TRAVEL TIPS: BANFF NATIONAL PARK

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I hope you were able to catch the start of my posts about our dream vacation. I shared last week how we spent less than $600 on our 7 day trip. We went to Glacier National Park which you can read about here. Those posts were just the warm up, because Banff was by far our favorite part of the vacation. I’m excited to share it with you today!  

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Not to mention we took our little guy with us and if you are looking for a family friendly (yes even BABY friendly) vacation spot here is some tips you won’t want to miss! 

When we told people we were going to Banff we got a lot of “where?” or “Did you say Banff? I’ve never heard of that.” You might be reading this and thinking the same thing. Which is partly why we wanted to go! We were looking for an adventure and sure found one that many people we knew didn’t know about. It’s not like coming home and telling about your Disneyland vacation and eveyone you know has already been there. We actually only know a handful of people who have been to Banff. It came highly recommended and was a place we could discover together for the first time. (If you remember in my last post this was pretty rare.)

Banff National Park

Banff National Park is in Canada. It is about an hour away from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. So you might be wondering how did we hear about a park that is 4-5 hours from the Canadian border and why would we choose to go there?

When it came to planning this epic adventure I jumped on the chance to go somewhere we had never been. In my planning I planned that we would go to Glacier National Park in Montana. When I realized that Banff was only ‘a few hours away’ (I’ll write a little more about that below) I knew we had to add it to the list! My best friend growing up went to the Banff Film Fesitval religiously every year when it came to town. Her family traveled a lot and she had been to Banff too. She got us going to the film festival and in turn planted the little seed for me to go there.

Once we started planning our trip to a place that ‘no one had heard about’ we started to hear more and more people say how they have always wanted to go there. It is like a paradise for outdoors people I guess. Seriously everyone we talked to wants to go there someday. And after being there I can’t wait to go back too!  

Banff National Park was established in the 1880’s. It’s the third oldest park in the world. Nesseled in the Canadian Rocky Mountains it is truly a dream. I have been to a few national parks but this one is the top of my list. It even topped my favorite Zion’s National Park. This park is huge and home to a variety of landscapes, animals, and experiences. I felt like I was either in Alaska or the Alps of Europe. If you are looking for a ‘spirited adventure’ as one thing I read said, these mountains will give you plenty of adventure and more beautiful views than you have ever seen. I couldn’t get enough of this place, can you tell? 

Getting There 

Our trip consisted of 7 days. Day 1 we traveled to Glacier National Park, Day 2 we spent in Glacier,  Day 3 was split between time in Glacier and getting to Banff in Canada. Days 4, 5, and part of 6 we spent in Banff before making the rest of the journey home. To get to Banff we left Glacier National Park. Because of the forest fire we had to go out and around the park before taking the highway past Saint Mary and up to Babb then to the border where we crossed at Carway.

Crossing the Border: The Carway border crossing is super small and nice. As adults we had to have a passport to cross into Canada but our little guy didn’t have to have a passport. A child traveling by land only needed a birth certificate. You can read more about the laws here. I think I checked this website twenty times. I had the greatest fear we would get there and find out that in fact he needed a passport. That was definitely not the case. All of my stressing was for nothing. A few questions and we were on our way.

From the border we drove the 15 or so minutes into Cardston AB where we stopped to see the Cardston Latter Day Saint Temple. It was built in the 1920’s and has some really surprising architecture. It is definitely worth stopping in and touring the visitor’s center whether you are a church member or not.  

Getting to Banff from Carway there are two roads you can take. As near as I can tell the travel time is about the same so we took one going and one coming back.  

Highway 2 from Carway to Calgary to get there. After leaving the mountains of Glacier we were surprised that the entire drive is rolling farmland. I called it a greener Southern Idaho. The farms were beautiful and huge. It was fun to drive literally through little towns where a city block was between us and the Southbound lanes of traffic.

Going this way you hit the outskirts of Calgary, which is a huge town. The roads were really nice and because of my errors in judging time we happened to hit Calgary at about 5:30, perfect rush hour traffic amidst construction.One thing I failed to account for as we crossed the border was the need for a detailed map. I knew that our phones would change carriers and that they would basically be unusable so I grabbed a very basic map. That basic map was fine until we got to Calgary where the city is huge and the road system is more complex. So if you are traveling through without cell service plan to get a very detailed route. A basic map was not enough to navigate so we ended up pulling into a Safeway and getting some groceries and using the wifi at A&W to get us on Highway 1 to continue on to Banff.

Coming back home we turned off of Highway 1 a little earlier than Calgary and took Highway 22 from Redwood Meadows to Pincher Creek. This could easily be your route there too. The hills we even more rolling and Mr M said it was a fun road to drive. The speedlimit was still 80 kilometers so we weren’t any slower than on Highway 2. It was full of ranch country and farm land and you drive through a bunch of really small towns. Either route you take you are looking at 4-5 hours from the Border before you actually get to Banff. I’m glad we took both routes it was fun to see the beautiful countryside.  

As a little side note if you aren’t coming from Glacier the fastest route may be to just take I-15 from Shelby Montanta to Lethbridge AB and cross the border at Sweet Grass. Other people we talked to who went to just Banff and not Glacier as well took this route to get there and back. 

Banff: Highway 1 & 1A:  

After leaving Glacier around 11am and making a few stops along the way pulling into Banff was a welcome sight. It was more driving than I had planned on but we also weren’t planning on having to drive all the way around Glacier too. Look how cute the entrance is to Banff!

Banff is pretty unique in the fact that Highway 1 goes right through the middle, so really you could stay on the highway and not see any of the park. Because of that I’d drive Highway 1A every chance you get! Plus it is incredibly beautiful, don’t you think?

Highway 1 is exactly like a highway with cute little overpasses that the animals can cross from one side to another. But the speed limit is fast, there are semi’s and really it’s a pretty drive but you don’t see much of the park. There are a few spots you have to get on the 1 but we took the slower 2 lane Highway 1A for as much as we could (like in the two pictures). 

This road is fabulous and if you want to drive and see some wildlife drive along here during sunrise and sunset and your chances are probably pretty good. We saw this guy as we drove in to Johnston Canyon at 9pm.

The road weaves through the trees and in some spots splits away from oncoming traffic so you are literally by yourself. It is magical. You’ll want to not only watch out for animals as you drive but road bikers as well. They are literally everywhere in Banff, and who can blame them? It’s so beautiful I wished I was biking through there! 

Things to Do: East End of the Park 

We decided to divide our two full days in Banff by doing things on opposite ends of the park. Day 1 we started on the East end of the park. This end is the entrance to the park and also home to the city Banff. 

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Town of Banff: We decided to spend a few hours in the town of Banff. Depending on your interests you could easily spend days here. There are museums, art centers, shopping, and more that could be done in the little city. There are also hot springs near by, Bow Falls you can hike to, golf, Banff Gondola, the cave to check out and more. With limited time though we felt like we made good use of our morning in the town of Banff.  

One of the things that is really cool about the town is that main road lines up perfectly with the mountain. It’s like a picture perfect city. It was easy to find places to park (with 2 hour limits) all along the side streets. We were able to walk to a lot of things too.

It felt like we were walking the streets of a little European town. We walked a few blocks through the city center and passed through a few shops. 

We happened to be driving along Tunnel Mountain road and all of the sudden we got to a sign that surprise corner. We rounded the corner and there was the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. It looks more like something you would definitely see on a postcard, but you are experiencing it in real life!  

After our drive we decided to go check it out. It was a beautiful place!  

Also near by is Lake Minnewanka which we didn’t actually make it to. We were bummed about that. There are also plenty of hiking and biking trails around this area too. We also saw a bunch of big horned sheep in this area too with their little babies.  

Things to Do: Central Area of the Park 

Johnston Canyon Falls: This was by far our favorite part of the trip! We camped in the center of Banff at Johnston Canyon Campground. Located nearby is the Johnston Canyon Falls. This trail is an absolute must on my list. It is incredibly popular. Like cars are parked on the road for 1/4 mile because the parking lot is full – kind of popular. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Go in the late evening. We went at 8pm and hiked the 1 mile to the lower falls. The sun doesn’t set until 10 so it was well lit, cool, and we maybe passed 4 other families who were on their way out. We had the place to ourselves. I’d plan on an hour or so for this hike.   

It was seriously like living in the Chronicals of Narnia or adventuring through Middle Earth. 

The nice thing is the trail is paved the entire way. They built little catwalks and railings along the edge of the cliff the river has carved out. Its a perfect hike for those who may not be quite adventurous hikers or have little legs. 

Around this part of the park I would recommend driving Highway 1A. You get to see so much more of the park. The road follows the river. There is plenty of areas to get out and discover or to stop for a picnic.  

Things to Do: West End of the Park 

Lake Louise: Lake Louise is one of the highlights of Banff and super well known. We knew we had to stop by for a quick visit. It is probably 30 miles from the town of Banff so it’s on the opposite end of the park. I feel like going to Banff and not seeing Lake Louise is like going to Yellowstone and not seeing Old Faithful. The Lake though is so pretty it is worth the drive.

There are canoes you can rent and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is the perfect backdrop. It looks like it should come right out of your calendar page.  

The parking lot puts you right against the lake. This area is very accessible to all abilities too. We walked around a bit and went in the hotel to look around too. My picture in the rain did not do this castle beauty justice. We had planned to hike the Plain of Six Glaciers Lakeshore trail so we could walk around the lake but it was raining too hard to take our little one out that long. There is also a trail I heard about called the Fairview Lookout which would’ve been worth checking out.  

Moraine Lake: As you take the road headed to Lake Louise there is a turnoff part way up that splits East and takes you to Lake Moraine. During the summer months you can drive right up to the lake. In the winter they close it down for cross-country skiing. We loved Moraine Lake. It was very busy but the parking lot is larger than they lead you to believe so we were able to find a spot. The lake is next to a little cafe and the trail is very kid friendly. The parking lot dumps you right at the edge of the lake and you can just start walking right around it. There is a big pile of rocks people climb to get a view from above and plenty of spots to take photos. You can also rent a canoe here too.  

Icefield Parkway Road: Heading West from Lake Louise we left Highway 1 and took Highway 93 towards Jasper and the Columbia Icefields. Getting there you cross into Jasper National Park, but as long as you have paid the entrance fee to Banff you are also allowed into Jasper at no added cost. It was a beautiful drive! I have never seen so many glaciers in my life and so many lakes. As you continue Northwest it levels out a bit and reminded me of driving through Yellowstone.   

As you drive there is lake after lake. Bow lake was a beautiful lake just off to the side of the road, pictured below. Later along the road was more lakes and rivers to see too.

Peyto Lake: About 30 minutes west of Lake Louise along the Columbia Icefields Parkway is Peyto Lake. The lake is beautiful! We chose to come here because the water looked even bluer than the other lakes, if that is even possible! It was really breathtaking! The blue water reminded me of kool-aid.

The parking lot leaves you at trail to the overlook of the lake. It takes about 10 minutes and the trail does climb a bit so for those who are unable, continue driving up the road a bit and there is a seperate parking lot that is right at the top of the overlook. The overlook gives you a beautiful shot of the lake. The bathrooms however we not as nice as the lake.  

 

Columbia Icefield Discovery Center & the Athabasca Glacier: About 80 miles west of Lake Louise along the Columbia Icefields Parkway is the Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefield Discovery Center. Mr M was really excited to go stand on a glacier so we made the drive out there. It’s almost 2 hours from Lake Louise but such a beautiful drive to get there. You can park in the parking lot below the glacier and take the hike up to the glacier (like we did) or you can go the discovery center and purchase a an adventure package where they bus you up onto the glacier. It was really interesting to see how much the glacier has receded over the last 100 years.  

Camping in Banff 

I would definitely recommend camping in Banff. Even with the chillly nights I would camp there all over again. I love camping and with a little planning in advance camping with a baby isn’t to hard either. There are a ton of campsites in Banff throughout the park. Banff is pretty huge so when looking to stay I chose somewhere in a location we wanted (a central location) and a place that had water, campfire rings, flushing toilets, and showers. We stayed at Johnston Canyon Campground because it had all of the above and it is smack dab in the middle of the park (perfect where we were doing things on each end). There are decent showers, as far as pubic showers go, and well kept bathrooms so we were able to shower before heading out. The camping staff was incredibly nice too!

There are a few campsites you can reserve in advance which we chose to do. We paid $120 Canadian Dollars (about $90USD) for 3 nights camping, firewood (all you could use included with the fees), and the reservation fees. We loved loved loved our campsite and highly recommend it with only one but. The only thing we didn’t like about our campsite is it is incredibly close to the railroad tracks which are busy all through the night. If you don’t mind a few train whistles now and then I highly recommend staying in Johnston Canyon.

How to Pack 

Layers are your friend. I wrote about how Glacier wasn’t a trip for getting tan by any means, and Banff is even more so. During the day I wore jeans, a t-shirt, and a light jacket. I wore at least one jacket the entire trip. We had rain and somepoint throughout the day every day we were there. The highs were never above the mid 60’s. It was perfect. However the nights were incredibly cold. 40 degrees. We made sure to pack warm for Baby W but failed to pack warm clothes to sleep in for ourselves. I was layering on the socks and sticking extra clothes in my sleeping bag as a ‘blanket’. The mornings started out cool and by 10:00 or so it warmed up a bit. When we got back we told our friend about it and she said every day she was there in late June was close to 80 degrees, so be sure to check your forecast before you head out. I’d plan on packing something for cool temps, something for warm (after we left the forecast was mid 80’s again) and something for in between.  

Final Tips 

You are in another country which although Canada seems like it is part of the US it is in fact not. I loved hearing the different accents and experiencing a different culture. As far as the conversion rate for money, we just used our credit card and were pleased with the rate we got. It seems like everything is more expensive because the Canadian Dollar is about $.77 US Dollars. So my first trip the grocery store I was floored but when you do the math it really wasn’t expensive at all. Gas comes in Liters and the speed limits are all in Kilometers. If you are like me, be grateful the odometer has km on there too so you don’t have to always do the math. But the hikes were all listed in km too so you might want to check before you head out.  We had no problems driving or traveling in Canada and absolutely loved our time there.  

I hope these tips help as you plan your next outing. There are so many things to do in the park I know we only saw a fraction of them! Seriously I could spend 10 days there again and have a completely new experience.  

I took this as we pulled into our campground the first night. Wasn’t this the most magical first impression of Banff?

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I couldn’t get over the blue water. I was surprised at every lake, every river, every time. The whole trip we kept saying ‘on our next trip here….’! I absolutely loved our trip and HIGHLY recommend it! What other parks have you been to that we should visit?

Larisa

Larisa

Here’s a little about me: I usually don’t buy things that I could make. I like to read and learn. I have dreams of being a mom, living in foreign countries, and trying new things. I take a ton of pictures. I collect rocks from the places I’ve been. I’m trying to learn French. I like to eat. I’m a Mormon.

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