banff travel guide

Banff & Jasper Vacation Planning Guide

I wrote a lot about my trip to Banff and Jasper - but maybe you don't really care so much about how the mountains made me feel in awe of nature and the hours talking with my best friends made me feel giddy and grateful. 

Maybe you just want the basics - so you can easily plan your OWN trip and have your own feels about this wonderful place. I'll shut up and give you the deets. 

DAY ONE - BANFF

Sulphur Mountain Banff

DAY TWO - BANFF --> LAKE LOUISE

Inkpots Banff

DAY THREE - LAKE LOUISE

Lake Louise Alberta

DAY FOUR - ICEFIELDS PARKWAY TO JASPER

Bow Lake Jasper

DAY FIVE - JASPER

Spirit Island Lake Maligne

DAY 6 - JASPER TO CALGARY

Glacier Adventure

OTHER SUGGESTIONS

Juniper Bistro Banff

Discovering Jasper National Park

When I left off, our trio had finished a delicious meal at Storm Mountain Lodge and fallen asleep for the last night  in our cozy cabin. 

When we awoke on Monday morning it was time to say goodbye to Banff and Lake Louise and hit the highway - driving down Icefields Parkway with Jasper as our ultimate destination. 

Discovering the Canadian Rockies Guide to Jasper

Day 4 

Drive the Icefields Parkway

We were more than a little sad to say goodbye to Storm Mountain Lodge and enjoyed one last smorgasbord breakfast on the picnic benches outside the main cabin before apprehensively getting in our rental car for a long day of driving. 

Storm Mountain Lodge

We couldn't understand how - but many people we had talked to said that driving the Icefields Parkway was the highlight of their trip! Considering the hikes we had been on so far, we couldn't see how this could be the case - but we were excited to find out. 

The Canadian Rockies span a large area, and there are three main National Parks within the mountain range - Banff, Jasper and Yoho. Icefields Parkway is 144 miles of road that connect Lake Louise with Jasper and has been rated as one of the top drives in the world. 

While planning our itinerary, I was overwhelmed with the number of recommended stops between Lake Louise and Jasper! Obviously, we had to pick and choose - there simply weren't enough hours in the day to see everything. 

Bow Lake & Bow Glacier Falls Hike

4.6 Miles 

Pretty quickly it became obvious that the views on this drive were going to be stunning. Lucky for us, despite forest fires, the skies were clear and we could see the mountains all around us. 

Icefields Parkway

Our first stop was Bow Lake, where we hiked to the Bow Glacier Falls. This hike was more of a walk/rock scramble with some difficult terrain as we forged a path across a rocky riverbed - but for the most part it was flat. 

We took a few minutes to lay at the base of the falls, enjoying the spray and the sounds of the falling water. 

On our return trip there was a brief interlude for some Taylor Swift choreography and marveling at how reflective the surface of Bow Lake was. 

Bow Lake Jasper

When we got back to the parking lot, we stopped into the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge for some lunch from their little gift shop/cafe which we ate outside on a picnic bench. I remember there being chili with some exotic meat - bison or elk or something. Note: they only took cash!

Peyto Lake Overlook 

1.2 Miles 

We got back in the car and headed to our next destination - Peyto Lake. 

There's an easy walk up a pretty steep, paved path to an overlook of the breathtakingly blue Peyto Lake - but when we got up there and saw how full of tourists the landing was - we knew we had to seek out a spot with a little more solitude. 

We managed to figure out how to get where we wanted to go after many stops at forks in the trail, confused conversations with other hikers, and a lot of hoping for the best. 

What awaited was an absolutely stunning view of Peyto Lake - and instead of being surrounded by 100s of people, it was us and maybe 10-15 other people. 

There were some rocks and overhangs perfect for pictures and I would say this was my favorite view of the trip! The 1.2 mile walk to get there wasn't bad at all and I highly recommend it to anyone driving the Icefields Parkway! You can read more about how to skip the crowded area and find this incredible overlook here

Peyto Lake Overlook Jasper

Jasper Trail Run 

5.2 Miles 

We continued cruising down the Icefields Parkway and enjoying the amazing scenery with a quick stop at the "Goat Lick" but sadly, we didn't see any goats. 

Eventually, we arrived in Jasper and found ourselves driving through the cute little town and parking at our hostel! 

The Jasper Downtown Hostel was really great - another phenomenal kitchen that we sadly didn't get to take advantage of, clean rooms with their own bathrooms attached, and very friendly staff. 

We dropped our stuff and quickly inquired at the front desk about where we could go for a run. He gave us a few suggestions and we set off for what ended up being an absolutely perfect and beautiful 5 mile trail run. 

There are a number of paths around Jasper that make for great running routes - ours took us on #12 to Red Squirrel Trail Run to Old Fort Point Road and the Athabasca River Loop before we turned around and headed back. 

Jasper Trail Running

By the end of the run I was feeling pretty great, and vividly remember booking it down Jasper's main stretch of road - Connaught Drive. 

Sunset at Patricia Lake  

When we wrapped up our run we piled right in the car at my insistence that we catch the sunset at Patricia Lake. It was pretty - but we were sweaty and being attacked by bugs so it didn't last long. 

Patricia Lake Sunset

We headed back to the hostel to shower and get ready for our first night out in Jasper! (Getting ready most (all) nights involved jeans or running leggings with a sweater and wet hair). 

Dinner at Jasper Brewing Co. 

We wandered around for a while before accepting the fact that we were no longer in NYC and almost every restaurant was closed for the night.

We settled on Jasper Brewing Co. which was still open and hoppin' (get it, brewery, hops?) 

Jasper Brewing Company

Bar food and beers hit the spot - nachos with alllll the things, crudites and dips, a giant salad and sweet potato fries? Yummo. The beers were solid too and we even had some fun conversation with the locals sharing the high top with us. 

Day 5:

Long Trail Run - Valley of the Five Lakes

7 Miles 

We slept in on Tuesday and woke up to get our trail run on! After consulting with the guy at the front desk and the interwebs, we decided to start our run at the Valley of the Five Lakes Trailhead parking lot. 

We actually didn't end up doing the Valley of the Five Lakes trail as our run - instead we kind of winged it and it ended up being one of my favorite runs of my entire LIFE. 

Jasper Trail Running

I couldn't really tell you where we ended up going - I can just tell you that it was beautiful. We saw one other person for the entire hour + we were out there. The trail was verrrry narrow - so we went in single file the entire time. 

There is something about trail running where you can just completely zone out - you're looking down at the trail to stop yourself from tripping (at least I am) and every once in awhile you need to remind yourself to look up and in take in the fact that you are 100% surrounded by nature. 

We turned around once we hit a lake and switched off who got a chance to lead. Leading was so fun - I felt like a total trailblazer! Free and fast and fun! (We weren't actually going that fast, but it felt like it!) 

Jasper Trail Running

That was 75 minutes I will never forget. 

Feast at Loulou's Pizzeria 

After we got back and showered it was time to find food. We ended up at Loulou's where, as usual, we ordered a feast. 

The food wasn't anything incredible, but for a bunch of hungry runners it was more than sufficient. 

I'm pretty sure there was an omelette, an egg sandwich, and a yogurt parfait. With lots of toast and peanut butter. 

Shopping in Jasper 

After we ate we walked along the main street in Jasper checking out all the shops. I bought myself an amazing plastic all-in-one utensil that I have gotten a ton of use out of in all of my travels/flights! 

We also stopped at SnowDome Coffee Bar which is an awesome laundromat/coffee shop where we got iced Americanos that really hit the spot. 

I also bought wooden stud earrings that look like little mountains and I have worn them 98% of the days since I've been back. I am obsessed with them. 

Lake Maligne Lake Cruise 

Prior to leaving for Canada (okay, months and months in advance as is my style), we had booked "Jasper Explorer" combo packages through Brewster tours. This got us reservations with the Lake Maligne Lake Cruise and the Glacier Adventure ($140). 

The drive from Jasper town to the Lake Maligne Lake Cruise was stunning and when we arrived we checked in and boarded the boat right on time. 

Our tour guide was personable and knowledgeable and dropped some interested perspective on forest fires - while they're scary for people living in the area and detrimental to tourism - they're actually part of the life-cycle of any forest! 

It was a beautiful day for a boat cruise (I picked the last departure for the day since I like late-afternoon light best for pictures!) and as we made our way to Spirit Island our tour guide pointed on glaciers and other notable parts of the surrounding Lake Maligne landscape. 

When we arrived at Spirit Island we were given some time to get off the boat and walk around - taking our own version of the iconic photograph that made Spirit Island famous. 

A Kodak photographer, Peter Gales, found this remote location and took a picture that would come to be used as part of a giant photo display in Grand Central Station throughout the 1940s. 

It seemed a little silly at the time - that this entire boat cruise exists so that people can see the island from the famous photograph - but once we were on shore looking out at Spirit Island, I had to admit it was beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that I had my own picture printed on metal and plan on hanging it in my room! 

Spirit Island Lake Cruise

We learned some more on the boat ride back and I snapped tons of pictures from my window seat. 

Moose Lake Walk at Maligne Lake

2.1 Miles 

Once we disembarked the vessel (just wanted to use some of my nautical vernacular there) we decided to go for a walk to Moose Lake in the hopes of finding some moose! 

We didn't - but it was a nice, flat walk and when we arrived at moose lake, even though there were a few other people, it was the most absolute silence I've ever heard in my life. We all agreed that we finally understood the phrase, "the silence was deafening." 

Dinner at Olive Bistro 

When we got home from the Maligne Lake Cruise we set out for dinner - determined to make it out before the restaurants were all closed for the night. 

We kicked off tequila Tuesday with delicious cocktails from Olive Bistro - where we got to sit outside with heat lamps and even met the chef/owner! 

We got downnn with some delicious Mediterranean food. In an out of character move I also insisted on the bison burger which I still think about sometimes because it was so delicious. 

After dinner we returned to Jasper Brewing Co. for a final brewski before hitting the hay. 

Day 6:

Our journey in the Canadian Rockies was coming to a close but we had one more adventure packed day. We started with an outdoor breakfast at the hostel - complete with a cinnamon roll the size of our heads from Bear's Paw Bakery which was right around the corner from us. 

Bear's Paw Bakery Jasper

We packed up the car and hit the Icefields Parkway for our journey back to Calgary. 

Glacier Adventure 

But before leaving Jasper National Park, it was time to step foot on a glacier! Something that, sadly, won't be possible forever. 

Our "Jasper Explorer" pack included a ride in a giant bus/monster truck/glacier adventure-mobile  out onto the Athabasca Glacier (make sure you reserve a time in advance!) 

I'm not a car person - but learning about these badass vehicles was actually really interesting. I won't ruin the fun facts you'll learn on this tour (aka: I can't remember the fun facts I just know they were fascinating). I do remember that the road down to the glacier is the second steepest unpaved road in the world! It was nuts. 

Columbia Icefields Ice Explorer

Our tour guide was funny and we thought it was very interesting that all the people who work for the Glacier Adventure live down the street in cabins - I think it would make for a fascinating reality TV show. Seasonal Workers of Jasper National Park: Revealed. 

Anywho. After the ride to the 10,000 year old glacier we could get out of the ice explorer (the tires were as tall as me) and walk around. I know I should have been more in awe - but in all honestly I just couldn't really wrap my head around some of the staggering statistics and numbers being thrown around. The Columbia Icefield is something like 2,000 football fields? HOW. 

You can read more of the crazy info here

What I liked most was getting to fill my water bottle up with glacier water and drink it - SO FRESH. SO COLD! 

Athabasca Glacier

Glacier Skywalk 

After being ice explorers we got on another bus that brought us to the "Skywalk" which was a total waste of time and nearly resulted in me peeing on the side of the road because there was no bathroom and the bus was nowhere to be found. 

I would 100% say that this isn't worth you're time if you go to the Columbia Icefield!

Keep Your Eyes Peeled for Wildlife 

On our drive back along the Icefields Parkway, the sky was verrrrrry smokey. We couldn't believe the difference - it was like someone had completely erased the mountains! We were so thankful that the winds must have been in our favor the entire trip. 

Though we couldn't see mountains on our drive back to Calgary - we DID see a BABY BEAR on the side of the road! It might not have been the smartest move - but we pulled the car over and got out to join the crowd forming to take pictures of the lil bear cub. 

Bear Jasper National Park

Stop for a Swim in a Lake 

It's killing me that I can't remember the name of this lake (maybe Hector?)- but on our drive I recognized the name from my Google search for lakes in Jasper and Banff that were actually warm enough to swim in (aka not filled from straight up glaciers!) 

It was a split second decision to turn off the road and go for it and looking back, it was a fabulous decision. 

We walked around to a clearing in the lake that seemed relatively free of people and took the plunge - lasting a total of maybe 3 seconds in the cold water before coming out. 

But we did it! And it was fun and refreshing and definitely woke us up for the rest of our journey. 

Stoney Squaw Hike 

2.7 Miles 

As we made our way back to Banff we were getting a little antsy from the driving and decided we wanted to fit in one more hike. 

I had been scrolling through options online all day but we finally settled on the Stoney Squaw Hike. Though the final view wasn't as jaw-dropping as some of our other hikes, the lichen covered trees provided something we hadn't yet seen during our trip and made me feel like I had been transported into the movie FairyTale (I LOVED THAT MOVIE). 

Stoney Squaw Banff

The hike was the perfect distance and perfect effort-level to give us the final oomph we needed to make it back to Calgary. 

(And on our way down - we saw lots of GOATS). 

Dinner Out in Calgary

We made it to Calgary and checked into the Wyndham Garden Airport to drop our bags before calling an Uber to take us out for TACOS. 

I had a delicious mezcal drink and we ate lots of delicious Mexican things at Native Tongues

It had been a long week without tacos or guacamole, let me tell ya. 

The ambiance at Native Tongues was great and did I mention they MAKE THEIR OWN DONUTS! I think you know what dessert was. 

End of an Adventure 

The next morning we all took our separate flights back to NY and the city skyline will never be the same now that I know what it's like to be surrounded by blue skies and mountains and glacial lakes for 7 glorious days.  

It was such an incredible trip and I cannot stop recommending it to everyone I meet. 

GO TO BANFF AND JASPER! I promise you will not be disappointed. 

Jasper National Park

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How to Enjoy A Weekend in Banff

When work sent me to Banff for a long weekend, I was ecstatic. Even though I already had an 8 day trip planned for later in the summer, I somehow sensed that there was no such thing as "too much time in Banff." 

I was determined to make the most of every minute of the trip, despite working full days while I was there. Here are the highlights from my 72 hours in Banff! 

72 Hours in Banff

The Rimrock Resort Hotel 

If you've got some money to blow, this hotel is absolutely gorgeous. The Rimrock is nestled below Sulphur Mountain, and though it's not in the heart of Downtown Banff, it is a quick walk to the Banff Gondola and Upper Hot Springs with amazing views and the feeling of being right in the middle of nature. 

Guests are given cards to ride the local bus system for free - meaning all of the restaurants and shops downtown are still within your reach without having to drive. 

Rimrock Resort Banff

I flew into Calgary at night and made the drive from the airport to the Rimrock in the dark (around an hour and a half total) - so when I opened my window on Friday morning, I was so shocked by the beautiful view. In fact, I've told everyone, I started to tear up a little bit! 

There are a number of restaurants at the Rimrock that are incredibly high caliber - Eden offers a $140 tasting menu! But I had most of my meals at the more casual Larkspur.. Located in the lobby, you're able to seat yourself and order from a great menu. My favorite part was the little balcony outside that made you feel like you were floating in the mountains and the pianist who sang and played an amazing array of songs in the evenings. And the seafood soup which was phenomenal. 

Rimrock Resort Banff

Sulphur Mountain Hike 

On my first morning I had to work by 8:30 AM but I still wanted to get some time to myself outside so I woke up early and started to walk up the Sulphur Mountain trail. The trailhead is practically part of the Rimrock Resort, at the base of the Upper Hot Springs parking lot. 

Sulphur Mountain Hike Banff

I walked 20 minutes up before I needed to head back down to get ready for work, but the total hike is about 3 miles to the top and should take around 2.5 hours round trip. 

Lunch at Fairmont Banff Springs 

This hotel is 125 years old and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a castle - such an impressive, sprawling resort and absolutely gorgeous. Our event was taking place on the property, which meant we were able to sneak inside for lunch both days. There are a number of dining options inside but if you're able to snag a table at the Lookout Patio - do it! It's jaw-droppingly-stunning. 

The Lookout Fairmont Springs Banff

If you don't have time to wait, you should still take a look at the view and snap some pictures! Both days we ate inside at the Rundle Lounge and there was still a gorgeous view and good food! 

You could spend awhile wandering the grounds of this hotel!

Drive Up & Around Cascade Mountain 

My destination for this drive was "Lake Minnewanka" at the advice of a local I was talking to but it ended up being the pit stops I made along the way that were my favorite part of this drive. 

Johnson Lake 

I was surprised at each lake that I drove up to to find it fairly empty. It didn't seem like there were a ton of tourists out - instead, it seemed like locals enjoying a night kayak or picnic. I was the only one screaming "TOURIST" with my DSLR camera. 

Johnson Lake Banff

When I got to Johnson Lake is when I started completely re-thinking my itinerary for my return trip in September. Why jam-pack the days when we could go to a grocery store, pack a picnic, and lounge at one of the most beautiful lakes I've ever seen? 

Two Jack Lake 

It's hard to say which natural, glacier-fed lake was more beautiful. This was another, smaller, laid back lake when I pulled up with the same dazzling blue waters and magnificent mountain backdrops. 

Two Jack Lake Banff

I was surprised at how easy it was to just drive from point to point - with parking lots at each major lake that had ample available spots when I arrived. I'm not sure if it was the time of day, but I didn't have any issues. 

Lake Minnewanka

By far the largest of the lakes I visited, Lake Minnewanka has a ton of activities and amenities. However, it was my least favorite due to it's large size - it seemed like a much more touristy spot. I'm definitely glad I stopped to see it though! 

Lake Minnewanka Banff

Between Two Jack Lake and Lake Minnewanka I passed tons of mountain goats and felt a little guilty that these roads cut through such beautiful natural landscapes and that the mountain goats have to contend with cars when they go to cross the street. They also have to deal with a lot of tourists sticking iPhones in their faces (myself included). But I did appreciate that there were areas to pull of on the shoulder to get out and see some great views and snap some fantastic pictures! 

Cascade Ponds 

On my way back down I decided to stop at Cascade Ponds and I'm so glad I did! Though the water here wasn't the crystal clear blue of the others, Cascade Ponds had their own charm with their little bridges and beautiful reflections of the mountains in the background! 

Cascade Ponds Banff

Bow Falls 

To be honest, this was a little underwhelming. It's beautiful, don't get me wrong - but I parked my car, got out, looked, snapped a picture and then got right back in the car. It's worth a stop I suppose, but it's very busy and wouldn't be my choice for a spot to sit and hang out. 

Bow Falls Banff

Bike the Banff Legacy Trail 

The Banff Legacy trail is 22 km+ of paved bike path connecting Banff to the town of Canmore. After work, I paid the pretty fair price of $35 to rent a road bike from Ultimate Ski and Ride on the main street of Banff. This made it really easy to hop on the trail, and included in the rental was a lock and helmet (I had 3 hours with the bike). 

The ride to Canmore was beautiful and every time I looked up from the road I had to smile at being surrounded by mountains. There were a few parts that I was a little afraid of all the "Beware of Bear" signs, but there were other people out and about which helped ease my fears. 

Banff Legacy Trail

When I got to Canmore, I navigated to the town center and walked around for a little while, stopping in some cute shops and discovering a used book store and tea shop that was so adorable! 

I wish I could say that I enjoyed the trip back to Banff as much as I enjoyed the ride to Canmore. I had been warned that the return trip would be uphill, but I was completely shot at that point - I had been hiking, running, and standing around for 8 hours and my legs just didn't want to do anything anymore. Not to mention the ride back was along the highway with cars zooming by, the winds picking up, and the smoke from the forest fires were rolling in. I actually got off my bike and cried for a few seconds before finishing the 30 mile round-trip ride. 

But I finished, and after all was said and done I'm glad I rented the bike and experienced the Legacy Trail! 

Banff to Canmore Bike Ride

Sunset Hike Up Tunnel Mountain 

I took a few wrong turns on my way to the Tunnel Mountain parking lot, but once I found it, it was a fairly straightforward hike to the top of the mountain where sweeping views of Banff town greeted me at sunset. I sat down, snacked on some carrots and hummus, and explored the different views from the summit. It was absolutely beautiful. 

Tunnel Mountain Sunset Banff

There were others at the top of the mountain but they didn't seem to be leaving, and it was starting to get dark, so I made my way down on my own and managed to get back to my car after a few panicky moments of "where is the trail?" 

The fact that this is mentioned online as a possible trail run is mind boggling to me because there's no way in hell I would have been able to run up this mountain for 3 miles! 

Tunnel Mountain Sunset Banff

Run at Vermillion Lakes 

To start this run, I parked at the Fenland trailhead and after a short "trail run" found myself on Vermillion Lakes Road, running alongside beautiful lakes. It was pretty flat, and I only saw 2 cars the entire time. 

Vermillion Lakes Run Banff

I stopped for lots of pictures, and when I got to the end of the paved road I turned around and went back. With an extra loop of the trail path, my run ended at a solid 7 miles. I highly recommend this running route if you aren't trying to run up a mountain but still want that "trail" feel and gorgeous views! 

Dinner at Juniper Bistro

The Juniper Bistro is within the Juniper Hotel and I can't recommend it enough if you're looking for a dinner with a view. You could come for cocktails, appetizers, or dinner - but sitting outside here for a meal was absolutely beautiful (you should just plan on wearing bug spray!)

Juniper Bistro  Banff

Views aside, the food was also phenomenal. I had the shaved carrot salad as an appetizer (candy striped beetroot, watermelon radish, apple, local lettuces, pomegranate vinaigrette, dukkah) and the duck breast as an entree (lentils & wild mushroom ragout, blueberry chutney, pickled mustard seeds, seasonal vegetables, beet & balsamic glaze) at the recommendation of my (very attractive) waiter. So good!

Juniper Bistro Banff

On Thursday I'm headed to Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper for a full week - so you better believe I'll be coming back with even more recommendations! Stay tuned!

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