Have you ever been to a place where you could, quite literally, feel the stress leaving you the deeper you walk into it?
Yeah, for me that was Banff.
The weeks prior to our trip was marked with what I can sum up in one word: stress. Stress from moving in, stress from work, stress from planning, stress from stress itself. Things just seemed to pile onto each other every time I looked up from my work - needless to say, I needed out.
But enough about that, it's Banff time.
*Cue looking-out-the-plane shot.
Okay, so that's not Calgary.
It's technically Vancouver (somewhere I want to explore another time), but this was the layover of choice for our flight to Calgary. Flights normally go from SF/San Jose (SFO/SJC) to Vancouver (YVR), then out to Calgary (YYC) via Canada Air. Flying in April, our tickets were relatively cheap (~$350 round trip - not terrible), but I heard they can spike up to $500 or more if you go during the busy season.
NOTE: Air Canada's carry-on space is TINY. As in, top storage is for your smaller luggage, and your seat area is for larger luggage. I had to check my suitcase in when I boarded, causing a big inconvenience and playing the typical "American-ruining-the-flight-for-all-of-us" character. Just kidding, it was a bit embarrassing, but overall convenient in the long run since I didn't have to worry about keeping track of it until the very end.
After the flights, we finally landed and booked it to the Rockies.
Boy, is Canada pretty.
Just looking out on the road to Banff is amazing - we were surrounded by the Rockies before arriving in Canmore, our AirBnb location of choice (way cheaper than staying in Banff itself, and only a 6-7 minute drive from the entrance). We booked the top floor of a house (private entrance, parking, all that good stuff), and had a front row seat of the sunset.
If you want to know where we stayed, it's here - Dawson and Darlene were wonderful hosts that took great care of us!
If you've been on Instagram and have seen those pictures with the giant blue lake reflection and a girl with a red beanie canoeing towards the snow capped mountains, you'll unfortunately be disappointed with where we went. Lake Moraine (the aforementioned lake) is closed from October to June, since the icy roads make it treacherous to drive through (as well as other things like avalanches I think).
Other than that disappointment, we were pleasantly surprised with the amount of beautiful sites that we could hike and explore through - I was almost worried that we would be too snowed in to see anything (so naive...).
Note that I won't be mentioning any food places - if you want to know where we ate, feel free to reach out! This trip, I mainly focused on the sights rather than the tastes.
Basin and Cave
This is the historic site of Banff - the cave is where the first explorers found a sulfur hot spring in the mountains. Today, it's a well maintained and protected site (there lives a small species of snail that only inhabits this area) - you can read through the history of the park and watch a few educational videos in addition to seeing the cave and basin for a small fee. The color of the water both inside and out is a gorgeous aqua, and a great first stop in the park.
Vermillion Lakes - Basin Side
The first day we explored, it actually started raining and snowing - something we were afraid of. Luckily, clouds and rain made for a beautifully moody scene. After touring the Cave and Basin, we started wandering around and eventually found ourselves on the opposite side of the Vermillion Lakes.
Bow Falls is a small pit stop, but one to see nevertheless.
Bow Falls is located along the Bow River, which flows through Banff, as well as a huge portion of Alberta and Calgary. It's a small pit stop right off downtown, before you head to other places like the Gondola or the Hot Springs.
We ended up parking on the wrong side of the river - the side where you couldn't actually see the falls, but were instead greeted with this view (which in my opinion is better than the falls themselves. Yep I said it!). After enjoying the scene, we scrambled back to our cars and drove to the other side to see the main attraction. We later learned that the area we were at was called Surprise Corner, and that the river water level was a little low - which is probably why I was underwhelmed by the falls.
What's with this ice?
One thing we noticed when we started walking along the frozen side of the lake was the way the ice was formed - instead of it being glassy and solid, it was almost as if it was formed by small icicle crystals. It was tons of fun throwing it down and shattering huge bricks of it though (but for real, if anyone knows why this happens, let me know. It's boggled my mind since).
Banff Hot Springs - Relaxing with a View
How can you say no to this? Banff boasts these hot springs - almost to the point of it being a bit too much. The hot spring itself has actually stopped flowing for some reason (they explain inside), but they still keep it super hot for you year round. Pay a small fee to enjoy a nice soak (don't stay in there too long - they have a recommended time of ~10 minutes, though we stayed almost 25 to get our money's worth), but honestly if you can't make it all the way out here then I wouldn't count it as too big of a loss. There's more exciting things to do and see if you're crunched for time.
Hiking with Crampons
Okay, before you ready any further, I highly, highly recommend these nifty little contraptions called crampons. These are a gift from the heavens for ice hiking - they're essentially cleats for ice that you attach to your hiking boots. Without these, we probably would've been slipping and sliding everywhere and might not have even made it to the end of some of the hikes. Also, you would think these would make walking awkward and uncomfortable. You would be correct for the first 30 seconds you put them on - after that, it feels surprisingly natural, and we had no problem hiking in them.
We rented ours from a place called Gear Up in Canmore - a 2 minute drive from where we stayed. 11/10 would rent again. It cost us about $24 USD for 3 days of rentals - we actually looked up the prices for these, and they go for about $170 a pair.
Morning Walks Through Johnston Canyon
If you come to Johnston Canyon after 9:30 ish, you're guaranteed to be joined by a tour group or a family of 8 who didn't do any research and decided it would be a good idea to go hiking with converse on the ice - or worse yet, in heels (yes we actually saw a few people try Challenge Mode for this 5 mile hike). I can only imagine how much more crowded it is in summer during the actual peak season. Also, the paths are completely covered in ice - some travel blogs say that crampons make it "easier to hike", but I personally think they make it "possible to actually enjoy the hike and the landscape".
So please, just avoid all that mess and go early (and wear crampons). Here, I'll incentivize you with these:
I've never walked on water before, so ice will have to do.
By the time spring rolls around, the frozen Lake Louise is covered with snowfall, and almost seems like an actual land mass. But constant reminders in the forms of deep footprints filled with water surrounded us as we tried to walk to...somewhere. I literally had no idea where we were going, just that we were going somewhere. Eventually, we ended up going back to the main lake area due to the narrowing trail (marking an imminent wrong step), and due to the fact that we didn't know where we were going.
Normally, you even go ice skating and see the frozen ice castles in the center of the lake, but since it was spring, that had all ended earlier.
Walking on Water Pt. II - Grotto Ice Canyons
I have to admit, we were super sketched out by walking on an actual frozen river - let alone walking on it with crampons in the spring, where we could actually hear the water underneath us. We had one of our friends test it just to be sure we didn't all end up soaking wet (shout out to Patrick).
The trail/river eventually splits up into one section carved by a beautiful frozen waterfall, and another that leads into the backcountry. If you choose the backcountry, you are rewarded with seeing some Hopi pictographs, as well as a small cave at the very end. We chose to look at the waterfalls and go back to enjoy the remainder of our stay (as our flight was the next day).
"Oh shi-" Every person who's heard ice cracking beneath them.
Sunset Vibes - Vermillion Lakes Pt. ii
This location deserves a little section of its own - I've never seen a sunset like this until Banff. The days prior to this, I was worried we wouldn't get a good sunset during the trip - Friday's was unpleasantly visited by last minute clouds, and Saturday started raining and snowing in the morning, clearing up only to be visited by clouds as well at dusk. Sunday seemed promising - clear skies with a few puffy clouds here and there, but I've been let down before. Luckily, it did not disappoint.
Initially, we had a few ideas of where to go for sunset, but since we were already downtown, Vermillion Lakes was the decided point. Note that this isn't the same Vermillion Lakes location as before - we learned that we were actually on the direct opposite side of where we were at Cave and Basin. We unfortunately didn't have time to hike up Tunnel Point Summit, or drive all the way to Jasper National Park (a 2-2.5 hour drive from Banff's entrance!) to see it there, and the Banff Gondola seemed like a good idea at first, until we looked at the prices ($64/person without reservations...what even), not to mention that it closed at 8:30pm since it was before May. Sunset, by contrast, took place at 9pm (in April! I forgot that Canada is way farther up north than here in sunny California).
We drove down to the lakes and parked on the side of the road, walking down to the water front where a few other photographers were (along with one not so polite photographer who thought it would be a great idea to set up shop on the ice in front of all of us...luckily he left, or he'd be greeted with a snowball). I could try and describe what we saw, but I'll let the photos speak for themselves.
Back to Reality
It seems so far away, nestled in the depths of Canada's Rockies, but Banff is definitely somewhere you want to visit. One thing we wanted to make sure of when we went was to take our time - normally for major trips like these, I like to do as much as possible with the time we had, but we felt Banff was a place that we wanted to really sit back and enjoy, and I think that made all the difference. Being so caught up in city life, we don't get to go out into the wilderness too often (exploring the forests in the Bay Area doesn't really count), so this was a wonderful change of pace. And if we ever start feeling the wanderlust again (like we always do), we can just look at these to make ourselves feel better. Or worse - I don't really know if looking back at these pictures is therapeutic, or just makes us want to use more PTO to explore the world.
Where We didn't Visit (But wanted to)
Since we only had 5 days of exploring and traveling, we didn't get to see as many sights as we wanted. Banff is a place you just can't explore fully in a matter of days - to visit the notable sights in Banff, Yoho, and Jasper National Park, you'd probably need at least a week plus a few days. Another big factor was the seasonality of some of the places - some are open only during the summer (like Lake Moraine), and some are more grandeur in winder (Icefields Parkway). That being said, here's a list of places I'd want to visit when I go back (I'll definitely be adding to this list):
Canmore/Banff National Park
Grassi Lakes (Canmore)
- Moraine Lake (Summer)
- Rockbound Lake (Banff)
- Tunnel Mountain Trail and View (Banff)
- Banff Gondola, Hiking rather than paying (Banff)
Yoho National Park
Jasper National Park
- Athabasca Ice Caves and Glacier, Columbia Ice Field
- Glacier Skywalk
- Spirit Island, Maligne Lake (Here's the Instagram location)
- Tangle Falls
- Pyramid Lake
I'm starting to see a trend here that's leaning towards Jasper for next time. Who's in?
Until next time,
(Check out my Instagram @ianteraoka for more pictures and updates #shamelessplug)
- Fujifilm XT-2
- Fujifilm 23mm 1.4
- Fujifilm 35mm 1.4
- Fujifilm 50mm 2.0
- Fujifilm 16mm 1.4
- iPhone X
- Moment Wide Lens 2.0 (click this link for 10% off!)
- Cave and Basin
- Vermillion Lakes (C&B Side)
- Lunch Downtown
- Surprise Point
- Bow Falls
- Banff Hot Springs
- Johnston Canyon
- Lunch Downtown
- Lake Louise
- Dinner Downtown
- Vermillion Lakes
- Grotto Ice Canyon
- Canmore Downtown
Credits to Winnie for the hashtag! We always use hashtags to mark our adventures on Instagram - check out more of our pictures (: