Banff National Park & Lake Louise (Alberta, Canada)
As we travel and meet people, they frequently ask us something along the lines of, “What’s your favorite place so far?” Early on, it was an easy question to answer. But now, it’s actually really hard to decide. We loved Montana, particularly Glacier National Park. South Dakota also rocked our socks off. And it’s no secret that we also enjoyed the heck out of Arkansas, New Mexico, and Key West.
Well, now we have one more to add to the list of “Really, I just can’t decide on one”: Banff National Park. Scott had been to the area once before on a business trip, but spent most of the time locked in a conference room. Most unfortunate, indeed. Edie had never even been to Canada…though she’d seen it from Detroit.
So on our way to Alaska, we decided that our first stop in our neighbor to the north (well, other than a night in a hotel en route) would be to camp in the town of Banff for a few nights and take the time to explore the area. Here’s what we found.
Banff National Park
So there’s Banff National Park and there’s Banff, the biggest town inside of Banff National Park. Let’s start by talking about the park as a whole.
Banff is Canada’s oldest national park, established in 1885. In just over 2,500 square miles, the park has all kinds of mountain landscapes, from icefields and glaciers to coniferous forests.
The Icefields Parkway is an excellent way to see a good bit of what Banff National Park has to offer. It runs northwest from Lake Louise (just northwest of the city of Banff) to Jasper. On the way, there are numerous stops to see Crowfoot Glacier, Peyto Lake, and Athabasca Falls, to name a few. We’ll show you pictures of several of these stops in our upcoming post on the Icefields Parkway.
One feature we thought was neat about the parkway is the animal walkways. Instead of bears, moose, and elk having to cross the road, endangering drivers and themselves, Parks Canada has built walkways over the road, similar to pedestrian walkways over an Interstate.
Apparently the animals actually use them to cross from one side of the road to the other, probably by necessity since the roadway is fenced off to push them to the walkways. Presumably, the cost of the walkways is recouped with fewer driver and animal injuries and fatalities, which would also mean less police time tied up in accident reporting and clean-up.
Outside of the natural beauty of Banff National Park, the main draw to the area is the resort town of Banff. Banff has the second highest elevation in Canada (4,800 feet), behind Lake Louise. So what’s there to do here?
Well, it’s a small town, so you have most any type of resort-type businesses. There are coffee shops, restaurants, and shopping. There’s the Banff Park Museum, along with several other nearby museums. If you’re there at the right time of year, you can go to the Banff Mountain Film Festival or Banff Mountain Book Festival.
While the hotel itself is rather expensive, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is definitely worth visiting. It’s over 130 years old and is one of the most beautiful hotels we’ve seen. The shops and restaurants are ridiculously priced, but it’s free to sight-see.
Near the hotel is Bow Falls. While it’s a rather small waterfall, it’s within walking distance of the hotel and is a gorgeous view. Other outdoor things to do in the area include skiing or biking Mount Norquay, taking the gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain, visiting the Banff Hot Springs, and going to Lake Minnewanka for biking, hiking, and fishing. For amazing views of Banff township, hike to the top of Tunnel Mountain. It’s an easy hike that will take most people an hour or less each way.
You can even ride horses. Edie had been aching to do some horseback riding, so she went for a one-hour horseback ride around the Bow Falls area.
The other big draw in the southern part of Banff National Park is Lake Louise, about 45 minutes northwest of Banff. Obviously, the lake itself is the namesake. The glacial water in this lake is so blue that it looks fake. The color comes from the light refraction off of the rock flour deposited by the glacier grinding down the rocks.
Along with the lake, there’s the Chateau Lake Louise, another Fairmont hotel. The hotel itself isn’t nearly as pretty as the Banff Springs Hotel, but the views of the lake are incredible.
There is some hiking in the area, but dogs aren’t allowed because it’s a major grizzly area. There is a flat dirt path around the lake that runs about 2-2.5 miles. You can take your dog there. It eventually goes up a slight hill and gives some nice views back towards the hotel and lake.
While we didn’t get a chance to visit it, Moraine Lake is only about 10 miles from Lake Louise and we’ve heard that it is even more scenic.
Drive 1A To See Wildlife – The quick way to get to Lake Louise from Banff is on Highway 1. The scenic way is on Highway 1A, which parallels Hwy 1. Your odds of seeing wildlife are much, much higher on 1A, with slower speeds, no fencing, and only 2 lanes. We had the good fortune of seeing a moose, a wolf, a grizzly with two cubs, and some deer.
Hiking – There are so many opportunities for hiking in the National Park that we can’t even list them all. Google can lead you where you want to be.
Camping – Campgrounds are also readily available in the park, some with full hookups, some with partial hookups, and some with no hookups. If you go remote, take bear spray because there are lots of grizzlies in this area.
Rafting, Fishing, Golfing, Skiing – You’re in the mountains. You can pretty much find anything to do that you want to do.
Banff township is located about 1.5 hours west of Calgary, the nearest major city, on the western edge of Alberta, Canada. Just take Canada Highway 1 west from Calgary and you’ll run right into the Banff National Park gate where you can get your pass.
If you’re going to stay overnight anywhere inside of the Park, it’s $9.80 per adult per night or $19.60 per family per night.
Lots and lots of pictures! Included in here are pictures of Banff township and Lake Louise, Bow Falls, Banff Springs Hotel, along with pictures from Edie’s horseback ride.