One Weekend in Banff National Park
The Canadian province of Alberta is one of those vacation destinations that is featured everywhere. Any travel themed Instagram account regularly posts dreamy pictures of the turquoise blue Lake Louise and Moraine Lake in Banff, the seemingly endless mountain peaks of the Canadian Rockies, and the stunning Jasper National Park. The desire to visit the famous location and see the sights for myself was finally to much to resist and I booked myself a ticket over the long Memorial Day weekend. If only I knew then that 3 days wouldn't be anywhere near enough to take in all that is Alberta. Since I had such limited time I limited myself to activities in the Banff area. I found a really great, affordable, private room on Airbnb and to the surprise of all my friends I made it out unscathed! I stayed with a very hospitable helicopter pilot who made me feel incredibly welcome in his condo situated at the very base of the Three Sisters peaks. What a view that was to wake up to every morning!
Since I only had two full days to explore I jammed them full of activities. I was out of the door by 7am each morning and didn't return until after 8pm. The excitement of exploring a beautiful new place, along with a little Red Bull, kept me going all weekend. I tried to get a little bit of everything in: the famous lakes, a mountain summit, a helicopter ride, a gondola ride, and some hiking. Yes, all of that in 3 days! Here are my recommendations:
Lake Louise - It's such a surreal feeling, finally seeing something you have seen in photographs hundreds, possibly even thousands of times. It felt almost dreamlike. If my dreams were full of tourists! I arrived to Lake Louise after accidentally going the wrong way once or twice (it took a little practice for me to feel comfortable using the Garmin and kilometers) around 8:30am and it was already packed with tourists, which is to be expected, but still I had hoped I would beat them. No such luck. The lake was in the process of thawing so it wasn't that blue blue that you so often see in photographs, but it was still beautiful nonetheless. The mountains surrounding the lake are so majestic. I could have spent the entire day hiking around the lake, but since I had a full day ahead of me I had to cut my time at the lake short. When I go back I want to be able to devote an entire day to hiking around the area and maybe check out Lake Agnes Tearoom!
Rockies Heli tour - A helicopter tour around the Canadian Rockies was number 1 on my list of things to do on my trip. You can hike to mountains and lakes and see spectacular views, but there is nothing like hovering above the cragged mountain peaks and taking in all the views from the air. It was mountains and valleys for as far as the eye could see. The helicopter pilot was very knowledgable and informative, pointing things out and giving me interesting facts the entire 20 minute flight. The flight was over much too fast, but it is one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Rockies Heli has two tour bases, one in Canmore and one in the Icefields. I opted for the Icefield base and I'm glad I did because the views from the drive alone made the trip worth it! It was two hours of mountains, and glacially-fed, perfectly turquoise lakes. I had to resist the urge to pull over every kilometer on the way there to prevent missing my flight, although I did make every single one of those stops on the way back!
Peyto Lake - One of the stops on the drive back to Canmore from the Icefields base was Peyto Lake. I was driving along and a sign for Peyto Lake indicated I should turn right. I vaguely remembered seeing the name in my research for the trip but couldn't exactly remember what it was. Not having anything to lose I turned right and was lead to a very crowded parking lot. I got out of my car and headed to the trailhead. A sign indicated it was a 10-15 minute walk to the lake. A 10-15 minute walk is nothing in the middle of summer, but this was not the middle of summer and there was still over a foot of snow on the ground, slowly thawing and turning into a slushy mess. I didn't have internet access on my phone so I couldn't check to see if it would be "worth it", but all the others making the trek in the cold slush seemed to attest to the fact that it would be worth it. Was it ever! After sledging through the slush in inadequate footwear the trees gave way to a clearing and the most beautiful vista. Peyto Lake was a dream! It was the bluest water I had ever seen. People were crowded on a wooden platform but if you ducked under the rails you could get a better, less blocked view of the lake.
Johnston Canyon hike - The Johnston Canyon is a moderate hike on a wooden path through a woodland area filled with waterfalls! I arrived in the early evening and there were still many people making the hike. I heard that arriving as early as possible in the day is best. You can avoid the crowds of people stopping every three paces to take photos and read trail signs.
Banff Gondola ride - There are two ways to make it to the top of Sulphur Mountain, you can hike up it or you can ride a peaceful gondola ride to the top! I was on a bit of a time crunch so I opted for the gondola ride. The view from the top is idyllic! I arrived at 8am in the morning and was the first person on the gondola and the first person to explore the summit. It was so peaceful walking on top of the mountain and just soaking in the view sans any tourists. However, those peaceful moments didn't last long and within a half an hour the place was already teeming with tourists. It still had spectacular views; it is really cool to see the town of Banff nestled below towering mountain peaks.
Ha Ling Peak mountain summit - One of the most physically demanding endeavors I have made in recent years is summiting Ha Ling Peak! It is a demanding, steep hike. I spent two hours hiking up the path in the wooded area feeling as if I would never reach the top when finally the trees gave way to an exposed mountain face and views of mountains on all sides. But the hike wasn't over yet! It was another half an hour scramble up the exposed, rocky peak. There were a few moments I looked down and felt dizzy thinking about how much trouble I would be in if I slipped, but I didn't and nobody else did either and the views from the top were surreal. It felt like being on top of the world and my own feet took me there! The summit is a great place for a picnic, but you will not be alone. This is an extremely popular hike, I also recommend arriving as early as possible.
Lake Minnewanka boat tour - The first thought that popped into my head when I saw Lake Minnewanka was "I feel like I'm in a computer desktop photo". The scene was astounding (and seemingly very common in the area): a huge blue lake surrounded by towering mountains. Lake Minnewanka is the longest lake in the Canadian Rockies and if you really want to see it, I recommend taking an hour long boat tour of the lake. You will cruise along the lake while a guide gives in depth information about the lake's history and the flora and fauna surrounding the lake all while you can snap away postcard-like photos.
See more photos from my adventures in Banff HERE!