The No BS Guide to Banff National Park (and Jasper National Park)

Banff National Park has been on my bucket list as long as I’ve had one. Right under Bali. For some reason, I’ve just never gotten around to planning a trip north of the border. Finally, when Canada lifted the COVID travel restrictions, I was motivated to make it happen after all these years.

I started Googling, gathering recommendations on hikes, landmarks, and eateries. After reading website after website, I compared suggestions and came up with a pretty solid game plan. I knew how many days to spend where to fit it all in, but when I arrived, I changed nearly everything. 

The problem with internet research is a lot of these travel or adventure bloggers don’t go off the beaten path… at all. They see and do the same top 10 suggested things and tell you to go see and do the same stuff that everyone else is presumably seeing and doing. And, after arriving, I realized that most websites I read weren’t giving a clear picture of things. 

So, here’s my no-bullshit guide to Banff National Park and the mandatory Jasper National Park. Of course there are some ‘required’ sights to see, but I’m giving you my honest opinion of them, as well as some more incredible, under-the-radar suggestions. Disclaimer: I missed a LOT (the weather had a lot to do with that), but hopefully this supplements all the other, very similar Banff itineraries out there on the world wide web.

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Banff National Park

Day 1: Banff Town

After flying into Calgary, the southern part of Banff National Park is an easy hour’s drive. You arrive into Banff Town, with its Instagrammable main street full of candy shops and poutine stops. We arrived in the evening and dropped our bags at the hotel (Banff Inn, a modest spot with a pizza joint and pool) and walked the .4 miles to downtown.

The first stop on my list is always the visitor center, which is where I prefer to plan trips (not the internet). The people working there live there. They’re hiking the trails every day and talking to other locals and visitors about the best spots to see right now, depending on weather, crowds, animal spotting, construction, road and trail closures, etc. We asked the lovely young lady about the trails we researched, and she quickly steered us away and helped up properly plan the next two days.

We then ventured into a few restaurants and bars in search of live music, which we found at Rose & Crown with a small stage right off the bar and tasty french fries. More on Banff Town, where we spent the first two nights, below.

Day 2: Sulphur Mountain Trail

Our trip was in late May, the week leading up to and including Memorial Day Weekend. This is technically before peak season starts (and crowds commence) and a few important roads start opening in early June. There can still be snow in certain areas and some rather iconic lakes are likely to still be frozen over.

Our trusted visitor center expert told us not to go to Banff Upper Hot Springs, which every website I’d read strongly suggested. She actually, literally called it “human soup.” She also told us to skip the Johnston Canyon trail, which is a wooden walkway that’s clogged with non-hiking tourists, kids, and dogs. (We ended up going, but there’s a right way to do this.)

She suggested the Sulphur Mountain Trail, which was an incredible hike and I cannot recommend it enough. It’s 6.8 miles roundtrip out and back with 2,480 feet of elevation gain. Read: a proper ass kicker. As you’re climbing switchbacks and sneaking in previews of the amazing views awaiting you, the Banff Gondola carries tourists overhead. You may or may not have the tendency to flick these people off. Cheaters. 

Pro tip: there’s a massive restaurant, coffee shop, and souvenir store at the top of the mountain. Of course there is. Those people paying upwards of $60 per person for the gondola ride need something to do up there. But it’s also great for refilling your water bottle or grabbing a snack before trekking back down. 

There was still snow and ice on the trail when we hiked it, so cramp-ons and poles are helpful. We didn’t have these, and we were fine, but ya know, FYI. 

After six hours (we stayed at the top for about an hour; Strava says our moving time was 3:25) and lots of calories burned, we refueled in town with lunch at The Grizzly House, an iconic eatery known for its cheese fondue and hot rocks, which is a literal hot rock that they bring to the table for you to cook the meal atop (we got steak and shrimp). This is the moment when, despite hiking an average of 8 miles a day, I started to gain weight on this rather active vacation. No regrets.

After a nap, hot tub, and shower, we ventured back into town and stopped at Park, a restaurant and distillery, for dinner. I wasn’t even hungry, but this place came recommended from a Canadian friend and the sun doesn’t set til 10pm so we had more time to kill. The chicken was divine. I’d definitely go back (spoiler alert: we did).

Day 3: Biking the Old Highway along Bow Valley Scenic Parkway

When we were there, Highway 1A was closed to cars, allowing bikers (and e-bikers) free rein to cruise up and down the old highway that runs alongside Bow Valley Scenic Parkway. This is another great perk for visiting during the off-season. The road is open to car traffic throughout July and August, making biking a bit more dangerous.

We rented e-bikes at Banff Cycles for $99 per person for the day. The helpful owners suggested we pedal north to Johnston Canyon. Since we wouldn’t be dealing with parking, we decided it’s probably worth seeing one of the most suggested sights in Banff National Park.

I’m glad we did it and more glad we did it this way. There were busses shuttling people in, and the trail was slow going, but the waterfalls were beautiful. Pro tip: keep ‘hiking’ past the first waterfall up to the upper falls. The trail opens up a bit (i.e. most people don’t get past the lower falls), so you can get a better pace going and clock 3.2 miles roundtrip.

After biking 30 miles (even with a power-assisted motor!) we were ready to relax. We asked our trusted locals back at Banff Cycles about the best poutine in town. He suggested Eddie Burger + Bar, which seemed random, but locals know best. Since this was the only poutine I ate on the whole trip, I really can’t compare it, and since I’m not a big poutine person, I really can’t even suggest you try it. Sorry? The burger (and milkshake) was good, though! Weight gain continues.

We hopped in the Charger (because of course) and ventured onward. Our next two nights were spent near Lake Louise at the Lake Louise Inn, about 45 minutes north of Banff Town.

Yoho National Park

Day 4: Lake Louise (kind of) and Yoho National Park

SURPRISE! Lake Louise is still frozen in late May. I should’ve anticipated this, but when I planned the trip in February, the dead of winter and dreaming of warm, sunny days, I latched onto “weather can be hit or miss” and figured of course it’d cooperate for us and the lake would be its usual beautiful turquoise under blue, cloudless skies. Nope. Absolutely not.

It was still beautiful, of course. We parked outside the iconic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel ($12 for the day) and strolled as far as we could, which was about halfway around the lake. We got an overpriced oat milk latte and continued on our way. 

Pro tip: if you’re here for Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, don’t come in late May, in case that’s not obvious by now. The road to Moraine Lake opened the week after we left, so we didn’t get to see it. I’m not mad about this because we successfully avoided crowds and I know I can go back anytime to see the lakes in all their glory, probably in late September to try to avoid summer crowds again.

We went back to ‘town’ and had breakfast at Bill Peyto’s Cafe, one of the few restaurant options in town. It was what you’d expect and hit the spot.

We continued the day in nearby Yoho National Park, again at the suggestion of our visitor center friend since it wasn’t mentioned in most of the travel guides I’d researched ahead of time.

Our first stop was the Spiral Tunnels, which blew my damn mind. From the roadside scenic viewpoint, you can see the tunnels built in the 1880s in a spiral shape winding up the mountain, offsetting the otherwise steep climb over the Rockies. Trains come by about once an hour and we were lucky enough to see it happen right after we walked up. The train snakes its way up the mountain, weaving in and out, east and west at the same time. It was the coolest thing.

After taking all the train pics possible, we continued on and stopped at the Natural Bridge over Kicking Horse River. Again, absolutely stunning. While I love an ass-kicking, multi-mile, thousands-of-feet-elevation-gain hike, I also love a roadside pitstop that makes me want to sit and stare forever. That’s this place. Stop here and marvel.

Next, we drove to Emerald Lake to hike its loop trail. There’s a great little lodge with summer camp vibes right on the shore and a lovely trail around the lake.

Half of it was pretty snow-packed, but we made the trek and marveled at the water, which turned bright blue when the sun peeked through the clouds. 

Back at the hotel, we relaxed a bit in the hot tub and pool before showering for dinner, which turned out to be carry-out pizza from the hotel restaurant. We ate in bed while watching some Dateline-esque show about a woman who poisoned and murdered her husband. Perfect ending to a perfect day.

Icefields Parkway to Jasper National Park

Day 5: Driving (but not stopping) along the Icefields Parkway

We packed our bags and left the hotel in our rearview. I was excited for today’s drive because I’d read a lot about Icefields Parkway (one of the most beautiful roads in the world according to some sources that matter) and all the iconic stops between from Banff and Jasper National Park.

We arrived at visitor center and, of course, I wanted to talk to a human about this Columbia Icefield experience (aka walk out onto a glacier) and the Glacier Skywalk to see if they were worth our time and money. Turns out, the skywalk is only accessible via a shuttle bus since there’s no parking. And considering I was already shivering just being in the parking lot, I knew I wasn’t dressed for the glacier, where people looked like tiny penguins out on a slab of ice across the highway. Since we’d be driving back in a few days, we decided we could always do it then and hopped back in the car. 

We arrived into Jasper a few hours later, stopping at exactly zero of the suggested sights I’d read about on the internet. I was tired and underdressed. Hey, whatever, man. The weather was overcast and about 40 degrees. I wasn’t going to force fun. Again, we’d come back this way in a few days, so we’d have another chance to see the dozen things I’d noted on our itinerary. 

We immediately stopped into the visitor center in Jasper to plan out the next few days. We were told to start with lunch at Jasper Brewing Company, the only brewery in any national park, and were suggested a few hikes.

We chose to do two small hikes that day since it was already early afternoon and I was feeling kind of bahumbug over the weather. We started with Old Fort Point, an easy-to-moderate 2.3-mile loop, where we saw a rather adorable bighorn sheep.

Then we drove a few miles south to the Valley of Five Lakes. The sun graced us for a few moments and we saw that turquoise water we came for. This is another great ‘hike’ for families at 2.9 miles roundtrip and only 531 feet of elevation.

After an easy, low milage day, we headed back to the hotel, Marmot Lodge, to shower for dinner. Unfortunately I’m writing this a month later and don’t remember where we ate. Like I said, no BS. You’re welcome.

Jasper National Park

Day 6: Sulphur Skyline Trail

The visitor center lady was a badass (you could tell), and she suggested the Sulphur Skyline Trail (a steep climb of 2,142 feet over 4.9 miles roundtrip, then still very much covered in snow) by saying “you’re young, you’ll be fine without ice spikes and poles.” Cool. LFG. 

I want to go back to Jasper National Park to crush this hike in good weather because the day we did it was pretty mis-er-uh-ble. The trail was 95% covered in snow, so we walked slow and steady. The final 400 meters are a steep climb to the top, which pretty much sucked. BUT IT WAS SO WORTH IT. The views are amazing. Exclamation point! Don’t tell the other Sulphur trail, but this one is my favorite. It was just so windy and cold at the summit that we stayed only long enough to eat a snack and then hustled (slowly, very slowly over the ice and snow) back down. 

We stopped into the Miette Hot Springs, which is right at the trail head, to thaw out. The views were amazing here, too. It wasn’t too crowded (a weekday in late May), but we overheard a local telling some fellow Canadians how bad it gets and that “this time next month” will be a packed parking lot and human soup conditions. This eavesdropping put my mind at ease over the whole frozen lake debacle from the days before. 

Back in town, we stopped at Jasper Pizza Place for exactly that (and beer). Highly suggest. We napped back at the hotel and then walked back into town (long days, so much daylight), stopping into a couple shops and ending up back at the brewery for dinner. The chicken soup was so nice I had it twice. 

Day 7: Where to stop along the Icefields Parkway

When I added Banff National Park to my bucket list over a decade ago, I also added Jasper. I’d read that it’s equally stunning but a lot of people don’t make it up there. I wasn’t going to miss it. Welp, turns out two days of (snow) hiking was enough for us. There were other suggested hikes and lakes, but to be honest, we were tired. We kept making jokes like, “oh, look, another beautiful mountain!” It wasn’t getting old, but we were getting cold, so we decided to check out a day early and drive back to Calgary to explore the city a bit.

Because we had all the time in the world, and I felt guilty leaving Jasper early, we decided to stop and see every-single-thing along this damn gorgeous freeway using this amazing driving guide

We stopped back into Banff Town for dinner and beelined it back to Park Distillery. As much as I wanted fondue from The Grizzly House again, I wanted to be able to zip up my puffer. Tempted by Park’s perfectly cooked and seasoned chicken, I went for a roast beef dip. The weight gain continues, and the puffer tightens.

We checked into the uninspiring Hampton Inn by Hilton Calgary Airport North. We booked here because we had early morning flights so it made sense. It was fine

Calgary

Day 7: A day in Calgary

My first Calgary suggestion is actually something we experienced on day 1 as we drove from the airport to Banff. It must be some of Calgary’s best pizza because I love pizza and I can say that after eating only this pizza in Calgary. The place is called Bridgette Bar, and it comes up if you Google best bars, not best pizza, but order the pizza. 

I digress. Our final day in Canada didn’t include Bridgette Bar and its pizza. We started with brunch at OEB Breakfast Co. It was good, maybe even great. Somewhere between good and great but closer to great for sure.

Then we went to Studio Bell, a museum dedicated to music in Canadian. It was decidedly great. 

Then we popped into ZCREW Cafe for coffee, which was also really, really great. What a delightful little coffee shop/restaurant. It is tiny, fast-paced, and oh so friendly, in true Canadian fashion. 

Next stop was Prince’s Island Park. We had some time to kill before the 4pm showing of Top Gun: Maverick in IMAX, so we strolled this lovely city park for a bit and then went to find a green juice because healthy nutrition had been ignored this entire trip and things needed to be somewhat righted. 

Top Gun was great. This has nothing to do with Banff, Jasper, or even and especially Canada, but my goodness did I love that movie. I cried. I laughed. I ate nachos AND popcorn. First time since pre-pandemic! 

We ended the night and our trip at The Blues Can in search of live music again. It was a total dive, frequented by bikers, and the bands were awesome. I think we met a local stripper, who was also very friendly. Ah, Canada… til next time! 

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