In the Middle of the Canadian Rockies
Banff, located in Alberta, is Canada’s oldest national park. Located in the mighty Canadian Rockies, its serves up a plethora of outdoor activities in the midst of glaciers, brilliantly blue glacial lakes, and soaring mountains. While it is a busy tourist destination year round with over 4 million annual visitors, traveling there in the fall offers discounted lodging and far fewer crowds so you can admire the landscapes alone.
We visited in October and consequently were able to stay downtown for a very affordable cost and flights to Calgary from the east coast of the United States were a deal at around $300 USD per person. If we were to visit in autumn again, we would maybe arrive just a few weeks earlier. A bit of snow made an early season arrival a few days before our visit so we didn’t see any of the bears that are generally easy to spot roadside snacking on berries in the summer. We also missed the spectacular early fall when the larch trees (conifers that are also deciduous in that they lose their needles) turn a mesmerizing golden color that lasts only a few weeks. Traditionally, this happens at the end of September until mid October.
Getting to Banff is relatively simple. Calgary has a large, modern international airport and the drive from Calgary to Banff is around 90 minutes along the Trans-Canada Highway. Many summer tourists also opt for a drive to Banff from Glacier National Park in Montana; however, this becomes more difficult when the weather turns cold as many roads in Glacier close in the fall. Renting a car at the Calgary airport was simple and reasonably priced. I will note that we looked into this trip in the summer previously and the car rental prices were crazily high. We elected to rent a small SUV with all weather tires. I think an arrival any later in the season would merit snow tires though and you will absolutely need them if you drive the Icefields Parkway after after November 1st as they are mandatory. We stayed at the Moose Hotel and Suites right in downtown Banff for 5 nights. We opted to do a bit of grocery shopping in Calgary before our arrival as prices do get a bit higher once you reach Banff National Park. The town of Banff is actually located within Banff National Park which means you’ll need to pay for a national park pass for any days you stay there (around $10 CAD per person).
The Moose Hotel and Suites included a small kitchenette which was perfect for our short stay as we could heat up a few basic meals. We found it very relaxing to return from a long day in the cold, indulge in the outdoor rooftop hot tub, and enjoy a cozy soup in front of our suite’s electric fireplace.
Banff National Park
To start your adventure, you don’t have to go far. There are plenty of beautiful attractions very close to the town of Banff itself.
1.Bow Falls: Our first night, we got a feel for the area by meandering around the grounds of the iconic Fairmont Banff Springs and visiting Bow Falls. Here a short wooded walk of about 20 minutes along the Bow River offers fantastic views of the falls.
2. Mount Norquay: Mount Norquay is home to a ski resort in the winter, but in the fall, you can drive your care about halfway up for some great sunset photos of the town of Banff below. We read that big horn sheep frequent the area, and though animals rarely tend to be where the guidebooks say, one lively group of sheep jogged over to our sunset spot right before the sun dipped below the horizon.
3. Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake. A scenic drive about 10 minutes from the town of Banff goes past Two Jack Lake and Lake Minnewanka. These brilliantly blue lakes sparkle in the sunrise and there are great short hikes along their waters. You can also spy those classic red Adirondack chairs that are placed by Parks Canada in scenic locations throughout their national parks. We also had hoped to spot the aurora borealis here as it’s a popular spot for viewing them on the special occasions when the aurora oval stretches far enough south.
4. Vermillion Lakes. Just about 2 kilometers from town, this chain of lakes is very popular at sunrise and sunset with views of Mount Rundle reflecting in its waters.
5. Tunnel Mountain. There are many hikes up and around Tunnel Mountain, but if you are short on time, you can just visit the hoodoos by parking fairly close to the Hoodoo Viewpoint by driving up Tunnel Mountain Road. Hoodoos are spires that are basically strangely shaped rock pillars.
6.Grassi Lakes. This is a quick hike located in Canmore, a short drive from Banff. It’s a 4 km hike that should take around 1.5 hours. It’s a gradually uphill on a wide gravel path (though there is a slightly harder trail which is closed in winter). You’ll arrive to two gorgeous lakes with unbelievable shades of blue and green that mesmerize. Definitely a worthwhile short hike!
7. Don’t forget to stop at the outskirts of town for a classic photo near the Town of Banff sign.
Traveling to Lake Louise
From the town of Banff to Lake Louise, it is a 40 minute drive. You can drive here directly up the Trans-Canada Highway, but we would suggest a more scenic route along the Bow Valley Parkway, Highway 1A, where there are plenty of hikes and stops for photos. Wildlife are also known to frequent this area.
1. Johnston Canyon – this is a very worthwhile stop along the Bow Valley Parkway. This is a short, easy hike to a picturesque waterfall where you’ll walk along catwalks bolted to the canyon walls as you traverse over Johnston Creek to the falls. At the end of the falls there is a small cave where you get very close to the powerful raging waters of the falls. Take note, it’s fairly slippery with snow and ice so micro spikes might a good idea.
2.Castle Junction – this stop is in the middle of the journey from Banff to Lake Louise and is a good stop to get fuel if needed, but it’s also another point where you can enter or exit the Bow Valley Parkway for the more direct Trans-Canada Highway if you are chasing daylight.
3. Lake Louise – Famous Lake Louise with its turquoise waters surrounded by towering snow capped mountains had the most tourists we encountered our entire trip. I would venture that it is packed in the summer months. We only stopped for some pictures and a quick tour inside the famous Fairmont Lake Louise but there are plenty of activities here to pique your interest. In the summer, you can rent bright red canoes, walk along the shoreline and in the winter, ice skating and cross country skiing are very popular. If you aren’t staying at the castle-like Fairmont, you can still venture inside for a quick tour. You could even do a lunch stop here as they have a restaurant with floor to ceiling windows overlooking Lake Louise where you can indulge in afternoon tea. We opted for a simpler lunch that we could take on the road as we explored onward to the Icefields Parkway. We got our take away sandwiches at the Trailhead Cafe which was more reasonably priced than other area options and the wraps were delicious.
** Due to incredible popularity and overcrowding, it is no longer possible to drive a private vehicle to Lake Moraine. The road to Lake Moraine closes in mid October so the only options are hiking or biking the 12 km to the Lake. It is in avalanche territory and bear spray is recommended. Sadly, there wasn’t time in our itinerary for this. Next time!
The Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway is a 232 km road that links Lake Louise to Jasper. It’s touted as one of the most scenic drives in the world with a highway that winds between some of the towering Rocky Mountains, stunning lakes, and the Columbia Icefield. We traveled north along the parkway until reaching the Athabasca Glacier. If we had more time, we certainly would have continued onward toward Jasper and Jasper National Park. In fact, we would suggest that it would make more sense to have an overnight in Jasper as it would be a loss to traverse this road quickly. There are so many pull offs to stop and admire the surroundings. The water truly is that unreal blue.
Here are some of the best stops along the way.
1.Bow Lake – one of the first of the vivid blue lakes at which you’ll have the fortune to stop. Plenty of roadside parking so get out and take some photos.
2. Peyto Lake – while you can drive very close to the lake in the summer, in winter the road closes, so you’ll embark on a a short hike to the viewpoint. This brief out and back is 30-45 minutes in the snow and so worth it!. You can continue just a short 10 minutes beyond the viewpoint on a smaller wooded trail for more views. It is recommended not to really hike beyond the viewpoint in winter as remember, you are in avalanche territory.
3. Waterfowl Lakes – another stunning stop along the Icefields Parkway. This one is particularly pretty at sunset with the mountains reflecting in the lake.
4. Athabasca Glacier – this glacier is one of the six toes of the Columbia Icefield. The glacier is located very close to the road and a hiking path lets you come quite close to the toe of the glacier. You can only step on to the glacier with a guide and snowcoach tours can be coordinated to drive onto the glacier and explore in the summer. The Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre, located across the street, has a glacier skywalk and organizes these tours.
Abraham Lake and Siffleur Falls
At the Saskatchewan River Crossing, we detoured to the east to enter David Thompson Country in West Central Alberta. Its highway headed east rivals some of the scenic mountain landscapes seen along the Icefields Parkway. We even ran into a big horn sheep traffic jam as we had to wait for a group to finish crossing the road. There are an incredible array of outdoor activities you can explore here. The two were chose were the Siffleur Falls Hike and a visit to Abraham Lake.
Abraham Lake is famous for its methane ice bubbles that cover the lake in the winter months. These bubbles are the result of trapped methane which forms when organic matter, like dead plants and animals, sinks to the lake floor and decays, releasing methane which is trapped in frozen bubbles seen beneath the lake’s ice surface. Generally, most visit between December and March when you can walk all over the frozen lake. Though we were there in autumn, we still had a bit of ice at the periphery of the lake so we could see the phenomenon.
We also spent some time hiking to Siffleur Falls. This is a straightforward easy hike over flat terrain which should take around 2 hours including some photo stops. It’s an entertaining hike as you’ll cross two rivers, including one river crossing that includes a massive suspension bridge, meander along a boardwalk over a large delicate meadow, and finally arrive to a raging waterfall that is that perfect glacial blue color. Interestingly, siffleur is the French word for whistling and the trail is named after the number of marmots that used to be seen in the area which make a whistling sound!
We truly enjoyed our time in Banff and would love to come back. I don’t know if we could deal with the crowds and chaos of the summer months, but a visit during early October for larch season would be stunning and maybe allow for a few bear spottings! We also thought the ski resorts looked fantastics with steep terrain and gorgeous views.
This trip was incredibly affordable in shoulder season. We stayed right downtown at the Moose Hotel and Suites which was very reasonable but a bit more than a few other accommodations. We chose it for their rooftop hot tub…indulgent after a day of hiking.
“Larch Madness” is that special time when the deciduous conifers turn a stunning golden yellow for a few weeks. Plan for late September or early October to see the phenomenon!
Open Rhode Insider Tips
- It was a long day to drive up and back down the Icefields Parkway. If we went back, we would choose to stay in Jasper for the last night of the trip and circle back to Calgary from there.
- Sunsets and sunrises over the Rockies are otherworldly. Get out there to see them.
- Remember that you need chains or snow tires for your vehicle in late fall and winter on the Icefields Parkway.
- Consider micro spikes for some of the hiking in the fall and winter. It’s a bit slippery.
- Bear spray is advised for hiking in the summer and early fall. Be bear aware!
- Lunch options aren’t plentiful on the Icefields Parkway and there are so many places to enjoy a picnic. Pack a lunch or grab a take away sandwich.