Roadtripping Through Banff & Jasper

My Instagram feed is frequently populated with pictures of turquoise lakes surrounded by lush green pines, or a solo kayaker drifting gently towards a tiny speck of an island in the middle of a mirror-like lake. More often than not, these pictures are captured in Banff or Jasper National Park in central Canada. This region has been on my bucket list for so long. Why did I wait so long?

When my buddy Shane told me he had booked a few campsites and wanted to go road tripping to bag a few peaks and capture some of our own photos, I was in!

We flew in Calgary, grabbed a rental car and hit the road, stopping in Canmore for a quick dinner before setting up camp at the Lake Louise Campground for the next few nights. The campground itself was great: centrally located and spacious. The only problem was the frequent freight trains that rumble passed every few hours days and night. Be prepared to be woken up!

Lake Louise and Moraine Lake are simply spectacular but get incredibly crowded by late morning. If you want to find some solitude, go early and watch the sun rise with the other photographers catching the light and reflections of blue hour. We hiked the Plain of Six Glaciers, relaxed at the Tea House, and completed a loop to Agnes Lake via the Beehive Trail, catching spectacular views all along the way. The loop encompassing both lakes (and teahouses) is about 15km of mountain beauty.

The  next few days we hit Moraine Lake numerous times at sunrise and sunset. I’ve seen many mountain lakes in my years of hiking, but nothing with such rich, deep blue as Moraine lake. The pictures simply don’t do it justice, especially when the wind is still and the surface turns into a mirror reflecting the mountains and clouds. It reminded me of the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia after the rain; It’s hard to tell where the sky starts and stops.

We also hiked Johnston Canyon – twice. On the first trip Shane’s camera fell in the river causing it shut down for the next few days. After an expensive trip to Banff to buy a replacement camera we hiked it again to get those perfect shots. Being a  short 3km hike through a narrow canyon, much of which is along thin walkways, this hike can be incredibly crowded. Definitely get there early. We arrived at the trailhead (for the first time) at 7:30. Not only is the light better, but only a few other die-hard hikers were on the trail.

The next day, we packed up camp, loaded our now dusty and bug splattered rental car, and headed along the Icefields Parkway towards Jasper. The trip should have taken about 3 hours if we drove non-stop, but give yourself at least 5 hours, you’ll be stopping frequently at locations like Herbert Lake, Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, and Athabasca Falls. This strip of bitchamin is one of the best driving roads I’ve ever driven on. It’s smooth undulating curves licks it ways between rocky peaks and pristine wilderness. We even had to slow down to allow a Grizzly to cross in front of us.

Jasper didn’t have the same French Alps feels as downtown Banff with the standout hike being a short 3.5km loop on the Valley of the Five Lakes. We hike the lakes at around sunrise and had the entire place to ourselves, including a old rowboat which we paddled out into the still lake. So many people head to Maligne Lake and cram themselves onto a tour boat for 45 minutes just to spend 5 minutes on Spirit Island. My advice is skip it, and check out the Five Lakes hike early in the morning instead. Or, better still head south towards the lakes in Kananaskis.

Downtown Jasper is a long strip of shops opposite the railway line. There are many restaurants to choose from. We cooked dinner at our campsite in Watapi, but sampled the cafes to escape the hot afternoon sun. Snowdome cafe is a backpackers paradise with descent coffee served inside a laudromat where you can catch up on the world with wifi or take a shower to clean yourself whilst your clothes do the same. My advice is throw your clothes in the machines at Snowdome, then go across the road to Coco’s for the best coffee and juice smoothies in town.

Our flights home were in two days. We left Jasper headed towards the Kananaskis region, located about two hours south of Banff.,We drove back down Icefields parkway hitting Athabasca Falls along the way. Definitely hit this one early. It attracts tourists as frequently as the mosquitos in the area, and after about 8am, the sun has risen above the nearby peaks hitting the face of the falls making it tricky to get a good photo.

We stopped at Lake Louise for lunch and ride the gondola. The day was hazy and views obscured but the ribs at the bar was a perfect way to break up the drive. My advice: save your money on the gondola ride and order another serving of the ribs. They are delicious!

We decided to try for one more sunset over Moraine Lake but the weather wasn’t co-operating. The sky was flat and the wind obscured the reflections. I did manage to get a few good shots though. You have to try!

After setting up camp at Boulton Creek campsite near Upper Kananaskis lake, we grabbed a few hours sleep before tacking the Mt. Indefatigable hike. The morning was clear with incredible reflections on Lower Kananaskis lake. I wish we had a canoe to paddle out the the small island in the middle of the lake. It’s perhaps even more beautiful than Spirit lake, and there was not another person in sight. If you want to skip the crowds of Banff and Jasper, I highly recommend the Kananskis region. It’s beautiful and far less touristy.

After sidestepping the large sign warning us that the hike to Mt. Indefatigable had been decomissioned due to an active bear population in the region, we turned on some music to let the bears know we were coming and started hiking.

On paper the hike to the south ridge looks short – 7.5km roundtrip, but its a brutal ascent the entire way gaining 920m of elevation over less than 4km. As hard as it is, the views are worth it! We climbed above the tree like, sweating and breathing heavily, to be greeted with breathtaking views of the Kananskis lakes. We were completely alone (unless the bears were nearby, but thankfully we didn’t see any!). This was the back country I was looking for!

I sat high on the mountain for 20 minutes, closed my eyes and felt the sun on my face. I chipmunk scurried passed. I opened my eyes, took a deep breath, watched a boat slide along the lake surface below, and just let time freeze. Eventually, it was time to head back down, our trip coming to an end.

We climbed down, passing panting tourists on the way up. The sun was now beating down. I’m glad we left early, the hike is hard enough without the heat. An hour later, we made it back to the car, dumped our gear in the back, and congratulated each our for another successful adventure. I turned the key in the ignition. The engine came to life, and we had to return to ours. Next stop Calgary and my flight home to San Francisco.