Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Canadian Rockies - Banff and Jasper National Parks

Bottom line - Banff and Jasper National Parks blew us away. 

The following is our trip report/pictorial. The first part is an introduction with some tips, then a brief summary of our itinerary (with links), followed by the photos with more commentary, and it ends with reference links that we used for more research.

It's much like Glacier National Park in terms of look and feel, but bigger in size. In fact, Banff and Jasper National Parks are larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier National Parks combined. We love the US National Parks and if you haven't visited Glacier, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Crater Lake, Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, among others, than you really should visit those. But certainly add Banff & Jasper to your list as well. Each one of these parks are very different and have their own distinct personalities.

In true fashion, our family of five packed in as much as we could. It was a one week trip - we flew into Calgary on a Tuesday, visited Banff, then Jasper and everything in between, and flew out of Calgary the following Tuesday. Some people fly into Calgary, visit Banff, drive the Icefields Parkway, visit Jasper, then fly out of Edmonton...or the reverse. But we made the long drive back to Calgary from Jasper (4.5 hrs) so we could see Icefields Parkway again (3 hr scenic drive between Banff and Jasper)...and it was worth it.

July and August are the high season for this area. We made our lodging reservations about 10-11 months in advance and there weren't many options left even at that time. When we arrived to wet and cooler weather, we noticed some vacancy signs (I guess some folks cancelled when they saw the forecast)....but as soon as the blue sky and sun appeared in the second half of the week, all we saw were no vacancy signs. There are plenty of campground options in both parks but I expect you need to book those early too. We were out and about each day, basically just using our rooms for showers and sleeping - the places we booked were nice and served those purposes well. We stayed at the Banff Inn in Banff and the Sleepy Bear Inn (AirBnB booking) in Jasper and were pleased with both. Book early.

Both Banff and Jasper are cool mountain towns. Banff is more touristy and more crowded but didn't feel too much like a crowded touristy place. Jasper is definitely more laid back. We had intended to rent stand up paddle boards from Bow Valley SUP in Canmore one day but the weather didn't work in our favor. By the time the weather improved, we were already on our way to Jasper. I suppose we could have paddled in Jasper but I didn't research SUP options there. There are plenty of bike rental options in both towns.

There are a few hot spring options in both areas which sounded enticing after a long day of hiking. Although they are natural hot springs, they are fed into man made pools (by Canadian law apparently), so we passed on it since we're not really pool people.

My hiking total was 44 miles and over 10,000 ft of elevation gain. I've been using the AllTrails app for a while now and it was handy on this trip to help me insure we were on the right trails and heading in the right direction. We had everything from high 30s to mid 80s (F) temperatures...with rain, fog, clouds, snow, and sun. Be sure to pack clothing layers, rain jacket, bug spray, and sunscreen - the weather seemed to change every 30 minutes especially at different altitudes. Hiking poles were helpful on our hikes although the US won't let you carry them on the plane to get back into the country from Canada.

We also bought bear spray when we arrived in Banff in the rare event we came across a grizzly bear on the trail (we didn't, but a friend of ours saw one in the town of Banff last year). You can't check bear spray in baggage nor carry it on the plane, so we left the bear spray in Jasper for the next guest. We did a lot of driving so get a comfortable roomy rental car. At this time of year, the sun sets between 9:45-10pm so you can pack in a lot in one day. Many of the restaurants stay open late to cater to the many European visitors.

There are many other great travel and hiking tips listed in the research reference links at the bottom of this post. We chose our hikes based on the info in these links and advice from a couple friends. I had a list of things to do and hiking trails, but didn't have a specific agenda already set for each day. Each day, we chose the things we did based on the weather forecast, location, how much time we had, how we felt, etc. There is so much to do and there were some things on our list that we didn't get to. 

Brief Summary Of Our Itinerary
(more details/commentary provided in the pictorial below)

Day 1
Flew into Calgary, drove 1.5 hrs to Banff, stayed at the Banff Inn for 4 nights. The Banff Inn had a 3 queen bed suite perfect for our family of 5. Had an early dinner at Park Distillery (awesome Park Cheeseburger - one of the best burgers I've ever had). Drove to Moraine Lake (1 hr drive one way) after dinner to stretch our legs and beat the day crowd. It was still crowded but we got a parking spot (vs remote parking and riding a shuttle bus in).

Day 2
Johnston Canyon - Lower Falls, Upper Falls, & Inkpots. Hiked total 8 miles, but you can shorten it by cutting out Inkpots. 50 minute drive one way from Banff.

Peyto Lake & Bow Summit Overlook - 55 minute drive from Johnston Canyon, 1 hr 10 min drive back to Banff. Hiked total 4+ miles. Saw a mountain goat and marmots.

Ate at the Magpie & Stump in Banff for dinner - great mexican menu - get the baja shrimp tacos or bison burrito.

Day 3
Lake Louise - 1 hr drive from Banff - we arrived at the Lake Louise parking lot on a rainy morning before 6am based on everything I had read (to beat the crowd). It was starting to fill up soon after 6am and when it does, you have to use shuttle buses from a remote lot several miles away. We ate a nice breakfast at the Fairmont Lake Louise Hotel, then waited out the rain in the car for another 30 minutes. As soon as the heavy rain stopped, we hit the trail.

There are many hiking options here but we did a big loop: Lake Agnes Teahouse -> Big Beehive -> Highline -> Plain of Size Glaciers (to the other teahouse) & back down Plain of Six Glaciers trail to Lake Louise and the Fairmont Hotel. Total 12-13 miles hiking.

Returned to Banff and ate at the Bear Street Tavern for dinner - very good pizza.

Day 4
We needed a rest day after hiking 24+ miles in 2 it was the day with the most rain in the forecast. We did the scenic drive around Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, and Johnson Lake. Then lunch at Chaya's in downtown Banff (really good Ramen/Thai). We walked around town, part of the Bow Falls Trail next to downtown, saw Bow Falls, saw the historic Fairmont Springs Hotel, and the Banff Centre (where the world famous annual Banff Mountain Film Festival is held).

Had a beer at Banff Ave Brewing Company, then a very good dinner at Tooloulous (Cajun restaurant - cajun culture came from Canada).

Day 5
Checked out of the Banff Inn and departed Banff. Our drive started out in rain. We started out by driving up/down Sunshine Road, then the Bow Valley Parkway noted for its wildlife but we didn't see any (I guess the wildlife don't care for the rain either). Drove Icefields Parkway to Jasper (3 hr drive without stopping but you'll do a lot of stopping for the views...allow plenty of time) and the sun began to come out. The lighting for photos is better in the morning driving north out of Banff.

We stopped and hiked Wilcox Pass - totally worth of my favorite hikes on this trip. It's a 5 mile round trip hike up above the tree line where you overlook Athabasca Glacier and see bighorn sheep. Then we went to Athabasca Glacier, where you can either take a bus out onto the ice (for a large sum per person), or hike 2 miles roundtrip to the foot of the glacier (that's what I did - the family opted to stay and rest in the car).

The rest of the drive to Jasper we saw several mountain goats and two different black bears along the road.

Checked into our AirBnB at "Sleepy Bear Inn" which was a basement level 2 bedroom suite - close to downtown, about a 5-10 minute walk. Stayed there for 3 nights.

Dinner at Jasper Brewing Company - had the elk meatloaf which was very good.

Day 6
We finally had blue sky and the temps finally got into the 70s. We took the Jasper Skytram (10-15 minutes from downtown Jasper) up the mountain, and from there hiked up further to Whistler Summit (4 mile round trip hike) and had amazing 360 degree views. We had intended to hike further to Indian Ridge but chose not to after getting to Whistler Summit.

We ate lunch at the Skytram restaurant, then drove south on Icefields Parkway and checked out Athabasca Falls, Sunwaptu Falls, and Horseshoe Lake.

Dinner at Kimchi House (excellent Korean food).

Day 7
Drove north of Jasper and hiked the Sulphur Skyline Trail (tough ascent - 6 mile roundtrip hike). We saw mountain goats in the trailhead parking lot, and lots of elk along the road on the way back to Jasper. We capped the day off by returning to Horseshoe Lake for swimming and cliff jumping into the water.

We had a pretty good dinner at Cassios Italian Restaurant.

Day 8 
Long travel day started out by leaving Jasper at 6am and driving Icefields Parkway back to Banff and then on to Calgary to catch our early afternoon flight.


Day 1 


After an early dinner we drove 1 hr north to Moraine Lake to stretch our legs and beat the day crowd. It was still crowded but we got a parking spot (vs remote parking and riding a shuttle bus in). Its a short walk from the parking lot up a trail to the Moraine Lake "Rockpile" Overlook. This was our first view when we got to the top. It had been drizzling and quite cloudy but we got lucky with the sun popping out for a few minutes to get this shot. My daughter McIntyre actually captured this image on her iPhone, which is probably the best picture of the whole trip.

The blue water is from the glacial runoff - all the minerals running off the mountain and into the water - and the sun's reflection gives it this very blue look. 

Looking behind us and saw this rainbow

William, McIntyre, and Jake

The creek emptying out of Moraine Lake

Day 2

Part rain, part sun - the weather would change quite often

The scenic drive up the Bow Valley Parkway on the way to Johnston Canyon (50 min drive from Banff).


We hiked Johnston Canyon - this is one of a couple man-made bridges around rock and over the river. The trail starting out is paved.

Upper Falls

Lower Falls

Upper Falls

A set of falls above the Upper Falls. After this, the trail narrows, is unpaved, and ascends further up the canyon.

Inkpots - a series of five cold springs


Johnston Creek at Inkpots before descending back into the canyon - its approx 8 mile hike all the way to Inkpots and back (and of course you can turn around well before this or continue even further if you wanted to).


We then continued north on Bow Vally Parkway from Johnston Canyon, then got on the Icefields Parkway to Peyto Lake (pictured)....approx 55 min drive. Its about a 1/2 mile hike on a paved trail from the parking lot to this view.


McIntyre, Jake, and I hiked further up from the Peyto Lake Overlook to the Bow Summit Overlook.

The trail up had beautiful views all around and particularly of the Icefields Parkway valley below.

We looked up to our right and saw this lone mountain goat on the steep hillside.


We saw several marmots on this trail. What a view they have from their home. This guy was literally posing for the camera.

This is the view from the Bow Summit Overlook where the trail ends. That is Bow Lake in the distance.

Bow Lake - view from IceFields Parkway. The drive back to Banff from Peyto Lake was approx 1 hr 10 min.

 Day 3


Everything I read said to get to the Lake Louise parking lot early, so we got there just before 6am. Its a 1 hr drive there from Banff. We ate a nice breakfast at the Fairmont Lake Louise Hotel, then waited out the rain in the car for another 30 minutes. As soon as the heavy rain stopped, we hit the trail. The trailhead is just past the hotel along the lake. This is the view of Lake Louise from the hotel looking up towards where we would eventually hike that day.

The view from the Lake Agnes Teahouse Trail

After passing Mirror Lake, we then came upon Lake Agnes. The teahouse is to the right of this picture. That is the Big Beehive Trail on the other side of the lake. We would take that trail from the teahouse and ascend up to the left of that rock tower on the left side of this picture.

Lake Agnes Teahouse - we were still full from breakfast but they serve hot tea (of course) and other goodies like scones, soup, etc. They only take cash (CAD or rate is 1:1 so try to pay in CAD if you can).

The view on the other side of Lake Agnes looking up.

Big Beehive Trail has a lot of switchbacks - Lake Agnes is below us to the right - its worth the ascent because it takes you to the following view....

The Lake Louise Summit Overlook from a spur off Big Beehive Trail. That is the Fairmont Lake Louise Hotel to the left. Yes, the lake really is that blue. Check out the cloud's reflection on the water's surface.

We then took the Highline Trail connector to the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail - then ascended again up to the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse. It started raining again at this point. 

The Victoria Glacier view from Plain of Six Glaciers Trail on the way up to the teahouse. This trail was not easy especially in the rain and several times we were wondering how much further to the teahouse.

Ah....finally the teahouse. The rain started to subside when we got there, but soon turned to snow, which lasted only a little while. We got a seat fairly quickly and enjoyed hot soup, fresh homemade bread and homemade cheese sandwiches, vegetable chili, hot tea, and dessert. Like the Lake Agnes Teahouse, they only take cash here (CAD or USD, exchange rate is 1:1 so pay in CAD if possible). They have to bring in all the supplies and food by helicopter or horseback, and transport very little garbage back the same way (zero plastic and no meat here - they compost as much as possible).

The hike back down the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail towards Lake Louise.

Can you spot the rock climber?

Fairmont Lake Louise Hotel in the lower left corner

Boardwalk over the glacial runoff

Day 4


Rest day - we stayed close to Banff. We started out doing a scenic drive around a series of lakes nearby - Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, and Johnson Lake. This is a good place to see wildlife including bears but we only saw one deer. This is Lake Minnewanka. If the weather had been nicer, any of these lakes would have been great for paddling.

Johnson Lake


This is the very first street built centrally in Banff so that it had the very best view of Cascade Mountain.

Fairmont Springs Hotel in Banff

Bow Falls Trail near downtown - what a great walking trail system they have here.

Bow Falls

Day 5


Bow Lake along Icefields Parkway

We stopped along the Icefields Parkway several times for views like this.


We hiked the Wilcox Pass Trail - one of my favorite hikes we did (5 miles roundtrip to/from summit)

That is Athabasca Glacier behind us.

We read about the bighorn sheep on this trail and weren't disappointed.

This guy was scratching his rump on the rock.

The boys and I

There are several spots in Canada where a pair of red adirondack chairs are placed at scenic spots for photo opportunities. Wilcox Pass is one of them. 


Just north of the Wilcox Pass Trailhead on the parkway is the entrance to Athabasca Glacier. You can see the trail of people hiking to the foot of the glacier.

The view at the end of the hike looking at the foot of the glacier (2 mile roundtrip hike)

You can pay a lot of money and take a bus ride up alongside the glacier, then hop into a large vehicle with special tires that drives out onto the glacier, then you can get out and hike on the glacier. There were year signs along the hiking trail to the glacier showing where and when the foot of the glacier used to extend to. It made me wonder if the vehicle and foot traffic has an impact on the melting of the glacier.

After leaving Athabasca Glacier, we saw these mountain goats on the side of the parkway, licking the salt off these rocks.

This is one of two black bears we saw on separate occasions about 10 minutes apart along the parkway.

Day 6


Blue sky and sun finally appeared so we chose to ride the Jasper Skytram up the mountain. The lower SkyTram station is located 10-15 minutes from downtown Jasper.

That is the upper Skytram station, which also has a restaurant. From there, you can hike up to Whistlers Summit and beyond.

We had intended to hike further up to Indians Ridge (pictured in front of us) but chose not to after getting to Whistlers Summit....which allowed us more time to go see some other things later that afternoon.

On top of Whistlers Summit

The view of Jasper from above the Jasper Skytram upper station


After coming back down the Jasper Skytram, we drove south on the Icefields Parkway to check out some of the waterfalls.

Athabasca Falls - not the tallest or widest waterfall in Canada, but its said to be the most powerful. Its a short walk from the parking lot.

Sunwaptu Falls - this is the upper falls very close to the parking lot, we didn't do the 3/4 mile hike down to the lower falls.

Horseshoe Lake - I had read this was a nice lake to visit. When we walked out to it (short walk from the parking lot), we saw people swimming and jumping off a cliff into the water and it looked so inviting so we vowed to come back the next day.


Awesome gate in the neighborhood where we stayed very close to downtown Jasper.

downtown Jasper - laid back but plenty to do

Day 7


The Sulphur Skyline Trail is a tough ascent, approx 5-6 miles roundtrip. The trailhead is next to the Miette Hot Springs and is an approx 50 minute drive north of Jasper. The trail starts out going up through the trees then suddenly comes out of the tree line for a final scramble up a tough steep ascent but the views are worth it. 

We didn't need bug spray earlier in the week since it was cooler with some rain. As the sun came out later in the week, we started to notice mosquitos. This was the only hike during the week that the mosquitos really got to us...they were really bad on this trail below the tree be prepared with bug spray. 

There were mountain goats hanging out at the Miette Hot Springs parking lot.

This big elk was just off the side of the road as we drove back to Jasper. We saw several more large males and female elk.

Check out the fuzz on those antlers.

Back to Horseshoe Lake for some swimming and cliff jumping. The water was cold but not as cold as Crater Lake, OR (last summer).

Jake taking the plunge.

Father / Daughter Synchronized Jumping

Day 8

All roads eventually lead back home. This is the Icefields Parkway as we left Jasper to begin our journey home - mile for mile the most scenic drive we've ever done.

Research Reference Links

Best Hikes in Banff

9 Bucket List Banff Hikes

Lake Louise Day Hikes

14 Jaw Dropping Hikes in Banff National Park

12 Hikes in Jasper National Park