Lake Peyto, as seen from the viewpoint on the hike to Bow Summit, Banff National Park
Banff National Park.
The last time I was in the Canadian Rockies was in 2016, as part of a trip to the Western Coast of Canada. The Canadian Rockies are a place you want to visit again and again. This time, three years later, opportunity presented itself and I took the chance to visit Banff, Yoho and Jasper National Parks. So much has changed, even in this short time, yet the beauty, majesty and magnificence of the place still remains unchanged.
Banff Gondola and Lake Minnewanka Cruise
The place to start with any Banff trip is Banff Gondola to Sulphur Mountain. I wrote about it in more detail in my last visit. If this is your first time, you must buy the Banff Ultimate Explorer Package. For each item in the package, you can give the time, but you can give it later if you are not sure. I would suggest to do the gondola in the morning, and then the cruise later in the afternoon (5 or 6 pm). You can book the times for the glacier on another day and call one day before to book a timeslot.
You can easily spend a few hours atop Sulphur Mountain. The views are amazing on a clear day, so make sure to check the weather before you go. Even if it's raining, remember the weather can change quickly in a short time.
Do remember that the gondola parking lot can get filled by 11 am. So if you are coming later, you can park in the free lot near Fenlands Banff Recreation Centre, walk to the Elk+Avenue Hotel (about ten minutes) and take a free shuttle to the Gondola. Or you can always try your luck with the parking near the Gondola as someone is usually always leaving.
The Lake Minnewanka cruise is something you may not think is worth it on its own, but as part of the package it's a great hour spent. The tour guides and the captains can be hilarious (ours certainly was!) and it's highly enjoyable - especially when they talk of the Devil's Lake.
There's ample parking so don't worry about driving to the lake cruise boarding area. For an in depth look at the cruise, refer to my post from three years ago.
These are an underrated and understated part of Banff. Many people miss it, as it's really outside of the town of Banff, and doesn't have a good parking lot but just viewpoints along a narrow road. But you miss it and you have missed a great viewing point. The lake and the mountains can be very scenic, especially during sunset, and more so if you happen to catch a train passing on the horizon.
Surprise Corner, Bow Falls, Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel and Banff Hot Springs
If you drive up (or hike up) to Surprise Corner, this is where you have a jaw dropping view of the magnificent Banff Springs Hotel, the majestic Bow Falls and Bow river, along with a glimpse of the Banff Gondola and its ride to the top, as well as the magnificent scenery all around you.
Unfortunately there was a light drizzle when we went up, so it did make for dynamic pictures, if not very clear. Even then, do remember that no pictures will do the scenery justice. You just have to see it, and absorb it. Try to enjoy your surroundings and forget about taking a checklist of pictures. I wrote in greater detail about Bow Falls on my last trip.
The Banff Springs resort is an iconic hotel and resort built in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. Yes, it's expensive, but it's also something to see. Parking nearby was $10/hour. We parked for two hours and it was more than enough to explore the hotel picture gallery, the famous dining hall, the lobby and other parts of the hotel open to the general public, the various shops inside the resort, along with the grounds and statues outside.
If you are in Banff, you must visit the hot springs. There are many hot springs in and around the Canadian Rockies, and many have been left in their natural state, but in Banff they have taken the hot water and piped it into a pool so people can sit, chill and relax. It can get crowded depending on the time of the day and date you visit, so do check, but even then it's very relaxing to sit in the open air, in waters that are 40C, and the gorgeous mountain scenery all around you.
We were very lucky with the weather. It had been drizzling on and off throughout the day, but the two hours we were in the hot springs the weather stayed dry. As soon as we got out of the pool and started to change to head out, it started to pour again!
Now to be very technical, Emerald Lake is in Yoho National Park, not Banff. And Yoho is actually in British Columbia, not Alberta. But Emerald Lake was the only place we visited in Yoho, and it's a short drive away from Banff, so I have included it here.
The rain was gone, the sun was shining and what a beautiful lake it was! Unlike Lake Louise there's hardly any body there at Emerald Lake at that time of the day - we went in the early evening, about 6 pm. You could enjoy the serenity and tranquility of the beautiful lake completely by yourself.
Of course, by 6 pm, the canoe rentals were shut, so if you wish to boat in the lake, you must go earlier (or have your own raft).
If you have no plans to visit Yoho National Park or explore BC, you must still visit Emerald Lake if you are in Banff. It's a must see.
People always ask me how long to plan for a trip to Banff. I always suggest three to four days, minimum. This is enough to complete all the highlights, especially if you are travelling with family (and kids) who do not like to get up at the crack of dawn. Moreover, with four days, you are playing safe with the weather. This is mountain area, so rain and bad weather can always be around the corner. If you only have reserved a day for Banff, and it rains on that day, you are out of luck. Best to plan for at least three days.
Next up: Lake Louise