If you have an Instagram account, you have no doubt seen pictures of Banff National Park. It is, to put it simply, a mindfuck of beauty. It is also, to put it simply, a clusterfuck of selfie-obsessed tourists. In fact, while in Jasper I met a bus driver from Banff who quit his job this season because “shit just got too crazy.” If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you know that I am not a big fan of crowds, Instagram-consumed biddies, or frat boy destinations (hard pass on the full moon party, thanks). However, I’m a sucker for mountains, hikes, and a good view. My week in Alberta gave me all of that, the good and the bad. Below is an outline of my trip, along with some tips to make sure you get the most out of your holiday in Alberta!
Pro Tip: Choose the time of year you visit very wisely. The lakes will still be frozen in May. June, July, and August are crazy busy with tourists. The most chilled time (and best weather) will be mid-ish September, once school is back in session. The area will still be busy, but it won’t be as much of a headache. Plus, the leaves are turning AND WHO DOESN’T LIKE FALL?! My understanding is that things close down by the end of October, so the sweet spot is pretty narrow.
Yes, it is even more beautiful in person. Yes, it is worth braving the tourists who are double-fisting selfie sticks. Yes, it’s packed. Moraine Lake is popular with a lot of visitors because it is easy to access. You basically park your car, walk ten feet, and BOOM! Views.
Note that tour buses start arriving around 7:30-8am. Try to come earlier to get a spot on the rock pile to set up your tripod and watch the sun rise.
Sentinal Pass via Larch Valley
This was my favorite hike from the whole trip. It’s about 7 miles return, starts from the car park, and I would say it’s on the tougher side of a moderate hike. The first bit is basically a ton of damn switchbacks, but then it’s just beautiful mountains and valleys. The last stretch again is just switchbacks-til-you-die, but the view at the top is so worth it.
I stayed at the top for over an hour, partly because I wanted to take in the sights, and partly because there was a female doctor up there who looked fit as fuck, and was eating Flaming Hot Cheetos out of a full gallon sized Ziploc bag...I needed to see if she could finish it. She did. Canadians are so badass.
Lake Louise is much larger than Moraine, which also means there is more space to spread out and have some alone time with nature. That said, it also felt like bougie Disneyland with a fucking Fairmont Chateau right the fuck there. Thankfully I went early in the morning (around 7am), and while there were definitely people setting up cameras and sitting along the edge of the water, it was nothing compared to the insane crowds that were packing the walkway when I finished my hike that day.
Pro Tip: hire a car. Relying on buses just means you’ll be elbowing through hoards of crowds all day long. I mean, if you fucking LOVE Times Square, then fuck my advice, but if you like your nature to be peaceful, hire. a. fucking. car.
Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House
There are two tea houses you can hike to from Lake Louise. The first is the Lake Agnes tea house. The second is the Plain of Six Glaciers tea house. I chose the latter because it’s a bit further away, meaning it would be a little less crowded. I started my hike at sunrise and ended up being the first person at the tea house.
Because tea is just dirty water, I fucked with some coffee and ridiculously delicious biscuits, giving me energy to continue on another kilometer to Abbot Pass. I highly recommend you head up here, even if you’re tired. You’ll be hiking straight towards a glacier and if you have never had an opportunity to witness glacier calving, you’ll have a good shot here. Also, there is strong cell service in this area.
TBH you can take a pass on this one. I think what turned me off was the railed off walkways. I felt like I was in a mall, especially once the crowds came and this place turned into hot-moms-with-a-stroller central.
If you’re fucking DYING to see Johnston Canyon, go balls early. Start hiking right when the sun cracks. I went all the way to the inkpots, and had the area to myself for a solid hour. It was the first time I had some quiet time and I really appreciated it. If it’s the first thing you’re doing once you arrive in the Banff area, it’s fine. But you’ll feel really let down if you’ve already visiting Lake Moraine and Lake Louise.
Lake Peyto is that beautiful dog-shaped gatorade colored lake that is assaulting your IG feed. It is super easy to access from the car park...maybe a ten minute schlep on a paved walkway up to the viewing platform. But here’s a protip: Fuck that viewing platform. Fuck everyone with a selfie stick at that viewing platform. From that lookout point, continue walking just a few meters and you will see this tiny trail that goes downhill. Take that. In two minutes you’ll have a gorgeous lookout and be all by yourself, no waiting for the perfect picture. Also a great place to bring a thermos and enjoy your morning coffee.
I highly recommend staying in the area and doing a hike along the Icefield Parkway. I did Bow Summit and fucking loved it. Again, early in the morning is key to get dope sunrise views and have a more peaceful experience.
Have you ever been somewhere that was pretty and quiet, and just “fine” but you absolutely fucking LOVED it? Like, it wasn’t anything so special, nothing that would make an incredible story...but you were just at peace? That’s Pyramid Lake for me. You can kayak over here, if that’s your thing. I just enjoyed the sunshine.
Mt. Edith Cavell
Now, in 2017, the Canadian government suspended the requirement to obtain permits for National Parks. Which is cool. Except everyone went to fucking Banff. Driving up to Jasper was hands down the best decision I made, and I really wish I had spent more time up there. It was just as beautiful as Banff (in a slightly more woodsy way) and infinitely more peaceful.
My favorite spot was Mt. Edith Cavell. Because of road maintenance when I went, you had to have a permit to visit Mt. Edith Cavell, and on that permit you were given a specific time you were allowed to access the area. However, I stayed at the hostel IN Mount Edith Cavell, which meant that I could come and go as I fucking pleased like the goddamn white Beyonce I am. The tradeoff was that the hostel had no electricity or running water. No worries, hey. While in town, buy a bottle of wine, a jumbo bag of kettle corn, and have a great damn time playing drinking games by candlelight with new hostel friends. Oh, the hiking around Mt. Edith Cavell is pretty breathtaking, too.
Alright. So I went to Maligne Lake because I wanted to see Spirit Island. Was this the BEST use of my time? Nah.
There are two ways to access Spirit Island. The first is by boat, which is what I did. It took about half an hour to get the 14 kilometers to Spirit Island. Then we had about half an hour to walk around, which was fine. Then we got back on the boat. Badabing. Badaboom.
The other way is to kayak. Again, it’s 14 kilometers and the wind is no joke. It will take you all day. But damn that would have been a lot more special. I also wish I had spent more time around the lake - there were several hikes that looked beautiful. I could have had a more memorable experience for less money is what I’m saying.
Bonus: Sunwapta Falls
My best advice when planning your Banff/Jasper trip, is to carve out some “hmm maybe something interesting will pop up” time. All along the highway there are turnouts to hikes and viewpoints. Take a fucking right and just see where it leads you. On my way back to the airport, I saw a turn off to Sunwapta Falls. I spent an hour journaling (because while I’m vulgar, i’m still vulnerable) and just enjoyed the rushing water and beautiful views.