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.
But even these mountains lack the grandeur of 11,030-foot-high Mount Edith Cavell, the park's loftiest peak. In the shadow of this behemoth, named for a heroic British nurse executed by the German Army in World War I, is the Mount Edith Cavell Hostel, which lies at the end of a steep, tortuous road.
With its high, remote location, the Mount Edith Cavell Hostel has superlative hiking right from its front door. Nearby is Angel Glacier, with a broad upper basin and narrow waist of bluish snow giving it the appearance of a huge, supernatural creature with outstretched wings. In less than an hour, a hosteler can hike to the foot of this soaring glacier and be wrapped in silence, broken only by an occasional rattle of spindrift streaming from the angel's wingtips.
After my long hikes at Maligne Lake and Mount Edith Cavell, it's time to reacquaint myself with the stuff that streams from a shower head, which I do at the Whistler's Mountain Hostel, just outside the town of Jasper. The 70-bunk hostel is well-appointed, but I shrink from its bustle and do not stay the night. Instead, I head south on the Icefields Parkway, the famed route winding through the Rockies, to the tiny Beauty Creek Hostel and its incomparable loo.
Because of its location on a 30-mile-stretch of empty parkway, the Beauty Creek Hostel appeals to tired bicyclists, some of whom might otherwise blanch at its rustic, almost makeshift character.
"It's amazing how good it looks to them when it's pouring rain and they pull up on their bikes," says Laurel Jaques, 26, one of the hostel's caretakers.
Apparently, the lives of Ms. Jaques and her partner, Victoria Stone, also 26, involve little more than cozy campfires at night, long hikes to nearby Stanley Falls during the day, a bit of cleaning, a bit of paperwork and many contented mornings spent sipping coffee and gazing at the Sunwapta's rolling waters. Indoor plumbing would be superfluous at Beauty Creek. The caretakers and guests have the famous outhouse and a watering-can shower, its plywood walls open at one end to a view of towering Mount Kitchener.
At least those who turn up their noses at Beauty Creek Hostel can leave if they want to. The hostel's small cabins were originally built during World War II as prisoner-of-war camps in Canada. After the war, the buildings were transported to Jasper.
Old POW cabins also are used at the Rampart Creek Hostel, 35 miles farther south on the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park. The history of its cabins hardly detracts from Rampart Creek's comfort. In the morning, manager Claude Simard bakes muffins for his guests and in the evening, he stokes the wood-burning stove in the hostel's cozy sauna for arriving bicyclists.
Given the communal nature of hostels, there's always the risk of sharing a bunk room or dinner table with a less-than-radiant personality. After a verbal attack on the United States by a cabin-mate, I crave more solitude than can be provided by any hostel. I steer my car west to Yoho National Park for a three-day backpacking trip along its famous Iceline Trail, which skirts a series of glaciers crumbling below 9,000-foot peaks. After my trek, I stop at Yoho's only hostel for a shower and a look around.
The Whiskey Jack Hostel is tucked into a narrow valley, home of the Canadian Rockies' highest waterfall, Takakkaw Falls, which ricochets off a ledge halfway down its length, sending up a deep-throated roar.
In winter, however, it is snow that tumbles from the valley's heights, and in the midst of summer, a construction crew labors to fortify the building's foundation in anticipation of avalanches. Not surprisingly, Whiskey Jack is the only Canadian Rockies hostel closed in the winter.
Looking for luxury
After my long, grimy trek, I crave a little luxury and proceed to Banff National Park and the Lake Louise International Hostel, which is run jointly by Hostelling International and the Alpine Club of Canada. Apparently, Alpine Club members need more comfort than can be provided by former POW cabins, and their partnership with HI has resulted in a facility more similar to Chateau Lake Louise than to a hostel.
The hostel is enormously popular, and all 105 beds are taken for the night. I have to appease myself with lunch in the hostel's sunny, wood-paneled Peyto's Cafe -- which serves veggie burgers, salads and other healthful fare -- and a stroll. The hostel's upper level oozes clubbiness with its stone fireplace and overstuffed chairs.
Alternate accommodations at the Castle Mountain Hostel seem a fine compromise between the simplicity of Beauty Creek and the more elegant Lake Louise hostel. The hostel has running water, but I don't feel obligated to don tweeds during dinner.
At dawn the next morning, I wake to the soft crunching of pine needles and peer out the window at an elk stepping lightly among the trees. He stares back at me, his velvet jaw grinding a mouthful of grass, then resumes his meal. Slipping outside, I creep a few yards toward him to snap a photo, my senses rousing quickly to the cold needles under bare feet, the sharp, clean smell of the forest and the sight of this imperious animal who has decided to tolerate my presence while he breakfasts.
Elk are a common sight in the Canadian Rockies, but I doubt that many visitors staying in expensive lodges or chateaux have seen elk in similar circumstances, one-on-one in the pale glow of dawn. Such are the experiences that memorable vacations are made of, and such are the experiences that the hostels of Jasper, Banff and Yoho routinely offer. It seems ludicrous that a visitor would actually choose to pay hundreds of dollars, instead of 10, for a bed.
If you go
Membership: Hostelling International memberships are available at any regional HI office. To find the nearest one, contact Hostelling International -- American Youth Hostels, Suite 840, 733 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005; (202) 783-6161. An adult membership is $25 a year; youth (under 18), $10; senior citizen, $15; family, $35; lifetime, $250.
Accommodations: A bunk in one of Alberta's hostels costs $8 to $15 a night. Many hostels are open to nonmembers for a higher price. Contact Hostelling International -- Southern Alberta, No. 203, 1414 Kensington Road N.W., Calgary, Alberta T2N 3P9; (403) 283-5551; fax (403) 283-6503; for more information on prices, locations and reservations, which are advisable throughout the summer.
Parks: More information on Canada's national parks is available from Parks Canada, 220 Fourth Ave. S.E., P.O. Box 2989, Station M, Calgary, Alberta T2P 3H8; (403) 292-4401.