Where is Banff??
The Canadian Rockies and surrounding Banff National Park is one of the most beautiful places in the world and should be on everyone’s bucket list! Here’s a 7 day guide following my September 2018 trip for seeing as much as you can in a week (even though you’ll definitely want more time!). Locations included are Banff National Park, Assiniboine Provincial Park, and Jasper National Park. Below the 7 day guide are other places to see to help you mix and match sites seen during your time there!
Banff is surprisingly easy to get to. Calgary is a major international airport, so getting a flight into there is not hard at all. Once there, the entrance to the park is about 1hr 15min away on HWY 1. After that, the town of Banff is only another 5 minutes, and the very famous Lake Louise is another 45 minutes where you will find an ample supply of hotels. Another place you should consider staying for your trip is Canmore, which is 20 minutes before Banff, also on HWY 1.
Seven Day Guide
Day 1: Travel & Prep
The start to your trip is obviously the travel day. You will want to find a flight into Calgary, Alberta and grab your rental car. I personally have been using Budget Rental, but Calgary Airport has all of the major rental car agencies if there’s another you’d rather use.
Once in Calgary, if there’s any supplies that you’ll need, I’d recommend heading to the M.E.C in downtown Calgary. It’s Canada’s version of R.E.I and only costs $5CAD to be a member (you have to be a member to shop).
For this guide, I’d recommend driving to Canmore and finding a place to stay for the night. They have tons of options and lots of affordable, condo-like hotels/Airbnb’s to help you rest and relax for your next 6 days of exploration!
Day 2-4: Assiniboine Provincial Park
Cinnabon? No “Ass-in-i-boine”! Where is it??
Assiniboine Day 1
There are two options for getting to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. One is a helicopter from either Canmore ($200CAD) or the Mount Shark Helipad ($175CAD) or to hike there.
The five of us (Anna, Ben, Dani, Scott, and I) chose to hike to Assiniboine. The night before our hike, we chose to have our gear flown in ($3ca per pound) to make the hike just a really long trail hike. There are three routes to Assiniboine - hiking from the Sunshine Village Ski Area (18.7mi), hiking from the Mount Shark Trailhead on Bryant Creek to the Assiniboine Pass (17.1mi), and hiking from the Mount Shark Trailhead on Bryant Creek to the Wonder Pass (17mi). The Wonder Pass is the hardest of the three and the one we chose to hike over. Wonder Pass is also the most scenic, which is why we chose to do it.
We got to the Mount Shark Trailhead (an hour drive from Canmore) at 8am with temperatures around 20˚F, and started our hike shortly after, bear spray on the ready (though we wouldn’t have to use it!). The hike was not that difficult for most of the way, only gaining about 500 vertical feet in the first 11 miles. There’s even a shelter around 8 miles in for a nice place to re-energize yourself with lunch! After the first 11 miles though, that’s where it got hard, but this is also where you get the best views on the hike.
In the next 2.6 miles, you head straight up Wonder Pass, gaining about 1,700 vertical feet. It’s a section of endless switchbacks (my nightmare). However, what makes it much easier to handle, is that you are greeted with panoramic views of endless mountains and forests of beautiful larch trees.
When we went in late September, there was some snow at the pass creating a beautiful contrast between the peaks and the valleys below.
Once you crest the pass, you cross into British Columbia and look out over an expanse of larch trees (golden in color if you go in early or mid-fall). The rest of the hike to the Assiniboine Lodge is all downhill and through this beautiful forest. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much golden color in my life!
Once we got to the lodge, we picked up our flown-in-bags and made our way to the Magog Lake Campground, which is about .75mi/1.2km from the lodge. The camping fee is $10CAD per night and reservations have to be made via Discover Camping if going between June 23-September 28.
Visitors can also stay at the Assiniboine Lodge for rates found here or there are also the cheaper Naiset Huts for which rates and information are found here.
Once we set up camp, our evening was met with overcast skies - no good for any photography opportunities, so we ate some well deserved Mountain House & Backpackers Pantry dinners and got some shuteye in the crisp 20˚F night.
Assiniboine Day 2
We woke to slightly clearer skies but still nothing good for any photography. It was setting up to be a lazy day. Freeze dried eggs just don’t taste as good when it’s cold, starting to snow, and there’s nothing to see.
After a little while, we mustered up some strength after our previous day of 17 miles to do a little exploring. Near to the campground are Cerulean and Sunburst Lakes. These lakes are so worth it to see even if it is cloudy and nasty out. Both are less than 2km away from the campground and have some of the best reflections in the park.
Throughout the day, there were hints of clearing but nothing developed. Since it was so cold, we looked forward to warmth. Every day at 4-5pm, the lodge has tea time where campers can come inside for tea and cakes - the perfect thing to warm up your day. We indulged when we got there the day before, and couldn’t wait for it on our second day. What we didn’t expect though was a sighting of some local wildlife just outside the lodge - an elk. As you can see above him, this was the first sign we had that there might be a clearing.
When tea time was done, we took a look at our surroundings and realized something special might be in store for sunset. We made the decision to hike up to The Nublet, which is about 1.5km from the Lodge, but almost straight up hill. Our excitement though powered us up that hill to see the view that brought us to the park in the first place. It was one of those sunsets that just kept getting better and better. The only thing deterring us from being up there was the cold as it was only 20˚F after the day of snow we had. The scene was so much more special because of all the perfectly golden larch trees in the area. It was such a special sunset and one we won’t soon forget!
The hike down was quite memorable as well. To get to the campground, you have to hike down past the two lakes you see above. By the time we got down there, the lakes were so calm creating the perfect reflection and the clouds had mostly moved out. It was the sunset that just kept giving! The fresh snow on Sunburst Peak glowed with the dissipating sunset that had turned into a beautiful purple and pink hue and just look at that reflection on Sunburst Lake - so perfect. We made our way back to camp ready for a hot meal at this point and happy that we could call our Assiniboine adventure a success. It wasn’t quite over yet, as the clearing that night set up for some beautiful conditions the next day on our way out!
Assiniboine Day 3
Scott and I awoke to cold and frosty conditions a little before sunrise. It was perfectly clear however and we couldn’t wait to see what Magog Lake looked like after not being able to see much the morning before. We bundled up and headed down to the lake.
What we found was more of the same from the night before - a perfect reflection on the lake with Mount Assiniboine above. The best view of the lake is from the northeastern tip of the lake - near the Naiset Huts - so we hiked along the lake for about a kilometer to get there. We couldn’t stay for too long due to our impending helicopter flight that morning, but we got the shots we needed. It was absolutely beautiful, as you can see below! There were some whispy clouds that developed and some nice fog developed just above the water creating a dream sunrise scene.
The day continued with the 2km hike back to the Lodge to check-in for the helicopter out. We watched a couple groups of people come in and head out before our turn. The excitement built to see the Canadian Rockies from the air and on such a perfect day for flying.
The flight took 10 minutes, which beat the 17 mile hike to get out of there. On our way, the morning views were just gorgeous. We followed much of the route we hiked on and got a new perspective of what was around us. There was also of course the aerial view of Marvel Lake, which is one of the most coveted views in the Canadian Rockies.
And just like that, we landed at the helipad, got ourselves organized, and headed back up to Canmore where we got ourselves some much deserved coffee! The helicopter ride and the subsequent coffee was a nice conclusion to such an epic trip in the Canadian backcountry! We still had much more to see though.
Day 4 Cont’d: Head to Lake Louise
Once we were done in Canmore, we went our separate ways from Dani & Scott, and headed over to Lake Louise where we met up with another friend of ours. The drive is close to an hour, but it goes by quickly as you’re surrounded by such beauty throughout the drive.
We chose to stay at the Post Hotel, as we got a nice deal on our room for 4 people, but there are many hotels in Lake Louise. You do want to book sooner rather than later in the summer though, as it is a very popular destination.
While in Lake Louise, you’ll want to check out the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and the lake itself just outside the doors of the massive hotel. The Chateau is one of the most beautiful hotels you’ll ever see and the lake is just one of those places that is a must see if you step foot in Banff National Park.
Day 5: Moraine Lake and Icefields Parkway
Moraine Lake and the Icefields Parkway are two other must see, bucket list type things to do in Banff. They can be done in the same day as well, which is what we chose to do.
For Moraine Lake, I would recommend sucking it up, wake up early, and take the 15 minute drive up to the lake for sunrise. It is an incredible sight even if it’s cloudy as it was for us. There were a few breaks in the clouds that made for some beautiful light. The only problem with this is that you have to join a ton of photographers and have to “fight” for space to see the sunrise (I even saw a couple of people yelling at each other this time), but it’s well worth it as you can see!
Our plan was to eat at the breakfast buffet at the Moraine Lake Lodge as it was the best breakfast I have ever had on another trip, but it now was apparently only for lodge guests so our backup was the Post Hotel, which was a nice substitute.
We then headed up the Icefields Parkway (HWY 93) to the town of Jasper in Jasper National Park for lunch. This was an ambitious endeavor for us to take on and get back to Banff in the same day. I was in whirlwind tour mode to show as much of the area as I could to my friends, so we took it on. It’s a 2.5 hour drive straight to Jasper from Lake Louise, but it generally takes a little longer so you can stop at all of the viewpoints along the way. These places include, but are not limited to Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, Waterfowl Lakes, the Columbia Glacier, Sunwapta Falls, and Athabasca Falls. Seen below are photos I took on other trips of Peyto Lake and Mount Chephren near Waterfowl Lakes.
We ate lunch at Jasper Brewing Company and headed back down the road towards Banff. It was this portion of our drive that we stopped at Athabasca and Sunwapta Falls, both impressive in their own respects. They both flow into narrow canyons so the rush of water is so intense! I’m partial to Sunwapta Falls though, as I think that’s the best background to a waterfall that you’ll ever see - especially when the mountains are snowcapped!
Our trip continued back down the Parkway all the way over to Banff. It made for a long day of driving, but everything we saw made it all worth it!
Day 6: Banff & Johnston Canyon
On this trip, we didn’t do a ton in the town of Banff area, but there is so much to do. This includes seeing the Banff Springs Hotel, taking a gondola or hiking up Sulphur Mountain to see the UNESCO World Heritage Site, taking a dip in the Banff Springs, doing some shopping downtown, skiing/snowboarding at Mt. Norquay, seeing Mount Rundle from the Vermillion Lakes or Two Jack Lake, or of course taking the 25 minute drive to Johnston Canyon! The hike is a popular one, but a must see!
It is a short 1.1km hike to the Lower Falls and only an extra 1.5km to get to the Upper Falls. The hike will take you along catwalks attached to the canyon walls giving you panoramic views of the canyon and the beautiful blue waters below. Once you get to the Lower Falls, there’s a bridge that will give you a view of a little cascade with the main falls behind, but going past the bridge will lead you through a small tunnel to a viewpoint right next to the falls. It is something to see so close to so much power!
Hiking on will give you some elevation gain and views of more small waterfalls along the canyon and more of that beautiful blue water! The trail ends at a viewpoint on a catwalk of the Upper Falls, which is beautiful in the summer or winter (seen below). Or to see another view, you can backtrack a short way to a split in the trail and head up the hill for an extra 5 minutes of hiking to see the upper view of Upper Falls, which gives you a nice perspective!
There is more to see on the trail if you’re looking for more of a hike, like the Ink Pots, which is an extra 3 kilometers of hiking out. For us however, it was time for us to head out of Banff National Park and start our journey back home to Wisconsin.
Day 7: Head out
We actually headed out late in the day on Day 6, but the more sensible option would be to see as much as possible on Day 6 and leave on Day 7. Again, Calgary is a very popular airport, so finding a flight out should not be a problem!
Other Locations to See
If you’re not looking to do the Assiniboine portion of the trip (though you should!) here’s some extra options for places to see!
Where is it: Emerald Lake is in Yoho National Park (western border of Banff National Park) in British Columbia. It is about a 35min drive west from Lake Louise.
When to go: It is beautiful anytime of the year, but I enjoyed seeing it in winter as you can see above. A portion of the Emerald Lake Lodge creates a dreamy winter scene just before sunrise. If you go when everything isn’t frozen, the lake has some beautiful reflections and the views of the mountains are incredible!
Where are they: The two Vermillion Lakes are on the outskirts of the town of Banff on Vermillion Lakes Road. There are three lakes, but I am a fan of the view from the second of the three.
When to go: Anytime of the year! The view is always gorgeous! The view above is from the dead of winter. As you can see, there’s always great reflections!
Where is it: Morant’s Curve is on Hwy 1A, very close to it’s junction at Lake Louise. If going from Lake Louise, head towards the Lake Louise Ski Resort and turn right onto Hwy 1A (Bow Valley Parkway). It is about a 5 minute drive from there or 4km. The viewpoint is from the road.
When to go: Anytime of the year! The views of the mountains and the Bow River are spectacular. If you wait for awhile, you’ll be able to see a train go by on the tracks right below the viewpoint. You can then get the famous shot with the Canadian Pacific train, the Bow River, and the Rocky Mountains!
Gear Worth Checking Out
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