Banff | August 2017
Travel time: 5 hours (roundtrip), not including delays
Miles covered: 2,600 (roundtrip)
Books read: The Nix by Nathan Hill
Hours slept: nix
Travel time: 3 days
Miles covered: 20 miles, on foot
Brown bears spotted: 1 (luckily, from afar)
Moraine Lake photoshoots: 3
As embarrassing as it is to admit, I first learned of Banff from watching Sean Lowe’s season of The Bachelor. Although while fifteen women vied for his affections, I found myself more taken with the promise of rock climbing on Tunnel Mountain and canoeing on Lake Louise. Years later, as I embarked on my own journey of love - my heart set on hiking mountains and plunging headfirst into polar lakes - I knew I was going to Banff for all the right reasons.
I boarded a quick two and a half hour flight from SF to Calgary, Alberta. From there, it is an hour and a half drive to Banff National Park. At passport control, I was subjected to an informal, yet very thorough interrogation regarding my visit. And as much I was wanted to joke with the officer about my desire to flee Trump’s America for Canadian refuge (and the likes of Justin Trudeau!), my better judgment prevailed and I answered his questions without witticism or mention of my presidential predicament. For now, at least, I planned on returning to my country of origin.
Reserving the cheapest rental car available, I made my way to the equally economical Samesun backpackers hostel. The hostel was perfectly nice, maybe one of the better ones I’ve stayed in over the years. There was free breakfast and eight person dorms with en suite bathrooms. The raucous bar served cheap drinks and musical bingo with pop hits from the 90s that apparently are popular once more. I felt slightly too old for the crowd, but the accommodations were comfortable and affordable, particularly given the formality and expense of most other downtown Banff options.
Today’s first stop (after coffee and sandwiches in town) is lovely Lake Louise, about a forty minute drive from downtown Banff. If memory serves, I researched Lake Louise for a fourth grade report. While I cannot recall the details of that investigation, here are my current takeaways: like all glacier runoff lakes in Banff, Louise gets its incredible blue color from rock flour and can change color based on season or even time of day; the lakeside Fairmont Chateau is ridiculously extravagant like the Grand Budapest Hotel; red canoes are available for rent and provide nice contrast to the bright teal water; Louise is the main draw to tourists in the area and very crowded; and there is a large parking lot, but it does fill up, so consider arriving early.
Lucky for us, 2017 marked the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation and National Park fees were waived all year long to celebrate the occasion. The hiking trails surrounding Lake Louise lead to two different tea houses - welcomed respites from the strenuous climbs. The less-travelled of the two (and the road taken by us) is the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House Trail, which offers stunning views of the glaciers and mountains that surround Lake Louise. The Tea House was built in 1924 by Swiss guides employed by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Originally constructed to house mountaineers en route to Mount Victoria and Mount Lefroy, the tea house now offers refreshments and food to hikers (cash only). The Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House is open from mid to late June or early July through to mid October (depending on conditions). The 6.8 mile hike (elevation gain of 1,215 feet) takes around 4 hours to complete. It’s well worth making a short side trip from the Tea House to the Abbot Pass viewpoint for a look down into crevasses on the Lower Victoria Glacier. Both tea house trails veer off the Lakeshore Trail circling the lake, just follow the posted wooden signs as trails veer.
Next up is Peyto Lake known for its surrounding snow-capped peaks and slight resemblance to a fox. For the best views, follow the Icefields Parkway to the lookout point about 30 minutes northwest of Lake Louise. At the far end of the parking lot there is an informational sign that marks the start of the paved nature trail. The viewing platform - a 10-15 minute walk from the parking lot - overlooks the lake and surrounding mountain valley. Just prior to reaching the platform area, there is a makeshift trail to the right that leads to another viewpoint with fewer crowds than the platform. Many people only walk the paved trail to the Peyto Lake viewing platform. However, if you continue past the viewing platform and climb another 1.9 miles to the Bow Summit Lookout (the highest point on the Icefields Parkway) you will find some amazing views away from all the crowds. A second trail leads from the Peyto Lake Lookout down to the lake.
On the drive back to Banff, we also stopped at Bow Lake, which would up being a very peaceful and picturesque spot, and probably the best lake for swimming as it had the most traditional beach area, rocky as it was. The adjacent Num-Ti-Jah Lodge offers a cozy spot for a drink or snack, as well as overnight accommodations.
After showers and a rest, we took to the main drag of Banff Avenue to explore our dining options, and ultimately decided on burgers, beers, and the local cuisine, poutine, at Toque Canadian Pub. The gravy and curd-topped tatter tots were good, but the Alberta bison burger was just "eh" okay. Dessert was another Canadian delicacy called "beavertails." These topping covered pastries are meant to look like a beaver’s tail and so named, I guess. We eventually decided on chocolate hazelnut, which amounted to basically a soft and crispy funnel cake covered in Nutella and powdered sugar. Dam...what’s not to like?
For the crème de la crème, we stayed one night at Moraine Lake Lodge, which was an extravagance, especially coming off the humble lodgings of Samesun. It proved a worthy indulgence, offering unrivaled views, unfettered lake access, and complimentary amenities, including afternoon tea and cookies, breakfast buffet, canoe rentals, and protective helmets for hiking over scree. We were also provided parking in a private lot and unconditional access to the only road leading to Moraine Lake, which sometimes closes to the public during peak hours and busy days. We maximized our time at the gorgeous lodge and lake by arriving first thing in the morning before check in and staying until late afternoon the following day.
Louise gets my first impression rose, but Moraine has my heart. Not only is it the most beautiful of the places we visited, but it also offers the most hiking options. At just 0.8 mile, the Rockpile Trail is less hike and more path that winds its way to the top of a large pile of rocks where you will find the most amazing and rewarding views overlooking Moraine Lake. The trail follows along the actual moraine (or accumulated glacial debris). From the rock pile, we scrambled down to the shore for a quick, if frigid, dip. The lake, being glacially fed, does not reach its crest until mid to late June. When it is full, it reflects a distinctive shade of blue due to the refraction of light off the rock flour deposited in the lake.
The Lakeshore Trail is also a short and easy trail that is 1.9 miles roundtrip. This route takes you out and back since it is not possible to walk around the entirety of the lake. This peaceful pathway starts from beside the Moraine Lake Lodge and follows along the shoreline of the lake as it passes through a gorgeous lush forest. There were many openings in the trees along the way to provide a variety of perspectives and views of the lake. The trail eventually leads to a boardwalk area at the far end of the lake where a small waterfall flows from the glacier and down the mountain into Moraine Lake. There are also beautiful views of the glaciers and mountain peaks (the far end of Valley of the Ten Peaks) from this point.
It rained on and off, but no amount of inclement weather would deter us. We were on a mission, nay a journey, to find the one - that perfect post for Instagram. In the most dramatic season ever, we staged (with varying degrees of success) three different photoshoots in Moraine’s cool pool. And while it was fun to joke with passersby about the balmy water temperature, I never did quite get used to it. Moraine Lake never stopped taking my breath away.
The hike to Consolation Lakes follows an easy (3.7 miles roundtrip) trail starting from along the Rockpile Trail (on the left side, just before the climb to the top of the rock pile) and leads to incredible views of the lakes and surrounding jagged mountain peaks, glaciers, and rocky landscape with lots of large boulders to climb traverse. This hike is really beautiful and not too difficult. And while I highly recommend to those in the area, it certainly lives up to his name, for pretty much any scenery other than Moraine is a consolation prize.
Moraine Lake Lodge has a snack bar and restaurant onsite. The snack bar closes early (5:00 p.m.) and the restaurant recommends advanced reservations, so we decided to do a grocery run before arriving and pack in our own food for the stay. The staff was kind enough to let us use space in their refrigerator. For dinner, we mixed up some pre-made salads and ate fireside in the lodge's big, beautiful library.
Moraine Lake Lodge’s breakfast buffet was my favorite meal of the trip. The food was delicious and the setting, amazing. The dining room is comprised entirely of windows. Sustained, we embark to Eiffel Lake. There was bear warning in effect, and the hotel kindly lent us bear spray just in case. The trailhead is the same as the trail to Sentinel Pass. The first 40 minutes or so is comprised of mainly switchbacks through the woods. After the climb, we reach a fork in the trail and once more take the far less traveled left fork (most people will go right to Sentinel). From this point on there is very little elevation gain. After just 20 minutes in the woods, we emerge into the open on the side of the hills opposite the Valley of the Ten Peaks. The rest of the hike takes us through light woods, a small snowfield, exposed terrain, and finally a trail across windswept scree where Eiffel Lake comes into sight. The biggest difference between this hike and Sentinel Pass is that the view of the Ten Peaks includes the bottom of the valley to the tops of the peaks. If you have never seen this valley before prepare yourself for a most dramatic and impressive site, towering mountains with glaciers from one end of the hike to the other. We did not go all the way down to the lake, but stayed on the rocks overlooking it. The hike is 3.5 miles one way with an elevation gain of 370 meters. With minimal stops, it takes about 3 hours altogether. The other notable hike in the area is Larch Valley/Sentinel Pass, which forks to the right instead of left. We just ran out of time this trip, as if I needed another reason to flee to our neighbor to the north.
Although Moraine is not as crowded and insanely busy as its nearby neighbour Louise, it’s still very popular. During the high season in July and August, the parking lot fills up quickly. In order to get a parking spot and beat the crowds and tour buses that will arrive mid-morning and early afternoon, you must arrive by 7/7:30 a.m. The parking lot tends to fill up by 8/8:30 a.m., and sometimes rangers close the road to thru traffic. You could definitely post up and spend a couple days here, as I plan to do next time.
With the rains picking up, I began my glum drive back to Calgary. As it happened, my flight was delayed several hours and I would’ve had plenty of time for that afternoon canoe ride. Oh (well) Canada, at least your airports are really nice.