Thursday, August 15, 2019

Banff Travel Guide: Best Places to Visit in the Canadian Rockies

**This guide was updated July, 2021**

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 glacier and came face to face with powerful predators.

The flight from Toronto to Calgary International (the closest airport to Banff) is about 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. On my first trip to 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.” 

If you want to spend a lazy, relaxing afternoon in Calgary, Prince's Island Park has great views of the city, nice walking paths, gardens and a lovely cafe with outdoor seating. You can also rent rafts and electric scooters.
Need food recommendations? One of my go-to restaurants is Jerusalem Shawarma (there are several locations in the city and suburbs). The portions are generous and the tasty platters are quite affordable. They specialize in traditional Middle Eastern cuisine - kebabs, shawarma and wraps.
Every time I'm in town, I stop at Blaze Pizza just outside of Sunridge Mall. We have Blaze restaurants here in Toronto but it is one of my favorite build-your-own pizza bars in Canada (the spicy red sauce is amazing!).
Getting Around
Most visitors rent a vehicle to tour the parks and towns. Road trips are inevitable in Banff, in fact you might spend a lot of time in the car. 

National Car Rental is my favorite company to book with. The terminal is in the airport and if you sign up for a membership you can bypass the line upon arrival. Simply head to the lot, choose any car from your designated area and grab the paperwork on your way out. Their service is exceptionally fast and convenient. (National Car Rental has not endorsed or sponsored this post).
Driving From Calgary to Banff
It takes about an hour and thirty minutes to reach Banff National Park from Calgary and we did not 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.
Where to Stay in Banff
On my most recent trip we stayed at the Mount Royal Hotel ($250 per night) located in the middle of the main street (Banff Ave). The service was fantastic and the rooftop lounge has a wonderful view from the hot tub. You don't get any extras (bathrobes, slippers, high-end toiletries, kitchenette etc) but our mountain view room was clean and comfortable.
Availability is always scarce in the main town. Most of the hotels I checked in July 2021 ranged from $250 - $400 + a night. Prices are usually higher during the Calgary Stampede and summer months.
Many visitors opt to stay in neighboring towns like Canmore to save money. There are also lodge style accommodations and campsites available throughout the park but you have to make reservations in advance to secure a spot.
Visiting Banff National Park
I always create an excellent itinerary to make the most of my time. 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, sanitizer or hand soap – restroom lines are long and they usually run out of essentials. Some lakes and tourist sites don't have proper facilities - just small unkempt outhouses that we jokingly referred to as s*it was pretty disgusting.   

*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. 

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

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

*Park Pass.



*Bear spray... just in case.

Park Pass
As you enter the park gates you will be required to purchase a Park Pass for $10 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 ($20) 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.

What's Included
The Park Pass gives you FREE access to lakes, hiking trails, waterfalls and most outdoor activities. It does not include parking in some areas, boat cruises, camp ground reservations, tours, gondola rides, shuttle service and certain attractions like the Columbia Icefield Skywalk (glass bottom bridge). 

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 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 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.

It takes 20 minutes to reach Moraine Lake via shuttle but there is now a free transfer to Lake Louise. Buses leave from the parking lot every 20 minutes and have been upgraded from school buses to comfortable air conditioned coaches. 

**SHUTTLE SERVICE UPDATE and COVID-19 information (July, 2021)**

*Due to the pandemic, walk-up shuttle tickets are no longer available. Tickets must be purchased in advance online but a portion of seats are released in a rolling window, 48 hours prior to departure day. 

*The parking lots at Moraine and Louise still fill up quickly so booking seats ensures access during road closures. 

*During the pandemic, face masks are required while riding the shuttle but not while you're outdoors visiting the parks and lakes. During my most recent visit (July 14 - 19, 2021) face coverings were not required in stores and restaurants. Check the provincial website for up to date COVID restrictions and follow health and safety guidelines.  

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.

The forecast in the Rockies is often unreliable and unpredictable. The climate changes rapidly so if you don’t have much time, persistence 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 and black flies gnawing at my extremities.
The second time we visited (July, 2021) the mountains were shrouded in hazy smoke from wildfires in British Columbia which greatly decreased visibility and air quality.

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.
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.

Avoid traveling to Banff during the Calgary Stampede (unless you plan to attend). Airfare is 2-3 times higher via Air Canada and hotels usually raise their rates due to high demand. 

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 garden at Louise is also impressive.

Canoes at Lake Louise
For a different perspective of the lake, canoe rentals are available for $125.00 plus tax per hour. (Prices are subject to change).
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 $49.99 per person (up from $37.95 in 2019 when I first visited) 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.

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

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

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. 

Stops to Make Along the Icefields Parkway

Hector Lake

Bow Lake

Peyto Lake was the most impressive summit 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 (usually packed with tourists) but the trek is totally worth it. The sparkling blue lake is fed by glacial water and the view is spectacular.

**PEYTO LAKE UPDATE: Peyto lake is closed for renovation from early May until August 2021. Entry is strictly prohibited and violations may results in a mandatory court appearance and a maxim fine of $25,000 CDN.**

Waterfowl Lake

Athabasca Glacier
The Athabasca Glacier along the Colombia Icefield is the most visited glacier in North America. There isn't much snow this time of year (the glacier recedes 5 metres every year due to global warming) but in the winter it is covered in ice and tours are available.

Tangle Falls
Tangle Falls is located on the right side of the parkway and sneaks up fast when driving towards Jasper. The parking lot is on the opposite side of the road.
Stops to Make on the Way to Jasper

Sunwapta Falls
Road Trip to Jasper
The drive from Banff to Jasper takes about 3.5 hours and entry is covered by the same park pass. Jasper is very popular for wildlife encounters so it is recommended that people travel in groups and carry bear spray.
We visited Maligne Lake but missed the boat cruise. If you plan to take the tour make sure to book in advance as seats are limited. Tickets cost $75 per person. 

In Jasper we also stopped at Pyramid Lake and Patricia Lake before having lunch in town at Fomoso. They make delicious wood-fire pizza.
    Athabasca Falls
On the way back from Jasper we stopped at Athabasca Falls. This is by far my favorite waterfall in the park. The powerful water cuts through the canyon creating a beautiful backdrop for photos.
The walk is manageable for all fitness levels if you stay on the main path and avoid the steep slope leading down to the riverbank.

Banff Village
The town of Banff might be small but it is picturesque and lively. Nestled in a green valley surrounded by mountains on all sides, the village has an abundance of shops, restaurants, bars, patios, supermarkets and hotels. Many parking lots are free for 2-3 hours.

We stopped at the Fudge Store for some dark chocolate and made our way along the river to a beautiful garden infested with mosquitoes.

Where to Eat in Banff (affordable options)
There are many restaurants to choose from in town but one of my favorites is The Old Spaghetti Factory. All meals come with bread, your choice of salad or soup, an entree, dessert and coffee or tea. The food is delicious and dinner for two cost about $55 (not including tip). 

Tommy's Neighborhood Pub is a great place for lunch. They specialize in burgers (beef, chicken, veggie) and steak sandwiches served with crispy onion rings or fries. Lunch cost about $45 per couple (not including tip).
Cows Ice Cream is a popular place for dessert so there is usually a long line down the block. They offer a scrumptious variety of flavors and incredible waffles. 

For breakfast or brunch try Tooloulous. They serve pancakes, egg dishes, burgers, sandwiches and Cajun dishes.

Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon is the most popular hike in Banff and some consider it the easiest but it depends on how far you venture. 
For a shorter hike (1.5 miles or 1 hour there and back) head to the Lower Falls and enjoy the view. At this point families with young children and individuals with low fitness levels may opt to turn around. The trail rises in elevation and becomes increasing difficult between the Lower and Upper Falls. It takes another hour to reach the higher peaks.
The hike from the entrance all the way to the Upper Falls takes aprox 2-3 hours (there and back) and covers just under 3.7 miles. The trail is manageable but does require some stamina.  

The paths are usually crowded and there are a lot of mosquitoes so wear bug spray if you don't want to be eaten alive. If you're afraid of heights, you might want to sit this one out.
The Bow Valley Parkway (Highway 1A) will be CLOSED to automobiles summer 2021, but open to biking and hiking. You will not be able to enter the Johnston Canyon from the Parkway but you can access it from CASTLE JUNCTION. 

More Places to Visit

Lake Minnewanka is a glacial lake located 5 km from banff. This area is usually less crowded and boat tours depart from the dock. The water is crystal clear which makes it a great place to take a cool dip.
Two Jack Lake is popular for family picnics and kayaking. It has great hiking trails and the view from the sloping hillside is breathtaking. 

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. 

Stay tuned for my next adventure and check out my travel page. You can also connect with me on Instagram at @DiaryofaTrendaholic 

~Bon Voyage!

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