summer adventures, part 1: banff and the icefields parkway
Somehow, I underestimated the size of Banff during my vacation planning. It looks relatively compact on a map, but the reality is that Banff National Park is 2,564 square miles, and it is filled with so many amazing places to explore. I thought we would have time to explore more of it, but we were only able to get a taste of the park during our short time there.
On our first full day in Banff, we explored Lake Louise and Moraine Lake – two must-see highlights that will show up in any guidebook on the area. The numbers of tour buses in both areas confirmed their popularity. The concierge at our hotel had advised us to head to Moraine Lake first, since there is little parking and it tends to fill up. I was so glad we had this piece of advice. The park service closed off access to the road to Moraine Lake by about 12:30 on the day we explored due to the crowds.
Whether it was because the lake is so visually stunning, or because it was our first alpine lake of the trip, or simply because we had such a great morning there, Moraine Lake was one of our favorite places during our time in Banff.
We climbed to the top of the aptly-named Rock Pile for our first views of Moraine Lake, then we walked the lakeshore trail, a 1.5 mile roundtrip to the south end of the lake. As we neared the southern end of the lakeshore trail, we were able to see more clearly the glaciers in the surrounding peaks.
I try to be mindful of our travel budget when vacation planning, so spending a night at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise was out of the question. After our morning at Moraine Lake, though, we treated ourselves to lunch there, at the Lakeview Lounge. The restaurant’s host warned us that it might be too chilly to sit outside, but we were having none of that. We had jackets on, after all, and there was a spectacular view of Lake Louise to be had. I realize now, that I didn’t take a single photo of my lunch that day (the most wonderful butter chicken with naan), and that is a testament to how in-the-moment I was.
We would come back to Lake Louise in a couple of days to hike the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail. Our experience on that hike deserves its own post – I can’t do it justice otherwise.
One of my son’s favorite experiences in Banff was riding the Banff gondola to the summit of Sulphur Mountain. I don’t enjoy heights, and I don’t enjoy riding backwards, but the gondola was a neat ride. I did my best to reign in my imagination (filled with images of steel cables snapping followed by our dramatic plummet to the earth) and enjoy the quiet rumble of the gondola’s ascent to the top. The view of Banff from the top was incredible, even with the haze that was present that late afternoon.
On the morning of our second full day in Banff, we had a quick breakfast then drove north from the town of Banff to Lake Louise. We stopped at a bakery near the Lake Louise Visitors Center and bought sandwiches for our lunch later that day. We were heading out on the Icefields Parkway, to the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park. A packed lunch made the most sense.
The Icefields Parkway is a visually spectacular drive. I drove my husband crazy during the first half of our trip. I wanted to be at the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre by 10:00 am, hopefully before any tour buses arrived, so I wouldn’t let us stop at any of the numerous scenic overlooks or pull outs. I’d read about the crowds at the Icefield Centre, and I don’t do crowds.
After standing in a queue for longer than necessary, I purchased four tickets for the Glacier Adventure. The word “adventure” seems an overstatement, but it really was great fun. After a short wait, we boarded a bus which took us to the Ice Explorers, giant vehicles with massive wheels designed for icy terrain. After boarding an Ice Explorer, we bumped and jolted our way onto the Athabasca Glacier, across the Icefields Parkway from the Icefield Centre.
The glacier experience was touristy, but one that I am so very glad we did. Standing on a glacier is surreal and awe-inspiring. Our time on the glacier was short, but in the few minutes we had there, we crunched around on the uneven ice and tried to avoid occasional puddles of icy water, and I could not stop grinning. Streams of water trickled through the ice, finding paths of least resistance toward the valley below. Tourists (including us) snapped selfies and photos of our feet on the ice.
It was close to 1pm by the time we left the Icefield Centre. We made a quick stop to have lunch at a trailhead near a meadow, and then we began our journey back to Banff along the Icefields Parkway.
There are so many beautiful stops to make along the route between the Icefield Centre and Lake Louise. While the kids played on their iPads in the back seat of our Chevy Malibu – they intermittently looked up, mostly when I got frustrated and yelled at them to LOOK OUT THE WINDOW AT THE GLACIERS – Sam drove and we marveled at the scenery. Oh, how we marveled.
The hike to Peyto Lake was a short and buggy one. On arrival in Banff, we bought family-friendly, no-chemical bug spray. This was a mistake. If given the chance, the kids and I would have doused ourselves in carcinogenic bug spray if we’d had it. We stayed only long enough to ooh and aah at the views, then the flies chased us off. Peyto Lake is gorgeous, though. If we had more time – and better bug spray and less whiny children – Sam and I would have loved to have explored more of the area around the lake.
Not far from Peyto Lake was Bow Lake. We turned off the main road and parked at the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge for access to the lake. When we walked up on the lake, we felt we’d discovered a secret part of Banff. There were only 5 or 6 other people around the lake while we were there. There were no tour buses. It was quiet, and a cool, crisp breeze came down off the two glaciers that we could see from the lake – Crowfoot Glacier and Bow Glacier. We lingered at Bow Lake, taking in the solitude. Also, there was a surprising lack of bugs. I wondered whether the chilly breeze kept them away, or if perhaps we just got lucky.
We capped our amazing day with a pizza dinner at Bear Street Tavern in downtown Banff. My friend Cheryl told me that this was one of her family’s favorites, and I’m so glad she pointed us to this place. The pizza was plentiful and the kids and I fell in love with their dipping sauces. I’m not sure if Bear Street Tavern invented the concept of dipping bites of pizza in honey mixed with a rosemary-chili oil, or if they borrowed it from somewhere else, but regardless, the idea is genius.
We sat on the restaurant’s patio that night in our sweaty hiking clothes, amidst the well-dressed, stylish Banff crowd, and we didn’t care that we were terribly underdressed and not-at-all stylish (and perhaps even smelly). Our fingers were sticky and tasted of spicy honey, and our bellies were full of great pizza. It was a lovely night, and a perfect ending to our most wonderful day.
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Places we Stayed, Ate, and Visited:
- Rimrock Resort Hotel – We only spent one night here, but the views and service were stunning.
- Delta Banff Royal Canadian Lodge – We spent the rest of our nights in Banff here. It was a lovely little hotel about a half-mile walk from the action in downtown Banff.
- Bear Street Tavern – Great pizza, fantastic dipping sauces (brilliant, I tell you). Sit on the patio and enjoy a locally brewed beer or a cold glass of Chardonnay.
- Elk and Oarsman Pub and Grill – We tried our first ever poutine at the Elk and Oarsman. Two of us were sold. The other two don’t like gravy, and they’ve been asked to rethink their involvement in our family.
- Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise – I’m sure this is a lovely place to stay, especially during the early morning or late evening hours, when crowds have dispersed. Have lunch at the Lakeview Lounge and request a spot on the patio for the best views.
- Banff Gondola – Touristy, but fun, especially for kids.
- Icefields Parkway – I wish we’d had more time to explore north of the Icefield Centre, up in to Jasper.
- Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure – Touristy but worth the expense.