Canada is such a spectacular country with so much to see and do- you can see vastly different landscapes and experience so many cultures without even crossing the border! We were lucky enough to find an affordable flight to Calgary (air travel within Canada can often be quite costly), flying from the Hamilton, Ontario airport about an hour outside of Toronto. Additionally, in celebration of Canada’s 150th Anniversary, all of the national parks are free, so that was certainly enticing!
We set off for the mountains early Monday and arrived in Calgary at around 8:45 in the morning (early flight and the time change allowed us to have a full day the first day!). After picking up our rental car, we set our GPS to Banff and watched as the mountains dramatically grew in size as we drove along the highway. Luckily we were greeted with the sun shining, a comfortable temperature of 24 degrees Celsius, and not a cloud in the sky! We ate a quick lunch at a little sandwich shop called Coyotes in downtown Banff, before attempting to ascend the mountain for an even better view of the landscape. The concierge at our hotel, the Red a Carpet Inn, recommended that we take the Mount Norquay Chairlift up to the top, rather than the gondola in Banff, since it is about half the price at $30 per adult rather than $65 for the gondola, and since it has only been open for a few years it is not as well known and likely not be as busy. Apparently the day before we arrived, the wait time for the gondola reached 3 hours, so given our limited time we did not want to spend so much of it waiting! Unfortunately, when we arrived at the chair lift there was a little sign saying they were closed for maintenance until at least Thursday, so we decided to put that on hold for the time being. However, we were not all that disappointed since the view on the way up the mountain was still amazing!! In Banff, there are many points along the road where you can pull over and park your car just to take in the view, so on our way up Mount Norquay we stopped to take in the village of Banff below, and even encountered some of the infamous Red Chairs!
We continued along the highway to take us to Johnston Canyon and stopped at another turn off point from the road to take in the breathtaking blue water of the Bow River; it is amazing how bright the water looks, especially in contrast to the deep green forests. Once we found the entrance to the park, we began our hike to the Lower Falls. The Johnston Canyon Hike is a great hike for all abilities. It is very moderate with no overly steep inclines and has a nicely paved path. The distance to the Lower Falls is about 1.5km, and to the Upper Falls about 2.5km. The trail does continue further up to the Ink Pots, however we did not travel beyond the Upper Falls. It was the perfect day for a hike, and the different waterfalls along the way are absolutely beautiful! Definitely a must-do when in Banff.
After working our leg muscles and taking in the sunny day, we headed back to the village of Banff to check out the Banff Upper Hot Springs- one of three natural hot springs within Banff National Park (Note: the park is huge- the others are not super close). The water was a lovely 39C and we had a magnificent 360 degree view of the mountains! After a rejuvenating soak, we decided to check out the Cascade Gardens at the base of the mountain. There were lovely rock sculptures and beautiful flowers, and the time of day made everything glow in the golden sun! From this location, we had a perfect few straight down the main street in Banff, complete with a massive mountain at the end. We ate a late dinner at the Park Distillery, which is known to have some delicious authentic Canadian BBQ food. Unfortunately, we were there a bit late in the day and they were sold out of some options- so make a reservation and go early if you want to check it out! They even brew their own liquor and spirits on site, and offer free tours of the distillery during the day. The whole place had a really nice atmosphere!
The next morning we got a (somewhat) early start and picked up some Tim Hortons for the drive to Lake Louise (a must for any Canadian road trip). Our plan for the day was to see Moraine Lake first, and then spend the afternoon at Lake Louise and potentially do another short hike there. However, our plans ended up changing a bit when we arrived at Lake Louise and realized how busy is was! We continued to drive up the mountain to reach the road leading to Moraine Lake, however we were turned away before we could even turn onto the road because the parking was completely full! We were then directed back onto the highway to an overflow parking lot about 5km back the way we came, so we parked there and were provided with a shuttle back to the Lake Louise area. While this seemed like a pretty simple solution at the time, it ended up not being as smooth as we thought. From the overflow parking we were taken to a ‘transfer point’ where we got off the bus and were instructed to line up for the next shuttle to either Moraine Lake or Lake Louise. Sticking with our plan, we waited about 20 minutes before we reached the front of the line for the bus to Moraine Lake. Once we got there, we were amazed! The water was more blue than we even could’ve imagined, and the scenery was truly breathtaking! Unfortunately, we weren’t met with the best weather, and about 15 minutes after we arrived it began to rain. However, we didn’t let that stop up and he hiked up the rock pile (there is a trail at the back that some people were not aware of and proceeded to try and climb up) for an even better view from higher up. In the distance, we could even see a bit of snow at the tops of the mountains, over the Valley of the Ten Peaks. We spent about an hour walking around, taking in the view, and commemorating it with pictures, before the rain became harder and we decided to head back to go to Lake Louise. However, it appeared that the rain discouraged a lot of the other visitors, and the line to catch the shuttle back to the transfer point became huge! We ended up standing in the rain for at least 1.5 hours waiting, as the school bus shuttle only came every ’20’ minutes. We were not dressed accordingly for the weather, and ended up getting pretty wet (the gift shop wanted $30 for an umbrella!!!). By the time we made it back to the transfer point, we realized that we unfortunately would not have enough time to make it to Lake Louise and back in time to catch the last bus to the transfer point. So for those of you planning to visit- we recommend scheduling extra time to make it to both lakes, or go early so you can park close!
Since we were pretty chilly after the rain, we decided to return to the hot springs in Banff (and since we loved it so much the day before) before driving to Canmore to check into our hotel.
Before dinner, we decided to do one of the many scenic drives around Banff, and set off on the Minnewanka Loop drive with the hopes of seeing some wildlife. Despite the rain, we were lucky enough to see some deer in the distance, and whole herd of female elk right at the side of the highway!! The drive takes about 25 minutes to complete if you’re driving slowly and on the lookout, and it was definitely worth it!
For dinner, we checked out the Grizzly Paw Brewing Company on the main road in Canmore. They had at least a dozen of their own beers on tap, and had a cool ski-lodge style atmosphere inside (and the food was delicious). After dinner, it was still raining pretty heavily, so we called it an early night and headed back to the hotel.
Unfortunately when we woke up the next morning the fog was so heavy and the clouds so low that we couldn’t even see the mountains around us! And then once we realized the temperature was only 5 degrees, we quickly had to change our plans. We were hoping to go on a river float or try white water rafting this morning, however the weather did not act in our favour for such activities. Instead, we had brunch at a cute little cafe tucked in the back of a specialty foods store downtown Canmore. We had some delicious breakfast panini’s, with some spicy sauce from the Grizzly Paw Brew Co, and some nice big Americanos to warm us up. We there decided to drive back to Calgary and spend the day exploring the city before catching our flight back to Hamilton.
In Calgary, we saw the Olympic Plaza where the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Winter Olympics were held, and then spend the afternoon strolling along the Stephen Avenue Walk- a beautiful tree-lined historic street with lots of nice shops and restaurants. We then grabbed an early dinner at the Barcelona sports bar before making our way back to the airport.
We had such a beautiful mini-trip to Banff that left us eager to explore more of the area. Three days definitely was not enough to see everything we wanted, especially considering the weather conditions (apparently it snowed the day after we left), so we look forward to our next opportunity to explore the beauty of Alberta. Below is a list of some of the other things we would love to do on our next trip here. If you have any more recommendations, or have visited any of these places, feel free to drop us a line or two in the comments!!