Hiking and visiting the mountains and famous lakes of Banff and Jasper National Park have always been a bucket list item of mine, and I finally got to cross it off to kick off the beginning of summer 2018!
Planning this trip began last year when my friends Olivia, Melissa, and I were brainstorming where we wanted to meet up to do a long girls’ weekend trip. The three of us met in the Fall of 2015 when I studied abroad in Vienna, Austria and lived in the same dorm building. We quickly became great friends and did some extensive traveling together and with each other in bigger groups. From picnics in Prague and Mozartkugel taste tests in Salzburg, to giant charcuterie boards and whole pizzas in Italy and liters of beer during Oktoberfest, the three of us have had many unforgettable memories together. Two summers ago after I graduated from college, I went back to Europe for a few weeks and ended up flying from Nice to Vancouver, where we all decided to meet and where Olivia is from. We celebrated Canada Day, rode bikes around Stanley Park, stuffed our faces at Richmond night market, and met up with our greater circle of Canadian friends who were in town that weekend. It was so much fun, and we knew that we couldn’t wait too long to do another reunion. While we ended up back in Canada again this year in different province, we chose the perfect place to do a road trip, with hours of catching up, singing at the top of our lungs to 2000s throwback songs, and enjoying the incredible scenery around us with no cell service and an exploding bag of snacks.
Melissa, Olivia and I travel well together and I couldn’t think of a better small group to do be stuck in a car with for hours and hours. While it’s almost been two whole years since we’ve reunited, it always feels like no time has passed and our memories are more vivid then ever when we reminisce about our adventures together. My time abroad was very meaningful and life-changing in many ways. These are the girls that I turned to the most during that incredible part of my life, and while that experience has passed, I am so happy we always have a way of finding each other again to continue the fun.
While peak season to visit Banff and Jasper is in the later summer months of July, August, and September, we ended up coming in the beginning of June because of our conflicting schedules and rising flight prices later in the summer. It wasn’t very warm, and at times, freezing, but there weren’t large crowds anywhere we went, and we even got to see our fair share of snow and even hiked in it for part of our trip in Jasper, which was incredibly beautiful.
For this trip, we broke our 4 days into 2 for Banff and 2 for Jasper, so I will break out our itineraries into two posts since I have so much to share from this short trip! I took some inspiration from Mel’s Canadian Rockies Diaries when she went at the end of summer last year, and we also relied on plenty of travel blogs to piece together our itinerary and to narrow down the places we really wanted to see with our short time frame. While we felt that 4 days was enough to see the major lakes and hike a few trails, I think 5-6 days would be ideal to fit in some longer hikes and also drive through both Banff and Jasper National Parks and factor in driving to and from Calgary Airport, which was our starting point. We worked around some tough weather conditions and had to cut a few hikes out or accommodate for closed roads, canyons and waterfalls, so we missed out on a few things based on coming before peak season. Either way, we had a blast together, and here is what we did in beautiful Banff!
DAY 1: BANFF
We all booked flights that arrived within an hour of each other and just hoped for the best that no one got severely delayed. While only one of us was delayed an hour, we were out of the airport with our rental car by 12:30pm and headed straight to Banff National Park from Calgary Airport. The drive is only about an hour and a half, so there should be plenty of time to explore the park if you arrive at a decent time in Calgary. Sunset also happened to be at 10pm every night, which meant we never had to worry about getting all our hikes in by dusk.
Vermillion Lakes is a series of 3 lakes formed in the Bow River valley. It is a popular stop for many who first enter Banff National Park, since it is only about a 15 minute drive from the entrance. It’s also close to Banff Town and Lake Minnewanka and is right off the main road, so you can’t really miss it! We ate some sandwiches we brought from the airport on the dock, which was a beautiful start to our trip.
The first hike of our trip was at the ever-so-popular Johnston Canyon, about a 30 minute drive from Banff. As it is an easier, paved trail with scenic waterfalls, famous ink pots, and the "secret cave", this is one of the more popular hikes and gets crowded quickly during the day Within a 1-2 hour window, you can walk to both Lower and Upper falls, and then you can choose to continue to the ink pots, which is 3.3 km further after reaching the Upper Falls.
The secret cave is definitely a draw for many people and seems to be the highlight of the hike for many who come. It actually isn't too difficult to find if you follow the crowds, but we admit that we backtracked our steps to find this hidden spot. Right before the Upper Falls sign, you will see a dirt path on your right and can easily see the top of the large rock in cove. It's a bit of a trek to get down to the bottom, but the views are incredible and so worth it!
Moraine, Emerald, and Louise are some of the lakes that I have heard the most about in Banff, so I was thoroughly looking forward to my first visit of the three. While I recommend visiting these lakes within the same day because of their closse proximity, we adjusted our schedule a bit since we had extra time on our first day and also had great weather we wanted to take advantage of. We ended up choosing Lake Louise out to visit first and saved the other two for the next day.
A fun fact for all - Lake Louise is actually named after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta (1848–1939), the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria! It is famous for it's beautiful turquoise water, Victoria glacier. and stunning mountain backdrop. Canoeing here is very popular, though it was a bit cold for us to see anyone out on the lake during our trip. Apparently the water is the most vibrant during July and August, so that's a huge plus if you are planning a summer trip to Banff!
Canmore Rocky Mountain Inn
Unsurprisingly, the national parks in Canada are top travel destinations for people all over the world, and peak summer season not only means expensive hotels in the park, but also no options at all because most will sell out during these busy months. We chose to stay in a small town called Canmore, which is just a bit Southeast of Banff, and an easy 10-15 minute drive straight to the Banff National Park entrance. Not only is it more budget friendly, but there are also plenty of restaurants in Canmore and gas stations to fill up before the long day drives. We ended up staying at the Canmore Rocky Mountain Inn for both of our nights in Banff since we didn’t want to keep bouncing to different hotels every night. Though we had to drive back and forth for the 2 days, it wasn’t much of a hassle at all.
Dinner at Tavern 1833 was delicious! The restaurant is located in the heart of the town of Canmore and serves up some great burgers, tacos and steaks. I’m on a bit of a mixed-keto diet, so I decided on some lettuce wrap duck tacos, which were yummy and surprisingly filling.
DAY 2: BANFF
Peyto was a highly anticipated lake for us and really set the expectations very high for the rest of the lakes in both Banff and Jasper. It it by far one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen, coming neck and neck with Plitvice Lakes in Croatia (if you are interested in reading my old travel diary from when I studied abroad here is my Croatia post!). The view to see the lake (Bow Summit) is easily accessible off the Icefields Parkway, and right away, the main path will lead you to a lookout where most people will stop for their photo-ops. But don't stop there! You can continue walking on the trail to get to an even more spectacular viewpoint, which is what we set out to do. The morning we went was quite cold and gray, so many people chose to stop at the Bow Summit and then leave. This left us the opportunity to really be alone with this gorgeous lake after finding a dirt, tree-lined path that took us too a mountain of rocks that we've seen in many blogs. This lake is incredibly blue and no photo can do it justice. Even with some overcast, it was so beautiful and unreal!
After our visit to Peyto Lake, we drove straight to Emerald Lake to cross off another spot high on our list of places to see. Emerald Lake is actually largest lake in YoHo National Park, which is located in the province of British Columbia, and not Alberta (unlike Banff and Jasper National Parks). We realized this when we noticed multiple signs that said "Welcome to Alberta" after leaving Lake Emerald. So technically this lake isn't part of Banff at all, but for the purposes of this post, it's definitely included in the itinerary! Located just 20 minutes west of Lake Louise, Emerald is a great place to visit along with Lake Moraine. We spent only about half an hour walking along the surrounding trails, but it was still enough time to admire the beauty of this lake. It truly lives up to it's name, as the blue-green of the water actually made it one of my favorites, especially with the beautiful lodge-like restaurant in the distance to complete the stunning backdrop.
Ah, the highly anticipated Lake Moraine! I've been seeing this gorgeous turquoise lake in my feeds and on travel sites for years and years, and it was always one of those places that I wasn't sure if it would live up to my expectations based on having seen so many photos of it over time. Moraine Lake is set in the rugged Valley of the Ten Peaks, surrounded by mountains, waterfalls and rockpiles that together, form the most stunning backdrop. The water is so blue here and scenery so unreal, that it almost seems fake! Pictures truly can't capture its beauty (or the magic of any of these places to be honest), but it's a good attempt at trying to bring these views to life in the best way I can.
Lake Moraine is certainly iconic, and rightfully so. While it wasn't a sunny day at all, it was still a beautiful and enjoyable experience to climb up the rockpiles in search of the best lake view. Although you can hike a few trailsand canoe in the lake, there was no one in the water as the weather wasn't quite cooperating that day and we opted not to hike since we had plenty more we wanted to see on our drive.
Parking fill up very quickly during the summer, and even on the day we visited after some downpours earlier, we still had to wait 10-15 minutes in a holding area nearby before we were allowed to head in to park. I definitely recommend getting to here early though since parking is difficult to find later in the day, and it gets very crowded as Lake Moraine is the most popular lake in Banff.
Talk about the cutest little village right in Banff National Park! The town itself is located very close to the entrance of it's namesake park, just about a 15-20 minute drive out. It's actually a lot bigger than you would expect it to be, with dozens of restaurants, bars, and bakeries to relax at for an afternoon break stop after lake hopping, or for dinner and drinks after a long day. Banff town definitely has a life of its own, and every direction you walk, you cannot miss the beautiful mountain landscape around you. There are even art galleries and museums in this small town, so if you ever run out of lakes and waterfalls to see (highly doubt it), you can be sure you won't run out of activities to spend your time.
For more information on everything to do in Banff Town, check out this super helpful website.
Banff Upper Hot Springs
Long days of hiking are best rewarded with a warm soak, and there are a few options in Banff National Park to get your relaxation on. The Banff Upper Hot Springs is easily the most popular choice for many, since it is located very close to the heart of Banff Town and easily accessible as it is not very deep in the park. I personally would have loved to visit the natural Lussier Hot Springs instead, but because it was such a far drive from Banff (1.5 hours each way!), we decided to stick to convenience since we were already driving a lot on this trip.
For less than $7 USD admission and optional towel and even swim suit rentals for an additional fee if you need them, I would say that a short soak in the pool is a bargain. With admission, you get a one-time use locker rental and there are also shower facilities included. We went right after dinner, around 8pm on a Saturday which was extremely crowded, so I highly recommend coming either early when they first open or late at night before closing.
Hiking lake after lake and mountain after mountain can get a big mundane after a while, so adding in a hot spring definitely switches things up a little and keeps the trip exciting! In total, we probably spent an hour there from the time we got our tickets to getting back in the car.
RETURN FROM JASPER
Bow is one of the many lakes that line the Icefields Parkway, so it was only natural for us to stop by on our drive back from Jasper to Calgary on our 4th day. The lake is fed by meltwater from the Bow Glacier in the Wapta Icefield and lies at the base of the Bow Summit. It's the perfect spot for a quick break-stop, photo op and short walk on the very long Icefields Parkway drive to and from Jasper. While the lake is known for its turquoise water and stunning mountain backdrop, we were only able to see some snowy peaks and walk along a small trail in glistening snow. It was quite a magical experience in my opinion, and I loved every minute of it despite being freezing cold the entire time.
Lake Minnewanka Scenic Loop
Lake Minnewanka is a large glacial lake located just 3 miles from Banff and people have camped and hunted along its shores for over 100 centuries. The indigenous Stoney Nakoda First Nations people actually called it Minn-waki (Lake of the Spirits) and later, Early European settlers named it Devil’s Lake. Talk about spooky! While there is plenty to do here, from fishing, diving, and hiking to mountain biking, canoeing, and boating, we didn't really have the time or weather on our side to do these activities. Luckily, there is a popular scenic driving route called the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Loop that lets you stop at different points for some great photo ops, picnic spots, and beautiful lake views.
While we contemplated doing this 20 minute scenic drive on the first two days, we ultimately saved it for our last adventure on our drive back to Calgary. This loop drives past Two Jack Lake and a small border of Lake Minnewanka. We stacked rocks on the rocky beach of Two Jack Lake and relaxed on the dock of Lake Minnewanka for a while on red chairs while soaking in the rare bits of sun we had on our long weekend. Though we didn’t see any animals as this loop advertises with frequent sightings, we did really enjoy this loop!
Banff is nothing short of breathtaking and beautiful, and I can't wait to continue reliving the scenery and views every time I look back at this post. I'm looking forward to sharing my Jasper adventures with you next, so make sure you keep your eyes out for that. Thanks for reading everyone!