This was the best family vacation we’ve had yet. We visited Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta, Canada, and had the most amazing adventure of our lives. Amazing because Banff can be as active or relaxing a destination as you want it to be. It’s a great choice for young singles, couples and families with children. We kept busy with beautiful hiking trails, canoeing, kayaking, biking and a little bit of gourmet dining to round everything out. Banff combines gorgeous views with small town charm and convenience. If you don’t already have it on your travel wish list, there is no way around it: you simply must add Banff. This trip will definitely go down as one of your most memorable and all-time favorites.
When we arrived home, I heard from several people that they wanted to hear tips because–after seeing our photos on Facebook–they wanted to plan their own trips to Banff. I’m writing this post as a bit of a travel diary, but also as a tool to help others plan the perfect trip. We stayed two weeks. Here is a glimpse into what I believe to be the perfect family vacation.
WHERE TO STAY IN BANFF
Canmore is a charming little mountain town located just about thirty minutes from Banff. That’s where we stayed. When we first decided to vacation in Banff, I had my heart set on staying in Banff proper because it would have put us in the heart of the national park.
The more I read, the more I changed my mind. In the end, we decided that Canmore was better suited for our tastes. Banff has a reputation for being a bit more touristy and crowded than Canmore and after having visited both, I can say that the reputation is well-founded. Another determining factor for us was that most of the accommodations in Banff were hotel rooms. Lately, we’ve really preferred condos or rental homes over hotels because they give us room to stretch out. We also appreciate having access to a kitchen so that we can prepare meals on our own.
We stayed in a two-bedroom condo in the Rundle Cliffs Lodge in Spring Creek. We loved every moment of our stay there, in part because of its proximity to town. Two walking trails lead away from the lodge into town and provide pedestrian access to shops, restaurants and both of the town’s major grocery stores (Safeway and Save-On Foods). Once we checked-in at our condo, we hardly used the car at all if our destination was in Canmore. The views from the lodge were unbelievable.
We happened to be in town on Canada Day. They held a fireworks show that night at a park that was a ten minute walk from our condo.
The other benefit to staying in Canmore is that you get to experience the small town charm of an adorable mountain town. We spent several afternoons perusing shops and stopping for snacks as we strolled the streets of Canmore.
One of our favorite parts of the trip was the night we rented the resort’s unadvertised fire pit and roasted marshmallows for s’mores. It was a quintessential Canadian campfire experience on the banks of a rushing creek that my kids will never forget.
WHERE TO STAY IN LAKE LOUISE
We did a split-stay trip during which we stayed eight nights in Canmore and five nights in Lake Louise. In Lake Louise, we stayed at the Post Hotel. It’s an intimate mountain lodge owned by two Swiss hoteliers and has a great reputation for its wine and food. Enjoying at least the Swiss chocolate dessert in the lodge’s fondue restaurant is a must.
The Post Hotel offers several amenities to all guests on a complimentary basis, including afternoon tea, use of bicycles and DVD movies, and a library stocked with books and board games. We took the bikes on a spin along the nearby Bow Valley Loop. Do that; it’s an awesome trail. Be sure to spend some time in the library, too. Our family highly recommends the Apple to Apples board game.
We also had a fruit bowl in our room upon arrival that was replenished as needed. And then at night they’d come through for turn-down service and leave a bottle of water and a Lindt chocolate truffle for each guest. The one drawback worth noting is that the Post Hotel does not have A/C in the rooms. That was a bit problematic for us considering the high temperatures during our stay hovered in the low 90’s (Farenheit). We survived by sleeping with the windows and patio door open and using the fan that was provided but it wasn’t entirely comfortable.
WHERE TO EAT IN AND AROUND BANFF
If you’ve traveled to many of our American National Parks, you know that quality dining options in and around the parks are scarce. Not so with Banff. Whether you’re looking for a hearty quick bite or a fine dining experience, you have options.
OEB Breakfast Co. – This is a hoppin’ breakfast spot in Calgary. They get creative with all kinds of benny and breakfast box options. It’s a great way to start your day, but do use the nowait app because you’ll get seated much more quickly.
Rocky Mountain Flatbread Co. – They have locations in Canmore and Banff (and beyond). Pizzas are the obvious specialty and they do them justice by cooking them in a proper pizza oven and topping them with fresh, seasonal ingredients.
The Trough Dining Co. – We enjoyed a date night dinner out in Canmore one evening. This is an intimate restaurant with a lovely patio and limited menu. The bruschetta was perfect. Order it.
Rocky Mountain Bagel Co. – Bagels are made fresh daily and can be smeared with cream cheese or made into any of several creative breakfast (or lunch) sandwiches. They also serve a small selection of baked goods and soups.
Eden – This is a fine dining experience with a price tag to prove it but if you are a foodie, then it’s a must-do. Eden is located in the Rimrock Resort in Banff and offers one of the most amazing views I’ve ever experienced from a restaurant table. And the food was unforgettable.
Summit Cafe – We picked up breakfast on our last morning in Canmore and found it to be quite good, though maybe a bit overpriced. The pastries were creative and delicious. The breakfast burritos were not as good as we’d hoped.
Lakeview Lounge – Located inside the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, the Lakeview Lounge features huge picture windows that overlook the beautiful turquoise lake. We took afternoon tea and loved every single minute of the experience. We had lunch there during a subsequent visit and found the food to be very good and priced just right for the area.
Fondue Stübli – This is the Post Hotel’s intimate fondue room. Because the hoteliers are Swiss, this is an authentic experience. The cheese fondue for two was more than enough to feed four. We also enjoyed the bourguignonne fondue as well as a chocolate fondue for a decadent dessert.
Outpost Pub – This casual restaurant at the Post Hotel serves traditional pub fare. Portions are generous and the food is good–better than you’d expect from a hotel pub.
It’s worth noting that we also dined in the main dining room at the Post Hotel and were very disappointed. Jeff and I both ordered the chef’s tasting menu. The dishes we were served were reminiscent of what we’ve been served on a cruise. Textures were terrible, flavors were unexciting and wines were not well-paired. My advice is to skip the main dining room and opt instead for the fondue restaurant or the pub.
WHAT TO DO IN BANFF
Banff is an adventure-seeker’s paradise. There is beauty around every corner and you literally don’t have to leave the comfort of your car to enjoy mountain vistas, turquoise lakes and grazing wildlife. If, however, you do want to get out and get active, Banff offers countless opportunities for hiking. That’s one of the ways we opted to take it all in. Because we were traveling with a tween boy and a teenage girl with Down syndrome, we stuck to trails designated as easy to moderate, but there were several difficult and lengthier hikes available to us. Here are the activities we enjoyed most, all of which are entirely appropriate for a family with kids.
The first stop on our hiking tour was Grassi Lakes Trail in Canmore. Right at the start, the trail splits into two routes, marked ‘easy’ or ‘difficult.’ We opted to take the difficult route (which really wasn’t difficult) because it affords a view of a waterfall that those who opt to take the easy way miss out on. The ‘easy’ trail is basically an unpaved road with moderate elevation gain. It was kind of ho-hum for our taste but would make taking a child in a stroller an option.
At the top of the trail, you’ll find two turquoise lakes. Depending upon the time you go, you might also find a lot of people so be forewarned that this is a popular hike. TIP: Choose the difficult route up and then opt for the easy route down.
The next trail we did was perhaps the most popular one in Banff: Johnston Canyon. It’s popular for good reason; it’s both beautiful and easy for families. Part of the trail consists of steel walkways that hang from the canyon walls. The remainder of the trail is paved and smooth with a mild to moderate incline.
The rushing water echoes off the canyon walls and makes this trail less peaceful and quiet than some of the others, but it ranks really high on the pretty factor. Johnston Canyon offers a little something extra, too, to those with adventurous spirits. Namely: the secret cave.
Can you even believe that this place actually exists? It looks like a mermaid’s grotto, right?
Johnston Canyon’s secret cave is not a very well-kept secret. It’s located just off the main hiking trail and is not all difficult to get to. All you have to do is follow the trail towards the upper falls. Just before you get there, look to your right and you’ll see the cave. You do have to deviate from the main trail, but the path down to the secret cave is well-traveled and worn in.
We arrived to Johnston Canyon around 6:30 on a Monday morning. By the time we made it to the secret cave there was one other group of three there already but they left soon after we arrived and then we had the place to ourselves for a good twenty minutes or so. I set up the tripod and captured proof that we’ve been there.
Johnston Canyon was absolutely gorgeous. Perhaps that’s why it can be so busy. If you want to be able to enjoy it without being herded along with throngs of people, it’s best to arrive within an hour of sunrise or two hours before sunset.
Bow Valley Parkway
One of the most exciting surprises, for us, came about as we were driving Bow Valley Parkway early one morning. We’d risen before dawn that morning in an effort to photograph the sunrise at Vermillion Lakes. That particular sunrise was a bit of a bust, but on the bright side, the early hour allowed us to pose for a photo on the popular Banff sign without being interrupted by other visitors.
With a picnic breakfast packed and ready in the car, we drove along the Bow Valley Parkway towards Lake Louise. We were on a bit of a hunt, a bear hunt, that is. I’d read that our best shot of viewing wildlife was on the Bow Valley Parkway, within a couple of hours of sunrise. After driving for awhile and seeing not so much as a beaver, I began to give up hope. And then we quite literally, and figuratively, turned a corner and there he was: our first bear of the trip. It was a grizzly, as is evidenced by that large hump on his back.
We kept a safe distance from him but did linger in our car for a good five minutes, watching him as he munched on grass. This bear didn’t give us so much as a glance but took total ownership of both the roadside, and the road. He crisscrossed right in front of us, blocking all traffic. It was awesome to watch.
As we drove a bit further, it was as if the bears came out of the forest just to show off. We ended up seeing a total of four bears that morning: two grizzlies and two black bears. One of the bears we saw seemed to be particular fond of dandelions. We nicknamed him ‘Dandy.’
Bears didn’t completely monopolize the Bow Valley Parkway. We also saw elk and longhorn sheep.
One of the most unique and fun things we did on our trip was to enjoy a breakfast picnic on Lake Minnewanka. It’s a beautiful lake, though seemingly less popular than Lake Loiuse or Moraine Lake. We practically had the place to ourselves for a couple of hours.
There is a shoreline hiking trail at Lake Minnewannka, but we opted not to attempt it because it’s eighteen miles long. Instead, we hung out in the day use area where the kids practiced skipping rocks and watching the brave chipmunks.
There is a short and family-friendly trail that begins at the day use area of the lake. The Stewart Canyon trail is a good bet if you want a quick and easy activity.
Sunshine Village was one of our favorites (but then again, choosing a Banff favorite is akin to choosing a favorite child). Imagine hiking in a wildflower meadow with views of alpine lakes and distant, snow-capped mountains. That, my friends, is Sunshine Village.
We accessed the trails via a gondola, followed by two chairlift rides. The gondola and lifts are not free; I purchased tickets on Groupon for just under one hundred US dollars. We spent all day there, so it was well worth the cost. During our visit, the gondola only operated on the weekend and a bus took visitors up to the trail area during the week. I’d definitely opt for the gondola again because the kids really enjoyed it.
The trails are fairly easy but the inclines can be steep. If you’ve got little ones with you, your best bet is to ask someone who works there which trail is recommended.
Peyto Lake & Bow Lake
One of the best parts of Banff was that we’d be driving along to any given destination and we’d round a corner and be smacked in the face with a view so gorgeous we had to pull over for it. Happened all the time while we were there. One morning, we set out to explore Peyto and Bow Lakes and along the way, we passed Herbert Lake. Unlike some of the other area lakes, the water in Herbert Lake was deep blue and so still that the reflection of the mountains was perfectly undisturbed. We stopped just for a second so that I could snap a picture.
A bit further along the Icefields Parkway, we came to Peyto Lake. I’d seen photos of it, but until I saw it in person, I couldn’t believe that the water could be so turquoise. Oh, but indeed it is.
The photo above was shot from the Peyto Lake viewpoint, which is a short but incredibly steep walk from the parking area. I also am inclined to warn that the mosquitoes were swarmed so thickly in this area that stopping movement for even a moment results in being clothed with them. It was pretty nasty.
Rumor has it that there is an old fire access road that leads to an excellent view of both Peyto and Bow Lakes. We attempted it but gave up after about a mile and a half because a) by that point in the trip our daughter was becoming an unpleasant hiker and b) the mosquitoes were ferocious. I will say, however, that viewed alone both Peyto and Bow Lakes are a sight to behold. I can only imagine what the view from that lookout must be like.
As we drove along the Icefields Parkway back to our hotel in Lake Louise, we were able to stop at Bow Lake for photos. We also stopped at a random trail-head and went on a brief exploration. It was kept brief because we spotted a bear print in the mud and filed out of there pretty quickly. Later that morning, we ended up seeing our fifth and final bear of the trip grazing on flowers along the Icefields Parkway.
In spite of our hiking misses on this day, I would highly recommend visiting Peyto Lake during a trip to the Lake Louise area. Just be sure to wear mosquito-proof clothes.
We debated between Yellowstone and Banff but when it came to deciding on one, this right here was the tipping point. I’d seen so many photos of Lake Louise and I knew that, for me, this was the clincher. I really wanted to see that kind of beauty with my own two eyes, but not just any view would do; I wanted to make sure that the mountains that framed the lake were snow-capped when we went. I read that the snow might be completely melted by mid-July so we booked an early July trip and the timing was perfect.
I can’t help but wonder if there is a more beautiful lake in existence anywhere in the world. This one is framed so perfectly by the mountains. The water is a gorgeous shade of icy blue. And the ring of trees add life and color. It’s gorgeous. You really should make it a point to get up there and see it.
We spent quite a bit of time there. The first morning we went early and hiked to the Fairmont lookout for a view straight out of a fairytale.
Later that day we enjoyed afternoon tea in the Fairmont’s Lakeview Lounge. That is a must-do if you go. The dining area features huge arched windows with a view of the lake. Between the savories and the sweets, it’s quite filling, too.
One of the best parts about Lake Louise is that in spite of the fact that it was really, really crowded while we were there, amazing photos can be snapped from just about anywhere along the shore. Looking at my photos, you’d never guess how many people were visiting that day, right? Believe me when I tell you that there were a lot.
It seems to me that Moraine Lake is the second most popular glacial lake in the area–to Lake Louise. I can see why. I would say that the color is even more striking than Lake Louise. Still, Lake Louise is superior in my book because of the way the mountains frame it. Don’t get me wrong; Moraine Lake is nothing to shake a stick at.
For the view in the shot above, you’ll need to climb the Rockpile. It’s an easy and popular hike to the top that shouldn’t take you more than ten to fifteen minutes.
You likely won’t be alone at the top, but there are several lookout points that makes snapping a photo relatively easy.
From there, you might opt to hike the shoreline trail. We did it without any trouble in under an hour. The trail was moderately crowded but it offered so many beautiful vistas along the way.
There was a dock at Moraine Lake that rented canoes by the hour. The colorful fleet of them lined up on the deck made for an excellent photo opportunity.
GETTING TO AND FROM
Alberta’s Calgary airport is the most ideal airport for travel to and from Banff. It’s spacious, clean and well-organized. Calgary is located just about an hour from Canmore, and about two hours from the Lake Louise area. We used National rental car and can vouch that the Emerald Aisle was well-stocked with a variety of new or nearly-new vehicles. I highly recommend renting a crossover SUV. It’s worth splurging a little on the upgrade from a midsize car to something with a bit of a higher profile just in case you decide to brave some of the dirt roads. Having a crossover SUV was also helpful when we spotted wildlife because it gave us a better vantage point to watch the animals and take pictures from
Because our incoming flight arrived in the late evening, we opted to stay our first night in Calgary. The next morning, we took the kids to the Calgary Zoo (The Calgary Zoo provided complimentary admission to my family for review purposes. All stated opinions are my own.). We spent about three hours there, watching the animals and catching a few demonstrations. We found the Calgary Zoo to be particularly well laid out and also appreciated that it offered so many zookeeper talks and demonstrations. We also loved that they had a variety of dining options at reasonable price points. As far as animals, we spent the most time watching the gorillas and the penguins. Unfortunately, we just missed the opening of the new lemur enclosure, but we’ve got in our radar for next time.
I hope you enjoyed this virtual tour of the Canadian Rockies. I secretly hope it made you want to add Banff to your travel plans without passing go. It truly is an amazing–and overlooked, I believe–travel destination. If you go, I’d love to hear about your trip. And if I can answer any further questions, leave them in the comments. Also, if you’ve already been and I missed something great, leave that in the comments, too!