Banff, Canada August 2017
When I was in my twenties, I spent 6 years, off and on, living in Whistler BC. I went out there for the snowboarding and fell in love with the people, the lifestyle and the mountains in both summer and winter. Coming back to Ontario for holidays from Whistler, I would often drive through Banff and Lake Louise, but never stopped. Banff is as legendary as Whistler for the ski conditions and snow, but in the summer time, its reputation is one unmatched by Whistler. Now that I have started this Blog I felt is was important to be able to inspire my readers to visit my home country of Canada and there is no way I can do that without seeing the country myself. Banff is a very popular travel destination in Canada, so it became one of my first stops.
This year is unique in Canada as it is our 150th birthday. Parks Canada is celebrating by giving free access at all National Parks to anyone with a Canada150 pass which can be obtained online through the Parks Canada website free of charge. This extra special occasion made for a very busy summer in our National Parks.
On the flip side, devastating wild fires burned throughout the British Columbia interior almost all summer, causing mass evacuations and resulting in thousands of residents in many towns and cities losing their homes. Although Banff is very close to the Alberta, BC border, the only effect it felt from the fires was a thick cloud of smoke. The fires were so bad that smoke could be seen and smelled all the way to Calgary, Alberta.
Things I wish I knew before visiting Banff this summer.
Banff is busy.
My trip to Banff was the last week of August. I knew it would be busy due to the long weekend, but I had no idea. Before heading on any adventure I always do as much research as I can about the things I want to see, so I don’t miss anything great. Through Pinterest and blogs, I was able to make a pretty solid plan of the hikes I wanted to do and landmarks I wanted to see. What no one told me was how many tourists would be doing these hikes and seeing these things with me. It was crazy. I have done more day hikes than I can count and I have never had to hike among such a huge crowd of people before. It didn’t seem to matter how challenging the hike was, there were still people everywhere. For me, the joy of hiking is not just about the destination but also getting there. It’s very difficult to enjoy the peacefulness of nature when you are constantly passing people on the trail and having to get out of the way of people coming from the opposite direction.
If you are like me, and you don’t love a zoo of tourists, I recommend visiting Banff in the off seasons like spring or fall. You can likely base this on when the kids are still in school. If you do plan on coming out in summertime, be sure to book your accommodation far in advance. I booked my hostel four months ahead and there was only one hostel with available beds and it was a 20 minute walk from town. I also learned from a few locals that Banff is actually rather quiet in the winter compared to a place like Whistler, so it may be a good ski destination to choose if you are debating between the two mountain towns.
Rent a Car
Before heading out I looked into car rentals, but they were extremely expensive, and after speaking to the receptionist at my hostel, she assured me that the bus system worked well and there were free shuttles to Lake Louis running everyday so we would be fine without a car. This was all true, but our hostel was a 20 minute walk to town up a huge hill, and the bus only came once an hour. There were also two occasions where we waited 30+ minutes for the bus to come and when it arrived, it was too full and they couldn’t pick us up. If you want to visit Johnston Canyon, Moraine Lake and Lake Louis, there is a single option of taking a hop-on/hop-off bus that costs approx. $50 for the day. This means you have to squeeze all three destinations into one day in order to get your money’s worth. The town of Banff is very easily accessible without a car, but personally, I felt that so much of our time was wasted waiting for buses or walking up the hill to our hostel, it would have been worthwhile to rent a car. It’s hard to put a value on the freedom to come and go as you please and to any place you like.
There is nothing special about Banff Hot Springs
I wish I had a picture to post with this, but when we arrived at the hot springs, we went in, took a look around, and immediately left. My experience with hot springs in New Zealand was climbing into a pond or river in the forest, or at the base of a small waterfall with flowing hot water heated by the natural environment. The “hot springs” in Banff was literally a man-made swimming pool with natural hot spring water pumped into it, full of people that all paid $7 to sit together. It was crowded and very likely full of bacteria. Such a disappointment.
Great things to do in Banff
The Banff and Lake Louise areas provide an endless number of hikes that can be done to explore the high mountains or the lower lakes. There is a hike for everyone at all levels of difficulty. All the trails that I explored were well marked and maintained. Blogs are the best resource on the internet to find some of the best hikes wherever you go. My favourite spot for hike research is on Pinterest. If you find a pin with something you like, it will often link you to a blog with details and more pictures of someone’s experience on that hike. While in Banff, my friend Jeff and I hiked Sulphur Mountain and the Face of Cascade Falls, and in Lake Louise, Lake Agnes Tea House and Big Bee Hive. I wanted to do so much more, but the blisters I got while hiking Sulphur Mountain held me back significantly during our week there. I have every intention of returning in the near future to do some of the hikes I missed out on, like Haling Peak, Bow Glacier Falls, Tunnel Mountain, and Moraine Lake, which I was told are excellent.
On one of the days where my feet hurt too much and I could only wear my Birkenstocks, we took the bus down to Lake Minewanka. On the bus we met a couple of other backpackers with a similar plan and decided to combine forces. They took us up the scramble to Cascade Falls first, then we made our way to the lake. Not really considering how freezing cold it was going to be, I packed my swim suit with the intention of going for a swim. It was in no way bearable for a swim, but I couldn’t leave without at least jumping in. So 3 of the 4 of us stripped down to our suits and braved the frigid waters. It felt great.
After towelling off, we went to the dock to see about renting kayaks. The kayak rentals were out of our budget at $40 per hour, but the girls behind the rental counter pointed out that the motor boat rentals were $80, and if we split that cost 4 ways, it was only $20 a piece. So we rented a boat. Best idea ever. It was the slowest motor boat I’ve ever driven, but worth every penny for the views we got being out on the lake.
Canmore Cave Tours
Jeff and I were trying to find something awesome to do while in Banff that didn’t involve too much strenuous walking since my feet were so messed up from the blisters. My kitchen manager had mentioned a cave exploration tour before I left work, but I had forgotten about it until we went into the local information centre and one of the hosts brought it up. They offer a few tour options of different levels of difficulty and time.
The two most interesting tours that Canmore Cave Tours offers, would be the Explorer tour and the Adventurer tour. Both tours involve going underground and into caves for an extensive period of time. The tours are all in small groups of 8 people or less with a very knowledgable tour guide.
The biggest differences between the two tours are:
The price – Adventurer Tour is $165+tax for a single adult, and the Explorer Tour is $130+tax.
The length of the tour – Adventurer tour is 6 hours with 4 hours spent underground and Explorer Tour is 4 hours with 2 hours spent underground.
Finally, the Adventurer tour is the only tour that offers a 30ft rope rappel to enter the caves.
Jeff and I found that the Adventurer tour gave the best value for our money, so we called to book, but just like everything in Banff in August, it was completely booked. They had an Explorer tour available, but we decided to do something else. I am travelling back to Banff next March for a ski holiday and have already booked my Adventure Tour for my friend Travis and I. I will post a full review with pictures when I return. But I have no doubt in my mind that it is a great way to spend your time in Banff.
I recommend booking your tour as far in advance as possible. You can call them to book at 877-317-1178 or by visiting their website and simply booking online at Canmorecavetours.com
Mountain Bike on Tunnel Mountain
When walking the streets in town, you’ll see a number of bike rental shops that offer rental bikes of all types. I simply went to the closest shop to where I was standing when I got the idea to rent a bike. I honestly can’t even remember which shop I used, but they all have great reputations for customer service and the prices are very competitive. 4 hour bike rentals are about $20-$35, with slightly more expensive rentals for dual suspension downhill bikes for experienced riders. Tunnel Mountain is very easy to find, especially when the bike shop workers give you detailed directions. It is at the top of a very steep hill that, if you are like me, you will probably have to walk your bike up. But all the local buses have bike racks on the front and there is a bus that goes right up to Tunnel Mountain. There are trails to ride for all levels of rider skill from easy to very challenging. The scenery is spectacular and there are a lot of opportunities for stopping and appreciating your surroundings.