Breathe in the fresh mountain air and gaze down into azure alpine lakes at Canada’s Banff National Park.
Going off the usual Aussie traveller track of Vancouver and Whistler, I headed inland to the Rocky Mountains and onto Canada’s first national park. Banff National Park is an outdoor adventurer’s paradise with 1600 kilometres of hiking trails.
Banff is about a 90 minute drive from Calgary past towering mountains – many capped with snow even in the summer. The drive alone will have you reaching for your camera.
The most popular lake in the park is Lake Louise – but I recommend heading to Lake Moraine first – especially if you only have time to see one lake. Lake Moraine is simply stunning and it seems to attract slightly less of a crowd than Lake Louise.
Lake Moraine is framed by majestic snow capped mountains. For the best view, take the trail up onto the rockpile. You can seriously not take a bad photo here. To see more of the lake, head down the 2.4km return Lakeshore Trail.
From Lake Moraine it’s about a 15 minute drive to Lake Louise – and you’ll spot the crowds before you see the lake. For the best view and to escape 90 per cent of the crowds, take a half hour trail up to a viewing point over the lake looking back to the famous Fairmount Chateau Hotel.
From this vantage point, you get to see the unique colour of the lake when the sun is shining.
It’s possible to hire kayaks at Moraine and Louise lakes during the summer months and see the snow-capped mountains from a different perspective.
One of the hikes I did in the Lake Louise area was up to Lake Agnes. The 7km return hike starts from the right hand side of Lake Louise and it will take you about 45 minutes to reach Lake Agnes.
On the way up, you’ll get a great view of Lake Louise and pass Mirror Lake and the Big and Little Beehive mountains.
Once you reach Lake Agnes and snap a few photos, have some coffee and cake at the quaint lakeside teahouse. You can then continue around part of the lake, get closer to the Little and Big Beehive, or onto the Plain of Six Glaciers trail to another tea house (Go on, after doing two hikes, you deserve a second slice of cake!)
Not far from Banff is Lake Minnewanka. There’s a trail leading around the lake or you can do boat tours in the summer. It can get pretty crowded here but even in summer you can enjoy a peaceful walk around the lake if you get there early around 8am.
Back in Banff, it’s a short drive over to Sulphur Mountain. You can hike Sulphur Mountain or take the gondola up.
If you hike up Sulphur Mountain and get to the gondola by 11am, it’s a free trip down. Totally worth it. The gondola is $A42 return, or $A21 down if you don’t make it up by 11am.
The 5.5km hike up is a switchback path with a steady incline. The mountain gets steadily steeper as you near the summit and it will take you about 90 minutes to reach the top. The hike starts from the right of the base gondola station. Once you’ve reached the top, head over to the lookout point for a view over six mountains and the Bow Valley.
After a hike, relax at the Upper Hot Springs across the road. There’s a large outdoor thermal pool at the complex and it’s a relaxing way to spend an hour or so. The pool temperature sits around 37-40 degrees year round.
If Banff wasn’t enough mountains for you, you can continue further north onto Jasper.
There’s lots of backpacker options in Banff. For a quiet stay, head to the Hostelling International Banff Alpine Centre Hostel – it’s located a little out of town but offers comfortable and sturdy bunk beds, large rooms even with some hanging space, and a huge kitchen and common area. There’s also plenty of parking on site.
For a more lively spot, head to Samesun Backpackers in the centre of town.