This is the first in a three-part series about summer travel in the Canadian Rockies
By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
When anyone is planning a trip to the Canadian Rockies, they usually say they’re going to Banff.
The mountain town west of Calgary is a recognizable destination. It’s also the problem with Banff – everyone goes there.
So it seemed when we arrived in Banff on a Saturday in late July 2019 and found the town overrun with tourists and strangled of charm.
It took 40 minutes to find a parking space in a remote lot. The crosswalks were as jammed with pedestrians as typical of Manhattan.
But going to Banff really means exploring the natural wonders of the national park of the same name and adjacent Jasper National Park to the north. There is plenty of room to roam and avoid the most congested areas.
There are stunning views of mountains, lakes and waterfalls nearby the town of Banff, and plenty of wildlife often right by the road.
Even at the height of the summer tourist season, our trip to the Canadian Rockies was unforgettable and left us eager to return.
Canadian Rockies have much to offer
Most of our week was spent on the Icefields Parkway, the 140-mile stretch of Highway 93 from Lake Louise to Jasper, which was certainly true to its reputation as one of the most scenic drives in North American.
Part 3 coming soon: Check back for an in-depth look at what makes touring the Icefields Parkway special.
Here are some ways to get the most out of Banff:
Bighorn sheep of Minnewanka
The most popular areas, such as Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, reach capacity as early as 6 a.m. on weekends. A much less harried alternative is to drive the Minnewanka Loop, which begins just outside of the town of Banff and skirts two small lakes – Johnson Lake has a bathing beach and Two Jack Lake is a serene setting for picnicking – on the way to the much larger (13 miles long) Lake Minnewanka.
Minnewanka is the only lake in Banff National Park open to motorized boats. There is a popular lake cruise, which serves local craft beer onboard. There are rentals available for canoes, kayaks and small outboards.
We found a leisurely afternoon by the lakes the perfect ending to our trip after four days of driving and hiking on the Icefields Parkway. The payoff came when we were leaving Lake Minnewanka and encountered a family of bighorn sheep — a mother with four youngsters — along the road overlooking the lake. Two rams were lagging a quarter-mile behind, licking minerals from the rocks at the edge of the road.
Martinis at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
A highlight of my previous experience at Banff — a 2007 ski trip — was an après ski martini in the lounge at the Fairmont Chateau overlooking Lake Louise. It was a genteel celebration of a day on the slopes with a view of the frozen lake, where a pond hockey game was in progress, and the Victoria Glacier across the lake.
Since then I’ve wanted to return in the summer for cocktails with Fran in the Fairview Bar, where the arched window frames the classic view.
That simple objective proved challenging due to the crowds that glut Lake Louise. Returning in late afternoon after exploring the southern portion of the Icefields Parkway, traffic was still heavy and moving slowly on Lake Louise Drive.
Forging ahead, we were fortunate to find a parking space. It was a mob scene at lakeside adjacent to the Fairmont Chateau with a crowd three-deep enjoying the view and posing for selfies. Signs on the walkways leading to the hotel said access was for registered guests only.
Not to be deterred so close to the objective, we kept walking toward the hotel and encountered more signs stipulating we’d need to show a room key to get into the lobby.
Turned out it was a bluff. We walked right in and proceeded to the bar, which wasn’t busy, and got the seat by the window. As we sipped our cocktails and shared Oysters Rockefeller, a later arriving patron remarked that we were lucky to have the best seat in the house.
Not sure I’ve ever had a more enjoyable martini. Fran raved about the non-alcoholic Seedlip Garden gin and tonic.
Stay in Canmore, not Banff
Electing lodging in Canmore, 15 miles southeast of Banff, turned out to be a more accommodating choice on both trips I’ve taken to the Canadian Rockies — that was reinforced by also staying two nights in Banff later in the week on this most recent experience.
Canmore is much less congested and is more ski town laid-back than touristy Banff. It’s a locals scene downtown.
There are numerous long-term vacation rentals in Canmore. We stayed at the Windtower Lodge and Suites, which was no-frills and could use some upgrading. But the one-bedroom unit, with kitchen, was roomy and a better value than the cramped room at the Red Carpet Inn we had later in downtown Banff.
In addition, the dining choices are arguably better in Canmore. The best we found was the oddly named Crazyweed, a contemporary setting with an eclectic menu. It’s know for the wood-fired pizza, but we went the tapas route with three appetizers – Masala ribs, Chorizo Con Queso and Myanmar fish cakes. It was ample and so enjoyable that we returned a few nights later and had a different trio of appetizers.
Curtis, our waiter, added to the experience with helpful assessments of the choices. He also provided the answer to the name of the restaurant, which he prefaced with, “It’s not what you think.” Crazyweed is a mountain wildflower found in the region.
While driving through Canmore we noticed a sign with the leafy logo of the Canmore Cannabis Company. Canada is just entering an era of legalization, but the industry seems to be experiencing growing pains, so to speak.
The hand-lettered notice in the window read, “Stock Pending (waiting on delivery).”
It’s Jasper, AB., not AL.
If you venture to the north end of the Icefields Parkway, you’ll want to spend at least one night in the town of Jasper in the heart of Jasper National Park.
Make sure you don’t arrive without a reservation. Make extra sure you don’t arrive with a reservation for Jasper, Alabama.
My mistake was searching for accommodations for Jasper, AL. Learned the hard way that the abbreviation for Alberta is AB.
That led to an hour of consternation as we called every listing in vain attempt to salvage our planned two-night stay in Jasper.
“Jasper is always sold out,” the guy at Expedia said.
Fortunately, someone steered us to Whistlers Inn, and we got literally the last room in town.
It turned out to be our favorite stop of the week. Jasper has the most charm of the three towns we visited in the Canadian Rockies.
Whistlers Inn is a gem, if you like venerable boutique city inns, which we do. The location is prime on a corner of the town’s main street, across from the train station and adjacent to numerous shops and restaurants.
It’s an older property and has some quirks. The main drawback is limited parking which can necessitate walking a few blocks to a public lot.
It also has comfortable, spacious suites, hot tubs on the roof and a cozy pub. Its Italian restaurant, Cassios, was excellent for breakfast and dinner.
The most unusual feature of Whistlers Inn is the wildlife museum on the lower level with stuffed examples of more than 100 animals found in the region, including grizzlies, elk, eagles and big-horned sheep.
If you want jasper gems as a souvenir, Jasper Rock and Jade, a few doors down from the inn, has plenty of varieties to choose from — red, yellow, leopard, dalmatian.
Shedding light on Ammolite
Visit the Canadian Rockies and you can expect to see breathtaking views of mountains, lakes, waterfalls and glaciers. You may see some of North America’s most impressive wildlife.
You will definitely become familiar with another eye-catching attraction and the long-extinct creature responsible for it: Ammolite.
This is Alberta’s gemstone. The province is proud of it, and rightfully so. The iridescent, multicolored geological creation from the fossilized shells of a prehistoric sea creature is quite beautiful, and it is mined commercially only from a small area of southern Alberta.
It has only been recognized as a gemstone since the 1980s, though Native North Americans saw special qualities in the brilliant colors and considered them a good-luck charm when hunting buffalo.
Responding to a surge in demand, the mining company Korite has dramatically increased production just within the past two years.
Consequently, Ammolite has become the “It” upscale souvenir in the Canadian Rockies, from Banff to Jasper.
Two days into the trip, it had become a source of amusement every time we walked into a shop and the clerk greeted us with, “Have you heard about Ammolite?”
When in the town of Banff
Favorite Banff store: If you like tacky souvenir shops, you’ll be in your element on Banff Avenue. We found more to like just a block away on Bear Street.
Seeking something genuinely Canadian, you can find it at the Rocky Mountain Flannel Company. Owner Gayle Robert began designing high-quality flannel nightgowns when she founded the company in 1989 and now offers an extensive line of flannel pajamas, nightgowns, pants and shirts in the store at 225 Bear St.
Never mind that most of the flannel in her products is produced in Portugal, Robert is thoroughly Canadian and so are her designs. The tartan patterns and the feel of soft cotton flannel on one’s skin is the cozy antidote to cold Canadian nights. Even on an 80-degree summer day, we couldn’t resist purchasing a couple items to bring home.
Where to eat in Banff: Tooloulou’s, offering Cajun Creole dishes with a touch of Canadian Rocky Mountain influence, proved a good choice for quality and value in a generally pricey dining scene.
Conversely, don’t waste time and money with the over-priced and snooty Maple Leaf. You’ll get a better reception a block away at unassuming Bruno’s Bar and Grill (304 Caribou Street). It’s nothing fancy, which is Bruno’s charm, but the food makes it a favorite with locals for breakfast or dinner. They have live music on the weekends.
A distinctive natural feature of Banff is the Bow River at the south end of town. Cross the Bow River Bridge and Bow Falls is a prime photo opp near the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. The falls is a short, wide rush of white water, and if you get close enough you learn why the road to get there is called Spray Avenue.
The alternative at Spray Avenue is to take Mountain Avenue on a winding climb to the Upper Hot Springs for a soak or the Banff Gondola for the spectacular mountain view from the ski resort. The Sunset Festival is a daily attraction in the summer at the top of the gondola with food, craft beer and live music.
It is easy to see why crowds gravitate to Banff.