Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Where To Go In The Canadian Rockies: Banff and Jasper

Canoe on Moraine Lake

Last summer, Joseph and I ventured to Canada’s west coast on a quest to hike and drive through the Rocky Mountains. I wanted to share some highlights, tips and a brief itinerary of our trip to serve as inspiration for your next trip to that neck of the woods.

Moraine Lake Hike
Looking out at Moraine Lake, AB

Here is our rough itinerary that served as inspiration for our trip: 

(click to enlarge)


Banff, Jasper, Vancouver Itinerary

Lake Louise
Lake Louise, AB

Let's also go over a few pros and cons of travelling out of province in Canada:

Pros:

We ate sooo well the whole time we were out west. A memorable dinner was at The Grizzly House in Banff where they served fondue and exotic meats like alligator & rattlesnake to cook on a hot stone at the table in a lodgelike setting. It’s fantastic to travel in your country because there’s less confusion with signage while driving, no need for passports, you can keep the same currency, and you get to meet “neighbours” who can be so similar to those at home.

best food in banff
Seafood pasta at Ticino Swiss-Italian Restaurant in Banff, Soup and sandwich at Johnston Canyon Black Swift Bistro, and stunning breakfast at Melissa's Missteak (before leaving Banff)

Highlight! Canada Day in Jasper. I looked online for Canada day celebrations to take part in since I knew Jasper was a small town with lots of character. We enjoyed a chilly pancake and sausage breakfast on picnic tables in Jasper's Centennial Park, and for only $2 each we had a lovely morning eating with local families.

Jasper Canada Day Celebration breakfast

Cons:

Travelling in Canada is very expensive. Even for Canadians! Our flight was around $500 for a multi-city trip from Toronto to Calgary, then Vancouver to Toronto. Our car rental cost $1300 for 7 days, and hotels averaged at $330 per night. We actually got one of the last hotel rooms in all of Jasper as well, at the Best Western. That is, except for at Fairmont’s Jasper Park Lodge. Get back to us in 15 years for a review of that hotel. OK, on commence! 



Three Sister Canmore

YYC AND CANMORE

Flying into Calgary YYC on June 27th 2018, we picked up our rental car from National, where we got a CAA discount, and did a loop around the city before hitting Highway 1: The Trans-Canada Highway. We drove through Kananaskis Country enroute to our first stop - Canmore!

Trans Canada Highway

FYI: Our rental car cost 2x more than expected because we took a car out of the city right before Stampede, and we dropped it off in a new province. Some car rental companies won’t allow you to bring their vehicles cross-province, so be sure to plan this in advance. The folks at National YYC Airport were friendly, helpful and extremely fast. We got a brand new Chevrolet Cruze hatchback which made travelling with 3 luggages hassle-free.

Lunch Restaurants in Canmore

About 1.5 hours north of Calgary is Canmore, a quaint town with some lovely shops and outdoor attractions: The Three Sisters Mountains, and a very healthy rabbit population. We enjoyed lunch at the Brewing Company and got two beers to go from their shop. I totally understand why people love a cold beer after any exercise… nothing quenches thirst and chills you out better than that.

Canmore Brewing Company

At lunch I had the brisket burger with sweet potato fries and Joseph had the steak sandwich. Both were outstanding, and went very well with the flight of beer we shared. Since our flight was at 7AM EST, we woke up at 4 AM and felt a little tired at various points throughout the day.

What to do in Banff

BANFF

After walking around Canmore a bit more (lol) our first official stop was in Banff National Park, Canada's first and most visited National Park. We arrived at the Banff Park Lodge at 3 PM, parked, and walked around town before we got our room at 4 PM. There were some awesome stores to explore in Banff, including some of the best art galleries I've ever seen. My favourite was Jason Carter, a stone carver and sculptor who also illustrates the cutest Children's books. Even the souvenir magnets in Banff feature artwork from local artists!

After unpacking at the Lodge I took a quick shower, put some braids in my hair, and felt completely rejuvenated. Also, our hotel had outstanding watermelon rosemary glacial water in the lobby. 10/10 would recommend.

bike rental Banff

Knowing that the weather was going to be a bit unpredictable for the week ahead, Joseph had the idea to rent bikes for 2 hours before dinner to check out the area. We pushed through the fatigue, and boy was it worth it!

Biking in Banff

Fairmont Banff Springs Golf

Thanks to the advice given by our bike rental guy, we took a gorgeous loop path from downtown Banff to the Banff Springs Hotel. We followed the river, rode by some horses, saw the stunning mountain range lying in the foreground of the golf course, and dipped our hands into the crisp turquoise water for the first time. I’ve never felt colder water before in my life, if only it was a swimmable temperature! Also, the extent of our wildlife sightings up until this point was a friendly brown ground squirrel, which looked similar to a chipmunk. But not for long.

Johnston Canyon Ink Pots

Johnston Canyon and The Ink Pots

One of the highlights of my trip was the Ink Pots Hike via Johnston Canyon. This was our first experience entering the West Coast hiking world, and boy was it ever lovely.

Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon Hike to Ink Pots

We went all the way to the top, and I think it equated to 116 flights of stairs. The hike up was spectacular, you start with waterfalls and end with these ice cold basins of blue water that bubble up from the ground. We had good weather, not too warm or cold, and overcast. I'd definitely recommend this brisk hike for amateurs like us, and don't forget to stop at the restaurant at the base for a snack afterwards.

Moraine Lake
Moraine Lake, Banff, AB

We decided to hike around Banff on our own, but if you want a tour guide you can trust Brewster Sightseeing Tours. For over 125 years they have helped guests explore Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper and the Columbia Icefield. There are a ton of things to do in Banff, with options for all skill levels and family members. Caves, gondola, museums, radium hot springs, the list goes on. Note that the “wildlife tours” are probably a waste, you’ll likely see more roamers at the side of the road, free of charge!

Bighorn mountain sheep

Moraine Lake

On our way to Moraine Lake we saw some majestic male Bighorn sheep at the side of the road. So sweet! Also, don't get out of your car for photos... animals can get rowdy. If you happen to visit this area in August (and have many thousands of dollars to spare... because.. August) you should definitely do some stand up paddle boarding (SUP) canoeing or kayaking. It was too cold for us and very expensive ($125 for a canoe for 1 hour in moraine lake) so we hiked our way around the lake instead.

Logs on Moraine Lake
Logs on Moraine Lake

Curious to know what a "Moraine" is?

A moraine is an accumulation of rocks that naturally occurs over time in glacial regions. These rocks pile up into a triangular formation that you'll see at the bottom of the mountains, surrounding Moraine Lake.

Hike Moraine Lake

Lake Louise

Lake Louise

After Moraine Lake, the sun came out and we made our way to Lake Louise. This is the second time I've visited, so you can read about my first trip to Lake Louise here (OMG it's from 2012!!!!)

Lake Agnes Tea House Hike
Views from the Lake Agnes Tea House

My parents recommended that we should hike up to the "Tea House". Turns out there are two tea houses. We chose the death-hike-house. See more on that in my video, including some gorgeous vistas from the top! It was also SO COLD up at the tea house, so make sure to pack layers, gloves and hats included.

tea house hike lake louise
The two tea house hike options around Lake Louise - Lake Agnes and Plain of Six Glaciers

Tea and scones at the Lake Agnes Tea House
Tea and scones at the Lake Agnes Tea House

Athabasca River
Athabasca River

JASPER

Enroute to Jasper, we broke up the near 4-hour drive with a stop at the Athabasca Glacier and Athabasca Falls. Helpful tip: Fill up your car with gas before exiting Banff. There's literally one gas station on the way to Jasper at the Saskatchewan River Crossing, and they charge a hefty premium.

Athabasca Falls

Driving through the Columbia Icefield (via the Icefields Parkway) was so scenic and gorgeous. I didn't take many photos, but I filmed some clips there which are in my Rocky Mountains vlog. The weather was very shite for this part of the adventure, and I was wearing shorts due to an extreme amount of mosquito bites that I covered in calamine lotion. So the hail did not bode well for me. Note: bring mosquito repellant, wear non-permeable hiking pants (both of which I purchased in Jasper) and don't wear shorts in the Rockies in June or you'll catch a chill. NEXT....

Athabasca River lookout
Athabasca River lookout

When I had looked for accommodations for this vacation in March (our trip was at the beginning of July) I was shocked to realize only one room was available at the Best Western Jasper (call-in only, none were listed online) and a few rooms at Astoria Hotel were available. The Astoria has a history of bed bugs, so that made our decision easy!

The Best Western had great customer service over the phone, so make sure to look at least 6-8 months in advance for your off-season vacation. You should begin looking one year in advance if you're hoping to visit Jasper in the summer. There are no high-rise hotels there, since it's snowing most of the year so lodging is "ski-chalet" drive-up style.

Best Western Jasper
Breakfast and dinner at The Inn Grill, at The Best Western Jasper Inn & Suites

A similar option to the BW is The Crimson, it looks a bit newer. We got lucky though because The Inn Grill Restaurant and Lounge (inside our BW complex) was so good! The food was delicious, we had breakfast and dinner there. Note that you get a discount on the buffet breakfast if you're a Best Western Rewards member.

Community Garden Jasper

The benefit to booking a hotel on the main Jasper strip as opposed to booking in neighbouring towns like Hinton, is that the tour companies will pick you up right at your hotel for any excursions. I’m sure there are tours that start in Hinton too, but we found it to be really convenient staying in the central park area. The town is just lovely to walk around too, they have such a sweet community garden right beside the picturesque train tracks that always have colourful cars passing through. It’s easy to feel super chill in Jasper.

sunset jasper
 Sunset in Jasper at 10:15 PM


On the first day in Jasper we went to the Miette Hot Springs, located about one hour from Jasper. The drive up offer some amazing wildlife sightings: we saw a black bear, elk and many female bighorn sheep sheep in the hot spring parking lot - check the gallery above!

Miette Hot Springs
Miette Hot Springs 

Miette Hot Springs Jasper

The Miette Hot Spring has lockers, showers and 4 pools – two of which are cold plunges. The hot pools are freaking steamy, and are draped with the most beautiful mountains surrounding the spa-like atmosphere. Entrance was only $8 per person since the hot springs are government-owned, and there's also a café on site. This is definitely a must-see,  especially given that it's likely that you'll stumble upon some fun animals on the drive up.

MALIGNE VALLEY WILDLIFE & WATERFALLS TOUR WITH CRUISE

MALIGNE VALLEY WILDLIFE & WATERFALLS TOUR WITH CRUISE

Excursions in Jasper are not cheap... surprise, surprise. But since the boat cruise alone on maligne lake was $80 each, we decided to bump up our package to $135 each which included a full day of adventure. The Maligne Valley Wildlife and Waterfalls Tour (with cruise!) offered a fantastic guide and bus trip to multiple notable lookouts in Jasper - The Maligne Canyon and Waterfall, Medicine Lake, and Spirit Island.

Spirit Island

This was an amazing excursion option that we did on Canada Day! Our guide Brian was outstanding, it was well worth the price since there is no other way to visit the iconic Spirit Island other than by canoe.



Brian had incredible knowledge of the area and pointed out some things we wouldn’t have noticed on our own, like facts from the devastating wildfires that have ripped through the area, and why they’re necessary for the local ecosystem. Old trees need to burn and die to give new life to the soil, allowing for moose and other animals to roam the area without getting their horns stuck on big trees. Also the growth of new trees helps to avoid pest and fungus infestations that can run rampant through old forests. He also pointed out tons of animals during our drive: bald eagle, elk, etc. We just missed the buffalo who were released back into Banff national park after a bit of rehabilitation.

Maligne Canyon Waterfall
The Maligne Canyon: cascading waterfall and continuing erosion of the ancient limestone

Medicine Lake
Medicine Lake - a mysterious disappearing lake that changes seasonally as the flow rates of melt waters fill and empty this basin!

If you don’t want to pay $75-$150 per person for tours in Jasper, make sure to read the informative plaques around every lookout point. They’re always so clear and concise, like little snippets of textbooks to explain what you’re looking at.

MORAINE LAKE


Visiting Banff and Jasper was one of the best experiences of my life. It's a trip that I'd strongly urge you to do at some point, even with a young family. You'll definitely need a car to travel from place to place (parking is extra at most hotels) but driving conditions are very good during the spring, summer and fall months.

Next time I'm out west, here are the things I want to do: horseback riding, skiing, Yoho National Park, Parker Ridge Hike, and The Jasper SkyTram. Something I wish I had sooner? These cute little magazines called WHERE, Canada's Travel Planner (one dedicated to each city). I picked the Banff and Jasper ones up in a visitor's centre closer to the end of my trip. That being said, we made some great game-time decisions since a lot of activities were weather-dependant. Don't hesitate to reach out to your hotel concierge for ideas!

xx

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