I had seen this landscape briefly as a kid from the back seat of my parents' car as my family was passing through from Calgary to Vancouver, but it wasn't until I saw a cheesy romantic comedy a few years ago filmed in Banff National Park that this amazing destination resurfaced on my travel radar. It didn't take much to convince my friends, Honza and Etienne, to join me for an extended Independence Day weekend in the Canadian wilderness.
Calgary, about an hour and a half away from Banff by car, is easily reachable via many direct flights from the U.S., including San Francisco on United. For quick day trips around the park, the town of Banff is probably the most convenient place to stay, actually located within the park, but by the time we got around to booking, many accommodations were no longer available, so we chose Canmore as our base of operations, just twenty minutes further south. Being more modest and less kitschy, Canmore suited us just fine.
Honza and Etienne, having arrived a few days earlier than I, had overexerted themselves hiking on the fringe of the park and could not muster much energy for more than a few minor excursions by the time I arrived. So, we started out slowly at Lake Louise, whose parking spots were already at capacity by 11 a.m., and followed a trail up to Mirror Lake and a short but steep climb up to Lake Agnes, where a much frequented tea house resembling an alpine biergarten served anything but beer. Because, let's face it, the last thing one needs after a long hike in the middle of summer is a cold beer. Somehow, hot tea hits the spot so much better for the Canadians.
Though we had not planned it, the first day of our trip fell on Canada Day. I only learned of this by flipping through the Globe and Mail that morning. It seemed Canadians still had identity struggles, as an article sought a more eloquent way to summarize what it means to be a Canadian beyond: “not American, not British; often cold and with lots of immigrants.”
That afternoon in the town of Banff, we found a throng of people camped around the main street and center divide. There were tell tale signs of an anticipated parade, but 5 p.m. seemed like the most unlikely of times for one. Locals confirmed our intuition, however, and soon the Canadian batons, bands, and cavalry strutted past us, stirring the crowd with polite patriotism for the next hour.
Later, at the local brewery in Canmore, the waitress asked us if we were “made in Canada.” When it became clear we were not, she inquired about our origins. All we could respond with was: “it's complicated.”
This far north the days are long, and Canmore's fireworks did not start until almost 11 p.m., when I was just getting ready to tuck in. In my rush to run outside and see them, I locked myself out of my room, which necessitated a call to a 24-hour hotline to bring out a security guard who took nearly an hour to find the guest list in the hotel's antiquated filing system.
Moraine LakeThe most striking feature of Banff is the cluster of brilliantly turquoise and tranquil lakes that pepper the park. Of all of them, Moraine Lake takes the cake with its improbable color and perfectly calm waters, disturbed only by the reflection of the surrounding peaks. I could stand on its shores all day wondering whether the scene in front of me is real. We snapped a few photos as proof, but even friends and family remain doubtful.
Not wanting to relive the parking craze from the day before, we made sure to be at the Moraine Lake trailhead by 9 a.m. With everyone feeling well rested, we decided to attempt at least two sections that our map labeled strenuous. Starting at the dazzling Moraine Lake, we quickly gained 1,500ft of elevation to reach Eiffel Lake, and then climbed another 1,200ft up to Sentinel Pass, which offered spectacular views on both sides of the saddle. From here, one can continue on to Lake Louise, but there is no trail to speak of going down the east side of the saddle – simply a sea of large boulders one must scramble over to rejoin the trail at the bottom.
The wooded valley separating the two mountain ranges between Lake Louise and Moraine Lake is called Paradise Valley, but there is nothing paradisical about it. Sure, the scenery is great, the trail slopes gently through lovely forest, but the mosquitos make this paradise a living hell. The only strategy against them seemed to be to travel at super-mosquito-velocity, as Honza put it.
The trail skirts past the beautiful Lake Annette and crisscrosses Paradise Creek a few times, which also happens to be a bit of a misnomer – the creek is really raging river. We rarely paused for breaks so as to avoid the mosquitos except for a chance encounter with an adorable porcupine. He seemed calm, almost tame, and with prickly armor like that, I could see why.
After a cumulative 14 miles, the trail ends at a small parking lot off the main road. While I was willing to take the 5-mile return trail back to Moraine Lake from here, Honza and Etienne were both at the ends of their ropes, so we agreed that one of them would try to hitchhike, while I attempted to run back along the main road. I did not have to run far. Honza's charm caught the eye of a local couple en route to Moraine Lake who gladly picked him up in exchange for our parking spot.
Famished, we had dinner at the Grizzly Paw brewery in Canmore again. Their Rutting Elk Red ale is outstanding and was a major reason to return here a second evening in a row.
Icefields ParkwayThe northern part of the park has a number of glaciers worth seeing. Saskatchewan Glacier near the border with Jasper National Park is probably the most prominent. It is a two-hour drive from the town of Banff and a short hike from the parking lot.
The weather was mostly perfect throughout our entire visit, but the mountains definitely showed fickleness. At the ice fields, clouds quickly rolled in and the weather turned cold, even though the forecast had predicted clear skies. Snow can be expected at any time of year.
Up here, bears appeared to have become a nuisance, as one long trail was closed due to bears becoming “food conditioned.” Had we arrived just a week later, we would have been required to hike in groups of four or more to counteract the bear danger. We passed many couples carrying bear bells, whose loud jingling made them come across as Swiss cows. I questioned the bells' effectiveness – wouldn't just talking be better for both couples and bear avoidance?
The park rangers keep tabs on wildlife, and bears in particular, through motion-activated cameras. One can often spot the cameras placed in strategic spots along the trails. We wondered if we could fill up their memory cards by going back and forth a few times. Surely humans greatly outnumber animals on the trails – how do the park rangers filter them out?
Honza was somewhat disappointed that we had not seen any bears. I tried to explain that this was very much a good thing.
“Can you imagine what you would have to say to Hertz if a bear broke into our car?” I asked.
Honza was unperturbed: “we have full insurance.” Then after some thought, he said: “but for all we know, they probably have some kind of bear claws clause in the rental agreement.”
Banff AreaAnother great gem in the park is just outside the town of Banff: Johnston Canyon. A gentle trail, first paved and later becoming a metal walkway bolted to the canyon walls, takes visitors up along Johnston Creek to a series of impressive waterfalls. The lower falls are quite enchanting, especially in the early morning light before the crowds arrive. For a closer look, one can crawl into a tiny grotto, a task nearly impossible later in the day.
The upper falls are much taller and stately, but lack the charm of the lower falls. Here, the metal walkway transitions back to a natural dirt trail that leads up to the Ink Pots, a series of pools created by mineral springs bubbling up nearly ice cold water through quicksand. The shimmering pools are various shades of green, blue, and turquoise, and are a lot less crowded than the easily accessible waterfalls below.
Since our parking permit expired in the early afternoon on our last day, we decided to explore a few hiking options around Canmore. It turns out the residents are quite fortunate to have access to numerous scenic trails and lakes – their mini version of Banff. The why of living here was clear, but the how was a bit of a mystery. Real estate prices approached San Francisco Bay Area levels, which made us wonder how locals afforded it with tourism being the only industry in the area.
On the way back to Calgary, we hit a lot of traffic on the national highway (the only one!) so we asked for an alternate route. Google happily obliged and suggested we take an unofficial exit through a series of unnamed dirt roads guarded by sheep dogs. Honza, who was driving, questioned my sanity but was soon comforted when he noticed a large procession in the thick dust behind us. We had become trail blazers, and Google's quick thinking saved us an hour of travel time.
Banff National Park really is a spectacular place. In the five short days we spent here, we barely explored a small fraction of it, and I vowed to return for a longer visit, preferably backpacking, here and in the neighboring parks.