Exploring the Canadian Rockies & Banff
What’s the first thing you picture when you hear the words “Banff National Park”?
If it was images of endless, glacier capped mountains or turquoise lakes fed by winding rivers you’d be correct. If your first thought was “little Switzerland” in the Canadian Rockies I’d agree with you. And if you said tourist choked viewpoints and bus tours I wouldn’t say you were wrong, but Banff can be so much more!
Some of the best-known mountain scenery in the world is encompassed by a set of seven parks in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The mere mention of the word Canada in much of the world evokes images of the snow-capped peaks, emerald lakes and mountain chateaus that Banff National Park is famous for.
For those who are unfamiliar, Banff is a small, picturesque mountain town nestled in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. A jewel of a wilderness preserve and also Canada’s oldest national park –founded in 1885−. It is the best known of the five national –Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay & Waterton Lakes− and three provincial −Mount Robson, Hamber & Mount Assiniboine− parks in the Canadian Rocky Mountains and the focus of this post.
Getting to Banff – A Rocky Mountains Roadtrip
Driving through Canada’s Rocky Mountain parks should be something on everyone’s bucket list. A travel must do. Stunning roadside vistas, hidden mountain treks and epic photographic locations await those with their own transportation and a road tripping spirit −which as it is, would be my recommended method of visiting the park−. Keep your eyes open, you might just spot some wildlife!
Staring from Calgary, AB, I rented a car at the airport and headed west out of town and into the foothills. Soon the landscapes changed. Rolling prairies become wooded hills. Soon hills turned to mountains and I passed the park boundary at small town of Canmore. 2017 being Canada’s 150th birthday park admissions are offered free for the year. And upon my arrival the town of Banff was bustling.
Banff Townsite & Culture
With national chains pushed off the Main Street and small business abundant Banff exudes a small town feel dripping with mountain goodness. Cascade Mountain dominates the skyline in town and sets and impressive bar for the scenery to follow!
In town you’ll find a multitude of shops and restaurants to explore. A burgeoning foodie scene with local craft beers, wine and spirits guarantee’s pleasant nightlife in town and local wild game shows up on more than one menu –well worth trying-.
For a mountain town Banff has some real big city culture. Summers bring wine tastings, art showings, concerts and more. The fall and winter bring snow sport clinics, artist residencies and the world renowned Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival.
Once you’re done in town it’s time to see Banff from a whole new perspective. Mt Norquay, one of the the local ski hill’s provides an amazing local viewpoint. Following the switchbacks, a roadside alpine meadow provides panoramic views. The Banff town site, Mt Rundle, Cascade Mountain and Sulfur Mountain rise in the distance. If you’re up for it a better view can be had by continuing to the ski area and either hiking or riding the chairlift to the top!
Another way to get high in Banff (no pun intended, this is Alberta after all, not BC) is to take the Banff Gondola. The gondola runs from the Banff Springs Hotel to the summit of Sulfur Mountain. And the views from the mountaintop boardwalks are stunning. If you’re feeling active the trails back down to are a scenic stretch worth your time.
After your hike back down the mountain you’ll be tired and tight. What better way than to finish the day and relax than a dip into the world famous Banff Mineral Hot Springs?
The town of Banff and the immediate area hold tons of great attractions no doubt. However, the top sights to see around Banff are without question, Johnston Canyon, Moraine Lake & Lake Louise.
Must See Attractions in Banff National Park
I will caution potential travelers that visiting the ‘iconic’ spots in Banff National Park can be hectic. It’s best done before the tour buses start running –pre 9:00am− or once they finish for the evening –post 6:00pm−. Conveniently, this means you’ll be free to shoot sunrise and sunset without playing tourist pinball. During the day patience must be exercised. Typically taking a step back and waiting 10 minutes will let the next wave of bus bound tourists take their iPad selfies, return to the bus and leave.
Johnston Canyon, located along the icefields parkway between Banff and Lake Louise, is an awesome spot to stop and stretch your legs for a few hours. The hike up the canyon isn’t long –about 5km− or difficult, it certainly is beautiful though. Walking through pine forests and along walkways fastened to sheer vertical cliffs above the raging river. With views around every turn this hike has something for everyone –even if they aren’t packing a camera−
Johnston Canyon – Banff National ParkIf you’ve got extra time continue on past the upper waterfalls to an area known as the ink pots. An area where natural spring water bubbles up through silt and clay creating mesmerizing animated displays of color and texture.
Lower Falls, Johnston Canyon – Banff National Park
After stretching your legs at Johnston Canyon a short drive north past Castle Mountain –another great photo op− takes you to Lake Louise. The Chateau at Lake Louise sits at the end of a glacier fed blue green lake surrounded by snow capped peaks. Built in the early 1900’s by the Canadian Pacific Railway it has been an icon in the Canadian Rockies ever since.
Lake Louise Boardwalk Panorama – Banff National ParkA boardwalk along the lake, canoe rentals and hiking trails into the surrounding mountains will keep most people entertained for days. A photographer should plan a little longer in the area. Enjoy at least the 4km hike around the lake and up to the Alpine Tea house at Lake Agnes. You’re rewarded with not only tea/coffee and fresh baking but also with captivating views & scenery!
Paddle Anyone? Lake Louise – Banff National Park
From Lake Louise you’d be amiss to leave the area without visiting THE most iconic view in the Canadian Rockies. Just up the road from Lake Louise is the valley of ten peaks and Canada’s famous Moraine Lake.
The classic viewpoint, created by the remnants of an ice age glacier moving down the valley, is found on top of the glacial moraine at the end of the lake. Only a 500m hike from the parking lot. This is likely the most photographed point in Canada, or at least the Rocky Mountains. Moraine lake once appeared on the Canadian $20 bill and is the scene pictured by many when envisioning the Canadian wilderness.
Moraine Lake Sunrise – Banff National ParkSunrise at Moraine Lake is the money shot. If you get here before sunrise and the weather is good you’ll experience a mind blowing alpine glow on the mountain peaks! If you get lucky with little to no wind –as opposed to later in the day– the classic reflection shot is possible. While it may be one of the most photographed locations in the Canadian Rockies, with a little creativity you can still come home with unique photos that not everyone has. I shot the Milky Way here recently, a nice spin on the standard images of Moraine Lake.
The Milky Way and Stars above Moraine Lake – Banff National Park
Where To Stay in Banff
For the solo traveler or budget minded groups I really liked the Banff International Hostel. The hostel lets you stay in town just a block off the main street for less than the cost of accommodations well outside the town. Enjoy everything that Banff has to offer without having to worry about driving or getting a bus to and from Canmore daily.
If you’re looking for a bit more privacy, the Banff Park Lodge offers great amenities right in the center of town! This hotel is a great choice for the discerning traveler. Here you’re literally just steps from the world class shopping and dining experiences Banff has to offer. The mountain views dont hurt either!
If you’re willing to splash out a little cash for the best spot in town there’s only one spot to consider. You’re going to want to check out the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. This castle on the hill is Situated on the edge of sulpher mountain next to the Gondola and adjacent to the Banff hot springs theres nowhere better to relax after a day exploring the Rocky Mountains and Banff National Park!
Best time to visit Banff National Park:
Honestly, in my mind there is no BEST time to visit Banff.
Each season has its own draw, especially for photography. In the spring and summer you have the classic turquoise lakes, rivers and hiking but will have to contend with the crowds. In the fall you will find the mountains glistening as the first snow falls and mountain larches turn a deep shade of gold. The winter, while cold, provides clear cold nights for sky watchers & aurora chasers, snow sports and beautiful ice formations.
The Take Away
Banff is many things to many people. As a photographer I cringe each and every time a new tour bus pulls up to a location I’m trying to shoot. As a traveler though, I love that people are getting out and experiencing somewhere new.
Pack your backpack and experience the Canadian Rockies, Banff, Lake Louise and Moraine Lake sometime soon! I’d love to see what you manage to capture or hear what your favorite spot was! Link up with me on Social media, let’s meet up, shoot together or just BS!