Start off your first day in Banff National Park (I will simply refer to it as Banff from here on, not to be confused with the town of Banff) with a visit to one of its most iconic attractions: Lake Louise. Visit early in the morning (like really early) to beat the crowds and get a parking spot. The parking lot fills up quickly and we’ve seen parking attendants turning people away as early as 10:00 AM. Of course, if you’re visiting during the low season there’s no reason to worry about parking or crowds. When we visited in May there were only a handful of people wherever we stopped. A popular activity at Lake Louise is renting an iconic red canoe from the boat house to paddle around the lake. I’ve always wanted to do it, so on our third visit I decided to splurge and rent one so I walked over to the boat house to look at pricing and was shocked to see that they were charging $105 for 15 minutes! I expected it to be pricey because it’s such a touristy thing, but that’s outrageous. Needless to say, we did not rent a canoe (but no judgement to those of you who have or are planning to). However, people are allowed to use their own canoes/kayaks in any of the rivers or lakes in the park, so we’re planning to take our kayak on our next visit.
Lake Agnes Tea House
Since you’re already at Lake Louise, hike to the Lake Agnes Tea House for a wonderfully unique experience and splendid view. The Lake Agnes Tea House was originally built in 1901 by Canadian Pacific Railway workers as a refuge for hikers and began to serve tea in 1905. The tea house was rebuilt in the 1980s, but the windows, tables, and chairs are the originals. The trail is well marked and starts along the shore of Lake Louise just past the chateau. The hike is 4.5 miles (7km) round trip with 1,300ft (400m) elevation gain. Once again, this is something you’ll want to do early in the day. We started hiking at 7:00am and arrived at the tea house just after 8:00am to find a long line out the door waiting for seating. We waited for around half an hour before landing a lovely table on the porch. We ordered several kinds of tea and scones with jam, all of which were absolutely delicious. The prices are a bit steep, but that’s to be expected when a lot of the supplies are brought in via mule and helicopter.
Take a rest and lunch break along the shores of Lake Louise and then drive 30 minutes to Johnston Canyon for another short hike. It’s just 1.3 miles (2.2 km) to the lower falls and the trail is pretty flat making it a good hike for people of all ability levels and those with small children. We even saw several people pushing babies in strollers. It can get pretty crowded as Johnston Canyon is one of the most popular day hikes in Banff, but if you only have a limited amount of time you can’t see everything early in the morning when the crowds are at their lowest. Going late afternoon or early evening is your next best bet. We went at 4:00 pm during a summer visit and were able to get parking at the trailhead (people end up having to park along the side of the road, sometimes quite a ways from the trailhead, when it’s at it’s busiest). While a few areas got pretty congested, most of the hike wasn’t too bad as you can see from the photos below.
Finish off your day with a visit to Moraine Lake. While both Moraine Lake and Lake Louise are glacial fed with incredible blue water, I personally find Moraine Lake to be even more beautiful than Lake Louise. It’s a stunning end of the day location as the setting sun casts dramatic lighting on the mountains along the lake. Hike the very short trail off the parking lot to the top of the hill at the end of the lake for a spectacular view. Don’t follow the many people climbing up the rock jumble to reach the top of the hill as most of them don’t realize there’s a trail to the top. End your visit with a lovely stroll on the trail that runs along the edge of the lake.
Spend the night at one of the numerous campgrounds in Banff National Park. During our first visit we stayed at the Two Jack lakeside campground with a site right by the water. It was a really beautiful spot with heaps of firewood to which we had unlimited access for an extra $8.80 (seems to be standard throughout the campgrounds in Banff, Yoho, and Jasper). During our third visit we stayed at the Rampart Creek and Mosquito Creek campgrounds and really liked the fact that they were both located along the Icefields Parkway. While both were lovely, our favorite, despite the name, was Mosquito Creek as their creekside campsites are exceptionally lovely.
Drive the Icefields Parkway. It’s one of the most scenic drives in the world according to Condé Nast Traveller and we have to agree. Linking Banff and Jasper, it boasts 144 miles (232km) of thrilling views from soaring peaks and lush valleys full of wildlife to rivers, waterfalls, lakes, and glaciers. There is plenty on the Icefields Parkway to keep you busy for several days, but we’ve driven the whole thing roundtrip in a single day (a long day mind you, starting early in the morning and getting back close to dark) several times including stops to take in the sites, so it’s definitely doable. All the sights listed below are located along the Icefields Parkway in the order you’ll arrive at them driving from Lake Louise to the town of Jasper.
Fed by the Bow Glacier, Bow Lake is definitely worth a stop as it boasts a beautiful glacial blue hue and has some great gravel beaches where people can swim during the summer, though the water is far from warm! When we visited during the spring we were lucky enough to see two grizzly bears grazing in a meadow by the lake. Up until that point I had no idea bears ate grass. Bow Lake is also the starting point for the trail to Bow Glacier Falls. It’s a fairly easy 5.6 mile (9km) roundtrip hike with just 508 feet (155m) of elevation gain. If you start your Icefields Parkway drive early in the morning, you can reach Bow Lake and hike to Bow Glacier Falls before the trail gets busy. I hiked it with my parents and we arrived at 7:00 am and took approximately 1.5 hours to reach the falls. From a distance, it didn’t look like much but when we got to the base of the falls, it was actually pretty spectacular and there was only two other people there who left shortly after we arrived. The best part is that you can climb up the rock slide along the side of the falls to get closer and have a great view back into the valley. I’m usually pretty against climbing on rocks around waterfalls because they tend to be wet and slippery, but we found these rocks to be mostly dry and very rough and grippy without loose scree. That said, I wouldn’t let my kids scamper around on it.
Yet another incredibly blue glacial fed lake with a unique shape. It’s only a 10 minute hike from the parking lot to the viewpoint above the lake so can get pretty crowded due to ease of access. The photos below are from our spring visit so fortunately there was hardly any one there.
This lovely multi-step waterfall is right on the side of the road and worth a quick stop. There’s a parking you can stop at just before or after the falls depending on which direction you’re traveling. We’ve been lucky enough to see mountain sheep near these falls on two different occasions.
Stretching 15.5 miles (25km) across the Continental Divide, the Columbia Icefields are the largest icefields in the Rocky Mountains. You are now in Jasper National Park. Turn off the Icefields Parkway onto the short road that leads to the toe of Athabasca Glacier, which can be reached via a short walk from the parking lot. You can explore the area more by camping just across the road at the Columbia Icefields campground.
The upper Athabasca River flows into this picturesque waterfall made more interesting by the narrow gorge it’s carved through the soft limestone below the falls. Access is easy from a large parking lot just off the Icefields Parkway and the falls and gorge can be admired from various viewing platforms and the bridge that spans the gorge.
Valley of the Five Lakes
Wrap up your day with a visit to Valley of the Five Lakes located just five miles from the town of Jasper. Hike the fairly easy 2.8 mile (4.5km) loop to see the five stunning lakes for which the area is named. What these lakes lack in size, they make up for in beauty with amazing shades of green and blue. You can even rest for a bit in the Adirondack chairs set up under a tree at the end of one of the lakes.
Although you can now turn around and drive all the way back to a campground in or around Banff (it’s a three hour drive from the town of Jasper to Lake Louise), we’d recommend camping in Jasper or driving back to the Columbia Icefields campground which is the half way point. We’ve done both and personally prefer staying at the Columbia Icefields because of the magnificent view. We stayed at the Columbia Icefields campground (nicest pit toilet I’ve ever used) which is tents only, but it’s less than a mile drive to Wilcox Creek campground which can accommodate RVs. If you’re just tent camping, we think the Columbia Icefields campground is more attractive with better views.
A Few Tips
If you’re visiting during peak season, the best time to visit any attraction is early morning. Parking lot space is pretty limit for the amount of visitors so timing is crucial for the most popular sites. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve seen parking attendants turning people away at Lake Louise as early as 10:00 am and have also seen cars backed up halfway down the road to Moraine Lake waiting for a parking spot.
Be prepared for various weather conditions. When we visited in the spring, the weather was all over the place. Warm and sunny in one valley, raining in the next, then snowing as we gained elevation. Even in the summer, it can get pretty chilly up around the Columbia Icefields so plan accordingly.
It takes a minimum of 3 hours to drive from Lake Louise to the town of Jasper, which is basically your starting and ending points for the Icefields Parkway.
The only place to get fuel along the Icefields Parkway is at the Saskatchewan River Crossing. Both gasoline and diesel are available.