This was one of our best trips ever, and we've taken a lot of trips. We loved almost everything: the incredible scenery, the accommodations, the friendly people, the (sometimes friendly) wildlife. Only a few negatives: the bugs (mostly mosquitoes), though they mostly went away after the temperature dropped; some overpriced and mediocre food; and the unusually warm weather in Banff and Jasper for the first week or so--normally this would not be a negative, but I expected cooler weather and so did not have enough hot-weather clothes, which meant we had to take time from sightseeing to do laundry. But those were relatively minor problems. In this report I'll share some details of the itinerary, and I'll also post separate reviews of accommodations and restaurants.
In summary, we flew to Calgary, drove to Banff, stayed 5 nights in Banff, drove the Icefields Parkway to Jasper, stayed 3 nights in Jasper, drove the Icefields Parkway to Lake Louise, stayed 3 nights in Lake Louise, and for the last night drove to Calgary where we stayed at an airport hotel. When reading what we did each day, keep in mind that most days we did not get started until about 9 a.m. and were usually back at our lodging by early evening if not sooner--this should give you an idea of how much time things take.
We flew from Maryland to Calgary, with change in Toronto, Wednesday July 17. Going through Canadian security and customs was easy (especially compared with US customs), and the Toronto airport had lots of dining options. Arrived Calgary late afternoon, picked up rental car and drove to Banff in a driving rainstorm for part of the way, but that was pretty much the end of the bad weather for the trip.
Got settled in our private log cabin (Banff Log Cabin) in a residential area just outside town, then drove into town to get dinner at Bear Street Tavern. We didn't walk around town that much but noted that Bear Street seemed more interesting than Banff Ave.--the latter is very touristy and crowded.
The next morning (July 18) we drove to the Sulphur Mountain gondola, where we had no wait. It was expensive for a short ride, but we liked the views at the top and the walk to the historic weather station (beware if you have a problem with steps--there were a LOT of steps, though it's laid out in a way that breaks up the ascent and descent). After the gondola we drove back into town and stopped at Cascade Gardens, which was a bit disappointing based on what I had been led to expect in travel info. It was pretty but not that big and not spectacular; 30 minutes was enough, and if you don't have the time, don't worry about missing it. We then picked up deli sandwiches at Nester's Market in town (they are pre-made, not made to order, but the roast beef sandwich we got was pretty good) and drove out of town on Mt. Norquay Road with the intention of doing the Stoney Squaw Trail hike. Unfortunately, about 20 minutes into the hike we turned back because the bugs were so bad that I could not stop for even a few seconds to rest as we ascended. We ended up eating lunch in the car instead of picknicking as we had hoped.
After lunch in the car we drove Tunnel Mountain Road to the hoodoo viewpoint, which had nice views but I was surprised to find there was only one hoodoo formation (I thought it was going to be like Bryce Canyon National Park with hoodoos all over). Still, It was a short and worthwhile drive from town. We then drove to the Bow Falls viewpoint, which was beautiful. There were lots of tourists (this was mid- to late afternoon) but it did not affect our ability to take photos and appreciate the scenery. We liked it so much that we drove back there in the evening, but at that point it was too buggy. We had dinner at Earl's in Banff--very disappointing.
Friday July 19 we first drove to Surprise Corner for views of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel and scenery--very nice--and then drove Bow Valley Parkway to Johnston Canyon, where we hiked to the Upper Falls (very crowded up to the Lower Falls but more peaceful after that). The mosquitoes were terrible--I was bitten even with repellent (though I might not have been using the most effective repellent). The parking lot for Johnston Canyon got very crowded even in the late morning, so you should try to go as early as possible. Whether or not you do the hike, note that they have good restroom facilities at the parking lot. They also had a restaurant and a snack bar. We had BLTs at the snack bar--they were so-so but service was friendly (as it was almost everywhere).
After the hike and lunch we continued driving Bow Valley Parkway to the viewpoints at Castle Mountain (impressive) and Outlet Creek (it started raining so not good for photos) and then turned back. There was a bear sighting on the Parkway but we only saw a glimpse in passing because there was already a traffic jam and the park rangers made us keep moving.
We got back to the cabin mid-afternoon and my husband went to Warner Stables to take a 2-hour trail ride, which he enjoyed. When he got back we walked over the pedestrian bridge (quite close to our cabin) for dinner at Bison on the upstairs patio (pleasant experience but it will get a mixed review on food).
Saturday July 20 we drove to Lake Minnewanka (another place where the parking lot got crowded by late morning). We walked to Stewart Canyon Bridge, where there was a lovely view and we also saw a deer (not really a big deal since they hang out by our yard at home). We then came back to the lake to take a boat ride, which was expensive but had great scenery. After that we drove past Two Jack Lake to the point where the Minnewanka Loop was closed, then returned to Banff for lunch at Wild Flour (disappointing). We returned to the cabin and then walked to the Fairmont hotel (about 10 minutes from the cabin); on the way we were entertained by what looked and acted like prairie dogs but are actually squirrels. We took a self-guided tour of the hotel, which is very interesting and has fantastic views from out back (where they have a casual outdoor dining area). We were tempted to eat there because of the view but decided to eat at their Grape wine bar and bistro instead, which was good enough that we returned the next night.
Sunday July 21 we drove to Kootenay National Park, but only as far as Marble Canyon and Paint Pots, where we did a 2.5-hour hike--nice scenery, mostly along water. We also stopped at the Continental Divide at Vermilion Pass but it was just a sign, not an overlook. We returned to the cabin so I could shower and start repacking while my husband walked to the Cave and Basin site in Banff, which he found interesting.
Monday July 22 we left Banff about 9:30 a.m. and drove the Icefields Parkway to Jasper. The scenery was fantastic, and it was hard not to stop at every viewpoint--though we did stop at quite a few. We also did the short hike to Mistaya Canyon, which was lovely, and did the Columbia Icefield Glacier tour, which my husband really enjoyed but I found underwhelming. Also, I was annoyed at how disgusting the women's restrooms were in the Columbia Icefield center--considering how much you pay for the tour as well as the food there, they could keep the restrooms up better. On the way to Jasper we had our first really good wildlife sighting--a family of 4 mountain goats. The baby crossed the road by itself in front of a big tour bus (stopped, obviously, like everyone else)--it was so cute and we got good photos.
We arrived in Jasper late afternoon and got settled in our basement apartment at the White Brick Inn. We had to do laundry that day (a shame to waste the time, but at least I got a really good mocha drink from the coffee place in the laundromat), and after we had dinner in town at Raven (nice experience, pretty good food).
Tuesday July 23 we started with breakfast at Bear's Paw Bakery (crowded and not as good as expected). We then drove to Athabasca Falls south of Jasper via 93A--great scenery, impressive falls. We drove back to Jasper for lunch at Café Mondo, then drove to Patricia Lake (not that interesting) and Pyramid Lake (beautiful, with a nice walking loop). Then back to town to do another load of laundry, and while waiting got a good fruit smoothie at Coco Café. For dinner we went to Sayuri Japanese restaurant in town (good).
Wednesday July 24 we got breakfast at Coco Café and then drove south of Jasper to Mt. Edith Cavell, where we did the short Path of Glacier trail. There were amazing views both on the way to Cavell and on the trail. We then drove north of Jasper on Rte. 16 in search of wildlife--I had read that bighorn sheep hung out at Disaster Point Salt Lick, which was about 30-45 minutes (a destination expert may need to correct me) north of town. Not far out of town we saw a car pulled over and a woman taking photos, so we pulled over and she pointed out an elk on an island down below, some distance away. Not close enough to get a good photo, but still a nice sighting. We then kept driving and eventually found the sheep--at least I think they were sheep, but they must have been females because they did not have the big thick horns and coat you usually see. Anyway, there were two of them pretty close, including one that crossed the road twice right in front of us.
Having gotten our wildlife fix and thinking that was it for the day, we then drove back toward Jasper and went along Maligne Lake Road where we had two black bear sightings along the road! One was an adult, the other was a mother with a couple of cubs. Naturally, everyone violated park guidelines and got out of their cars to get closer. I'm actually surprised the mother bear didn't charge, but it was fun to see them.
We had lunch at the Maligne Canyon cafeteria, which was surprisingly good (if you are a milkshake fan and/or a Nutella fan, you need to get a shake made with chocolate ice cream and hazelnut syrup--heavenly!). After lunch we walked to the 3rd bridge of the canyon, then continued driving to Medicine Lake, with its stunning views. Several people were in or near the water's edge so we decided to try dipping our feet but discovered that it was a bad idea because the shoreline is painfully rocky. On the other hand, the extremely cold water gave some relief to our sore feet.
Our last stop along Maligne Lake Rd. was Maligne Lake, where we walked part of the Mary Schaffer loop with pretty views. We returned to Jasper for dinner at Karouzo's (very good).
Thursday July 25 we had breakfast at LouLou's (very good and better prices than most). We left Jasper around 11 a.m. and drove south on the Icefields Parkway, stopping at Sunwapta Falls and Bow Summit/Peyto Lake--both worthwhile. We arrived in Lake Louise mid-afternoon and got settled in our cabin at Paradise Lodge & Bungalows (a great place to stay). Then we drove to Lake Louise (the actual lake, not the village)--it was pretty but not as spectacular as some other lakes we'd seen, and it was too crowded to seem peaceful. We walked from the parking lot up to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and got a chocolate croissant at the deli; we looked around the hotel a bit but we weren't as impressed as we were by the one in Banff, except that the Lakeview Lounge looked like a nice place to have a drink or meal (people there seemed to be dressed nicely). We had dinner at Laggan's in the Samson Mall in LL village and we were not impressed with the service, food, or the mall.
Friday July 26 we had breakfast in the cabin and then drove to Moraine Lake to do the Consolation Lake hike (2+ hours). Because of bear restrictions, hikers were required to go in "tight" groups of 4 or more, which meant that we had to wait at the trailhead for others who were going the same distance (you couldn't go out with a group and come back alone if you didn't want to go as far as the others). The tricky part of this is that you don't know the fitness level of others who come along, and it was a big problem for me because I am much less fit than most--I can hike a couple of hours but need to stop periodically to catch my breath when going up steeply and also to give my feet and knees a break. We ended up in a group of 6, which was fine while we all were picking our way slowly through the thick rockpile at the beginning, but then I couldn't keep up with the others when the trail was ascending. My husband at one point called out to them to wait for us, but they didn't. Eventually we caught up with one couple who wanted to go more slowly. But it was a frustrating and humiliating experience for me. So the lesson here is, know your fitness level and don't go on a trail with bear restrictions unless you are sure you can keep up. We did not encounter a bear, but technically we were violating the rules when we fell behind and if a park ranger was around we could have been cited and fined thousands of dollars (apparently they are serious about enforcing this).
The good news is that once we got to the top (or the point where we planned to go--not sure if it was the top of the trail), there were very nice views and a close encounter with a marmot. We went back down the trail with a group and I was able to keep up. We got a light lunch at the Moraine Lake Lodge deli, took a few photos of Moraine Lake (many say it is prettier than Lake Louise, and we agree), and then drove to the Lake Louise Gondola. There was almost no wait and the gondola ride was fun because they offered the option of open carriages, but I don't think it was worth the money for the views at the top (though it might have been if we had seen a grizzly, which some people do).
After getting an iced mocha at Javalanche across from Samson Mall, we returned to the cabin to rest and then went to dinner at Bill Peyto's (nice setting and good food at reasonable prices).
Saturday July 27 after breakfast in the room we drove to Yoho National Park, with stops at Spiral Tunnel viewpoint, Natural Bridge, Emerald Lake (including a 2-hour walk around the lake and lunch on the patio at Cilantro overlooking the lake), and Takkkaw Falls (impressive). I highly recommend this itinerary, which took most of the day. We ate dinner in the cabin with leftover pizza from Cilantro and a beef pot pie from Laggan's. The evening was spent repacking.
Sunday July 28 after breakfast in the room we drove from Lake Louise to Calgary, sadly noting the decrease in beautiful scenery as we left Banff National Park. We checked into the Best Western Freeport by the airport, drove to a nearby megamall (CrossIron Mills--kind of overwhelming after almost 2 weeks of the peacefulness of nature), returned the rental car, and spent some time at the hotel indoor pool. Early the next morning we went to the airport for our flights to Toronto and then Baltimore. The trip was over, but we will never forget it!