A Week In The Canadian Rockies
It’s been about a month and a half since my trip to the Canadian Rockies, and I’ve FINALLY gotten totally caught up on client work (woohoo!) and gotten around to putting all these photos together! It was a week of awesome friends (Go follow them on insta for more mountain goodness at @abbymphoto and @laurareilly), beautiful views, all of the gift shops, and good snacks… so many snacks. Every time I’ve come to Banff it’s been an entirely different experience, and getting to see this place during fall was amazing. To really get the full effect of autumn, you need to get a little into the alpine to catch the changing larches, but let me tell you it is worth every steep trail and early morning. During my week here, I checked off a lot of things on my Canadian Rockies to do list, but it left me adding even more hikes and places to see, and I don’t think I’ll ever reach a point where I feel like I’ve seen everything here and I never need to come back. I honestly think this is a place I’ll be visiting once a year at least, because there is just something very magical about these mountains; they almost have this magnetic pull that keeps you coming back wanting more. I could not recommend Banff and Jasper enough, if you haven’t already been!
I’m doing this blog post a little differently than my usual trip roundup of photos, because there’s so many, and I wanted to break them up into each day and give each day a little conclusion! The photos are a mix of landscape shots, a few iPhone panoramas, and some goofy shots of my friends sprinkled in. 😉 I hope you enjoy this format. Get ready to feast your eyes on so many mountain views!
Day 1: Driving to Banff + Kootenay NP
Day one was mostly a driving day, but not an uneventful one! One you cross the border into Canada you’re treated with all kinds of views that are gradually changing until you reach your first national park: Kootenay! You get to drive through the entire park, and over the continental divide, before you reach the Trans Canada highway that takes you right into Banff. I’ve never been lucky enough to cross through Kootenay NP on a blue sky sunny day, but the mountains were showing off on this day, with the clouds moving through them (note the excitement on Laura’s face). Last summer when we drove through here, there was a major fire burning, so it’s interesting to see how many burned trees are still standing. Definitely changes the landscape, but makes it even more unique! After crossing into Banff National Park, it’s about a 30 minute drive into the actual town of Banff, and once we arrived we checked into our hostel, Samesun Banff. This was my second time staying at Samesun, and it was a mostly good experience, except for some of our roommates the first couple nights talking loud late into the night. But other than that, I have all good things to say about hostelling! It’s a super cheap way to travel, and helps you to meet and talk to people from all over the world. And if you can get into a female only, smaller room, it’s feels just like a summer camp cabin. Each room (ours was an 8 person dorm) has it’s own bathroom with a shower, and fairly comfortable beds, for being bunks. If you’re looking to travel cheap to Banff I’d highly recommend checking this place out!
Once we checked in, we walked into downtown (a short 5 minute walk from the hostel), wandered around, got dinner, and came back to crash. We had a big day planned for tomorrow!
Day 2: Hiking The Lake O’Hara Road + Yoho NP
Our first full day in the Rockies brought our biggest challenge. A lot of preparation was leading up to this day, the day that we would hike the road to Lake O’Hara, in Yoho National Park! Most of you probably don’t know, but this road is closed to all travel, with the exception of a few shuttle busses that run up and down it multiple times a day. Getting a ticket on one of these shuttle busses is truly like winning the lottery, and is damn near impossible. When we decided to come to Canada around a year ago, I knew that we had to at least try to make it to Lake O’Hara, because the views are like no other, and due to the fact that only a certain number of people can travel in in a day, the peacefulness and serenity you would find there is a rarity in the Rockies.
Everything I’d read about getting these tickets said you pretty much just had to get lucky. Be on the server before the tickets go on sale, have an account ready, click in the second it hits 7 AM, and pray that you can snag the day that you want! Laura had 2 devices up and ready to get our tickets on the morning they went live, and as soon as 7 hit, she clicked into the system and literally every single ticket for every day of the season (June - October) was gone. ALL GONE. I have speculations that there’s people out there who have automated systems to snag tickets faster than humans can click into it and get theirs manually, but that’s a whole other topic we won't get into. But the point is, we didn’t get our shuttle tickets. At this point, the only other way to get to Lake O’Hara is to hike the road up!
Here’s some logistics for you: the road is 11 kilometers (around 7 miles) long, with around 1000 feet of gain. In the hiking world, this is a walk in the park! Basically just a long, slightly uphill stroll. I knew that we were able bodied enough to get to the lake, but getting back would have been a different story. Doubling the distance, that would have made for a 14 mile day (about 6 hours of walking), additional to any hikes we decided to do when we got there. However, the Lake O’Hara shuttle busses do sell one way passes back down the road for anyone who walks up, but they’re first come first serve, and not guaranteed. If they have any available seats left on the bus going down, you can purchase a ticket back to the parking lot. (Fast forward a little: when we were ready to leave Lake O’Hara we talked to one of the bus drivers about the probability of us getting bus tickets out, and he said there’s no pattern, and that it’s completely random how many spots are open. He said that the day before, they had to leave 6 people behind on the 4:30 bus, but got everyone out with room to spare on the 6:30 bus.) We knew that we would be risking a long, hard day of walking / hiking, but the allure and mystery of visiting Lake O’Hara was too intriguing for me to not go for it and see what happens.
So, we were gonna do it. We got to the parking lot a little later than we intended to, but we were off at around 9 AM, in a partly sunny, partly cloudy, and very chilly morning. The snow and cold temperatures came to Banff way earlier this year; the rangers said it wasn’t normal to already have snow and super cold days. Just our luck! But we pressed on anyways. The road was fairly easy to hike; with plenty of flat stretches in-between the uphill pushes. Anyone of average physical ability could probably do it! Ventures like this are much more of a mental game than a physical one; the second you start telling yourself you can’t do it, or you think you’ll never see the end, is the moment you’ll fail. Doing it with friends makes it so much easier to pass the time!
If you know me, you know I research every little last detail about everything before I go do it. So naturally, I’d read every blog post and forum I could find on the topic of hiking this road, and so many people said that it’s a pretty boring trek, due to the lack of views. Well, I’d disagree! We saw mountain peaks almost the whole way; even the halfway point opens up into a beautiful valley with 360 views. As we got closer, we could see massive glaciers towering over us in every direction, and I don’t think theses are things we would have noticed if we had taken the bus. Walking the road really allows you to slow down and enjoy the journey! We joked that maybe the people saying the road had no views were just trying to keep people away and keep them all to themselves. I’d believe it.
After around 3 hours of walking, we finally made it! I felt like I couldn't get the stupid grin off my face for last kilometer, thinking about the views I was about to experience, what I’d just accomplished, and how few people in the world would pull this off. We checked out the lodge, which, unfortunately wasn’t very welcoming to hikers. You weren't allowed to wander around or sit in front of the fireplace unless you were a guest (if you’re wondering, anyone who books a stay at the lodge gets a bus ticket included!), and you could only look at the photos on the walls of the second floor gallery, and then leave. (I’d love to actually stay there sometime, but it’s EXPENSIVE.) So we spent a short amount of time in the lodge before venturing back outside!
We ate our lunch, took some photos of the lake, and then toyed around with the idea of doing the hike that we’d originally planned on. We got to Lake O’Hara later than we planned to, and with our goal to try to catch the 4:30 bus back down (the last two buses of the day are at 4:30 and 6:30, and we wanted to be out of there no later than 4:30 so that if we didn’t get a bus ticket, we would have enough daylight to walk back to the car), we knew we would be crunched for time. More clouds moved in and it even started snowing, lessening our chances for good visibility, or making it out and back in time. We started on the trail, went a little ways, and then decided that we’d rather just enjoy our time at Lake O’Hara, grab a cup of hot chocolate at the day shelter, and call it a day! This is just one of the many reasons I’ll be returning to the Rockies; I want to hike this road again and I want to hike up to the overlook of the lake!
As 4 PM approached, we decided to go wait in line for the bus. I was so nervous we weren’t going to get a ticket, because truthfully, we were cold and tired and the walk back down that road would have did us in. Luckily we were at the front of the line for walk on tickets, and there was an entire empty bus after everyone with tickets had loaded up on the first one! We got in line for our tickets, paid our $10 CAD (if you’re going to do this, please make sure to bring $10 CAD for the ticket or you won’t get on, even if they have seats open!), and we were on the shuttle to take us back to the car! We were all so stoked. It was like Christmas morning. I think I’ll keep that ticket forever.
Parks Canada uses school busses as their shuttles. I’ve included a short video below that shows how rough that road is and how loud and rattly the ride down is. It’s not glamorous but it’s no more than a 30 minute ride back!
We ended our day hitting a couple more spots in Yoho NP: Natural Bridge and Emerald Lake. One thing I noticed about visiting in the fall versus the summer is that the iconic blue color of the lakes is much less bright and saturated! The blue color is a result of glacial melt off in the spring, so the later it is in the season, the less blue the lakes are. When I visited Emerald Lake last summer, it was this crazy bright, milky blue. This time around it was a darker, more green tone! All of the lakes looked different from the last time I’d seen them, which was definitely interesting to compare.
Day 3: Moraine Lake + Larch Valley
Originally, we were planning to see Moraine Lake on our last day in Canada. However, we had a good weather window on this day, and we knew that we needed to take advantage of the sunshine before it was forecasted to be cloudy / snowy for the rest of the week! Was it smart to put two of our hardest hiking days back to back? Probably not. But the mountains don’t care how sore or tired you are. They show up on their own time.
We hit Moraine Lake for sunrise and there was seriously SO many people there. This didn’t surprise me, but dang, it definitely takes away from the stillness of a beautiful sunrise when you’re bumping elbows with 700 of your closest friends. I don’t think this will ever change here, unfortunately. Moraine Lake is one of the most iconic views in the world; if you’re wondering why it looks familiar, it’s because you’ve probably seen in all over Instagram, on travel ads for Banff, and probably even on commercials, advertisements, and calendars. There is good reason for that though: it’s incredible in person. If you plan on going, get there 30 minutes before sunrise or don’t bother trying to get a parking spot! They even block off the road once a certain number of people have gone in and they don’t open it back up until later in the day. So sunrise or sunset is your best bet!
We opted for a sunrise, because we would already have a parking spot there for the day, and we could hike into Larch Valley, which is one of many amazing trails that starts at Moraine! Larch Valley is a must see in the fall, and one of the main reasons people come to Banff in September, for the obvious reason of the larches turning bright yellow. It truly is worth the trek. It’s a short but fairly steep hike up the side of Moraine Lake, which drops you out into this plateau called Larch Valley! It offers unparalleled views of the valley of ten peaks (there’s ten, count ‘em!) that you see from Moraine. The bright yellow trees are the icing on top, and the best part is that we couldn’t have had a better weather day! We passed a local on the trail that said it was the best day he’d seen in 3 weeks. We were very happy that we decided to move this day of activities up earlier in the week!
We found one of the lakes in the valley that reflects the 10 peaks in them, making for the most amazing photo op. Unfortunately, it was fairly windy up there so we had a hard time capturing the classic glassy reflection that everyone goes for. Next time I do this one, I would skip sunrise at Moraine and try to get up here for sunrise instead, for less people around, more still water, and for some killer sunrise light on the peaks! I’d also like to continue on up Sentinel Pass and see what the views are like from up there. If you’re wondering what the name of the lake in Larch Valley is or how to find it once you get into the valley, sorry, but my lips are sealed on that one 🤐 if you’re really invested in finding it, it’s not too hard to track down on a map! Happy lake hunting! 😜
We finished our day at Morant’s Curve, which is where you’ll find those iconic railroad views. And bonus, we got to see a train come through! If you wanna hear a little story on that, check out this post on instagram!
Day 4: The Icefields Parkway
Wednesday was our halfway marker of the trip, and the day that we would make the trip to Jasper National Park! The journey from Banff to Jasper takes place along the Icefields Parkway, which, I’d argue is the most scenic and beautiful drive I’ve ever taken. (A close second goes to the Going To The Sun Road in Glacier!) This drive is 100% mountain views everywhere, with many stops along the way to see lakes, waterfalls, and rivers. You can easily make an entire day out of this drive, or you can go straight through with no stops, which takes around 3 hours. But you’d be an absolute idiot not to stop and soak it all in!
We got started earlier in the morning with some awesome coffee (check out Good Earth coffee in Banff, it was my favorite that I tried there!), some Tim Horton’s breakfast, and plenty of brochures and travel guides for us to read in-between taking in the views. We made almost every major stop on the parkway, and some of my favorites were Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, and Athabasca Falls. All of course, had way too many people, but each place has some quieter corners, if you’re willing to venture a little further than the first place to take a photo. Peyto Lake even has a higher up landing with far less tourists, if you’re willing to take a 15 minute walk up a hill!
I will say that this was the most frustrating day in regards to watching so many people break national park rules, and be horrible humans in regards to Leave No Trace practices. But, that’s an entire different topic that I’ll be writing another post on after this one!
It took an entire day of driving and stopping at every viewpoint, but we finally arrived in Jasper that evening. We checked into our hostel there, drove into town and grabbed dinner, and called it a night!
Day 5: Jasper NP, Back Down The Parkway, + A Little Bit Of Banff
The next day we opted to pass on a sunrise since it was cloudy with a chance of rain. We instead spent our morning walking all over the town of Jasper (which is very small!), going into lots of gift shops to pick out our souvenirs! I’m a sucker for shirts and stickers so I picked up one of each. The sky started to clear a little bit, so we headed to Pyramid Lake, and then to Maligne Canyon and Medicine Lake before heading back down the parkway to Banff. It was a quick 24 hours in Jasper!
Part of the reason our time up there was so short was because we weren’t able to take part in some of the major attractions of Jasper. The road to Mt. Edith Cavell (one of the biggest peaks in the Rockies) was closed for restoration, the boat tickets to Spirit Island on Maligne Lake were super expensive (and only allowed for less than 30 minutes at Spirit Island), and the Jasper Sky Tram was socked into a cloud, rendering it pointless to ride the gondola up Whistler Mountain. Next time I come to the Rockies I’ll plan for at least 2 nights there, in the summer time, and ideally I’d canoe to a campground near Spirit Island and spend the night there, allowing to me to catch it at sunrise with no one around. I’d also hike the alpine meadows at Mt. Edith Cavell! An even bigger pipe dream would be a backpacking trip through the Tonquin Valley, but I have a feeling that’ll be further down the road. Anyone wanna come to Jasper with me next summer?
Our trek back to Banff was a much quicker one, with only a couple of stops. We made it back to town, checked back into Samesun Banff, and caught a rainy fail of a sunset at Two Jack Lake! Still beautiful, regardless.
Day 6: Lake Louise, Johnston Canyon, + The Banff Springs Hotel
On our last full day in Canada, we hit up Lake Louise for sunrise! We had planned to hike up to the Lake Agnes Tea House, but upon our arrival, the peaks were totally socked in with fog and we knew that if we did that hike, we would be completely in the clouds and wouldn’t be able to enjoy any views. So instead we opted out of that hike for a stroll along the lakeside! It was a very cold morning, but due to the lack of mountain top views and sunrise light, Lake Louise was surprisingly quiet (in comparison to how it usually is) and we had the a fairly peaceful morning strolling along a flat path, enjoying what views we did have. After finishing up at Lake Louise, we headed to Johnston Canyon, made some hot chocolate on the camp stove, and adventured on to see some waterfalls. If you don’t like being packed into a crowd of tourists, this is not the place for you! It’s one of the easiest and most accessible hikes in Banff so it means lots of people. Keep this in mind if you want to go here; go early or late!
We finished off our day by checking off all the local spots: Mt. Norquay, Vermillion Lakes, and the Banff Springs Hotel. I swear, that hotel is more of a castle than anything else. It’s a goal of mine to stay there for a night someday!
If you’ve made it this far, here’s some bonus footage of us taking a shot from a shot ski at the bar below our hostel! Don’t ask us how this happened… we ended up playing a game of music bingo, may or may not have won a dance contest, and this might or might not have been our prize 😜 But seriously another reason to stay at Sameun; they have fun games and events in the bar every night and you get to meet and talk to other travelers, and it’s a blast!
Day 7: Hot Springs + The Drive Home
Saturday came, and it was time to head home. We got one last cup of coffee at Good Earth, stopped at the store to stock up on ketchup chips (#noshame), and hit the road! It was bummer weather and we were all so tired, so it was a straight shot out of Kootenay NP and onward. We did make one stop at the hot springs I went to back in March, for a good soak to ease our muscles! I don’t know what’s in hot spring water but I swear it can heal any ache and sore muscles and make you forget you spent a week trekking in the mountains on little sleep. It’s magic. If you haven’t been to a natural hot spring before (those filtered pools don’t count!) I’d highly recommend it!
In Conclusion: What To See + What To Skip
Overall we had a very fulfilling trip, and I don't think there was any of it that I felt like I regretted doing! If it’s your first time in Banff, hit up all the iconic spots, like Moraine Lake, Lake Louise, Johnston Canyon, Emerald Lake, Peyto Lake, Bow Lake, and the Icefields Parkway. Prepare to get up early to get parking spots at these places, and to see them in good light! A week is ideal, but based on past experience, you can fit a lot into a long weekend. Two weeks would be even better!
If you’re trying to decide between Banff or Jasper, Banff has a lot more to see that’s more accessible; I’d say Jasper is a less tourist friendly in the respect that all the best stuff is hiked or boated to. But Jasper isn’t nearly as busy since it’s 3 hours further north, which is a bonus. And the drive there is a treat!
If you're looking to do some more serious hiking, I’d highly recommend the Lake O’Hara road (then Opabin Plateau), Larch Valley (then on to Sentinel Pass), and Lake Agnes. If you’re headed to the Rockies for hikes and serenity, skip Johnston Canyon and any of the popular lakes, mid day. Hikes that we either didn’t get to or didn’t have in the plans that are on my personal to do list include Opabin Plateau / Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit, Sentinel Pass, Wilcox Pass, Wapta Falls, Floe Lake, and Cavell Meadows. I’ll be back over the years to do all of these! They’re all located in Banff, Yoho, Kootenay, or Jasper, which are all connected and in close proximity of each other.
No matter what you come to the Rockies to do or see, you won’t be disappointed! It’s absolutely incredible in the fall, but each season offers something different and special. I hope that our time there inspires you to go too! I’ve already mentally started planning my trip back!