Exploring Banff National Park
If you see a place enough on Instagram, you may have to go there. That's what happened with me and Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. I spent a fair amount of time in the Colorado Rockies as a kid and had heard about the Canadian Rockies, but it wasn't until I was surrounded by photos on Instagram that I really wanted to go. We decided the time was right with the favorable exchange rate and a decent price on the flight and went at the end of April, 2016. I am so glad we went. This was the first place I've visited where I can honestly say that the photos don't do it justice...and this is the first trip where I took an entire memory card of photos. I can best describe the experience as if the Tetons were on both sides of you and went on for 130 miles.
We did a lot of hiking around Banff town. There are a bunch of trails and the beautiful Bow Falls. You are surrounded by nature everywhere you look and you can wander in any direction while breathing the fresh mountain air and taking in the beauty.
We also went on a day trip along the Columbia Icefields Parkway to the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park with Discover Banff Tours. It was a breathtaking experience. We stopped at a lot of key spots along the way, including Lake Louise, Bow Lake and Crow Foot Glacier.
When we arrived at Columbia Icefields Discovery Center in Jasper National Park, we switched to a bus, then to an Ice Explorer. It was a really cool experience to stand on a glacier and look around at the surrounding rock structures that it formed. Bring warm clothes. I can't stress this enough. It was about 70 F (21 C) in Banff town, but freezing and windy on the glacier. I wore a long sleeve shirt, fleece, scarf, jeans and hiking boots on the tour, but brought a wool hat/toque and my down puffy coat and put those on when we reached the Columbia Icefields Discovery Center. When we reached the glacier, I regretted that I forgot to bring gloves. The wind was severe and it was really cold, but you are only outside for about 15 minutes. The amount of melt on the glacier was impactful. Water was running off in streams and the guides said they had never seen it melt this early in the season before. It's also worth noting that when the glacier was discovered, it extended to where I took the far away photo at the Icefields Discovery Center (the first photo below).
One of our FAVORITE things is to see wildlife, so we went on an evening wildlife safari with Discover Banff Tours. It was great because we got to see plenty of deer, a herd of bighorn sheep and a black bear through the trees. The day after the safari, we wanted to spend more time at Lake Louise, so we rented a car from the Hertz at the Fairmont Banff Spring and drove on the 1A (parallel to the trans Canada highway) to see more wildlife. Driving on the 1A adds about 45 minutes to the trip, BUT it was worth it: WE SAW A WOLF. He was in the road as we came around the bend. We stopped in the middle of the road to let him pass and he continued until he was right next to our car about 8 feet way. It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.
How we got there: We flew into Calgary and took the Banff Airporter shuttle an hour and 45 minutes into the Canadian Rockies. It was a convenient and comfortable ride that dropped us off at the front door of our hotel. We stayed at the Fairmont Banff Springs also known as the "Castle in the Rockies". It was a nice hotel with plenty of restaurant options and impressive views and grounds. The hotel has its own spa, indoor and outdoor pools, and golf course, which was closed for the season, but the path was open and we were able to walk through at sunset and see a lot of white tail deer and elk grazing on the greens.
If you drive yourself to the Athabasca Glacier, hours and tickets are through this link - Glacier Adventure. The center has a parking lot, small shop and washrooms for before and after your time on the glacier. This is a spring to fall activity.
We heard that patrols of the Icefields Parkway stop at 4 pm daily and did not have any cell phone service past Lake Louise. Do your research and plan accordingly if you are driving yourself.
We asked about bear spray at the hotel and they said we didn't need it. However, after our encounter with the wolf (thankfully we were in a car), I will be carrying it on our next visit. You can read more about wolves in Banff and safety here - Wolves in Banff. Always be aware of wildlife and give animals plenty of room.
Food in Banff - We usually prefer a light breakfast, so we opted for oatmeal, a banana and coffee from the lobby café at the Fairmont Banff Springs and bought handmade granola bars there for snacks while hiking and touring. We also ate a few meals at the Rundle Lounge where the food was decent and the views were great. The Grapes Wine Bar had delicious charcuterie. We found the more upscale restaurants to be average even though the staff raved about them. If you are planning to get lunch at the Fairmont Lake Louise, book in advance because there aren't a lot of options and the lines and waits can be long.
Global warming is making an impact on the Canadian Rockies. If you are planning to do a seasonal activity, call ahead so you aren't disappointed. We originally planned to dog sled and snow shoe, but the temperatures were much warmer than normal, so we went hiking instead. Two of the ski resorts were open for skiing, but Lake Louise ski resort was closed one day because a grizzly bear emerged early from hibernation and was on the ski slopes.