This is the trip that kicked off our international adventures, just before we moved to London in August of 2014, and Chad and I both agree it remains one of our very favorite trips after everywhere we have been. It was so gorgeous, the lakes and their turquoise color never ceased to amaze me, and those Beaver Tails (fried dough covered in a variety of toppings and treats) were worth multiple trips back!! Here's our list of stops you have to make, which I owe mostly to Chad since I never get that into hiking research:
Lake Louise and Plain of the Six Glaciers hike
Lake Louise is an obvious stop if you are visiting Banff, so I am sure I don't need to convince anyone to go there, but I think that that the Plain of the Six Glaciers hike originating from the lake should also not be missed. It isn't a difficult hike, but it is about 9 miles round trip with a 1300 foot elevation gain. At the top, there is a little tea house where you can stop for scones and hot chocolate (the perfect reward at the top of a hike!). Make sure you continue on up from there to Abbott Pass, it's only about half a mile further, and it's as close as you can get to the glaciers that serve as backdrop to Lake Louise in all the famous photos you see. On the way back, we took the Highline Trail to Mirror Lake so that we could see a new trail, and although Mirror Lake wasn't mind-blowing, the views of Lake Louise from that higher trail definitely were!
Moraine Lake and Consolation Lakes hike
Moraine Lake is another spot I don't have to elaborate on, and you can drive right up to it for an incredible sight, but if you go beyond the rock pile where the swarms of people are taking that photo, you will find a trail to the Consolation Lakes. This trail is almost entirely flat, is less than 4 miles round trip, and the scene at the end is so gorgeous. I especially loved feeling like we were by ourselves, which can be hard to find in Banff in the summertime!
Emerald Lake is SO gorgeous. I think it helped that we were there on a misty night where the water, trees, and mountains all kind of blended together in a turquoise haze. It felt like we were in a dream. It is super easy to get to (just park and you are there!) and far less crowded than the other lakes I have mentioned.
We all thought Marble Canyon was the best bang for our buck. It is a short walk from the parking lot to a deep-cut slot canyon with rushing glacial blue water that is so stunning. Perhaps it left such an impression because it was the first thing we saw, and I was so shocked by the color of the water! The trail crosses over the canyon several times, so it provides lots of fun views all along the way.
Takakkaw Falls and Ice Line hike
This is an impressive and powerful waterfall. You don't have to get very close at all to get wet. We did the Ice Line hike (about 8 miles round trip), which gives amazing views of the falls all the way up, as well as the glacier that feeds the waterfall and the canyon that it sits in.
Johnston Canyon and ice cream!
I was thrilled about Johnston Canyon because there was a little ice cream store at the start of the trail! So this is the only hike we did the whole time where I was able to eat ice cream while hiking, making the experience of hiking so much more enjoyable for me. Every trail should start with ice cream.
Another lake filled with turquoise water that looks more like paint than water! Here you get a view from above rather than walking right up to the lake itself. We didn't do any hikes from here, but it is definitely worth stopping by just to see it.
On the main street running through the town of Banff, you will find a store called Beaver Tails that sells large pieces of fried dough that you can cover in a variety of sweet toppings. This was a trip highlight for me and my sweet tooth. My favorite was the maple icing and I am sad that I can only get these in the Canadian Rockies because I have dreamed about them several times since.
- Go everywhere early! The crowds at all of the must-see spots can get crazy, and it is so nice not only to have some of these places to yourself, but also to see the lakes when the water is totally still before all the canoes take off. Waking up at 5:00am can be a brutal start to a day on vacation, but it is worth it!
- Stay in Canmore. It wasn't exactly the luxurious Fairmont on Lake Louise, but it was such an affordable alternative that was conveniently located for everything that we did, located just a 10 minute drive outside of the park entrance. We stayed in this airbnb and it was perfect.
- Be prepared to drive a lot. The distances are great if you want to visit the parks beyond Banff (Yoho, Kootenay), and you absolutely should! Make sure you are taking this trip with people you are happy to spend lots of hours in the car with!