Alberta, Canada is one of the most incredible places I have ever been in my entire life. There is so much to see, do, and experience in the way of culture, nature, and honestly, everything else. The crown jewel of Alberta is most certainly their national parks. Four in total on the border of Alberta and British Columbia – Banff and Jasper in Alberta, Yoho and Kootenay in BC. All four are incredible and deserve a post of their own, and they all certainly will have one soon. This post is about my favorite spots in Banff National Park, the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.
Through this post I want to give an example itinerary of what you can do if you only have three days to explore Banff. It certainly isn’t enough time to explore it all, but it will definitely give you at least a taste of the beauty the Canadian Rockies have to offer.
Day 1 – Lake Louise and Moraine Lake
Lake Louise and Moraine Lake are, by far, the most popular spots in Banff. Probably the most popular spots in all of Alberta. The glacial gatorade-colored water with the perfectly placed mountains in the background. It’s one of the most perfect looking places you’ll ever see, it honestly doesn’t even seem real when you are there.
The two lakes are incredibly busy, but they are stops you have to take. The parking lot is always busy, but if you go early in the day you can probably get a spot. If not, there are shuttles that will take you up there. The shuttle parking lot is a few kilometers before the turn off, so don’t miss it!
If you’re looking for some extra adventure and have some spare cash while you’re there, you can rent a canoe or paddleboard on either lake. It’s a little more common on Lake Louise, but you can on Moraine Lake too! It is expensive though, when I was there around $60 CAD per person.
There’s a whole bunch else to do there as well though. There are hikes around Moraine Lake to the side that not as many people have seen before. I haven’t done those hikes yet, but I plan to the next time I’m back! Be sure to check back for that article! I also hear that there’s a much more intense hike to the top of the Moraine Lake mountains, but I haven’t researched that yet. If you’ve done that hike, let me know! I have some questions for you. Lake Louise also has a bunch of hikes around and near it, as well as a very large, expensive hotel that I hear is incredible.
In any case, be sure you take some time to explore Moraine Lake and Lake Louise. They are the cover art for Canadian Tourism for a reason, and you won’t regret any time you spend at these beautiful spots. If you end up doing any of the activities I listed above, be sure to let me know! I’m always interested to hear about people’s experiences that they’d had after reading one of my articles.
Day 2 – Lake Minnewaka, the Bow Valley Parkway, and Johnston Canyon
Day 2 starts off with a trip to Lake Minnewaka. I didn’t spend a whole ton of time here, but there’s a nice rocky beach to take a quiet walk on, as well as a dock where you can also rent a boat or canoe for some nice, leisurely rowing along the lakeside. The real beauty of Lake Minnewaka though, like all of Banff, lie in the views. Enjoy a sandwich or hamburger from the shop near the parking lot and just take a break from all the driving, hiking, and sight-seeing you’ve been doing.
The cliffs layer behind the lake beautifully. It’s a perfect background to sit down and have a small picnic and enjoy the fun of being in Banff.
Next, we’re headed to Johnston Canyon.
From Lake Minnewaka, take the Bow Valley Parkway north toward Johnston Canyon. Take your time along the road and enjoy the peaks that rise above the pine trees. Make sure to pull over if you get someone trailing you, it’s the polite thing to do.
There’s plenty to enjoy while driving in Banff. That’s one of the best things about it! You can drive for hours and hours and still have incredible landscapes to look at. Seriously, I’ve done it. Drive to Jasper yourself an see what I mean. One of the best things about Western Canada is that you can enjoy the landscape wherever you are and it’ll look like it’s straight out of a postcard.
You can park in the Johnston Canyon Resort and Visitor Center area, but often times it is incredibly busy and there isn’t any parking anywhere. You can park on the side of the road just fine though. In fact, this photo (left) was taken probably 5 feet away from our rental car (something else I also recommend when traveling Canada, you’re going to put a lot of miles on that poor car). In any case, I would recommend just parking on the side of the road, it’ll save you the trouble.
It’s about two and a half kilometers to the Lower Falls. The falls themselves are set back behind some rocks, but you can still definitely enjoy them. There’s also a little cave over the bridge that you can go through and get right next to the falls with a better view, but I wasn’t able to do that while I was there on account of there being way too many people. If you get there send me a picture! I’d love to see it.
From there, it’s only another two and a half kilometers to the bottom of the upper falls. As well, there’s maybe another half kilometer of hiking to get to the top of the upper falls. The walk is also incredibly beautiful, so please enjoy these photos while I try to make this article seem longer than it actually is.
And one last one of the upper falls themselves:
There’s also the bridge you can go down to the bottom of the falls, but it is a slightly cropped view of the falls themselves. To be honest, the falls are fantastic, but the real beauty of Johnston Canyon is the canyon itself. Take it slow and enjoy the ambiance around you. In complete opposite advice from what you usually hear, try to go when it is raining but the sun is also out. I never was able to get a picture of it (I will someday!), but the mist and rain can catch the glare of the sun and make it look truly magical.
Day 3 – Peyto and Hector Lake
I’ll be honest with you, I never got to Peyto Lake. But if you’ve seen pictures of Banff, you’ve almost certainly seen pictures of Peyto. It’s the lake that looks like a wolf. Really, this day is all about Hector Lake, but that’s not quite enough of a hike to take up the entire day, so we’re packaging it into a two for one.
Because I’ve never hiked Peyto, I can’t really say what it’s like. From what I understand, it is a fairly easy hike. I think the parking lot is currently under construction, but when I was there it was atrocious. Potholes everywhere, packed to the max, etc. There is a shuttle that takes you to Peyto, I’d recommend it.
Anyway, Hector Lake is where it really is. This lake is probably the most underrated and underused hike in Banff National Park. It was easily the most beautiful place I went during my time there, and that may be entirely because there were hardly any people there.
Now, the fact that there are no people at Hector Lake is two fold. One, the trailhead is really hard to find, and two, you have to cross a river to get to it.
First the trailhead. It is 20 kilometers from the Lake Louise Visitors Center to the Hector Lake trailhead. You blink and you’ll miss it, its a tiny little pull off on the side of the road with no markers. Once you hit 19 km be sure to slow down and watch your left. If you hit the Hector Lake Viewpoint pull off (about a kilometer after the trailhead) you’ve gone too far. Once you find it, you can pull off to the side of the road next to the trailhead in the little dip. Watch for bears! We saw one as we parked across the road. Always make sure you have your bear spray.
From there, the trail is very… primitive. It is really just a lack of foliage that makes up the trail. It isn’t paved, roots are everywhere, and the creek that runs alongside it often times morphs into one thing. But if you’re afraid of walking through a few inches of water, just turn around now.
Eventually, you’ll come up to this:
In case that’s unclear, that’s a river. I was there in August and it was about half a meter deep, up to my knees (but I’m a tall guy). Once you get here, you have two options. Cross it with shoes on, or cross it with shoes off. I was wearing bulky hiking boots so I took them off and tied them to my bag. Worked great, but it took me a hot minute to cross it. The rocks might have been there for a while, but they’re still uncomfortable. If you’re short or have something to be desired when it comes to balance though, keep the shoes on. It’ll help with stability and help you cross it quicker. If you have to make a choice like I did because you don’t have water specific shoes, take them off. If you don’t know the agony of hiking in wet shoes and socks then, 1. I envy you and 2. it isn’t a lesson you want to learn now. Trust me.
It may not even be cross-able earlier in the year, I’m not sure. The runoff that feeds the Bow River may make the river way too fast and deep. Please be careful, like always! From there the trail is a little more bearable (no roots or creeks to walk through), but still really primitive. If you’re looking for paving, you may be better off at the more southern lakes of the Park. (Okay hopefully that gets rid of most people so we can keep this lake a secret to ourselves – it really is the hidden gem of Banff)
Eventually, you’ll finally get there. The water is as blue as Moraine and the vistas are better than anything you can get anywhere else – and if you’ve been reading this long you’ll know that is quite the statement.
Like, c’mon? Is that not just incredible?
This is going to sound really cheesy, but I honestly had a spiritual – or at least and emotional – experience while I was there. The beauty is overwhelming, the silence is perfect, everything about it just makes it the most incredible specific location I’ve ever been. I saved it for last on this trip because I wanted to go out on a banger.
If you only have three days in Banff, I hope this article has been a good place to start for you. If you have any suggestions, let me know! I’d love to hear from you before I head back to Banff to write a few more articles (especially about Jasper! Another incredible place).
And as always, thanks for reading.