7 Essentials: Banff and Jasper
Updated: Nov 25, 2019
Article by Brent Robillard & Photography by Caroline Bergeron
When you are in Banff and Jasper, you will be immediately struck with the impression that it could take a lifetime to take it all in—and you would be right. Caroline and I spent seven days there in July, and we were simply overwhelmed by the possibilities. If you wish to maximize your experience, we have outlined 7 different offerings that run the gamut of summer outdoor activities. We promise that you will not be disappointed.
1. Hiking in Sunshine Meadows
If you have ever wanted to hike through the clouds, Sunshine Meadows might be your most accessible option. Sunshine Village is only 8km west of Banff off the Trans-Canada #1 Highway and offers a breathtaking alpine hiking experience for visitors of all abilities. Buses leave Banff regularly, or you can drive the short distance with ample free parking available.
Take the gondola or the shuttle bus from the mountain’s base (1659m) to the Standish Chairlift (2159m) in Sunshine Village, then ride the chairlift to the top terminal (2385m). From the chairlift, it is an easy hike to the Standish Viewing deck which offers an unparalleled panorama of the Great Divide. You will feel as though you are looking at the roof of the world. Rock Isle Lake, Laryx Lake, and Grizzly Lake are visible in the foreground, as well, with Mt. Assiniboine (3618m) floating in the distance. Note that you have also crossed the invisible border from Alberta into British Columbia.
From there, you can hike down to Twin Cairns Junction and head right toward the Monarch Lookout Trail. Hoary marmots scamper everywhere over the rock and heather as the trail crosses the alpine meadow. Mountains rise on either side and snow persists in clumps and rifts well into July. Runoff forms creeks which crisscross the plateau like lattice work. The trail rolls gently over the landscape and is well-maintained, making the journey an easy one.
At the next junction, it is a small detour left and over the ridge to the Monarch Lookout Point. Although not quite as impressive as the view at Standish, Monarch nonetheless offers stunning views of the valley and distant peaks. Head back on your steps and then follow the Meadow Park Trail which winds slowly down the mountain side through fields and forest to the Old Sunshine Lodge. The entire journey from the upper chairlift terminal takes approximately 90 minutes, depending upon your penchant for photos, and you will be awestruck at every step.
Gondola at Sunshine Meadows runs Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursdays from 8:00–18:00, July through September. Cost is $42/adult. Scenic Shuttle runs every day from 8:00–18:00, July through September. Cost is $35/adult.
2. Kayaking on Lake Minnewanka
Lake Minnewanka is a little less popular than her sisters (Moraine and Louise)—which is good, because with six million visitors a year pouring into the parks, it can sometimes be a chore to get to where you want to go and see what you want to see. The lake is only a fifteen-minute drive from Banff Town on the Minnewanka Loop.
While images of Minnewanka aren’t as ubiquitous as the previously mentioned lakes, the vistas are no less awe-inspiring, and it is easy to make a day of it here, with nearby picnic areas and hiking trails to round out the experience.
Kayaking, however, allows you to have the lake more-or-less to yourself. You can ply its pristine waters toward the distant snow-capped mountains at the lake’s far end and then turn into a quiet bay not far from the docks. Here you can explore the mouth of the Cascade River or skirt the far shore and head for home. Visibility in the glacial waters is more than forty feet deep in the early morning (before they become turquoise), and often bear and deer come down to the far shore to drink. In Banff Park you are never far from mountains, and even here the peaks of the Fairholme Range rise right out of the water, offering a stunning, peaceful landscape.
You do not need to be a practised paddler to enjoy the water, and you will not soon forget the experience.
Single Kayaks are available for $60/hour. Doubles are $75. The Minnewanka docks open in Mid-May and close sometime in mid-October.
3. Canoeing on Moraine Lake
If you enjoy water sports then you cannot pass up the opportunity to paddle Moraine Lake’s turquoise glory. Moraine Lake is situated in the impossibly beautiful Valley of the Ten Peaks. It’s stunning colour is a product of the glacial silt that feeds it, and you can witness the power of that mountain runoff up close if you take a canoe across the lake to head of the glacier.
The lake, which sits 1883m above sea-level, is an enormous draw for tourists from around the world. I cannot stress enough how important it is to arrive early if you want to enjoy this site. Parking is at a premium and the access road is frequently closed by 7:00am. The only other way is to arrange a shuttle from Lake Louise, and even then, I would suggest that you do this in advance.
Its proximity to Lake Louise makes it advisable to visit both on the same day; however, its proximity to this second celebrated site also makes visiting difficult at the height of summer. Oddly, most come only to snap the now iconic images of both lakes. Renting a canoe seems to be a distant second choice among tourists. As such, you can usually obtain a boat without a wait, and then leave the throng behind as you strike out for water falls, glaciers, boreal forest, and snow-capped peaks.
If you still want that iconic shot afterward, hike the short Rockpile Trail. Neither activity disappoints.
Canoes can be rented at the docks for $45/hour.
4. Climbing to Lake Agnes Tea House
After you have paddled on Moraine and taken your shot of Lake Louise, consider a little further exertion on the Lake Agnes Trail above the Fairmont Chateau. The trail is steep, but it is wide and flat. In just under three-and-a-half kilometres, you will ascend 433m. If you are not used to climbing, take your time and stop frequently. This is not a technical climb, but it will take about 90 minutes. The payoff is worth it.
The path is a series of switchbacks through old growth forest and mixed fir that offers views through the trees of the valley below. At trail’s end, the mountain tarn and waterfall are topped with soaring peaks. If you can hack it, try hiking just a little further to one of the Big or Little Bee Hives—so called for the strange formation of their rocks. From either you have magnificent views of Lake Louise—which looks like a gem stone set in the valley floor—and the Chateau.
You can rest up at the tea house which has been functioning since the turn of the century and was named after Lady Agnes MacDonald—wife of Canada’s first Prime Minister—who first visited in the 1880s. Everything is done the old-fashioned way here with wood-fired stoves. There’s no electricity and all supplies are hiked in the way you came. But you can still get a good cup of tea and a wonderful scone.
And, yes, you have to hike back.
5. Exploring the Athabasca Glacier and the Icefield Parkway
The Icefield Parkway must be one of the most exhilarating drives in the world. You move through cathedral-like mountains, past creeping glaciers, cascading waterfalls, and milky blue rivers. It goes on and on for hours without end. There are eagles, caribou, black bears, mountain goats, and potentially grizzlies that come out of the forests and down from the hills to feed and to drink. It you drove it in its entirety, without stopping, all the way to Jasper, you would have seen one of the world’s natural wonders.
But halfway through your journey are the Columbia Icefields and the tongue of the Athabasca Glacier which comes off the fields and down to the edge of the very road you are driving. From the Discovery Centre you can book a spot on one of the giant Ice Explorers which will take you out onto to 10 000-year-old sheet of ice, where you will be let off to explore and even sip from the glacier itself. The expanse of ice is truly impressive, but time and climate change have greatly reduced it. Evidence of its retreat is everywhere. Nonetheless, you will still find yourself crawling over a 6 square kilometre mass of ice that at times is 300m thick. To put that in perspective, you could hide the entire Eiffel Tower beneath your feet.
Your ticket also includes a trip to the new Skywalk, which careens over the Sunwapta Valley 918 feet below. This portion of the tour can be a bit crowded, and admittedly, after the grandeur of the glacier, it seems a bit gimmicky. It is nonetheless a wonder of engineering and worth a stop.
Tickets are $99 in advance, or $109 at the Discovery Centre. Season runs from mid-April to mid-October.
6. Boating on Maligne Lake
Maligne Lake is the jewel in Jasper’s crown. It has a wild and wooly feel that the lakes around Banff do not. Perhaps it is the winding remote approach through the mountains and northern forest. Evidence of recent forest fires is everywhere. Black bears abound. But whatever it is, you will not regret the time it takes you to arrive.
Catch the first cruise of the day, if you can. The light is best in the morning. You can also rent kayaks and canoes, but unless you intend to camp, it is best to take the cruise. The coveted destination you are looking for is Spirit Island—named by the Stony First Nations People—14 kilometres down the narrow lake.
There is a ring of peaks and glaciers at the far end of the lake that provide an impressive backdrop to the island. You will have a chance to walk around the adjacent shore to truly appreciate the view, which was made famous by Peter Gales in 1960. The image he captured hung in the Kodak Showcase of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal for two months. Now the island is one of Canada’s most coveted tourist attractions.
The Classic Cruise costs $72 and runs from late May to early October.
7. Relaxing in the Miette Hotsprings
While Banff Town has transformed itself into a breed of Wilderness Chic over the years, drawing people as much for its restaurants and galleries as its access to nature, tourism in this area was originally due, in part, to hot spring access. There are many options still in that respect. Banff and Radium are both popular destinations. However, if you have time for only one, choose Miette in Jasper.
The waters in Miette bubble up naturally at an incredible 54 degrees Celsius but are cooled to a perfect 40 degrees for the bathers. They offer up a unique concoction of Sulfate, Calcium, Bicarbonate, Magnesium, and Sodium (among others), and pour out of the mountain at more than 1500 litres per minute.
The pools and facilities were rebuilt in the 1980s, but you can still hike up the valley to see the original bathhouse if you choose.
Here there are four pools, including two cool plunge pools, as well as a small restaurant. The views of the Fiddle Valley and surrounding peaks are unparalleled, and mountain goats roam frequently in large numbers through the parking lot.
Take the day here and recharge after all that hiking and paddling.
The Springs are open May to October for a paltry $9.55 day pass.