The Canadian Rockies consists of four national parks. Banff National Park and Jasper National Park, the most famous parks in the country, are in Alberta. In British Columbia, still in the Rockies, you can see Kootenay and Yoho Parks.
As we explained in the article on Alberta, after Kananaskis Country, we arrived in Canmore. Our base point for discovering Banff.
The downside of national or provincial parks is that you cannot free camp. We’re used to not going to campsites to save money because we can be self-sufficient. Park campsites are often full in the summer. You have to book well in advance, which we didn’t want to do during this road trip. So we spent six nights in Canmore going back and forth in the national park.
The first two days we visited the town of Canmore in the middle of the Rockies. The setting is beautiful. On the second night, we slept on a well-tilted ground, and it rained all night. We had an infiltration at the bed, but the next morning, when we woke up, the summits were snow-covered. It was my favorite morning, snow in mid-August. 😀
Minnewanka Lake Loop
For our first day in Banff, we arrived early. The car park on which we have the right to stay overnight in Canmore has a parking ban from 7 am to 9 am.
So we first went for a ride with the camper van on a 16-km loop to try to see animals and also to see beautiful landscapes of lakes and fir forests. At our first stop, we parked, we got out, we walked a little and there … a black bear, a big black bear. We didn’t come near, we went backwards. It was a hundred yards away, but really impressive.
Then we decided to go to one of the campsites to see if there are any “First arrived, first served” spots but we arrived too early. At the entrance, a sign indicates available spots, so we entered to check, but without success. While driving in the alleys of the campsite, we saw a gigantic elk in the middle of tents and campers. We were really lucky, we also saw mountain sheep and deer that morning.
We then arrived at Lake Minnewanka, which means “Lake of the Spirits” in the native language. It’s the largest lake in the park.
The City of Banff
In Banff, (the city in which we decided to settle) we first visited Cave and Basin National Historic Site (included in the Parks Canada Discovery Park that provides access to all national parks across the country). This is the birthplace of the Parks Canada project. When the cave, a hot spring, was discovered there in 1885, Canada decided to create the country’s first national park, Banff National Park, to “protect” the hot spring while exploiting it. Today, this spring is really protected, but at the time it was used to feed the Banff Springs basins.
This national historic site is truly a beautiful place to learn more about the park’s creation, the role of national parks today and the history of Banff’s springs that make this small town a popular tourist destination.
Banff is a city of 9,000 people, of which I think more than half are foreigners who have come to work for a season or more, like us.
The city benefits from year-round tourism. 4.1 million visitors in 2017. In the summer, it’s campers, van-lifers, travellers like us, hikers, climbers, cyclists and all other outdoor sports.
In winter, it’s for skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, sled dogs and snowmobiles. The off-peak seasons are usually October-November and May-June. In the fall, most hikes are still accessible until the first snows, which then give way to snowshoes. I guess the phenomenon is the same in the spring. We’ll see in six months. 🙂
In Banff, we also wandered through the city and along the Bow River, which we had enjoyed so much in Calgary.
Mount Sulphur in Banff
For our second early arrival in Banff Park, we took advantage of the good weather to hike and climb Mount Sulphur. This allows to see beautiful landscapes over the city below as well as the mountains as far as the eye can see around. This mountain is accessible by a gondola, but we preferred to walk. The climb takes 2 hours according to the indications, there is a positive gradient of 655 meters to reach the arrival of the gondola. Then there is a few meters of ascent on wooden walkways and stairs to climb to the top of Mount Sulphur. We took 1 hour and 15 minutes to get up and 45 minutes to get down. A good morning exercise!
Le Canyon Johnston, Banff
On the third day, we drove a stretch of the Bow Valley Parkway, the park’s secondary road, to avoid staying on the Trans-Canada Highway. It was on this road that we imagined seeing the most animals in this park, we were quite disappointed to see none. This road leads to several points of interest of the park. Not being able to do everything, we decided to stop to see Johnston Canyon. This is THE accessible walk for all, the most popular in the park. So it wasn’t very nice, but it was at least very beautiful.
Pierre-Adrien had done this hike 10 years ago with his parents, so we immortalized the moment with a before/after photo.
Lake Louise and Glacier Victoria
After a tour of Kootenay and Yoho Parks, we returned to Banff National Park to visit Lake Louise. We spent 2 nights at the Overflow car park in Lake Louise for motorhomes.
The first morning we were at Lake Louise for the popular hike to Victoria Glacier. As we left early, there were few people and it was quite cold. This 15-kilometre hike is truly a must-see in the park. On the way, you only have to turn around as you go to get a splendid view of Lake Louise and its Fairmont Castle. After passing the “Tea House”, you arrive on the glacier and without realizing it, you’re really walking over it. It’s more than impressive!
Near Lake Louise, there is also the famous Moraine Lake. We decided not to go because there were a lot of constraints. The hike we wanted to do could be closed because of bears that are often present in the area, and you have to go there by shuttle. There are a few parking spaces, so access to motorhomes is forbidden. The lake access is closed in winter because of the avalanche risk, but we will go as soon as it reopens.
Bow Glacier Falls
A few kilometres north of Lake Louise begins the Icefield Parkway, a 230 km road that connects Banff National Park with Jasper National Park.
Before leaving Banff National Park, we made one last stop for a hike at Bow Lake. We walked along the lake to the Bow Glacier Falls. 10 kilometers to see the source of this river that we found so beautiful since our arrival.