Your Guide To Banff National Park: Lake Louise and Beyond
Four days in the Canadian Rockies, from the town of Banff to Lake Louise and beyond, here's my step-by-step guide to some of the most beautiful views in Banff, Alberta.
I had already hiked 10 miles that day. My legs were sore and I was a bit dehydrated, but I pushed through the strenuous, three hour hike up the mountainside to soak up this view. I logged an extra 3 miles on a switchback, jagged-rock trail with an elevation gain of 2,148 feet. I was so proud, I had to capture the moment (see photo above). Hard work pays off--proper hiking boots do, too.
But let's start from the beginning.
More than 4.3 million people call Alberta home, located in western Canada, the nature-infused province is also the birthplace of Banff National Park, part of the Canadian Rockies. You may have seen photos on Instagram of crystal blue lakes and dark green lush trees nestled between snow-capped mountains. I swear Bob Ross painted the whole thing. I knew that I wanted to see Banff with my own eyes! So, it was a no-brainer to spend my birthday at one of the most beautiful places in the world with my lumberjack of a friend.
Preparing for your trip
Before you book your trip, consider the time of year. I try to avoid the summer crowds due to higher rates in flights and board. I tend to choose dates just before or after the rush, August/early September felt like the perfect time.
If you plan to do the same, one thing to keep in mind is that you're on the cusp of two seasons, so layers are your best friend. A rain jacket, sweaters, and tank tops were all packed in my carry-on, along with hiking boots, which is key when you're climbing on slippery rocks. My friend gave me her old pair, and thank God, my Nikes would not have stood a chance.
We landed in Calgary in the afternoon, grabbed our car rental via Turo, a late lunch, and headed to our Airbnb just a 1.5 hour drive away. You can also take a shuttle from the city to Banff, if you don't want to stay in the park.
Day 1 - Explore the town of Banff
If you have ever been to a mountain town, you know what I mean when I say it has a magical vibe. I just want to know what the residents do for a living? They can't all work for the park, right?!
The first day we took it easy, especially since it was already late in the afternoon. We used this time to find souvenirs at their endless shops and grab a couple of drinks to unwind.
My friend wanted to stop by Banff Ave Brewing Co. since it had tons of positive reviews. If you're not a beer drinker--opt for a rose cider I like did! If you can, try to get a seat outside on the patio, it's on the second floor which makes it great for watching traffic pass and to catch the cool breeze.
Day 2 - Moraine Lake and Lake Louise
We woke up at 4:30 a.m. to prep for our 45 minute drive to Moraine because I read it would be a nightmare trying to find parking--they were right. It wasn't even 6 a.m. and the lot was already packed. Everyone was there to catch the sunrise! Luckily, we found a sliver of space, off the main road.
It seemed after a certain time park officials block the entrance to this spot due to lack of car spaces. However, the shuttle still drops people off inside for a small fee.
Tip: Aim to be at Moraine Lake by 5 or 5:30 a.m., if you're set on grabbing a parking spot.
This view from the top of Rockpile Trail is "one of the most photographed locations in all of Canada." It's the same view printed on the Canadian twenty dollar note in 1969 and 1979. The turquoise color is created when the glaciers move, it causes the rocks underneath the water to grind and form some kind of rock powder that gets deposited so when sunlight reflects off it, the blueish tint develops. Science!
After, we headed toward Lake Louise, just a few minutes up the road, it sits right in front of the Fairmont Chateau. We took a few photos but the weather wouldn't let up, it rained all morning! We decided to come back on another day to take the canoe out. Still, even when it's cloudy and dreary, the scene still manages to take your breath away.
My friend suggested we should go see Jasper National Park since it was only a 1.5 hour drive northwest. It was a scenic path which made the time go by a little faster.
This park has a couple of things catered to tourists, Columbia Icefield Skywalk allows visitors to walk a clear bridge path that extends past a cliff's edge. If you're afraid of heights, you might want to skip that one.
There's also Athabasca Glacier tour, where you can walk on glacier. We didn't feel it was 100 percent worth it, instead we found a path near the glacier. Funny thing, the divider the park set up to keep the general public out of the tour section was broken so people were crossing over and going on the glacier anyway. It was hilarious. We may or may not have been those people.
All the driving wore us out; we headed back to town and called it a day.
Day 3 - Johnston Canyon and the Ink Pots
We slept in a bit then drove 30 minutes to Johnston Canyon. This small hike has all paved trails and railing, making it accessible for all age groups and those in need of extra mobile assistance. We arrived around 10:00 a.m. and, once again, snagged a parking spot just outside the main (full) parking lot. Starting to see a pattern, eh?
There are plenty of picture-worthy spots. You just follow the sounds of the stream all the way to the top. One part of the hike I really liked was a tiny cave in the lower falls. It's a tight spot and you may get a little splashed on, but it's where you can see a waterfall up close.
Hike time: 90 minutes (one way) Difficulty: Easy Distance : 3 miles (one way)
After Johnston, you can continue on to the Ink Pots, some people turned around but we wanted keep stretching our legs. It's an uphill trek at the beginning with a lot of uneven paths, then 3/4 in, it goes downhill the rest of the way.
At end of the path, there's a massive view of sprawling trees and several cold mineral ponds. Take a close look and you can see the water percolate through the sand, these small green pools (ink pots) keep a temperature of 39 degrees Fahrenheit all year round! It's a nice spot to have a snack and sit. But don't worry if you skip this part of the trip. It wasn't as impressive as I would have liked but still a pretty sight.
Hike time : 2 hours (one way) Difficulty: Moderate Distance : 3 miles (one way)
By the time we came back down, we hiked about 10 miles--we were starving. We ended up at
Bear Street Tavern and chowed down on bison pizza. They threw in some special honey sauce, too (try it).We were dead from walking all day so we reserved our energy for our final day.
Day 4 - Lake Agnes Teahouse, Canoeing, and Sulphur Mountain
The sun finally came out on our last full day. I know! We could have planned a new hike, (I wanted to go to Lake Minnewanka) but it is what it is! We went back to Lake Louise and began our hike up to Lake Agnes Teahouse.
Tip: Use the bathroom before you head out, unless you want to be adventurous with your bladder.
The start of the trail is lined with trees, but once you get past it and gain some height, you'll be able to see some stunning views of Lake Louise. It does get steep at times but nothing that a little hiking stick can't help with. Following just little over the halfway point, you'll come across Mirror Lake.
The teahouse is just a few minutes away from here. What's cool is that it doesn't run on any electricity! Staff members use gas stoves and rely on natural sunlight to brighten up the place.
They have limited seating and you may have to share a table. Make some friends!
Tip: Bring USD or Canadian cash, they don't accept cards. I mean, where would they get Wi-Fi?
Hike time : 2 hours Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 2 miles
After exploring a bit and taking a rest, we went back down to finally slip into the canoe at Lake Louise!
The canoes are let out every 30 minutes, however, you also have the choice to extend your time to one hour. If you want to go all the way across the lake, take the full 60 minutes, especially if you're not an experienced rower.
Afterwards, we grabbed a bite and off we went to Sulphur Mountain. You can either hike or take the gondola to the top. We completely underestimated how difficult the climb would be. I thought it was going to be a leisurely one hour hike--nope. The trail tapered off a bit in some areas and I slipped a few times on the rocks. Yesh. It was harder than Ink Pots, perhaps it was because we were already exhausted, had a belly full of food, saw it was 6 p.m. and knew the sun would be setting in two hours. We had to book it!
Once you make it to the top, there's a huge restaurant, a Starbucks (meh), a gift shop and lots of spots for photo ops. Also, after 8 p.m. the gondola is free! I assume this is because they don't want you to try to find your way in the dark and then, you know, bears. Such relief! That night we drove back to Calgary and spent the next day in the city.
The entire trip showed me how beautiful our little corners of the world are. I hope to one day go back and explore other parts of the park. When planning your trip, just take one day at a time and keep the weather app handy!