Ever since my first Banff Mountain Film Fest Tour screening, this national park has been at the top of my list. So when Brian and I agreed to go west for our anniversary backpacking trip, we quickly agreed on Banff as THE spot to romp around and have adventures as we rang in year 3 of marriage.
For weeks, I sat at our kitchen peninsula with my camp mug filled with coffee atop maps and my travel journal. I wrote down all the things I wanted to see when while there and began planning trails/activities around them. This was also going to be the most touristy backpacking trip we'd ever taken, so we wanted to make sure we had some less popular trails in place to escape the crowds.
our top 5
1. Visit the glacial lakes
2. Eat at a mountain tea house 3. Icefields Parkway (to Jasper National Park) 4. See glaciers 5. Day hikes that lead to sweet views
the glacial lakes
When I first saw that turquoise blue water on the gram with several lakes in the Rockies, I knew I had to get there ASAP. Not only did I want to contribute my own photo to IG, but that water won't stay this blue forever. Glacial lakes are pretty unique because each glacier feeding into these lakes has it's own distinct color. It's all based on the "glacier silt or rock flour" that is reflected by the sun once filtered into the larger body of water. The more silt, the more opaque-green the color will be, which is why each lake has a range of colors that can change day-to-day. Try not to put this one off. Once those glaciers melt completely, these colors will fade more and more until they're a dark blue.
While in Banff, we decided to see some of the big ones knowing it would be crowded in late July. We checked off Lake Louise, Peyto Lake, Mirror Lake, and Lake Agnes. All of them were totally worth it but each had other visitors when we arrived. If you want to have the lake to yourself, you're going to have to put the work in and hike for it on less popular trails. Even then, there's no guarantee at being alone during prime time in Banff.
Sunrise at Peyto Lake
Make sure you're getting to these lakes at the right time of year. Some of the more famous ones like Lake Louise won't be completely thawed until June/July. Unfortunately that means you'll be sharing the lake with thousands of tourists, too.
Get there early...really early. Brian and I woke up almost every day of our trip at 3 and 4 am to make sunrise and get a parking spot and we still weren't the first ones there. These lakes are more popular than you may realize and everyone wants to see them. That means shuttles and parking fill faster than you'd expect, so be prepared.
Lake Louise and Moraine Lake offer canoes to rent. I'd recommend going for it over paddle boarding for a new way to experience these lakes, plus that water is cold! You'd won't want it touching your feet constantly on a SUP board.
Wear your swimsuit and pack a towel! You don't want to miss the experience of swimming in a glacial lake...even if it's only for a minute or two!
mountain tea houses
Tea houses never crossed my mind before planning our trip to the Canadian Rockies, but from the moment I heard about the Lake Agnes tea house, I started planning our hikes around it. This tea house is pretty historic, built in 1901 offering hot tea for hikers as a place of refuge. It was remodeled in the 80's but kept the original windows, chairs, and tables so tourists and hikers can still feel connected to the culture behind it. Today you can get several different pots of tea boiled with the water directly from the lake, along with snacks and hot soups before continuing on your hike.
We soaked in every second of this experience. Sitting amongst other hikers with our small pot of hot chai tea, soup, and tea biscuits with jam, it was definitely one of those moments in travel you'll always remember.
Much like everything else, there will be a line but it does go fast. If you don't have time to wait for a table, there is a line for to-go orders. Just be aware that it's a very limited menu compared to waiting for a table.
You HAVE to hike to get there. Wear proper shoes and clothing, carry a bottle of water, grab your bear spray, and plan how to get there. The fastest way to get there from Lake Louise is to follow the 4.7 mi. out and back trail to the tea house, however, it's super crowded and not really that spectacular. If you have more time, extend your milage and follow trails for the Plain of Six Glaciers to get there. It won't be nearly as crowded and you'll have more sweeping views of the mountains and glacier that feeds into Lake Louise.
Have cash on you because there is no internet service here!
This trip was one that I really wanted to flex my photography muscle on. I knew there would be breathtaking views of mountain ranges, wildlife, and mountain lakes so I wanted to give myself the ability to catch as much of it as I could and the Icefields Parkway gave me the scenic drive I was looking for. Again, Brian and I woke up with the sun and watched the sunrise light up the mountains, capturing all the colors the came with it on each stop.
The parkway travels from Banff National Park to Jasper National Park winding past mountains, lakes, valleys, trails, and over 100 glaciers. It's pretty magnificent and has plenty of places to pull off and capture the shot you're going for, including the insta-famous Peyto Lake.
Go early. It's the motto for any national park in the summer, but seriously, you'll want to photograph these mountains with first-morning light.
Make sure you have gas. No cell service and 1 long road makes an entirely different type of adventure if you find yourself stranded along the way.
Bring your bug and bear spray. Whether you're stopping to hit a trail or stopping to snag a photo, you'll want to keep these items nearby...otherwise you'll get some intense mosquito bites through your clothes and might run into a bear friend on a less traveled trail.
summit & glacier trails
The whole point of this trip was to find ourselves on trails, so there was a lot of planning around this. My favorite trail we did was a portion of the Plain of Six Glaciers trail via the Big Beehive summit after we visited the Lake Agnes tea house. Here's our beta:
From Lake Louise, take the Lake Agnes Trail (4.7 mi) to the Lake Agnes Tea House. You'll be in the woods for the majority of this trail with some views of Lake Louise as you climb higher. There are lots of the switchbacks, but the most challenging thing on this popular trail is keeping your pace with so many other people. Don't expect much hiker etiquette. Once at the tea house, follow the Big Beehive Trail (1.2 mi.) around the right side of the lake and around the back to a steep hill of switchbacks. At the top of the ridge, you'll be at a junction where you can choose to hit Big Beehive summit (you may as well!). From the junction, start heading back down the ridge following signs for the Highline Trail (1.5 mi.). This is another set of switchbacks but they are pretty easy to navigate. Make your way to the junction meeting up with the Highline trail and turn right to head toward the Plain of Six Glaciers trail (1.7 mi.).
You'll have some chances to cut this trail short, but you'll risk missing some great views of the glacier feeding into Lake Louise. Follow this easy trail until it meets up with the Plain for Six Glaciers trail. Here you can decide to follow Plain of the Six Glaciers another 2.1 mi. or to start heading back towards the lake. Because of time, this is where we cut our hike short and followed the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail back to Lake Louise (about 7 mi) on an easy trail, passing the silty glacial runoff and walking the perimeter of the lake back to the parking lot for the shuttle to pick us up.
Highline Trail towards Plain of Six Glaciers Trail
You're hiking, so plan for that appropriately! Make sure you have the right shoes, pack, clothing, and amount of water. Weather can change on a dime, so if you're going in summer, wear layers or carry a lighter jacket.
Take the Roam shuttle offered by the park to get here and back. It saves you on parking and you can nap/look at all of your picture on the way back! Just make sure you have cash on you to ride.
Carry bear spray. Even if there are hundreds of other people on the trail, there will be moments where you're alone and you don't want to be unprepared.
There's no denying the Banff is something special. This was our first experience on a backpacking trip with so much tourism, but we made it work and you can, too. Be patient and know we're all here to experience the beauty of this park in different ways. Brian and I are looking forward to returning, possibly during the winter months to experience some snowy hiking, less tourism, skating on Lake Louise, and skiing in the Canadian Rockies. We'll keep you posted on those travels as they come!
Need help planning this trip? Struggling to commit to gifting yourself an adventure like this? Snag a pay-what-you-can coaching session with me so you can get there and have your own adventure.