Banff National Park is one of the most recognized and iconic places in Canada. A photographer’s paradise teeming with wildlife and outdoor activities, Banff is spectacular in every sense of the word. With over 1600km of scenic hiking trails available, Banff is the place to come to be inspired and awed. Where else can you cross paths with a giant grizzly bear, witness the grandeur of the mountains and stumble upon turquoise lakes? We set out to drive length and width of Banff National Park to experience it all.
Town of Banff is an hour and half from Calgary. The drive to get there is fantastic as the landscape changes suddenly from plains to majestic Rockies. The roads are in great condition but the driving habits of locals are best not emulated. The time of our visit coincided with daily snowstorms. They drive with reckless abandon and do not slow down even during snowstorms. We lost count of cars and semis that rolled into the ditches along the highway. Take your time driving. Upon arriving at town of Banff we were surprised at how small it is.
The town of Banff is as touristy as it gets. Everything is geared towards the thousands of visitors that come to the park from around the world. The park’s first superintendent even made sure that the main street had the best views of the mountains. It is also the highest town in Canada. You can go on a hike, visit hot spring pool, and then have a fantastic meal all within walking distance. It is a perfect base for all of your adventures. There is a grocery store, movie theater and even a bowling alley. We found it to be quite expensive and if you plan to eat out every day prepare to thin your wallet. You will find plenty of tour companies offering their activities as well.
Lake Louise is by far the most iconic place in Canada. In fact, if you google Canada, most likely it will be a picture of the famous Lake Louise. Located about an hour away from Banff, it is jam packed with selfie tourists all day long. If you want solitude and serenity, come either early or when the weather is bad. The rest of the time the experience is disappointing. Do not despair as hiking in the area is considered to be one of the best in the world. There are quite a few hikes available right by Fairmont Lake Louise hotel. In the summer time, some of the hikes are accessible only in groups of 4 and more. The reason behind it is that the area is prime breeding hot spot for grizzlies and sows get quite aggressive around their cubs.
If hiking is your thing, there are two hidden gems around Lake Louise. Tea houses! There are two quite challenging hikes to two iconic tea houses that are perched up, high here in the mountains.
- Lake Agnes tea house.
- Plain of six glaciers tea house.
The trails are marked making it virtually impossible to get lost. They do get challenging as the elevation increases. That just adds to the fun!
We went on the last day of the season to check out Plain of six glacier tea house and let me tell you, getting there while it is snowing and rain is turning to ice is no easy feat! We must have fell 50 times to get there. It was totally worth it! The little wooden cabin has indoor and outdoor spots to enjoy an aromatic teapot. There are trail mix bars, cake and little snacks available as well and the views are superb. We highly recommend to visit both tea houses (4-6 hours each).
Moraine Lake is located ten kilometers from Lake Louise but does not get the same recognition as the latter. In my opinion, the views are better on Moraine. Human traffic is also a lot smaller. If you are lucky, in the summer months, Pika can be seen among the rocks by the parking lot. We were surprised to find out that access to the lake is not open year round and that by the second week of October, the road closes. As for the hiking, the same rules apply in regards to the bears in the area.
You should really visit Canadian Tire or Cabela’s to pick up a can of bear spray. (Sold at the customer service desks). Better safe than sorry.
According to parks Canada, there are 53 species of mammals in the park. The chance of seeing wildlife in the park is a high motivation for tourists to visit. Depending on the season, luck and “hot spots”, visitors can encounter: grizzlies and black bears, cougars, elk, deer and wolves. We have encountered wolves, deer, elk, bighorn sheep and mule deer during our visit.
The best time to see wildlife is at dawn, when they are the most active. There are practically no cars as well and if you are lucky, you will encounter one or more species. The best road for wildlife has to be highway 93 and 1A. If you take the highway 1A from Banff to Lake Louise, the trip will take you more than hour but it is stunning drive and you will increase your chances at wildlife spotting. In fact, if you drive at dawn and dust on any small road, your chances of wildlife spotting increase two fold. Please drive carefully! Visibility decreases and animals are more active, darting across the roads.
Banff National Park attracts visitors year round from around the world for a reason. With so many options to explore and see, to witness Canadian wildlife in their natural habitat, to see the power of the Rocky Mountains and experience the hospitality of the locals, Banff is a pillar of Canada’s grandeur and one visit is simply not enough.