This is the fourth guest post by Adam’s dad as Adam, Anna, Cyndi and I toured the Canadian Rockies and Glacier National Park. There are previous introductory, Jasper National Park, and Columbia Icefield & Lake Louise posts as well as additional posts about our stops at Glacier National Park in Montana and Custer State Park in South Dakota.
Banff National Park
Banff National Park is Canada’s oldest national park, established in 1885 in the Rocky Mountains. The park is located west of Calgary in Alberta, and encompasses 6,641 km (2,564 sq mi) of mountainous terrain, numerous glaciers, icefields, and alpine forests.
The Town of Banff
Located at the south part of Banff N.P., downtown Banff consists of countless souvenir shops and restaurants, all along Banff Avenue, which is the main street that runs right through the middle of this little town. Even though Banff only has about 6,000 permanent inhabitants, it receives over 5,000,000 visitors a year.
We arrived at the Tunnel Mountain Trailer Park (5 minutes outside of downtown) in time to set-up the camper and then head back into town for a late dinner.
After strolling around Banff Avenue, we ate dinner at the Elk & Oarsman Grill; a strong recommendation for the view of downtown and the mountain… the food was pretty good too! I had an elk burger, Adam had a full slab of ribs, Cyndi had fish & chips, and Anna enjoyed a salad.
We enjoyed a couple of local brews too during a short rainstorm and all was at a reasonable price… including the free rainbow over the mountain during the storm!
Hiking around Banff
After breakfast the next morning (which included bacon since there was less threat of bears in this campground), we went to see the Hoodoos, some tower-like natural rock formations that were close to our campground. Hoodoos are composed of sedimentary rock covered by harder rock so once the surrounding softer sediment erodes from wind and rain, the harder rock needles are left. The Hoodoos can be seen down in the valley and –while there is no official trail, you can walk down to see them if you have some good hiking shoes that have grip.
We then drove 20 minutes outside of Banff to Lake Minnewanka for some more hiking to the waterfall along the awesome views of the lake. On our way back, we encountered some mountain goats along the road and saw a black bear in another area of the park.
We enjoyed lunch at St. James Gate; a neat Irish pub in downtown Banff. According to our waitress, the pub was actually manufactured and built in Dublin, Ireland, then shipped woodwork, artifacts and all over to Banff. It’s everything an Irish Pub should be and worth the stop for a sandwich and a pint.
After lunch, we visited the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel up the mountain from downtown Banff. This stately castle was built in the 1880s by William Cornelius Van Horne, general manager of Canadian Pacific Railway in order to bring tourism to western Canada…and to ride his railway, of course!
Disaster struck in 1926 when the original wooden hotel burnt down and was rebuilt larger and to its present state. It was very neat to wander the halls of this important piece of Banff history.
More Fun Around Banff
On Saturday, we drove out to what was billed as the best place to see wildlife in the area: Vermillion Lakes Drive. We thought that since we went mid-morning we wouldn’t be too late, but it was a bit disappointing in that we saw none.
We stopped on the way back though for a nice education trail called the Fenland Trail, just off the highway as you head back into Banff. This was about a 1.7 mile long, pleasant woodland loop that winds through a white spruce forest along the banks of Forty Mile Creek. There is an trail guide brochure at the trail-head parking lot and interpretive panels placed along the trail that were very informative. We also some folks canoeing and “supping” (Stand-Up Paddle boarding) as Adam and Anna called it as we hiked the interpretive trail.
Since that was not enough hiking for the two younger members in the group, we went back and packed some sandwiches, then headed to the Tunnel Mountain Trail, just outside of town.
The hike leads you to the top of Banff’s smallest and closest summit. Once at the top, you get 360° views of the townsite, the Bow and Spray River valleys, the Banff Springs Golf Course, and surrounding peaks.
According to the town of Banff website, this is a very popular “short” hike, but I wouldn’t call it short since it was 2.3 km (just under 1.5 miles) and included a 300 m (nearly 1,000 ft.) elevation gain from the lower trail-head with moderately-steep switchbacks. You should allow 1–1.5 hours to get up or about 3 hours in total with breaks on this hike.
That afternoon, we needed to wash some clothes so Adam & Anna found a local coffee shop to check their email and Facebook account, while Cyndi & I found the laundry mat.
A few hours later, it was dinner time back at the camper, then back up the mountain to the Banff Upper Hot Springs; a historic spa and bath house. The hot springs were discovered in 1884 and commercially developed into an attraction in Banff. Honestly, I was expecting something a little more rustic and less of a “cement pond” feeling, but it was a nice way to wind down in the hot pool after our day of exploring the areas around Banff.
The next morning, we got up early to break-down camp and finished our stay in Banff with Sunday worship at a cute, little church: St. James Presbyterian Church of Canada.
It was then on to Waterton Lakes International Peace Park, about 4.75 hours south of the town of Banff.
Off to Waterton-Glacier IPP
Waterton Lakes National Park is the Canadian version of Glacier National Park in Montana. Together, they make up the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (IPP), the first of its kind in the world. Waterton Lakes National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an International Peace Park, and a Biosphere Reserve. It is the only park in the world that has these three designations!
Waterton IPP is a blend of unusual geology, mild climate, rare wild flowers, and an abundance of wildlife. It also has a nice small downtown with ice cream shops and beautiful Cameron Lake.
Red Rock Canyon
Along the way to Waterton Lakes, we stopped at Red Rock Canyon, about 10 miles northwest of Waterton at the end of Red Rock Parkway. Red Rock Canyon has unique layers of red and greenish-, tan-colored bedrock called argillite, created when the minerals are exposed by water erosion.
There is some short self-guided hikes that lead to some wonderful waterfalls in Red Rock Canyon. We took the Blakiston Falls Trail which is 2 km (1.2 miles) with minimal ascent, but allow 2 hours total since it’s an excellent place for photos.
When we arrived, we immediately headed to lunch at Weiners of Wateron, a highly-rated gourmet hot dog joint in the downtown area. Coming from Chicago (a mecca of hot dogs), our expectations were high, but this place did quite well!
Afterwards, we attempted a stroll near Cameron Lake, but it too windy to allow much comfort. I took a few pictures, then we enjoyed some ice cream at Big Scoop Ice Cream Parlor… to actually warm up.
The Prince of Wales Hotel sits majestically up on a hill overlooking the park. It was built in 1912 as an extension to the chain of hotels and chalets built and operated by the Great Northern Railway in Glacier National Park. We didn’t have time to tour the hotel, but did stop when we saw a group of people along the road up watching a black bear grazing on the hill.
We then continued out to one of the the wildlife-viewing roads, a couple miles outside of town. This was an hour-long commitment and we saw a few more bear and some pronghorn “antelope”.
After three days in Banff, it was back to good old U.S. of A. and 3 days in Glacier National Park.