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You’ve heard of Banff even if you haven’t been there. Everyone has seen the iconic pictures of Lake Louise, the milky emerald water and the giant chalet on the shoreline, backdropped by jagged glacier-covered mountains.
But Lake Louise is just a microscopic section of Banff and the surrounding national parks, comprising an area the size of New Jersey.
Camping at Lake Louise
We camped at the national park campground at Lake Louise, and because we were in a rooftop tent we were in the “soft-sided” campground. Soft-sided as in, Grizzly bait. The entire campground is surrounded by an electric fence and electrified cattle guard. The fence reminded me of Jurassic Park, and I could almost see the velociraptors pulling it down. But it kept the bears out. Firewood is free in Canadian parks (with a purchased fire permit) and overall it’s a very nice campground.
Hiking at Lake Louise
Lake Louise is the most crowded area in the Canadian Rockies. Even in mid-September, the shores of Lake Louise were jam-packed with photographers by 8AM. We escaped most of these crowds by doing two great hiking trails from Lake Louise. Both of these hikes included a teahouse a couple miles in, something different for us Americans.
Hiking to the Lake Agnes teahouse
The hike to Lake Agnes includes a moderate 1,300′ climb in just under 2.5 miles. The hike passes small Mirror Lake before continuing up to Agnes. Once at Lake Agnes, you can just hang at the teahouse and/or continue around Lake Agnes and hike to the top of The Big Beehive. This hike is roughly a 500-foot climb with great views of Lake Louise and the rest of the Rockies on a clear day. We had a low overcast, so we had some coffee and tea at the 100+-year-old teahouse, some soup, walked around Lake Agnes, and proceeded back down to Lake Louise.
Hiking the Plain of Six Glaciers trail
The hike to the Plain of Six Glaciers also climbs 1,300′ like the Lake Agnes hike, but in a more gradual 3.75-mile distance. It starts by following the creek that feeds Lake Louise from the glaciers and is responsible for the lake’s color. The trail eventually goes through the moraine field and finally reaches the century-old teahouse. Old photos near the teahouse allow you to compare the former glaciers to the new glaciers, and are quite humbling. After some tea and biscuits, it was back down to Lake Louise.
Parking at Moraine Lake
Wow. We wanted to see and paddle Moraine Lake. We progressively woke up earlier and earlier every day to try to get into the parking lot, but the road was closed because it was at capacity early. On our third try, on our final day at Lake Louise, getting there just after 6AM allowed us to find parking. There’s a nice trail around the lake and a little cafe to warm up. This is a very scenic lake that shouldn’t be missed, hence the full parking lot before sunrise.
Driving Icefields Parkway
As the rain started to move in at Lake Louise our first day, we thought we’d try our hand driving up Icefields Parkway towards Jasper National Park. This scenic highway has multiple pullouts and hiking trails providing amazing views of the glaciers dotting the Rockies – the ones that remain, and some of them are quite impressive.
One of the most popular destinations on the Icefields Parkway is scenic Peyto Lake. Hiking to Peyto Lake is a pleasant walk through trees with interspersed interpretive signs. Fortunately, the rain mostly stopped and the clouds slightly lifted as we arrived at the Peyto Lake parking lot. There are a couple of viewpoints, and the one we ended up at was a three-mile round trip easy hike taking about an hour and a half. Rains and wind moved in once we returned to the parking lot and mostly prohibited us from seeing the rest of Icefields Parkway.
Another great destination at the top of Icefields Parkway is Athabasca Glacier, in Jasper National Park. The visitor center features an interesting museum, a crowded cafe, and a crowded restaurant. You also get views of the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier. Regularly scheduled tours depart the visitor’s center by bus to the foot of the glacier, where you’ll embark on the “ice crawlers”, massive buses with giant tires that drive you up onto Athabasca Glacier. You get just enough time to explore the ice and marvel at the geology behind it all before returning to the crawlers. Go figure, it started to snow as soon as we arrived on the glacier.
Yoho Side Trip
I wish we had more time to explore Yoho NP, which sits between Banff NP and Jasper NP. We did manage the short hike to impressive Takakkaw Falls and then made a quick trip to Emerald Lake. This is a beautiful lake and is home to one of the most impressive fossil finds in the world, the Burgess Shale. Reservations for a guided hike are required to explore the fossils, and we’ll have to save that for next time.
Our final two nights were spent in the town of Banff, camping at Tunnel Mountain. We were the only tent of any kind, surrounded by RVs, but we spent most of our time exploring the town of Banff so we didn’t have to look at RVs.
It was below freezing and snowing during our entire time in Banff. What to do in Banff in bad weather? There are plenty of great restaurants, cafes, and bars. Recommended: St. James’s Gate Irish Pub, breakfast at Tooloulou’s, Eddie Burger Bar, Banff Ave Brewing Co., and Jump Start The Coffee. There are also some great museums.
Cave and Basin National Historic Site
One must-see attraction in Banff is the Cave and Basin site, a few minutes southwest of the town of Banff. This is a very informative museum with hands-on displays and short walking trails. You can explore the underground hot spring that started the entire Canadian National Parks system. Also learn about the evolution of Canada’s National Parks.
Banff Park Museum National Historic Site
I wasn’t too excited about looking at a building full of stuffed animals, but I’m glad we decided to check out this 100-year old building. Yes, it’s full of stuffed animals. Things that don’t really interest me. But this interested me. The building hasn’t been touched for almost a hundred years, and neither have many of the exhibits.
It should go without saying that five days in Banff just isn’t enough time.
If you’re planning a trip to Banff, take your time. Give it at least a week. Pick a few areas to focus on and spend some time there, rather than trying to breeze through everything. Canada deserves better!
All photos taken with the Fujifilm X-T2 with 18-55mm lens & Rokinon 12mm f/2 lens.