our summer vacation: banff and glacier national parks

banff national park | the merry gourmet

Plain of Six Glaciers trail, in Banff.

“We love the Tetons and Yellowstone, but Glacier is our favorite national park.”

We heard this sentence, or a variation on it, at least two or three times last summer while we were in the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. I couldn’t imagine loving another park even more than I did either Grand Tetons or Yellowstone. I had fallen hard for both places and for different reasons. How could Glacier be even better?

But the sentiment stayed with me, even after we returned home. So I began my research. Within 2 weeks of arriving home from Jackson Hole, I had booked hotel rooms in the Many Glacier Hotel, on the east side of Glacier National Park, for one year later, in July 2015.

As the months went by, my plans for our summer trip evolved, expanded, and solidified. In my research, I learned that one of the major airports near Glacier was in Calgary, in Alberta, Canada. And not terribly far from Calgary was Banff, in the Canadian Rockies. Hmm.

When we finally boarded our Delta flight in Orlando on July 4th, our first destination was Canada. We would fly into Calgary International Airport, drive to Banff, spend the first four nights in Banff and then drive south, back into the United States, to Glacier National Park in Montana. After four nights in and around Glacier, we would head back home to Florida.

banff national park | the merry gourmet

Moraine Lake, in Banff.

banff national park | the merry gourmet

The trip was amazing and not long enough. As it turns out, four nights in Banff is not any where close to enough time. And four nights in Glacier is also not enough time. Looking back on it, I think we had some great appetizer portions of each, but it left me craving the full tasting menu. And dessert. I needed dessert.

This is the itinerary I planned – and which we mostly stuck to. Sam tried to change up some of my itinerary early on and nearly lost an ear as a result. After that, he went along with what I had planned, and I tried to be more flexible and spontaneous. Neither of us achieved 100% success, but perfection is boring, right?

Day 1: Travel day, to Calgary International Airport. Drive to Banff.
Day 2: Explore Moraine Lake and Lake Louise
Day 3: Drive to the Icefield Centre in Jasper, along the Icefields Parkway. Trip to the Athabasca Glacier on an Ice Explorer.
Day 4: Hike the Plain of Six Glaciers trail, to the tea house.
Day 5: Leave Banff and drive south to Montana and Glacier National Park. Stay at Many Glacier Hotel.
Day 6: Explore the eastern side of Glacier.
Day 7: Leave Many Glacier and drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road, exploring along the way. Check into hotel in Whitefish, Montana.
Day 8: Explore the western side of Glacier.
Day 9: Travel day, back to Florida.

moraine lake, banff | the merry gourmet

Moraine Lake, in Banff

jasper national park | the merry gourmet

Athabasca Glacier, in Jasper National Park.

glacier national park | the merry gourmet

Swiftcurrent Lake, at Many Glacier

Over the next couple of weeks (fingers crossed), I’ll share photos and details of parts of our trip. I’ve just started going through the 650+ photos that I took while on the trip, and I haven’t begun to see what ended up on the kids’ cameras (or Sam’s, for that matter).

We did learn two big lessons from this trip, though, that are important to keep in mind if you’re also thinking of a similar itinerary.

First, renting a car in Canada and returning it in the United States makes for a very expensive (and very limited selection) car rental. We rented a car in Calgary, at the airport, and returned it in Montana, just before our flight home. I did this because I specifically wanted to fly into Calgary rather than into Montana. Calgary is closer to Banff and would give us easy access to both Banff and to Glacier. Also, it was cheaper to fly into Calgary and fly home from Montana. Odd, I know, but that’s the way it worked out. So, I booked airline tickets and didn’t think twice. Only later, when it came time to rent a car did I learn the error of my ways. Whatever money we saved in airline cost was immediately wiped out by the expense of the car rental. Also, the only company we could rent from was Budget, and the only car available for rent was a Chevy Malibu. We did find it entertaining (and only slightly annoying) to have a car that only listed kilometers per hour (and registered the outside temperatures only in degrees Celsius).

glacier national park | the merry gourmet

Glacier National Park

Second, to really get a good feel for Banff or Glacier National Park, do one or do the other, but don’t do both in one trip. I don’t regret anything about our trip, but I do wish I hadn’t felt as rushed as I felt. I set an alarm every day of the vacation because I did not want us to miss a single moment. We were up and out of the hotel early in the morning – until the latter portion of the trip when the kids rebelled against me – and we returned back late in the evening, after a late dinner. We exhausted ourselves completely and thoroughly.

At dinner one night, probably halfway through the trip, I started to announce that we were getting up at 6:00 the next morning so that we could have a quick breakfast before going out exploring. Oliver interrupted me. “Wait, wait wait. Mom. Wait,” he said. He held one arm out, palm facing me in the universal STOP signal. “Vacation is supposed to be about relaxing, okay?”

He was right. If we’d chosen to do one national park or the other, we could have done each one more thoroughly and still allowed for some down time. As it was, I did very little reading, no knitting at all, and I barely had time to record each day’s events in my travel journal. None of us slept enough.

Oh, but it was a good vacation. I look forward to sharing more about it in the posts to come.

glacier national park | the merry gourmet

Avalanche Lake, in Glacier

glacier national park | the merry gourmet

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Note: For those of you who, like me, are obsessive about researching and planning vacations, I completely rely on two apps for all of my trip planning. Evernote is my workhorse for keeping ideas, itineraries, snapshots of maps or confirmation numbers, and more. I use TripIt to organize the final trip plans, and it’s the home to all reservation information (flights, car rentals, hotels, etc.).

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11 Responses to “our summer vacation: banff and glacier national parks”

  1. 1
    Gail — July 20, 2015 @ 7:37 am

    WOW!  You certainly did cover a lot of ground!  The photos are magnificent,  MJ.  On your next trip, try to remember to take enough time there so you can really take it all in after  you put the camera down.  xoxo

  2. 2
    Abby — July 20, 2015 @ 12:48 pm

    These photos are STUNNING. I’ve never been to a national park… horrible, I know I suppose my parents (and subsequently, I) are just city/hotel people hahah. My dad often talk about how he regrets not taking us to a national park when we were younger, though, and after seeing this post I’m dying to go! So much beauty. 

  3. 3
    Paula — July 22, 2015 @ 8:22 am

    Ouch on the expensive car rental but “Wow” on seeing this photos on my laptop instead of my phone! There are stunning and I’m looking forward to reading more on this vacation.

  4. 4
    Lisa Doucet — July 22, 2015 @ 2:55 pm

    Awesome info and pic’s… When I read your blog this a.m. I was stoked… then I found out about the fires in GNP…. I leave in 2 wks…. hope it will be ok…..

  5. 5
    Kate King — March 3, 2016 @ 4:41 pm

    Hello! My husband and I are looking into doing a similar trip. Which car rental company did you use? I have not been able to find a clear answer on which companies will allow you to bring cars from the US to Canada, and the other way. Thank you for your help!

    • 5.1
      Merry-Jennifer — March 6, 2016 @ 6:45 pm

      Budget was the only car rental we found that would do a one-way rental from Canada to the US. I’m not sure about the other way around (US to Canada).

  6. 6
    Allycia Wolff — August 10, 2016 @ 1:37 pm

    Beautiful pictures! I’m looking to plan a trip next summer and have always wanted to do Glacier and Banff in one trip. Do you think two weeks would be enough to do both? If not, which park would you recommend doing first? Thanks!

    • 6.1
      Merry-Jennifer — August 10, 2016 @ 2:41 pm

      Oh, wow. That’s like asking me to pick my favorite child! I think you can do both in two weeks easily, and you’d find plenty of reasons to want to return later. Have a wonderful time!

  7. 7
    Nicole Miller — January 3, 2017 @ 9:15 pm

    Thank you so much for this information!  Very helpful!  I wanted to do Banff and Glacier together but have decided to stick to Banff for now since we will only have a week.  

  8. 8
    Frances May — August 12, 2020 @ 2:27 pm

    WOW! Your post really resonated with me in the first few lines where you mentioned that you were skeptical that any national park could top Grant Tetons/Yellowstone. I feel the exact same way. We are currently planning a trip for early fall 2021 (pandemic permitting) to Glacier and Banff. We are hoping to spend 10ish days between the 2 parks and I am struggling to decide how many days for each. We are early risers and not the relaxing type lol. My question is, did you feel like you spent enough time in one park but not the other or that you could spend less/more time in one than the other? Thanks in advance!!

    • 8.1
      Merry-Jennifer — August 13, 2020 @ 9:19 am

      I think you could split it up evenly and that would be a good taste of both parks. The reality is that they’re both so large that you could probably spend 10 days in each! I would have liked more time in both parks, to be honest.

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