TL;DR: If you love nature, get to Banff. Now! Mix of easy and hard hikes. Gorgeous views from everywhere. Perfect balance of nature and development. Small towns near the main park offer plenty of great lodging optiuons. Soak in the nature. Come back alive. O! Canada. Wow!
When someone asks me about Banff, the first word that comes to my mind is 'heavenly'. Indeed. It is as close to heaven you can get on earth. The place, the beauty and just the feeling of being there is magical!
To get to Banff, the closest major airport to fly into is Calgary. It's an easy airport to get to with direct flights from many cities in the US. From Calgary. Banff is about 90 minutes away.
As soon as you get near the park, you are immediately hit with the majesty and beauty of the place.
We stayed in the town of Canmore, which is about 40 minutes from the park entrance itself. It's a nice little town to rent airbnbs or hotels, especially if you are a large group. Some decent restaurants in town too - good Indian place, Chinese food and a sandwich place from where you can pack food to take on a hike. From Canmore, you can drive to the park, spend a day hiking in the Banff area and then drive back in the evening. When you get to the park, it's a good idea to get a yearly pass. This will allow you access to both Banff and Jasper for the duration of your stay. And if you happen to return within the year or visit any Canadian national park, you can still use it. So while it may seem expensive to begin with, in the long run, it's a good bargain.
One of the first hikes I would recommend in Banff is the Ink pot hike. There's plenty of parking there at the trailhead. The trail begins by a pathway that has been cut into the side of a river gorge, which in itself is just a beautiful walk.
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You can continue walking along the edge of the river on a well-built pathway. This leads up to a forested area of the trail that follows the river. Eventually, the trail starts to climb through the forest for the next hour or so. Then you start going downhill and eventually, enter a clearing, which is a breathtaking sight. This clearing is pockmarked with holes in the ground that are filled with water. And hence, I guess the name, Inkpot hike.
The water in the holes is definitely cold but feels insanely fresh. Dip your toes in. Go ahead. It's a great feeling! You can spend some time here and then start your walk back. Keep in mind that it's an uphill climb when you're on your way back. So it may be a bit challenging since you're already retired, but then soon you hit the downhill patch and then back on the pathway along the river, leading back to the trailhead.
The second hike I took is a climb up the Sulfur mountain. This hike is not very long, but it's quite steep. It climbs thousand 2000 feet in a very short distance. You need to be in good shape to make it up.
There is a Gondola ride that starts at the bottom of the mountain and can take you all the way to the top. I would recommend that you hike your way to the top so you can enjoy the views as you go along and then take the Gondola ride back down. As you climb up the mountain, you can see views of the valley and they just keep getting better with every turn.
Then, you can get on the Gondola for a very easy right back down. At the base of the mountain, there are hot springs. I guess that's where the mountain gets its name. The facility certainly seems very dated. If you're not really into hot sulfur baths with old people, you can skip this part
The third hike in Banff, which is my favorite and probably one of the best anywhere, is the tea house hike. The starting point of this is the lodge at Lake Louise, which in itself is a beautiful setting. There is a huge resort that has been built on the edge of the lake. You can spend a nice time just walking around people watching, looking at beautiful vistas and getting on some boat rides. The trail starts from the front of the hotel by the lake and you walk along the edge of the lake and then start your climb up. There are actually two tea houses. The best hike is the one where you can get both of those done on the same day. I would say that you do need to be in good shape to do this, but it's certainly possible.
As you start climbing up, the trail is rocky and dry. There isn't much forestation in this part, But you are rewarded with fabulous views looking down towards Lake Louise and up into the mountains as you climb.
After about an hour and a half, just around the bend, you get a glimpse of this beautiful tea house that's built of painted red logs and has tiny flags hung around it. It almost feels like you are somewhere in Nepal, at the foothills of the Himalayas. You almost expect a sherpa and his family to come out and serve you hot tea. You'll definitely get hot tea, but no Sherpas. It's beautiful to sit there and enjoy the hot tea along with some of the pastries that they have up there. The supplies are flown in using a helicopter about once every few weeks.
After enjoying the tea, you can start back and retrace your steps on the trail, till you get to a point where the trail splits off. One path leads back down to the lake, while the other path leads to the second tea house, the seven no seven sisters. The trail starts to climb up again and brings you to the bottom of a very interesting formation. It's called a honeycomb mountain with a small lake there. Just watching the reflection of the mountain the lake is a fantastic experience. From here on the trail becomes quite steep.
And then the last, 700 feet or so, are climbed by a using a wooden stairway. Its really tiring but you are a rewarded by fascinating views all along including a waterfall right next to the stairs. The light mist that blows from the waterfall refreshes you at every step. And the view at the top of the steps is something you will never forget for the rest of your life.
You see a lake, which is sitting at the bottom of snow-capped mountains and right next to the lake is a tea house. It's another fantastic setting. You should definitely spend some time here, sip tea, sit in the balcony, look at the lake, look at the waterfall or listen to the waterfall. Just soak in the beauty and the majesty of this place. It's heavenly. Almost spiritual in some sense. After you've had a chance to take in all of those things with the sip of tea, you can start your hike down the stairs and then through the wooded areas, back down to Lake Louise for an awesome days worth of hiking.
One of the things that amazed me about Banff is the care which the people of Canada and their government have taken to maintain the natural beauty of this area while providing a means for everyone to enjoy its splendor. There's a perfect balance of development and access along with, maintaining and preserving natural serenity and tranquility. You can drive around on the busy Canadian highway one, you're driving right along these beautiful streams of water. One great example of the natural balance are bridges over the Canadian highway one. It was intriguing as we looked at these bridges that seemingly had no roads leading up to them. They were highway overpasses and we were wondering, you know, who uses these if there are no roads leading up to it? Soon enough, it was very clear that the intended audience for the bridge is not humans, but animals. What they discovered is that when the highways were being built, they were cutting through, the vegetation and the landscape that these animals rely upon. And in some cases, their food supply and water supply was on the other side of the highway. So what they did is built these overpasses and covered them with grass. Animals started moving about freely from one side of the freeway to another. I understand that are also underpasses that the crawling animals can use.
One place I do want to mention, which is really a fabulous one, although not much hiking around - Lake Moraine. It is just out of this world. The blue waters of the lake created by stones being grind into crystals is just breathtaking. Apparently, this view of the lake and the mountains appears on the Canadian $20 bill. I can see why they chose this. While you are there, visit the local store on the edge of the lake and definitely grab some Canadian maple cookies. They are the best!
Jasper national park is also close by. That on its own is probably several days worth of visits. But if you just want to see the glacier, you can make it an easy day trip from Bam. There is a well-built visitor center, and from there you can take a guided tour of the glacier or just walk up to the edge of the glacier.
I will keep coming back to Banff over the years to enjoy the breathtaking natural beauty and keep discovering new trails and vistas.