Discovered in 1883 by a group of railway workers on the brink of completing the Trans Canadian railway, this isolated stretch of the Northern Rockies was marked for preservation literally within days of its modern discovery. One of four world heritage sites located in this part of the mountain chain, Banff is home to some of the most diverse mountain ecosystems anywhere in the world. With hot springs, plains biomes, towering mountains and lakes of every color, Banff draws over a million visitors each year from every corner of the world. It houses a massive population of grizzly bears, it has rare species such as wolverines and lynx, elk and long horn sheep call the valleys and towering peaks their home as well. Some of the grandest views anywhere can be found along its miles of trail and winding roads, and it’s even complete with a European style town, bustling in the center of the park.
I won’t tell you that Banff is the most amazing landscape you’ll ever find, because it isn’t. If you highlight any particular aspect of it and compare it to the other National Parks in North America, it hardly stacks up. It’s mountains aren’t as good as those found to the North and West in Yoho and Jasper. It’s hotsprings and geysers can’t touch those of Yellowstone. It’s wildlife and active glaciers can’t compare to those found off the roads in Glacier National. However it’s the fact that you can find all of these aspects mashed together, hidden amongst the peaks of the Rocky Mountains that make Banff a truly unique and special place. Nowhere else can you see an avalanche whilst standing in front of a sulphur spring. Never before have I been able to drive right from a vermillion green swamp overlooking giant limestone ridges, to a forested canyon complete with cascading falls and Rapids within a span of 30 minutes. It’s the only place I know of where you can spend just a few hours, hiking to the top of a mountain just to look down at a lake of pure powder blue thousands of feet below, before retiring to a downtown mall for some authentic taffy or fudge. There’s a reason it’s one of the most popular tourist areas in Canada, a fact which can disuade many. The attractions at Banff are overwhelmed with a crushing mass of Chinese tour busses, Australian hikers, and campers from around the world. Parking is a nightmare, even the overflow is overflowing, and many areas get completely shut down due to simple overcrowding. However, it’s all worth it, and with the proper planning, a vacation in Banff can be the experience of a lifetime.
Planning really is a must though, going in blind will only lead to frustration and confusion, I can assure you. There are certain times to see certain things and times to avoid them, places to camp and gear to have that will make or break any stay in the mountains. If you plan to camp, be sure to bring lots of warm materials, extra blankets, and a ground cover for your tent, as most of the sites are on excruciatingly uncomfortable gravel. The temperature drops well below 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night, and that’s in the heat of July. Tarps are also a good idea, we encountered rain both nights of our stay, and without a rain cover our tent would have been an absolute swamp. That being said, you couldn’t ask for a friendlier group of Rangers and employees. Do what planning you can online, but when you get to the park, be sure to have a few locations you want to visit in mind, and ask a ranger or visitor center the best times to see them if you wish to avoid the crowds.
It’s really an area you need to spend a good few days in to get the full effect, as while Banff itself is large, it’s surrounded by connecting parks of equal size, each with their own amazing attractions to offer. All of them are worth visiting, but sticking to Banff specifically, there is one thing you have to see above all else. Lake Louise.
Perhaps one of the most, if not the most iconic image of the Canadian Rockies, Lake Louise is a small body of water located about thirty minutes west of the town center. If you don’t know the name, give it a quick Google search, chances are you’ll recognize it. However it’s not the spectacular mountains and glaciers that make this spot so iconic, it’s the color of the water. When you see a picture of it you’ll swear it’s been photoshopped, but I assure you, it hasn’t. Glacial sediment draining into the water over thousands of years has turned the lake a perfect shade of powder blue, making for one of the most surreal landscapes anywhere on the planet. Much of the water in the park and surrounding area is this shade, rivers of light blue flowing over cascades and through canyons, it’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen in my entire life. But it’s the exceptional calm of Lake Louise that sets it apart, like someone filled a valley with light blue paint and then just left it to dry, solidifying into a solid cake of color plopped neatly between the mountains.
To see Lake Louise you should get there early, before eight to be sure, as soon after breakfast is over it fills almost instantly and the spot is completely blown up. However if you get there early enough, you can enjoy the endless miles of trail in relative seclusion, even stopping at a tea house in the mountains near Lake Agnes for a bit of a snack if you rushed off without eating. Though there are many trails around the lake, we chose one called “little beehive” which takes you to the very top of a mountain of the same name overlooking the lake and the valley below. The hike takes about three hours, and you pass a few other lakes and waterfalls on the way up, though none are as impressive as Louise. You also get an amazing view of the Victoria glacier, which rests inbetween the mountains sandwiching the lake. Having little prior knowledge of the area, I was expecting a loop of sorts that would go a ways up then gradually come back down towards the lake, but after about an hour of steep inclines with literally no end in sight, it dawned on us that we were quite literally, climbing a mountain. The trail takes you about twenty five hundred feet into the sky, at which point you will turn around and come back down the very same trail, with the option to branch off towards some of the other peaks should you so choose. The journey up is much more strenuous, but the journey down is much more treacherous, and they each even out to around 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hour hikes.
If you make it out of Lake Louise before noon, another spot worth checking out is just across the highways north of the lake. It’s the Lake Louise ski resort, normally packed in the winter, during the summer it becomes a hotbed for wildlife viewing as well as offering some of the best vistas this side of the park. Due to the amount of snow melt on the deforested ski slopes, in the summer it’s filled with wild flowers and berries, making it a prime location for many of the parks animals to come and spend their afternoons. The gondola to the top of the mountains costs about $30 CAD and takes 15 minutes to reach the top, but it’s one of the best spots to see Grizzlies, enjoying themselves out on the hill, and we were even told that Lynx occasionally frequent the area for similar reasons. From the top you have a view of not only Lake Louise, but also three glaciers, including Victoria, and the highest peaks in the park. A wildlife museum of sorts can also be found just off the gondola exit, showcasing the many creatures to be found amongst the Rocky Mountain terrain, as well as offering times and places to see them. If you choose to take the gondola up the slopes, ask the attendants at the bottom where the bears where seen last, they will usually know and give you the name or number of the last tower where they were spotted. Though we didn’t see any on the way up, after wandering for about twenty minutes at the peak we saw a grizzly mother lounging on the slope, and got an even better view of her on the way down.
Other areas to see include Johnston canyon, the Vermillion lakes, and the hot springs, all of which are uniquely impressive in their own ways, and no more than fourty minutes apart at the most. Everywhere we went though, we were surrounded by grand views of the Rockies that can be found nowhere else. One of the things Banff does have that other mountain parks don’t, is space. The town lies in a valley, and unlike the confines of the mountains to the West, or the deep almost sheer canyons of Glacier, Banff’s valleys are mostly flat, and very large. This gives an interesting new perspective on the mountains, as you can see most of them from top to bottom, the elevation of the valleys being much lower than average. The massive granite facades rise up in every direction, the tectonic forces at work clearly evident in the shape and style of the mountains. Many of them have back sides that are almost totally flat, evidence of where a plate mercilessly shoved it’s way beneath another, pushing the ground upwards until what was once a level plain now faces that sky at almost ninety degree angles. Also unlike Glacier and the mountains to its west, it’s mountains are much more lightly forested, most of them are barren rock, casting odd imposing shadows all across the western faces in the morning sun.
With much of the mountain faces being comprised of sheer rock, the few flat areas that exist closer to the peaks are home to slivers of forest, conifers clinging to the edge with undying tenacity; The trees unwilling to let slip what little land they have to claim at such gravity defying altitudes. Discombobulated lines of white streak vertically down over the mountains, waterfalls of melting snow snaking their way over thousands of feet of rock as they surge towards the valleys below. Going towards the wetlands of the Vermillion Lakes, tendrils of yellow and white spread out into the water, sulphur and minerals from the hotsprings above them. The reeds keep the water so still that it reflects the Rockies like a mirror, the algae creating a green hue in the reflection. The sun doesn’t set until almost eleven, and when it does it disappears behind the mountains to the west, illuminating their backs and bathing the east in dark blue shadow. Even the northern lights can be seen on a good night, making for one of the most mind blowing backdrops in the north.
Banff is truly a park greater than the sum of its parts. A place made whole by its many unique and separate pieces. Though it can be arduous to navigate and irritating to deal with at certain times, it has more than enough room to get lost in the hills and forget all about the congestion of the streets around you. The town is charming, the mountains are majestic, the wildlife is raw and untamed. It’s a place for the whole world to enjoy, so you can’t be surprised when the whole world shows up to do just that. There are almost infinite options for things to do, hiking and camping being the foremost, but the town can accommodate families and tourists with more lodges, shops, and restaraunts than you could ever need. When all is said and done though, you’ll come away from Banff with a camera full of pictures and an insatiable hunger for the outdoors.