Banff National Park 7 Day Hiking Itinerary

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

The Execution:

Day 1:

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

Day 2:

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

Day 3:

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

Day 4:

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.

Day 5:

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

Day 6:

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

Day 7:

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

The Highlights:

  • 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

Backpacking 10 Lakes Basin Yosemite National Park

The Mission: Backpack to 10 Lakes Basin in Yosemite National Park

The Prep: Any overnight backpacking in Yosemite National Park requires a Wilderness Permit. I called a week in advance and was lucky to get a permit. You can book your permit in advance or there are some permits available on a first come, first serve basis at the Wilderness Center in the park.

The Gear: You’ll need all the Camping Essentials PLUS a bear cache- this is mandatory in Yosemite National Park and can be rented at any Wilderness center for roughly $5/week with a $95 deposit.

The Execution: 

We arrived at Yosemite National Park by car the day before we planned to hike 10 Lakes Basin and paid the entrance fee at the gate. We then drove to the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center to obtain our permit that we had reserved the week prior.  While we were at the Wilderness Center, we rented a bear cache for $5 for the week with a $95 deposit.  With permit and cache in hand, we headed to the Tuolumne Meadows campground.

The Yosemite Wilderness Permit allows you to camp at the Backpackers Camps in the park 1 night prior to your trip and 1 night after your trip. So we parked in the 15 minute loading zone and walked our gear up to the backpackers section where we chose a site, set up our tent and paid the $6/person fee (cash only) in the envelope provided. We then drove our car down the road to an area the ranger suggested we could park for the evening.

The next morning as we were packing our gear, we were struggling to find a way to carry the bear cache. The container is rather large at 12 in. long and 8in. diameter and weighs roughly 3 lbs empty. After several attempts at trying to put the cache IN our packs, we decided to strap it on the bottom of one of our packs as it was the most comfortable option.

We drove down to the 10 Lakes Basin trailhead and parked across the street at Yosemite Creek. Here we were able to use the restroom and store our extra food in the bear lockers provided. Once we were geared up, we walked across the street and started our trek out to 10 Lakes Basin.

The beginning of the trail is a slight uphill with a rocky base that continues up beautiful slabs of granite, exposed to the sun and elements. I had a bit of trouble adjusting to the elevation and heavy pack as we started the small uphill climb. As we crossed the slabs of granite, we realized that the trail was not marked. If we were to wander off the trail for any reason, it could be difficult to find the trail again and we could easily get lost. We decided to stick to the path to avoid getting lost and continued on until we were in a dense forest full of evergreens. The rocky trail transformed to soft, pine needle covered forest floor as it leveled off and we cooled down under the shade of the giant trees.

The 6+ miles from the trailhead to the basin is a gradual uphill climb for most of the trail. We passed a beautiful open meadow and then began a steeper climb up to the 9,600 feet peak going back and forth up the rocky switchbacks until we reached a beautiful flower filled meadow. We stopped for a snack as we watched some deer grazing through the meadow before we continued our journey. The final haul to the basin was a steep descent down more winding switch backs as we made our way down to the lakes once again finding ourselves covered by a blanket of trees.

We passed a few fellow hikers as we scoped out the best spot to pitch our tent. We found a cozy little area right near the water as the thunder started rolling through the area. We were luckily able to get our tent up and packs inside before the rain started. After a quick rain shower, we explored the area and searched for some fire wood for the evening as we gotten eaten alive by the massive amounts of mosquitos buzzing round. After a swim in the lake, we spent the night warming ourselves by the fire and admiring the epic beauty of the night sky. We found a spot for our bear cache safely away from our tent and had a peaceful nights rest in our secluded lakeside retreat.

We rose with the sun the next morning, ate some breakfast and filtered some water from the stream to fill our camelbaks for the journey back. I was dreading the climb up those switchbacks at to get back to the meadow, but we took our time and it ended up being not as bad as I had been imagining all morning! Once we made it to the meadow at the top of the hill, the rest of the hike back to the car was a breeze. Downhill and mostly shaded, we were able to make the trek back to the trailhead at record pace.

Tired, sweaty and dirty on arrival to our car, we were yearning for rest and a shower! We hopped in the car and took a drive down to Yosemite Valley where we would spend the night at another backpackers camp.

We headed over to North Pines campground where we again parked at the 15 minute loading zone while we hauled our gear over the footbridge to the backpackers camp. We staked out a spot and dropped our $12 into the envelope for the evening. We then took our car over to Half Dome Village where it would stay for the evening. After a bit of food at Half Dome Village, we were feeling refreshed and decided to take a quick hike to Mirror Lake.

From the backpackers camp, it was a quick one mile, leisurely walk to Mirror Lake. The weather was much hotter in the Valley (87 F compared to 70 F near Tuolumne) and we were eager for a swim in the lake. The water was frigid, but it felt amazing after a few days of hiking. After we cooled off in the lake with a beautiful view of Half Dome, we braved the mosquitos and walked the one mile back to camp. Exhausted, we had a short fire and something to eat before going to sleep for the evening.

We woke early to get a head start out to our hike for the day. We packed our things and dropped our packs off at the car at Half Dome Village. We packed a quick day pack with some water and snacks and grabbed the free Yosemite Vally shuttle at Half Dome Village and took it two stops to Mist Trail.

We decided to the 7+ mile round trip trail up to Nevada falls and back down the JMT (John Muir Trail). The hike up to Nevada falls was steep and at points treacherous. The water coming off Vernal Falls made the rocky stairs and trail quite wet and slippery. I guess there’s a reason they call it Mist Trail! Although we started on the early side (roughly 8am) the trail was quite crowded already. Luckily, as we got further up the trail towards Nevada falls, the trail got steeper and the people became fewer.

We stopped several times to admire the beauty of the falls and the massive amounts of water rushing down the granite faces. Once at the top, we took a quick break to have a snack and enjoy the view before heading down John Muir Trail back to the trail head. The JMT on the way down was much easier on the knees as the trail was mostly dirt instead of rock and switchbacks instead of stairs. The views were not as great as they were the way up the steep side of the trail, but if you have knee problems, I would definitely suggest taking the JMT up and down as it is less strenuous.

As we returned to the trailhead, we noticed that there were a ton of folks just beginning the hike and it was way more crowded than it was in the morning. We were thankful we started so early in the day and were able to avoid most of the crowds.

The Highlights:

  • Level of difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
  • Ensure you have a wilderness permit if you plan to camp in the backcountry.
  • All food and scented items are required to be kept in a bear locker or bear cache overnight.
  • Weather varies greatly from the valley to other parts of the park. Make sure to pack accordingly.
  • Some trails are not marked well. It’s a good idea to have a map and compass with you at all times.
  • The only place with cellular reception in the park is Yosemite Valley. Otherwise you will likely not have cell service.
  • Be sure to fill your car with gas before entering the park. There is a gas station in the valley, but it is extremely overpriced.
  • There is a grocery store and restaurant in the valley, but otherwise there are not many food options in other parts of the park.
  • A water filter is necessary if you plan on camping in the backcountry.

Biking the Coastal Trail in Anchorage

anchorage

The Mission: Bike 22 miles from downtown Anchorage to the chalet at Kincaid Park.

The Prep: 
No need to reserve in advance. Head to the Downtown Bicycle Rental  shop and pick up your bike, lock, helmet and directions. The trip should take roughly 3 hours. Bike rental is $16 for the first 3 hours. You will be charged upon return for any additional time you keep the bike.

The Gear:
Light layers as the wind can be chilly on the bike
Water
Sunscreen
Comfortable shoes

The Execution:
We started the day early and picked up our bikes at the rental shop where we received detailed instructions from the staff on how to get to the entrance of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. We pedaled through town to the trail entrance where we followed the coast of Cook Inlet. We encountered sweeping views of far off mountain ranges and a glimpse of bald eagle soaring high above us. The trail proceeds to parallel the train tracks for a bit before weaving back into the lush greenery. There were a few rest areas where we stopped to take in the view of Anchorage,snap some photos and grab a snack. You can choose to stop and turnaround at any point on the trail, but we continued on to the end (11 miles) and then turned around to head back to town- 22 miles in total. Unfortunately, we didn’t see a ton of wildlife on our ride, but it was still a beautiful and relaxing ride- a great introduction to Alaska and a must do if you visit Anchorage!

The Highlights:

  • Level of difficulty: casual to moderate
  • If you’re not up for a bike ride, it’s a nice trail for a casual walk.
  • Keep your eye out for wildlife!
  • Wear bug spray- lots of mosquitoes.

Biking Denali National Park

ride denali

The Mission: Cycle 30 miles through Denali National Park.

The Prep: 
Since I was visiting Denali in June- the height of tourist season, I contacted Denali Outdoor Center a few months prior to my visit to reserve a bike. For $40, I reserved a bike including helmet for the day of my choice. There are 2 locations for bike pickup so be sure to specify that you would like to pick your bike up at the Canyon office. The Canyon office is a short 2.5 mile ride to the Wilderness Access Center at the park entrance where you will board the bus into the park.

At 92 miles long, you could spend days biking the road through Denali, but as an amateur biker, I thought 30 would be more reasonable. I contacted the park to reserve a space on the shuttle bus to Eielson Visitor Center at 9am for $34.50. It’s important to make your reservation in advance and let them know you will be bringing a bike as not all buses have bike racks and they fill up fast!

The Gear:
Check the weather before your trip as weather can be quite unpredictable. At this time in mid-June, it was quite chilly in the 40s and raining so rain gear was a must!

Light layers
Rain jacket
Rain pants
Wicking socks
Waterproof hiking boots
Bike gloves
Skull cap for under the helmet
Hydration pack
Lunch/snacks
Camera
Road ID
Bike and helmet from rental company

The Execution:
After gearing up at Denali Outdoor Center, I cycled the short 2.5 miles to the Wilderness Access Center where I picked up my ticket, loaded up my bike, and boarded the bus toward Eielson. My goal was to take the bus into the park and ride back out toward the entrance. After some time on the bus, I decided I would hop off before Eielson and disembarked at mile 39- Sable Pass.

The road through the park is unpaved gravel and on this lovely rainy day, I was covered in mud before long. The wet and muddy road conditions definitely made cycling more difficult this day. The ride started off easy heading downhill and cruising into fairly flat terrain. After a few hours of enjoying the lovely scenery, I stopped for some lunch and a rest only to be immediately attacked by swarms of mosquitoes! I’ve never seen so many mosquitoes, and the only way to escape them was to keep moving so I cut my break short and hopped back on the bike.

I continued riding until I reached Sanctuary River where I hit an intense incline. After much stop and go (and a little walking my bike), I had climbed over 1000 feet. After the climb, my legs felt like Jello and I wasn’t sure how much further I would make it. I continued pedaling, though much slower now until I ran into a shuttle bus heading toward the entrance of the park with an open bike rack on the front. I flagged the bus down, mounted my bike, and headed back to the entrance covered in mud and mosquito bites! After another 2.5 mile ride back to the Denali Outdoor Center, my journey came to a wet and muddy end.

photo (7)

The Highlights:

  • Level of difficulty: ugh!
  • You cant control the weather so be prepared for various riding conditions.
  • Wildlife sightings are NOT guaranteed! Im still disappointed I didn’t see a bear or moose.
  • I only saw one bathroom along the route so bring TP in case you need to make a stop in the woods, but remember to always take out what you bring in…preserve nature!
  • Reservations for the bike and shuttle are necessary in peak season.
  • You can hop on and off the shuttle buses at any time so if you want you can ride a ways, wait for a bus, hop on, bypass the giant inclines, and hop back off to continue riding.
  • Buses do not run that frequently so may have to wait awhile before you can flag one down to hop on.
  • Bug spray, bug spray, bug spray.
  • Check the elevation map from nps.gov below before you plan your route.
  • Take your time and enjoy the scenery!