We visited Banff for four days in mid-September 2022, as part of Big Trip #4
I’ve wanted to visit Banff National Park in Alberta since I saw a photo of Lake Louise in my Sierra Club calendar as a preteen. We tried to visit in 2020 on Big Trip #3, but Covid kept us out of Canada. Finally, on Big Trip #4, we got to go!!! After a four-hour drive north from Waterton Lakes National Park, we spent two days in the town of Banff and two farther north in Lake Louise.
Banff National Park, Canada’s first and most popular national park, stretches along the eastern face of the Northern Rockies from the town of Banff in the south, up past the village of Lake Louise almost an hour north. The national park has activities galore: hiking, kayaking/stand-up paddleboarding, wildlife watching, hot springs, fishing, and more. The park headquarters is in Banff, a cute and touristy mountain town loaded with shops, restaurants, and lodging. Lake Louise is much smaller but still has all the basic touristy things, including a grocery store, a gas station, a couple restaurants, and a huge, fancy hotel on the shore of Lake Louise.
(Something worth noting from the drive between Banff and Lake Louise: wildlife crossing overpasses allowing animals to cross the highway safely. LOVE)
So, I’m sure you’re dying to know what my first impression was after all these years of waiting! We arrived, set up the Airstream, and J dropped me off at the visitor center (centre) in bustling downtown Banff, where the line was loooong and parking non-existent… and I promptly texted him “I miss Waterton.”
He reminded me that I didn’t like Waterton either at first. There were SO MANY people in town and SO MANY people at the trailheads! But! Once we moved even a bit beyond the trailheads, everything improved. That would be our experience in Banff too and overall we absolutely loved our time there.
(Shout-out to The Banff Blog, which was super helpful in planning our stay in the area!)
We spent two nights in the south of the park, in Banff and two in the north of the park, in Lake Louise. Both campgrounds are run by Parks Canada (be prepared for an inexplicably long and frustrating check-in experience where the attendant must rehash all the information you’ve already entered online), have online-reservable sites, and they are the only two that will take RVs of our size (28′).
In Banff, the Tunnel Mountain Campground complex is enormous, and there you have two options for RV sites: Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court, with larger sites and full-hookups, and Tunnel Mountain Village 2, with power-only sites. We stayed in the Trailer Court because that’s where the only remaining sites were–and we started booking this trip MONTHS in advance. Tunnel Mountain looms over the town of Banff, and the drive into downtown is about ten minutes. You *could* walk or bike, but then you have to climb that monster hill to get home. Our spot, #201, was nice and private and close to walking paths and the bus stop to go to town.
Lake Louise Campground has two sections: one for tents and soft-sided trailers, and one for hard-sided trailers. The soft-sided campground is enclosed in a bear-proof fence! The campsites are packed pretty tightly together in twos, and we had to park backwards so that the Airstream’s door would open to our picnic table.
There’s a good bit of noise from the train and highway. But we loved it there–the trees are beautiful and it was a short walk to Bow River and forest trails, perfect for a morning dog-walk (don’t forget your bear spray!). A shuttle bus runs from the campground into the village here too.
Like in Waterton, leashed dogs are allowed on trails in Banff. Thank you, Canada!
After waiting an eternity to speak with a ranger at the visitor center, I got the following hiking recommendations based on my request for a mix of shorties (for old Bugsy) and harder ones with big payoffs (for the humans): Tunnel Mountain, a few miles of work for views of the town and mountains beyond; Johnston Canyon (lower to upper was closed in late 2022), an easy hike to stunning waterfalls; Bankhead ghost town, a short trek past abandoned mining structures; C-Level Cirque, a tough 6-ish miles up to views, and Mount Bourgeau, a strenuous 14 miles with vistas galore.
This list had some overlap with what we’d come up with from researching; our list did not have Bankhead, and instead had Healy Pass, a moderate 12-miler, with views (duh) and larches, which had started turning golden.
After being disappointed with the Bear’s Ears hike in Waterton, we weren’t interested in the Tunnel Mountain hike, and because of the trail closure we didn’t do Johnston Canyon. We decided to focus on C-Level Cirque (with Bugsy) and Healy Pass (without Bugsy). We later threw in Hoodoos Trail to entertain Bugsy after we’d been gone several hours hiking to Healy.
C-Level Cirque is listed as 5.8 miles, but we clocked 7.4 miles. Sorry, Bugsy! We try to cap her hikes at six, and usually only an easy six–this hike was NOT easy. There’s a nice vista at mile one, then a pleasant walk through the woods to the cirque, a neat cupped glacial valley, home to shrieking rodents we later learned were pikas.
From the cirque, it’s a near-vertical rock scramble up to a wonderful view at the top. It was a neat hike, but we would have enjoyed it more if we’d better known what to expect.
Healy Pass is a fantastic hike. It’s a steady, but not hard, incline through a forest and up to the pass. Near the top you pop out into a lovely meadow (especially in Fall when the larches are turning!) and the views at the pass are bonkers. The hike totaled around twelve miles and we loved it.
Hoodoos Trail is a very short (under two miles) trail along the edge of Tunnel Mountain with views of the valley, Bow River, and a few hoodoos (rocks eroded into chimneys–see Bryce Canyon for the wildest examples) below. We got nice views for minimal effort and–bonus–could walk there from the campground.
Lake Louise hikes generally fall into three categories, based on trailhead locations: Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and Icefields Parkway. Be warned that parking is bad at Lake Louise, and horrible at Moraine Lake, and traffic management is nuts: if Moraine parking is closed as you drive to it from town, by the time you’ve reached the turn-around at Lake Louise, they may have opened up spots at Moraine. More likely, they have not, and you can keep looping around the several-mile circle, or book seats on a shuttle bus from town (no dogs allowed on the bus).
We’d again identified several hikes we were interested in based on internet research, and discussed our list with a ranger at the visitor center upon arrival in Lake Louise. Our goals were: 1) to do a hike in each of the three areas; 2) do a hike that passes a historic tea house; and 3) figure out a combination of shorter dog hikes and longer human hikes.
The ranger was awesome and gave us super recommendations. We landed on a good mix of hikes and got to see all of our must-sees. Here’s what we did:
Lake Louise – Little Beehive + Plain of Six Glaciers
Our first hike was at Lake Louise and holy cow it was crowded. Ugh. The lake is gorgeous if you can look past all the people. There are lots of option for short- to mid-length hikes here, and we chose a loop (based on this Alltrails map) that goes up to Little Beehive for a view, passes Lake Agnes Tea House, and then returns on Plain of Six Glaciers. Bugsy went with us and hadn’t hiked that far in years (we ended up clocking 9.5), so we trimmed the tail off Plain of Six Glaciers, which was a shame, because that was our favorite part of the hike. There were so many people in the Little Beehive area that we decided to skip Big Beehive–but I think the views are probably better from Big Beehive, because Little Beehive faces the massive hotel.
We’d planned to have tea at the tea house because how often do you hike past a tea house? But again, we were thwarted by the mob of people. The tea houses are really neat though–they are supplied by helicopter at the start of the season, and restocked over the summer by employees who hike to work.
We’d also planned to have a cocktail at the big waterfront hotel, Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. We thought it would be a fun and fancy splurge. Thwarted again, this time by signage everywhere along the waterfront saying only hotel guests allowed… and by this time we were ready to leave anyway.
I feel like I’m being awfully negative here. Don’t get me wrong, Lake Louise itself is insanely beautiful! We’re glad we spent an afternoon exploring… but when we return to the area, other locations will be prioritized on our to-do list.
Moraine Lake – Wenkchemna Pass
As I said, Moraine Lake parking will make you crazy. Book a seat on a shuttle bus to guarantee entry, or cross your fingers and try driving. We were told it’s bonkers through the night, too, with all the photographers looking for starry sky and sunrise photos, so earlybirds can’t necessarily count on lucking out. Once you get in, there are lots of people near the lodge (the line at the cafe was long, but it was a way better scene than at Lake Agnes Tea House) and on the trails near the lake, but the crowd thins pretty quickly.
We’d had Sentinel Pass on our must-do list, for the big views at the pass, and the golden larches in Larch Valley. Our ranger friend at the visitor center said no, that’s what everyone will be doing, so do Wenkchemna Pass instead. Hhoollyy cow was that good advice! The hike is a moderate (there are only two tough climbs) 11.5-mile out-and-back weaving through glacier-capped mountains from Moraine to the pass. The views were stunning the whole way, and we only saw maybe 10 other people past the early split with the Larch Valley trail.
Back at Moraine Lake, if you can handle the crowd (I could, J couldn’t) pop up to the top of the Rockpile for a lovely view across the lake.
We loved Moraine Lake and its trails (other than the parking situation) and will definitely explore more there when we return.
Icefields Parkway – Bow Glacier Falls
Our last morning in town, we got up early and drove a half-hour up Icefields Parkway for a short hike. There’s so much to explore along the parkway, which stretches 144 miles from Lake Louise to Jasper National Park, and is rated as one of the most scenic drives in the world. We chose to hike to Bow Glacier Falls, an easy six mile out-and-back from Bow Lake.
This hike was super and all three of us enjoyed it immensely as offers a big payoff for not much effort. We had it all to ourselves at 8am (other than some sunrise photographers along the shore), but it was getting crowded at ten when we were packing up. That crowd included a small wedding ceremony–what an incredible spot to get married! I asked J if we could renew our vows there and he said no. Oh well.
Banff has all sorts of eating options; Lake Louise, not so much. We decided to eat dinner out both nights in Banff (one of those nights was our 20th wedding anniversary!) and cook at home in Lake Louise.
For our anniversary, we went for an over-the-top splurge meal at Eden at the Rimrock Resort Hotel. Everything about the experience was perfect.
The second restaurant we hit was Block Kitchen + Bar, for pan-Asian sharable plates and yummy cocktails. It’s a tiny place and we really liked the scene there, along with enjoying food like bao, lettuce wraps, salmon crostini, and oysters. Delish!
Our first-night taxi driver, Mike, maintains a things-to-do-in-Banff website which might be useful for making future food and drink decisions. On the drive, he recommended Tooloulou’s for Cajun, and Coyotes next door for Tex-Mex. Other restaurants on our maybe list were Farm & Fire, for local ingredients; The Bison for farm-to-table food; and Nourish Bistro for healthy lunch options.
Of course we had to try Banff Ave Brewing! The brewery has a taproom downstairs with patio seating, and a pub upstairs. My sour was fine, J wasn’t super into his pale ale (it was the closest thing to a hazy IPA they had), but I really liked their Albeerta merch.
Finally, a nightcap at Shoku Izakaya, the sister restaurant to Block. It’s a bigger place, and the menu has some overlap with Block plus more sushi and sake. Our nightcap included a cocktail and some nigiri and both were fab.
The beertender at Banff Ave recommended the bowling alley for the most beer on tap in town, and drinks and snacks at the bar at Chuck’s Steakhouse. We also had a couple other places on our maybe list for drinks: Park Distillery (and their food is supposed to be good too), and Magpie & Stump for rooftop margs.
I would love to return and extend our visit up the Icefields Parkway to the enormous Jasper National Park.
On the list for Banff and Lake Louise:
- Ride a gondola or two for views and access to more remote trailheads. There are four gondolas/chairlifts in the area and all had just recently closed for the shoulder season when we visited.
- Hike Mount Bourgeau in Banff, a tough fourteen miles
- Hike past Helen Lake to Cirque Peak in Lake Louise, a hard ten miles
- Check out Canmore, 15 minutes east of Banff. It’s less touristy, supposedly just as cute as Banff, and has three breweries, and a distillery
- Take pretty reflection photos at Two Jack Lake and sunset photos at Vermillion Lakes