Banff National Park
Banff National Park, Canada’s first national park, was created in 1885. Located in the Canadian Rockies, the park is a land of dramatic craggy, snow-capped mountains, heavily forested valleys, aqua-colored lakes, and more than 100 glaciers. Traversed by the scenic Bow Valley Parkway (or the faster Trans-Canada Highway), the valley provides stunning views from Banff, through Lake Louise, to the Icefield Parkway and the eight glaciers of the Columbia Icefield.
We took a day trip to the park from Lake Louise.
Icefields Parkway is a magnificent, 143-mile road that stretches from Lake Louise to Jaspar. Dozens of 13,000+-foot-mountains that make up the northern slopes of the Continental Divide line the parkway. This largest sub-Arctic icefield in the Western Hemisphere is home to more than 100 glaciers. Glaciers spawn thousands of milky white streams and rivers and turquoise-colored glacial lakes that line the parkway. Although we have driven the entire parkway on a previous trip, this journey took us only as far north as the Columbia Icefield.
The Columbia Icefields are on the border between Banff National Park to the south and Jaspar National Park to the north. It is home to eight glaciers including the Athabasca, one of the largest and most accessible glaciers from the parkway. The Icefields give you a number of things to see and do.
- Glacier Gallery is a limited exhibit area that is staffed by a ranger. Exhibits discuss the formation and life of glaciers and their ecosystems. It talks about how the first European discovered the glacier in 1898. A ten-year process led to the opening of the highway that provided access to the Icefields. The icefields create hydropower, including 40% of the amount used in the United States. Although it receives between 25 and 35 feet of snow per year, the glacier has receded by about a mile since its 1884 peak. It continues to recede at a rate of about 16 feet per year and each year seems to produce longer and more intense fire seasons.
- The toe of the Athabasca Glacier provides roughly a half-mile trail up to the foot of the glacier (or at least what was the foot about 15 years ago), and a walk around the toe and its meltwater stream. Signs show how far the glacier has retreated over roughly the last hundred years. It also provides a view (as shown in the picture with a very large hotel and activity center in the background) behind which is the glacier’s original terminal moraine.
Glacier Skywalk is a glass walkway that is more than 900 feet above a glacial valley. It explains the geological and ecological history of the Canadian Rockies and provides opportunities to explore the canyon’s geology and sometimes, see bears and other animals.
- Snowcoach provides an easy way for lacier visitors to walk on a glacier.
- Guided glacial walks allow small groups to explore the glacier in more detail and get up close to crevasses.
Additional Stops Along the Icelands Parkway
There are a lot of additional sights to take in along the Icelands Parkway to Lake Louise. Some have trails that take you to lovely viewpoints.
Wilcox Pass Trail is a six-mile round trip, 1,200-foot elevation gain trail that leads to an overlook with views of two glaciers, Athabasca Mountain, glacially-carved cliffs, and tranquil aspen groves.
Parker Ridge, a 3.4-mile in-and-out hike with an 800-foot elevation gain to a dramatic view over the Saskatchewan Glacier and Saskatchewan River.
- Saskatchewan River Crossing is at the intersection of three of the area’s largest rivers at one of the driest, lowest elevation spots in the valley. Since high winds kept it snow-free, It used to be a major fur-trading route in the 19th century.
Mistaya Canyon is a deep gorge in which the fast-flowing Mistaya River cut deep gorges, potholes, and overhangs. deep, meandering gorges.
- Peyto Lake has a roughly ¾-mile walk (with about 100 feet of elevation gain) to a viewpoint with a stunning view over the turquoise-colored gem of a lake.
- Bow Summit Lookout, which can be accessed via a 4-mile, 740-foot elevation trail to the lookout at the highest point on the parkway.
- Bow Lake is a pretty recreational lake with lakeside trails, beaches, and, for the intrepid, kayaking and boating.
The parkway has dozens of other viewpoints that can be directly accessed from roadside pull-offs and parking lots.
Overall, the Icefields Parkway is a beautiful drive that allows you to get up close and personal to a glacial ecosystem. You can both observe the glaciers and ecosystem from the roadside and experience it via trails, kayak, or snow coach.
Bow Valley Parkway
The Bow Valley Parkway is another scenic parkway. This 29-mile route goes between Banff and Lake Louise. It was originally the sole highway on a route now served by the Trans-Canada Highway. Today it is a slower route with several stops, trailheads, and viewpoints. Among these, from north to south, are:
- Johnston Canyon is a sculpted, limestone canyon. The relatively easy, 3-mile out-and-back path/catwalk takes you past the lower falls at ½ mile in. You then ascent about 400 feet over another mile to the larger, more impressive upper falls. Five hundred feet further is another set of falls. The two-lane catwalk to the lower falls was, at least on weekend we were there, like a rush hour drive on a narrow, two-way road where people driving at different speeds suddenly stop to take pictures. And let’s not forget trying to get around baby carriages and dogs. The trail mercifully opens up (wider and with fewer people) as you pass the lower falls and begin climbing to the upper falls. In spite of the crowds, it is a very pretty stop.
- Storm Mountain Lookout has views of a jagged ridgeline and several interpretive signs.
- Castle Lookout is a 9-mile in-and-out hike with 1,650 feet of elevation gain that goes to an old fire tower.
- Morant’s Curve is where Mount Temple and Fairview Mountain tower over the Bow River. It is the parkway’s most photographed site….especially if you are lucky enough to be there when a train goes by
Bow Valley Restaurant
Black Swift Bistro. We weren’t expecting much at a cafe at the entrance to the popular Johnson Canyon. We were very pleasantly surprised. Our meal was an easily shareable, large, perfectly cooked (medium rare) Ahi burger with bacon, cheddar, avocado, lettuce, tomato, and red onions. These came with one side (we ordered onion rings) and, In case we needed more carbs (which we didn’t), a huge order of nice, crispy sweet potato fries. It was a very nice al fresco lunch.