The Mission: See as much of Banff National Park as possible in one week!
The Prep: Accommodations fill up quickly in the area so we booked ahead on Airbnb! The town of Banff was a little out of our price range so we opted to stay in Canmore. Canmore is another cute, little town about 30 minutes outside the town of Banff, but much more affordable.
The Gear: Please see Anatomy of a Day Hike
We flew into Calgary and picked up our rental car at the airport, got right on the road and drove the roughly 90 minutes to Banff. This year was the 150th anniversary of the National Parks in Canada and because of this, entry to all the National Parks is FREE!! Woohoo! I registered online in advance and my park pass was sent to me in the mail so we were all set to go through the quick entrance once we arrived at the park. We stopped in the town of Banff and went directly to the visitors center where we picked up some park and trail maps. As it was a bit later in the day already, we decided to do a less crowded, shorter hike; opting to go to Ink Pots.
This 5.8km hike starts at Johnston Creek. There were two parking lots, but they were both full so we parked on the side of the road and headed to the trail. There were restrooms and a small cafe with coffee and ice cream right at the trailhead. The beginning of the trail up the creek was paved which eventually led to a catwalk that is connected to the side of the mountain. With rock on one side and water on the other, this small walkway got fairly congested with a plethora of hikers and baby strollers. Just a little over a kilometer in, we arrived at Lower Falls. We took a few pictures and quickly hiked another 1.6km to Upper Falls. Again, we found it a little too crowded for our tastes so we decided to continue on to the Ink Pots.
Heading up to the Ink Pots, the crowds thinned and the trail was no longer paved. Under a lush forest of trees, we hiked the rolling hills all the way to a valley where we were met with a panoramic view of the mountains. Just a few steps further and the beautiful blue of the ink pots took our breath away. The springs here are unique as they are cold springs around 4 degrees celsius. We stopped here to take a few photos and have some lunch before we took the trail back down to the parking area.
Overall, the Johnston Canyon falls area is great for those with limited hiking ability or families. While we found the falls and creek beautiful, the Ink Pots were much more impressive and worth the extra 3km to see them.
Johnston Canyon level of difficulty: Easy
Ink Pots level of difficulty: Moderate
We woke up on day 2 with fresh legs ready to take on a more difficult hike. Wanting to stay away from the crowds, we opted for Sulphur Mountain Trail. This 5.5km trail definitely had us breaking a sweat. The trail winds up the mountains by a series of switchbacks underneath a gondola. With very little reprieve, there was a steeper incline at every turn, but we often stopped to catch our breath and enjoy the view of the Bow Valley below.
It took us roughly 2 hours to reach the top of the mountain where we were met with sweeping panoramic views of the valley below. Other (maybe smarter) people opted to take the gondola to the top of the mountain rather than hike it, but I believe we really enjoyed the view much more having to work for it!
Since there is a gondola to the top of the mountain, it was fairly crowded. There is a large building at the top that offers restrooms, a restaurant, a viewing deck, educational information and even a gift shop. If you opt to take the gondola, the price as of this post was $31 per person each way.
We stopped to have a bite to eat and then continued along a wooden walkway to an old weather tower. It was incredibly windy as this was the highest point of the mountain so we didn’t stay long. We took a few photos and headed back down the trail to the bottom of the mountain.
At the bottom of the trail is Banff Upper Hot Springs, a natural spring, but outfitted as a regular swimming pool. After a strenuous hike, we figured we deserved a treat so we grabbed our swimsuits and towels from the car and soaked our sore muscles in the hot springs for a few hours. The center also offers coin lockers, swimsuits and towels for rent if you don’t have your own!
Sulphur Mountain trail level of difficulty: Strenuous
On day 3 we were ready to check out the grand attraction- Lake Louise. So we set out early and were lucky enough to find a parking spot at the lake. The turquoise blue was immediately breathtaking. We had never seen a lake this color before. Even this early, there were tons of tourists and even brides taking photos all around the lake. We continued walking until we found a sign for Lake Agnes Tea House trail.
The 3.6km trail to the tea house took us uphill through a few switchbacks, past mirror lake, up to a waterfall and then suddenly we were there. A set of wooden stairs took us directly to the tea house on Lake Agnes. I couldn’t think of a more beautiful location to stop and have a cup of tea…but we didn’t! We were eager to continue our journey so we hiked right past the tea house and around the lake where we would hike an additional 1.6km to Big Beehive.
The trail took us all the way to the far end of the lake where we were rewarded with a beautiful reflection of the mountains on the lake and the tea house in the distance. We continued up a set of switchbacks that offered even more impressive views of the lake through the yellow larch trees.
Once at the top, we headed left out to the top of the beehive. We were so surprised when we realized we had a perfect view of Lake Louise below us on one side and Lake Agnes on the other! At the end of the beehive, we found a perfectly placed gazebo where we stopped to have lunch and take in the view of Lake Louise below. If we thought the lake looked magnificent from below, the view from above left us speechless.
After lunch, we decided to head back down. We could go back down the same way we came, but we decided to go the opposite direction for a change in scenery. Some hikers chose to continue on to the Six Plains Glacier Tea House hike, but we bypassed this for the day and headed back towards the lake. A little rain and a few hours later and we were back at the lake, surrounded by tourists once again.
Big Beehive Trail level of difficulty: Moderate
We woke up to find a cold and rainy day ahead of us so we decided to take this day to drive the Icefields Parkway. The road connects Banff National Park to Jasper National Park and is known as one of the most beautiful drives in the world. We packed some snacks for the day, filled up the tank with gas and hit the road.
The drive itself is incredible as you pass through the continental divide surrounded by the rocky mountains. Even on a cloudy, rainy day, the views were nothing short of impressive. The road is well-marked, pointing out turnouts for all of the major attractions from Bow Lake all the way up to Columbia Icefield. While everywhere we stopped was incredible, my personal favorite would be Peyto Lake; a gorgeous blue lake and on this day surrounded by snow-covered pines.
The drive to Columbia Icefields and back to Banff took us most of the day with all the stops and little hikes we took along the way. Luckily we took some food with us as there is only one place to stop on the entire drive with food and also only one stop with gasoline so it’s a good idea to fill up before you leave Banff. At Columbia Icefield we found a large visitor center that also had a small cafeteria and restrooms. Here, you can also purchase a tour of the glacier. We opted to just walk up to the tongue and take a look ourselves, but you are unable to walk on the glacier unless you are accompanied by a tour guide.
Even with the dreary weather, the drive was magnificent. The drive to Jasper and back to Banff is definitely feasible in one day, but would also be nice with a night or two stop off in Jasper if you have the time.
After a day of rest, we were ready to hit the trails again! Today we would do the hike that I’ve been waiting for the whole trip…Larch Valley. I was super excited to be visiting Banff in September so we could see the much raved about Larch Trees in their prime.
The Larch Valley trail starts near Moraine lake. There is a very small parking lot at this lake and it is typically full so we parked at the overflow lot and took a shuttle from the overflow lot to Moraine Lake. The 4.3km trail starts to the right of the lake and climbs through a thick forest of trees up to the valley. As the elevation increased, we started to see more and more golden-yellow larches sprout through the thick green pines. On this snowy day, the golden-yellow was a little subdued as the thick white coat of fresh snow covered the golden branches, but the view was still stunning and special under the fresh snowfall. It was hard to peel our eyes away from the gorgeous trees below, but the panoramic mountain view was equally spectacular. This hike instantly became my favorite hike of the trip.
We chose not to do the additional 2.5km up to Sentinel Pass as it was already cold and windy enough for us in the valley so we bundled up and headed back down to Moraine Lake and waited for the shuttle to take us back to the overflow lot where we began.
Larch Valley trail level of difficulty: Moderate
The hike to Saddleback Pass began at Lake Louise once again. The 7.4km round trip hike started to the left of the lake this time. A dense forest led us up a series of switchbacks, past huge rock piles from earlier avalanches and looking out on the valley below. We intended to stop at Saddleback Pass, but there were no signs on the trail so we just continued hiking no sure whether we had made it to the pass or not. We continued on until we were met with a sign the pointed to Paradise Valley in one direction and Fairview Mountain in the other. Realizing we had passed Saddleback, we decided to head towards Paradise Valley.
The narrow path led us on a descending path through a forest of dense trees. As the elevation started to decline, we realized just how far below this valley trail was to take us. We decided to stop before we got too far and turn around to continue back down the path we came on. We weren’t quite up for the strenuous trek back up from that valley!
Hike to Paradise Valley Junction level of difficulty: Moderate
Our final day at Banff arrived much too soon. Wanting to squeeze in one last hike before we had to head back to Calgary, we decided to try an easy trail a bit further away from the crowds of Lake Louise.
We opted for the 10.2km round trip hike to Boom Lake. This wide, forest-covered trail was just what we needed after a few days of tougher hikes. Very low intensity and fairly little elevation gain, the hike to the lake was relaxing and serene. We emerged from the forest and were met with a crystal clear lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The lake looked incredibly inviting and if it was MUCH warmer, I would likely have taken a dip in the glassy water.
We took a nice long break enjoying the scenery and a snack before we headed back to the car park and hit the road for the 90 minute drive back to Calgary.
Boom Lake level of difficulty: Easy
- There are plenty of hikes in the park for all ability levels
- Lake Louise and Moraine Lake may be the big attractions, but don’t miss out on all of the other great hikes and beauty in the park
- Accommodations fill up quickly so book early
- We were able to pay for everything the entire trip with credit card and did not need any local currency