Thursday, August 15, 2019

Banff Travel and Tourism Guide: How to Spend a Weekend in the Canadian Rockies

I’ve traveled all over the world and embarked on many exciting adventures but oddly enough, I haven’t explored much of my own country.

Many Canadian provinces have breathtaking landscapes, sparkling lakes and rugged terrain, so instead of touring another big city or escaping to a tropical destination, I decided to get in touch with nature.

Banff has been at the top of my travel bucket list for years and last week I finally made it to the Rockies! I didn’t trek through grizzly territory or sleep in a flimsy tent while being eaten alive by bugs, but I did hike partway up a mountain and came face to face with powerful predators.

The flight from Toronto to Calgary International (the closest airport to Banff) is less than 4 hours so it is possible to plan a weekend getaway if you are prepared and informed. For those traveling from other countries, you won’t be disappointed by the wonders of this incredible landscape.

My first tip is to book early because accommodations in and around Banff sell out quickly. Since this was my first time in Alberta, I did some sightseeing in the city before heading into the wilderness.

Stephen Avenue

Aside from the Stampede in July, Calgary offers basic attractions including museums, parks, historical sites, shopping, trendy neighborhoods and a great zoo. I visited the Calgary Tower (which is actually shorter than many of the surrounding buildings), the Core Shopping Center and Stephen Avenue Walk – a pedestrian street lined with cafes and entertainment venues.

Interesting artwork can be found throughout the city so I stopped at several popular installations.

Galleria Trees Sculpture on Stephen Ave

Wonderland Sculpture 6 Ave SE

The Brotherhood of Mankind Sculpture
represents “the dominance of man.” 

Visiting Banff National Park
The next day was long and tiring but I created an excellent itinerary to make the most of my short time in the park. Due to the high volume of tourists, you definitely need to plan ahead and be prepared in order to get anywhere near the lakes.

A few items that may come in handy on your road trip:

*Toilet paper – restroom lines are very long and they usually run out of essentials.

*Map, GPS or compass (depending on the activities you have planned).

*Warm Clothing for early morning expeditions. Summer in the Rockies can be quite cold.

*Umbrella and rain gear (the weather changes quickly).

*Lots of water to prevent dehydration. My brand of choice is Flow Alkaline Water because the high pH level neutralizes acid in the body and promotes blood flow which helps when hiking at high elevations. It is also a great source of electrolytes with no added sugar, juice, calories or preservatives and the box is made of 100% recyclable material. For more info click HERE.

*Snacks/Food – there are no restaurants along the Icefields Parkway except an overpriced lodge serving cafeteria style food that isn’t very good. Many families pack a cooler and make use of the picnic areas.

*Hiking gear (if necessary), if not, bring suitable footwear for walking and extra socks in case the ground is wet.

*Backpacks are hands-free and easy to carry because they help distribute weight.

*Camera (obviously).

*Bug Spray (trust me, you’ll need it).

*First Aid Travel Kit (you can never be too careful).

*Park Pass.



*Bear spray if you plan to venture into the deep woods....or just in case.

Driving From Calgary to Banff
Usually it takes about an hour and thirty minutes to reach the park and we didn’t need GPS.

Unfortunately, heavy fog and rain made driving conditions quite treacherous at 4 am. The roads were pitch black (no street lights), there were animal crossings and visibility was terrible. It is important to be extra vigilant while driving before sunrise or late at night on this highway.

Park Pass
As you enter the park gates you will be required to purchase a Park Pass for $9.80 per adult or $8.30 for seniors (65+). Youths 17 and under are free. If you are traveling as a family or group, the best value is the Day Pass ($19.60) which covers the entrance fee for up to seven people until 4 pm the following evening. Discovery Passes ($67.70) are valid for one year from the month purchased and includes access to historical sites.

*You must display the pass on your windshield at all times. Failure to do so may result in a fine.

Moraine Lake
Moraine Lake is a must when visiting the park but it is also the most difficult to access. I suggest making this the first stop on your tour if you want to secure a parking spot. Arrive between 5 - 6 am before all the tour buses show up. If you don’t make it in time, have a backup plan. Once the lot is full, park officials close the road and you can’t get anywhere near the lake unless you walk or bike (it is a long uphill expedition, even by car).

I woke up at 3 am, got ready, stopped for breakfast and arrived in Banff around 7 am (a little too late). By then the lots were full at both Louise and Moraine so I resorted to plan B.

Shuttle Service
If this happens, make your way to the Lake Louise Overflow Lot off the highway and take the early bird shuttle ($8.00 per person with free parking). There will most likely be a long line and tickets tend to sell out by 4 pm. Fortunately for us bad weather deterred many people from visiting so the wait wasn’t very long.

The shuttle service is poorly executed. Most days they are unable to handle the high volume of tourists that show up and the entire process is tiresome.

It takes 30 minutes to reach Moraine via shuttle and although Louise is close by, there is no service between the two. Instead we had to go all the way back to the overflow lot (another 30 mins in the opposite direction) and transfer to another bus. It was a complete waste of time.

Once we arrived at Moraine Lake heavy fog had settled over everything and the mountain peaks were completely shrouded. Visibility was so poor I could only see what was directly in front of me – small patches of blue water. I was not a happy camper but the forest looked tranquil after the rain and everything was covered in droplets of dew.

The forecast in the Rockies is often unreliable and unpredictable. The climate changes rapidly so if you don’t have much time, persistency is key to outsmarting Mother Nature.

This was our view around 8 am...not good.

And this was our view at 5:30 pm the same day.

The sky finally cleared for a few hours so we could enjoy the incredible view. I would have stayed all evening had it not been for the mosquitoes gnawing at my extremities.

Note: The parking lot at Moraine was open for a brief time around 5 pm but on our way out (around 6:30 pm) road access was blocked once again. In the evening most people head back to the village so try your luck just before sunset.

Best Location for Photography
If you don’t mind an uphill climb, the best place to enjoy Moraine Lake and capture amazing photos is atop the rock pile (to the left of the parking lot).

The path has makeshift steps that are quite steep but the view is totally worth it. Keep an eye out for cute ground squirrels, they are all over the forest.

Lake Louise
Lake Louise is the most popular tourist destination in Banff and although it is spectacular, Moraine and Peyto are arguably more impressive.

Best Time to Visit
Summer is short in the Rockies so it is not uncommon for the lake to remain frozen until June. If you want to see Louise at her best – stunning blue water, clear skies and green foliage, visit during July or August. Unfortunately this is also busy season for tourism so expect obnoxious crowds and backed-up shuttle service.

The park is also beautiful in autumn and winter when heavy snow settles on the peaks. There are usually less tourists but snow storms and hail can cause road closures, dangerous driving conditions, avalanches and limited park access. It is best to visit at the beginning of the season.

The Fairmont Chateau Hotel sits on the shores of Lake Louise and their restaurant offers quite a view. During busy season, rooms cost upwards of $800.00 a night and reservations can be difficult to obtain.

The gardens are also impressive.

Canoes at Lake Louise
For a different perspective of the lake, canoe rentals are available for $125.00 plus tax per hour.

Due to poor weather conditions, I was unable to ride the Gondola but there are 4 options available to access the summit. The one at Lake Louise Ski Resort (8 minutes from the actual lake) cost $37.95 per person and for two more dollars you can enjoy a basic breakfast buffet at the lodge from 8 am – 11 am.

Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway is a scenic stretch of road connecting Lake Louise to Jasper. This breathtaking highway is surrounded by more than 100 ancient glaciers, cascading waterfalls, dramatic rock spires and emerald lakes.

We didn’t have time to stop in Jasper but I plan to visit next time I’m in Alberta.

I highly recommend this once in a lifetime road trip because the mountains and woodland along the parkway is home to bears, elk, deer, mountain goats, wolves and coyotes.

I spotted 4 bears on the same day! When this guy emerged from the underbrush I was standing outside taking photos. He made his way around the cars and crossed the road.

Another black bear walked alongside our car. He was so close I could reach out and touch him! 

I also spotted a large grizzly and a few grazing goats.

Although animal sightings are exciting, you should always adhere to park rules and keep a safe distance. During our trip a man was dragged out of his tent and brutally attacked by a wolf. I also heard reports that another tourist was chased by a bear.

When venturing into the woods carry bear spray and follow the safety procedures outlined in the park’s guidebook. Always pay close attention to warning signs around trails and picnic areas. Entering the wilderness means encroaching on animal territory so be cautious and respectful.

Stops to Make Along the Icefields Parkway

Hector Lake

Bow Lake

Peyto Lake was the most impressive valley I saw during the trip and parking was not a problem.

The trail is paved but the steep uphill climb to Bow Summit can be a little difficult. Remember to bring water, rest if necessary and allow your body to acclimatize to the altitude. 

The elevation is 2115 m/6965’ and snow covers the ground for nine months of the year. At the top you will come to a wooden viewing platform packed with tourists but the trek is totally worth it. The sparkling blue lake is fed by glacial water and I hear the view at sunset is spectacular.

Waterfowl Lake

Athabasca Glacier
Our last stop on the Parkway was the Athabasca Glacier along the Colombia Icefield – the most visited glacier in North America.

There isn't much snow this time of year but in the winter, it is completely covered in ice and glacier tours are available.

After taking some photos we headed back to Lake Louise before sunset. I am aware that this 18 hour itinerary seems like a lot for one day but if you only have a weekend, you’ll see almost everything that’s worth seeing. We started at 3 am and by 9 pm we were back at the hotel having dinner.

Banff Village
The next day I slept-in, had breakfast at Denny’s and explored the charming town of Banff. There are many lodge style accommodations, restaurants, shops, parks and bars in the area.

I prefer Banff village to Calgary because the architecture is beautiful and the town is surrounded by mountains on all sides. Parking is free for 2-3 hours in most lots and it is a fun place to spend an afternoon.

We stopped at the Fudge Store for some dark chocolate and made our way along the river to a beautiful garden infested with mosquitoes (I was bitten on the wasn’t pretty).

Bow Valley Parkway
Before heading back to the hotel, we took a scenic route on Bow Valley Parkwaya picturesque road that snakes its way up the winding mountain. I’ve been to rainforests and jungles before but I’ve never seen such dense woodland. The lush pine trees are so tightly packed that you can barely see between them.

Despite the enticing trails and picnic benches, this parkway can be very dangerous. It is well known for wildlife sightings including huge grizzlies so keep your eyes peeled at all times and dispose of food properly.

There are a few lookout points on the parkway including Morant’s Curve – one of the most photographed spots in Banff National Park. I also passed the Johnston Canyon Trail but I didn’t have time to see the falls.

Stay tuned for my next adventure and check out my travel page.

~Bon Voyage!

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