After a fun-filled day in Waterton Lakes and Calgary, it was time to visit Banff National Park, Canada’s first national park. While there are multiple options for lodging in and around Banff, we prefer to end our trips in the most relaxing settings we can find and those appeared to be either The Post Hotel – Lake Louise or the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. The Post Hotel is a bit more remote and less crowded. However, we have heard friends refer to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise as “Hogwarts” and “The Castle”. With kids, we knew we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stay in the iconic hotel, as well as being able to look out directly on Lake Louise.
If you do decide to stay at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and insist upon having the best views possible, the hotel offers the Belvedere Suite. Only a few rooms in the hotel have balconies and the Belvedere suite has two of them which combine to give a 180 degree view of the lake and mountains. Of course this comes with a price, but if you are celebrating something special (wedding, anniversary, etc.), it may be worth the investment. Memories do last a lifetime. For our trip, we checked in and ordered room service and movies after spending a busy day in Calgary.
One item to watch for when driving to Banff are the overpasses covered with grass, trees and bushes. You might wonder why would they build million dollar overpasses only to have them covered in plants? The reason is they discovered they could keep animals off of the highway if they gave them the ability to go over, so these routes are designed specifically for bears, elk, moose, etc. to walk back and forth over the road. You will see several of these animal overpasses as you drive through the park.
The first morning, we wanted to see the area immediately. One of the most famous trails begins right from Lake Louise which is the Plain of the Six Glaciers. Initially, you will see the area crowded with tourists but once you make your way past the lake and start up the trail the crowds dwindle quickly. This hike is just under seven miles round trip (out and back) and climbs over 1,200 feet. This does not include if you go a bit further to the viewpoint or on to the switchbacks up the Bee Hive. The walk out to the final viewpoint will give you views of the massive overhanging glaciers and is worth the extra distance.
At the top of the trail you will also find the Plain of the Six Glaciers Tea House. The Tea House is a great way to enjoy the end of your uphill climb. The tea house is built in the style of a Swiss Alps chalet. They serve a variety of teas (of course) and some of the best Cheese and Hummus Sandwiches (fresh bread, big blocks of cheese or hummus, mayo, lettuce and tomatoes) topped off with extra-large pieces of chocolate cake. The tea house is so remote, you actually have to take all of your trash back down the mountain with you in a bag after eating.
If you enjoy this hike, there is a second tea house, the Lake Agnes Tea House, which you can hike on a second day or combine the two into what they call the Tea House Challenge – visiting both tea houses on a single hike.
After a surprisingly filling lunch and resting for a bit at the hotel, it is only a few minutes down the road to see Moraine Lake. The parking lot (like Logan’s Pass in Glacier) fills up very quickly and they will often block off the parking by mid-morning. However, if you are coming back down the road to Moraine Lake from Lake Louise (meaning you are on the right side of the road and not holding up traffic) and it is early afternoon, you can often get in and find parking. Moraine Lake has a deeper blue color than Lake Louise and is surrounded by the Valley of the Ten Peaks. A quick climb to the overlook will provide the best views of one of the most striking lakes you may ever see and should not be missed.
For dinner, we made reservations at Walliser Stube which is the resort’s fondue restaurant where they have a full Chateau Experience including fondue appetizer, a cooked Beef Chateaubriand and fondue desert with windows looking out upon the mountains.
The next morning you can also spend time visiting the town of Banff which is well worth seeing and then deciding upon how you want to spend the afternoon and next morning. There are simply too many options to do all in one day so here are a variety of options.
If you want to explore the town, you can visit Cascade Gardens and the Parks Canada Building. And while Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise might have the best views, Fairmont Banff Springs has the most striking stone architecture. Some popular places for lunch in town are Block Kitchen and Bar, Eddie’s Burger Bar and Tooloulou’s for cajun food.
If you want to explore a bit further out, popular attractions are Johnston Canyon, Cave and Basin or the Banff Gondola – to the see the views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers from up high. We actually did the Johnston Canyon hike and I will say it was not something we particularly loved. It was very crowded and was less of a hike than it was walking in a single file line. The views are great if you are only visiting Banff but if you visited the other areas on this itinerary (Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier), it is not worth the trip as you will seen so many other waterfalls. Instead, we would recommend either the Gondola or heading north to Peyto Lake and beyond.
If you do want to explore beyond the local area, Peyto Lake is roughly an hour up the road and reported to be less crowded than Moraine Lake or you can explore further down the Icefields Parkway. You can also book an excursion to take the Columbia Icefield Tour to join a bus tour where they will take you to an area where you can walk directly on one of the glaciers. It is quite popular and takes about half a day. Or another well rated hike is to visited the Sunshine Meadows and Rock Isle Lake.
On our trip, we visited the canyon and then drove the Bow Valley Parkway looking for more animals (no luck this time) on our way back to the resort. For dinner, we can’t recommend the Alpine Social at the hotel enough. This is their casual dining restaurant which had a wall size Scrabble board and photo booth for the kids and some of the best food we had at the resort. Most notable were the beets (with goat cheese and maple dressing – odd but a great combination which worked well), Flatbreads and Social Nachos, followed by the warm mini doughnuts with cinnamon dust and maple dip.
The next morning you can spend some more time enjoying the area or begin to make your way to the airport to get back home. For us, we prefer to use Southwest Airlines points for travel so we were heading back to the states to fly home out of Spokane. After a relaxing morning, we packed up and drove out through the Kootenay National Park and then through Radium Hot Springs. Either of those might offer additional places to stop and explore.
Along the way, we stopped at From Scratch, A Mountain Kitchen in Fairmont Hot Springs for lunch where we had one last meal of poutine fries (fries covered in cheese curds and gravy – a Canadian favorite), mac n’ cheese, homemade ice tea and sodas and bison tacos which were the highlight of the meal. This small, quaint grocery and shop is highly recommended if you end up driving to or from the area in that direction.
Our planned stop for the night was a half-way point in Cranbrook, BC at the Elizabeth Lake Lodge. Cranbrook is a fairly standard town but we were very pleased with our stay at this small hotel on the southern edge. In particular we began to notice on our drives in Canada that putt-putt is apparently a much bigger pastime in Canada than the states. And this hotel has one of the most amazing and fun courses we have played. It included a train with conveyor belts, moving holes, ponds and more – as well as a nearby stand for shaved ice and ice cream. In addition, the rooms were exceptionally clean and well-appointed for a good’s nights rest so we ordered a pizza for delivery, played putt putt golf, enjoyed a shaved ice and prepared for the final trek home.
The next morning’s drive took us back across the Eastport Border Crossing and on to Spokane. In Spokane, we made a quick detour to the 50’s style diner of Mary Lou’s Milk Bottle for burgers and a River City Sludge shake (filled with brownie sludge). Finally, it was on to the airport for the flight home after wrapping up 1,800 miles, five states, five national parks and two provinces to visit the entire Rockies.
LINKS – Banff National Park
- Fairmont Chateau at Lake Louise
- Three Ravens
- Post Hotel Lake Louise
- Plain of the Six Glaciers
- Moraine Lake and Valley of the Ten Peaks
- Cascade Gardens
- Johnston Canyon
- Cave and Basin
- Columbia Icefield Tour
- Kootenay National Park
- Radium Hot Springs
- Elizabeth Lake Lodge
- From Scratch A Mountain Kitchen
- Mary Lou’s Milk Bottle