Thanks for joining here. We wanted to write this blog post to help anyone who’s planning on traveling to Alberta, CA (specifically the Banff and Calgary region). Since there’s so much to talk about and there’s a lot we want to cover from our time there, we’ve decided that we’re going to break it out into two parts. First, we’ll walk you through the basics on what to do and see during a first time trip to Banff and then in the very near future we will help guide you on some of the best things Calgary and the surrounding areas has to offer!
But first up…
After traveling quite extensively around the world over the past couple of years, we have to admit this makes it to the list as one of the most naturally beautiful places we’ve been! We got a bit of snow in mid September which was odd but not entirely unusual. Personally we loved it! The first snow of the season is always magical and seeing it lightly coat the trees at Lake Moraine made for perfect pictures!
So to start, we drove from Calgary to Banff. We were staying in downtown Calgary so we took day trips into Banff (yes it’s possible!). It’s a little over an hour from Calgary to the start of the National Park and another 45 mins or so to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. We actually really enjoyed the drive as it’s the only true way to experience the dramatic changes in scenery (in our opinion)!
Upon entering Banff National Park you’ll need to purchase a park pass. It’s easy to miss because the highway splits. You can either wait in a short line at the park gate which veers to the left or you can veer right which would continue you on the highway all the way to Vancouver. We were a bit confused about what to do and luckily the line was short so we just decided to stop and ask a few questions. We were told we’d need to purchase a park pass. We were given a few different maps, all our questions were very nicely answered and they gave us a quick but still very detailed synopsis of the lakes and the parking situations. Ultimately we had to stop in order to purchase a park pass but it ended up being extremely informative for us.
Basically here’s the breakdown of the park pass:
Depending on which area you’re heading to; Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and/or Yoho, your pass covers you for all them. It’s about $20 (Canadian) per vehicle for the day. The nice thing is that regardless of when you purchase that pass (i.e. 9am or 3pm) it’s valid until 4pm the following day. So depending upon the time of your entry it’s really more than a 24 hour pass. However, if you’re planning on being in the area a while or multiple times throughout the year, it may be worth it to buy the annual Discovery Pass. You can purchase this online at an earlier date at your convenience or the day you arrive at the park gate. For a family or group it costs about $136 (Canadian) or around $67 for just one person. This pass is great because it’s valid for 13 months and it’s valid in 27 of Canada’s national parks and 77 of Canada’s national historic sites such as different museums (Banff Museum!). Another nice thing to note here is that the money from this pass goes directly back into the park!
Where to Park?
There’s a few options depending on your time of arrival. The nice guy at the gate of the park told us that we were a bit late (Canadians are so nice, we were extremely late) for the mainstream parking. Basically what that means is that Lake Moraine has an average size lot to park at. People arrive before sunrise to park at that lot so after 7am-ish its pretty much filled. They close off that lot and direct people to the Lake Louise lot, which also fills up pretty quickly. After a certain point, basically early morning, don’t even bother going to these lots because they will be closed off and you’ll have to turn around and head to the overflow lot anyway. We went straight to the overflow lot, also called Park and Ride. You will actually pass this first and then it’s about 15-20 mins to the lakes. My advice is upon arrival at the gate of the park ask the person their opinion. The nice guy told us just to head straight to overflow parking, so we did. This helps save a bit of time and unnecessary driving. If you do have to park in the overflow don’t fret, school buses run frequently. You will have to purchase a bus ride.
Here’s the breakdown on the buses:
Again, depending on where you park you’ll want to plan accordingly (You can skip this section for for now but we recommend coming back to this before your trip here)!
Lake Louise Park and Ride (overflow parking lot) and Lake Louise lakeshore
Buses go from the overflow Park and Ride to -> Lake Louise lakeshore and the Village of Lake Louise. You can purchase these bus tickets directly at the Park and Ride (there’s a booth). The shuttles leave the Park and Ride every 15 mins from 8am-4:30pm (last ride going out from the Park and Ride). These shuttles run from May 17 to October 14 (based on 2019, these will change in the upcoming year and are dependent upon weather conditions). This shuttle costs $4 per adult, $2 for seniors (over age 65) and youth (under age 18), and it’s free for children under 6 years old.
Getting to Moraine Lake
Each shuttle bus ride is $6 per adult, seniors (over 65) and youth (under 18) are only $3 and children (under 6) are free. Tickets can be purchased at Lake Louise lakeshore. To get to Moraine Lake you will take a shuttle from Lake Louise lakeshore which leaves every 20 mins from 8:40am-4:20pm and heads for Moraine Lake. The last shuttle to leave Moraine Lake for the Park and Ride departs at 5:40pm. This schedule is from May 24-October 14 (again this is for 2019 and will change).
*This year, 2019, they started an Early Bird Shuttle schedule to Moraine Lake. From June 24-Sept 29 you could purchase an Early Bird ticket from the Park and Ride that would then shuttle you over to Moraine Lake. (This is if the Moraine Lake lot was full and it was before regular shuttle hours). Starting at 6am-7:30am there were 4 shuttle times departing from the Park and Ride to Moraine Lake. Adults $6, Seniors and Youth $4 and children under 6 years of age for free. *
I realize this is all a bit confusing. The buses only depart from certain lots to certain Lakes. But this has to do with the roads, with the flow of traffic and how big the buses are. So to break it down even further I hope this helps…
Park and Ride shuttle bus -> Lake Louise lakeshore/Village of Lake Louise.
8am-4:30pm every 15 mins
Lake Louise shuttle bus -> Moraine Lake
8:40am-4:20pm every 20 mins
Early Bird Park and Ride shuttle bus ->Moraine Lake
6am-7:30am only 4 different times and only **June 24-Sept 29 for the year of 2019**
Moraine Lake shuttle bus -> Lake Louise Park and Ride
*It’s important to note that Moraine Lake shuttle bus does not go to Lake Louise lakeshore. You will have to take the Moraine Lake shuttle to the Park and Ride and then take another shuttle from there to Lake Louise lakeshore.*
Basically they would like everyone to explore Lake Louise lakeshore first and then take the shuttle over to Moraine Lake and explore that. Then leave Moraine Lake and shuttle back to the Park and Ride where you would either get your car or take another shuttle from the Park and Ride back to Lake Louise lakeshore. It can be confusing, especially if you’re like us and went to Moraine Lake first and then were trying to figure out how to get to Lake Louise lakeshore. Ultimately everyone is really nice and if you get confused, ask questions. But I hope this breakdown saves you an extra bus shuttle and some confusion!
Also, just want to quickly note! The buses are a great way to learn a lot of information about the area! Many of the drivers will give insight about details we weren’t aware of! Moraine Lake is only about 14 meters deep! It’s also situated in the Valley of the Ten Peaks (you’ll notice the peaks in pictures!). Overall, we didn’t mind having to take the shuttles!
We were pretty pressed for time when we got to Lake Louise. The weather was starting to change and it was going to get dark soon (we still had to drive back to Calgary). So we quickly explored what we could, took some pictures and then hopped in our car. We definitely wish we had more time!
But to give you a little glimpse, the lake is just a few minutes from where the buses drop you off. The nice thing about both Lake Louise & Moraine Lake is that they don’t require miles of hiking for you to see them. So the whole family can enjoy them. Upon arrival to the glacier fed turquoise lake you will see mountains drop into a valley, making for an incredible background and photo op. To the left is a small boat house with accessible rowboats and kayaks. Unfortunately the weather did not permit any boating activities while we were there so we weren’t able to use them! We then walked to the right, past the Fairmont Chateau, an incredible hotel that sits on Lake Louise’ lakefront. We were told we had to go in and have a hot chocolate but since we were pressed for time we wanted to make sure we explored as much of the lake as possible! The hike around the lake is extremely easy. It’s pretty much flat and paved so using a stroller and or wheelchair would be possible! You could easily spend a whole day here and explore further trails that lead off away from Lake Louise giving you a different perspective of the lake!
In our opinion Moraine Lake was a bit more authentic feeling. It’s much smaller than Lake Louise but has more of a cozy feel and is surrounded by some of Banff’s largest peaks! Also, there isn’t a large hotel overlooking the lake which we liked. Just some small cabins in the forest, as well as a boat house and a small coffee shop. Other than that it’s just natural beauty hitting you right in the face. We loved hiking through to get a closer look at the water. If I had a stroller or was using a wheelchair this lake would be quite difficult to access from different vantage points though, so that is something to think about!
You may have seen this lake all over Instagram in a million different shades of blue. Before coming here, we actually assumed most of the pictures we saw were highly edited and that there’s no way it would be this color. However, it really was this blue and the changing of the shade had to do with the unpredictable weather and movement of clouds. We were standing directly in front of the lake and it would change right before our eyes in just a matter of moments! From hail to snow to rain to sun, we saw it all during our time there!
Johnston Canyon Trail
Johnston Canyon Trail is a series of trails through limestone cliffs and into a deep canyon. Along the trail you’ll see gorgeous waterfall after waterfall! This is a great area for families as the trails are extremely stable and fairly easy to hike. This is also a great hiking trail for the summer as majority of it is shaded so it offers protection in those hot summer months. There are a few different regions to hike to depending on how much time you have. The falls range between 30 minutes to get to (lower falls) and about an hour for the upper falls. This depends on your pace! There’s also other trails to explore throughout this area depending on the time of year. A few were closed while we were there due to weather conditions and safety concerns.
If you don’t have time to stop at any of the lakes/hiking trails (make time, trust us!) and you’re still looking for some awesome views… just simply drive the Icefields Parkway. This highway extends through the park (Banff, Jasper) as a whole. We simply were driving on the Trans Canada Highway when we followed signs for Icefields Parkway. You don’t have to drive long before you start to see spectacular views. There are plenty of places to pull over, park and take pictures. In the one below we parked in a designated pull off area to the right and were cautious of any incoming traffic! This parkway is such a peaceful drive. So roll down the windows, play some tunes and appreciate the natural beauty that Alberta offers. You won’t regret it!
What we didn’t get to do but we definitely will next time…
Lake Peyto – If you’ve seen pictures of this lake you’ll notice its shape is unlike any other. The light blue lake is a perfect outline of a wolf, which makes for a great photo-op! Lake Peyto is another glacier-fed lake (hence the color), located in Banff National Park right off the Icefields Parkway and just 25 miles north of Lake Louise. The hike around the lake itself if just under 4 miles. And we’ve read that it’s one of the best views in the Canadian Rockies. If you don’t have time for the entire hike there is a view point that is easily accessible for a pictures!
Staying in the Banff area – Next time we’d love to stay in the Banff area for a few nights. It would have been great to get to some of these areas for sunrise.
Banff town – We loved the short time we had walking around (and of course eating!) in Banff Town. We would have loved a little bit more time though! There are plenty of cute shops and things to do here. Also. Get a Beaver Tail. Just trust us. It’s fried dough that is quite magical!
More time for each place – We’d love to designate a day to each lake the next time we travel to Alberta. Every hike is just breathtaking! We’d definitely pack a lunch and hike and spend each day hiking in that specific area.
Fairmont Chateau – We’ve been told you have to have a coffee at the Fairmont Chateau at Lake Louise. We unfortunately didn’t have enough time! Next time for sure. Maybe we’ll even stay a night!
Well I think that pretty much covers everything we can think of when it comes to visiting Banff National Park in a short amount of time. We hope this was helpful! Look out for our Calgary blog post coming in the very near future and feel free to ask us any questions if you’re looking to plan a trip to Alberta anytime soon!