After years of dreaming, I was finally able to cross a pretty big bucket list trip off the list. I can’t recall how I even originally heard about Banff and Jasper National Parks, but I’ve known for years that I wanted to go. So, at the end of June, my friend Jaime and I set out on our adventure.
We started planning back in January, which may seem far out, but given Banff’s short summer tourist season, hotels seem to book up fast. At that time, we were already having trouble finding somewhere to stay in Jasper, as many hotels were already sold out. Banff is a little larger and has the nearby Canmore as an alternative, but the parks get millions of visitors each year and the towns are pretty small. So, plan early.
We made the decision to travel in June, as it still considered part of the shoulder season. We were hoping for less crowds, but what we failed to realize was that Canada Day fell smack dab in the middle of our trip, so there were a couple of days where the crowds were intense.
Below, I’ve outlined our itinerary. I honestly wouldn’t change a thing about it. For us it was the perfect amount of time and allowed us to adequately explore. Use it as your guide as you plan an upcoming trip to one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited.
Day 1: Arrive in Calgary, Pick up Rental Car, Drive to Lake Louise
Against my better judgement , we picked the 6 a.m. flight out of Cleveland, which meant a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call. We flew through Denver, before arriving in Calgary around noon. We hopped in a cab and were dropped off at a rental car company downtown, where we were surprised with an upgrade to a Jeep Wrangler. Already, the vacation was off to a fabulous start. (Tip: Always check the price of rental cars at the airport vs. a few miles from the airport. We saved more than $750 for the nine days by taking a $25 cab ride to the Hertz outside the airport. Airports charge crazy taxes that are passed onto you.) After we grabbed the car, we started the three hour drive to Lake Louise.
We chose Lake Louise as our first stop, since the lake is stunning and it happens to be right at the start of the Icefields Parkway, which we were planning on driving day 2. We arrived in Lake Louse around 3:30 p.m., checked into The Post Hotel (which was nice, but so not worth the cost, but good luck finding anything cheaper in the area) and then hopped a bus to Lake Louise. The bus costs a couple of dollars and only takes a few minutes to get to the lake. I recommend the bus or the shuttle, as parking is limited. I must say – Lake Louise really is as beautiful as the pictures.
When you get to the lake from the parking lot, expect crowds of people. If you aren’t a fan of crowds, you can easily escape by going on one of the hikes in the area. Due to a bear sighting on one of the trails, we took an alternate route that started out walking alongside Lake Louise before merging onto Plains of Six Glaciers and then finally Big Beehive. The views were definitely worth the work. You can see from the pictures, the lake doesn’t even look real. It actually looks like someone badly photo shopped it in. Unfortunately we couldn’t spend a ton of time soaking in the views, as we were in a rush back to catch the 8 p.m. shuttle, as the next bus after that wasn’t scheduled to come until 11 p.m. and we did not want to be stranded up at the lake. We basically ran down the other side of the mountain, past Lake Agnes and the famous tea house before ending up back at the base of the lake. The total hike was about 8 miles.
After we made it back to town, we grabbed our rental car and drove 25 minutes to Moraine Lake for sunset. The road to Moraine Lake is generally closed to through traffic during the day and the only way you can get there is by shuttle. Later in the evening, there are far less people and usually parking spots. 8:30 p.m. worked out perfectly for us this time, but not during the holiday weekend. But we’ll get to that later. There was no way we were hiking after our ridiculously long day, but we heard Consolation Hike is worth it if you have time.
Day 2: Icefields Parkway to Jasper National Park
We woke very early (which would be the theme of our trip) to hit the Icefields Parkway before everyone else. To put this drive into perspective, we literally devoted an entire day to drive from Lake Louise to Jasper National Park, a drive that typically only takes 2.5 to 3 hours to drive if you don’t make any stops (about 225 km). But, the Icefields Parkway is ranked one of the best drives (if not the best) in North America. We wanted to make sure we had enough time to see everything we wanted, should we want to make stops.
The drive ultimately took us 12 hours. Yes, you read that right, 12 hours. During that time we stopped at multiple lookout points, hiked a total of 15 miles and saw some absolutely stunning scenery. We even saw a little bit of wildlife, but no bears or moose, which is pretty much all I cared about. Highlights included:
- Bow Lake – the reflections on a calm day are simply stunning and not to be missed (see the feature image of this post). We stopped briefly, did a short hike and escaped just before a large tour bus full of people infiltrated the shore.
- Peyto Lake – stunning blue water that rivals Lake Louise.
- Parker Ridge hike – this hike is fairly short, but mostly straight uphill. Don’t worry, you’re rewarded with views of the Sakewatchen Glacier and lake below.
- Beauty Creek hike – this hike hugs the river for most of the walk and features several beautiful waterfalls. Plus we encountered zero people on this trail.
- Mistaya Canyon – a short walk from the parking lot gets you to a giant gorge with a beautiful ice blue waterfall.
- Lower Sunwapta Falls hike – about 2.5 km, this hike gets you away from the masses to an equally beautiful waterfall that you can enjoy in peace and some solitude.
We stayed at Patricia Lake Bungalows while in Jasper. As the name states, you’re right on the lake and only a few kilometers from town. The cabins themselves are a little musty, but the views of Pyramid Mountain from the bungalows and the hot tub made up for it. We stayed a total of three nights in Jasper and we felt that was more than enough to see what we wanted to.
Day 3: Kayaking, Hot Springs and Hiking
We kicked off day 3 with kayaking on Patricia Lake. We rented them at the bungalows and were the only ones on the lake. As the clouds came and went, obscuring the mountains around us, we enjoyed the peace and quiet, while giving our legs a break from all the hiking we had done. After breakfast, we drove up to the natural hot springs, about an hour outside of Jasper. At this point it was raining, so what better way to enjoy your time than in a hot spring?
After soaking in the hot springs, we decided to go on a hike. Luckily for us, the rain also dissipated. We hiked the Utopian Pass (about 6 miles). It went past the ruins of the old hot springs and pretty deep into the forest. It was the first time we were out that I felt like there was a real possibility we were going to come nose to nose with a bear. Luckily, we just came across bear droppings and not the actual bear. I liked the hike but the scenery wasn’t the best in comparison to some of the other hikes we did on the trip. I might try Sawrail Ridge instead the next time around, assuming the weather was nicer than what we had. After the hike, we drove back to town and checked our Pyramid Island. It was really cute, but we were honestly at our hiking limit for the day and wanted to head back to the bungalows and rest before dinner.
Day 4: Lake Maligne and more Lake Maligne
We woke up early and drove the hour to Lake Maligne on day 4. The road to Lake Maligne is notorious for wildlife spotting, but all we saw on the way there was a giant elk. When we met other people later on, many had seen bears. Needless to say, we were a little jealous. We arrived at the lake, only to find that the hike we had wanted to do – Moose Lake Loop – was closed for construction. We wanted to do the hike because as the name suggests moose frequent this area. Slightly bummed out, we decided to do the Opal Hill hike instead. Of all the hikes we did, this one I would probably rank pretty close to the very bottom of the list. The weather was also mediocre and there was quite a bit of snow up at the top of the mountain, so maybe we would feel differently on a clear day.
The good news was that by the time we got to the bottom of the lake the weather had improved and you could actually see the beautiful mountains all around us. We ended up buying tickets to take the boat to Spirit Island. The price was kind of steep, but the reviews were all really positive. It’s about a 35 minute boat ride to Spirit Island, you get about 15 minutes to stretch your legs on land and take your pictures, before getting back on the boat and heading back. The views around Spirit Island are really what make the trip, more so than the island itself. It was well worth the money in my opinion.
After that, we made our way back to Jasper. We got lucky and saw both a grizzly bear and a black bear on the drive back. Later in the evening, after we had relaxed and hot tubbed, we ended up driving back towards Lake Maligne (basically a joy ride to try and spot wildlife) and were lucky enough to have an even better black bear sighting.
Day 5: Icefields Parkway to Canmore (Banff)
We weren’t as lucky weather wise on the drive back to Banff, but the weather cleared up just in time for our hike to Wilcox Pass. This hike was recommended by several locals, so we felt like it shouldn’t be missed. It was a tad brisk and even more so at the top, but you had views of the mountains all the way around, including Althabasca Glacier. We were the only other people up at the top that early in the morning, aside from a couple from Texas. As we descended the mountain, we encountered about 30 people, solidifying the importance of waking up early to avoid the crowds. If you want the mountains to yourself, get up early. It’s worth it.
After that hike, we walked the short distance to the face of Althabasca Glacier. Call me a snob, but I was not that impressed. The glaciers in Alaska are far more beautiful. We then continued our drive south, making a few stops along the way that we had missed on the trip up. Luckily, during our initial 12 hour day on the Icefields Parkway we hit most of the major sites.
We did make a small detour to Yoho National Park, which borders Banff, on the drive back. Our first stop was Emerald Lake, which was tourist central. It was honestly overwhelming with how many people were there. Plus, we heard the lake wasn’t as green as it normally gets. On the way out of the park, we visited Takakkaw Falls, one of the highest waterfalls in Canada. That was actually really cool and more impressive to me than Emerald Lake. Later that evening, we arrived in Canmore, our home for the next three nights. We chose Canmore over Banff because it’s supposed to be less touristy and is only about 15 minutes from Banff. I would totally stay there again if given the choice between the two.
Day 6: Lake Minnewanka and Paddleboarding on Lake Louise
We kicked off day 6 early and drove up to Lake Minnewanka, about a 20 minute drive from Canmore. We had heard rave reviews about the C Level Cirque hike and decided to check it out for ourselves. The weather was also perfect, so we were looking forward to not being rained on. This hike ended up being one of my favorite, if not the favorite, of the trip. It could have been the adolescent grizzly bear sighting early on or the insane views from the top of the hike. It was challenging, but manageable. And we were the only people at the top, aside from one other couple.
One of the things I really wanted to do while in Canada was paddleboard. We had tried in Jasper at Lake Edith, but the shop was closed when we arrived. So in Canmore we found Bow Valley SUP, where you can rent inflatable paddleboards for a really reasonable price. We ended up doing an overnight rental, meaning we picked up the boards around 5:15 p.m. and returned them the next day around 1:15 p.m. If I had to do anything differently about the trip, it would be this. I would’ve picked up paddleboards at the very beginning of the trip, so we could’ve brought them everywhere we went. We took the boards up to Lake Morraine/Lake Louise, only to find that the traffic was horrific from the Canadian holiday. Ultimately, because of the traffic we only got to paddle at Lake Louise, but we ended up being the only people on the water and we were there for sunset. Doesn’t get more perfect than that.
Day 7: Spray Road, Kananaskis country and Canada Day
We started the day by driving Spray Road, a gravel highway that is notorious for wildlife viewing. We saw nothing aside from some bighorn sheep and a moose. It ended up being the only time we saw a moose on the trip and I was pretty pumped about it. While the drive itself isn’t that long, you can’t go very fast because it’s gravel, so it takes forever. It was also freezing early in the morning, coming in at about 1 degree Celsius. We had brought the paddleboards to go out on Spray Lake, but ended up waiting until Lower Kanasksis Lake so that it would be a bit warmer. It was one of the toughest paddles I’ve ever done. Apparently that lake is notoriously windy and not ideal for paddling of any kind.
We came back to Canmore up Hwy 40, which is much smoother, returned our paddleboards and then enjoyed some of the Canada Day parade. This was the only day of the trip that we didn’t hike and I must say my body really appreciated the reprieve. We spent the afternoon relaxing and then made one last ditch attempt to go down Spray Road and hopefully spot some bears (we had heard that 4 p.m. was golden hour and you’d be guaranteed to see bears everywhere). We saw none. We took that road three times on our trip and never saw a bear.
Day 8: Spray Road to Kananaskis Hike and Calgary
After challenging ourselves all trip, we decided to try a hike ranked hard (black diamond) for our last hike. It was hard. Like really hard. And mostly because it rained prior to us starting the hike, so there were parts where we were literally sliding down the side of the mountain trying to get a grip. We questioned how we were going to get down the entire hike. After a couple of hours of scrambling to the top, we were greeted with snow. So much snow in fact that we could no longer see the trail. The visibility also sucked and we couldn’t see any of the mountains around us. We made it nearly to the end before we ultimately called it quits because it was getting really dangerous. On a clear day, we hear the views are amazing. We’ll never really know unless we make it back.
After our hike, we made the trek back to Calgary. On the way back we were fortunate enough to spot a black bear crossing the road one final time. We made it back to Calgary around dinnertime and checked into our hotel. At that point we were dying to get massages and ended up treating ourselves at The Fairmount Spa. It was ridiculously pricey, but exactly what we needed to end the vacation. We had earned it.
Day 9: Calgary to Cleveland
After an epic nine day adventure, 53+ miles of hiking and countless lakes later, we headed home. I’m honestly not sure if my body could’ve handled anymore hikes or activities. We literally took advantage of every moment we had. I would highly recommend visiting Banff and Jasper in your lifetime, if given the opportunity. You won’t regret it.