This year is Canada’s 150th anniversary, and its gift to the world was free admission to all Canadian National Parks in 2017 with the Discovery Pass. I’m sure the country’s tourism revenue has skyrocketed – and for good reason. I’m thoroughly convinced that Banff, Alberta is one of the world’s most underrated destinations! It’s easy for Americans to overlook this gem just because it’s our neighbor, and not as popular among the post-grad backpacking crowd as Western Europe or Southeast Asia. I recently got back from 5 Days in the Canadian Rockies, with a fresh appreciation for the different people, food, languages, and landscapes the world has to offer.
That renewed sense of wonder for the unfamiliar is, to me, a pro of traveling in short spurts rather than months at a time. Each trip shakes me from the sameness and routine of my own culture. Simultaneously, it makes me appreciate the comforts of home. It also makes me appreciate the opportunity to travel more than I would if I was away for a long time! In Canada – which is much more international than you’d think – I realized how much I miss meeting people from all over the world and hearing so many different languages being spoken in one place!
Our travel plan was a little wacky because one girl only had three days while two of us stayed for five, so rather than posting our full itinerary (which was less than efficient), I’ll break the trip up into three posts: 1) Banff, 2) Lake Louise & Moraine Lake, and 3) Yoho National Park & The Icefields Parkway – with highlights and skip-its for where to eat, play, and sleep.
A note on transportation: the best way to get in and around Banff is to fly into Calgary and pick up a rental car near the airport. The shuttles and public transportation options are both extremely limited and limiting, not to mention expensive. You don’t want to be stranded in the middle of nowhere and reliant on hitchhiking, like several people we met (hi Connie, if you’re reading this)! Parking in the town of Banff was free and surprisingly easy to find – Moraine and Lake Louise are a different story, but I’ll go into detail on that in the next post.
Bear St Tavern
“The Bison” pizza (smoked bison, caramelized onions, edamame beans, mozzarella, pizza sauce) was probably the best meal I had in Banff and I had it on our very last day! It was served with a bottle of honey and a bottle of chili sauce, and I was told to mix them on my plate and use it as a dipping sauce. Phenomenal pairing.
Banff Farmer’s Market
[2017: Every Wednesday from 10am-6pm until Oct 4] We got lucky enough to run into the market one morning, and it was the best unplanned thing to happen on the whole trip! It warmed my heart to see vendors greeting the market regulars by name and catching up with each other.
I loved the delicate flavor of tonka bean, the perfect accent in my almond milk latte from The Rocky Bean Co. It’s a spice that I found out is illegal in the US after Googling why on Earth I had never heard of the magical ingredient… worth hopping the border for!
I also had a delicious caprese crepe from the food truck Crepes n Go. The sweet French lady who made my crepe explained that bocconcini (“little mouthfuls” in Italian) are little balls of mozzarella AKA yum. The greens they use in their crepes come from local school gardens, where they teach the children to grow their own vegetables! I enjoyed it while listening to the live music they had set up among the vendors – a great start to the morning.
Block Kitchen + Bar
“Global menu with Asian influences” immediately made me skeptical coming from the DMV area, where we have great asian food – but I was pleasantly surprised by the duck spring rolls and beef brisket Asian lettuce wraps that Mich and I shared. I’ve read great things about their cocktails too, but hiking and alcohol don’t mix 😉
Wild Flour Bakery
This bakery/coffeeshop (the best combination let’s be real) has amazing reviews for their sandwiches, but we went for breakfast. The staff was so warm, the cafe was inviting (free wifi, btw), and the chai tea latte did not disappoint (real tea bag!) Also, their housemade granola and yogurt with maple and berry compote puts any other granola and yogurt combination to shame… seriously.
- Melissa’s Missteak – our first meal in Banff – decent food, don’t miss the Swiss apple pancake if you go!
- Nester’s Market – reasonably priced grocery store to buy stuff to cook with at hostel/pack a picnic lunch on the trail.
- Skip it:
- Chuck’s Steakhouse (service wasn’t great, food was nothing out of this world. Whatever you do, don’t get the no-bake cheesecake… it tasted like a block of cream cheese with some berries on top.)
- Banff Ave Brewing Co (first ever poutine – it was the Harvest Poutine with turkey, gravy, stuffing, and cranberry sauce… not bad but too heavy for my liking and overall just a bit much. Can’t speak for the beer, though)
The only lake in Banff National Park that allows motor boats – there are boat cruises you can take, or you can rent one (no license needed). We opted for the pedal boat, which was quite a workout. As we were disembarking, Mich dropped her sunglasses and one of the girls working at the dock jumped into the ice cold water (so cold that no one swims in it, ever) with goggles to retrieve them for her. It was Day 1 in Canada, and the rumors were confirmed… Canadians are super nice.
I loved Minnewanka because of how relatively calm it was compared to Louise and Moraine. The parking situation and crowds were much more manageable, and there are some nice trails around the lake with ideal trees for hammocking. There’s also a little rocky beach area you could take a picnic, or enjoy some ice cream from the little shop at the lake. I would’ve loved to spend more time here just relaxing by the water.
Sulphur Mountain Trail & Gondola
Get there early, as parking at the trailhead is the same lot that’s used for the gondola ride up as well as the hot springs. We hiked up and paid for a one-way gondola ride down for half price ($25 USD) – but you can’t ride up and hike down for half price. During high season the ride down is free before 11am and after 7pm, but we definitely weren’t going to make it in time after breakfast.
The hike is 5.5 km (~3.5 miles) with a 655 elevation gain. It’s all switchbacks, but still more challenging than I was expecting for such a touristy hike. The views of Banff and the Bow Valley from the top were awesome. There’s a restaurant and little museum up at the visitor’s center, but there are better places to eat in Banff 🙂 If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the mountain goats grazing at the top! Give it at least 3 hours to have plenty of time to enjoy the view up there.
This hike was tacked onto the end of the day just a few hours before sunset, so I took my time making way to the Lower Falls while Hui and Mich sprinted to the ink pots. I spent a good 15 minutes at the waterfall playing with my camera settings to try to figure out how to photograph waterfalls… this is the best I could do without a tripod:
I would hardly consider the trail to the lower falls a hike – continue on to the upper falls for a little more activity for the day. According to Banff & Beyond, Johnston Canyon is one of the most popular day hikes in the area because it’s so doable!
- If you have time:
- Upper Hot Springs – the water source is 100% mineral water, but it just looks like an outdoor pool with a cool view… it’s a good drizzly day activity and it’s not expensive ($7 entrance, $1 for a locker, bring your own towel and bathing suits or rent them). If there’s a wait though, you’re not missing out on too much in the summer. If you visit in the winter I’d imagine it would be a different (much cooler) experience.
- Vermilion Lakes – apparently nice sunrises and sunset photos, but we just drove through the area. I didn’t think it was anything to write home about, but I read that you can see more wildlife here because it’s less busy! Probably should’ve considered that in my mission to see a grizzly…
- HI Alpine Centre Banff – The most expensive hostel we stayed in, due to its proximity to downtown Banff. We got in super late and left early so we didn’t check out the bar or any of the activities they put on. Considering the fact that there’s a bar inside the hostel, don’t choose this one if you’re looking for quiet. I think it’d be a fun place to stay on a solo trip! There’s also laundry facilities you can pay for, which is nice.
- HI Castle Mountain – We stayed here two nights because its location halfway between Banff and Lake Louise made it ideal for our wonky itinerary. Labeled as a “wilderness hostel”, it is pretty secluded and definitely not accessible without a car. It’s a sufficient place to lay your head… but I personally wouldn’t want to stay here again. The manager isn’t the friendliest and I could hardly turn around in the showers. (At least there were showers though? Apparently some wilderness hostels don’t have showers…)
- Fairmont Banff Springs – On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you’re looking for luxury this castle can be where you stay for the night. It was built facing the wrong way, though. The front faces the mountain instead of the lake, which is kind of funny. Chateau Lake Louise has better views, but I don’t doubt the luxury of this one either.
- I saw a few beautiful alpine lodge/cottages that were way out of my price range. However, I also saw on a forum somewhere that Airbnb isn’t actually legal in the town of Banff… proceed at your own risk? There are definitely plenty of other hotels in the area if you’re looking for a room for less than the Fairmont!
From Banff, drive north towards Lake Louise & Moraine Lake… Stay tuned for the next installment! You still have five months to take advantage of the free parks pass, so… start booking flights. 🙂 Happy belated Canada Day!
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