While Jess spent her summer visiting new places within the U.S., I stayed put in the Big Apple as I have already travelled to 3 amazing countries this year and didn't plan on boarding another plan until the early months of 2018 when I would need to escape from the brutal northeast winter. However, it turned out that my boyfriend and I had some extra vacation days to spare, so I found myself browsing again on Skyscanner to scoop up some good flight deals for a 4-day trip. Since my previous travels have been in metropolitan cities and I live in one of the most crowded cities in the world, I really wanted to take this trip to temporarily escape to a peaceful natural wonderland. Turns out the Canadian Rockies were only a quick 5 hour flight from New Jersey, and since it has been on my bucket list since senior year of high school, I could not pass up the opportunity to go.
Location: Alberta, Canada - 1 1/2 hour drive from Calgary International Airport
Seasons to go: June - October / December - March
THINGS TO DO (3 Day Itinerary)
As one of the top 3 most beautiful places I have ever visited, hiking here is a must in order to get those breathless views. There are so many different hikes in both the Banff and Jasper area including a brisk 1.5 mile walk to a full blown day hike of over 9 miles, that there is nearly a perfect hike for every traveller. As we soon as we finished lunch in downtown Banff, we immediately visited Hoodoos Trail to get our first hike of the trip underway. The Hoodoo Trail is rated as a moderately easy hike and the parking lot can be accessed at the the Surprise Corner Viewpoint, near the end of Buffalo Street. There are 3 viewpoints within the 1st mile of the walk and the crowd of tourists thinned out once we passed the viewpoints, making the rest of the hike very peaceful and quiet.
Johnston Canyon Trail
Johnston Canyon Trail is a popular hike located 20-25 minutes north of Banff. We recommend completing the hike early in the morning as it gets very crowded in the mid-day since it is considered one of the easier hikes in the Canadian Rockies. Hikers follow the catwalks built into the edge of the canyon which lead to the Lower Falls (1.1 Km), Upper Falls (2.7km) and Inkpots (5.8km). While the walk to the Upper Falls is estimated to take about 45 minutes, it took us 1.5 hours since we had gone off the marked pathways to find the secret cave (see picture below). The hidden cave was relatively quick and easy to find as it is about a few hundred feet in front of the Upper Falls and is heavily trafficked by photographers and adventure seekers, so you will always find someone coming up or going down the “secret” pathway!
Lake Minnewanka & Vermillion Lake
The most beautiful, jaw dropping lakes are about 30 - 45 min drive from downtown Banff, located in the Yoho National Park (more details further in this post). That being said, Banff is home to some gorgeous waterfronts as well, and I was able to visit both Lake Minnewanka & Vermillion Lake during the first day of my trip. The two lakes are about a 15-20 minute drive from each other, making it very easy to visit both within the same day. Lake Minnewanka resembles more of a typical Canadian lake with clear blue waters and offers both kayaking and boat cruise excursions while Vermillion Lake gives off more of a rugged vibe that has the most beautiful sunset views. There is no formal parking lot at Vermillion Lake, so prepare to park off to the side of the road.
Pro Tip: Most people stop and get out as soon as they see the lake, making the first few lookout points extremely crowded. However if you continue to drive around the lake, you will usually find it to be emptier and more likely to grab a parking spot that isn't practically in the middle of the road.
Since our hotel, The Rimrock Resort Hotel, was walking distance from the Banff Gondola, we spent our last morning in Banff riding the gondola up to Sulphur Mountain. The heated gondola was $60 round trip per person and took approximately 8 minutes to reach the top of the mountain. There is a trail that can be hiked to Sulphur Mountain, though it is considered to be quite strenuous and steep and would take about 2-3.5 hours. Once we reached the top of the mountain, we were treated to a 360 degrees, bird's eye view of the town of Banff and a ridgetop boardwalk that led to the Cosmic Ray Station, an old weather station located on the summit of the mountain. As you may expect, the temperatures do drop quite significantly on Sulphur Mountain so be prepared to bring lots of layers to keep you warm and toasty!
Natural Bridge - Located in Yoho National Park, is a quick 10-15 minute stop near Lake Emerald!
Lake Moraine, Emerald Lake, Lake Louise
Visiting Lake Moraine, Emerald Lake, and Lake Louise was definitely the highlight my trip, as these lakes are renowned for their exquisite turquoise colored waters. Parking at both Lake Louise and Lake Moraine were quite limited, so we drove to the Overflow Parking Lot located behind the Husky gas station off of Highway 1 to board a shuttle that dropped us off at the lakes. We spent the a couple of hours at Lake Moraine walking up the Rockpile Trail to soak in the views and get the classic Canadian Rockies shot.
Fun Fact: The view from the top of the rockpile trail is known as the "Twenty Dollar View" since it is pictured on the back of the Canadian Dollar bills issued between 1969-1979. There are a few hikes near Moraine Lake, the most popular being the Larch Valley Hike which is supposedly is one of the best places to see the changing colored leaves in the fall season. If you do plan on hiking one of the more longer trails, be sure to carry some bear spray in case you have a run in with a grizzly!
Since the water in Lake Moraine had gotten too shallow and could no longer be canoed on unless you stayed at the Moraine Lake Lodge, my boyfriend and I visited Emerald Lake to try our luck there. Fortunately for us, the boats at Emerald Lake were still being offered to the general public until mid-end of October, so we spent the majority of our afternoon enjoying our time on the lake. Canoe Rentals at Emerald Lake was $60 per hour which despite sounding steep, was actually a bargain considering both rentals at Lake Moraine and Lake Louise were $90-$95. I suggest going out on the boats in the mid afternoon since the temperatures warms up, making it much more pleasurable experience.
We spent our last day in paradise at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a luxury hotel surrounded by the Victoria Glacier, mountain tops, and the crystal clear water of Lake Louise. Despite the gloomy weather, my boyfriend and I took advantage of our last day walking the full lap around the lake and exploring the grand hotel. Similar to Lake Moraine and Emerald Lake, canoe boat rentals are made available to the general public at $105/hour with a discounted rate of $65/hour for Fairmont Chateau residents. Unfortunately for us, the weather was drizzling by the time we reached Lake Louise and we were unable to paddle out one last time before boarding our flight the next morning. We did, however, have more time discovering the rich history of the Fairmont Chateau (dates as far back as 1911), and all the cool rooms and amenities that are offered/included!