VISITED: September 2017
Rising high and spanning the border of the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, the Canadian Rockies exude a majestic quality that can only be fully appreciated while immersed in their unspoiled wilderness. The dramatic terrain of these parks includes highland plains, distinctive ice-capped mountains, alpine lakes, jagged glaciers, and lush forests, which exemplify the striking characteristics of the area. The region is bounded by four national parks: to the east there is Banff and Jasper and to the west there is Yoho and Kootenay. Although all of these parks provide a variety of stunning vistas and memorable hikes, I was only able to visit three of these parks due to time constraints. To that end, the following are landmarks, viewpoints, and notable areas that should not be missed when visiting Banff, Yoho, or Kootenay National Park:
BANFF NATIONAL PARK
Banff Gondola – The Banff Gondola is a scenic cableway that transports visitors to the summit of Sulphur Mountain in a comfortable 4-passenger gondola car. The journey to the peak takes approximately 8 minutes and culminates at the gondola terminal. From there guests can enjoy the awe-inspiring 360-degree views and traverse the Summit Ridge’s interpretative boardwalk towards the view decks for an even more impressive bird’s eye vantage point of Banff. The Banff Gondola is open year-round from 8am-9:30pm and is $62 CAD (Canadian Dollars), but can be purchased for less if it is purchased in advance or as part of a package.
Cave and Basin National Historical Site – The Cave and Basin National Historical Site was the birthplace of Canada’s national parks and has become one of the most significant landmarks in Canada. After their accidental discovery by three railway workers in the late 1800’s, the government stepped in to protect and preserve the naturally-occurring thermal mineral springs. Over time, the preservation of the Cave and Basin National Historical Site would eventually grow into what we know today as Banff National Park. The site includes a cavernous natural grotto filled with blue-green water, an outdoor emerald pool, interactive exhibits, and two interpretive walking trails: one that leads to the cave vent and the other that leads across the park’s only natural river marsh. The Cave and Basin National Historical Site is open year-round with hours of 9am-5pm from May to October and is $3.90 CAD for adults.
Cascade Gardens – The Cascade Gardens are an admission free oasis that is within walking distance from downtown Banff. The park is open daily from 8am to 11pm from June to September, when the flowers are at peak bloom. The paved pathways are terraced into the hillside and are accompanied by rock steps that delve deeper into the garden. Other features include their rock garden, rustic fences, wooden gazebos, and widespread colorful floral beds. There are two entrances into the gardens: one on the left side of the Parks Building at Mountain Avenue and the other is through the gate at the end of Banff Avenue at the foot of the gardens and Parks Building. Don’t miss the iconic shot of downtown Banff and Cascade Mountain from the front of the Parks Building looking back towards the city center.
Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive – The Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive is an 8-mile loop that is open year-round with certain sections closing during the winter months. The paved road navigates past Lake Minnewanka, Two Jacks Lake, Johnston Lake, and Cascade Ponds, and is a spectacular location for landscape photography. The area also boasts various species of wildlife like bighorn sheep, bears, coyotes, elk, wolves, foxes, and more. Whether engaging in photography, wildlife viewing, or any number of the available recreational activities, the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive is worth visiting for its natural splendor:
Lake Minnewanka – Lake Minnewanka is a 13-mile long glacier lake that holds the honor of being the longest lake in the mountain parks of the Canadian Rockies. It offers recreational activities such as fishing, kayaking, picnicking, bike riding, hiking, and is the only lake that permits the use of power boats.
Two Jacks Lake Viewpoint– The tranquil waters of Two Jacks Lake make this viewpoint the ideal location for reflection shots with Mount Rundle in the background. If traveling with a group, this is also an ideal location to sit and have a picnic while enjoying the beautiful scenery.
Johnston Lake – Johnston Lake is a popular beach and recreational area that is perfect for sightseeing, picnicking, swimming, canoeing, and hiking. The Johnston Lake Trail is a 1.8-mile loop that circumnavigates the lake and offers views of Mount Rundle and Cascade Mountain. The trail is especially useful during the summer months, since the path is shaded by the canopy of the forest.
Cascade Ponds – A wonderful spot to relax and take in the natural beauty in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. Cascade Ponds offers picnic tables and benches that surround the water, as well as multiple photography points of interest. My favorite is at the water’s edge with the bridge off to the right and Mount Rundle dominating the background.
Johnston Canyon – Johnston Canyon is one of the most popular year-round locations in Banff National Park due to its unique scenic hike through the gorge to its treasured Lower Falls and Upper Falls. The trail offers various viewpoints for photographers to capture distinctive vantage points of the forested canyon and the turbulent blue-green waters cascading through it. Along with the traditional dirt path, there are portions of the trail that utilize a catwalk that is affixed into the cliffs, which allows trekkers to venture into parts of the canyon that were once only accessible by climbers. Beginning hikers can utilize the trail to Lower Johnston Falls, which is just under a 1.4-mile round-trip and is practically a flat and smooth hike. For those looking for a moderately challenging hike, then press on towards Upper Johnston Falls where the trail is just shy of a 3.5-mile round-trip hike with an elevation gain of about 460 feet.
Vermilion Lakes – Vermilion Lakes are made up of three wetland lakes which, combined with the surrounding tributaries, make up the largest wetland area in the Bow River Valley. They are located west of Banff between the Trans-Canadian Highway and the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Due to their close proximity to downtown Banff, Vermilion Lakes are the perfect getaway to enjoy the solitude of nature or to experience a sunrise or sunset. They also afford photographers with a tremendous view of Sulphur Mountain and Mount Rundle as their imposing reflections glimmer in the placid water. Along with photography, Vermilion Lakes is a fantastic location for wildlife viewing, canoeing, picnicking, biking, and hiking.
Morant’s Curve Viewpoint – Morant’s Curve is named after National Geographic photographer Nicholas Morant, whose photographs of this viewpoint helped expose the natural beauty of Banff National Park during its early years. The overlook features the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks as they meander along the edge of the Bow River with the Canadian Rockies set in the background. Morant’s Curve does not have any distinct signage denoting its location along the Bow Valley Parkway (Alberta Provincial Highway 1A), so it is imperative be vigilant for the small pullout along the highway approximately 5-10minutes south of Lake Louise.
Moraine Lake – Tucked away in the Canadian Rockies, Moraine Lake is one of the most pure and vibrant glacially-fed lakes in Banff National Park. Its distinctive turquoise color is the result of the light refracting off of the fine particles of rock that have been ground down due to the movement of the glacier. Water levels, and its vivid coloring, are at their peak towards the end of June when the flow of the meltwater is at its highest. Travelers should be cognizant of the fact that Moraine Lake Road is open seasonally and, depending on weather conditions, is typically open from early June through early October. The best view of the lake and surrounding Valley of the Ten Peaks can be found at the viewpoint off of the .5-mile round-trip Rockpile Trail. Although this may be the quintessential shot of Moraine Lake, there are numerous locations for taking interesting shots from along the shore. Another popular photograph is of the brightly colored canoes that lay across the dock due to the fact that they contrast beautifully with the serene blue waters and the towering mountain backdrop. Either of these photography locations are perfect to capture dawn as the sun rises and bathes the Valley of the Ten Peaks in a dramatic warm light. Whether hiking along the banks of the lake or photographing the scenery from a higher vantage point, it is hard to argue that the isolation of Moraine Lake doesn’t make it one of the most remarkably tranquil places on Earth.
Lake Louise –Lake Louise is referred to as Canada’s ‘Diamond in the Wilderness’ and the ‘Hiking Capital of Canada’ for the abundance of walking and hiking trails that immerse trekkers in its mesmerizing landscape. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, lush alpine forest, and a shimmering emerald lake, it is hard to believe that what you are observing is not an elegantly painted masterpiece. Along with its natural beauty, another prominent feature of Lake Louise is the Château Lake Louise, a 4-star luxury hotel, where guests are pampered and treated to a one-of-a-kind vista of the turquoise lake amidst the majestic Victoria Glacier and jagged Canadian Rockies. The resort and hiking trails are at their busiest during summer and parking is limited, but luckily there is a shuttle to help alleviate any of the congestion that is caused by the influx of visitors. Since Lake Louise sees its peak in visitors around noon, it is recommended to arrive during the early morning or late evenings to avoid the midday crowds. I am partial to dawn because there are fewer people up at that time, which makes it a more pleasant experience to photograph the area while breathing the fresh mountain air and listening to the hum of nature.
Herbert Lake – Approximately 2-miles north of Lake Louise on the Icefields Parkway is a small body of water known as Herbert Lake. The edge of the lake is surrounded by an alpine forest and immense mountain peaks that casts their reflections in the still water below. The Herbert Lake Parking Lot is on the western side of the parkway and can easily be missed if you’re not looking for it. From the parking lot, walk along the path on the eastern shoreline for some incredible landscape photography subjects. I would suggest arriving during the early morning when the sun is in the east and highlights the surrounding features or during sunset as the sun ducks behind Mount Temple.
Bow Lake – Located on the Bow River, Bow Lake is made up of melt water from Bow Glacier and is one of the many lakes that line the Icefields Parkway. Although there is a roadside turnout along the Icefields Parkway, the best view is from the Bow Glacier Falls Trail to the north, which can be accessed from the parking lot at Simpson’s Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, or view the landscape from the large parking lot to the east of the lake. There are many advantageous vantage points of Crowfoot Mountain and Bow Lake, so be sure to take your time and wonder around to find the spot that works best for you.
Peyto Lake and Bow Summit – Bow Summit is the highest drivable pass in the national parks of the Canadian Rockies with birds-eye views of Peyto Lake, Bow Lake, and Caldron Peak. Access to the viewing area is immediately off of the parkway and is well-marked with trail signs. From the parking lot, the Peyto Lake Viewpoint is over a .6-mile round-trip hike on a paved trail, which culminates at a wooden balcony where you will find crowds of tourists vying for their opportunity to photography the vista. Those looking to bypass the crowds can continue on the paved trail up to the point where it meets the dirt trail that leads into the forest towards the Bow Summit Overlook, which is approximately 3.8-miles round-trip. The view from the Bow Summit Overlook is less crowded due to its further distance from the Peyto Lake Viewpoint, but it does not make it any less spectacular. Be sure to take your time relishing in the natural beauty and admire the exquisite colors of one of the most breathtaking views that Banff National Park has to offer.
Mistaya Canyon – The Mistaya Canyon is a slot canyon that features the 40-foot Mistaya Canyon Falls as it impressively surges through the gorge. The canyon was created by the powerful currents of the Mistaya River that continuously crash and swirl against the limestone bedrock, which causes the canyon walls to adopt a smooth texture that erodes over time. In order to reach the bridge that overlooks the chasm of the Mistaya Canyon and Mistaya Canyon Falls, there is a heavily marked trail that directs hikers in the proper direction of this easy .4-mile round-trip hike. The trailhead can be found at the north end of the gravel parking pullout along the western side of the Icefields Parkway and posts warnings regarding the violent water and possible wildlife in the area.
YOHO NATIONAL PARK
Spiral Tunnel Scenic Viewpoint – The Spiral Tunnels are where the railroad nearly forms two vast figure eights within the mountain before continuing on in the proper direction. The engineering of the spiral tunnel system was in order to decrease the current 4.5-8% grades that a train would have to travel, which was often the result of runaway trains and accidental deaths. The Lower Spiral Tunnel Scenic Viewpoint is off of the Icefields Parkway and overlooks the lower section of the spiral tunnel and allows visitors to observe trains as they transport goods up or down the mountain.
Takakkaw Falls – Takakkaw Falls is the second highest waterfall in Canada at over 1,200 feet with a freefall drop of nearly 850 feet. The falls is fed by the Daly Glacier, which is part of the Waputik Icefield, and is what gives the water its characteristically milky blue color. The waterfall is at its most dramatic during its peak flow during July when the glacier meltwater is at its highest. During this time, the falls appears to blast off of the ledge with a thundering force as it cascades to the valley below. In order to reach the parking lot for Takakkaw Falls, drive to the end of Yoho Valley Road, which is also where the trailhead is located. From the parking lot, the paved trail is an easy .6-mile round-trip hike. Once you reach the fork in the trail, you have the option to turn left to cross the bridge, which will take you to the base of the waterfall for a misty close-up, or turn right towards an overlook that pits the falls tumbling behind the trees.
Natural Bridge – Natural Bridge is a remarkable rock formation that traverses the tempestuous aqua water of the Kicking Horse River. The car park to this water features is off of Emerald Lake Road and the hike is a short jaunt to a man-made bridge that gives visitors a frontal view of Natural Bridge. From here onlookers will hear the roar of the churning water as it crashes against the limestone rocks and continues downstream. Beyond the bridge is an overlook that gives different angles and perspectives of Natural Bridge with a mountainous backdrop. Be prepared for large crowds of tourists as the walk to the lookout is very short and easy, so it makes it a featured stop on tour bus routes. If you are looking for shots of Natural Bridge without any tourists walking along the rocks, then give it some time and wait for the tour buses to clear out. Eventually, a window will open up where you will be able to snap a few photographs without anyone stepping into your shot.
Emerald Lake – Emerald Lake is the largest lake in Yoho National Park and is one of its most popular tourist destinations. The parking lot is found near the Emerald Lake Lodge off of Emerald Lake Road and is adjacent to where the trailhead. The trail around the lake is an easy 2.8-mile loop and takes about an hour. The hike around the lake showcases the features of the landscape like the Michael Glacier or Burgess Shale fossil deposits, as well as a diversity of flowers and wildlife. The striking emerald water paired with the distinctive mountain peaks exudes a serenity that is associated with the Canadian landscape.
Wapta Falls (Wapta Falls Trail) – Wapta Falls is the largest waterfall by volume in Yoho National Park and is the largest of the Kicking Horse River. The waterfall is perfectly framed in front of the rugged Ottertail Range as the waterway torrents over the river-wide cliff creating a cloud of mist that rises off of the foaming river. The trailhead to the majestic Wapta Falls is just off of the Trans-Canadian Highway on a gravel road, but the small parking area can only be accessed by eastbound vehicles due to fact that the only legal turning lane is in that direction. The hike to the Wapta Falls via the Wapta Falls Trail is a 3-mile round-trip trek that navigates through a moderately level forest before descending towards the overlook at the top of the falls. For a head-on view of the falls there is a side trail just before the overlook that will emerge at the river’s edge or there is the more precarious option of scrambling down the rock mounds.
KOOTENAY NATIONAL PARK
Continental Divide – The Continental Divide is the spine of western North America and is also the division between the British Colombia and Alberta provinces. Along with separating the two Canadian provinces, the Continental Divide also separates the two watersheds that flow east and west, as well as two national parks: Kootenay National Park and Banff National Park. The sign denoting the location of the divide is at an elevation of 5382-feet and is a photo opportunity that is worth the short detour. Look for it on the eastern side of the Kootenay Highway (Banff-Windermere Highway 93) as you are driving from Kootenay National Park back towards Banff.
Stanley Glacier Trail – Just south of the Continental Divide on the eastern side of the Kootenay Highway is the Stanley Glacier Trailhead. The trail is a moderate 6-mile round-trip hike that starts out in a heavily forested area (much of it destroyed by the 1968 Vermillion Pass fire) and then climbs a series of switchbacks before arriving at the natural rock stairs that culminate at lookout of the Stanley Glacier. For those willing to brave on past the lookout, the payout is worth the added effort as you trek over the shifting shale up the mountainside. There is a possibility to hike all the way to the glacier or over the headwall to the other side of the valley, but I elected to stop as I reached a small brook along a flat section of the mountain. From here the view back towards where I first started left me mesmerized with the beautiful mountain scenery, especially how Mount Whymper controls the skyline with its commanding range.
Marble Canyon – The trailhead to Marble Canyon begins in the Marble Canyon parking lot on the western side of the Kootenay Highway. From the trailhead, the paved hike is an easy .9-mile round-trip that negotiates a number of footbridges that cross the narrow gorge and give visitors a face-on look at the gushing river water. The primary driving geological force that has helped shape Marble Canyon has been erosion, but fires have also had a hand in sculpting the landscape that neighbors the convergence of the Vermilion River and Tokumm Creek. Marble Canyon is one of the most colorful canyons in Kootenay National Park with its contrasting colors of azure glacial water, green cliff dwelling plants, and weathered grey limestone.
Paint Pots – The Paint Pots are accessible via a well-traveled 1.4-mile round-trip hike, which begins from the parking lot on the western side of the Kootenay Highway. The landscape along the trail is diverse with forests, mountains, and vibrant wetlands providing a charming backdrop on the way to the Paint Pots. The Paint Pots are a group of several cold water mineral springs that are rich in iron and take on a bright orange ochre color. These colorful pools are also surrounded by a dark red-orange soil and verdantly green vegetation, which play a key role in highlighting the natural characteristics of this vivid scenery.
Kootenay Valley Viewpoint – The Kootenay Valley Viewpoint is a pullout along the eastern side of the Kootenay Highway that offers an elevated perspective of the Kootenay Valley and abutting Canadian Rocky Mountains. This dramatic panoramic is the perfect introduction into the wonderful natural beauty of Kootenay National Park when entering the park from Radium Hot Springs to the south.
Sinclair Canyon – Sinclair Canyon is an impressive gateway into Kootenay National Park with its nearly perpendicular, iron red-colored cliffs. The walkway and viewing platform on the eastern side of the Kootenay Highway provide visitors with the greatest perspective where they can marvel at the canyon and the Sinclair Falls.
Recommended Local Eateries:
Park Distillery Restaurant and Bar – 11:30am-11:30pm – Banff Ave Fondue and Mac & Cheese.
Banff Avenue Brewing Company – 12pm-2am – Fist Pumping Hippy, a vegetarian dish that consists of a stack of crusted tofu, Portobello mushrooms, covered in balsamic vinaigrette with a side of veggies. Also, try the hand cut Potato Chips and Dip.
Grizzly House – 11:30am-12am – An extensive entrée and dessert fondue menu.
Bear Street Tavern – 11:30am-10pm – Try the Beet Me Up Salad, Grilled Eggplant Press, and/or the Grown-up Grilled Cheese.
Wild Flour Bakery– 7am-4pm – Try their freshly baked cinnamon buns, grilled vegetable sandwich, and custom soups/salads.
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