As most of you know I recently went on a trip to Canada to visit not only Banff National Park but also Jasper National Park. A while back I did a poll on my stories asking you all if you’d be interested in me writing a blog post about this trip. This trip was a little different from other trips because it was very nature focused: lots of time hiking without much Wi-Fi. A ton of you replied that YES you were interested in a blog post about this trip so therefore here you go!
My work does not honor holidays but we still decided to go Labor Day weekend as we heard it is a good time to visit the area before the weather gets too cold! We flew out from PDX straight Calgary on Friday and then came home around that same time on Wednesday! Calgary is the best place to fly into if you are going to Banff as it is only a 1.5 - 2 hour drive. You can also drive up to Banff which is about 12 hours straight from Portland but since we only had so many days off of work, we wanted to spend the majority at Banff instead of driving there. Upon arriving in Calgary, we rented a Jeep Wrangler which was great for the type of trip though I’m not sure it had the best gas mileage.
Friday: Travel Day
Saturday: Lake Louise
Sunday: Drive to Jasper
Monday: Drive back to Banff
Tuesday: Lake Moraine/Johnston Canyon/Emerald Lake
Wednesday: Travel Day
The first thing we did when we got to Banff was go check in at our Hostel where we stayed twice for two nights in a row. We stayed at Hostel International Banff Alpine Centre which was significantly cheaper than any lodge, hotel or AirBnb. There is also the option to camp however one of my friend did that around this time last year and said it was not worth it. Considering how much it rained and how cold it was on our trip, I am so glad we did not camp either! After dropping off our stuff we headed to the town of Banff to explore and get some dinner. The first place we stopped at was called Pacini which we ended up returning to for dinner that night after running through a rain storm. They had great pasta, pizza and a free bread bar which I was a fan of.
Our first real day was pretty low-key which was honestly great because I slept terribly on Friday Night. I laid in bed for ages but could not fall asleep due to all the noises in the hostel. We were right by the bathroom and every conversation and closing of a door sounded so loud to me. I think I feel asleep around midnight and then we had to wake up at 3am to get ready for the day. We kept our leftovers from the night before to eat for breakfast on our drive to Lake Louise. Everyone had said to get there super early so we left around 4am to aim to get there around 5 to get a parking spot. When we got there, there was surprisingly a lot of parking spots and maybe 5 cars total. I think this may have been because the weather that morning was supposed to not be ideal though by 8 or so, the lot was full. The lake is a quick walk from the parking lot through the woods before you come across the expansive lake. To the left is the boat house where we went canoeing on Tuesday and to the right there is a hike to the Tea House. The Fairmount Hotel looks over the lake which is an absolutely gorgeous hotel!
Since you can walk around so much of the lake, it was not too hard to find a spot to camp out and set up my tripod. One thing I loved about the lake was how the sidewalk and the rocks led straight into the water instead of there being sand or a ledge. It was pretty foggy that morning and as you can see, the mountains were completely hidden. I headed out to the lake from our car around 6:15am when it was still decently dark which was good because it started to really rain around 7:30am. We went to the Fairmount Hotel to get some food and a warm drink at their Cafe before heading back to the hostel. At the hostel we took a nap, showered and then went to went to the grocery store in town to stock up on some food and snacks for the next few days.I highly recommend stockings up on snacks especially because of the early mornings and long drives! Our hostel kitchen did not open until 6am but since we were leaving at 4 each morning, we would get stuff from the deli and store it in the car to keep it cold all night.
Originally we were not going to go to Jasper National Park but when making our itinerary ahead of time, we realized how many places we wanted to visit were in that park and it seemed silly to be traveling so far and not go. The town of Jasper is about 4 -5 hours away from the town of Banff but you can technically get into Jasper by only driving around an hour. Along the way there are many great places to stop which is what we did. Our first stop was Peyto Lake which is known for being the shape of a fox or a seahorse. We had heard this is a beautiful spot to visit for sunrise so again, we woke up a 3am to get ready, checked out of the hostel and left for Peyto at 4am.
When you get to Peyto Lake, there are two parking lots. We sat in the wrong parking lot for about an hour before realizing our mistake. Luckily this is a less known hike so there were still no other cars or people there. The parking lot you want to go to is the second one that has a sign directly you towards the parking lot for buses. You can still get to the viewpoint from the first parking lot but it is a longer hike which we were not keen to do in the dark especially since we had limited time before the sun rose. From the second parking lot it is a 3 minute walk to the viewpoint of the lake. While that is a great view of the lake, we wanted to hike up to Bow Summit Lookout for a better view of the entire lake and the mountains.
To get there you will walk another 3ish minutes to the path to the left before getting to a sign with a map that marks the beginning of the loop. At that sign there will be a path to the right that goes down to the later or there will be two paths to the left which are the loop. You will want to go to on the loop and go counterclockwise so starting on the right side of the loop. As you walk, you’ll pass two blue signs and then walk further before seeing a green sign with a path to the right and the left. Take the path to the left that goes straight ahead. The green sign should also be directing you this way as that is how you get to Bow Summit Lookout.
You’ll walk up this slight incline for about 20ish minutes before getting to a clearing. Continue to your left and you’ll see a wiggly path going up a mountain to the left. Climb that until you get to the rocky viewpoint. Honestly there was not a designated top so we just climbed until we found a view that we were satisfied with. When we got there no one else was there but by the end of sunrise as the fog had rolled in, there were two other groups up there. Definitely a worthwhile hike that is a lot more secluded than the others. When we got back to the parking lot after the hike, there was only one other car there so in general Peyto Lake is a lesser known spot.
Our next stop was the Athabasca Glacier however we did find this great lake along the way and had to get some photos! I regret not getting the name of the lake but there is a pull off for the lake and there were several other cars there as well.
The Athabasca Glacier was a nice change of scenery from the many lakes in the area. There is a parking lot as the base of the glacier and then it is about a 20/30 minute walk uphill to the glacier. Along the way are markers showing how far down the glacier used to go versus how much smaller it is now due to Global Warming. One sign states that the glacier is melting fast enough that a person could visit it a few times in their lifetime and it would look different each time. The glacier is huge though you cannot get too close and person with it. There are tours out there though where you can actually go on the glacier which would have been a cool experience! As you walk towards the glacier you can also see the marks on the rocks where the ice has scratched the stone to create a unique patterns.
Our original plan after the Glacier was to visit the Columbia Icefield Skybridge. While your phone will tell you that is 15 minutes North, you actually are supposed to park in the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre Parking lot across the way and take a free shuttle from there to the bus parking lot a the skywalk. We did not know this however and parked along the side of the road. The employee there said they are no allowed to sell tickets to you if you park along side the road though they can if you say you parked in some other parking lot. We told the truth however and were not allowed to get tickets. The tickets are about $35 per adult but honestly, the skywalk did not look that cool. It is not really near or above a visible, large glacier and looks way more cool on the website than in real life. We passed on this and I would recommend doing the same honestly.
Because we cut out the Skywalk, we had some extra time to stop at Athabasca Falls which we had originally planned to do Monday on the drive back. This is more of a quick stop along the way as there are a few viewpoints of the falls but no real hike. It was pretty crowded when we went since it was around noon at this point. I would recommend putting on bug spray for this stop as there were definitely mosquitoes flying around.
Our next stop was at Valley of Five Lakes. Valley of Five Lakes is definitely a must! It is a loop hike (takes about 2ish hours) where you get to see 5 magnificent lakes. This was the warmest stop on our trip where instead of wearing my normal 5 or 6 layers, I was down to just a t-shirt and was still sweating. Our plan was to get to Maligne Lake by 4pm to rent a canoe before the Boat House closed so we had limited time to spend at the lakes. We heard that lake 4 and 3 are the best so we did the loop backwards and started at lake 5. The lakes were so amazing an definitely worth seeing! This is where we got the most number of mosquitoes though so make sure to spray ahead and throughout your hike!
After viewing lake 4, we realized that we were behind schedule to get to lake Maligne by 4 so we ended up running/walking fast around the rest of the loop back to the car. The loop we took went between lake 1 and lake 2 but there is another loop I think that allows you to go all the way around lake 1. We did end up making it to lake Maligne just in time to rent a canoe. Our plan was to canoe to Spirit Lake for sunrise however I had not realized that the journey is 14km each way which is a little under 18 miles total. Everyone we talked to said to reserve almost a whole day for the trip and that it takes about 3 hours each way if you are an experience canoe-er. After renting the canoe we brainstormed and decided to just attach the canoe to the top of the car, drive it further down the lake and then just get in the water down there so it would not be as long of a paddle. Heads up if you try to do this, you can’t. There apparently are some backcountry campsites but there are no roads to get to any part of the lake lower down. We ended up sleeping in our car and then the next morning returning the canoe before eating breakfast and making the drive back to Banff.
On our way back to Banff we did not end up going to the Hot Springs as we had originally planned which was a bummer. We heard that the Minette Hot Springs are better than the one in Banff but it is out of the way by about an hour North. We did make several stops on the way back home though starting with Sunwapta Falls which is more of a viewpoint a short distance from the parking lot. Next up was Mistaya Canyon. The Canyon had a small hike that was maybe 15 minutes downhill each way. There is a bridge you can view the canyon on both sides from or you can walk down and climb on the rocks (at your own risk) for better views. We did this and it was amazing seeing the water rushing through and how the rocks have been carved by the water over time. Our last stop before heading home was Bow Lake. It is different from Bow Summit Lookout at Peyto Lake and is closer to Banff than Peyto. There was a whole line of cars parked along a road which is what we did however that road leads to a parking lot and lodge where there were more parking spots since a lot of cars weren’t driving that far.
Our last day was probably one of my favorites! We woke up at 3am again to get ready and then make the drive to Lake Moraine. I would say Lake Moraine is more popular so the parking lot was a lot more full than Lake Louise although we had plenty of spots to pick from. When we got there, it was about 5:15am and still pitch black with stars in the sky. We ended up unrolling our sleeping bags and taking an hour nap until about 6:30am. Honestly I would say that is the way to do it. Wake up early, secure a parking spot and then catch up a bit on sleep. At Lake Moraine there is the option to do a short hike up to the rock pile or you can walk further around and find several different spots. We picked a spot down that path near the Canoes so we could get some photos of those. Although there were a lot more people at Lake Moraine based on the full parking lot, I think everyone was spread out more so it did not feel as crowded. We got a great spot right near the water on a rock pile to set up our tripods. After the sun rose we walked back to the parking lot and did the short hike up the rock pile for some more photos. There is a lodge there but the line was very long so we just grabbed some snacks and a cold sandwich instead of waiting in line for caffeine and warm food. Next up we went to Lake Louise to wait in line for a canoe. We got there at 8:30am but by then all of the parking lots were completely full and the parking lot you park in for the shuttle is actually pretty far. We eventually found a parking spot, stopped by the restrooms at the Fairmount and went to stand in line at the boathouse.
Although you can rent a canoe for 30 minutes, it is pretty pointless because that costs $115 or you can rent it for the full hour for only $125 so it is definitely a better deal to do the full 60 minutes. The canoe can either fit 3 adults or 2 adults and 2 kids. We did not see anyone canoeing with any pets so I don’t think this is a spot you can do that unless you maybe bring your own canoe or kayak. I can’t remember if I had ever been in a canoe before and it was definitely a lot more rocky than a kayak. Canoeing in Lake Louise has been on my bucket list for years though so overall it was an amazing experience! The water is so blue which was completely unreal to be rowing in. There were some mosquitoes flying around though we did not get bit. The weather was actually pretty nice that day so I was only wearing one outer layer and was not cold at all.
The next stop on our list after canoeing was to visit Johnston Canyon. One thing we learned is that there is a highway called the One but there is also a highway called 1A and they are not the same. We drove south on the One for a long time before realizing we were driving parallel to the highway we were supposed to be one. You can only get onto 1A from down near the town of Banff or further North where highway 93 connects them. Although we had to do some backtracking we did eventually find it! There is a parking lot for Johnston Canyon but it was $10 a day if I remember correctly so most cars just park alongside the road which is what we did. The hike is a straight line where you go past Lower Falls and then Upper Falls before turning around and takes approximately 2-2.5 hours in total. Most of the path is paved so you do not need to worry about tripping over roots though a decent portion of the hike is uphill. We really wanted to see the iconic Johnston Canyon rock as seen above so we took a bit of a detour between the falls and did not go all the way up to Upper Falls.
After grabbing some dinner and drinks at the Irish pub in the town of Banff, we went straight to Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park. Yoho National Park is actually in British Columbia, Canada so it was kind of fun that we technically visited there as well. A lot of people suggest canoeing at Emerald Lake because it is cheaper and less busy ($70 for an hour versus the $125 at Lake Louise) but it was closed by the time we got there plus we wanted to do the iconic Lake Louise spot. The water is also a different color which maybe due to the time of day we went. It was a lot more blue-green than Lake Louise and was very clear which made for great reflections of the mountains. There were a TON of mosquitoes though! I could see them flying up to my face as they tried to bite me so we definitely did not stay long. It is a cute little spot though and I would recommend visiting and staying longer than we did if you can!
We got pretty lucky and saw a lot of wildlife on our trip. The two guys in our hostel the first two nights said they had not seen any wildlife so far. Most of the animals we saw were in Jasper National Park. One thing I noticed is that as your drive through Banff, there is a metal fence between the roads and the tree line whereas in Jasper there are no fences and often you would see wildlife along the edge of the forest.
In total we saw ducks, deer, some mouse and caribou but no bears. Part of me really wanted to see a bear while driving by in our car but also bears are a valid thing to be aware and cautious for. A lot of people suggested we get bear spray but we couldn’t fly with it or find it at the local grocery store so we just went without it. Most of the hikes we did were decently populated so it was not too much of a concern.
Thank you so much for reading about my recent trip! I hope you all learned a lot and have some ideas for when you visit these National Parks! If you have any questions or want more information about any part of the trip, please do not hesitate to reach out through email or DM!