The first time we ever saw a photo of Banff National Park, it instantly jumped to the top of our travel bucket list. At that time, we lived in Texas and didn’t spend time in the mountains and didn’t know that Gatorade blue lakes even existed. After moving to Seattle, we knew we would eventually have to road trip to the Banff area, and this past week we finally did! We piled into our fully packed SUV with our pup Kona and Kathryn’s brothers and drove the 12 hours (with stops) to Banff. While the trip was not perfect—those who have siblings know that fights are bound to happen and combine that with the stress of dealing with an anxious dog, things got a little overwhelming and frustrating at times—but it was still an incredible getaway filled with some of the most insane scenery and fun adventures. Here’s a little recap of our trip. Stay tuned for a detailed guide to help you plan your own Banff National Park getaway!
Day 1: Road trippin’
Our first day of the trip was mostly spent road tripping from Seattle, WA. We woke up at 2 AM and got on the road by 3 AM to start the 10.5 hour drive (12 hours with stops). Whenever we told people we were driving 12 hours to spend only two full days in Banff, we got a lot of weird looks and “y’all are crazy!” We drove instead of flying in order to save money and so we could bring Kona with us. While the drive was long in length, it was incredibly beautiful and went by super fast. Adam was a huge trooper and drove the entire way to Banff, despite others offering to drive, simply because he enjoyed it so much! We drove through parts of Canada we had yet to explore, were surrounded by crazy mountains, lakes, and rivers, and enjoyed some Tim Hortons to keep us caffeinated. We are so glad that we chose to drive!
Towards the end of the drive we made a quick stop at Yoho National Park to visit Emerald Lake. The lake is a quick detour off the highway and was a beautiful place to stretch our legs and get a sneak peak of what was to come in Banff. The lake was a beautiful emerald green and surrounded by gorgeous mountains. We’d love to come back here in the future and spend more time!
Once we arrived in Banff, we headed to Banff Ave to grab coffee at Whitebark Cafe and walk around the adorable town. The little downtown area reminded us of a mix of Leavenworth and Whistler and similar to both, had awesome mountain views. The stores along the street were a mix of global outdoor brands (like The North Face), chain and local restaurants, and souvenir and local shops, but since we had Kona with us we mostly just window shopped.
After walking around Banff and grabbing groceries for the trip, we made our way to Two Jack Lakeside Campground, where we called home for 3 nights. Getting a campsite at Banff was like getting concert tickets—we got online right as they opened reservations for the summer and still didn’t get our first choice site, but still landed an awesome spot along the lake with an AMAZING view! The campsites don’t have a ton of privacy, but everyone was super respectful and nice, which made the lack of privacy no issue at all! Another bonus is that people actually leashed their dogs (a rarity these days), which was really helpful for our reactive pup that we are always trying to keep calm and happy.
Day 2: Banff National Park
Our first full day at Banff was straight out of a dream! We woke up at 3 AM (ooof!) so we could make the hour drive to Moraine Lake for sunrise. We definitely weren’t the only ones with this idea, as it was pretty busy, but we found a nice spot on the rocks to snap photos and watch the mountains light up pink and orange from the sun. We were so excited to see this spot for ourselves. We have seen so many photos of the bright blue water and couldn’t wait to see it for ourselves. It definitely was just as magical, if not more magical, than we imagined. We could’ve easily spent all day here staring at the mountains and canoeing in the blue water.
From Moraine Lake, we made our way to Lake Louise to grab a coveted parking spot, get coffee, and check out the lake before our hike to Plain of the Six Glaciers. We were lucky to beat the crowds and get to experience the lake with only a handful of people nearby. Since we only had two full days on this trip, and had a lot we wanted to see, we chose to do only one big hike during the trip. After doing some research, we discovered the Plain of Six Glaciers hike, which is a 14km (around 8.7 miles) hike that starts at Lake Louise and goes up through the mountains and finishes right next to the glacier that you can see from the lakeshore. This hike was incredible! You start the trail along the blue lakeshore and go through a forest before popping out into a rocky area surrounded by glaciers. You cross a few snowy areas, which were a tad slick, and if you’re lucky like us, you may get to see and hear an avalanche from afar. After continuing up the mountain a little longer, we arrived at to the Plain of Six Glaciers tea house.
The tea house is family run and has been around since 1927. It doesn’t have electricity and supplies are either flown in by helicopter or carried in by horses or the staff. The staff hikes up to work and stays onsite for 5 days. The story behind the tea house is so cool and we enjoyed grabbing a snack here before continuing the hike. The prices for food are a bit steep, but the staff was great and the experience was totally worth the cost. Try to bring Canadian cash to avoid any extra fees!
After the tea house you can continue another 1.5km each way to get closer to the glaciers. Seeing the large glaciers up close, and how deep the ice was, was mind blowing. While we have glaciers in Washington, this was definitely the closest we have been to one before. Glacier hikes are definitely one of our favorite types of hikes now!
We finished the hike around 2 PM and were all a little exhausted, so we headed to Tim Hortons (when in Canada…) to get Iced Capps, their version of Frappuccinos, to reward ourselves for the hike, before heading back to camp to chill for a bit. After a couple hours relaxing by the fire, we made our way to Johnston Canyon. This was a last minute addition to our trip plans and we’re so glad we went! We went closer to sunset time and missed the crowds, which was a huge win. The trail is paved most of the way, making it a good family friendly stroll, but don’t let its easiness fool you, it’s crazy beautiful! In fact, it was my brother’s favorite thing of the whole trip. As you walk along the trail, you get to see many waterfalls and a river flowing through the canyon. We ventured off path for a bit to find a secret spot we had seen on Instagram, which was the highlight of the quick trip to the canyon.
Our last stop of the day was Lake Louise again for sunset. Although the crowds were gone, the mosquitos were out in full force. We didn’t realize that Banff had tons of mosquitos—make sure to bring bug spray! The sunset ended up being more towards the right of the lake, which we didn’t know, so the sky wasn’t crazy colorful, but the lighting was so nice and the water was so still, making it a nice relaxing spot after a long day.
Day 3: Icefields Parkway
Our final full day at Banff was spent driving Icefields Parkway, the road that connects Banff and Jasper National Parks. It’s about a 3.5 hour drive each way, but similar to our drive from Seattle, it’s so beautiful and goes by quickly. We woke up at 5 AM and as soon as we rolled out of our tent we were greeted with the most insane sunrise. Talk about good timing!
We quickly got ready and grabbed coffee at Whitebark Cafe before beginning our journey. We had a list of stops for the day, but shortly after we started the drive, the weather got really bad (we even saw lightning strike the top of a mountain which caused a big flash of fire) and we changed our plans a bit and kept driving in hopes that it would clear.
About halfway through the drive, right when we reached a beautiful viewpoint the sky started to clear a bit.
We continued on, playing it by ear whether we would make stops or not. The drive is so beautiful and even just admiring the mountains and scenery from the car was super fun. We eventually crossed into Jasper National Park and reached the Columbia Icefield, the largest icefield in the Rocky Mountains. The sun was trying to poke out so we decided to make the stop. You can walk up to for free or take a ride on the ice in a super cool truck if you don’t mind paying. We didn’t want to pay for anything, so we made the free walk up to the base of the glacier in crazy winds. Our hair and jackets were being blown around like crazy and it was hilarious even though we were freezing cold. As you make your way up to the glacier, they have signs that show you where the glacier used to be, which is a sad reminder of how much this earth is changing.
The weather was staying decent, so we made our way to what was supposed to be our final stop, Athabasca Falls. Similar to some other spots from the trip, we have seen this spot all over Instagram and it was awesome to see it in real life. It’s a quick stop with some paved walkways to different overlooks, including a few with views of the raging waterfall.
Since we were doing well on time, we drove to the town of Jasper to get a quick bite to eat. Had we had more time this trip, we would’ve loved to have spent a couple days at Jasper National Park. Next time! On our way back towards Banff our plan was to visit the spots we had to skip on the way to Jasper due to weather. There were a couple spots we couldn’t find or were closed, but we were able to hit the majority of the places we wanted to see. The first stop we made on the return trip was Waterfowl Lakes. This is a quick roadside stop that gives you views of the mountains and a nice blue lake.
The next stop was one that we were most excited for—Peyto Lake. This is a Gatorade blue lake shaped like a wolf’s head and is absolutely unreal. We parked in the lot and the weather was a bit iffy, so we waited a little bit before starting the short hike to the overlook. As we began walking it started to sleet on us pretty hard which was an unexpected surprise. We kept walking to the top through the sleet and reached the viewpoint where we were blown away by how beautiful the lake was. Sometimes you see things on Instagram and they aren’t as beautiful in real life or highly edited, but this is not one of those spots. The lake is truly as bright blue as you see in every photo. It was incredible and definitely one of the top spots of the day!
Our last stop of the day was Bow Lake, a short drive from Peyto Lake. It was super empty there and we took a short walk along the lakeshore, letting Kona eat the waves as she enjoys doing so much. 🙂 From Bow Lake we headed back to our campsite at Banff where we spent the rest of the night around the fire and trying to rest up a bit before the big drive home the next day.
Our trip to Banff was full of some of the craziest scenery we have ever seen. We have always loved Canada, but this trip further proved how incredibly beautiful the country is. We’re so happy that we were able to check this off our bucket list and we’re already looking forward to going back to revisit some of our favorite spots and explore new ones!