Banff and Beyond

I just saw the most beautiful lake in the world.

Of all the pretty places I’ve seen around the globe, this was the one: the shining star; the photo you just can’t wait to put on Instagram. Lake Moraine is 20 minutes away from it’s sister lake, Lake Louise and the two bodies of water collectively are among the most photographed places on the planet. Most visitors find themselves snapping a million pictures and then staring into the water and wondering how it can be real. However this area is no one hit wonder. There’s hundreds of miles of beauty and nature, hiking trails and waterfalls. The Canadian Rockies are an hour and a half from Calgary and give visitors all the pristine beauty that the mind can process.

The Rockies in Alberta are made up by 4 contiguous national parks, Jasper, Banff, Yoho and Kootenay, as well as a cluster of provincial parks that are all connected together with no obvious borders. There’s really only two towns inside the park, Banff and Jasper and few stops between. To live in either, you have to work in the park. Visitors have a choice of staying in a hotel in either town, camping or spending the night outside the park boundaries in a small town like picturesque Canmore or Dead Man’s Flats. You must buy a permit from the park entrance that allows you admittance to any of the parks for a daily rate of around $20/family or $10/person. Once you have the magical piece of paper on your windshield, you can come and go as you please.

The town of Banff is the hub that most visitors use to visit the nearby attractions. It’s surrounded by beautiful snow capped mountains with the Bow River flowing through it. There’s lots of hotels and restaurants lined along the main street with good but pricey options. On the edge of town, Bow Falls has a magnificent trail along the water’s edge and rafts for rent. It doesn’t get much more beautiful than this in the summer. The wild flowers scent the air, the grass is greener than green and the water is so clear you just want to drink a glass of it. The Waldhaus Pub and Patio at the Fairmont is a great place to sit and soak up the view. Nearby, you can visit the Cascade Gardens, a small free walking garden with picturesque views. Banff’s main street is a cluster of tourists: it looks more like a cruise port than a mountain town, with obligatory candy shops and stores selling maple syrup and other Canadian products. If crowds irritate you, the good news is all you have to do is walk down a back street or find a quiet trail. The great thing about tourist hordes is that they usually stay on the beaten path.

The best thing to do in Banff is take the Banff Gondola to the top of the mountain. It’s not a cheap ride, but the views are amazing.  When I was eight years old I was given a View-master for Christmas with 3D pictures of national parks around the world. The only photo I recall almost 50 years later was the one of Banff. The view was exactly what I remembered…A stereo photo so amazing that even a child could scarcely believe that such a place existed.

About 15 minutes drive from Banff is Johnston Canyon. This gem of a park is a hiking trail with an upper and lower falls walk that takes you along a beautiful creek to crashing whitewater falls. The upper falls is around a 2.5 kms walk, the lower falls can be reached in about half an hour. There’s a small grotto that you can duck through to get right next to the falls. It’s best to get there early before the tour buses arrive.

If you continue down the A1 or take the larger Trans- Canadian highway you’ll reach Lake Louise in about 30 minutes from Banff. There’s the small hamlet of Lake Louise and then there’s the actual lake about 2 km up the hill. During peak season, it’s nearly impossible to find parking at the lake, so shuttles take guests to and from the car park. Before you reach the lake, there is a turnoff that brings you to Lake Moraine, another 20 minute drive. Lake Moraine is quite a bit smaller than it’s sister lake and parking is nearly impossible. The best strategy is to go very early and beat the crowds. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to just drive there. Otherwise, there’s the shuttle option. Once you arrive, you feel the magic of this wondrous lake. Fed by alpine rivers, the water has taken an otherworldly color that just looks impossible. How many lakes can you think of that you can stare at for an hour without getting bored? Lake Moraine is that lake. Lake Louise runs a close second. The area has a trail that runs to the Teahouse, boats for rent and even offers horseback riding. The Fairmont Hotel lies at the end of the lake with shops and a restaurant with a million dollar view.

The Icefields Parkway is the name for the highway that runs from Lake Louise to Jasper. It’s famous for being one of the most beautiful drives in the world and it certainly lives up to it’s reputation. There are glacier lakes, rivers, trails and majestic mountains that line the road making it difficult to choose where to spend your time. We saw a herd of mountain goats, elk and even a bear driving down this stretch of highway. The big draw is the Columbia icefield, the largest stretch of icefield in the Rocky mountains. It feeds six glaciers, but the most accessible area is the Athabasca Glacier, which is within walking distance of the Icefield Parkway. You’re not allowed on the glacier without a tour guide and passage to the walking area is by “snow coach” only. You’d have to cross the river to get to the glacier on your own and run the risk of falling into a hidden crevasse. There’s lots of warning signs to keep intrepid travelers from doing just that. If you’re happy just looking at the glacier from the other side of the river, it’s absolutely free. To take the snow coach with a guide and walk on the Glacier Skywalk attraction is around $140 Canadian. The tourist center across the street has a great viewing area where you can grab a cold beer and watch the ice melt.

Jasper is very small and it’s difficult to get accommodation during peak season, so some travelers turn around back to Banff and do the icefields as a day trip. There are options to stay there and lots of beautiful lakes and waterfalls in the area. September sees less crowds and better options if you like your space.