I have wanted to visit Banff, Alberta for a few years now- One of those Pintrest- looking destinations that you see on screen savers at work. Since the Canadian dollar hasn’t been in our favor recently, I made it my goal to see more of Canada this year- and Banff was high up on that list.
I come from a large family and have a lot of cousins near my age. We used to travel to California quite a bit to visit family- thought maybe we could switch it up this year- trade those ocean views in for mountain views.
We booked a room at “The Inns of Banff” which was more affordable than a lot of the other locations downtown Banff and the location was great. It was walk-able to and from town, and had some great Rocky Mountain views. (which was great when drinking wine on the rooftop patio) It wasn’t super fancy, but it served its purpose. We weren’t planning to spend a lot of time in the room.
We took an early flight from Toronto to Calgary on Thursday morning and landed at 8:40am. We picked up our chariot for the weekend- a bright blue Jeep Wrangler and hit the road. (PS, LOVED the Wrangler- I wanted to trade in my Jeep Compass back at home!) The drive from the airport to Banff is about an hour and 20 minutes and it isn’t a hard drive- no cliff hugging turns or anything!
You can spend anywhere from 4 days to 4 weeks in Banff (or more if your super outdoorsy) Unfortunately we only had 4 days, so we needed to make the most of our time. We went in mid May, and were told it was a shoulder season and you can experience anything from a snowstorm with -10 degree weather to sunny and +25. We were taking a gamble, but the prices skyrocketed when we looked at booking 2 months later for July, so we decided to take our chances. Things luckily worked out in our favor.
THE PRO’S OF BANFF IN THE SHOULDER MONTHS
1. Cheaper Prices: Our flight from Toronto-Calgary (return trip) as well as 3 nights hotel was just under $700 per person in May. I checked out the same package in July and it was $1200. The price difference is quite large, so if you are willing to take a few chances, you will save a lot of cash!
2. The crowds are minimal: We were 1 out of 4 canoes boating on Lake Louise, we were one of the only groups hiking on Johnson Canyon, we didn’t have to fight crowds to get on the Banff Gondola and there was essentially no one else driving along The Icefeilds Parkway. Plus- who wants random’s photo bombing their pictures? Not me.
3. Since weather conditions vary in different areas, there is a chance that certain hikes are not open yet and certain roads might not be open- this may sound like a CON and not a PRO, but if you only have a few days to fit a lot in- it will make your itinerary much easier to plan. You wont feel like you are missing out on things that you have to cut out because you have no time- you can do everything that is open.
4. Seeing the turquoise water was amazing, but adding the snow-capped mountains in the background was incredible. Chances of seeing snow capped mountains mid August wouldn’t be as common. The mountains literally looked like they were painted around us. It was warm enough that the water had thawed but not warm enough to melt the snow up high!
5. This also may sound like a CON, but since animals are coming out of hibernation, you have a higher chance of seeing a bear. Yes, they are probably hungry- so maybe don’t look super appetizing during your hike (LOL) We were a little scared of seeing a bear, but we actually got to see one while driving along Icefields Parkway and it was incredible!!! We were safe inside our car and this cute little bear didn’t care about us at all- all he wanted was to graze through the grass. It was definitely the highlight of the trip!
Now, if you were to be someone only visiting for 4 days, what would you do?
DAY ONE: Arrive, pick up your car from the Calgary airport (I highly recommend renting a car, to ensure you have freedom to plan your trip how you like) Drive to downtown Banff (It is adorable- all the roads are like Bear street, Moose Street, etc.. SO fun and super Canadian!) Take some time and wander the shops downtown. Have some lunch (we are at The Rose and Crown and had great food!)
After that, head over to the Cave and Basin Historic Site of Canada- This is pretty cool because it is actually where the history of Banff was established. Bring your nose plugs because it’s a little smelly, but its really cool to see. From the bottom, there is a little hike up hill you can take with some great mountain views.
From here you can drive over to the Banff Springs Hotel and take a stroll down the Bow River/Bow falls. You probably only need about an hour here, its really pretty, but no strenuous hikes.
Hope you brought your bathing suit, because you are down the street from the Banff Upper Hot Springs. For a low, low price of $7 you can enjoy these springs/mountain views for as long as you like. I get pretty restless after about an hour, so that was more than enough time for us. It was nice and relaxing after a day of site seeing and that flight.
You will probably be pooped by this point and want to head back to the hotel to freshen up and head to dinner.
DAY TWO: Rise and shine- get your best plaid shirt and hiking boots on because its time to hit the trails. We started the day with a trip to Johnson Canyon. You can choose a few different hiking options from 1 hour-5 hours. Check the trail map before you head up. We hiked the lower canyon and made our way to the waterfall, which was beautiful. This hike was really unique with catwalks across the river.
We continued on towards Lake Louise, stopping at numerous places to take photos. It was really easy to find beautiful backdrops, everywhere you look is breath taking. Once we got to Lake Louise we visited the visitors centre to see which trails were open. Unfortunatly the Agnes Teahouse Trail and Plain of 6 Glacier hikes weren’t open yet due to “Avalanche Season” (So, add that to the list of CONS! ) pffftt… avalance season.
Anyways so we ask the man at the desk which hikes we can actually do and he continues to show us these crazy 5-6 hour hiking loops, and this is when we discovered the truth. We weren’t the hikers we in fact thought we were. We were “Wikers”. What is a Wiker, you ask?
The definition of a Wiker:
"A wiker is a person who thinks they can hike, but in fact just likes to LOOK like a hiker, wearing coordinated Lululemon pants with a cute shirt and brand new Nikes- and would be pissed if they got them dirty, since they were semi- expensive. This person likes to take photos in front of beautiful scenery, often only shooting the back of their head to look more artsy. They sometimes bring props to order to enhance their outdoorsy photo (ie: a Bay blanket, because what is more Canadian than the Hudson’s Bay, right?” They don’t so much “HIKE” as they do “WALK” since they are not too fond of breaking a sweat and because they didn’t bring makeup to touch up for their photos. Thefore a walk-hiker is a WIKER."
We came to this conclusion while at this visitor’s center, and I am not too sure if the man helping us thought we were hilarious or super annoying. Basically to conclude the decision we went to Lake Louise and took some wonderful “wiker” photos in and around the Chateau Lake Louise then hopped back into the car and headed to YOHO national Park. There is a hike you can do around the lake, but it ended up being a little chilly here, so we decided to come back the next day to canoe, since the forecast was looking nicer.
We drove about 20 minutes and crossed the British Columbia boarder into an adorable little town called Field. If you are looking for a nice lunch spot you can try either Truffle Pigs Bistro or The Siding Café. The two highlights from YOHO for us was our visit to the Natural Bridge and Emerald Lake. Emerald Lake is just as it sounds- a beautiful lake with bright green coloring. You can hike around the lake or rent a canoe and paddle through it. You can spend either a day, a few days or even a few hours here. Check online before you go to see what hikes are open and if canoeing is available. The lake was thawed when we came, so mostly everything was open.
We headed back to our Banff hotel, taking about an hour and 20 minutes, got ready and headed to dinner at The Grizzly House. This is a fondue restaurant where for 40 dollars you get a soup or salad, your choice of vegetable or cheese fondue, your choice of meat to grill up with an assortment of sauces finished off with a chocolate fondue. It was amazing. If you plan to hit the town after, you may want to go back to the hotel and change first- it gets a little smokey in there.
DAY THREE: Today we began our Icefields Parkway adventure. This is the road that connects Banff and Jasper. If you are planning to staying in Jasper, this is an awesome drive with tons of photo opportunities. If you are staying in Banff, I would still recommend taking a drive along this road. Our journey was going to take us to the Athabasca Glacier, which would take about 2.5 hours without stopping. Obviously we were going to stop every 15 minutes to take photos, so the trip took a bit longer than it should have.
We planned to drive back to Banff that day, so we needed to get an early start. Believe it or not, 4 girls who all needed to shower and decide which “Canadian Chic” outfit they were going to wear all made it into the car by 9:30am. The Glacier tour we took was at 3:30, so we needed to budget our time along the way. You are able to either book a tour that can take you from Banff to the glacier, or you can chose to drive to the glacier yourself and simply just purchase the tour while you are there. You don’t really need to book in advance since there are quite a few tours a day.
Our first stop took us back to Lake Louise and we began our canoe adventure. It was a little pricey to canoe for a half an hour on Lake Louise- pretty sure it came to $80- but who can put a price on photos this stunning? That water- AMAZING! And who are we kidding, we weren't looking for a canoe expedition- we essentially just paid $80 to take photos of ourselves canoeing.
We continued along the road, literally just stopping every 25 minutes because there were so many beautiful photo ops- there’s something about those mountains that make everything look amazing. Luckily, there are a lot of mini parking lots along the road, because they obviously knew people would be stopping all the time. You need to keep your eyes peeled at all times.
My favorite stop along this road was Peyto Lake. It was about a 15 minute hike uphill to get to the look out, (It wasn’t super hard though!) and the view from the top will literally take your breath away. Photos can’t do this place justice. My cousin was taking a snapchat and caught our first reaction to the view on film- you would think we just ran into Justin Timberlake at the airport or something. “Ohhhhh myyyyy goooooddddd!!!” It was kind of funny to watch back- us “wikers” love a good view!
We continued on, dodging random wildlife- we saw a bear on the side of the road- he was adorable! We were in the car, so we were obviously safe, but he didn’t even look at us. He was more concerned about his afternoon snack that appeared to be just grass. This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
Once we arrived at the Athabasca Glacier, we chose the tour that also included the skywalk. The total for the tour was $80 per person. The tour takes you in these crazy vehicles that drive along the glacier. You are allowed to walk within a certain area and take photos. If you are looking for a glacier hiking expedition though, this isn’t your place. I had gone on a glacier tour in Iceland and you actually wear crampons and carry ice picks and hike the glacier. This was more for the experience of standing on a glacier. If you don’t have a trip to Iceland in your future, I would consider this tour- if you DO have a trip to Iceland in your future, maybe wait! It was still pretty cool. The second part of the tour takes you to this crazy skywalk off the edge of a cliff. It was awesome- however if you have a fear of heights I wouldn’t recommend. The tour was run by Brewster, and everyone was very friendly.
Our drive back to the hotel was much quicker then the drive to the Icefeid, since we didn’t stop as much. My advice for this day trip is:
1. Get gas anywhere you see a gas station. There is barely anywhere to get gas along this road, and you don’t want to get stuck in the middle of the woods.
2. There is NO cell service along this road. If you run out of gas you are screwed! (I mean, I’m sure there are a few friendly Canadians willing to help a sista out, but I wouldn’t bank on this!
3. If you are hungry- there really aren’t a lot of places to get food- bring snacks/water with you. If you need to pee- I hope you don’t mind squatting in the bush.
4. Bring a car phone charger/portable charger. Your phone will be working overtime with all the amazing landscape.
5. Keep an eye out for wild life while driving. You may catch a cute lil bear along the road. There is also a lot of other wildlife cruising around this road- you don’t want to hit any of them- be on alert at all times. (We were in the middle of a Big Horn Sheep traffic jam!)
DAY 4: Day 4 takes us to the Banff Gondola. Located close to the Banff Hot Springs, this gondola takes you high up on top of Sulpher Mountain. A return gondola ride takes about 10 minutes to get up and is $40 round trip. You are able to hike up the Sulpher Mountain Trail which takes about 3 hours- always check the trail conditions to see if it is safe to hike.
The gondola ride up was quick but scenic. Once you get to the top, it feels like you are on top of the world! I literally took 30 pictures of the same view because it was beautiful! They are building a new structure at the top that will have dining, etc.. it is still under renovations. There is a little trail you can walk along the top to get different views of the mountains and the town below. I have never seen so many trees in my life and I have never taken so many tree photos- think I have a bit of an evergreen fetish or something? Anways, my words of wisdom for the gondola is to arrive early. We got there at 10am when it opened and there was already a little line, however I am sure if we came in the middle of the summer we would be in a major line. Overall though- it was worth it. If I was in better physical condition I would have considered the hike up, but who was I kidding, the true “wiker” in me wanted the views, not the exercise!
Unfortunately our time was coming to an end and we needed to head back into town, get our final souvenirs and head to the Calgary airport. Oh, and grab a beaver tail, because they are delicious. We took in our final mountain views as we drove out of the Rockies. I easily could have spent a month here, there is so much to do and I now have a mountain (and evergreen tree) obsession. Coming to Banff made me extra proud to be Canadian. You really don’t appreciate your own country until you explore new parts. I am happy to check Banff off my list, but I know I will return again!!!