BANFF, Alberta, Canada -- The staff members alerted our group, upon arrival, to watch for elk early in our round at Banff Springs Golf Club .
They weren't kidding. I hadn't taken three swings on the driving range -- the morning fog still thick -- before four towering elk wandered down the center of the range toward me, then veered off onto the golf course.
In Alberta's Rockies, home to two of Canada's most visited national parks, Jasper Park and Banff Springs, everyone leaves with his or her own wildlife story. And there's almost no better place for a sighting than on the golf course.
Golf where the wild things are in Alberta's Canadian Rockies, and that's hardly of false advertising.
Mitch Foster's first close encounter with a bear came less than a year after his arrival as an assistant pro at Jasper Park Lodge Golf Club . It happened on the third hole.
"I drove off the tee," Foster said, "and over the hill, there's a bear and an elk lying in the middle of the fairway."
These days, golf courses form an unlikely pair with national parks. Environmental restrictions often prohibit construction on such protected land. It makes Jasper Park and Banff Springs all that more coveted. Both golf courses rose in the 1920s to attract visitors to the natural splendor of the Rockies as the Canadian National Railway was built through the mountain range.
The two parks now draw from far beyond the reaches of the national railway, bringing visitors from as far as Asia and Europe. The pros at Jasper Park recall a couple from Germany that recently played the golf course and returned with a pair of antlers they'd found near one of the fairways.
Don't follow their lead. They were politely told to replace the antlers immediately, as the golf course faces a $10,000 fine if caught tampering with natural impediments.
Banff and Jasper Park spawn new breed of golf courses
The golf courses at Banff Springs and Jasper Park remain the top draws in the Canadian Rockies for their classical style of architecture on ideal mountain terrain. While Donald Ross and A.W. Tillinghast helped build American golf courses in the Golden Era of golf-course architecture, Stanley Thompson stayed at the helm in Canada. He designed with a bold, artistic eye that matches his legendary persona as the "Toronto Terror." Thompson left behind an unmatched closing stretch of holes along Lake Beauvert at Jasper Park Lodge, while his fourth hole at Banff Springs, named "Devil's Cauldron," stands among the world's finest par 3s.
The golf courses remain friendly rivals.
They're still the centerpieces of a golf trip through the Rockies -- but no longer alone.
In the 1970s, Robert Trent Jones Sr. built 36 holes in remote, Canadian-owned valley wilderness at Kananaskis Country Golf Course. While mostly flat, the golf course plays up against large mountains and features a meandering stream, a popular spot for wildlife -- even grizzly bears play through.
Kananaskis helped bridge the gap for two modern designs, both part of larger real-estate projects.
In Canmore, a mining hotbed in the late 19th century, Stewart Creek Golf Club opened in 2002. Designed by Gary Browning, it sits on the site of a former mine and includes preserved shafts at several points on the golf course.
Designed by Canadian architect and Canmore resident Les Furber, Silvertip Golf Course ranks as the brashest design yet in Alberta's Rockies. It stretches to more than 7,200 yards and, with 600 feet of change between elevated tees and greens. And it's all part of bear country, so don't wander too deep into the woods to fish for golf balls.
Discovering the Canadian Rockies by bus and by air
From Jasper Park, it takes a drive of about 300 kilometers south to the nearest golf courses around the Banff and Canmore areas. Don't let it discourage you from booking a few nights and rounds at Jasper Park Lodge. Icefields Parkway, a stretch of highway that passes through mountains and glaciers with plenty of mountain goats among other wildlife, makes it worth the drive.
Ian Hipkins runs Luxury Motor Coach Charters and regularly drives one of his two luxury coaches. For more information, visit www.luxurymotorcoach.ca. Hipkins has made the drive along the Icefields Parkway often enough to know every turn and slope. He points out landmarks and tells stories along the way. The coach comes complete with bar service and plenty of space to lounge, even in a group of eight. There's a TV, but no one turns it on during the best parts of the captivating journey.
Hipkins' coach offers the top mode of transportation between Jasper Park and Banff, but you can discover the mountains by air with Kananaskis Helicopter Tours. Check it out at kheli.com. It takes you up and over the mountains for a humbling, eagle-eye view of the wilderness. Depending on the strength of your stomach, tours can keep you airborne from 12 minutes to an hour. You'll land just a short drive from the golf course with a new appreciation for the grass beneath your feet.