Banff National Park in the province of Alberta in Canada is a beautiful summer destination. Mountains and unreal stunning lakes with an almost guaranteed sight of a bear, in a country known for its friendly and welcoming nature, any visitor is bound to be charmed.
This summer between our older child’s internship and the younger child’s AP US History summer class, we had no time for vacation but the 4 nights getaway to Banff was so worth it. Looking through the pictures, many of them look unreal, almost like paintings and every one of the pictures are completely natural. The landscape is unbelievably beautiful and you experience the majesty of God’s creation. Landing in Calgary on our direct flight from Houston, we used a rental car to drive to Canmore. We had lunch in Calgary at a Greek restaurant called Santorini Greek Taverna and the food was excellent. Driving from Calgary to Canmore, we took the 1A part of the route. It runs parallel to the Trans Canadian Highway (TCH).
In Canmore, we stayed at the Holiday Inn. Canmore is 20 minutes outside of Banff National park but we found it to be reasonably priced and newer than many of the much older hotels in Banff. Ideally staying in Banff itself would be the most convenient option. 2017 being Canada’s 150th anniversary, entrance to the national parks was free. We found it convenient to use our rental car to visit all the attractions bypassing all the tours. If you don’t want to drive, there is a ‘Roam Transit’ bus even from Canmore but you would want to check schedules. ($5.00 unlimited day pass for adults. 3 day pass is $12 each) There are also free shuttles between the Banff Train Station and the Village of Lake Louise and to the Lakes in the summer usually. But the buses can be crowded and you may have to wait a lot.
Banff has an above ground indoor parking facility on Bear Street, the Bear Street Parkade. This 5 level parkade is centrally located and typically has space on even busy days. It is located at the South end of Bear Street and is free. Stop by the visitors center in Banff town for information regarding the free shuttles to lakes, hiking trails and maps.
During our time in the Banff area, we enjoyed the awe inspiring scenery at these places:-
Lake Louise is probably the most famous and most crowded place in the area. It is definitely worth visiting but finding parking can be challenging especially later in the day – we were lucky. The Lake is striking and framed by mountains. The color of the water is a beautiful blue/green due to silt from melting glaciers. The walk around the lake is easy and you will walk past the grounds of the grand Fairmont Chateau. On our first visit, it was a warm day and we purchased ice creams at double the cost from the Fairmont chateau where they had an ice cream stand. Weather was all over the place on subsequent days – cold and raining.
The lake is always extremely cold and not suitable for swimming. Except while we were there an entire university Rugby team was in the water being extremely loud. Not sure if this some summer tradition for them. You can also rent a canoe and boat on the lake.
The walk around the lake is super easy and anyone can enjoy it. The trail is paved and it is a pleasant and easy walk for families and kids. The view is fantastic, and gets better as you walk farther out. After walking a bit, you can look back to enjoy the view of the Fairmont Chateau by the lake.
Moraine Lake is absolutely stunning and the blue color of the lake is just striking and incredible. I actually found it more beautiful than Lake Louise.
The Rockpile trail is the shortest and easiest trail at Lake Moraine, and you will be totally wowed by the most beautiful view at its end. You climb some stairs through rocks and will be so glad that you walked this trail when you see the stunning views. The view from the top of the Rockpile has the 10 mountain peaks ringing it.
It was really cold and raining at Moraine when we were there and this was in August so I am not quite sure if Canada has a real summer. (We came from the furnace that is Texas so excuse our shivers at the cold please) The temperature at Moraine lake is always colder than at surrounding places, including Lake Louise, so dress in layers and keep a raincoat or umbrella handy.
Icefields Parkway and Peyto Lake
The drive on the Icefields Parkway is considered one of North America’s most scenic drives. We drove up to Peyto Lake but chose not to go farther to the Athabasca Glaciers due to my dislike of ice and cold. Most people continue down the road and onto Jasper which could take about 3.5 hours.
Peyto Lake is also stunning – again a blue/green color that I cannot describe but it is gorgeous. To get to the viewpoint from where you can see Peyto Lake below, use the main street where the buses go up instead of the actual trail from the parking lot. The main street climb was so much easier and shorter than the trail which we used while climbing down. Watch for the buses though on the main street – there is no footpath.
Also on the Icefields parkway are Bow lake, Herbert Lake and other viewpoints. Just pull into locations that look good to you. On the Icefields parkway the journey is the attraction. And there were several beautiful lakes and lovely landscape all around.
Johnston Canyon Falls
Surprisingly fun. Simply walk on boardwalks through the hills and then you come to a narrow cave like entrance to a viewpoint of the Lower falls. The cave can only accommodate a few visitors at a time so you may have to wait a little. We opted not to hike the half mile additional even further to the upper falls.
This is an easy walking trail, taking you from the center of Banff town to Bow Falls which are actually rapids and the historic Fairmont Banff Hotel.
The trail follows the river and it is a very easy stroll on a wide trail through pine trees. Also note the lovely quaint homes by the road, along the river.
Yoho National Park
One day we also drove into British Columbia and Yoho National Park. Husband wanted to see the spiral tunnels. We ended up reaching just in time to see the train going through the Spiral tunnels at 1.15 pm. You may wonder what’s so exciting about a train but you have to see this to believe it. It is absolutely fascinating. You can see the front of the train coming out of the Spiral tunnel while the end of the super long train is still going into the end of the tunnel and the middle portions are also peeking out through portions of the spiral tunnels. A marvelous engineering feat, it was fun seeing this. But it’s only fun if there is an actual train going through the tunnels at the time of your visit. The effort and labor that went into building these tunnels right into the mountain is amazing.
Also in Yoho national park is the Emerald Lake and the name is accurate. Canadian lakes in Yoho and Banff are all stunning in color. It was raining when we were there so we could not spend much time at the Emerald Lake.
We also saw the natural bridge over the kicking horse river which is a bridge formed by natural rock formations, the force of the water having carved out the bridge.
- Banff or Lake Louise Gondola: For views from high above on clear days. We skipped them since it was raining two of the days.
- Johnson Lake
- Silverton Falls – this trail was too empty and a little isolated and spooky for us so we skipped it even though we went to its entrance
- The Fenland Loop Trail – a mile long at the entrance of Banff town and really easy trail
- Lake Minnewanka and the Stewart Canyon Trail
- Sunshine Meadows – 12 km hiking trail
There are many hiking trails all around the Banff national park. The visitors center will have maps and information. Keep the Bear spray handy if you are actually hiking outside of the main town or walking beyond the lakes.
The Plain of Six Glaciers hike starts at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, along a beautifully scenic trail. Once you reach the teahouse, you can have tea while enjoying the views from the teahouse balcony. It can take 6 hours to go all the way up and back to shore. The trail climbs uphill for 2.2 miles. It takes most people around 1 to 2 hours. The elevation gain is 1,312 feet. Some have said that the tea house is overcrowded with dirty bathrooms and average food for the price. But you are there for the experience and views. We did not attempt this hike.
Pack snacks in sealed/closed containers, bring water, and make sure you bring a jacket and rain gear, since weather is unpredictable, one minute you may be hot, the next you are freezing on the same trail.
Carry bear spray and/or a very loud whistle. On every trail they warn you about bear encounters and we saw one too, right in front of our car, just very calmly crossing the street on the road to Moraine Lake.
Always stay on the trails, to prevent damage to nature and wildlife. Don’t litter and put garbage only in designated wildlife safe containers.
Leave everything undisturbed for others to enjoy. This includes rocks, fossils, wildflowers etc.
Please do not feed wildlife, so they don’t lose the habit of finding their own food or become pests to other visitors.
In the town of Banff there are plenty of restaurants but you will find that at lunch time you will probably be at one of the lakes and if you are planning long drives, take food with you. Beyond Banff, food options are limited although Lake Louise town has a couple of food places.
We had breakfast every day at the Tim Hortons in Canmore and as others have said, we found it better than Starbucks. The berry oatmeal was excellent with real fruits and great taste. Their breakfast sandwiches and donuts were also great. The coffee and the prices of items was also much better than Starbucks.
A few suggested restaurants in Banff are listed here:-
- The Old Spaghetti Factory – great value and good food for Banff
- Indian Curry house
- Coyotes Southwestern Grill
- Melissas: Apple Cinnamon Pancake, Eggs benedict
- Juniper Bistro
- Balkan (Greek)
- White bark Café in Aspen lodge
- Wild Flour Bakery/ Little Wild on Banff Ave for pastries, scones
While the town of Banff is completely built for tourists, you will totally understand why when you experience and see for yourself the beauty of the land around it. The lakes around Banff even rival Switzerland in beauty and that’s an admission considering my bias in favor of Europe. Check it out for yourself – Happy Travels!