Banff is one of those magical places that you just know you are going to love before you even visit. Dotted with the world’s bluest lakes, and framed by spectacular mountain horizons, Banff is the ultimate nature getaway.
Knowing how much there is to see in Banff, we spent longer here than any other place on our Canadian road trip, giving ourselves 4 full days to play with. This meant that we could fit in everything we wanted to see, and didn’t have to rush around too much. Honestly, 4 days still was never going to be enough, but we managed to squeeze quite a bit in to those 4 short days!
Ok, so it’s got a bit of a rude sounding name, and it’s a bit out of the way, but Lake Minnewanka is somewhere you should absolutely have on your ‘to visit’ list. To describe it as vast would be quite an understatement, this lake is simply ginormous. There are plenty of nice lakefront walks to enjoy, as well as picnic benches for when hunger strikes, and there are even boat-mooring areas. The area is also full of wildlife, including deer, elk, sheep and bears.
Don’t forget to look out for those bright red deck chairs for a nice photo-op!
We allowed ourselves half a day for Johnston Canyon, as it is a vast hiking area, with several waterfalls, ink pots and pretty little crevices to explore. There was one main area that we had come to visit, and that was the large rock formation that appears to be simply floating in the riverbed that you can see all over Instagram. However, we were surprised by how beautiful the rest of the canyon was.
The main path winds through the picturesque forest, following the path of the river as it cuts its way through the rock. You can decide how far you would like to hike before doubling back. We decided to go just to the upper falls and back, as the ink pots were a 5.8 mile hike and we just didn’t have the time!
Did you know that the Cave and Basin National Historic Site was Canada’s first official national park? There’s a lot of history embedded in these caves…
Drawing up in the car park, we were instantly reminded of Yellowstone. The smell of sulphur was undeniable, and unfortunately, unavoidable!
For a small entry fee, you can wander around the caves where years ago these hot springs were discovered and turned into a lucrative business opportunity. For many years, people believed in the healing powers of the hot sulphuric waters, and would come from all over to bathe in them. People believed that the thermal springs could even cure syphilis and gout – although these days, most of the medical theories have now been all but abolished.
The area is home also to an endangered species – the Banff Springs Snail, so make sure you keep an eye out for them when you visit!
This is one of the lakes that you will undoubtedly already have heard of, and for very good reason. Moraine Lake is a deep turquoise-coloured lake, framed by jagged, snow-capped mountains and tall green pine trees. It is completely picture-perfect during the day, however it is something else entirely at dawn.
We forced ourselves to wake and leave our hotel one morning at the ungodly hour of 3am, in the hopes of making it into the park and along the steep hike up the rock pile at Moraine Lake before sunrise. Luckily for us, we made it, and were able to witness one of the most beautiful sunrises we have ever seen. The sun rises from the opposite side of the lake, meaning that as it gains in height, its rays hit the mountains at the tip of the lake and slowly bathe them in a spectacular golden light.
If you can bear the early start, we promise you won’t regret it to witness this spectacle. Just make sure you check the weather forcast in advance so you know it will be a clear night!
If however, you really aren’t an early riser, here’s another amazing thing to do at Moraine Lake – take a canoe out on the water.
One canoe seats two people, and an hour’s ride costs around 100 Canadian dollars. This seemed quite steep to us, but once we got in the boat and out onto the water, it was absolutely worth every penny.
The canoes are very weather-dependent, and upon our first attempt to hire one, the canoe hire was closed due to high winds. It is also quite chilly out on the open water, so make sure you wrap up in layers, and bring gloves! If you can get there early, and preferably a little out of peak season, you might be lucky as we were, and manage to get most of the lake to yourselves. Out in the middle of the lake, with the water gently lapping at the edge of the boat and the birds singing from the treetops, it felt as though we were in our own little paradise.
The great thing about canoeing the lake is that you get really unique views and vantage points of the lake’s edge too. We managed to get some gorgeous pictures of the towering trees that line the edge of the water.
I absolutely fell in love with the town of Banff from the minute we set eyes on it. The high street was built along two straight lines, either side of a spectacular view of the nearby mountains. The centre of the street is dotted with floral displays, decorating the already spectacular view. The sorts of shops that can be found here are bohemian stores and hiking/active gear shops like Billabong and Cool as a Moose (my new favourite store).
It also has some lovely independent, artsy stores, and some great places to eat. I particularly loved the ‘olde world’ style sweet shop, and could have spent hours in there!
We had dinner in the form of a stone baked pizza from a place called ‘Aardvark‘ which we stumbled upon on the outskirts of town. A cute, quirky little pizza place, with colourful decor and great customer service. Oh, and the pizza was divine.
Just like its neighbouring Jasper National Park, Banff is rife with wildlife. We saw all kinds of sheep, goats and deer here, but most importantly, a whole load more bears, including several grizzlies! Just keep an eye out at the side of the road, because we most often saw them just grazing the grass at the roadside. The big grizzly bear below was just wandering through the woods, literally minutes away from the Banff town sign!
If there’s one lake in Canada I can guarantee you’ve heard of, it’s Lake Louise. This beautiful, deep green lake is edged with large, smooth stones that seem to melt into the water itself. It also has some wonderful hiking trails around its edge, and if you’re feeling energetic, you can hike to the Plain of the Six Glaciers Tea House.
Just a word of warning, Lake Louise gets extremely busy, and the first time that we tried to visit, we were shocked at the huge queues of traffic, and were turned away as the car park was full. This was at around 1pm, so next time we visited after conquering Moraine Lake at sunrise, and arrived at around 7:30am. The car park was practically empty, and there were only a few eager people skirting the lake’s edge. This made it feel all the more magical, and I would imagine definitely beats the obscene amount of midday crowds.
Don’t forget to pop into the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Even if it is out of your budget to stay, you can still walk around downstairs amongst the shops and restaurants for free!
We actually just happened upon the Mistaya Canyon as we were driving back to our hotel one evening, and we were so glad that we decided to stop. It turned out that this was a gorgeous canyon, tightly bordered by dense woodland, and with a thin channel that has been decoratively carved out by thunderous waters. You can walk all around the edge of the canyon, and can sit right on the rocks that overhang the water’s edge.
This lake is the absolute bluest of all of the lakes that we saw in Canada, AND it’s shaped like a fox! This is another sight that you simply must see for yourself. The lake is accessible from a short hike from the car park at Bow Summit (although watch out for snow and ice at this elevation!), and there is an upper and a lower viewing area to get different vantage points.
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