Banff National Park (Lake Louise, Vermilion Lakes, Town of Banff, Bow Falls) - Canada
Updated: Apr 21, 2021
Banff National Park is Canada’s first national park and the third national park in the world. The park, with 2,564 square miles, contains some of the world’s most magnificent mountains, as well as beautiful turquoise lakes, valleys, glaciers, forests, meadows and rivers, and abundant wildlife. Over three million visitors explore this park every year. I can understand why the Canadian Rockies have very dramatic mountains; massive, rugged, steep and sharp. Not quite as high as the mountains we see in Colorado, but equally spectacular.
Driving to Banff National Park is just a few minutes drive from Canmore. We bought admission for two days, but it actually expires on the afternoon of the third day. We decided to go first to Lake Louise, driving there via the Bow Valley Parkway, where we stopped along the way to take pictures of the majestic mountains (and hopefully wildlife, which did not appear). How could we not? Wherever we looked we saw these spectacular mountain landscapes and we had to stop. One of our friends thought we might not find Banff National Park interesting since we’ve seen mountains in Europe, New Zealand and of course Colorado. But one thing we know is that each country has different mountain landscapes, never the same, each an awe-inspiring experience. Nature is incredible, it never ceases to surprise us - experienced or not - by its hidden treasures. That's why we keep on traveling.
The weather was still “crisp” when we reached Lake Louise. The parking was full but we got lucky to find a parking spot nearby. It was still early but tourists are already there in force - as to be expected since this is one of the popular sites in the park.
Lake Louise was originally known to the local Stoney-Nakoda people as Ho-run-num-nay, or the “Lake of Little Fishes.” Eventually, it was named Lake Louise in honor of the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, who was married to a British nobleman and fourth Governor General of Canada from 1878 to 1883.
I can understand why this lake is so popular, it is very picturesque. It was cold outside but there were lots of people canoeing on the lake. The lake’s backdrop of snow-capped mountains (Mount Temple, Mount Whyte and Mount Niblock) and the turquoise water fed by the glacier above is stunning!
To get away from the crowd we followed the trail alongside the lake. We passed the Chateau Lake Louise, a historic site, first built by the Canadian Pacific Railway at the end of the 19th century. Before this hotel became a world-renowned luxury hotel, it was originally built for summer getaways - but later in 1982 it became part of the Lake Louise ski resort for winter activities. The original structure consisted of a one-story log cabin with a central area which served as a dining room, office, bar, kitchen, and had two small bedrooms facing the lake. It was a popular destination for alpinists and pioneers who explored and mapped the mountains back then.
After Lake Louise, we planned on going up to Moraine Lake, a glacial lake outside the village of Lake Louise. However we were told by a park representative that we have to be really early to be able to drive up there, or take a private shuttle bus and pay a hefty fee (there is no fee for taking the shuttle bus in National Parks that we have been to in the United States!). As one local said, parking at Moraine Lake is poorly managed and if you want to rent a canoe for an hour, it will cost you big money. Thinking about it, we probably should have gone up there late afternoon, then we might be able to drive up there.
We skipped the Moraine Lake and drove to the town of Banff instead. We stopped on the way at Vermilion Lakes, located outside of town. You can take photos from the viewpoint along highway.... but we drove down to the lake to get a closer look. The road along the lakes is part of the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail. True enough, we saw bikers as we drove, so be mindful.
There are three lakes here formed in the Bow River Valley. Locals say that sunset and sunrise here is spectacular and in winter time you might even get lucky enough to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) at night. Considering the area has lush marshland, elk, moose and bear can be seen here. We didn't see any (we didn't stay long enough) but we were satisfied enough with the pictures we took.
Take time to read the interpretive panels about the history of the place - geology, wetland ecology and human activities. We took pictures of them to read later in order to save time.
The wedge-shaped Mount Rundle (popular among climbers) is named in honor of Reverend Robert Rundle, a Methodist church missionary who worked with aboriginal peoples in the 1840's in what is now called West Alberta.
Vermilion Lakes has an awesome landscape. The Sulphur Mountain and Mount Rundle in the background reflecting on the lakes' water made for a perfect day to take photos. Boy! We are sure glad we have digital cameras nowadays and not film.
TOWN OF BANFF
Outside the town of Banff, we stopped to take a picture of us at the sign. We always do this wherever we go as part of our memories of our trip. Then we first went to the "Castle in the Rockies" or Banff Springs Hotel, located in the heart of the Banff National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This impressive castle-like hotel (or what is called, Châteauesque type of architecture) was first built by the Canadian Pacific Railway and opened in 1888. This is one of William Cornelius Van Horne's (the general manager of the CPR) vision of building a succession of lavish resort hotels along the railway line as a magnet for tourism potential for the Canadian west.
The hotel was named for the hometown of William Davidson, a Scottish-Canadian lumber merchant, shipbuilder and politician, who grew up near Banff, Scotland.
If you believe in ghosts or you dabble in ghost hunting, this hotel is said to have a few - as any old hotel has. The saying goes that they are "the guests who checked-in but never checked-out". I don't think I want to meet any of them, even if we could afford to stay there. Eating in one of their restaurants is probably good enough, just to see the spectacular view of the valley from the deck.
Another popular destination in Banff is the Bow River Falls near the Banff Springs Hotel. The water came from the melt water of Bow Glacier. Going here is free as long as you have the Banff National Park admission ticket.
Bow River Falls is wide and short, about nine meters at its highest point. Not the typical waterfalls flowing down from high up in the mountains. To the Cree Nation, it was known as manachaban sipi meaning, ‘the place from which bows are taken'. This waterfall has easy access, which means tour-bus friendly, but even so, you can get away from the crowd. The other thing you can do is either come early or late afternoon. We went there about mid-afternoon and it wasn't crowded. We were able to take our time, hang out a bit and just enjoy the scenery.
THE TOWN CENTER
Our last destination of the day was the resort town of Banff. It is a charming town with plenty of gift shops, bars and restaurants, galleries and museums. If you are looking for maple syrup and maple syrup delicacies, there is no shortage.
The town of Banff is the highest town in Canada, surrounded by towering rugged mountains such as Mount Rundle, Sulphur Mountain, Mount Norquay, and Cascade Mountain. These mountains dominate the town. This town was built with the intention of it being a tourist town, oriented to take advantage of the view of Cascade Mountain. The town is small so you can get around just by walking. How long to explore the town depends on how much time you spend checking the shops' merchandise. Who can resist?
After exploring the town of Banff, we headed back to Canmore. Next on our agenda is also at Banff National Park - Bow Lake, Peyto Lake & Lake Minnewanka.