Four Days in Banff

Well hello there! Long time no see. It’s been a crazy two years, to put it mildly, but we’re finally getting back into the swing of things with travel and I decided to go back to writing here, since I really do love having a digital journal of all our trips.

Last October, my husband had a conference at the Banff Centre in beautiful Banff, Alberta, right at the doorstep of Banff National Park. For a while it seemed like the conference wasn’t going to happen, or would happen without international visitors, but the Canadian border opened to fully vaccinated Americans just in the nick of time, and we were able to use our passports for the first time since December 2019.

Banff in October is a weird mix of fall and winter. There was still beautiful fall foliage around and lots of animals foraging to get fat for winter, but there was also consistent snow and ice at the higher elevations, as well as occasional snowstorms at the lower elevations. The road to Moraine Lake closed unexpectedly early due to snow just before we got there, which was a disappointment, but I found lots of other ways to pass the four days we spent there.

Day 1: Tunnel Mountain, Banff town and the Northern Lights

On our first full day, I decided to stay local and climb Tunnel Mountain, a ~3 mile hike with nice views of Banff and the Bow River Valley. The trail begins right near the Banff Centre, and even the walk to the trailhead was very scenic!

From the summit of Tunnel Mountain there were very nice views of Banff town and the Bow River Valley.

After my hike, I was starving, so I headed into Banff town to find some food. I expected to love the national park, but was surprised by how charming I found the town of Banff itself. After this trip, I’ve added basically every mountain town in the US Rocky Mountains to my bucket list. I ended up at Park Distillery where I sat on their patio and ate delicious roast chicken. It started lightly snowing during my meal but their powerful heaters kept me warm.

That afternoon, at the Banff Centre we saw lots of elk grazing. We continued seeing elk regularly throughout the week.

Before we left Indiana I’d heard that it’s sometimes possible to see the Northern Lights in Banff in October. I was so excited about the possibility (it was a major bucket list item for me) but I didn’t want to get my hopes up, since seeing them required quite a few things to go right: a major geomagnetic storm that allowed the aurora to be seen at relatively low latitudes, clear skies, and the storm happening early in the night, since my husband was working and understandably wasn’t keen on a 3 am wake-up call.

It just so happened that our first full night in Banff I saw an alert about a solar storm and when I checked the aurora-tracking app I’d installed on my phone before we left, it indicated a good chance of the lights being visible before midnight. We hastily threw all our stuff in the car and headed out to Lake Minnewanka, which Google told me was one of the best spots for northern lights viewing near the town of Banff. When we got there, the horizon definitely looked brighter than normal, but we weren’t really sure if it was northern lights or if that’s just how the horizon always looks away from the light pollution of a residential area. But before we knew it, we started to see columns of light that were unmistakably the aurora borealis.

Photos capture the color of the aurora as well or better than the naked eye (apparently cameras can “see” a broader spectrum of visible light than the eye can), but what they don’t capture is how the aurora danced in the sky, coming and going and then suddenly appearing in a different place like some kind of natural ballet. I wish I had a video that captured it, because it was so magical to witness.

What a night. Having seen them once doesn’t make me feel like I’ve checked this off for my list good; rather I now want to go chase the northern lights all over the world (a pretty strong statement from someone who really loves her sleep).

Day 2: Lake Louise, Peyto Lake and the Icefields Parkway

The next day I headed north to Lake Louise. I’d hoped to do some hiking near the lake, but it was lightly snowing and I heard the ground conditions on the higher trails were bad (the elevation at Lake Louise is quite a bit higher than in Banff). So I just enjoyed the views of the lake from the entrance and the lakeshore trail.

The lakeshore trail ended up being a really nice walk with great views. It goes all the way to the Victoria Glacier that feeds Lake Louise.

Before leaving Lake Louise, I had a picnic lunch where I was joined by this friendly little magpie. I’m not a bird person, but this bird really charmed me with his funny, outgoing personality and his shiny blue-green feathers.

After leaving Lake Louise, I drove north along the Icefield Parkway. This whole drive was so scenic and although I only have photos from a handful of stopping points, there were many beautiful views along the way.

Although the roadside signs for Peyto Lake still indicated it was closed, I had seen on Parks Canada’s website that it was recently reopened, and I saw other cars taking the turnoff and decided to follow. I’m so glad I did. Although getting there involved a bit of treacherous driving over un-plowed roads, the trails were passable and the views were absolutely stunning.

Peyto Lake was definitely the highlight of the day, but on the way home I stopped at several other nice viewpoints, including Bow Lake and Crowfoot Glacier.

I can’t recommend driving the Icefields Parkway highly enough.

Day 3: Johnston Canyon

The next day I headed to Johnston Canyon to do a short hike and see some waterfalls. The trail was good underfoot but there were signs of winter everywhere, including these icicles that had frozen as water was running down the sides of the canyon.

The canyon is so green and lush, and I enjoyed hiking alongside the dramatic rock formations.

Since I had brought my tripod to Canada for the possibility of seeing northern lights, I decided to take it to Johnston Canyon and take some long exposure photos of waterfalls.

On the way home, I drove the Bow Valley Parkway, which was so scenic with snow on the mountaintops and the last of the fall colors in the fields.

Day 4: Sulphur Mountain Gondola

Having seen all my “must-dos” on previous days (and having done a lot of hiking!) I decided to be lazy on my last day and pay for a gondola ride up Sulphur Mountain. Of all the things I did in Banff, this is the only one I don’t enthusiastically recommend. The gondola ride was fun and the views were nice, but not appreciably better than the views I had from Tunnel Mountain on my first day and overall it’s very expensive for what it is.

Sadly this bear sculpture on top of Sulphur Mountain was as close as I got to a bear sighting in Banff ;)

On the way home from the gondola ride, I stopped at Vermilion Lakes for a few photos.

And with that, my time in Banff drew to a close. I was so captivated by the beauty of this region and can’t wait to come back again some day.

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