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Summer of Travel - Banff!

For a mountain lover, few vacation destinations are as dreamy as Banff. I started thinking about visiting several years ago, but we all know what happened then. Canada held out for a quite a while with strict entry regulations too, but when I finally got the chance, I jumped at it without further delay.

My friend Alex and I spent three nights camping because how can you not camp in a national park? Instead of the packed campsites in town we took our chances on a walk-in site, with the first night being the end of Canada Day weekend, and there were plenty of sites available. We found a nice spot in Mosquito Creek, which is about a half hour from Lake Louise. Everything else was much further up the Icefields Parkway and would have added a lot of driving each day. It rained a little each day, actually a lot our second day, but not consistently. We got some sun and when it rained, we were able to rig up a nice little tarp shelter and the trees provided enough protection that we were still able to get a good campfire going. 

Then we stayed in the town of Banff for three nights in a top floor, end room with a balcony that gave us a perfect view of Cascade Mountain. Banff has a ton of great restaurants and coffee shops (Good Earth was my favorite), but the town is a bit short on rooftop patio space for staring at the 360 degree mountains while you dine. I get why - it's not exactly ever patio weather there. But if you bring your puffy for outdoor dining - even in July - and it's not raining, go to Chuck's Steakhouse. For activities, there are dozens of excellent hikes close to town, but if you are tired of hiking, you can rent a bike for the day and enjoy the extensive bike path system or rent a kayak from the Banff Canoe Club. But skip the upper hot springs - it was too crowded in that small pool. 

Adjacent to Banff are also Jasper National Park, Yoho National Park, and Kootenay National Park, each as beautiful as the next and each offering scores of amazing hikes. So I'll be back to Alberta and British Columbia sooner rather than later, but here are all the hikes I did this time. Be sure to check the trail conditions before you go, both for ice/snow warnings and for bear warnings. 

Parker Ridge (3.25 miles, 900 ft gain)

Parker Ridge is about halfway up the Icefields Parkway, which takes almost three hours total to drive one way from Lake Louise to Jasper. If you're doing the whole thing in a day, there is gas and food available at the Saskatchewan River Crossing, but it's quite expensive. We stopped many times for smaller walks - like Peyto Lake (which is the most beautiful of all Banff lakes), the Pony Bridge (which you can skip), and the falls at Big Bend (you have to scramble at the end of the trail to get up to the falls) but Parker Ridge was the only one that really qualified as a hike. As of July 3, there was still a lot of snow on the trail, but we did the hike in regular trail shoes without microspikes or poles and it was fine. The views of the glacier at the top are magnificent.  

Consolation Lakes (3.75 miles, 500 ft gain)

This hike leaves from Lake Moraine viewpoint trail, which is always mobbed with hundreds of slow moving people, but as soon as you start heading toward Consolation Lakes, you'll have peace and nature. Near the beginning of the trail is a short, rocky water crossing, but the rest of the trail is really pleasant and smooth. We stopped at the first lake because there is no trail to the second lake and we didn't feel like navigating over and around all the boulders to get there. The view was wonderful enough from where we were. As we enjoyed the landscape, we kept hearing what we thought at first were airplanes overhead but then realized it was avalanches on the surrounding mountains. Not the type of avalanche where massive slabs of snow slough off, but essentially waterfalls of snow falling through cracks. When you spot one, keep an eye on it because the sound takes time to travel. You'll see the snow start, and then the sound will hit your ears 8-10 seconds later.   

Larch Valley (5.75 miles, 1,800 ft gain)

This hike is also off Moraine Lake, leaving from the other side of the café, so we did Consolation in the morning and this in the afternoon. We got lucky that morning - we happened to drive by the access road right when some cars had left and traffic control opened up ten more parking spaces. The lot is generally full by 7 AM and we rolled by around 10. Given the difficulties of getting a parking spot at Moraine Lake or the hassle of the shuttle, it's wise to come here only once. If you do this, bring your own lunch. The "café" has $10 hot dogs or $9 samosas. Even with the exchange rate from Canadian dollars, that was expensive and not satisfying. Also while we're talking about food, the chipmunks and ground squirrels on this trail are too habituated to humans. As you can see in my photo, these little guys are demanding. Apparently, bites from these rodents are the number one injury in Banff. Please don't feed them! 

The lower meadow on this hike made me want to set up a tent and live there permanently, that's how beautiful it was, though all the prairie dog-like creatures running around would probably be annoying. The upper meadow isn't much further and is surrounded by more jagged and wild mountains. You can keep going from there up and over Sentinel Pass if you want. I would have liked to, but the trail was hazardously covered in snow the day we were there and it was raining on and off. We would have needed spikes and poles, and the parks service website recommended against doing it.

Lake Louise (11 miles, 3,400 ft gain)

As with Moraine Lake, you need to get here early or get lucky. By 7:30 AM, the lower lot was already full and the upper lot was rapidly filling up. I don't advise getting here any later that or you'll have to take the $8/pp shuttle (compared to $13 parking for your vehicle for all day). Also, you probably won't get the shuttle if you didn't reserve it in advance. If you show up at 10AM, you likely won't get on a shuttle until 1 or 2 PM. And then you'll wait in a long, long line to get back to your car. Just get up early. You will have a much better day.

We hiked all the sites from Lake Louise > Little Beehive > Lake Agnes > Big Beehive > Plain of Six Glaciers and back. We didn't go all the way to the end of Plain of Six Glaciers though. If you do, your trek will be 1.5 miles longer than mine. We stopped at the tea house instead. Besides the views, the tea houses were my favorite thing about the day. There is one at Lake Agnes and one up by the glaciers. It's lovely to hike so long and then get a hot cup of Earl Grey (especially on a rainy day) and a slice of pumpkin bread. Every hike longer than five miles should have a tea house halfway through. There's also a little shelter on the Big Beehive where you can get out of the rain, relax, and have a snack.

One note, as you might expect from the state of the parking lots and shuttles, there are a TON of people on this hike. Usually, after you get past the first mile or two at popular sites in national parks, the crowds thin out. There were mobs of people almost the entire day except on the shortcut/connector trail from Big Beehive to Plain of Six Glaciers Trail. Early on, we even saw a large group of Mennonites trekking up to the Lake Agnes tea house! But everything we saw that day was worth it and there's no way you should skip any of it.

Johnston Canyon (7.5 miles, 1,500 ft gain)

Johnston Canyon is also very're probably sensing a theme here. People love Banff! The trailhead sits on the lovely Bow Valley Parkway, which offers lots of other trails that are close to the town of Banff. We didn't arrive until close to 11 AM and there were just a handful of free parking spots left in the Parks Canada lots. There were plenty of paid spots too in the private lot.

Despite the hoards of people, I enjoyed walking through the canyon, more so than I enjoyed the falls, which I didn't find terribly impressive. Then we continued on to the ink pots, as did about one-third of the other hikers. The ink pots are cold springs, not hot springs, which I've never seen. You can see the water bubbling up from the ground, so you expect it to be hot, but nope, that water is icy cold. There are plenty of places to sit, either by the ink pots or along the river, to enjoy the views and a picnic.

Tunnel Mountain Summit Trail (2.75 miles, 850 ft gain)

This is a pleasant, easy after-work hike in town. Surprisingly, there weren't a lot of people even though it's so easy to get to. We went around 6pm and by the time we finished the hike, there were only three other cars left at the parking area. The summit offers excellent views of the town and the iconic Banff red Adirondack chairs for that all-important Instagram shot.

Mt Rundle (9.25 miles, 5,600 ft gain)

And finally, the big one. What I had worked up to all week - Mt. Rundle. Okay, not actually. I had no plans to do a big peak in Banff since my travel partner wasn't interested, but after I got to town and spent so much time staring at them, I got the bug. And since Alex was taking the bus back to Calgary to catch his flight Saturday morning, I decided to go for it. All I'll say about this here is don't even think about it unless you have significant scrambling experience, zero fear of heights, and serious mental fortitude. This is not for the casual hiker or even the person who has done five or six 14ers in Colorado and is feeling pretty proud of himself. Hell, it wasn't even for me! If you want to read my full peak report, hop on over to my main blog