What you’ll find in this post:
– A downloadable PDF of our 8-day itinerary and corresponding google maps
– Money saving tips for budget friendly travel
– Our budget
– What we packed
BANFF NATIONAL PARK
I saw a picture of Lake Louise in a NatGeo magazine when I was 10, and I’ve been (not so) patiently waiting to visit Banff ever since. Having just arrived from hot and dry SoCal, I could hardly contain my excitement as our plane touched down in Calgary. Chez and I quickly secured our rental car and left the city behind us. Open lowlands quickly transformed to rolling foothills, which soon turned to towering rocky mountain peaks as we drove up the Trans-Canada Highway toward Banff.
Banff National Park was established in 1885, making it Canada’s oldest national park. Its home to almost 3000 square miles of breathtaking, pristine mountainous wilderness, teeming with wildlife. Nestled at the foot of the mountains, its town is a collection of quaint little shops, lodges, and rustic restaurants. The town is alive with people window shopping, admiring the scenery, meeting for coffee, and browsing the farmers market, which attracts local artisans and live music. The vibe made us feel right at home.
If you’ve ever seen pictures of Lake Louise, you’ve probably seen the view looking out from shore: the color of the water fading seamlessly over white rocks from the palest blue to deep turquoise at the foot of surrounding mountains. What you probably didn’t see were the crowds of tourists and the massive luxury hotel situated on the shore. It’s the textbook example of Instagram vs. Reality. But the lake is breathtaking and an absolute must-see, nonetheless.
In a bid for solitude, we weaved through the crowds on the shore in search of a birds-eye view of the lake. The hiking around Lake Louise is amazing. Most hikes are short and easy to moderate, yielding great reward for relatively little effort. But honestly, I would have been more than happy to work harder for the views. Well maintained trails led us through dense coniferous forests and stands of golden aspens. The treeline broke every once in awhile to give us small glimpses of the lake below us as we climbed in altitude.
At the summits, we were rewarded with unspoiled views of Lake Louise and its surrounding peaks. From above, the color of the lake turned to a brilliant opaque turquoise, appearing as though someone had colored it with a crayon. The color of the lakes was surreal, but the explanation lies in the geology of the Rockies. Long ago, the Rockies were shaped by glacial activity. As they moved, the glaciers eroded rock underneath them, creating fine rock silt, which remains suspended in the water column. And its the sunlight reflecting off the rock silt in the water that creates the iconic water of the Rockie’s alpine lakes.
We spent awhile on each summit. With only a week to explore Alberta, our itinerary was packed, so I was grateful for the time that we took to consciously slow down, enjoy the views, and do our lungs the favor of breathing fresh air. I even got to share my lunch with a local Gray Jay.
We found our way back to the car just before dark with tired bodies and happy hearts. Our drive home was filled with conversations about life as we were treated to a pastel sunset and a northern lights show.
Morning came quickly and I was jolted awake by the sound of my alarm. 4:00AM. Pitch black and frosty outside, we pulled ourselves out from under the warmth of our blankets to chase sunrise at Moraine Lake.
Moraine Lake is one of the most photographed lakes in the world. The water is a brilliant blue and surrounded by the mountains of the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Its rocky shoreline is bordered with dense stands of conifers and colorful canoes. Although less touristy and only half the size of neighboring Lake Louise, easy vehicle access during most of the year means that Moraine Lake is often teeming with people. So, although sunrise is the quietest time to enjoy the lake, we weren’t surprised to find the parking lot already full when we arrived. We were far from alone. We climbed the rock pile on the shore and searched for a spot to hang our hammocks.
Nature was still sleeping, but the chatter was plentiful as photographers attempted to capture a photo unique from the already-well-recognized view of the lake. 7:13AM. An orange glow appeared on one of the peaks on the far side of the lake, and suddenly the surrounding conversation dissipated. All was quiet as we watched with 100 of our closest friends as the sun rose in the east, wishing a good morning to the mountains, one by one. Worth the wake up call.
The Icefields Parkway connects Banff to Jasper National Park, 230km to the north. This highway twists and turns along the Continental Divide, through valleys of dramatic rocky peaks, thick coniferous forest, aspen stands, expansive icefields, and lakes the color of blue Gatorade. It’s also been rated one of the Most Beautiful Drives in the World and one of the Top 20 Drives of a Lifetime.
The drive takes about 3.5 hours in total, but took us much longer as we stopped (probably too often) to take pictures, explore roadside lakes, and pick our jaws up off the ground.
JASPER NATIONAL PARK
At the northern end of the Icefields Parkway lies Jasper National Park. More wild, isolated, much less populated than Banff, Jasper is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the “wildest” and largest of the Rocky Mountain parks. The park is filled with expansive glaciers and impressive waterfalls. Its also home to the world-famous Columbia Icefields, one of the world’s only Icefields accessible by road. Grizzly bears, moose, caribou, elk, and wolves roam freely. Its truly a backcountry paradise.
However, Chez and I were ill-equipped for wandering the backcountry, so we opted to check off some must-see lakes and waterfalls, making sure to stop and grab the insta-famous picture at Athabasca Falls.