In the fall of 2018, my very dear friend Michelle decided to have a destination wedding in Banff, and I saw this as the perfect opportunity to plan my next international adventure! I planned for four nights in Banff, one at Lake Louise, three nights in Jasper and one last night in Calgary before flying home. At first, I thought I would try to camp, but camping isn’t as easy as you’d hope. Reservations need to be made in early January and the system is pretty competitive. I tried my hardest to get an oTENTik at Two Jake Lake when reservations opened, but failed. Additionally, it snows in September and a lot of places have closed to camping due to high bear activity at this time of year.
My travel companion for this trip ended up being my favorite aunt, Martje. Both morning people, we made for excellent travel companions, though the stress of missing my MBA classes certainly put a little extra stress on me this trip.
Hotels in Banff are quite pricey, so I splurged on one night at the Fairmont Banff Springs for the wedding, surrounded by nights in a private room at the much more affordable youth hostel nearby. The HI Banff Alpine Centre is a great hostel, though a bit loud, the doors are very heavy and slam quite frequently, rooms are small and the heating is very hit or miss (either wayyyy too hot or too cold). We stayed two nights on the parking lot side of the hostel (very noisy when folks leave the bar) and then requested the other side of the hall for our last night (much better). There’s a really cute little coffee house (Buffalo Mountain Cafe) you can walk to from the hostel that we really enjoyed with adorable espresso drink art. We were enchanted and came here every morning.
In Banff, we started by heading to Cave Basin NHS, just outside the town of Banff. Since it had just snowed, we stayed on some of the boardwalks and explored the museum inside plus some of the easy to walk to springs. After a fresh snow, this place looked quite lovely, and the cave with hot springs was pretty memorable.
The next day we went to a wonderful hike along a river, Johnston Canyon Upper Falls and Lower Falls. This was a perfect hike that enabled us to walk a scenic canyon route along the Johnston Canyon Trail. This lovely train is well paved in many parts and has stunning views of both the upper and lower falls. There’s even a lovely little cave you can walk through for views of the lower falls (if you don’t mind waiting in line). When you get back down you can warm up and get lunch at the Johnston Canyon Resort Lodge. Gluten free isn’t the best selection here, but it’s a good location to take a break.
Our third day was the wedding, and we were able to explore Bow Falls, and experience the luxury of the Fairmont. We checked in early, enjoyed a morning wedding and then headed up the Banff Gondola to enjoy spectacular views in the afternoon, followed by a dip in the Banff Upper Hot Springs. The Gondola is AMAZING and has a lovely restaurant on top (plan for lunch or drinks here), the hot spring is VERY crowded, in the end we preferred spending time in the lovely pools at the Fairmont much more.
The Fairmont had several amazing restaurants that handled gluten free guests quite well. Our room was gorgeous with a stunning view – I wish I’d splurged for additional nights there over being cheap at the hostel.
The town of Banff is also very charming. It’s just what you would expect from a luxury mountain resort town. There’s a cute little museum in town, and you can find really wonderful restaurants. Oddly enough, our favorite spot was a vegan restaurant (who knew?!) called Nourish, we ate here several times on our trip. Another great spot was the Juniper Bistro, just across the highway. The bistro had spectacular views and I enjoyed a fantastic gluten free poutine.
On our last day, we drove the Minnewanka loop and took a short walk to Johnson Lake. You pass several cute places to stop here including the ghost town of Bankhead, multiple picnic areas and scenic views of Two Jack Lake. The walk to Johnson Lake is appropriately short (3 km), but very nice and gives you a chance to stretch your legs. Lake Minnewanka offers boat tours, canoe rentals and has a charming little snack shack for you to get some lunch during your drive. I heard lucky people saw bighorn sheep on this drive, but we didn’t get to see any. We woke up bright and early the next day to head to Lake Louise (and were relieved to put our hostel experience behind us).
- Reserve your hotels – or campsites – WELL in advance, these fill up fast!
- Plan at least 3-4 days in Banff for your trip.
- Try to go in the off-season/shoulder-season. We went in late September which was ideal because while the crowds were still very noticeable, they were substantially better than summer. Also, in the fall most of the bugs people complain about in summer have died off.
- Highly recommend winter boots starting in September, we had snowfall the first night we arrived. Also bringing trekking poles is helpful for stability and YakTrax if it’s icy.
- Camping reservations open early each year in January (Jasper and Banff are usually a few days apart). You will have a matter of seconds to reserve before they sell out, check these sites for more info: