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Visiting Banff and Lake Louise in the Canadian Rocky Mountains

Introduction 

 

You may have heard of Banff and Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies.  It is one of those traveler absolutes like the majestic Alps, or the unforgettable fjords of Norway: few places are as beautiful as the Banff region (sample of images).  This area is teaming with north woods wildlife of all kinds.  It boasts pristine, turquoise glacier lakes set gemlike within mountain bowls, the peaks commanding the horizon and sloping into view at ridiculous angles. Even with Canadian exchange rates improving significantly aginast the US dollar this is a trip to make. 

 A picture named Banff-Springs.jpg

The regionís tourist trade started with the construction of the Banff Springs Hotel (still in existence today), built in 1888.  The palatial Banff Springs Hotel served as luxury destination in service of the Canadian Pacific Railroad.  Though it was a destination out of the way for many travelers, the railroad provided access. From Banff Springs you had hot springs, fishing, hunting, climbing, and you could generally swan around, cocktail in hand, enjoying a manifestly privileged status.  

 

Some things have changed in the intervening century and a quarter, but the views are still here and continue to proclaim themselves with cathedral-like majesty.  It can be said that the hot springs, the luxury hotels, and perhaps the town of Banff in general have slid into well into a middle-class ethos.  But in summer season upper-class pricing returns like a ghost from the past.

 

Along with the impediment of seemingly-unjust, high-season pricing schedules, itís also a little dicey accessing the Banff region, which is generally accomplished by air via the Calgary airport.  But you really ought to visit anyway.   Most resources agree that it is simply one of those destinations you shouldnít miss.  And unlike, say, the Great Pyramids, itís only over the border in Canada. 

 

Travel into the Region

 

Calgary International Airport is northeast of the brown, unimpressive city of Calgary and is the most common gateway to the region. It is a tidy, modern airport. While the Banff region made its first tourist fame as a rail hub, the nearest VIA Rail service now goes into Jasper, 180 miles further north.  For most folks, the slightly-too-far-north rail service isnít convenient, so flying into Calgary is generally regarded to be the best option.  You have to scout for fares pretty carefully because this isnít a route that is on the way to or from a place a lot of airlines are flying...

 

On arrival in Calgary you deal with customs and there is a rental car pick up in the parking lot across from the terminal.  There is also a Banff Airport Shuttle located across bag carousel number 4. You can call and reserve a seat on vans called the Banff Airporter (tel. 403-762-3330; www.banffairporter.com), that leave Calgary Airport about every 2 hours and cost about 30 bucks US.  You really ought to rent a car, however, unless you just donít want to deal with motoring and you can stand the fishbowl tour youĎll get if you leave the driving to the package tour masters.  The route to the Banff area from Calgary is elemental: take highway 2 south to highway 1 west out of town.

  

Driving Tips and Practical Trip-Planning Logistics

 A picture named Icefields.jpg

Because most folks rent and drive, and because thatís what I recommend here, let me give you some car travel details and tips.  Rental car options are plentiful, but reserve ahead in summer.  Hertz, Avis and the usual big players are at the airport.  You can also try some local talent like Banff Rent A Car (403-762-3352). 

 

Driving out of Calgary isnít very inspiring, but just wait. Approaching Banff from Calgary along the 70-mile stretch of Trans Canada Highway 1, you don't get much until the last quarter of the trip.  Then a wall of rock seems to spring up from the plains.  The highway then winds you into Banff.

 

In terms of planning and timing your drives within the Parks, there are special considerations (Banff area maps).  I'm only going to address the subject generally as it pertains to summer driving.  Winter is a whole other kettle of fish (winter driving resources).  In winter there are avalanche risks.   Chains are required on the mountain passes and roads can be closed at the whim of weather. 

 

Summer driving in the Park region has its own challenges. There can be a good deal of traffic, lots of recreational vehicles, and you're dealing mostly with two-lane roads.  Compounding the problem is the fact that there is wildlife all over the place: elk, mountain goat, bears, etc.  The animals are most active at dawn and dusk, but they can be crossing the roadways at any time, so you have to be vigilant and driving speed must be constrained.  Add to these complications the wildcard of the weather, which can capriciously wipe out any view of the mountains and turquoise lakes.

 

As you approach Banff Park there are toll booths to collect the $16 per day per carload park fee.  You tape a receipt on your dashboard and in truth there is not a lot of policing by park authorities, but you'll need to have a valid receipt to get on the Icefields Parkway a "must see" feature of the region.   From the toll booths at the base of Banff Park you can go into Banff or continue motoring up to Lake Louise, or other park areas. The Canadian Rocky Mountain region includes Banff Park, Yoho Park, Jasper Park, plus the lesser-known Kananaskis Country parks to the south. Practical logistics and the purpose of your trip should help determine your tour planning. 

 

Yoho Park is to the west.  It is the most remote and least urban influenced and touristed among this cluster of parks.  Yoho doesn't have as much in the way of towns or amenities as Banff Park, but it's a camperís delight and offers reasonable access to Calgary airport. Kananaskis Country has a cluster of parks to the south of Banff, including Waterton Lakes, Mt. Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks.

 

Jasper Park could be viewed as midway between the tourist influence of Banff and the more quiet environs of Yoho. The town of Jasper offers a reasonable range of hotels and amentias, including a Fairmont property with luxury cabins.  But Jasper is more of an outpost and doesn't have the famous names and range of amenities like Banff and Lake Louise.

 

It would be fair to conclude that if you want to camp and be left alone while keeping within half a dayís drive of the international airport, look into Yoho Park or Kananakis Country. If you want to see five stars on your hotel and gourmet meals, then the choice is Banff and Lake Louise, the hotels and restaurants of which I outline in this essay. But if one of your motives in making the trip is to witness the full natural glory of the region then Jasper Park should be a player in your trip plans simply because the Icefields Parkway. 

 

 The drive for exploration of the magnificent Icefields Parkway runs roughly through Banff and Jasper Parks.  This drive will thread you through vast mountain canyons and to glaciers that come literally to the side of the road.   It is perhaps the most striking mountain drive in North America, rivaling, some say, the Alps of southern New Zealand where the Lord of the Rings films were filmed.

 

Later in this essay I'll offer some descriptions about the high points of Banff and Lake Louise.  But let me focus here on the Icefields Parkway, which is more of a motoristís destination. This 100-mile drive poses special logistical challenges and requires some travel decisions.  It will take most of a day to drive the 180 miles from Banff to Jasper along the Icefields Parkway.   There is one place to stop for gas on the route and two stops that provide hard-roof accommodation and cooked food.  Accordingly, to see the beauty of the Icefields Parkway you need to gas up, bring water and sandwiches, and think ahead about where you'll bunk for the night. 

 A picture named Peyto-Lake.jpg

Can you visit the Icefields Parkway as a day trip from Banff or Lake Louise?  Probably not but I wouldnít say absolutely not (I managed it in good, summer weather with a cranky wife the only negative outcome).  To be candid, only a true road warrior can expect to depart their hotel in Banff or Lake Louise, dodge RVs and large hoofed mammals for 200 miles, take in the best of the Icefields and then get back to the hotel that night. 

 

There are several must-see stops along the drive, including the walk out to Peyto Lake and the Columbia Icefields.  But best roadside scenery of the Icefields Parkway drive is generally considered to be a 30-mile strip where Banff and Jasper Parks meet. The best bet that Iím recommending here is to factor in a one or two-night stay in Jasper.  This lets you take in the complete length of the Parkway, keeps the driving time more manageable, allows you the chance to see Jasper, and provides two days of Parkway driving which increases your chance of making the trip on a day of clear weather.

 

Staying in the town of Banff

 

Banff is the closest major mountain town to the airport at Calgary (80 miles). Perhaps for that reason Banff Park it is the most touristed of the three parks.  Most folks find it convenient to begin and end their stay in the region in the town of Banff.

 

In the summer season you're going to have a lot of tourists in the Banff region, so manage your expectations accordingly.  National Geographic Traveler Magazine notes that Banff Park has become over taxed by the voracious tourist traffic, and surely the hotels, restaurants and shops reflect this.  The advantages of Banff include a generous number of restaurant and hotel options and the best proximity to Calgary and the airport.  If you travel up to Lake Louise your overall hotel and restaurant options diminish and you buy into another hour to get back to Calgary. 

 

The layout of Banff is easy with a main spine of road providing your navigational touchstone.  This main drag, Banff Street, starts off as a row of second-rate hotels all packed together. Banff Street continues down the main shopping strip and up to Canada House and the bridge over the Bow River.  Continuing over the bridge you have access to the Banff Springs Hotel, the Rimrock Hotel and the Banff Gondola.

 

A good first stop on arrival in Banff is the Information Centre.  Just tell the staff what you'd like to do and they're full of useful ideas. The Information Centre is unmissable on the main strip at 224 Banff Ave.  The building houses both the Banff Tourism Bureau and a national-park information center (403-762-0270; www.banfflakelouise.com). The Centre is open every day from June 15 to October 15 from 9am to 9pm and the rest of the year from 9am to 5pm.  To preview the info, go to www.pc.gc.ca.

 

The Information Centre lists over 40 hotels in Banff proper (10 more for Lake Louise).  Let me summarize some of the best Banff hotels with the caveat that my list is not all inclusive.

 

From the days of the old Canadian Pacific Railway, Fairmont Hotels seems to have inherited the finest collection of landmark hotels in the country. Fairmont has its two famous, regal properties at Banff and at Lake Louise.  The Fairmont Banff Springs is castle-like, near the hot springs and intended for the robber barons of another era.  Nowadays it's a bit of a circus with all the folks in and out (it's a fabulous venue for a wedding).  There are a lot of tour busses, package-tour groups and the associated atmosphere.  But with an historical, imposing building, beautiful grounds and three nice restaurants, there is nothing like it in the region. Note that to get to the main drag is a half mile walk up Spray street. 

 

If you want to be right in town probably the best bet is the Brewster Mountain Lodge, a maple-colored, lodge pole construction.  There are a couple of other hotels right on the main drag, but in my view the Brewster, tucked in a side street, is head and shoulders a better atmosphere and nicer stay.

 

The Rimrock Hotel probably has the most to offer in terms of mountain views.  It is the site of the Hydro Hotel in the late 1800s.  The present structure is a totally modern, 11-story luxury hotel that clings to the side of a mountain.  The regal entrance way is imposing and 80% of the room views are knockouts - but beware of the rooms overlooking the parking lot.  The Rimrock is next to the Banff Gondola, a couple of miles out of town.

 

For comfort and relative value, consider the Buffalo Mountain Lodge not quite a mile up Tunnel Mountain Road.  This cluster of polished-beam-construction lodges is crawling with helpful staff.  This is strictly speaking a motel; you drive up to your lodge, park and walk in.  But the loft of the construction, the common area amenities and room features (fireplaces and balconies); take it a couple of steps up from anything that sticks in the mind as a ďmotel.Ē  There are two restaurants, one fairly celebrated, plus a hot tub, internet access, weight room and a real nice bar with roaring fire and taxidermy.

 

Restaurants in Banff can be tricky.  Tourist fare predominates and it's hard to find something unusually good.  My best bets include the Maple Leaf and the Saltlik for Canadian fare.  These are both vaulted, maple-colored, mountain-house-looking places that serve local cuisine with local flair.  Magpie and Stumps has similar cuisine, but it's got low ceilings and darker décor, perhaps better for a rainy or snowy day.  There are some good regional offerings that are worth mention, including Le Soleil (top-rated Mediterranean food and tapas), Coyote (Tex-Mex) and Balkan (Greek).

 

Except for the drive up the Icefields Parkway, you can find much of what makes this region great right near Banff.  Consider Lake Minnewanka, for instance.  Just half-a-dozen miles from Banff is a bright turquoise lake that has as much splendor, and more to do, than famous Lake Louise.  Minnewanka offers miles of lakeside camping and hiking, plus motorized boat tours (which few of the other lakes in the region allow).  As if that wasn't enough, Lake Minnewanka has a 19th century lodge under its waterline that scuba divers can visit (the lake was dammed, flooding out the old lodge).  

 

Lake Louise: the Next stop after Banff

 

Lake Louise is just a little to far up the Trans Canadian Highway to be in practical reach of the airport in Calgary.  Most travelers like to buffer their arrival and departure to the parks region with a stay in Banff in order to keep the drive to the airport more manageable.  But if there is an alter ego of Banff itís Lake Louise. 

 

Lake Louise is also founded around a great robber-baron hotel.  The Chateau Lake Louise is also a handsome property but without the same unbroken architectural pedigree as Banff Springs.  Photos in the lobby show the former structure with its Tudor stylings and drive through to the lake.  The present structure is more modern and hugs the shore of famous, turquoise-colored Lake Louise.   The Chateau offers a luxury destination built around the Lake and its manicured hiking trails.  Asian and European tourists stroll easily along the banks snapping photographs.

 These foreign tourists arenít fools.  What the Chateau Lake Louise very does well is a cushioned access to the beautiful wilds of Banff Park.  The Chateau isn't a heritage building like the Fairmont's Banff counterpart, but it's stately and designed to cradle the lake.  There are a couple of nice restaurants and a "deli" where you can pick up more casual food and lunchboxes for your day out. Restaurants in the area aren't plentiful, so you'll want to take stock of these culinary outlets. There is an even, partially paved walk way around the lake and steeper trails that take you up a few kilometers to other lakes (the two main trails terminate at "teahouses" to give you an idea of the ethos).

 

Canadian Lodges, the folks who operate the Buffalo Mountain Lodge in Banff, have another property next to the Chateau Lake Louise, the Deer Lodge.  The Deer Lodge is a little more visitor-worn than the Buffalo, but it offers a less-expensive alternative to the Chateau. 

 A picture named Lake-Moraine.jpg

But just because Lake Louise is so famous, don't get the idea that it's the only show in the region.  The same glacial deposits that give Lake Louise its famous color also shade the other mountain lakes in the area, almost all of which are a visual match to Lake Louise.  Lake Moraine, for instance, is near to Lake Louise and has its own upscale lakeside lodging.  Lake Moraine is a bit more natural, more rustic than the groomed access provided by Chateau Lake Louise.

 

Besides the Lodge at Lake Moraine and the two properties noted on Lake Louise, another luxury option nearby is the Post House.  Beautifully done in polished maple beams, the Post House has all the swank amenities of the Chateau, and there are grand mountain views, but the Post House is alongside Highway 1 with a big, wide parking lot eating up the views on one side of the property.  There are a handful of luxury cabins on the river along one side of the Post House.  

 

The Post House has a pool, award-winning restaurant, a great bar and a lot of amenities. It has ample, if somewhat distant mountain view.  It lakes either the lake side feature of Chateau Lake Louise, or the proximity to a full service town, like most Banff Hotels. 

 

Conclusion

 

Banff is an easy trip to put off year after year.  It isnít a perfect destination: summer rates are high and Calgary is a lot harder to access than, say, Denver.  But the Banff region has an absolute towering beauty.  It also has the resounding natural presence of bears and elks and other mountain beasts, the spectacle of glaciers and massive, blue-green rivers of ice and the startlingly tranquil presence of the glacier-fed lakes.  There is no place quite like it.  It is one of a handful of princely, must-see destinations on the American continent.

*   *   *

This website, cloudtravel, is a non-commercial travel resource.  If you find this page useful, please visit our other travel guide pages.  This Normandy page, and also the Irish Driving Tour page, have been distinguished by Google in their search results, showing them to be among the most relied upon on the Internet.   There are also pages on visiting New Orleans, visiting Paris, France, visiting Newport, Rhode Island, visiting Quebec City, Canada, and others.  If you are interested in a particular destination, please go to your favorite search engine and search for "cloudtravel" plus the name of the destination - maybe I wrote about your place.  Posted on a slightly fancier page, at www.cloudtravel.net, are my day-to-day posts about travel subjects.  Please visit and subscribe via XML feed.

Thanks.  Happy trails.


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Last update: 9/5/2006; 8:37:27 PM.