After spending my last two birthdays out of the country, I decided to make it a tradition to start a new year around the sun, in a new country I’ve never visited.
This year I chose Canada, Banff specifically. I do find it odd that I waited until the last two years to visit the nearest countries to me, but holy smokes was it worth the wait!
I planned very little about this trip. I’ve always been one to see a picture of something and say, “I want to see THAT!” And book a ticket to that destination. My, “I want to see that” moment, stemmed from Lake Louise. Guess what I didn’t see on my trip? Lake Louise. I saw so much of Banff and Jasper that made my heart skip a beat that I was okay with leaving, what I later learned is the largest tourist location in Banff (Lake Louise), to the picture that inspired me to go to Canada in the first place.
I have always been one to take the road less traveled. I’ve always liked the feeling of finding the hidden gems and connecting with Mother Earth so much more intimately than you can in the over populated areas. This trip gave me just that. Sure, I hit some tourist spots, but the backcountry camping leaves you in solitude and only permits 8 people a day. That was something truly special.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, not everything goes according to plan, but when you “Just breathe. And let the wind take you exactly where you’re meant to be,” as my good friend Heather would say, that’s when adventure really begins.
I flew into Calgary where a buddy of mine picked me up. Our first night camping was front country style in Tunnel mountain Village 1. It was already pretty late when I arrived so I found it best to just get set up front country for the night. Especially during the summer, all of Banff’s campsites get booked up pretty quick, so be sure to be on top of it. You can reserve all of your campsites, (front and backcountry) at: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/ab/banff/activ/camping?gccf=true
The next morning, we drove down the Icefields Parkway. This is to be said, “one of the most beautiful highways in the world”. And I wouldn’t argue that! Around every corner is a new surprise. A waterfall, an aqua colored lake, a bear, a glacier, a wildflower covered hiking trail, camping spots along the water, river bends? You never know what you’re going to get!
We had to drive down the parkway to get to the trailhead of the next campsite. Couple things to keep in mind:
•There is NO phone service as soon as you enter Banff National Park. You need a permit for the park and can get one for about $10 a day at: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/ab/banff/visit/tarifs-fees
•Be sure to get gas, as there is no where to stop on the Icefields Parkway until you reach The Crossing Gas station and Store, about an hour outside of the city of Banff. The next gas station is in Jasper, 2 hours away.
I had very little expectations as far as backcountry camping went, other than I wanted to wake up to a lake view. In hindsight that seems like a huge expectation now, after seeing how quickly lake view campsites book up. It was an on going joke that “mosquito creek” and “ghost lake” had open availability. After days of research, we came across “Glacier Lake”. I wasn’t able to find many pictures of it online, but if it looked anything as beautiful as its name, I had no doubt it was going to be anything short of stunning. You are required a permit for backcountry camping as well, and this particular site only permits 8 spots a night.
Several maps suggested hiking in with larger groups for bear safety, and you are required to have bear spray while doing any sort of backpacking/ backcountry hiking. When we reached the trail head to Glacier Lake, (less than a minute away from The Crossing Gas station, as mentioned above, and right before the train tracks), I noticed two other guys assembling their packs. I asked if they wanted to trek in together! I’ve always been keen on making new friends, especially with other travelers, but was also taking into consideration traveling with more numbers.
I hit the jackpot when it came to meeting awesome people on this trip. These two guys were from Austria and had been living in Canada for a while, working on a farm, and traveling to see the country during off time.
The hike in is beautiful and very woodsy. I would say it’s about half uphill and the second half, downhill. Probably would be considered an easy/ moderate hike, but add a 35 lb pack on your back into the mix and prepare to have moments of windedness.
I think it took us about 2 hours and is an almost 6 mile hike in. Within the first 20 minutes, you will cross the Saskatchewan river, and come across 2 of the infamous red chairs overlooking some river runoff. After that point, it’s pretty woodsy, where you will encounter lots of cool looking mushrooms, wild critters, and cross 6 footbridges along the way.
We lucked out as far as weather goes. It was stunning seeing the sun rays peer through the pine trees and reflect off the creek.
When we arrived to the camp site, it was pretty much camp where ever you want. No view is a bad view. You will have eyes on this beautiful glacier across an aqua lake, no matter where you set up. There are two fire pits made, but you’ll have to either bring an ax or your own firewood. There is a little outhouse but you’ll have to supply your own toilet paper. There is a bear bag pulley system to hang food (and anything with a scent, toiletries included) that I thought was pretty cool that they had available. There were two other guys already set up when we got there that I made friends with. Thank god for “Jay” who had a platypus water system to filter clean water, cause your girl came unprepared on the water filter front. Again, I have to express the radness behind some of the people I crossed paths with. Jay, and his friend Shane were some of the coolest, most informed, outdoorsmen I’ve ever met.
I set up my tent right next to the water to stay true to my plan of waking up on my birthday next to a lake. 🙂 I use a Big Agnes Copper UL 3, in case you were curious. It weighs about 3.4 lbs, and was a blessing to carry compared to other tents I’ve camped with. HIGHLY recommend.
We had a bonfire that night and swapped stories and it was probably my favorite night of the whole trip. I was determined to capture a shot of the stars, but it doesn’t get fully dark in the summer until after midnight! I did with what I could to capture them. They were beautiful reflecting on the lake.
If you get the chance to camp in Banff, I couldn’t recommend Glacier Lake more. If you don’t have time to camp, the hike is worth it.
Johnston Canyon was another stop on my list. I went later in the afternoon and the crowds had died down quite a bit. It’s an effortless hike to an unreal view. There are the lower falls and upper falls. I would say it was maybe 2 miles round trip? Maybe less? The lower falls blew me away. There is a little cave you can go through to get closer to the falls. You will get wet, FYI.
Although the hike is easy, it’s absolutely breathtaking. Some of the walkways are concrete slabs, drilled into the side of a cliff. There were a few spots I wanted to visit along the way that I had come across photos of, but a lot of areas were off limits because some endangered species of birds had been seen mating and nesting off the trails. Where it’s tempting to go see these beautiful areas off trail, it’s so important to abide by and respect the signs, and the space for these species that are continuing to mate.
MORAINE LAKE! Holy crap, I have to write that one in all caps. What an adventure. This is another tourist location, so in order to see it undisturbed, you have to arrive about 4:30am. It takes about 35-40 mins to get there from the town of Banff. Getting parking is pretty easy when you arrive that early, otherwise you have to park pretty far away, pay for a shuttle there and back, plus waiting on shuttle buses. One note I would have loved to have in my back pocket was how damn cold it would be there! I wish I would have brought gloves and maybe extra leggings. It was in the low 30’s that morning and without the sun up, maybe colder. It’s worth it though. I climbed up “rock pile” and just stared at Moraine lake. I woke up at 3:30 AM to make the trek to this view. Did I sleep in the car in a parking lot for 3 hours after taking it all in? You betcha! But it’s moments like watching the sun highlight these beautiful mountains and seeing the reflections of pine trees and a mountain range clear as day in an aqua, glacier formed lake with no disturbance, allll worth the sleeplessness. I sat on a rock just staring at it in disbelief for so long. Like, SO long. It just doesn’t even look real! It’s absolute perfection. I’m flabbergasted that we are gifted these beautiful places on earth to explore….We are the lucky ones.
Really quickly, I have to plug my favorite spot I ate at in Banff. Nourish Bistro is vegetarian/ vegan and is highly tasty. The staff was warm and enjoyable to be around and just one more time, the food was incredible, and healthy.
Another must try treat are “beaver tails”. Essentially a deep fried slab of dough, with so many options of toppings. I did Nutella and banana and I haven’t been the same since. You can thank me later.
I encourage you to spend a full day driving the Icefields Parkway making stops all the way to Jasper. The spots I found most worth stopping at were: Bow Lake, Crowfoot Glacier, Peyto Lake (it’s about a mile hike and SO worth it. The most aqua lake of all that I saw), and Athabasca Glacier. There are waterfalls along the whole way that they have rest stops you can pull off at to view as well.
I spent the better half of a day at Athabasca Glacier. You are allowed to climb it, so I did. And it was INCREDIBLE. The water runoff is piercing blue and the yummiest water I’ve tasted. It took about an hour and 45 mins from the parking lot to get to the top. With all the stops I made just taking it all in, it probably took longer. This was one of my favorite memories on earth. I paused and had several moments of disbelief. Partially sad by markers indicating where the glacier once was at, and seeing how far it’s receded now, and moments of pure gratitude for life. Never in my life would I think I would be hiking up a glacier and getting to peer down into unforgivable depths of glacier crevices. I had a smile on my face the entire trek up. It is 3.7 miles long and covers an area of 2.3 square miles. Its depth is 300 – 1000 feet – The ice is as thick as the Eiffel Tower is high. How insane is that?! One of my favorite adventures to date.
Couple notes about this place I wanted to share, that might seem like a no brainer but I wouldn’t be sharing if I didn’t think it needed to be. If you haul trash in, haul it out. It still confuses me why people feel comfortable and natural leaving their trash on the ground. Let’s keep these sacred places respected and clean. The other note I actually learned while I was there. There were TONS of rocks stacked at the foot of the glacier for “desirable instagram photos”. If you’ve never seen those stacked rocks before, they are used by hikers to be mile marker indicators. I saw a man kicking them all over. Out of curiously I asked why he was doing that. He explained that people do that for “more creative instagram photos” and creating these is actually a form of graffiti. When you feel you have to make something more desirable by leaving your own mark, it’s considered graffiti. Though I had never modified earth to my liking, I had never thought of it that way, but he was right. Just something to think about.
Another drive worth doing it the loop from Lake Minnewanka to Two Jack Lake. You are guaranteed to see some wildlife, and it’s just a beautiful drive in and of itself. I saw lots of elk, mountain goats, bears etc. Also common to see bears along Icefields Parkway.
I am so thankful for so many new and different experiences I had on this trip, and overall the deeper bond I felt with Mother Earth. I’ve never seen her this intimately. Something about this place made my connectedness with her that much greater. I have no doubt this place will rejuvenate your soul. Add it to the bucket list!