Travel Journal // Two Weeks in Canada: Alberta [Part 2]
In June, I spent two weeks in Canada’s British Columbia and Alberta regions, exploring the wild beauty of Canada’s Pacific Coast and Rockies.
Top of the List.
The Full Story.
This is the story of my second week exploring the Canadian Rockies in Alberta. You can read about my first week in British Columbia: Travel Journal // Two Weeks in Canada: British Columbia [Part 1]
Day 9 // Icefields Parkway, AB
Tuesday’s route to Canmore took us along the Icefields Parkway, a ribbon of road that winds through soaring peaks, vast valleys, and massive glaciers, connecting Jasper National Park to Banff National Park. Though the weather was sadly quite grey, the views were still some of the best of the trip—and a snow shower made it all the more magical.
We checked out various viewpoints along the way, including Athabasca Falls, Sunwapta Falls, Columbia Icefields & Athabasca Glacier, Peyto Lake, Bow Lake, and other road stops featuring tremendous views of the Rockies. For those who don’t mind being numbingly cold, you can even hike the Athabasca Glacier.
In milder weather, I’d love to return and hike some of the trails along the way, like the Bow Glacier Falls Trail, a path that’s said to have stunning views of the glacier-fed Bow Lake.
Keep in mind:
Don’t rush this drive! Without stopping, Icefields Parkway travel time is only about 1.5 hours, but that would be lame. Make time to get out of your car and actually experience the beauty you’re traveling through.
Day 10 // Banff National Park, AB
On Wednesday, we set out at 7am to make our way to Lake Louise in Banff National Park, where the trailhead began for the Lake Agnes and Plain of Six Glaciers trails, a 10-ish mile all-day loop hike to two tea houses tucked high in the surrounding mountains.
The first teahouse is 2.2 miles into the hike by Lake Agnes, a high-elevation lake surrounded by higher peaks. The trail to this point was mostly hidden in the dark forests, but once we reached the lake, a cold wind came rushing in off the peaks and down into the open space. The teahouse was chilly and crowded with other hikers, but its walls at least provided a buffer against the wind.
Jess enjoyed some tea while I ordered a mediocre gluten free brownie (I don’t suggest getting food), and we prepared ourselves for the next leg of the hike.
The trail then took us around to the backside of the lake away from the teahouse, across a snow patch (the first of many on the trail), and then up steep switchbacks that led to Beehive Lookout, a ridge offering views of Lake Agnes on one side and Lake Louise far below on the other. This is also a great lunch stop.
The view from Beehive Lookout was just like we had Blue Skadooed into a Bob Ross painting—the lake below a gleaming blue, the sun sparkling on the water like hundreds of camera flashes. The peaks around us stood steady and capped with thick layers of snow that even summer couldn’t peel away.
Then it was off to the second teahouse, the trail leading us down through blooming meadows, before taking us high again into the cold, exposed valley ridge of the Plain of Six Glaciers.
What I think is lovely about encountering fellow humans on a hike is that suddenly a stranger becomes a helper—some people literally offering Jess or me a hand as we tried to navigate wide, precarious snow patches in our next-to-no grip tennis shoes. (Pro-tip: Don’t wear decade-old tennis shoes to hike in the Rockies.)
After crossing several more snow patches and climbing breathlessly an incline, we reached the final teahouse, a two-story wooden cabin tucked between tall evergreens.
We learned from our server that the employees hike up here every week through the summer season, living for 5 days on-site in cabins before hiking back down for two days off. Sometimes they hike up supplies; other supplies are helicoptered in.
I sipped on the Walnut Truffle Tea, warming my hands against the mug as we looked out from the teahouse balcony at the snowy peaks rising high above. The cold eventually persuaded us to head back down the trail into the lower, warmer elevation below, where it would end by taking us ‘round the lake, away from the serenity of the teahouses and back to the resort teeming with tourists.
The hike, with stops, took us a solid 8 hours. If you’re keen on a good hike in Banff, this one is a must!
Keep in mind:
Don’t be us: Wear proper hiking attire, like actual hiking shoes with traction, and proper layers. It gets cold because duh it’s a hike in the Rockies (again, don’t be us).
Start the hike early. We began at 8am and finished by 4pm, giving us plenty of time to enjoy our tea and stop for lunch on the beautiful Beehive Lookout. Parking fills quickly in the lots by Lake Louise during high season, so get there early to grab a spot. The first teahouse gets crowded because it’s the easiest to reach, so lots of hikers will turn around after the first stop. Also, you don’t want to be rushed—the teahouses close at 5pm.
Bring cash for the teahouses as they don’t accept credit cards.
Apparently Grizzlies are known to enjoy the Plain of Six Glaciers area, so you’re encouraged to bring bear spray and bear bells to make noise. However, I felt comfortable on the trail because of the amount of other hikers on it with us.
Day 11 // Yoho National Park & Banff National Park
Our condo had a patio with views of two low peaks beyond the road, so each morning I liked to wrap myself in a blanket and write while the sun colored the peaks with gentle pinks and blues. On this day, the otherwise bare mountaintops had a fresh dusting of snow, like powdered sugar sprinkled delicately over the grey layers.
This was lake day, so we began our journey by visiting the glacier-fed Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National Park, one of the highest waterfalls in Canada. The name translates to “it is magnificent” in Cree, a language native to the aboriginal people of Canada. I’d agree with that assessment.
Coffee was calling on this cold, grey day, so we drove to the nearby tiny town of Field for coffees at The Siding Cafe, a precious homestyle cafe serving lunch through dinner and breakfast on the weekends. The mocha was on point.
Our tour of Yoho continued with a stop at Emerald Lake, a lake that makes its name proud, even without the sun’s help. We rented canoes for an hour, leaving the shore of the bused-in tourists for the serenity of the smooth waters surrounding by peaks on all sides.
If you’re looking to canoe while in Banff, I’d recommend doing so in Emerald Lake, not just for the scenery, but for the prices, too. Canoes at Lake Louise and Lake Moraine were double the price of renting at Emerald Lake.
The downside to these lakes were the aggressively ambitious mosquitos who had no problem ignoring the fact that we had doused ourselves in bug spray. Bug spray is a must.
Our final stops of the day were Two Jack Lake and the connected and much larger Lake Minnewanka. Views at both lakes were fantastic, of course, because it’s Banff and there’s literally nothing that isn’t scenic-as-all-get-out here.
On our drive to these lakes, Banff’s wildlife decided to make a show of itself in a matter of minutes, as we passed by two black bears chilling in the grasses aside the road, hair-shedding bighorn sheep that made them look sickly, and a massive coyote casually crossing the road in front of us. Nature!
Keep in mind:
Bug spray. Is. A. Non-negotiable.
Please don’t be those people who stop their car on the shoulder and get out to take pictures of bears that are like, three yards from them.
I’d definitely recommend making canoeing a priority activity for your visit! Banff and Yoho are sprinkled with so many great lakes throughout (and some featuring the most dazzling blue hues), there’s no reason not to make some time to get out on the water.
Day 12 // Banff National Park
We embarked on another difficult hike, starting early at Moraine Lake (where you’ll find the Larch Valley trailhead) for parking purposes—both Moraine Lake and Lake Louise parking lots fill quickly in the summer months.
The Larch Valley trail is a steady incline through a green forest of fables, dense and mysterious, gaining 1,755 feet of elevation over the course of 2.67 miles. Our early morning start meant we had the trail mostly to ourselves—a fact both serene and spooky given the frequent sightings of Grizzly bears in the larch meadows.
The hike moves steadily upwards with occasional peeps of the blue Lake Moraine between the thick rows of trees, until you reach the larch meadows, the incline eventually giving way to a gentler landscape of alpine meadows surrounded by forests of Larchs.
The larch tree, native to Canada and Siberia, is a deciduous tree cloaked as an evergreen, losing its needles each autumn, but not before a grand display of golden hues. Because of their golden goodbyes, the trail is a popular hike during early fall months before heavy snows cover the Rockies.
Though I was on edge for bears (because of course), we only encountered several chipmunk-looking creatures (Columbian Ground Squirrels, to be exact) standing at attention by their burrows, chirping loudly at us like birds as we walked through the montane meadow.
The trail then takes you up higher into an exposed mountain valley, ultimately ending with a switchback to the 8,566 foot high Sentinel Pass between Mount Temple and Pinnacle Mountain. Jess and I hiked as far as we could on the trail, passing by two still-frozen ponds, but we were deterred by a massive snow patch covering the trail to the pass—our tennis shoes weren’t up for the challenge of keeping me alive on precarious ice-covered scree slopes, so we decided to turn around, passing a beaver on our way down.
This is another hike that I’d highly recommend, and one that I’d love to do again, both in later summer months (sans large snow patches prohibiting me) and in autumn to see the larch trees!
(You can read more about this hike in my essay, You’re in Bear Country: What A Hike in the Canadian Rockies Taught Me About Fear.)
Keep in mind:
Parks Canada occasionally requires hikers to hike in groups of four due to the risk of running across Grizzlies. Other times, it’s simply “highly recommended.” The sign at the trailhead will alert you to whether or not the strict requirement is in place. With that in mind, take bear spray and a bear bell with you on this hike as Grizzly bears enjoy the Larch Valley as much as we do.
Our tennis shoes could only get us so far on the Sentinel Pass portion of the trail so again, don’t be us: wear actual hiking shoes.
Day 13 // Kananaskis Country
For our final day in Canada, we took the recommendation of one of our Airbnb hosts to hike the Ha Ling Peak in Kananaskis Country. This isn’t a national park, so there were dirt roads for much of the way, but the upside is that there was no park entrance fee.
This trail was super busy, especially on a Saturday, so an early morning start is recommended to avoid the crowds in the high summer months.
However, we did not do this, so we were a part of said crowds. The relentless 2,500 elevation gain meant several stops were needed on the way up.
“How much longer to the top?” we asked a man who was on his return about 45 minutes into our hike. He paused. “You’re doing well,” he said, before continuing on his way. We had another couple hours of grueling ascent before we’d reach the tree line. And if that’s not an appropriate metaphor for life then I dunno what IS.
The last part of the trail is up very steep scree, and once again our tennis shoes weren’t exactly capable footwear, so we didn’t make it all the way to Ha Ling Peak and the cliff drop-off on the peak’s north face. No matter, the views above the tree line were fantastic, looking out over a rain shower approaching the valley from the distant ridges.
That afternoon, I bid my sad farewells to the Canadian Rockies, heading east to spend the night in Calgary before my morning flight, our hour’s drive taking us into rolling plains, the towering peaks becoming just a thin, distant line on the horizon.
I ended the trip with how it began: eating Pad Thai. We enjoyed the dishes at Pad Thai Calgary before an early return to our Airbnb for the night, followed by a teary airport goodbye and a flight back to Nashville (direct on West Jet, y’all!) the next morning.
Keep in mind:
The incline of the Ha Ling Peak trail not once lets up. Be prepared for a challenging cardio workout. It’s worth the climb, though.
Hey, hey: you can read about my first week in Canada here!
New to Airbnb?
Going home to our cozy Airbnb after a long day of hiking was just as much of a highlight of our time in Banff as the park itself (real talk). If you’re new to Airbnb, you can get $40 off your first stay using my referral code!