Before I knew it, I was screaming. Or, more accurately, squealing like a delighted child.
“What?” My startled best friend shouted, nearly swerving the rental car off the road.
“Mountains!” I called out, pointing and bouncing in my seat.
Misty-eyed and giddy, I caught my first-ever glimpses of the Canadian Rocky Mountains rising up from the horizon. After thinking nothing could live up to what I’d imagined, I was awestruck as the miniature range of peaks kept getting larger and closer. Soon, the road was perfectly nestled between the mountains towering above us.
Like a loon wooing its partner, the Canadian wild beckons Minnesotans. What Banff National Park dramatically adds to the fresh air, lakes, and pine forests we find within our borders are those jaw-dropping Rockies.
The park is a highly trafficked tourist destination in southwest Alberta, Canada, that welcomed over 4 million visitors in the 2018-19 fiscal year and saw about a 15% dip due to the pandemic in 2020, according to Parks Canada. Banff is either a solid 20-hour drive from the Twin Cities, or a 3-hour flight into Calgary, Alberta, and then a one-hour drive to the town of Banff.
Even exhausted from the flight on the first day, I was eager to savor the last bit of sunlight on a small hike just outside of Canmore. After dropping our bags at our vacation rental in the nearby hamlet of Dead Man’s Flats, we set out. A few miles of lusciously overgrown forest brought us to what would normally be a creek. But walking on the rocky dried riverbed eventually led to to the Bow River, which winds from the Rockies through Banff and Canmore. It was amazingly clear water bordered by the surrounding mountains.
Why Choose Banff
When I told the locals where I was from, their response was often something like, “Oh yeah, we get a lot of people from Minnesota here.” It must be the pine. Indeed, Juniper infused everything from the hikes to the cocktails with an enchanting allure—subtly highlighting the distinctiveness of the experience while still reminding me of home.
For those lusting after idyllic vistas, sumptuous dining, and plentiful recreating, the draw of the Canadian Rockies can’t be paralleled. The 2,564-square-mile park was full of hikes that left me gasping for air, which I’d like to think is due to it being 4,537 feet above sea level—the highest elevation for a Canadian town. The appeal of an English-speaking country and short flight made the snow-capped getaway all the more accessible. And it fits a wide range of budgets: we found inexpensive but convenient lodging, and could still splurge on poutine, cocktails, and a multi-course dinner.
To find the best selection and deals, book summer trips as far ahead of time as possible—peak season is June to August. Our Airbnb gave us a park pass for the duration of our stay, and we had a kitchenette to make meals with ingredients we found at the local farmers markets. There are a multitude of accommodations in Banff, the neighboring city of Canmore, and even around Lake Louise, including rental cabins, upscale hotels, motels, and campgrounds around the main lakes and towns. For striking views and a full-service experience, check out Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
Every day in the mountains promised multiple miles of wildlife to be explored. Our choices of distance and elevation fluctuated—but risking more soreness yielded better views.
To get the most out of the difficult, but rewarding, hikes, the locals consistently recommended we get to the trailheads early in the day to avoid the crowds and snag a parking spot. We had decent luck always making it before 11 a.m., which was essential for visiting the extremely popular Lake Louise, Lake Moraine, and Johnston Canyon’s Upper and Lower Falls. (Tourists pour in at these locations in the afternoons, but you may find fewer people as you hike farther on the trails.)
On our first-day hike fresh off the plane, we encountered a woman who sagely warned us of the moose—calving season meant aggressive defense of the newborns. This advice came in handy on our second morning. On our Hoodoos Trail hike, we saw all kinds of wildlife, including a small herd of moose. According to her advice, we kept our distance and remained quiet. The mountain valley trek followed the edge of the Bow River before sending us on an upward trajectory. Even in the 55-degree weather of late May, I was sweating by the time we got to the Surprise Corner Viewpoint overlooking the Bow River Valley and the castle-like Banff Springs Hotel.
Next, we hiked around Lake Minnewanka—Banff National Park’s largest lake. The tall, skinny evergreens and sharp cliffs surrounded us as we glided across the turquoise glacial waters in rented kayaks for about an hour, gawking at the mountains towering above. For a more relaxed afternoon excursion, boat cruise tours travel over Lake Minnewanka to the Devil’s Gap hiking area and back.
Our third-day visit to Lake Louise State Park featured one of the most memorable hikes of the entire vacation. The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise overlooks the startlingly aquamarine lake, which is bordered by mountains. We walked the scenic lakeside path before heading up Lake Agnes Trail, which passes by Mirror Lake—a great spot to pause and catch your breath. After an elevation gain of 1,312 feet, you hit the hanging valley of Lake Agnes, its icy waters falling over the mountain edge. Once there, relax with a refreshment from the Lake Agnes Tea House, built in 1901, and watch helicopters come in and out delivering supplies.
On our next day, we fought back soreness to tackle the 7.2-mile round trip hike through Johnston Canyon’s Upper and Lower Falls and the seven Ink Pots mineral springs. The hilly trail passes along the sparkling waterfalls—getting you close enough to feel the soft spray. By mid-morning it was rather busy, but once we got past the two main waterfalls, the crowds thinned. Witnessing the burbling, colorful cold springs of the Ink Pots is worth the extra mileage
By day five, we hadn’t tired of staring into glittering teal water, so we took the short hike up the Rockpile Trail. Our reward was one of the most iconic Canadian views: Lake Moraine, which is featured on their $20 bill. The walk around the lake proved less crowded and had more wildlife—and there are even more trails we didn’t get to.
More Leisure Pursuits
A good option to enjoy the payoff of priceless views without enduring the struggle of climbing a mountain is taking the Banff Gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain. (And no, it does not smell like rotten eggs.) Operating similar to a ski lift, the gondola swept me up and left my stomach behind. While clinging to our seats, we watched hikers taking on over 6 miles of switchbacks and tried to relax a bit. The town of Banff got smaller and smaller as we were somewhat jerkily propelled across the treetops. The end result is worth it. You end up on a viewing deck sitting at 7,486 feet above sea level with a bird’s eye view of Bow Valley and six mountain ranges. If you took the hard way up, at least take the easy way down—and the gondola has free rides down after 7 p.m.
For a one-of-a-kind dining adventure on top of Sulphur Mountain, the Sky Bistro is a can’t-miss. Locally sourced spirts and beer complement an expertly crafted menu featuring delights like pan-seared scallops and house-made ricotta gnocchi. We relaxed by the floor-to-ceiling windows through multiple courses as the sun started to sink below the peaks.
There are plenty of other places to relax and have a beer or cocktail, including the Wild Life Distillery and Park Distillery—or several local eateries. Canmore Brewery and Distillery Tours is a sure-fire way to try a bit of everything. We enjoyed some creatively updated gin and tonics at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel’s Grapes restaurant. Mine even had fresh juniper berries accentuating the flavor.
Banff has a farmers market on Wednesdays, and Canmore, about a 10-minute drive away, has one on Thursdays. They’re seasonal, so be sure to check for hours and availability. Both had a plethora of food trucks and vendors, but Canmore’s had the advantage of folksy live music. While Banff’s market definitely featured some tasty local makers, Canmore’s booths felt less crowded with fellow tourists. I’d recommend grabbing fresh strawberries to snack on while you stroll and sample locally made gin.
On our last day in Banff, my friend and I visited Johnson Lake for a peaceful walk, picnic, and icy dip in the water. We were able to spot two loons mating on our easy jaunt around the lake, which of course made us think of home. Johnson Lake was completely melted when we went the last week in May, unlike Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and Lake Agnes. I only waded in past my knees, but plenty of people were splashing around with their full body. It provided a welcome relief for my sore muscles and tired bones. Wiggling my feet into the sand, I relished in the satisfaction of an ideal trip experiencing the full glory of the Rockies and Banff’s insanely blue waters.
Before You Hike
- Don’t forget to tuck your pants into your socks to avoid ticks—plus use a healthy dose of bug spray around your ankles.
- As you’ll learn quickly from all the signage, pick up some bear spray before heading up into the mountains. (If you don’t want to buy it, rent a can for a fraction of the price and pray you don’t have to use it.) The only bears I saw were a mama and her cubs being coaxed back into the woods by parks patrol off the highway, but I was still glad to have the peace of mind.
- Moose are dangerous, in case you hadn’t heard from the nature documentaries. So be respectful and keep your distance.
- They are incredibly cute, but the wildlife should not be fed, no matter how hard that chipmunk is begging.
- With the elevation and exertion of hiking, you can get exhausted out of seemingly nowhere. Be sure to bring plenty of high-calorie snacks and water with you on hikes, even the short ones.
- Sunscreen…need it be said? While the temps are ideal, the sun is more powerful the closer you are to it (like on a mountain). So be kind to yourself and apply some SPF.
- The information center is helpful, so don’t be shy and ask as many questions as you need. They have insider knowledge and can tell you about trail closures.
- Pack a map and know where you’re going when you hit the trail—it is easy to get lost and reenacting a Jack London novel may not be as fun as it sounds.
To learn more about hikes, places to go, closures, and safety tips, check out the Parks Canada website, pc.gc.ca/en