Length of stay: 6 days
Visited: September 2016
With sweeping vistas of the Rocky Mountains in its backyard and commanding views of turquoise lakes fed by nearby glaciers, Alberta is what the Canadian great outdoors is all about. With a plethora of national parks scattered around the southwestern part of the province there are endless hiking opportunities and great chances of glimpsing wildlife in their natural habitat.
The below map provides an overview of our six day trip to Banff and Jasper National Parks (and everything in between).
Day 1: Johnston Canyon & Banff Town
We spent the previous day on an adventure cave tour through Rat’s Nest Cave in Canmore before heading to Banff National Park. We woke up relatively early and ate a quick breakfast at our campsite at the Johnston Canyon campground. The real draw to this campground is its close proximity to one of the main attractions in Banff: Johnston Canyon. The real drawback to this campground is its close proximity to the railroad, and trains run at all hours of the night.
We arrived at the Johnston Canyon parking lot bright and early as we read in advance that parking can be rather limited during the day. From the parking lot there is a paved path (with minimal elevation gain) that runs parallel to Johnston Canyon. The canyon was formed by erosion over thousands of years of water running through this limestone-rich area.
The first viewpoint along the trail was of the Lower Falls (1.2km one way from the trailhead). At the Lower Falls there is a viewing platform that is accessible by walking through this small opening in the wall of the canyon.
The trail continues to the Upper Falls (2.5km one way from the trailhead) and provides many great views into the canyon below along the way.
The trail continues on towards InkPots, which features five colourful pools where water bubbles up from deep below the Earth’s surface, but we turned around and walked back the way we came. Along the hike back to the car it started to lightly rain.
After eating a snack in the car, we drove into Banff Town, stopping for some pictures of the beautiful scenery along the way.
We drove to the Canmore Cave and Basin National Historic Site, which marks the birthplace of Canada’s National Parks. In 1885, Canada’s first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald designated this area around the cave and basin the Banff Hot Springs Reserve to protect the area. A naturally heated swimming pool, along with a number of bathhouse facilities, were constructed and were operational for 80 years until 1994. Now visitors can tour through and around the building, read about the history of this historic site, and visit the underground cave that started it all.
After exploring inside the museum, we went outside and walked along a series of boardwalks around the area. 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 hiked around the Marsh Loop (2.5km roundtrip, rated easy). The trail loops around a rather scenic wetland area, but the path was very muddy since it is also doubles as a horse trail and it was raining earlier.
By the time we finished up our hike it started to pour. We drove back to Canmore for some additional groceries and enjoyed a late lunch indoors to escape the rain. We then headed back into Banff and kept our fingers crossed that the rain would finish by the time we returned. It didn’t. On the plus side, on the drive back, we saw a group of mountain goats cross the road underneath an overpass.
It’s always so disheartening to hike in the rain. Or at least to get started. We donned our rain paints and rain jackets and forced ourselves to head back outdoors. We went on a short hike to Silverton Falls (2km roundtrip, rated easy).
By the time we finished up our hike and drove back to our campsite, the rain tapered off. We made some dinner, which we then ate in our car since it was dry. Later in the evening we walked over to the indoor theatre for the evening ranger program on treks, trails, and epic tales.
Day 2: Icefields Parkway Part I
Today we planned to drive along the Icefields Parkway, which refers to an insanely gorgeous stretch along highway 93 from Banff to Jasper. It is 233km in length spanning from Lake Louise to Jasper townsite and it is no doubt one of the most scenic drives. Ever. Along the way are various viewpoints of mountains, glaciers, glacier lakes, waterfalls, and hiking trails.
The first stop we made was 6km into the drive (so you know it’s going to be a long drive) at Herbert Lake. There is a trail that leads around the lake. But in the interest of time we just walked down to the base of the lake to snap a few photos.
We hopped back into the car and pulled over a few kilometres later at Crowfoot Glacier.
From there it’s a short drive to Peyto Lake, a magnificent aquamarine glacier lake that is fed by the nearby Peyto Glacier. It’s a short hike along a paved path to the Peyto Lake viewing platform. Along the way are signposts describing the flora and fauna in the area for those that need a break (it was rather hilly) or for those that just want to learn more about the plant life and animals that survive at these higher elevations.
The trail to Bow Summit Lookout (5.8km roundtrip, rated easy) starts near the viewing platform to Peyto Lake. We definitely saw signage for the trail. But it wasn’t very clear when (if?) we actually reached the “summit”. Bow Summit is reputed to offer great views of Peyto Lake. Maybe it was just a particularly cloudy day or something. Or perhaps bad timing with the lighting from the sun. Either way, the hike was still worth the effort.
We were back on the road for a short amount of time before making a brief detour at Mistaya Canyon. It’s a short hike (1km roundtrip) down an old logging road to get to the canyon. Originating from Peyto Glacier, the Mistaya river has carved its way through this canyon over hundreds of years.
We made a couple of additional detours at the Weeping Wall and Bridal Veil Falls before stopping at Parker Ridge (5.4km roundtrip, rated “easy”). The trail consists of a series of well-graded switchbacks up an alpine meadow to the summit.
Close to the summit there are several paths that lead to the Saskatchewan Glacier. The views down into the valley are simply stunning.
Once we wrapped up our hike, we drove to the (insanely busy) Icefield Center. We stopped here to use the washroom and to watch a 15 minute film downstairs about the area. From here we still had just over 100km to drive to get to our campsite at Wapiti Campgrounds in Jasper National Park. We decided to just save the remaining hikes and viewpoints along this stretch for the next day when we drive back down to Lake Louise.
We set up our tent as soon as we checked into our campsite. Given that it looked like we’d get more rain we decided to just drive into Jasper for dinner. Our tent was a bit damp inside from condensation from the previous night so this provided an opportunity for it to dry out inside before setting up our sleeping bags and sleeping pads. We ate at Jasper Pizza, which was both delicious and affordable. Afterwards we hit up Tim Hortons to play a few rounds of cards before heading back to our campsite for the remainder of the night.
Day 3: Icefields Parkway Part II
We woke up pretty early today to ensure we had sufficient time to hit up everything on our itinerary for the day. We first drove to Maligne Canyon. There are a series of hiking trails depending on your level of fitness and/or how much time you want to spend here. The short/easy path takes 20 to 40 minutes and extends to the second bridge. The medium/hard path takes 30 minutes to walk to the third bridge or an hour (return) to walk to the fourth bridge. There is also a longer path to get to the fifth or sixth bridge. We hiked to the fifth bridge (4.4km roundtrip).
We returned to our campsite to take down our tent and pack away our gear. After that we were back on the road, or rather the Icefields Parkway. We pulled over at the trailhead for the Valley of the Five Lakes. This trail (4.5km roundtrip) is relatively easy and (as its name suggests) extends into a valley passing five glacier lakes.
After returning to our car we headed over to a series of waterfalls. Starting first with Athabasca Falls. The Athabasca River originates here in Jasper National Park at the base of the Columbia Glacier. It drains into a lake that feeds into other rivers and lakes and eventually flows into the Arctic Ocean. There is a path that follows beside a gorge carved out by the Athabasca Falls. The path descends down a portion of the canyon where the river no longer flows through.
We then pulled over at Sunwapta Falls. We hiked a well-marked trail (2.6km roundtrip) that descends down towards the lower Sunwapta falls, which consists of three waterfalls.
Our final waterfall that we hit up was Tangle Falls. You can scrambled up some rocks and get a closer view of the falls, but we opted to just pull over and snap a couple of photos in the interest of time.
From there we drove towards the Columbia and Athabasca Glacier. There is a trail to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier (1.8km roundtrip) that is accessible by the parking lot across from the Icefield Center. As you drive in there are signposts showing the farthest extent of the glacier since 1908. The trail doesn’t quite lead to the toe of the glacier as it has retreated considerably over the past few decades, but the views are still incredible.
Afterwards we headed over to the Lake Louise campground. The campground consists of two sections: one for trailers and RVs, and the other for tents. Back in 2003 Parks Canada installed an electric fence around the tent section to minimize human interaction with the bears. We purchased a fire permit which conveniently also includes unlimited firewood.
Day 4: Lake Louise & Plain of the Six Glaciers
We started the morning off at Lake Louise at the crack of dawn in an effort to avoid the crowds. Our game plan was to hike to the Swiss teahouse via the Plain of the Six Glaciers (10.6km roundtrip, rated moderate).
The trail starts off at the iconic Lake Louise. We hiked around the Lake Louise Lakeshore Trail (2km one-way, rated easy), which was paved, and entirely flat.
The end of the trail intersects with the trailhead for the Plain of the Six Glaciers. The hike was very scenic as the path passes in a valley of six glaciers: Lower Victoria, Upper Victoria, Lower Lefroy, Upper Lefroy, Aberdeen, and Popes. The trail ends at a Swiss teahouse up in the mountains (key word being up as there are a few switchbacks to hike up).
We rested at the teahouse and ordered some tea and soup to warm up our insides.
On our descent down we passed quite a few hikers. By the time we returned to Lake Louise the parking lot was entirely full. We initially planned to spend the afternoon at Moraine Lake, but the parking area was blocked off as it had reached capacity as well. Instead we drove to the nearby Yoho National Park in British Columbia to spend the remainder of the day.
Day 5: Lake Moraine & Eiffel Lake
We started our day early and drove down to Moraine Lake, which is apparently prime grizzly bear territory. So much so that many of the trails in the area require hikers to travel in a group of four or more during the summer and early fall when grizzlers are the most active.
Since we arrived quite early, we first walked along Moraine Lake Lakeshore (3km roundtrip, rated easy), which did not require a mandatory group of hikers to walk along.
Near the start of Moraine Lake path lies a trailhead to a number of longer hikes in the area. All of which require group access. By the time we looped back to the start of Lake Moraine there were two other pairs of hikers waiting at the trailhead discussing hiking options. One pair wanted to go to Eiffel Lake and the other to Larch Valley/ Minnestimma Lakes. The six of us introduced ourselves, strategized about trail conditions, and decided to all hike together to Eiffel Lake (11.2km roundtrip, rated moderate).
The trail follows a series of steep switchbacks upwards until you reach a fork in the path. The trail to Larch Valley and the Sentinel Pass continues upwards. The trail to Eiffel Lake lies to the left and is relatively flat from here on out. The trail crosses through the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Even with a layer of light layer of fog surrounding the mountains, the views were nothing short of spectacular.
The trail further extends beyond Eiffel Lake to Wenkchemna Pass, but no one in our group seemed all that adamant about continuing onward. We rested at (what we deemed to be) the end for a bit and while we were eating our snack we heard an avalanche. On our descent back to Moraine Lake it started to lightly snow.
As with yesterday, by the time we finished our hike the parking lot was full. We returned to our campsite for a quick lunch before heading over to Kootenay National Park in British Columbia in an effort to beat the crowds.
Day 6: Homeward Bound
Despite our complaints about the cold weather, we’re sure going to miss it. Apparently Toronto is in the middle of a heat warning with temperatures exceeding 30°C. Yesterday it went up to a high of 7°C in Banff. I was wearing mittens and a toque.
We woke up early to beat the morning crowd for the showers. When we returned to our campsite we took down our tent and threw all our camping gear into the back of our trunk. We then made the drive back to Calgary where it was both warmer and dryer. We stopped at a plaza close to the airport to pack our gear away properly. We dropped off our car and checked in at the airport for our flight back to Toronto.
Goodbye mountains. Hello heat wave.