Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A long weekend in Banff National Park

This last weekend I finally visited a place that I dreamed about for few years now - Banff National Park. The picture of the Peyto Lake above says it all – Spectacular, Breathtaking and Magnificent!

We only had 4 days and 3 nights in Banff but as it turned out it was enough to see the main attractions, hike and relax. We left Seattle on Friday morning and flew to Calgary. The flight was only 1.5 hours, very quick. 

After renting a car we drove another 1.5 hours to Banff where we stayed during our trip.  Banff town is located in the park so we had to pay a park visiting fee for all 3 nights. We reserved the whole trip on Expedia and got some good deal on the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel, which included breakfast and a happy hour, both of which proved to be wise choices. It saved us time to have breakfast right in the hotel and not to worry about finding a spot in town.

Once we settled in our hotel, we decided not to waste any time and headed straight to the Banff Gondola. We took a 25-minute walk to the Banff Gondola instead of driving there. The trail started right behind the Banff Springs hotel. The Gondola fare per person was a bit pricey ($30) but how much do you pay for the ski lift ticket in winter? $80 +? 

The ride to the top of the Sulphur Mountain took about 8 minutes and here we were at the top of the mountain overlooking the Canadian Rockies, Banff town, Bow Valley and River. At the top they have a nice wooden walkway to the Sulphur Mountain Observatory. It was around 7 p.m. when we were there, a bit windy but still warm and sunny. Here are few pictures from the top of the mountain. We also peeked through the window of the little hut where observatory’s staff lives. And saw some wildlife!

We rode Gondola back and walked back to the hotel. The round-trip from the hotel to the Sulphur Mountain took us about 2 hours. 

Saturday we woke up early at 6:20 a.m. Banff time or 5:20 a.m. Seattle time. Early! We had breakfast in a hotel and were on a road to the Lake Louise vicinity at 7:45 a.m. The drive to the Lake Louise from Banff was about 45 minutes. We parked in a public parking lot, which was already getting full at 8:30 a.m. I have read in the guidebooks that this place gets packed around 11 a.m. and made sure we were there early enough to enjoy the lake. A short walk from the parking lot and you get to Lake Louise. Beautiful!

We took a walk along the lakeshore, round-trip 4 km. It was a nice walk, with few people (still) and it was wonderful to see glimpses of Victoria Glacier. The most interesting part of being in the Banff National Park for me was ability to see how the glacier melts straight into the lake and that you are standing right at the shore of that lake. 

We decided to see the lake from above and headed to the Fairview Lookout (slightly steep short 2 km round-trip hike). Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise sits right at the lake. What a fabulous idea to build a hotel in this place!

We left Lake Louise at 11:30 a.m. and it was time for lunch. When I came to Banff I knew that I was here for the scenery and not culinary experience and so we decided for lunch at a local cafeteria in the Lodge of the Ten Peaks which serves skiers and snowboarders during the winter months at the base of the Lake Louise skiing area. We got cheeseburgers and fries and sat outside, looked at the mountains and people riding ski lifts to the top of the mountain and ate.  Burger tasted like your regular cafeteria burger. The price was also decent $20 for two. You have an option of buying a buffet lunch and a ticket to the top of the mountain, but we skipped on that. 

The plan for the rest of the day was to drive back to Banff on the Bow Valley Parkway 1A and on a way hike to the Upper Falls at Johnston Canyon. On a drive we stopped to look at the Castle Mountain, the interesting fact about which (apart from it looking like a castle) is that the lower layers of the mountain are younger than the top layers because younger mountains pushed older ones up during the last major shift.  

We arrived to the Johnston Canyon around 1:30 p.m. and it was full of people. Also, the day was super nice, sunny and hardly any clouds. We hiked to the Upper Falls. The first part of the hike is on a wooden catwalk which hangs right above the creek. I love the sound of the running water and a moist breeze from the creek when a wind blows. Families with children usually stop at the Lower Falls. We made our way to the Upper Falls. 

The round-trip to the falls took us about 1.5 hours. After that we drove back to the hotel tired and satisfied. When we got there it was time for the happy hour in a hotel and we enjoyed appetizers they had and some drinks, walked around the historic hotel and called it a night. 

The next morning we got up, had breakfast and headed out to the Icefields Parkway to see the Peyto Lake. From the Peyto Lake Parking lot, it is a 10-minute walk to the lookout point. They only allow tour buses close to the lookout point, regular cars park further away. The walk is a bit steep, so if you have people who have trouble walking uphill, keep that in mind. The Peyto Lake is as beautiful as they say it is! We sat and enjoyed it for a while. It almost seemed to be unreal. The aqua blue color of the lake is natural. As I understand it is due to the rock flour. The color changes during the seasons. Here are few more pictures of it. 

Next stop is the Bow Lake. The weather turned a bit on us once we got there. It started to drizzle and was windy. We still decided to hike to the Bow Glacier Falls, however trail became impassible at the end of the lake due to high waters and we had to turn back. Still the hike was nice apart from being eaten by mosquitoes.  

Lunch time and this time we went to the Lake Louise Railway Station Restaurant. We sat outside and shared Caesar Salad and Alberta Bison Burger. Again, food is nothing special but the views and environment were outstanding. Bill was about $25 without tip. But food quality was much better than cafeteria. 

The next and the last stop on this trip was Moraine Lake. We got there around 3:30 p.m. As with all major sites the place was full of tourists. We saw the lake and then took Larch Valley Hike. The hike was uphill with switchbacks but it was rewarding us with the views of a lake and glacier. Moraine Lake sits at the bottom of ten peaks. Quite incredible! Compared to the other lakes, this one appeared to be more blue. 

Driving back to Banff and enjoying the views of the mountains all around us. 

Monday we got up and left for the airport and flew back to Seattle. Amazing trip! Banff National Park is definitely a place to visit! I wish to thank Eric Espenhorst and Jennifer Bright for the guidebooks they lent me. I found “Alberta: Including Banff, Jasper, and the Canadian Rockies” the most useful.

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