Banff National Park, Alberta
Banff National Park is a beautiful mountainous National Park in the Canadian Rockies that is easily accessible from the Calgary Airport. Hikes in Banff seemed busier than in Jasper but not shoulder to shoulder as we have experienced in our closest National Park, Yosemite, on a weekend. There are many hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops in Banff. I suspect many travelers fly into Calgary (~140 km or 90 miles from Calgary Airport), drive to Banff and make their way to Jasper via the Icefields Parkway. All the mountain parks here are grizzly and black bear habitat. We carried bear spray in a harness on our belt on all our hikes and my littlest son made plenty of noise to scare off any bears that might not smell us coming. No bear encounters on our hikes. FYI: 1.6km = 1 mile
|Entrance Fee:||$19.60/per vehicle/day which covered all Canadian Mountain National Parks|
|Campsite Reservations:||reservation.pc.gc.ca or 1-877-RESERVE|
|Closest airport:||Calgary (130 km or 80 miles)|
|Km to Miles conversion:||1.6 km = 1 mile|
|More Information:||Banff National Park|
Lake Helen-Katherine Lake
Lake Helen is an alpine lake high above Icefields Parkway just north of Lake Louise. The hike starts uphill through a wooded bear grazing area. As a nervous-mom, I was on high alert for bears. On the walk up, to the right of the trail, there is a beautiful view of Crowfoot Glacier hanging overtop of turquoise-colored Bow Lake.
View of Crowfoot Glacier hanging overtop Bow Lake, Banff NP, Canada
As we walked above the treeline, there was a large beehive rock structure situated across the meadow. On our visit in early August 2019, the alpine meadow was sprinkled with multi-colored wildflowers, some looking like mini versions of the trees in the movie the Lorax. Along the way, our trail was lined with different shaped jagged peaks across the stream and meadow. We were warned near the end of the treeline that there was a black bear closeby, but we did not encounter him.
Walking across the meadow towards Lake Helen, Banff NP, Canada
Lake Helen is a small dark blue lake situated near the middle of the alpine meadow under a rocky hill. It was not the only water body there, as it lay just across a small lagoon from a smaller body of water. We walked past Lake Helen, to the ridge overlooking Lake Helen. From that Ridge, we saw Lake Helen on one side nestled in the meadow under jagged peaks, and Lake Katherine on the other side. Lake Katherine is a longish bluish lake laying just under another set of peaks. We spotted a marmot on this ridge too. We had intended to walk past Lake Katherine to Dolomite Pass but the skies had turned gray and drops of rain started to accompany the strong wind on the ridge, so we decided to call it a day.
View from the Ridge above Lake Helen, Banff NP, Canada
We arrived at Lake Helen trailhead at 10am on a Friday before a long weekend in early August. With some creativity, we found ourselves a parking spot fairly easily. Our initial plan was to hike the Plain of Six Glaciers at Lake Louise, but unfortunately our arrival at the parking lot at 9am was not early enough. The parking lot ushers did not allow cars to even look for parking spots, and we were forced to drive back out. There was shuttle (for a nominal fee) to get to Lake Louise available on Icefields Parkway which ran every 15 minutes but we were not sure if we would have enough time to complete our hike before the last bus at 4pm. So, Lake Helen was an unintended, though very pleasant hike for us.
|Features:||Walk above the tree line to an alpine meadow sprinkled with small alpine lakes and wildflowers (seasonal), towered over by jagged peaks. Views of Crowfoot Glacier hanging over turquoise-colored Bow Lake|
|Our Hike:||10 miles rt, 2500 ft elev gain|
|Directions:||At the south end of Icefield Parkway, across the street from Crowfoot Glacier Viewpoint parking lot. Coming from the south, Lake Helen's parking area was also well marked.|
|Fee:||$19.60/per vehicle/day which covers all Mountain National Parks. Day pass valid until 4pm the next day. Discounted rate if greater than 7 days|
Starting at 8:15am at the trailhead near the Fairmont Chateau, we viewed this world famous glacial blue lake with absolute awe. The snowy mountain (also known as Victoria Glacier) behind the lake reflected in the water, making the already beautiful teal blue lake even more amazing. The teal blue color of the lakes and rivers in this area come from "rock flour" - fine sediments of rock crushed by glacier - and suspended in water. The view was most amazing at the beginning of the hike, with a view of all three mountains behind the lake in one frame. The trail hugged the shoreline of the lake from beginning to the end of the lake. The view of the mountains changed as we walked on the trail, revealing closer views of the surrounding mountains. Lake Louise is fed by the glacial run-off of Victoria Glacier.
Lake Louise, reflecting Victoria Glacier, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
The trail is a flat, gravel packed one with a distance of about 4km (2.5 miles) roundtrip. This trail is probably pretty jogging stroller-friendly. We encountered a few hikers on this crisp morning of 39F, some going through to the Plain of Glaciers trail (5.8km) and some to the two teahouses. Our turn-around point was at the end of the lake, since we were short on time and had several other hikes we wanted to do that day. This hike took us about 1.5 hours round trip to complete, thanks to a protesting hiker among us. As we left the trail around 9:45 am, we noticed the full overflow parking lots and even a line up of cars to get in. Ironically, the parking lot we were parked at, which was closest to the trailhead had spots available, both at our arrival and departure times. Canoes are available for rental at the Lakeshore not too far from the Fairmont. Public clean bathrooms were located in one of the parking lots. The Fairmont reserves it's restrooms for its patrons only.
Catching a glimpse of the hidden mountains at Shoreline trail at Lake Louise, Banff NP, Canada
|Features:||Teal blue world famous glacial lake reflecting surrounding mountains, View of Victoria Glacier|
|Our Hike:||4 km or 2.5 miles shoreline trail|
|Directions:||At the south end of Icefield Parkway, follow directions on roadway to Lake Louise|
|Fee:||$19.60/per vehicle/day which covers all Mountain National Parks|
Moraine Lake is another beautiful blue glacial lake that has a shoreline trail, just down the street from Lake Louise. Its trail length is about 3 km roundrip. Though I thought the two lakeshore trails would be repetitive, I must say that there are subtle differences between the two that makes each one special in its own right. Moraine Lake is smaller than its neighbouring Lake Louise, at about half its size.
Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
Moraine Lake is located in the Valley of Ten Peaks, and has ten peaks rising above its shores. A short climb to the top of a Rockpile at the end of the lake affords a view of the lake with its ten peaks, I'm told. We opted not to do that climb since we were short on time and had some trouble finding the trailhead. Doing some research for this post now, I realized that the trailhead was on the other side of the rockpile and only 0.35 km in length, minimal elevation gain with an amazing view. Should've, would've, could've... Oh well... next time.
We did do the lakeshore trail, which gave us wonderful changing views of the ten peaks and a view of Fay Glacier. A couple of canoes came into view as walked down the lake. The shoreline trail here though hugging closely to the shoreline, took us underneath shading trees. Tree roots jutted out of the ground here frequently making it pretty stroller unfriendly. There were many driftwood logs large enough to host a quick picnic along the shore.
There was a boardwalk at the end of the trail that took us to the edge of a gently sloping glacial melt flowing from one of the peaks directly into the teal blue lake below. The first half of the trail saw quite a bit of foot traffic whereas the last half was relatively quiet. There were many pullouts along the trail which were relatively quiet the further along we went. Views were better near the beginning of the trail though, as the ten peaks can be photographed in one frame. Be careful not to veer off your intended hiking trail - I read that grizzly activity can be high on hikes branching out of some of the trails at Moraine Lake that sometimes require closures of certain areas and/or mandatory groups of 4 or more people hiking together. We did not have any encounters on our hike up the lakeshore trail.
Lakeshore Trail at Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
This is the lake that is featured on the back of the Canadian $20 bills printed between 1969 to 1979. The road to Moraine Lake closes during the winter from mid-October to late May/early June, this year opening on May 24, 2016. The signature blue color of the lake does not usually occur until the lake is completely thawed out, usually around mid- to end- of June. It does get busy here, and the road may be closed when it gets too busy. Best times to visit are before 9am or after 5pm. We arrived at the parking lot around 10am, and had about 20 parking spots to choose from. There was lodging near the shores of this lake as well. Canoe rentals were also available.
|Features:||Teal blue glacial lake with ten mountain peak looming overtop, Walk to the mouth of glacial run-off stream into the blue lake, View of Fay Glacier|
|Our Hike:||Lakeshore Trail: 3 km (~2 miles) roundtrip|
|Fee:||$19.60/per vehicle/day which covers all Mountain National Parks|
|Directions:||South end of Icefields Parkway, Follow exit for Lake Louise, (this GPS coordinates led us in the right direction: 51.330524, -116.180838)|
|Amenities:||Cafe, lodge (open June to October), canoe rental|
Along Bow Valley Parkway, about halfway between Banff and Lake Louise lies the busiest trail we hiked during our trip. The trail to Lower Falls of Johnston Canyon saw the most foot traffic, though not shoulder to shoulder as I would describe some of Yosemite's most popular hikes. Beyond Lower Falls on the hike to Upper Falls, the crowds lessened slightly. Between Lower and Upper Falls, there are 5 waterfalls, Upper Falls being the tallest of them all, Lower Falls the second tallest.
Lower Falls at Johnston Canyon, Banff National Park
The hike took us on walkways overhanging the canyon and under overhanging rocks. There were times where the trail was suspended directly over the rushing blue waters directly against canyon walls. At the first falls, Lower Falls, there was a line up of people waiting in the tunnel to get to the viewpoint of Lower Falls. Not knowing what lies ahead, we waited patiently in line for 10-15 minutes for an upclose view of the spraying Lower Falls. Knowing what it looks like now, we probably would not have waited in line. The view of the Lower Falls from the bridge before the tunnel and from the above walkway were better, in my opinion.
Catwalk in Johnston Canyon, near Banff National Park
We arrived in the early afternoon at Johnston Canyon. Not realizing there was plenty of overflow parking just south of the trail entrance, we parked along the road not too far from the trailhead. The hike to Upper Falls was about 3 miles in length return, to Lower Falls 1 mile return. There are many viewpoints along the way of the rushing blue waters in the canyon below. Three kilometers beyond the Upper Falls, the hike continues to the Ink Pots. Our turn-around point was the Upper Falls due to time to constraints, though the Ink Pots seemed interesting. At Ink Pots, they are 7 mineral springs that bubble to the surface at 4C with quick sanded basins.
One of the 5 waterfalls between Lower and Upper Falls
|Features:||Overhanging walkways inside canyon with views of 7 waterfalls, teal blue rushing waters below|
|Hike:||1 mile return to Lower Falls, 3 miles return to Upper Falls, 7 miles return to Ink Pots|
|Fee:||self serve entrance kiosk $20/car|
|Directions:||Follow Bow Valley Parkway and look for directions for Johnston Canyon, located about ½ way between Lake Louise and Banff on Bow Valley Parkway.|
|Amenities:||pit toilet, water, picnic tables|
Cave and Basin National Historic Site
Known as the birthplace of Canada's National Parks, Cave Basin National Historic Park is a unique location that showcases a thermal spring found underground in a cave. These waters have been used for bathing for many years, recently shut down to protect miniature snails that live in these waters. The snails are on the endangered species list. A reasonable admission fee is charged for entry into the cave. The cave tour is a quick 10-minute jaunt to the spot where the three men first discovered the thermal springs, which is also the location where Native Canadians performed rituals. The entry to the cave is through a previous 1900s bathhouse currently occupied by the Canadian Park Rangers. Above the bathhouse was a viewing platform with a view of the many mountains surrounding Banff. Beyond that, there was a 1km boardwalk climbing the marshlands above to more views of hot springs. It is illegal to touch these thermal waters here, but there is a fountain in front of the old bathhouse where you could immerse your fingers into these “healing” waters. If you're looking to take a dip in the hot springs, Upper Hot Springs have the facilities to accommodate you. Cave Basin is just a few minutes outside town center Banff. Directions along the town roads led us there easily.
Cave Basin - Canada's first National Park, skylight above is how these thermal waters were discovered by three railroad workers
|Features:||Explore the birthplace of Canadian National Parks|
|Admission to Cave:||CAN$3.90/adult, CAN$1.90/kid over 6yrs old, Boardwalk: free|
|Address:||311 Cave Ave, Banff, Alberta|
|Hours of Operation:||10am-5pm (Summer hours)|