Beautiful Banff: Where You Need To Go

It feels like a long long time ago that I spent 8 blissful days in Banff and Jasper with my best friends. I know I rave about all the amazing trips I've gotten to take - but this one was different. 

This trip was the ideal vacation  not only because the landscape was otherworldly and beautiful, but because my travel companions were perfect. There are very few people I would want to hike and run and drive and eat and sleep with for 8 days straight, but Abby and Callie are definitely two of those people.  

I had bought a small notebook to write about the trip in, but failed after about a day. Day One's recap comes directly from my journal - the rest of the trip is from memory. 

Discovering the Canadian Rockies

Day One 

We arrived at our hostel in Banff on Tunnel Mountain very late on Thursday night (we stayed at HI Banff Alpine Centre). Note to self: arriving at hostels in the middle of the night is not ideal because your room is pitch black and you need to struggle to be quiet because there are three other girls already sound asleep. 

We were up at 8 the next morning and had a huge and satisfying breakfast at Cougar Pete's - the onsite restaurant. We were shocked at how legit it was. We all split the yogurt parfait, egg sandwich and omelette. Maybe the best part was slathering peanut butter on the buttered toast. 

It was so nice feeling a chill in the air and cupping our hands around our hot mugs of coffee.

Sulpher Mountain Hike

6.5 Miles 

Our first stop was Sulpher Mountain, back where I stayed at the Rimrock Resort when I went for a work trip in August. The parking lot was still fairly empty and we walked up to the hot springs only to decide we weren't in the mood - but that we'd rather get right to the hike! 

The Sulpher Mountain hike was a lot more legit than I thought it would be - there were some switchbacks but for the most part we just walked up and up and up. 

Before this trip I had worried a little about whether or not I would enjoy hiking - I haven't exactly been on many multi-hour hikes recently (or ever). I thought I might get bored and be thinking, "That's it - we just walk?" But there's something exciting about not knowing what is going to be around each corner - and the Canadian Rockies are a place where each hike offers truly amazing pay-off when you reach your destination and has made me love hiking and find it far from boring. 

The trails were a lot more challenging that I anticipated and a 6.5 mile round trip hike has certainly felt much harder to me than a six mile run would! I was so sore everywhere this entire trip. 

I also knew that even had I been bored by the actual hiking - I was with 2 of my best friends and the conversations, jokes, laughter and singing alone made the miles and hours fly by. 

On our way up Sulphur Mountain we marveled at all of the people who were somehow managing to RUN up, as we very clearly could only manage a brisk walk. We also rolled our eyes at the group of girls in their black Lulu leggings and black sports bras. 

Eventually we made it to the top for some pretty spectacular views of Banff town below. The temperature really dropped once we were up there and we also noticed that it was packed with people who had taken the gondola up. 

Sulphur Mountain Hike Banff

Honestly, half the reason the view for this particular hike was so awesome was knowing we had walked 2,000 feet up to earn it and I can't imagine having paid to take a gondola to the top. 

There was a coffee shop and museum which we ambled through before walking to the to Cosmic Ray Station to finish the trail. There were a lot of people around and we were happy to get back on the trail to some degree of solitude for the walk down. 

Our legs were feeling the effects of the climb and we were so happy we had saved the hot springs for post-hike. 

One the way down (and up) we occasionally held our hands up over our heads to try to combat the fact that our blood was pooling in our fingers and making them super swollen and puffy. Gross. 

I also forgot how dry the air is in Banff - combined with the fact there were were crazy wildfires burning in the area (sometimes making the views a little hazy) - I used a lot of chapstick during this trip. 

Sulphur Mountain Banff

Banff Upper Hot Springs

We got our things from the car (#1 piece of advice if you plan a trip to the Canadian Rockies is to rent a car!) and went back to the Banff Upper Hot Springs. 

The smell of sulphur  was pretty strong - 3 days later we swore we still smelled like it. 

The prices were very fair ($7.30 in USD) and we made a game time decision to rent "historic" swimsuits for $1.90 instead of wearing our own. They. were. awesome. I don't know why romper bathing suits aren't a real thing. Swompers.  

They are SO much more flattering. We felt like a bunch of Marilyn Monroes. We used our "looney" ($1 coin in Canada) to lock up our things and walked into the hot springs - which were a balmy 102 degrees that day. 

Banff Upper Hot Springs

Eventually I came up with the genius idea of laying on the ledge separating the real pool from the kidding pool and floating with my arms on the surface - keeping me just the right temperature. With the mountains in the background - I was soo content and felt like I could have fallen asleep or stayed for hours. But hunger struck us all so we left our historic suits behind (although we could have purchased one for $95) and headed into town to find some food. 

Picnic & Drive to Lake Minnewanka

What I thought were really cool parking lots that tell you how many spaces are left were actually #FakeNews. First we went to Nestor's market for carrots and hummus and long run fuel (GoMacro bars, bananas and rice cakes) and then wandered into Wild Flour because we only eat at restaurants whose names are puns. 

Johnson Lake

We chose a bunch of things to split, as usual, and headed to Johnson Lake for a picnic. When I was in Banff for work I had stopped at Johnson Lake and thought, "Wow - my itinerary for Banff is too packed - I need to make more time for relaxing and sitting still and enjoying these views." 

I loved that Johnson Lake and the other spots along the drive to Lake Minnewanka were so empty and seemed to be lacking tourists. It was so great to be back with Abby and Callie doing just what I had imagined - sitting down for a picnic at Johnson Lake where we were probably the most touristy people there. 

Johnson Lake Banff Picnic

The food from Wild Flour was so good - lentil/chickpea/sweet potato Moroccan-y stew, "meat" foccacia and a really good brie/apple sandwich. Oh, and a kale salad with raisins, sweet potatoes and a maple Dijon vinaigrette. An oatmeal Chai and triple chocolate cookie for dessert (not a crumb remained). 

We wished the water wasn't absolutely freezing, otherwise we would have taken a dip. "It's so cold my arms are burning," was a quote from one man who braved the glacier-fed waters. 

After our relaxing picnic lunch we took the ride up to Lake Minnewanka with stops at Two Jack Lake and Cascade Ponds back at the bottom. 

Two Jack Lake Banff

Two Jack Lake looked different than the last time I was there somehow - are there tides in lakes? I ventured down to a little sand bar for a photo op and felt so surrounded by beauty it was unreal. 

Tunnel Mountain Sunset Hike

1.5 Miles 

After our drive we went back to the hostel and I definitely took a very needed nap. We woke up in time for a sunset hike up Tunnel Mountain, which I knew from last time was quick but offered great sunset views. It didn't dissapoint. 

The clouds had beautiful sun rays breaking through them and all of Banff town was sprawled out below us. I voiced my belief that clouds are what make a sunset pretty - my metaphor for life being beautiful because of the challenges and dark splotches, not in spite of them. 

Tunnel Mountain Sunset

We sat on the log I had found last time and took some self-timer pictures with my new selfie stick/tripod but of course my GoPro was failing me. I still was able to use my phone for a pretty average time lapse. 

We looked around the backside of the mountain but the lighting wasn't as cool as the last time I was up there so we pretty quickly made the trek back down to our car for dinner #1. 

Sushi House Banff 

304 Caribou Street

A local had told me about "Sushi Train" on my last trip and I was dying for my first conveyor belt sushi experience. The place was packed when we got there but it's a genius strategy for getting people in and our quickly so we didn't wait long at all. 

We sat down and immediately could start grabbing plates. They also gave us a menu so we could make requests of the chefs who were rolling away right in front of us. 

We had edamame, yam roll, tuna roll, dumplings, shrimp purses, shrimp tempura roll - everything was really good. By the time the eel started going around we were too full, but it looked amazing. 

At the end, they add up how many of each colored plate you have to determine what you owe. Our jaws dropped when the total came to under $15 per person for a sushi dinner. Ah, the joys of getting awesome insider scoops from locals! 

Karaoke at Storm Cellar 

Back at the hostel it was karaoke night and I had made it very clear that the three of us would be performing. It was really nice having a bar onsite at the hostel. It was pretty crowded and eventually we got the nerve to submit our names for We Didn't Start the Fire. This was my first official karaoke performance. At the end, Abby had the thought of, "Oh shit - was that really insensitive since we are not very far away from forest fires?" Oops. 

Day One Total Mileage: 8 Miles

Day Two 

Long Run at Vermillion Lakes

10 Miles

Saturday morning we were up at 7/7:30 to get ready for Abby's long run - I give her so much credit for being so flexible and stress-free about fitting in her runs. Definitely one of my goals if I ever have another marathon training cycle is to go with the flow more. 

From last trip, I knew a great spot for a long run that wasn't very busy, was paved, and was fairly flat. We parked at the Fenland Trail head and started our run past the beautiful Vermillion Lakes. 

Breathing was not easy, but for the most part my legs felt pretty good - just sore hips and glutes from Friday's hikes. 

Once Abby said she was only going to do 10 miles, I said I would stay with her even though my original plan was no more than 9. By the end we got in a comfortable rhythm and it felt great to finish 10 miles for the first time in a long time. 

Afterwards, we did some planking - Abby came up with some torturous tabata-plank routine. 

Then we got in the car and drove back for some pictures at Vermillion Lakes - so so pretty. 

Vermillion Lakes

Breakfast at Tooloulou's 

204 Caribou Street 

After showering and packing up our things at the hostel, we drove into town for brunch be. We waited a decent amount of time for a table at Tooloulou's for brunch, but it was definitely worth it. 

  • Chicken & Waffles
  • Western Omelette with biscuit
  • Sufferin' Succotash (two fried eggs, corned beef hash, skillet potatoes, pancake & toast)
  • Fruit Salad

When the food first arrived at our table, we thought that our eyes had been bigger than our stomachs. But at some point, we realized that we were making a big dent on the copious amounts of food. We decided the challenge was on - we were going to finish everything and we were going to own it when the waitress came back and was shocked by our clean plates. 

Brunch in Banff

I think we each used two cups of maple syrup - by the end we were dipping everything in it. 

It was a little out of hand, yet also a very proud moment for the three of us. We left Toulooloo's and wandered into a fudge shop. Our appetites truly know no bounds. 

Banff Brunch

Johnston Canyon to Ink Pots Hike 

6.3 Miles 

We waved goodbye to Banff town and got in our rental car to drive to Johnston Canyon for a hike before checking into our next hotel. 

I had no idea that Johnston Canyon was going to be so filled with tourists. The first part of our hike, from the parking lot to the two main waterfalls, wasn't all that enjoyable. It was beautiful, but it felt like we were in line for a ride at Disney World - trying to make our way around throngs of tourists who were clearly not there to hike. 

While we walked this part of the trail, I was on the lookout for a cave I had seen posted on Instagram many times during my research - and I was determined to find it. I read and reread the directions, tips and hints I had found online in the hopes that we wouldn't accidentally pass it. We succeeded in finding it - along with tons of other people. The secret about this spot is certainly out of the bag, but it was great to go off the beaten path for some pictures nonetheless. 

Johnston Canyon Cave

After this detour we continued to the upper falls and beyond that the crowd finally dispersed as we continued on to the Ink Pots portion of the hike. 

We ran into an extremely friendly couple who let us know that there's also a parking lot that would have gotten us right onto the Ink Pots trail (Moose Meadows Trailhead) and avoided all of the madness. 

The hike from the falls to the ink pots was challenging but absolutely beautiful - we couldn't believe how high up we were. And almost on our own for all of it. 

Ink Pots

It was unintentionally great timing as the Ink Pots tend to be less crowded towards the end of the day. When we made it to the end of the trail, we had the ink pots almost to ourselves. There were just 2 or 3 other groups of people there! 

The Ink Pots are mineral springs that fill up with water at a different rate, causing different colors and cool rings that you can see on the bottom of the super clear pools of water. We took tons of pictures up here and sat out for awhile on the benches - discussing how amazing it would have been if we had a tent and could have spent the night there. 

Ink Pots Hike

storm mountain lodge

Our planned sleeping arrangements were a little less rustic than a tent - but we were still eager to drive to Storm Mountain Lodge for two nights in our very own log cabin. We retraced our steps back past the Upper and Lower Falls of Johnston Canyon, speed walking past slow moving tourists like true New Yorkers. 

While passing a crying little girl we commented, "Don't cry, you have ice cream!" only to see an entire scoop lying on the trail a few feet away. Oops - you may proceed little girl - dropped ice cream is definitely worth crying over. 

This lead to a very philosophical conversation about cup people vs. cone people and before we new it we were hitting the open road. We checked into Storm Mountain Lodge and as soon as we pulled into the parking lot we were in love. The main lodge had a massive fire place, restaurant, games, bar and the coziest vibes. 

Storm Mountain Lodge

We made a quick stop at a local market for some supplies (snacks and adult beverages including my favorite Copenhagen discovery, Somersby!) before placing an order for a charcuterie board at the Storm Mountain Lodge front desk. 

While we waited for our food, we asked if we could possibly get some carrots - and were overjoyed when carrots were delivered.

Storm Mountain Lodge

We retired to our little cabin in the woods where we MORE than enjoyed the food. Each meal it got harder and harder to pick a favorite! 

Storm Mountain Lodge

sunrise at lake louise 

There's nothing I love more than a good sunrise or sunset - and I knew that the only time we could guarantee some semblance of solitude at the wildly popular Lake Louise was to get there bright and early. 

Luckily, my travel companions are equally as down for an early wake up call. We only wish we had found coffee prior to arriving at Lake Louise! 

Of course we weren't the only ones there to enjoy the sunrise, but it was very quiet, peaceful, and not at all like the crowded scene we would encounter on our way back later that day. 

I made a time lapse, we chatted with a nice woman (while enviously eyeing her Starbucks cup), and marveled at the milky-pen-like pearly, turquoise water.

Lake Louise Sunrise

lake agnes tea house hike

Once the sun was up, we set off for the Lake Agnes Tea House - a hike that I thought would be fairly fast and easy since so many people recommend it.  It was neither fast nor easy - but it was breathtaking as the sun continued to rise. And again, we were fairly alone on the trail. 

Lake Louise Sunrise

We stopped for some pictures at mirror lake before arriving at the Lake Agnes Tea House. It was full of people already, but we were able to snag a table as we salivated over the carb-heavy menu. 

The Lake Agnes Tea House is incredible - it's been serving tea at 7.005 feet since 1905 and today, fresh ingredients are still hiked up twice weekly to the tea house's kitchen. They receive bulk ingredients by air once a year. And employees hike down all the garbage on their backs! 

We were desperately in need of coffee - but they don't call this a tea house for nothin'. We settled for Chai tea lattes and we are STILL talking about them.  

We are also still talking about the peanut butter sandwich. It was the classic "mouth is sticking together from PB" sandwich. Plus an energy ball and scones with jam. 

Lake Agnes Tea House

Keep in mind that the tea house is cash only (US dollars and Canadian). Abby helped out a cashless couple by giving them some USDs and they Venmo'd her. 

The air was soo crisp up at the tea house and we were loving it. We were also loving this beautiful view of Lake Agnes. So much so that we decided we needed to continue hiking in the area. 

Lake Agnes

big beehive hike

We decided to tackle the Big Beehive Hike which would turn out to be my absolute favorite of the trip. But at first - it was slightly scary. It got steep REAL quick - and I was panicking a little bit about how we were going to get down! 

But after walking straight up (and up and up) we made it to the top and were asked by a couple from Montana if we worked in the park! They said most people couldn't keep up with them - and seemed a little surprised to learn that we were from Manhattan, concrete jungle where hikers aren't typically made. 

For whatever reason, we took a turn to our left to wander the top of the peak and all of a sudden I audibly GASPED as many people would during our time atop Big Beehive. Suddenly, the sparkling blue of Lake Louise could be spotted down below and it was magic. 

Big Beehive Hike Lake Louise

We perched on a rock ledge where we sat for a good long while taking in the views, in awe of this spot we had stumbled on. While we sat, many groups of people passed by, and almost all of them had a similar reaction of, "OH MY GOD! Wait until you see this..." 

We decided to go back to Lake Louise a different way than we had come - which made me happy since the steepness had freaked me out. More importantly - it provided entirely new scenery for the return trip, which was great (and inspired some beautiful renditions of "The Sound of Music"). 

The return trail had us end up on the opposite end of Lake Louise from the hotel and parking lot which worked out wonderfully - we got to walk the entire perimeter of the lake and take in views away from the people who just jump out of their car for a few pictures. 

Lake Louise

Round trip, the Lake Agnes Tea House and Big Beehive hike was 6.4 miles. 

Lake moraine 

We had spent so much time on our hike at Lake Louise, that we just ended up dropping by Lake Moraine so we could say we saw it - it's a short drive from Lake Louise. 

It was the peak time of day - so it took a lot of driving around the parking lot in circles until we found a parking spot. 

Lake Moraine

At Lake Moraine, we were those people who park, take a picture, and are on their way. So it definitely wasn't one of the most memorable parts of the trip. 

There are many hikes that you can take around Lake Moraine, though, and a lot of people say it's less busy than Lake Louise. 

lake louise town 

By this point we were famished and we drove into Lake Louise "town" to find lunch. What we found was a strip mall - though it had everything you could need! 

We split our usual smorgasbord of food - soups, sandwiches, etc. and then stocked up on postcards which we sat down to write and send at the post office. I also picked up a notebook for my one day of successful journal-ing of the trip. 

fancy dinner at storm mountain lodge 

We made our way back to Storm Mountain Lodge, listening to the newest Taylor Swift song which we were determined to make ourselves love.  (Spoiler alert: by the end of that night, we were all about "Ready For It?") 

We showered, made ourselves look the most presentable we had all trip, and headed out to the main cabin with beers and books in hand. We read, wrote, drank and hammocked for an hour or so and while it was very peaceful, it should be noted that Storm Mountain Lodge is situated off of a very busy road. 

Storm Mountain Lodge

Eventually we went inside to the main lodge where we played a few fun rounds of Scattergories (my favorite board game) in front of the fire while waiting for our reservation. 

Dinner was absolutely delicious. 

Heirloom Tomato Salad

Roasted shallots, lodge-made ricotta, compressed strawberries, puffed quinoa, confit garlic and preserved lemon vinaigrette

Ewenique Farms Lamb Chop

Cherry reduction, yellow beet puree, buttermilk steal cut oats, roasted baby beets, butter poached carrots, peppermint tea and vanilla gel

Lodge Fireplace Smoked Eggplant

Glazed apple, orecchiette pasta, organic spaghetti squash, aged goat gouda mornay sauce, locally sourced farmer's vegetables, apple & butternut puree

Ocean Wise Rockfish

Fermented zuchhini, broccoli puree, roasted broccoli, pepper chutney, carrot syrup, aigre-doux pearl onions

Not to mention, the French 75 cocktails were WOW. 

Storm Mountain Lodge

We also got dessert, of course - though now it's hard to remember what it was. 

That night we went to bed full and happy - but really, that wasn't any different than every other night of the trip. 

Part II will cover our journey to Jasper! So stay tuned.