2 Days in Banff
So, our road trip in the Canadian Rockies continues with 2 days in Banff National Park. The scenery throughout the Rockies is simply spectacular but Banff was definitely one of the highlights. Having a car is ideal in this area so that you can easily access different viewpoints. However, it is possible to explore the area by public transport since there is a bus service available.
We divided our 2 days in Banff by firstly, exploring the area closest to the town of Banff. Then on day 2, we drove up to the Lake Louise area which is slightly further north. There’s a lot to see but we fitted a lot in and saw the major sights. If you like to do a lot of longer hikes then you’ll need much more than just 2 days in Banff. You could stay a week and still not do it all. However, we managed to fit in quite a few short walks and felt like we got a good first taste of Banff National Park.
Whyte Museum & Gardens
Bow River Walk
Lake Minnewanka Loop Drive
Lake Louise Gondola
Bow Valley Parkway
We started our exploration of Banff National Park straightaway with a look around Banff Town. This picturesque town is a good starting point with plenty of shops and cafes as well as some scenic walks. We stayed in Canmore during our 2 days in Banff which is a short drive south of Banff town and you can read my review on our hotel, Lodges at Canmore, by clicking on this link. Of course, this meant we had to drive into Banff but there is plenty of free parking in the large tourist car park adjacent to the railway station. From there it is just a short walk into town. In fact, we came back to Banff town again during our 2 days in Banff as it’s got some great cafes and shops and is lovely just to walk around.
Whyte Museum & Gardens
As we made our way into the town we saw from old buildings and also some sculptures in a garden and went over for a closer look. In fact, these are the gardens of the Whyte Museum and you can get a fascinating glimpse at the history of the Canadian Rockies without even going inside.
Outside are eight heritage buildings and each one relates to someone who is especially important to Banff’s history. For instance, the house in the photo below was originally built by Philip Moore and his wife, Pearl in 1907. The house is full of artefacts from their world travels and it is also possible to look inside if you ask in the museum.
The Whyte Museum: Practical Information
Students & Locals $5
Children under 12 are free
Access to the exhibits in the garden is free
Opening Hours: 10 am to 5 pm
Bow River Walk
Our first short walk in Banff was the Bow River Trail. This quiet, paved trail is located just across the river from the main town so is very handy. Just cross the bridge and turn left. It’s a particularly picturesque walk. Indeed, really everywhere in the Banff area does have pretty amazing views so that’s not a surprise. If you like walking but don’t want to head out into the wilderness then these short walks are ideal. We saw a lot by taking the shorter trails and you also get the benefit of stretching your legs a bit.
As you can see in the photos you get some great views of the iconic Mount Rundle as you walk along the trail. You will follow the River Bow which is also very pretty with trees and flowers along the banks.
Bow River Falls
One of the highlights of the trail for me was Bow River Falls. I do like to see the power of the water as it crashes down the rapids and although this is not the largest waterfall we saw on this trip it was still pretty impressive. I think it’s the setting.
There are a lot of steps on this walk so be warned if you’re not keen on climbing up and down. We had to climb up steps then go down the other side only to have to climb some more. It makes it a more strenuous walk than if it was flat but then this terrain is pretty hilly.
Unfortunately, that means that it’s not an accessible walk. However, if you are in a wheelchair or have difficulty with steps then you can still see the rapids and Surprise Corner Viewpoint. There is a parking area at the corner, just after the last steps so you can drive to here and then access the views from flat ground.
If you want a longer walk then the trail continues uphill here and links to the Upper Hot Springs trail. Otherwise, you need to turn back. Pause a minute first to look up at the iconic Banff Springs Hotel which sits on the hill above the falls.
You can also walk along the Bow River Trail in the opposite direction from town, towards Fenland Trail. This is a longer walk at 9km although it is flatter. You can view how the various trails in the area intersect on this trail map.
Afterwards, we set off in the car towards the Vermillion Lakes scenic drive. It’s a short drive (just over 4km) which is just outside the town of Banff and the views of Mount Rundle from here are amazing.
Best of all, it was very quiet while we were there. We hardly saw another soul. It was so lovely to just gaze across the lakes and take in the scenery with just the sounds of lapping water and rustling leaves.
Our next stop was the Banff Gondola. I love gondolas but since we usually travel off-peak they are often closed so I just get to see them from the ground. Fortunately, for me, most of the gondolas in Canada are open year-round.
We found a parking space in the small car park at the foot of the gondola. I’m sure parking is a nightmare here in peak season as it was pretty full while we were there in late September and crowds generally were low. Despite the nearly full car park, there was no queue to buy tickets and we walked straight onto the next gondola.
The Banff Gondola takes you to the top of Sulphur Mountain where you get spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. It takes approximately 8 minutes to whisk you to the top of the mountain. Once you reach the top there is an exhibition inside which is very interesting. Afterwards, step outside onto the observation deck and take look around.
It was freezing when we were there and very windy so nobody was hanging around outside for long. However, you really do have to brave the weather as it’s a simply stunning view.
Explore the Mountain
If you haven’t done enough walking yet then you can stroll along the boardwalk to Sanson’s Peak. We made it as far as the first few viewpoints but really it was far too windy and cold so we turned back. It would be a fabulous walk in better weather though.
Out on the observation deck, I discovered this cute bear statue. You can see the clouds are right down at our level in this photo and the rain was also beginning to sweep in. There are definitely better days to be at the top of a mountain but I wouldn’t have missed it.
Before you head back down again, make sure you watch the film in the Banff Theatre. Soar over the Canadian Rockies for a bird’s eye view of the National Park. Entry is included in your gondola ticket.
Banff Gondola: Practical Information
Adults from $53 but prices vary
Hours vary so it is best to check the website as hours are extended in summer.
Mon-Tues: 10 am – 4:30 pm
Wed-Sun: 10 am – 8:30 pm
There is car parking available at the gondola but it is limited. At busier times use the Banff Roam bus service.
Lake Minnewanka Loop
After our trip on the Banff Gondola, we took a scenic drive along the Lake Minnewanka Loop. Of course, by now you’re expecting great scenery wherever you go in Banff National Park and you don’t be disappointed.
Lake Minnewanka is particularly interesting because it has been artificially raised twice. Firstly, in 1912 the lake water was raised 16 foot by the introduction of the Devils’ Canyon Dam. Then again by a whopping 65 feet in 1941.
Underneath the lake is the remains of the original dam and also the old village of Minnewanka Landing. It’s incredible how nature adapts to these changes and now there is no trace of them.
If you want to go hiking or just spend more time at Lake Minnewanka then there is parking available. For great views of the lake along the drive, there are also small laybys where you can stop for a short time to take photographs.
The final stop on our first day in the Banff area was Johnson Lake. In summer this is a popular recreational area but in late September it was particularly quiet. This is a special part of Banff National Park called the montane zone. Although it makes up only 3% of the total park area, it is home to many large mammals who enjoy life in the mixed grassland and forest.
If you’re still feeling energetic there is a 3km hiking trail along the lake’s shoreline or a 3.8km (one way) cycling trail to the water tower. We decided to just enjoy the views instead. By now we were quite tired so decided that that was the end of exploring for one day. Fortunately, we had 2 days in Banff as there were still some major sights to see tomorrow.
Early on the second of our 2 days in Banff, we set off to Lake Louise. We were warned that parking can be tricky at the area near the lake and that we might need to park at the overflow parking and take a shuttle bus in. However, as we drove towards the lake there were no signs indicating that the parking was full so we kept going. Fortunately for us, it is not that busy in Banff National Park in late September and we drove straight into the upper car park and into a parking space. Right next to the path down to the lake. I’m pretty sure we got the last parking space though so you do need to arrive early if you want to park right down near the lake. We arrived around 9 am as an indication.
Lake Louise is incredibly popular and with good reason. After several days exploring the Canadian Rockies, I was thinking can it really be that special? After all, we’d seen so many spectacular views. Well, take it from me, Lake Louise is something else and you really have to see it when you visit Banff. It is simply breathtaking and a must-see during your 2 days in Banff.
Walks around Lake Louise
After you’ve stood and gazed at the lake for a while, take a stroll along the lakeside. There are three walks available here but the first two start with the pathway which takes you alongside the side of the lake. Afterwards, you can continue on the longer hike towards the Plain of Six Glaciers and the tea house. An alternative hike takes you to St Agnes Lake.
From the far side of the lake, you can look back towards the Fairmont Chateau Hotel. This is a quite different perspective on Lake Louise. We only saw the hotel from the outside but non-residents are welcome to go inside to visit the cafe or restaurant. It looks very nice from the outside and of course, it’s in a beautiful location.
Lake Louise Gondola
If you’re a regular reader of my blog then you’ll know that I like a ride on a cable car. The Canadian Rockies is a great place for that and I found another one near Lake Louise. Even better, this one has a combination of open and capsule seats so we chose to ride up in the open ski lift-type chairs.
I thought this would be fun and would give us a better chance of taking some great photos. However, as you can see in the photo above, as we went further up the mountain it started to snow. Very soon, it became quite heavy and by the time we reached the top, it was snowing hard and very cold. Actually, it was still fun but Paul insisted we come back down again in the closed capsule.
When the weather is better you can get some fabulous views right across to Lake Louise. There are even some opportunities for bear watching. Unfortunately, the cloud closed in as the snow started and our view was rather limited. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the gondola ride and we did get some great views on the way up.
Lake Louise Gondola: Practical Information
Under 5s are free
Look out for special meal deals. We got breakfast as an add-on to our gondola ticket for just $2 each.
9 am to 4 pm
Operating area vary by season so check the website before you head over.
Bow Valley Parkway
Afterwards, we drove a short way out of the gondola parking lot and turned straight onto the Bow Valley Parkway. This scenic drive stretches right through the Banff National park and is a great way to see some of the spectacular scenery. In total, it is 48 km long but some of it was closed while we were there. We drove most of it though. Look for signs to the 1A as opposed to the main highway, it’s slower but so much nicer if you’re not in a hurry. There are also lots of parking places to pullover and admire the views for a bit longer.
Our first stop on the Bow Valley Parkway was Castle Mountain. It gets its name because the rock formations look like the turrets of a castle. The tallest peak is called Eisenhower’s Peak. If you park in the parking area then there is a short walk down to a viewing platform which gives you a great view of the mountain.
Afterwards, we drove a little further on the Bow Valley Parkway to Storm Mountain. At 3,155 metres high, Storm Mountain gets plenty of rain and snowstorms, hence the name. Here you can see the Snow Forest, which is located on the upper part of Bow Valley and were most of the precipitation falls as snow. How cool is that?
Our main stop on the Bow Valley Parkway was Johnston Canyon. There are three walking trails here. Johnston Canyon Lower Falls is 1.2km one-way. This part of the trail follows mostly wide paved paths with some narrow bridges but it is not too steep. It takes about an hour for the round trip.
At times, the path becomes a metal walkway which clings to the side of the canyon and allows fantastic views of the creek below.
After a short walk, you are rewarded with a view of the lower falls.
Here you can also cross a small bridge and duck through a low cave tunnel for a close-up view of the top of the falls.
You can see the cave tunnel on the right in the photo above. I don’t like caves at all but this one is really just a short tunnel and not at all scary or claustrophobic. Watch your head though as the ceiling is quite low.
The walk to the Upper Falls is 2.5km each way and is much steeper with more steps and narrower paths. It’s easily accessible to anyone with moderate fitness though and well worth it as you pass several smaller waterfalls on your way to the Upper Falls. You should add another hour to your walk if you go to the Upper Falls.
The longest walk is the one to the Ink Pots. This is 5.7km each way and I must confess that we didn’t go that far. According to the local information, it’s quite a steep climb, elevation gain 330m, but if you make it then you will see the bubbling pools. Altogether, it will take around 4 hours to do the full walk to the Ink Pots.
You don’t have to decide which trail to take from the beginning because each walk is an extension of the previous one. So start out to the Lower Falls and see if you want to continue to the Upper Falls and then the Ink Pots. The distances I’ve given above are all from the car park.
When we set out I thought we’d stop at the Lower Falls but it is such a lovely walk that we kept going to the Upper Falls. That was enough for me and so we turned back from there. The Upper Falls walk is much quieter as a lot of people only go as far as the Lower Falls. However, if you’re up to it then I do recommend walking a bit further as the scenery and walk along the canyon walls is worth it.
Why is it called Johnson Canyon? Well, that’s because a gold prospector called Johnson discovered the creek in the 1880s. He didn’t have much luck finding gold but he did leave his name behind.
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