In August of 2018, I along with 3 friends ventured to Alberta for 5 days. There was a lot of exploring and adventure to pack into 5 days, but I feel that we did a good job. Now everyone has seen the amazing pictures of reflection from Lake Louise and the turquoise crystal waters of Lake Moraine on social media. I will be talking about these places, but also helping guide you into planning a trip to one of the most popular National Parks and seeing some of the other areas that are not as well known.
Best way to get to Banff – Calgary! Calgary has a large airport, where many airlines fly into and has several options to get from Calgary to Banff. We rented car as we wanted to explore North of Banff and we booked a hotel in Canmore. Taking the bus is also an option to get directly to Banff.
Downtown Banff was busy every day, night and morning so we avoided eating most of our meals there. We did stop by Banff Avenue Brewing Co. for some beers and a dinner one night. Good atmosphere and the place is huge! Also Elk & Oarsman has a great rooftop bar with some creative drinks to cool off after a day’s hike. There are also a lot of shops (large name and local) in Banff, including Lole (virtually impossible to find in the US). Walking around the hotels and down all the streets is also a nice way to see the gardens blooming and all of the architecture.
As previously mentioned, we rented a hotel in Canmore, Alberta. Opting out of staying in Banff during the high tourist season as August is the busiest month due to the weather, European vacation and snow melt. Canmore is a great little town, 20 minutes away from Banff with some of the nicest people I have ever met. I also highly recommend Communitea Cafe (great teas to take home), Rocky Mountain Bagel Co. (amazing bagel sandwiches & espresso) and my personal favorite, Santa Lucia Trattoria for dinner. Everyone was incredibly helpful and I’ll definitely be back to hike some of the renowned peaks.
First morning we decided to wake up nice and early and travel to Lake Louise for sunrise. From everything I read this was the hour to go to avoid the crowds and have some peace at the lake. While there were still a good amount of people taking in the (lack of) sunrise, everyone was courteous (very different from later in the day). We also set-out on our most difficult hike this day – Lake Agnes Trail to Agnes Tea House to Plain of Six Glaciers.
I’d recommend this hike to everyone as there are multiple options to stop and turn around. It eventually got quite hot that day (95F) but as we started after sunrise (after grabbing lattes and scones at the Lake Louise hotel) we were able to hike the morning in the cool air. The trail takes you around the lake before the elevation gain begins. It is a gradual increase, so it didn’t feel like much effort.
We passed by the Tea House (about 2.5 mi) and continued to the end of the trail (another 2 mi) and sat to enjoy the views. The crowds dramatically dwindle after the Tea House, and the extra miles and elevation are well worth it. On the way back down, we stopped for chocolate cake and lemonade at the Tea House. After the sugaring up, we stopped to stick our feet in the glacial water to cool off. No wading though as the current was strong. Getting back to Lake Louise was chaos. By this time it was mid-afternoon and the crowds had come. Definitely glad we started early in the morning. Getting up in the dark is always worth it!
Lake Minnewanka & Stewart Canyon
Again, we woke up in the dark and started early to get to Lake Minnewanka ahead of any crowds. We arrived with virtually no one in sight, the lake was ours! This lake is huge; during the day others arrived with boats and fishing lines and families to enjoy the lake. But we were there to hike (as usual) so we set out to Stewart Canyon.
Moving around the lake, we got to see it at different perspectives during the morning daylight. We crossed over the lake (via a bridge) and headed to Stewart Canyon (4 miles round trip) only to see the lake become shallow and clear. The rocks at the bottom were beautiful and the water was a light blue. The trail winds around to the canyon where you can get to the edge to the water.
This was probably my favorite hike of the trip due to the lack of people and the peacefulness of it all. But it was also a little trepidatious as we had yet to pick up any bear spray. So we made sure to talk loudly to scare off any potential grizzlies. It also wasn’t a difficult hike, but the footing was tricky as it was muddy and the ground was sliding in places.
Parker Ridge Trail
Every blog about Banff contains the must-do of driving up the Icefields Parkway. I agree with these, as there are so many lakes to see and even in bad weather, it is beautiful. We also found a hike on the drive up called Parker Ridge. The hike is right off the Parkway, still in Banff National Park. Keep driving north and you eventually get to Jasper National Park.
Parker Ridge Trail is a switch-back trail that leads you straight up to view some of the glaciers and fields. It’s about 2.5 miles up and short elevation gain, but due to the sleet, cold and elevation this felt more difficult (or maybe I was just tired). The views on the way up are beautiful. Once you get to the top of the trail, there are multiple fields with 360 views.
After following other hikers, we thought that this was the end of the trail (and honestly were a little disappointed). Then I saw a trail leading out the opposite way and that’s where the best views emerged. Once we found the correct trail, we could then see the glaciers on the other side of the ridge. Great place for photo ops.
Johnston Canyon & Ink Pots
One of the other famous hikes in Banff is Johnston Canyon for the waterfalls up to the Ink Pots. We chose to split up for this hike as there is another trail (Moose Meadows) to get to the Ink Pots. Two of us took Moose Meadows (2 mi.) on the way up (with bear spray close in hand) and the other two took Johnston Canyon (2 mi.).
Johnston Canyon with all of the waterfalls was very crowded and there were lines to wait to see the waterfalls. But it is worth it to walk across the bridges and with the masses of people to see the falls. Moose Meadows trail was peaceful and slightly nerve-racking looking out for bears.
We met up again as the trail merge into the Ink Pots trail (another 1.8 mi.). About half of the hikers turn around after the waterfalls, but there were still a lot of people going up to the Ink Pots. And it is worth it! Once you get to the Ink Pots, they’re quite a phenomenon (and somehow I didn’t get a single picture of it). But the best part were the views of the Canadian Rockies. We spent a lot of time just sitting in different spots taking in the views.
In our five days we did the most popular and tourist filled hikes and visited the majority of the lakes. But I have visited again in Fall/Winter and plan on going again another summer to explore more.