The Peak of Cheap Roughing it: In the Canadian Rockies, visitors can find inexpensive accommodations in hostels, where lodging is rustic and guests bunk together and sometimes share the chores.

March 31, 1996|By David Gonzales | David Gonzales,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

In the midst of the Canadian Rockies is one of the most lavishly appointed outhouses in North America.

Throw rugs adorn its floor; maps and posters paper the ceiling and walls; a battery-powered lamp hangs over the seat; shelves on both sides of the door are stacked with magazines and "You are in Bear Country" pamphlets. There's even a guest book. Past patrons have filled it with plaudits, some in verse, for the outhouse's amenities and scenic location beside the Sunwapta River.

You have to wonder, while sequestered in this most hospitable one-holer, where else in the world you could peek out a lavatory door at mountains and a milky-blue river while reciting, in regal luxury, mildly scatological odes composed by your predecessors.

The price for all this is ridiculously low. The outhouse is part of the Beauty Creek Hostel, a rustic guest house that charges about $8 for a night's stay in one of its log bunkhouses. With a membership in Hostelling International, anybody can stay at the Beauty Creek Hostel or any of the other 11 hostels scattered across Jasper, Banff and Yoho national parks, the three most renowned preserves in the Canadian Rockies along the Alberta-British Columbia border.

Hostelling International is the new moniker adopted by the International Youth Hostel Federation, an umbrella organization of 5,000 hostels around the world. For $25 a year, members, who may be of any age (hence the expulsion of "youth" from the organization's name), have access to every HI establishment on the globe and are given a guidebook that lists HI hostels in Canada and the United States.

A hostel, for those unfamiliar with the concept, commonly consists of two or more bunk rooms, a common living area and a cook-it-yourself kitchen. Instead of banishing guests to separate rooms, hotel-style, a hostel's communal nature brings travelers together and, more important, keeps accommodation prices within reach of skimpy travel budgets. Even the most expensive hostel in the Canadian Rockies, the Lake Louise International Hostel, charges about $15 per night, though its amenities rival those of a posh mountain chalet.

Low prices and the prospect of sequestering oneself in Beauty Creek's hostel may be enticing enough, but there is an even better reason to visit Alberta's hostels: They offer unequaled access to the Rocky Mountains.

In Canada, the Rockies are not the broad, hulking beasts that they are in the United States. Instead, the mountains are sharp and densely arrayed, as if Alberta were the resting place of a huge, primordial predator, its jaws stretched open to each horizon and resplendent with row upon row of needle-like teeth.

Wedged among many peaks are glaciers -- cracked tongues of ice drooping from ledges and canyons. In Jasper, Banff and Yoho, any flat ground is at a premium.

Nevertheless, these three Canadian parks have made room for hostels while their American counterparts have not. Besides campgrounds, there are no basic, cheap accommodations within the national parks in Montana, Wyoming or Colorado, the heart of the American Rockies. Sleeping in a bed in Glacier, Yellowstone or Rocky Mountain national parks will cost you dearly.

In Jasper, Banff and Yoho, however, visitors can drive from one hostel to another, using the bunkhouses, kitchens, saunas and nearby hiking trails to gain a more intimate -- and comfortable -- acquaintance with the Rocky Mountains, North America's backbone, than can be gained anywhere else.

Of course, comfort is relative, as I am reminded when checking in to the Maligne Canyon Hostel, my first stop in a week-and-a-half-long trek through Canada's Rockies. My bed, in one of the cabins clustered around a cookhouse, resembles less bunk than a shelf, wedged between and under other shelves, each laden with an exhausted and aromatic hiker. The tiny room has the ambience of an airless pantry piled with decaying vegetables.

Requiring hostelers to do a daily chore was once a cornerstone of hosteling, though many hostels have lately dropped the practice. But rustic hostels such as those at Maligne Canyon and Beauty Creek, which lack running water and plumbing, would soon become uninhabitable if guests did not do some of the dirty work.

Few hostelers complain, however, about sweeping out log cabins, fetching water from tumbling streams or depositing trash in elaborate bear-proof containers. These are the sorts of chores depicted in outdoor clothing catalogs, and you look and feel cool doing them, especially if you're wearing a flannel shirt.

Superficialities aside, people come to Jasper to hike. As a guest at Maligne Canyon Hostel, you can't overnight any closer to Maligne Lake, the terminus for some of Jasper's most scenic trails. The Bald Hills trail, for example, climbs 1,575 feet to expansive vistas of Maligne Lake's cerulean surface and the Queen Elizabeth Range, bristling with glacier-streaked pinnacles.

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