Banff and Glacier in 8 Days
Jimmy used a lot of his annual leave as paternity leave this year. So I have been trying to plan this year's travel around holidays. The stars aligned around the 4th of July with Jimmy also having an extra off day and thus getting a trip on the books was pretty much obligatory. I am a wildflower lover and so when I realized that Jimmy's extra time off would coincide with peak wildflower time for the Montana / Alberta region, I was booking flights despite the peak travel prices.
Calgary is the most central airport to these two parks. It is about 3 hours to Glacier and 1.5 to Banff. I looked into a one-way rental car from Calgary to Kalispell to cut down on driving time, but it was ridiculously expensive.
This was our first big family vacation with our son Lewis who was nine months old at the time. At five months old, I had taken Lewis on a shorter plane ride by myself and it was easier than I had anticipated. So I knew flying with both Jimmy and Lewis would be a breeze. Despite missing a connecting flight and then almost missing our rescheduled flight, it was really rather painless. We got in around midnight and so just booked an airport hotel with miles for the evening.
After getting the rental car and navigating our way through several Canadian convenience stores to find all the baby supplies we needed, we were off to the town of Banff which is also in the National Park of Banff. We were delighted to find out that we were travelling during the 100 year celebration of Canada's national parks and so entrance to the park was free.
Banff is hands down the cutest town I have ever seen outside of a National Park. The houses were a colorful, quaint, eclectic mix that still seemed to easily fit with the mountain scenery. The restaurant scene is really impressive for such a small town, and we decided on Nourish Bistro for lunch which did not disappoint. It was there that I discovered how amazing dehydrated watermelon is.
I was sick of driving so we decided to do the tunnel mountain hike in town. It gave us a taste of the wildflowers to come later in the trip and some spectacular views of the town. We met a woman at the top whose job is to welcome people to Calgary. Only in Canada can you make a profession out of being friendly.
We then checked into the Douglas Fir Resorts and Chalets which was pretty much the only place available when I looked. We were travelling during the long Canada Day weekend and so booking three months in advance was cutting it close. But Douglas Fir was a great place to stay with a baby. We had our own little kitchen, they gave us a pack n play, and they had an indoor pool which Lewis loved.
After a quick breakfast in our studio, we drove out to Lake Louise. The Lake was so crowded and the crowds only dissipated slightly on the very popular Lake Agnes Tea House Hike. I've never hiked for solitude, so crowds on a hike don't bother me much. It's just more people to compliment us on our matching tie-dye shirts and adorable baby.
This hike was popular for good reason too. There were views of turquoise Lake Louise throughout and optional hikes to vistas and views of some interesting beehive rock formations that were easy to tag on as we saw fit. Of course there is also the tea house which sits above a waterfall at the base of a lake and serves up a delicious Chai and Chocolate Chip Cookie. On the way back, we stopped to hang out at Mirror Lake where Jimmy of course jumped in and realized how awesome his wife is for always remembering to bring him another pair of underwear for such occasions. A hike with mountain vistas, glacial lakes, waterfalls, and cookies - that is really hard to beat.
Since we really just had the cookie for lunch, we decided to get an early-bird dinner at the Block Restaurant. I got the Zen salad which was beautiful, delicious, and filling. After dinner we walked around town and found ourselves on the Bow River Trail which would have been magical were it not for the gazillion mosquitoes.
We intended to hike the Consolation Lakes trail but by the time we got to Moraine Lake at 9:30, the parking lot was full. So we continued west to Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park. It was another gorgeous turquoise lake, and we hiked around the lake for a while before cutting over to hike to Emerald Basin.
Emerald Lake was much less crowded than then Lake Louise, and we only saw a couple people on the basin hike. The lake was just as gorgeous as Lake Louise and in my opinion had better wildflowers. We even met a guy at the lake that was taking photos of wildflowers as part of official Canadian Government business (again another job that surely doesn't exist in the US).
On the basin hike we were able to see a glacier and had to traverse some snowy passes before getting to a glacial stream in a canyon.
We ate a late lunch at the Emerald Lake Lodge restaurant. I was so thirsty after our hike and the strawberry sodas we got were so amazing at that moment. The restaurant was right on the lake and while we were eating someone did a back flip off the bridge into the lake. As we made our way back to Banff we stopped too see the Spiral Tunnels which was some crazy spiraled train tracks built to maneuver through the mountains. Then we decided that we had time to stop by Moraine Lake and do the quick walk up the rock pile which was worth it even though it involved waking Lewis up from a nap and dealing with the aftermath.
We bid farewell to Banff and headed south towards St. Mary which would be our home base for Glacier National Park. We stopped at Waterton National Park on our way down and ate lunch at the Prince of Wales Hotel. I really wanted to get the afternoon tea, but with Jimmy and I both having our own unique dietary restrictions - it didn't seem to make sense. Nevertheless, we still got to eat lunch with the best possible view of the lake. Pretty much every hue of lake was covered during this trip, and I would rank Waterton Lake the deepest blue. After lunch, we intended to visit Cameron Falls which I had read occasionally runs pink after heavy rains. We couldn't find it though and so we just ended up visiting Cameron Lake.
We stayed at the KOA in St. Mary. I had never stayed in a KOA before, and I have to admit to being a bit judgy about them in the past. But the one at St. Mary's was just too good of a location to pass up, and I would totally stay at another KOA after our St. Mary experience. We had an adorable cabin and access to an a pool in an awesome location.
There isn't much in St. Mary and what is there is definitely not as bougie as Banff. Jimmy and I split the hiker's breakfast at the Park Cafe which was a good gut fill to start the day. We intended to start our day with the Hidden Lake hike which we read was good for seeing Mountain Goats, but there was considerable snow on the trail still and we didn't want to risk slipping and falling with a baby on our back.
So we just kept on the Going to the Sun Road taking in the sights along the way. We stopped at Lake McDonald and took a boat tour which was cool. But if I'm being honest, I enjoyed the huckleberry margarita I got while waiting for the boat more than the tour itself.
Lake McDonald is a great rock skipping spot if you are into that. Jimmy totally is and so that was the highlight of his day.
After the boat tour, we mosied on back to St. Mary on the Going to the Sun road and took pictures at all the spots where everyone else was. While I don't mind crowds on a hike, I could do without crowds of cars and pedestrians. In hindsight, I wish we would not have spent our limited time on the Going to the Sun Road. But alas, FOMO got the better of me.
We headed out early to do the Grinnell Glacier hike. As we started hiking, Jimmy and I were ranking our favorite National Parks. After spending a lot of our time in Glacier in the car, Glacier didn't even make my list. But by the end of the Grinnell Glacier hike, I would be ranking Glacier as my number one National Park. I have been on lots of hikes where there is a magnificent payoff at the end of the hike, but Grinnell Glacier has magnificent payoffs around every corner. We actually never got to see any glaciers because the trail was closed around mile marker 4 and we had to turn back. Still it was the most beautiful hike I have ever been on. The link above recommends taking the boats across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine, but we couldn't be bothered to wait for boats and that would have cut out a really pretty section of the hike. The views and wildflowers did get even more amazing after Lake Joesphine though - so if you aren't up for the full hike and enjoy a nice boat ride, then boat away my friend.
Instead of walking back to our car, we decided to hike to the Many Glacier Hotel for lunch and another Huckleberry drink. It was an lovely way to end an amazing hike. The walk back to our car was along the Swiftcurrent Nature Trail Loop along the Swiftcurrent Lake.
We had a midnight flight to catch out of Calgary so leisurely made our way back north. We had our breakfast along the shore of St. Mary Lake at the campground which was lovely. We briefly stopped in Cardston, Alberta before heading into Calgary.
We didn't expect there to be any beach time on this trip, but as we drove into Calgary we realized that the Fish Creek Provincial Park had built a giant artificial beach in the middle of the park, so a little beach time was in order.
After the beach, we strolled through downtown Calgary and got some dinner before returning the rental car. I was really dreading the red eye flight back home. I already have trouble sleeping on planes, but Lewis slept the whole time and I actually managed to get a nap in as well.
Some thoughts for an 11 day itinerary:
In an ideal world, we would have spent a two more days in Banff so that we could have done the Consolation Lakes, Bow Glacier Falls, and Johnston Canyon hikes. I think we could have fit in a trip to Banff Upper Hot Springs too. With an extra day in Glacier, I would have loved to do the Iceberg Lake Hike. So those are my recommendations for a longer trip. It's always nice to have a good reason to go back and visit a place though.
The amounts below are in US dollars. You could definitely do this trip for less by camping and skipping the restaurants, and you could certainly spend a lot more by staying in some of the National Park lodges and eating out more.
- Lodging- $1075. We had a studio apartment in Banff and a camping cabin in St. Mary. Lodging cost about twice as much in Banff as it did in St. Mary. I used miles to get an airport hotel in Calgary our first night.
- Flight - $520. I got one of our return tickets with milkes, and we did not pay for a seat for Lewis and
- Rental Car and Gas - $381. This ended up being more expensive than I had anticipated because of some fees we had to pay for non-Canadian citizens.
- Food - $351. We generally ate at a restaurant once a day and self-catered the rest of the time. This includes our groceries, supplies for Lewis, and airport meals as well.
- Activities - $25. Hiking is free! Entrance to Banff and Waterton was free because of the 100 anniversary of the park and we already had a season pass for US National Parks. So this amount represents the amount we paid for our boat trip and entrance to the beach in Calgary.
Total = $2352 for the three of us. Flights and lodging on this trip were rather pricey. I'm glad we did this trip now before we had to pay for an extra seat and bed for Lewis.