Banff and Jasper, in the Canadian Rockies, welcome millions of tourists each year. Visitors come to enjoy the scenery in summer and ski in the winter. But a visit in spring or fall can mean smaller crowds and cheaper hotel rooms.

At the end of October, some attractions had closed for the winter, and we had to brave freezing temperatures, but we were able to enjoy the beauty of the parks in peace.

Banff, Canada's first national park, is about an hour's drive west of Calgary, Alberta. We found an excellent off-season deal at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge in the town of Banff, inside the park. The luxurious hotel is just a short uphill drive from downtown, but feels quite secluded with its surrounding mountain scenery.

There are a number of affordable hotels in Banff, which is a great base for hiking or pursuing a wealth of other outdoor activities in the mountains. Those who are looking for a more relaxing experience can also ride a gondola to the top of a mountain or take a dip in natural hot springs.

Downtown Banff was bustling the weekend we visited, despite the off season. The main drag features plentiful souvenir shops and restaurants. Mammoth peaks bookend the streets, never letting you forget the surrounding natural beauty.

For a luxurious resort experience, the picturesque Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel right outside town resembles a storybook castle. The hotel says its construction in 1888 marked the beginning of tourism in the Canadian Rockies. Even if you're not a guest, you can stop in at this historic hotel to take photos, eat and shop for high-end souvenirs.

The Chateau Lake Louise, another imposing and historic Fairmont hotel, sits on the shore of one of the most photographed lakes in the world. Across Lake Louise's brilliant blue water is a picture-perfect view of Victoria Glacier.

As we hiked along the lake, we marveled at its seemingly artificial color. We later learned it is caused by glacial sediment in the water, which reflects only blue wavelengths of light.

The town of Jasper, inside Jasper National Park, is about four hours northeast of Banff, but feels worlds away. It's small, cozy, and more residential. There are plenty of shops and restaurants open year-round, yet we felt like we were the only tourists in town.

We stayed at the intimate Park Place Inn, right in the heart of town. Since off-season rates were so low, we sprung for a suite, which had a fireplace, marble bathroom and a large jetted tub.

Jasper is a good base for exploring the park and the Icefields Parkway, a stunning 142-mile route passing through remote, mountainous terrain between Lake Louise and Jasper.

It takes about three hours to drive straight through, but that would be almost impossible. We couldn't resist stopping several times to take in the views, hike and get a better look at elk, mountain goats and even a bear.

Two of the most memorable stops were the hike to Sunwapta Falls, where a river of the same name tears through a limestone canyon, and Athabasca Falls, which features more of that unnaturally blue glacial water.

The road also passes through the Columbia Icefield, the largest expanse of ice south of the Arctic Circle. It features eight major glaciers, including the Athabasca.

The drive to Maligne Lake, about 25 miles south of Jasper, is also quite scenic. In October, the Maligne River, which follows the road, was lined with snowy pine trees. We crossed paths with deer and an unexpected wolf. Maligne Canyon, where the river has eroded the limestone to depths of 165 feet, offers truly spectacular hiking.

Maligne Lake is a hot spot in summer, but an icy ghost town in October. We trotted through several inches of snow in front of a closed seasonal restaurant to get a closer look at the lake, where we snapped photos and threw snowballs.

Athabasca Glacier was the last stop of our trip. Along the trail, signs mark the changing location of the glacier's edge, dating as far back as the late 1800s.

Generations before us had enjoyed the spectacular beauty of these parks, and it was comforting to know that they will be preserved for generations to come.