Length of stay: 3 days
Visited: June 2022
Banff National Park is the first national park that was established in Canada. It is nestled within the Rocky Mountains in southwestern Alberta and provides endless opportunities for outdoor adventures. The scenery speaks for itself.
Day 1: Lake Louise and the Tea Houses
We drove from Jasper National Park along the incredibly scenic Icefields Parkway to the Lake Louise Campground the day before. With beautiful weather on the forecast, we decided to wake up super early in an effort to beat the crowds at Lake Louise and to find parking, which has become a bit of an issue in recent years.
We arrived at the Lake Louise parking lot just after 6:30am. As we turned into the parking lot, we passed a sign to indicate that the parking lot for the nearby Moraine Lake was already full. As it turns out, the parking at Lake Louise was also full, but we managed to find the last parking spot, which may not have entirely been a proper parking spot, but it worked.
Starting in 2022, vehicles now have to pay $12.25 to park for the day during mid-May to mid-October in an effort to encourage people to take the Parks Canada shuttle or public transit. While we’re all for taking transit, the Parks Canada shuttle requires a reservation, something we didn’t realize until later, so it wasn’t really a good option for us. Plus, the shuttle doesn’t start running until 8a.m and we wanted to hit the trails before the crowds.
We started off at the Lake Louise shoreline and followed the paved path for a hundred metres to get to the trailhead for Lake Agnes.
The trail to Lake Agnes (3.4km one-way, rated moderate) weaves through the forest and contains a series of steep switchbacks that lead up the mountain. The steepest part was near the beginning, which in some ways, was a good way to warm-up since it was still chilly outside. The first notable point of interest along the trail is Mirror Lake, which provides a great view of the Big Beehive in the background.
At this point the trail was in pretty decent shape so we made a detour to hit up Little Beehive (1km one-way, rated moderate). There were some snow patches along the trail, but we managed. The path leads to a site where a fire lookout once stood and provides sweeping views of the Bow Valley and Lake Louise. We found a spot in the shade to eat a quick snack since we didn’t have breakfast.
We then headed to Lake Agnes where there’s a European-style tea house. Even though it was only 9a.m, there was a huge line that snaked around the building. Instead we ate another snack on a bench outside and just admired the views of the lake, which was still partially frozen.
From Lake Agnes, there’s a trail that continues around part of the shoreline towards Big Beehive. However, Big Beehive was still covered in snow and the conditions were listed as hazardous online. Instead we took the stairs down to an alternative path that loops back to Mirror Lake. There were some dodgy sections as a few spots along the trail were covered in snow. We even contemplated turning around at one point, but then we came across another group of hikers that indicated that the rest of the path was in good shape. So we continued onwards.
Once we reached the junction, we had a decision to make. We could either go back to Lake Louise (which is what we initially planned for) or take the Highline Trail to Plain of Six Glaciers where the other tea house is located. We were feeling pretty good at this point so decided to give the Highline Trail (5km one-way to get to Plain of Six Glaciers) a whirl, especially since it’s relatively flat. The trail was mostly dry and had a few smaller snow patches. It was rather enjoyable as there were some flat sections and some gradual ups and downs. Plus the views along the way were very stunning.
The trail then connects with Plain of Six Glaciers, which we followed for a couple of kilometres to get to the other tea house. The nice thing about taking the Highline Trail was that we kept part of the elevation we gained on the hike up to Lake Agnes. But, we had some additional obstacles. We were now out in the full sun and we had to navigate over some larger snow patches and through lots of running water on the trail. I guess this explained why we didn’t encounter many people on Plain of Six Glaciers. As such, we had no issues finding an open table at the tea house. Since we weren’t planning to hike this trail to begin with, we figured we might as well stop for some tea biscuits and a cup of tea to refuel.
There is a short side trail to the Abbot Pass Viewpoint, but the path isn’t maintained and it was still covered in snow. So that was a hard pass. We walked back along the Plain of Six Glaciers (5.3km one-way, rated moderate) to the shore of Lake Louise.
It took us just under 6 hours to complete the hike to both tea houses. We wrapped up just before 1p.m and headed back to our campsite to make lunch and take a long break. Since it was such a nice day outside, we headed back out later in the afternoon. We didn’t feel like hiking, especially in the heat (it was 28°C outside), so we instead drove to a few overlooks, including of Castle Mountain, Storm Mountain, Vermillion Lakes and Cascade Ponds (where there’s a pair of the Red Chairs).
We then went on the Lake Minnewanka scenic drive. We ended up going for one additional hike along the Lower Bankhead Trail, an old ghost town in Banff (1.1km loop, rated easy). In the early 1900s, Bankhead helped provide coal for the Canadian Pacific Railway. After the coal mine closed in 1922, the government ordered the entire town to be removed. The trail winds around a few of the remains and foundations from the old mining site. There were also a series of signs that provided more information about the history of the town and about some of the former buildings that once stood here.
Afterwards we drove into the town of Banff and walked along the main strip where many of the shops and restaurants are located. We decided to treat ourselves with some ice cream from Cows.
Now that we had our dessert, it was time to head back to our campsite to make dinner.
Day 2: Moraine Lake
We initially planned to spend the day at the nearby Yoho National Park in British Columbia. However, on the drive out of the campground, we decided to just swing by Lake Louise to see what the parking situation was like at Moraine Lake, which is even more competitive. The sign indicated that parking was limited (but not full), so we jumped at the opportunity to check it out.
We arrived at the parking lot just after 7:30a.m and were pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t crowded. That would soon change once the shuttle buses started to arrive. So we got down to business right away, starting with the Rockpile Trail. There’s a series of steps that lead up a rockpile, which features a nice overlook of Moraine Lake.
We then hiked the Consolation Lakes Trail (2.9km, rated easy), which is located just before the trailhead for the Rockpile Trail. The first part of the trail is a bit rugged and involves walking through the rocky valley. There was still some snow on the path, but it wasn’t too challenging to navigate through.
From there the trail leads through the dense forest along the river and is mostly uphill, but it’s gradual. The trail then leads to another rock pile in the valley overlooking a lake. We climbed up, down and around the rocks to the shoreline and took a break here. It was nice and quiet as there was only one other pair of hikers nearby. We even heard a small avalanche in the distance. We turned around and hiked back the way we came, passing by several other hikers.
Because of the slow start to spring, all the other trails in the Moraine Lake area were still snowbound. So we headed back to our campsite to eat a late breakfast and then headed off to Yoho.
Day 3: Johnston Canyon to the Inkpots
Similar to the past few days, after making some tea and coffee, we headed out early in an effort to beat the crowds. We arrived at the parking area for Johnston Canyon shortly after 8:30a.m. We packed some water and snacks in our day pack and got right to it. The trail first leads to the Lower Falls (1.2km one-way from the trailhead, rated easy). The path is paved, follows along the edge of the gorge and contains a series of boardwalks built into the side of the limestone walls. At the Lower Falls there is a very small viewing platform located through a little cavern that provides a nice glimpse of the falls.
The trail continues to the Upper Falls (2.5km one-way from the trailhead, rated easy). The path is still paved and is mostly uphill with a few steep sections. The trail passes several more cascades and waterfalls.
The trail continues for a few kilometres to the Ink Pots (5.7km one-way from the trailhead, rated moderate) and involves a steady climb up through the forest. And what comes up, must come down. Mid-way through, the trail leads back down to an open meadow in the valley where the inkpots are located. Spring water bubbles up through the sand and river gravel here to form five colourful pools, known as inkpots. They fill at different speeds, which result in the inkpots being different colours. After eating a snack on one of the benches, we headed back to the trailhead and parking lot.
We wrapped up our hike just before noon and headed back to our campsite to make lunch. On the way, we saw a few cars pulled over on the side of the highway and naturally wanted to see what the fuss was about. It turns out there was a grizzly bear near the side of the highway.
We headed back out later in the afternoon to go for a couple of short and easy hikes, starting with Johnson Lake (2.8km loop, rated easy). The trail winds through the forest and passes some of the oldest Douglas-firs in the province. It also encircles the lake and provides nice views of Cascade Mountain and Mount Rundle.
From there we headed to the Lake Minnewanka day-use area to hike to Stewart Canyon (1.5km one-way, rated easy). The trail follows the shore of the lake, passes through the forest and leads to a bridge which overlooks the river in the canyon. The trail continues past the bridge to Aylmer Pass and Aylmer Lookout, but we were done for the day.
On the way back to the parking lot, we stopped to check out the Red Chairs located on the Lake Minnewanka shoreline.
At this point we were getting hungry, so we returned to our campsite to make dinner. Tomorrow morning we planned to pack-up and hit the road again to visit Glacier and Mount Revelstoke National Parks.