Length of stay: 5 days
Visited: July 2019
Banff National Park is the birthplace of national parks in Canada. It is nestled in the Rocky Mountains and features mountainous terrain, alpine landscapes, glaciers, ice fields, turquoise glacial lakes and an abundance of wildlife. Basically all the great things you’d want while camping and hiking.
I’ve been to Alberta once before at the end of the summer in 2016 and couldn’t get enough of the Canadian Rockies. So when one of my good friends planned a trip out west, I jumped at the opportunity to revisit Canada’s first national park.
Day 1: Hiking around Banff Town
We flew into Calgary the night before and spent the night at a hotel close to the airport. After eating a big breakfast we were ready to head further west to Banff National Park. We arrived at the Tunnel Mountain Village 1 Campground shortly after 11a.m, unpacked our sleeping pads and sleeping bags and set up the tent.
The Tunnel Mountain campground is located a mere 8km from downtown Banff. We hopped on the Roam Public Transit, which offered a complimentary one-way ride into Banff or its surrounding areas. We got off in town and picked up some supplies for our hike, including some food and snacks as well as bear spray. We then walked to the trailhead of the Tunnel Mountain Summit, which is easily accessible from downtown.
Tunnel Mountain Summit (4.8km roundtrip, rated moderated) consists of a series of well-graded switchbacks up to the summit. The steepest of which are from the lower trailhead to the upper trailhead. The hike up to the summit provides sweeping views of the valley and neighbouring mountains.
Once we reached the top of the summit, we sat on these two red adirondack chairs (not sure how they got up there) and ate our lunch while soaking in the views over downtown Banff.
From the summit we made our way back to downtown Banff. Since it was a pleasant day outside (pleasant in the sense that it wasn’t raining) we decided to just walk to the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. The cave and basin was discovered inadvertently by three railway workers who stumbled upon the area. It was soon after designated the Banff Hot Springs Reserve and became the birthplace of Canada’s national parks.
We toured through the building and read about the history of the historic site as well as the flora and fauna that reside in and around the hot springs. The main feature of the historic site is the underground cave.
After exploring inside the building, we hiked a few of the small trails around the historic site. We first hiked along the Upper Boardwalk (0.4km loop, rated easy), which features smaller hot springs filled with pink bacteria, and white and green algae.
We then followed along the Lower Boardwalk (0.5km loop, rated easy), which winds through the marshy wetlands.
From there we walked to the trailhead of the Marsh Loop (2.8km loop, rated easy). The path was super muddy since it also doubles as a horse trail. We hugged the shoulder of the path and managed to (mostly) avoid the muddy patches. The path loops around a wetland filled by water from hot springs. It was well worth the effort as the views along the path were phenomenal.
After we finished up our hike we walked back into town to grab dinner. We then took the bus back to the campground to shower and get ready for bed.
Day 2: Johnston Canyon and the Ink Pots
We woke up bright and early and took the bus into town to grab breakfast. We then hopped on another bus, which took us straight to Johnston Canyon, one of the main attractions in Banff National Park.
Our plan was to hike to the Ink Pots, which consist of five shallow turquoise pools nestled in a meadow amongst the mountains. As an added bonus, you first have to hike along the Johnston Canyon.
The hike along Johnston Canyon provides various viewpoints overlooking the depths of the canyon along the way. The trail first leads to the Lower Falls (1.2km one way from the trailhead) and is paved, contains a series of boardwalks built into the side of the limestone walls, and has minimal elevation gain. At the Lower Falls there is a viewing platform located through a little cavern in the limestone.
From here the trail continues to the Upper Falls (2.5km one way from the trailhead). Again, the path was relatively flat and well maintained.
Beyond the canyon the trail continues up and into the forest to the Ink Pots (5.7km one way from the trailhead). The trail itself was nothing special and was actually quite muddy. But sometimes it’s about the destination and not the journey. The trail eventually opens up into a clearing into a valley where the Ink Pots are located. Water bubbles from deep below the Earth’s surface into the five colourful pools.
There are a few benches scattered around the rim of the Ink Pots, which made for a perfect spot to eat our lunch and take a break.
From here the path continues across the Johnson Creek towards Mystic Pass. We hiked the first stretch of this trail through the open meadow along the river.
The thing about hiking in the mountains is that the weather can be a bit unpredictable. One moment we were enjoying the blue skies and sun, and a few minutes later, these dark clouds started to roll in. Soon after it started to rain. This seemed like the perfect time to turn around and head back to the Johnston Canyon parking lot. It rained pretty much the entire way back.
We didn’t have to wait too long for the next bus to come that would take us back into Banff Town. Since it was still early in the afternoon, we spent the remainder of our day hiking along some of the smaller trails near town.
We first hiked along Fenland Trail (2.1km loop, rated easy). The path is entirely flat and loops through a wooded area near a river. The mosquitos were out in full force. One even went inside my ear, causing a bit of discomfort and panic. We ended up pouring water inside my ear in the hopes of drowning and flushing it out. Not ideal. The trail finishes up near the iconic Banff sign.
We continued strolling along the paved path adjacent to the Bow River and hiked up to Bow Falls. The clouds were starting to clear and the sun even came out for a bit.
At this point we were starting to get hungry so we headed back into town for dinner. By the time we finished up eating and arrived back to our campsite, it was dark. We built a small fire for a bit, showered and then headed to bed.
Day 3: Moraine Lake
Today we were heading to Lake Louise. We packed up our tent and gear and headed into town for breakfast before making our way to our accommodations. We decided to pamper ourselves and booked a night in the Paradise Lodge & Bungalows. There aren’t too many options for places to stay near Lake Louise, so you can just imagine how expensive it was. It would be a welcome relief from the cold at night. And rain. It rains a lot in Banff.
We arrived at our accommodations around lunch time and dropped off our bags. It was maybe about a 15 minute walk from the lodge to Lake Louise. Since parking is limited at both Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, Parks Canada offers a shuttle between the two places (they only accept credit or debit). As a result, the shuttle too is quite popular. We waited in line for a bit and eventually hopped on a yellow school bus, which took us straight to Moraine Lake.
We started off by hiking the Rockpile (0.8km roundtrip). As the name suggests, you basically walk up a giant rock slope to the top for sweeping views overlooking Moraine Lake.
Moraine Lake is prime grizzly bear territory. So much so that many of the trails here require hikers to hike in a group of four or more. There are only a couple of trails in the area where this is not the case. Consolation Lakes is one of them (although, it still is recommended to hike in a group).
The trailhead for Consolation Lakes (5.8km roundtrip, rated easy) is located near the Rockpile. The path weaves through a wooded area before opening up into a rocky valley with mountains on either side.
There were an insane amount of hoary marmots in the rocky valley. These large rodents typically reside in the mountains in the northwest of North America. These fellows were not shy.
By the time we returned to the trailhead, we didn’t have much time until the last bus back to Lake Louise. Instead we hiked along the Moraine Lake Lakeshore (3.0 km roundtrip, rated easy). Despite Consolation Lakes being rated easy, we were pretty exhausted after the hike, so weren’t too bothered about walking along a paved path.
We took the bus into the Lake Louise “town”, which consisted of a couple of shops and one main restaurant in a small plaza. After eating some dinner, we headed back to our accommodations to rest and relax for the remainder of the evening.
Day 4: Lake Louise
We had an ambitious day ahead of us. Our game plan was to hike to the two teahouses – one at Lake Agnes and the other at the Plain of the Six Glaciers, with a couple of additional side trips along the way.
We checked out and left our bags at the lodge and walked over to Lake Louise, which marked the start of the trail. We briefly walked along the paved path along the shoreline until we reached a junction. The signpost indicated that Lake Agnes (3.4km one way) was upwards and onwards.
Upwards was right. The trail to Lake Agnes consisted of a series of switchbacks up the mountain. Midway through there’s a turnoff with a nice viewpoint of Mirror Lake with Big Beehive in the background (we would be climbing this later).
The trail eventually levels off and features a European-style teahouse next to Lake Agnes. The tea house looked a bit overcrowded, so we sat on a bench beside the lake to eat a snack and re-fuel for the journey still to come.
We then walked along the lake and started our ascent up Big Beehive (1.6km one way). The path up was a bit steep, but it was well worth the effort. Especially since the views from the top provide amazing views overlooking Lake Louise.
We were a bit confused as to where the path connects to the HighLine trail. After some trial and error, we found the junction sign and continued onwards. The path eventually intersects with the Plain of the Six Glaciers, which (as the name suggests) features views of six various glaciers.
We followed this up to the second Swiss teahouse. And this time when we arrived it was nearly empty. We rested here and ordered a late lunch / early dinner.
From here there is a short side trip to the Abbot Pass Viewpoint (1.5km one way). We were a bit concerned around timing, but decided to risk it and make the detour. We’re sure glad that we did as the view of the Lower Victoria Glacier was hands down one of the most impressive that we’ve seen on this trip. We also heard (and saw!) an avalanche while hiking up to the viewpoint.
We didn’t linger long as we were on a time crunch. We still needed to head back to the lodge to pick up our bags and catch the last bus back into Banff Town.
From here it was mostly downhill. We walked back to the teahouse and along the Plain of the Six Glaciers (5.3km one way). The views into the valley were particularly scenic with Lake Louise in the background. The path eventually turns into the Lake Louise Lakeshore path (2km one way, rated easy), which has minimal elevation gain, and leads back to the Fairmont Chateau and parking area.
We managed to catch the last bus back into Banff Town with a few minutes to spare to run to the gift shop at the Fairmont and pick up a few t-shirts for souvenirs. From here we headed back to Calgary.
Even though this was my second trip to Banff, there is still so much to see and do in the area. I wish we could have stayed longer. One day I’ll be back.