I had been wanting to see Banff for a long time. I'm almost fairly certain it started with a picture I saw of Lake Moraine upon opening my laptop one day. It loves to show me random nature pics. When I saw that picture, I just knew I had to be there. That glacier fed lake was calling to me.
Off I went. After spending 3 days in the park with @ScottyReichard, I picked up quite a few "do's" and "don'ts". I'd like to pass that knowledge along to you now. This place is becoming quite the hot spot and I think there is definitely a strategy one should have for seeing all of the park’s gems. So here it is! My guide to Banff National Park.
Where to Fly
I booked my nonstop ticket with Air Canada. Because I went in August, prices all around were a bit expensive- high tourism season. However, if you're like me and enjoy saving money, there is still plenty of room for that through other aspects of the trip.
I do suggest landing in Calgary. You can fly into smaller airports that are closer to the park, but those definitely come at a cost. Calgary is about a 1hr drive to the park itself, so plan accordingly. I found that Thrifty had the most reasonable prices for cars. No 4 by 4 vehicles are required, really. You can definitely get away with driving a little sedan.
Where to Stay
Everywhere in Banff is pretty damn expensive, and this is where is can get confusing. 20 minutes outside the National Park is a town called Canmore. This is where I stayed. There are familiar commercial grocery stores and places to eat around the town, making it easy to navigate. Now 20 minutes from there is also the town of Banff. This is where most people stay.
The town of Banff is a tourist trap! It's cute to go and see, but it's slammed with people. There isn't a whole ton of parking there either, so you risk ending up driving in circles trying to find a spot. Anyhow, cool to see, but I was't sold on spending a ton of time there. Team Canmore for the win. To save money, I always suggest Airbnb or VRBO. Everywhere I go, I typically get a place with a kitchen to cook my own food. Yeah, I'm that girl.
What to Do
This is the fun part! Okay, let me start by saying that this park gets packed with people. Packed to the point where if you are not in the lake parking lots by 8am, park rangers close the roads to them. Yes, they close the roads and you will not get in. Again, I went in the summer and can only speak for that time frame. I also went in 2017 when all of the National Parks in Canada were free, so I did not pay an entry fee, which also results in more people. Below I have laid out my itinerary for the weekend so you can get a feel for what I was up to.
Please note that the attractions I'm about to talk about are deep within the park. While the park entrance is 20 minutes away from most places to stay, the lakes and such are much further away. Think 1 to 1.5hrs.
Red Chairs for Sunset
After arriving in Canmore, checking into our condo and grocery shopping, I headed straight for the sunset. The spot Scott found is a great place to get a full on view of the mountains, the town of Banff and some little lakes below. What makes this place unique, though, is these two random red chairs someone placed at the bottom of the hill. Golden Hour pics for the win.
Lake Louise + Lake Agnes + Teahouse + Big Beehive + Devil's Thumb Hike
This hike is a total of about 6 miles round trip (Louise to Beehive). We started the hike at 7am and there were already people lined up for pictures at Lake Louise. I really recommend going here in the morning. The lighting is A+++ and while there are folks there, there are not too many. From Lake Louise, we walked along the right side to hit the trail to Lake Agnes. This is a fairly decent ascend up the mountain with great views of Lake Louise as you start to head into the tree line.
Lake Agnes + Teahouse
Eventually you will come up to Mirror Lake which is kind of cool to see. After that is Lake Agnes. On your right will be the Teahouse. This is a must to stop there and have a cup of their brew!
They have all kinds of tea, so no excuses, and coffee if you're one of those people. Please beware that they take cash only (both Canadian and USD), so come prepared. There's also chipmunks everywhere. Leave them alone, though. They already jump on humans as is and chipmunk disease ain't cute. Something cool to note about the teahouse is that the staff actually hikes supplies up there every day. Every. Day. The next time you think life is hard as you're sipping your Caramel Macchiato, you stop and think about someone else, okay?
From here, you will stay along the righthand side of Lake Agnes and make your way to Big Beehive. This portion of the hike is a fairly decent number of steep switchbacks. Nothing too crazy but kind of exhausting if you just filled up on a whole pint of tea. Kidding. I didn't do that. I don't have a problem, psh.
Once at the top, you will approach a fork. Go left for Beehive Viewpoint, straight for Plain of Six Glaciers and right for Devils Thumb.
We went left, first. You can see Lake Louise from this point, which I loved. It actually looks like someone spilled acrylic paint in a pool and called it a day lol. I know, I have the imagination of a 6 year old. Not ashamed. There are plenty of viewpoints along your walk to the official stop, but to reach the little wooden gazebo and get to the true view, you need to walk to the end of this trail (very short maybe .25 mi).
After the Big Beehive, we went back to that initial fork in the trail and made the last-minute decision to hike Devil's Thumb. If you are the least bit afraid of heights, this trail is not for you. You will be on the edge of a cliff the whole time. Yes, this is the case with most trails, but you're quite literally on the edge. The trail is also a one-way road so you will need to step to the side to let others pass.
Totally doable by all means, but know your personal limits. After about a mile in, you eventually come to a straight uphill.
This is a hands and knees type of hike. If "sketch" isn't a part of your vocabulary, it is now. This trail consists of loose dirt and gravel as well as small chunks of slate rock that make it hard for you to grip. I can’t begin to tell you how many pine trees I apologized to because I didn't know what else to grab a hold of.
You kind of just have to step wherever your foot can get a good hold. After some boulders, is Devil's Thumb. There you have it. On top of the Thumb is a giant rock pile people have started to mark that they have been there and past that is one of the most amazing views in the park. You will see both Lake Louise and Lake Agnes side by side. This is where I was wishing someone built an elevator down because gosh darn it do I hate downhill.
Ah yes. Want to know a secret? I hate going downhill. Joke is on me. I would rather climb uphill all day long than hike down. This is where I started throwing a bunch of f-bombs at my boyfriend. He laughed, he knows me. There were tears and more laughs on my part. I really questioned my sanity, and this won't be the last time, sorry, Scott.
Canoe on Lake Moraine
I love this lake. I really do. What better way to see it than to canoe it? The Lake Moraine Lodge rents out 2 and 3-person canoes for hours at a time. If you ever wondered what swimming in a pool of blue Jolly Ranchers was like, this is your chance. Of all the things we did on this trip, this was probably my favorite. It’s simply beautiful there.
I think what I found the most amusing about this whole thing, though, is that the guides never show you how to paddle a canoe. I can't tell you how many people I saw going in circles, forever stuck in the Jolly Rancher lake. Twas fun to watch.
Your time will be spent seeing the Shoreline Trail that runs along the lake, and you can actually paddle all the way to the little creek that runs the Glacier water, forever filling Moraine.
Stretching 144mi, Icefield Parkway is probably one of the best ways to see Canada’s treasures among the Rockies. I couldn’t even tell you what half the destinations along this road were if I wanted to. We probably pulled over at least every 20, if not 10, minutes. It’s so gorgeous! Think glaciers, lakes, pines, wild flowers, dream land.
I found myself in awe most of the time. I guess I just couldn't shake the feeling those beautiful mountains gave me. This is one of those places that looks fake from every angle. Every view, every plant, every everything looks as if it was painted by Bob Ross. Oh Bob, you curly headed genius, you.
10/10 if you get the chance to drive just 20 minutes along this road, do it. There will be plenty of stops along your way, each better than the last.
Ah yes. The famous Johnston Canyon, known for its balancing boulder. Sorry to ruin your fantasy but this is really an optical illusion. The boulder is simply a canyon wall, with the tail end of the wall perfectly hidden behind the boulder like shape. It's pretty cool nonetheless. Finding the boulder and the cave was a little difficult. For starters, when we first hit the trailhead, there were at least 5mi worth of cars parked along the side of the road. That's when we turned around and when to a set of hot springs in the area. We came back to the canyon around 7pm- completely empty.
Again, if you visit this park, go really early or really late to everything. The walk through the canyon was pretty easy. There are some uphills, but the scenery makes it so worth it. You'll pass over bridges and walk through narrow rock walls. Pretty majestic if you ask me! After about a mile, there will be signs leading you towards what's called the Ink Pots. Here is where you want to look for the cave. There will be a small waterfall off to the right at some point where you will also see what looks like the side of the boulder. Go down there. The cave definitely lived up to the hype, but what was the best part? We had it all to ourselves.
All photos were edited with the Dani The Explorer Presets which you can buy here.
Dani is the Founder of Mountain Chicks and the primary author of the Mtn Chicks Blog. Here you'll find outdoor tips, travel experiences, gear reviews and more.