Banff National Park: A Great Summer Adventure Vacation! Part 1 — The Immediate Banff Vicinity

Banff National Park, and its surrounding area, is one of the most beautiful spots on earth. Rugged peaks, lush green forests, pristine deep blue lakes, glaciers, waterfalls, and tons of wildlife. Pure majesty and awe. I first visited and hiked all over the region with my parents and siblings as a teen, and fell in love with the area so much that I told myself I would honeymoon here some day. That dream came true when Jeff and I married in August 2009.

For those into hiking and outdoor activities, the Banff area of Canada is the perfect vacation spot. Whether you seeking a romantic adventure vacation like Jeff and I wanted for our honeymoon, or you are bringing kids and teens along, Banff offers enough activity and beauty to meet everyone’s vacation expectations. Canada’s most visited national park is a spot that every outdoors lover must visit at least once in his or her lifetime.

Here are some of the highlights of the region we visited–click on the headline for each to see the full review:

Visiting Banff and Bow Falls

Bow Falls, Banff National Park

Bow Falls, at the foot of the beautiful Banff Springs Hotel.

Although it is packed with tourists and crowds, the adorable picturesque town of Banff is a must-do stop when visiting the park. Located inside park boundaries, you need to purchase a Parks Pass ($20 one day pass, $136 annual pass) to visit town. Spend a couple hours exploring the walking paths through town, and enjoying one of the many eateries.

Be sure to head over to Bow Falls, a shallow set of waterfalls worth visiting because of their location on the glacial silt blue-green Bow River at the foot of the spectacular Banff Springs Hotel.

Hiking Bow Falls to the Hoodoos

Hoodoos and Bow River

Hoodoos along the beautiful blue-green glacial-fed Bow River.

This easy 3.1 mile round-trip hike through lush forest takes you between Bow Falls and the Hoodoos, a set of eroded rock formations that are on the big tour bus route. While the Hoodoos are highly overrated, this trail provides an excellent up-close hike along the pristine glacial-fed blue-green Bow River.

This short hike can easily be done the same day as a visit to town, and the river access (for dipping toes or skipping rocks) and views make this trail appealing to the children in your hiking party.

Hiking to Johnston Canyon Falls

Lower Johnston Canyon Falls

Lower Johnston Canyon Falls

This 1.7 mile round-trip trail is one of the most popular and crowded hikes in the park. Immediately accessible off Bow Valley Parkway, this mostly-paved trail leads you through a spectacular narrow fern-lined canyon to a series of breathtaking waterfalls. The lower falls are accessible even to wheelchairs, although the catwalk sections get a bit narrow. Most people opt to make the lower falls their terminus, but those who make the full trek are rewarded with even taller waterfalls. The spectacular falls, and especially the little cave at the lower falls where you can feel the spray hit your face, make this a great hike for kids.

To avoid the crowds, we recommend you hit this hike around or after dinner time. Long Canadian summer evenings make for longer, less crowded, hiking hours.

Scenic Drive Along Bow Valley Parkway

Big Horn Sheep on Bow Valley Parkway

Big Horn Sheep on Bow Valley Parkway

Bow Valley Parkway is a super scenic 32-mile stretch of Highway 1A that connects the town of Banff to Lake Louise. It is the slower of the two highways connecting these two popular park localities, with reduced speeds (60km/27mph) due to all of the wildlife sightings and popular scenic turnouts.

We drove this route every day, and whether morning or evening, we were greeted by a family of elk eating alongside the road. Big horn sheep also like to come down to the asphalt road to lick up the salt.

Visiting Majestic Lake Louise

Lake Louise

Beautiful serene Lake Louise

Lake Louise is simply one of the most stunning spots on earth. I thought so as a teen, and I still think so as a more well-traveled adult. For many people, the town of Banff and Lake Louise are the only two spots they visit in the national park. Lake Louise is a tourist trap, but is yet another must-do spot if you visit the park. This glacial fed alpine lake is beyond majestic.

A flat easy popular walking path allows visitors to explore the north end of the lake, where six glaciers feed the lake. For those who seek a more adventurous way to view the lake, book a horseback riding tour, hike all the way up to the Plain of Six Glaciers, rent a canoe to tour the lake, or ride the gondola up to the top of the the Lake Louise Ski Resort for stunning views.

Horseback Riding Around Lake Louise

Horseback Riding Around Lake Louise

Riding through scenic dense forest.

Although there is a popular walking trail that skirts along Lake Louise to the backside of the lake, we recommend one of the fun scenic horseback riding tours instead. Timberline Tours is a smaller Lake Louise area outfit that provides excellent intimate guided tours.

We opted for a short one and a half hour tour that took us back up into the glacial streams that feed Lake Louise. However, the outfit also offers longer tours that take you up to Plain of Six Glaciers and the Lake Agnes Tea House, as well as overnight trips.

Hiking to the Plain of Six Glaciers for Alpine Tea

Plain of Six Glaciers

Plain of Six Glaciers, where six glaciers intersect above Lake Louise

This 6.8 mile round-trip hike is hands down my favorite hike in Banff National Park. The trail is simply stunning. Starting from the pathway alongside Lake Louise, it climbs up past the glacial streams that feed the lake, to the intersection of six glaciers, then to a rustic adorable alpine tea house that is only open and accessible during the summer season. The views are breathtaking. And the experience is surreal.

Don’t skip out on the tea house. Built in 1927 by the Canadian Pacific Railway, this unique tea house serves up food and drink without the benefit of running water or electricity.

Hiking Moraine Lake to Consolation Lakes

Moraine Lake

Moraine Lake, in the rain

This moderate 3.6 mile round-trip hike starts at very popular Moraine Lake (featured on Canada’s $20 bill), but quickly heads into far less-crowded scenery on the trail to Consolation Lakes — yet another series of beautiful glacial-fed lakes. The trail parallels a beautiful river, treks through lush thick forest, and skirts across rock-strewn moraines. A visitor center at Moraine Lake allows hikers to enjoy a cold drink, sandwich, or ice cream at the end of the trail.

Perhaps the most enticing feature of the Consolation Lakes hike is the abundance of grizzly bears in this area.  While we didn’t get to see any grizzlies, the Canadian government requires people to do this hike in groups of four or more and remain within 3 meters of each other. Failure to do so can result in a $5,000 fine.

Our next post will feature some of the national park’s hikes and activities located outside of the immediate Banff and Lake Louise area.

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