Growing up I didn’t travel much, and it wasn’t until my junior year in college after my study abroad experience that I began entertaining the idea of globetrotting. I came home from South Korea bitten by the travel bug. I figured it wasn’t too surprising since I was living carefree, hanging out with friends and immersing myself in a completely different culture for months without any protection. Having fun, that’ll do it to ya – those pesky but life-changing travel bugs will come for you!
I, like anybody else who lives in the 21st century would, turned to the internet looking for a cure.
Except instead of WebMD, on my free time I was searching up travel blogs titled “Top 10 Destinations” or something of the sort. On all these lists, Banff, Canada was a constant. Every gallery emphasized on Lake Louise’s beautiful turquoise waters and Banff’s seemingly untouched nature scenery. After hours of scrolling through pages of pictures – I no longer pined for Tiffany’s little blue box, but my desires have shifted to Banff’s big blue lake.
In 2017 when Canada turned 150, I turned 26. My boyfriend helped organize a trip for us to go to Alberta with my sisters, and that was the best birthday trip of my life! Sometimes when you’ve been looking forward to something for so long, and you’ve hyped up everything about it in your head for years; when it finally happens – it’s a little lackluster. Well – this wasn’t the case at all! Banff lived up to everything I’ve dreamed of, and dare I say, more?
We spent four days exploring what is now one of my top 3 most beautiful destination that I’ve ever been to. Below, I’ll share with you my experience and leave you with some tips that may be helpful for when you decide to go!
How to get there/When to go:
The closest airport to Banff is the Calgary International Airport, from California: this is a three-hour flight nganstop. We went in the summertime at the beginning of August. Flights were around $300 round trip – Wednesday night through Monday afternoon. From Calgary, you will have to drive 1.5 hours to get to Banff National Park – renting a car is an absolute must, but a small price to pay to get front row seats to the best view.
Two of the most popular seasons to visit Banff is during the winter, for snow sports, or in the summer, for nature and outdoor activities. Being a terrible snowboarder there was no chance in hell I’d survive a trip in the winter time; thus, summer time was the only way to go! Plus, summer is when you’ll see all the lakes in their liquid glory. Summer weather is warmer, however unlike California summers, it does not get scorching hot. The weather stays around lower 70s during the day time and gets cooler at night or in early AM which is perfect for hiking! I suggest always packing a light jacket with you just in case.
Summer months are known to attract more visitors, so do expect to share you space. However, the great thing about nature is that there are a lot of activities that can help seclude you from others – so don’t use that as an excuse to deter you from visiting! I’ll share some tips later on how to hide from the crowds.
Where to Stay:
For Canada’s 150th birthday, all National Park admission was free for the entire year. I’m not sure if this caused an influx of travelers during this time or if it is the standard; however, booking hotels and accommodations should not wait until last minute! Luckily, we were able to snatch up a couple of decently priced hotels for the time we were there.
- Banff Caribou Lounge & Spa
521 Banff Avenue Box 1070,
Banff, Banff National Park, Alberta
The first night in Banff, we checked into the Caribou Lounge. It was the only location we could find that was in Banff Town that had a room big enough for 4 people that didn’t cost my family’s fortune. The room was very standard, but it gave us what we needed: a place to rest in town. For $361 a night it was quite steep, but luckily sharing it between 4 people cut down the cost. We did enjoy the location! The lounge was in town and that gave us the opportunity to walk around everywhere and take in all the scenery. Banff town is very charming, clean and picturesque. We planned on having an early morning the next day, so this location was spot on to give us the best night’s rest and allowed us to sleep in a little later in the AM due to cutting down travel time.
- Solara Resort & Spa – Bellstar Hotels & Resorts
187 Kananaskis Way
Canmore, AB T1W 0A3, Canada
The second and remainder of the nights we stayed in Solara Resorts in Canmore – a town 20 minutes outside of Banff. We had a massive two-bedroom apartment with a full-size fridge and kitchen. This was especially useful to store all the water and snacks we would need for our hikes. Because park admission was free, it didn’t cost us any more to stay outside of Banff – however park admission fee should be something to account when visiting during other times. Canmore itself has a lot of amazing hikes and scenes as well! If you have some time, check out surrounding areas and discover beauty all around! We paid $253/night for our apartment, much more affordable/bang for your buck. Glad we found this beaut!
- Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
111 Lake Louise Dr,
Lake Louise, AB T0L 1E0, Canada
If you’re here to splurge, check out the Fairmont Chateau. The property is set right on Lake Louise and offers the most stunning views. We did not stay here but if I had money to spare, I wouldn’t mind a couple nights at this hotel. The only down side I could see is that this place is heavily trafficked and if I was paying premium dollars, I would want some solitude. The hotel restaurants are open for the public, however reservations from their hotel guests take precedence.
What to Do:
- Visit Lake Louise: I couldn’t mention this lake multiple times and not start off with it! The lake itself is an attraction on its own. The water bleeds a beautiful Tiffany’s blue color, you’d have to rub your eyes a few times to make sure that they’re not playing tricks on you. The color becomes extremely vibrant if you’re lucky enough to come on a sunny day, but even when it’s overcast, the views are still A1. When we got to the lake, the main lot was full – we had to park at a supplemental lot. I was worried that our experience would be ruined due to having too many people crowd around the lake but there are a number of things you can do to weed out the crowd:
- Rent a canoe – To the left of the lake there is a little shed that rents out canoes in the summer time. When we were there, they were $100/hr for one canoe that holds two people. Yes, the price is steep but damn… it was worth it! Once you’re on the canoe you leave the hustle and bustle of all the tourists crowding around the lake side. You won’t have to dodge selfie sticks or need to fear being accidentally thrown into the water because someone else lacks personal space. You’ll be all alone, peacefully floating along in this surreal water – taking in a once in a lifetime view. Make sure whomever you choose as your rowing partner is dependable! Jon-Michael made sure we stayed afloat and stayed cruising down the lake – whereas when we looked over at both of my sisters – they were seen rowing in circles, exhausting their energy.
- Have lunch at the Lakeview Lounge – Located inside the Fairmont Chateau, this was your ticket to getting a foot in the luxurious hotel. The food is standard and overpriced, but you’re paying for the view. The Lakeview Lounge is true to its name as you get to eat while enjoying the lake’s view. It’s a nice spot to be able to sit down, have lunch and take in the scenery. Try to make an early reservation to have a seat outside. We got the cheese steak, butter chicken, and burger.
- Take a stroll around the lake – Sometimes the best things to do is take the road less traveled, although it might be the most obvious. When you walk through the parking lot entrance you’ll see crowds of people surrounding the front of the lake. This is a popular attraction in Banff so it’s no wonder that it is also a stop for most tour buses. Don’t be deterred by the people, simply walk off a little further and you’ll find walking trails that will lead you away from the chaos, while still giving you great views of the lake. Best of all, this activity is free – all it requires is a few hundred extra steps. The lake is huge, and you will be able to find an undisturbed vantage point.
- Hike to Lake Agnes: When you are at Lake Louise, save some time and some energy to discover another breathtaking view. We hiked up to Lake Agnes after lunch and although it was a bit steep some parts of the way, the view at the end definitely paid off. Some things to look for on the way up: as you trek through the switch backs of the trail, you’ll be able to catch Lake Louise at a bird’s eye view. When you’re close to the destination, you will also come across Mirror Lake. Finally, at the foot of Lake Agnes, you will find a waterfall. Once you hike up the steps after the waterfall, you’ll find the Lake Agnes Tea House that sells refreshments and sandwiches you can grab as a quick mid-hike snack. When we were there, this was a very happening attraction. I recommend leaving yourself some time to queue up if you plan on having afternoon tea. If you’re not here for refreshments, get full off of this view! Clear waters, high mountains, fresh air – is there anything better?
- Hike Beehive Trail: If you want to continue to hike up after you’ve made it to Lake Agnes, you can hike the Beehive Trail! This will give you a few of both Lake Agnes and Lake Louise from above. We did not extend our hike this far so I will be waiting for you to tell me how it went!
- Moraine Lake: Another picturesque lake for all your viewing pleasures! At Moraine Lake you can also rent canoes to cruise around. There is also a popular rock that you can climb for the best viewpoint photo of the lake. Jon-Michael is not too big on me doing risky things for the ‘gram, therefore we skipped the rock climb and spent our time on land admiring the pristine waters.
- Peyto Lake/Bow Summit Hike: The Peyto Lake viewpoint is a quick stroll from the parking lot. Here, you’ll find a magnificent landscape of the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop and the bluest lake as the centerpiece. This area is highly trafficked – most likely due to the grand view and the ease of access. If you want to venture off somewhere with less tourists, hike up to Bow Summit. The trek will cost you another hour or two, but the view and solitude will be worth the trip.
- Bow Lake: On the drive to Peyto Lake, we passed by an incredible view – noting that we’d come back for it later. The walk to the viewpoint of Peyto Lake required less time than originally anticipated, giving us a generous amount of time at Bow Lake. This spontaneous stop was one of the best decisions we made! Going off-plan is always fun when you find hidden treasures. The mountains reflected off of the water giving us the perfect backdrop for a much-needed photo shoot. I must have a few hundred sets of photos here because no matter what I did, nothing seemed to be able to capture the majestic beauty. I highly recommend coming here to see for yourself – photos do not do this place justice.
- Mt Norquay Via Ferrata: Outside of hikes, beautiful views, and photoshoots, you can add another adventure to the books by going on an assisted mountain climb! At Mt. Norquay you take a chairlift to the cliffs and there, you’ll learn some quick tips to help you get through the mountains. You will traverse through the top of the mountains climbing on anchors and cables, walk across suspension bridges and experience Banff wildlife in a way not many others will! There are different levels of difficulties you can choose from – JM and I participated in the 2.5 hour long one and thought it was a great experience! For anybody seeking out some summer time adventure, check this out!
- Banff Botanical Gardens: If you’re not looking for anything too adventurous, right in the middle of Banff Town is a botanical garden! It’s extremely scenic and is fit for all age group and fitness levels.
- Hike Johnston Canyon: The earliest morning in Banff was the first morning where we set out to hike Johnston Canyon – here you’ll multiple trails, each one leading you to waterfalls and spring pools. We set out earlier on this day to try and beat the crowd. There is a secret (maybe not so secret) trail that leads you to the bottom of a waterfall. There are rails set up as trails leading to multiple pools in the canyon. The hikes here are on the easier side, suitable for all age groups so expect big crowds.
Where to Eat
Note: Views in Banff are one of a kind, unfortunately I didn’t feel the same way about the food. Calgary had some good finds, but National Park food left alot be desired.
- OEB Breakfast Company
We flew into Calgary Wednesday night and got had breakfast at OEB the next morning before heading out to Banff. The breakfast here is LEGIT! There was a 30 minute queue so we left to a convenience store next door to pick out some Canadian snacks. Glad we made the time to wait because the food here was worthy. The décor was also super cute so if you’re in the area, check it out! We got the Gold Digga which is their poutine with an egg (your way), duck fat potatoes, roast pork and black truffle! Need I say more? The Steak and Eggs was a sizable meal and perfect for the protein lover!
- Village Ice Cream
After our delectable breakfast, we had to make a pitstop for Ice Cream. The Village Ice Cream serves big scoops and have a nice patio for you to hangout on while you snack. I forgot what flavors I chose but ya girl got two scoops!
- The Bison Restaurant
This is a nice steak house in Banff, perfect for a celebration. The restaurant is huge but they do get booked up. We had an RSVP and was seated on time, however we saw quite a line outside.
- Block Bistro
We came here for a light snack, they have a good assortment of appetizers and tapas.
Typically when traveling, food is what excites me the most about a new destination. Although it is a little disappointing to say, the food was very basic in Banff. However, the views were enough to steal the show – my eyes feasted enough for my belly and my heart was extremely full. I have no complaints. If you do happen to fly into Calgary for Banff, I recommend checking out some restaurants there.
I hope you enjoyed my shared experience, but before you run off to book your flight and plan your trip, check out some of these #nganstoptips that may help make your life easier!
- Global Entry: access grants you TSA Pre-Check and allows you to zoom past customs upon your arrival in the states. When entering Canada, you will not be able to go through an expedited process, but once you leave, there is a dedicated lane that will get you through Canadian security and customs – leaving your friends without global entry in the dust! Your membership lasts for five years at the cost of $95 – if you sign up for select credit cards, the fee is paid for as a credit card perk! I know for sure the AMEX Platinum and the Chase Sapphire Reserved offers this.
- If you travel to Canada often, or will be traveling there often, look into the Nexus membership!
- Charles Schwab Account: One of the best travel tip my boyfriend has ever given me was telling me to open a Charles Schwab checking account. Although Canada shares our boarders, they do not share the same currency. With the Charles Schwab debit card, you can pull money out of any ATM without the fees! There are multiple credit cards that offers no foreign transaction fees nowadays, but with Schwab, you can get ca$h dollar$! The exchange rate is fair and you won’t need to worry about getting scammed when going to a currency exchange booth. It’s not only for overseas – but will benefit you for any ATM that charges a fee; for example, at those cash only nail salons that we all know and love.
- Plan down time: If you’re anything like me and are always planning to be on the go – I really suggest adding some extra time at each spot to just enjoy the view. Everywhere we went felt surreal and we loved just being in the moment and soaking in all that goodness. Banff is a true beauty, and I hope you find the time to appreciate her! Make pit stops where you see fit, sometimes the best places and the best memories are those unplanned.