Epic Drives: Exploring Alberta, Canada in a 2015 Nissan GT-R
Discovering the majesty of the Canadian Rockies.
I believe it was William Shakespeare who wrote: "Giveth me air unspoilt and blue, and mountains grand against the hue; 'twixt forests deep and waters clear, a twin-turbo, all-wheel-drive supercar to scare the deer."
Not one of Bill's more memorable stanzas, I'll admit, yet right now the lines seem entirely fitting. I'm piloting a brand-new 2015 Nissan GT-R Black Edition along the immaculate asphalt of the Bow Valley Parkway in Canada's Alberta province. The original route connecting the beauteous ski resort of Banff to the east and Lake Louise to the west, the BVP runs for roughly 32 miles past some of the most majestic panoramas in all of Canada. The GT-R is hardly scaring any wildlife here. In fact, as it loafs along at the unhurried 35 mph speed limit, it's bored. But I'm not. Filling the windshield is Castle Mountain, a natural fortress of rock standing high and imperious above a sun-splashed valley rich with green. Every so often, a necklace of glittering turquoise—the Bow River—unfurls through the pines. Bighorn sheep appear on impossibly steep slopes, dancing from perch to precarious perch with such Cirque du Soleil flair I'm tempted to stop and leave a tip. For an instant, the head of a bear appears through the brush then quickly retreats. Drive fast, and you'd miss this unscripted, unpredictable play. I'm content—for now—to let the GT-R slumber.
Tarmac that writhes and beckons, vistas arresting and ever-changing, diversions worthy of abandoning an engaging wheel,
a car that leaves enduring echoes on the soul—such are the makings of the perfect road trip. This drive is that and more—an embarrassment of riches.
Curious little bighorns study Godzilla near Banff, where every turnout mandates another stop and stare.
The 2015 Black Edition marks Nissan's latest GT-R. Though the bones of the 545-horsepower monster continue unchanged, this Godzilla wears a tux: luscious black and red leather, 20-inch black alloy wheels, a towering carbon-fiber rear wing. Yours for a cool $113,105. Equally enticing is my playground: The fourth largest (in population) of Canada's provinces, Alberta combines the metropolitan bustle of Calgary, its largest city, with the glaciers, lakes, rivers, and snow-capped summits of the Canadian Rockies. And the roads. Straightaways bisecting infinite prairies, narrow two-lanes writhing upward toward jagged peaks, byways meandering through woods as dark and hushed as a cathedral. To savor this drive you'll want to come in late spring or summer, as I did, or be prepared to battle winter's worst in a very capable SUV.
It's in the shadows of those rocky monoliths that I make my first stop of the week: Sierra West Cabins, on the edge of Todd Creek in southwestern Alberta. Wife and husband Ginny and Randy Donahue run a working cattle ranch on the land. They also maintain several smart-looking log cabins and bunkhouses for guests looking to sample life on the range. Sure enough, I've barely parked the 2015 Nissan GT-R when Randy graciously saddles up a horse for me. The three of us ride for an hour or so, a gentle rain falling, longhorn cattle grazing nearby, dark clouds speeding across the rolling fields. It's like a Frederic Remington painting with Gore-Tex instead of buckskin. Soon enough, it's time to round up the Donahues' other 30 or so horses for the night.
"Why don't you use that neat car of yours?" Randy asks, only half-jokingly. Hey, why not? Bet you didn't know GT-R stands for Grand Touring Ranch.
Sierra West owner Randy Donahue inspires the author to try round-ups on horseback and on four wheels. Afterward: barbecue and ballads.
Moments later, I'm powersliding the Nissan through a pasture, honking the horn, flashing the lights, a herd of flying hooves just feet ahead of me. "Yeehaw!" A couple ponies break away and stop to graze, so I spin around, bite at their flanks with the GT-R's nose, and send them galloping off to join the others headed for the corral. OK, a high-speed blitz on the Nürburgring Nordschleife it isn't, but I have to applaud Nissan's brilliant chassis engineers. The GT-R's patented ATTESA ET-S all-wheel-drive system delivers absolutely amazing grip in horse manure.
The next day opens on a high: a hammer-down blast up the empty, undulating route to Highwood Pass. At 7,239 feet, it's the loftiest paved road in Canada. At last the GT-R is running free, twin-turbo 3.8-liter V-6 nipping again and again at its 7,000-rpm redline, each dual-clutch paddle-shift ricocheting through my spine, the onrushing macadam a hypnotic, weaving ribbon charming me left, then right, then left again. Snow glints off distant peaks. My ride thunders upward through the timberland, an emerald funnel flashing past the windows. My ears bend to the heady aria of tire howl and exhaust roar, eyes flicking from road to tach and back again. What a machine, this Godzilla! What delicious fury!
Too soon, I reach the summit, ease off, breathe deep. My fingertips pulse with hot jolts of adrenaline.
From there, it's a big drop down. Way down. Not far from Banff, I meet up with Adam Walker, owner of Canmore Cave Tours, who leads me on a 30-minute hike up Grotto Mountain to the entrance to Rat's Nest Cave. This is no casual sightseeing jaunt. Wearing helmets, lights, ropes, gloves, and caving suits, for the next two hours Adam and I climb rocks, slither on our backs, clip onto safety lines past steep drops, squeeze through claustrophobia-inducing gaps, and rappel down a 65-foot chasm. We spelunk. Finally, we reach the Grotto, a small, watery vestibule 165 feet below the cave's entrance. "The formations in here are 750,000 years old," Adam says, his voice echoing in the 41-degree air. Then we switch off our helmet lights for a few minutes and experience a darkness almost as black as the bruises I discover in my hotel room later that night.
Down to Earth:
Chasing fossils and fissures, the Epic Drives team suits up in the latest cave fashions before descending to the damp, dark Grotto. Alas, there's no elevator back up.
I turn northwest toward Jasper and take a long drive—a moose sighting, the sky an epic dome of cobalt blue, mountains embracing my passage on all sides. Several hours later I arrive at the base of the Columbia Icefield and the Athabasca Glacier, the most visited glacier in North America. Heroic as its capabilities are, not even Godzilla can make this frozen climb, so I trade my 2015 Nissan GT-R for a ride in a so-called Ice Explorer, a gargantuan, six-wheeled buggy capable of carrying 56 passengers at a time up the ice for up-close glacial exploration. Right now, though, it's just me and driver Shane aboard. So as we creepy-crawl up the mountain, he fills me in on this remarkable machine's specs.
Tire and ice:
St. Antoine aims for AUTOMOBILE'S slowest-ever test drive while piloting this gargantuan rig across the Athabasca Glacier.
"Mercedes diesel engine," Shane says. "Only 380 horsepower but 1,100 lb-ft of torque per axle, six-wheel drive. She can handle a 36-percent grade and a 22-degree angle. Each tire costs $5,000 but lasts about six years. New, these rigs go for about $1.2 million each."
Ever dreamed of piloting your own Tonka toy? My boyhood fantasies come true when Shane lets me take the wheel. The big coach feels like it'd do 0 to 60 mph in, oh, a few months, and it has the handling finesse of an Indian elephant, but it just keeps chugging right up the steepest inclines you can throw at it. Soon, we're well out onto a plateau of ice. Time for a look around.
"We're on the edge of British Columbia here," Shane says, pointing upward. "The meltwater from the glacier above flows to three oceans: the Arctic to the north, the Pacific to the west, and all the way down the continent, through Hudson Bay, to the Atlantic in the east." We grab an empty bottle and head to the edge of a crevasse, where water is gushing out of the sunlit ice. I fill the bottle, take a long drink. The water is so cold my throat aches, but it's about the most delicious H2O I've ever tasted. When you visit, bring a big canteen.
Once we've crawled our way back down the glacier, a five-minute drive takes me to the newly constructed Glacier Skywalk, a circular, glass-floored observation platform jutting out from a cliff 918 feet above the valley floor. The view in every direction—especially straight down—is heart-stopping, but it's almost worth a trip just to watch other visitors screwing up the courage to step out onto the glass. Adding to the fun, the cantilever structure bows to the wind, constantly shifting up and down underfoot—the better to unnerve the tourists staring at rocks almost 1,000 feet below.
Out to see: Can't-miss detours include the Glacier Skywalk, the inviting cabins of Baker Creek Mountain Resort, and the ethereal beauty of Moraine Lake at dawn.
The next day brings a three-hour blast down the Icefields Parkway toward Lake Louise, every turnout another picture postcard. The drive reveals more than Alberta's wondrous sights, though. The GT-R's explosive, hand-built engine gets all the headlines, but you know what? This is one fine long-distance tourer. Bose audio, navigation, great Recaro seats—in Comfort mode, Godzilla even rides fairly well. Yes, in launch-control mode it'll dust almost any other car on Earth at a stoplight, but this monster has manners. The claws and fire breath only come out when you summon them.
By dusk, I've arrived at the Baker Creek Mountain Resort. It's an idyllic setting: handsome log lodges by a rushing stream, distant mountains soaring in the fading light. I start a fire by the bubbling water, pull up a chair and a glass of whiskey, savor the moment and the memories. After exploring Alberta in one of the world's quickest cars, it's pleasant just to sit back and chill at 0 mph. In the end, I'm all about the perfect downshift.
In downtown Calgary, this refurbished boutique-style hotel offers stylish accommodations, a lively outdoor pool/lounge, and not one but two award-winning
Sierra West Cabins
Near Lundbreck, Ginny and Randy Donahue rent three log cabins and three bunkhouses in their small village of Cowtown. Enjoy a range of activities—from cattle drives to trail rides—or just savor the scenery.
Baker Creek Mountain Resort
Minutes from Lake Louise and open year-round, Baker Creek offers one- and two-bedroom log cabins plus larger lodge suites. Also on site is the renowned Bistro, providing topnotch fare in a warm, rustic setting.
Lake Louise Inn
Also in the heart of Banff National Park near Lake Louise, the inn is a full-service resort including a range of indoor and outdoor activities and hearty mountain dining.
Canmore Cave Tours
Near Banff, join owner Adam Walker or one of his associates on an adventure deep into Rat's Nest Cave. No experience necessary. Tours range from four to six hours long.
Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure
In Jasper National Park, climb aboard an Ice Explorer for an 80-minute visit to the Athabasca Glacier. Mid-point, hop out, and explore the glacier on foot.
Upon your return, a five-minute ride takes you to the Glacier Skywalk, a glass observation platform 918 feet above the valley floor.
To view Arthur's Alberta adventure in all its moving-picture, high-definition glory, check out the video below.