Banff in May?
October 31, 2008 10:09 AM   Subscribe

I'm thinking about taking my wife to Banff, Alberta for our tenth anniversary near the beginning of May. Help me with some ideas.

What's the weather usually like at the beginning of May? We're not skiers, so the snow conditions aren't relevant.

More importantly, I'm also looking for recommendations on places to stay. We like cozy smaller places, rather than big chain hotels. Something with ambiance, lots of wood and antiques. Cost is not too much of a concern, but I really don't want to spend $500/night just for a room. B&B recommendations are also welcome if you know of a great one.

Lastly, what are the Do Not Miss things to do. I am planning to do the gondola and the hot springs, but what else is unique to Banff that I simply cannot miss?
posted by MagicEightBall to Travel & Transportation around Banff, AB (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

I'm jealous. Banff is so pretty, it hurts to look at it.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:43 AM on October 31, 2008

Chilly but generally not awful. Bugs may be absent or bad, based on how the spring unfolds. If you're active, the hiking is really amazing. The Banff Festival's summer portion starts in May, so you should check out their website. A side trip to see the glaciers is fun...
posted by sixswitch at 10:43 AM on October 31, 2008

It's bigger and maybe more expensive than you're looking for, but the Banff Springs Hotel is really fantastic. If you don't stay there, at least visit for tea or dinner or something. It was built in 1888 as a resort along the railway and is fantastically beautiful. Lots of ambiance, wood and antiques.
posted by Nelson at 10:44 AM on October 31, 2008

Moraine Lake is the prettiest prettiest place on earth, I swear. Do. Not. Miss.
Also go up to the The Banff Centre and check out some art galleries and concerts. I spent half of my summer at the Centre this year, and it's heaven.
Warning: The town of Banff itself is a total plastic tourist-ville, but in the shoulder season might not be so bad.
posted by stray at 10:49 AM on October 31, 2008

The Banff Springs hotel is amazing, make sure you spend an evening just touring around it and having cocktails/dessert in the lounge, even if you cannot afford to stay there. We stayed at the Juniper Hotel which is a short bike ride out of downtown, but it might not have as much ambience as you desire.

Check out if something is going on at the Arts Centre. We saw an opera there and it was very nice.
posted by matildaben at 10:50 AM on October 31, 2008

Ahem. The Banff Centre
posted by stray at 10:50 AM on October 31, 2008

We got a great deal on the Rimrock Hotel via Free shuttle to the main area of town stops by every 10-15 minutes, and it's only a 5-10 minute ride. Rooms on one side of the Rimrock (plus all the dining & common areas) have stunning views, because it's on a hillside above the town, and you can see the beautiful Banff Springs Hotel from there. Rooms on the other side look up the mountain, so still breathtakingly beautiful, just not panoramic. Rooms on that side are cheaper.

We went for 4 nights/5 days in the summer, and after we exhausted everything in our areas of interest in the Banff/Lake Louise/Athabasca areas, we found that spending an afternoon in Calgary was totally worthwhile.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 11:22 AM on October 31, 2008

If you'd rather spend your money on dinners and attractions than a roof over your head (and believe me, Banff is notably pricy in this regard) the Banff Alpine Centre has gorgeous private cabins for the princely sum of $146.00 CDN per night. Alternately, you can pay just under twice as much for the same thing literally across the street.

(Full disclosure: I work for another branch of the same not-for profit organization that runs the Alpine Centre.)
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:38 AM on October 31, 2008

Seconding Moraine Lake. It is more scenic and more secluded than the often tourist over-run Lake Louise.

And, if you have the chance, take the half day-ish drive (with scenic stops) up the Icefields Parkway to Jasper. Fewer people go to Jasper than Banff but as far as scenery goes Jasper is like Banff on steroids. Amazingly beautiful.
posted by pixlboi at 12:08 PM on October 31, 2008

It's been 5+ years since I've been there, but I think the Post Hotel in Lake Louise (less than an hour from Banff) would fit your hotel wishes. Its really cozy and rustic, and some of the rooms have wood-burning fireplaces. It also has a great high-end restaurant and a nice pub. The town of Lake Louise is barely a town though, its basically a gas station, minimall and some hotels. But you're surrounded by scenery and great walks. Lake Louise (the lake) is really beautiful and has a glacier hanging over it. You'll have almost certainly seen in before in an advertisement or something, it's pretty famous. But the giant hotel there kind of dominates it and cheapens it a bit. Its worth a stop though.

I agree with the drive to Jasper along the Icefields parkway. You'll tire yourself out saying "WOW!". There's a hotel halfway-ish that you can stop at for lunch (but thats about it for civilization the whole way).
posted by Spurious Packets at 12:51 PM on October 31, 2008

Canadians I met expect the weather to become warmer after Victoria Day, which is IIRC the last Monday before 24 May.

Two accommodations I can recommend: in Banff, on the Bow Valley Parkway (the parkway has wide shoulders and it had better because there are frequent Wildlife Viewing Emergencies): Baker Creek Chalets, on would you believe Baker Creek? The water up here looks milky, allegedly because of rock dust in it, and Baker Creek is lovely. The chalets are in the middle of exactly nowhere, so you carry in your supplies.

In Jasper, Pine Bungalows, which are kind of utilitarian but they're right on the Athabasca River. Seconding pixlboi about Jasper.
posted by jet_silver at 12:57 PM on October 31, 2008

The great-outdoorsy stuff seems to be pretty much covered, so here are a few notes to combat this -

Warning: The town of Banff itself is a total plastic tourist-ville, but in the shoulder season might not be so bad.

- which is true of Banff Ave (the main street) but not the whole town.

Do have dinner at Bison Mountain Bistro. It's in a William McDonough-designed complex that is maybe the greenest building in western Canada, the food is fabulous, locally sourced, exquisitely prepared and mid-range by Banff's standards, and the dining room's got some of the best panoramic mountain views in town.

The bistro's General Store downstairs is an excellent place to grab a quick sandwich, as is Barpa Bill's (specializing in souvlaki and other Greek semi-fast food) up the block on Bear St. (Generally speaking, Bear St. is a better place to do anything you need to do; it's hidden behind the tourist facades one block off Banff Ave running parallel to it, and is where locals do their shopping.)

The Bison Mtn Bistro's General Store also sells jars of smoked tomato ketchup that are a staple of my household and a fantastic gift idea if you don't want to bring your loved ones back maple syrup that was tapped a continent's width away.

In the same lovely complex, there's a bakery called Wild Flour that's far and away your best bet for morning coffee and pastry, all baked on-site and ridiculously eco-friendly without being preening assholes about it.

For accomodations in town, the Juniper comes highly recommended. I've never stayed there, but it was reno'd and managed by the same gang that did the building Bison Mtn Bistro's in, and everything they touch has been gold in my books.

Seconding giving the Banff Springs a thought too. You can get awesome shoulder-season deals (ski season should be just closing when you get there), and Fairmont or not, it is a national treasure, not a chain hotel, a place as iconically Canadian as the Parliament buildings and way nicer to sleep in. My daughter (she's 3) calls it "the castle." Rooms are average for a luxury hotel, views are among the best on the planet, service is top-notch, and the on-site facilities are simply outstanding. Prices in the on-site dining and spa facilities are a bit pricey, but you're buying a seat inside a postcard. Sit in the lounge window at sunset, and you'll never forget it. (Same goes for the lounge at the Chateau Lake Louise if you make it up that way - it's got to be one of the all-time Top 10 best places to sip a cocktail in the world, looking out on a lake-glacier-peak scene so perfect it looks faked.)

If you skip the Banff Springs for accomodations, at least go for a drink or a tour (because it's sort of a monument, just about any employee on site will happily give you a tour guide's spiel on the place). And do go for a dip in the public hot springs up the hill from the hotel itself, which can be a bit crowded but still lots of fun.

Oh, and if you fish, contact these guys (full disclosure: I'm related by marriage to the guy holding the trout on the welcome page). Depending on season, you might be able to arrange an ice-fishing outing or a little catch-and-release sojourn on Lake Minnewanka, which is gorgeous.
posted by gompa at 2:05 PM on October 31, 2008

Oh and also weather: This varies depending on what your idea of cold is. If you're from, say, the southern US, you should plan for what you'd consider winter conditions. If you're from New England or Chicago or somewhere like that, it's early spring weather, cool but not cold. Should be very sunny, probably above freezing in town during the day, but it'll get nippy at night in early May.

If you dress for it though - hats, gloves, good footwear - it's enormously pleasant to be out in. Layers are your friend: a long-sleeve tee with a thick sweater over it and a fleece or windbreaker over top of that allows you to peel layers if the sun starts baking (the air's thinner, so it really warms you when it's out). Hiking trails are likely to be kind of slushy, but again if you're dressed for it, it's still a fine outing.
posted by gompa at 2:15 PM on October 31, 2008

Just another vote for the drive to Jasper, it's totally worth it. The drive alone (up the Icefields Parkway) is amazing.
posted by saladin at 3:32 PM on October 31, 2008

Moraine lake. Not to be missed!
posted by wowbobwow at 7:10 PM on October 31, 2008

Best answer: Disclaimer: I'm a Banffite.

Weather in Banff in May: First, the snow will be gone in the town, but the ski season doesn't end until the last weekend in May, so you'll still want to bring mitts, a tuque and wear layers to adjust to where you are. Humidity is very low here, so it can be blazing hot in the sun and then just a step later in the shade it can be significantly colder. I've gone biking or hiking in shorts in Banff at the end of April, early May, and skiing the next day. Being in the mountains, layers is the key, so that you can adjust your warmth as needed.


If you want a historical hotel then you'd be hard pressed to beat The Banff Springs. The next high end is The Rimrock but it's located in an awkward location, I'd avoid it unless you're going for a meal. Someone mentioned The Juniper, but I wouldn't because a) it's outside of the main town site and b) it's located right on the highway. It's the ONLY hotel located on the highway. WTF?

For bed and breakfasts, I'll recommend two: I've wanted to stay at the most is Thea's House for a long time, the website shows how beautiful the building is, it's in an excellent location (used to live a block from it) and although high end for a B&B, the $250-$275 a night seems well within your budget. It's more of a boutique hotel if you ask me, but damn it looks nice. The other one that I've been curious about staying at which is off the radar and located in a beautiful house on one of the tawnier streets is Ordenthal's. This one will surely meet your requirements for having antiques in the house. It's two short blocks from the downtown strip, it's facing the Bow River and right next to the walking path along the river. I walk by it every day, and it took me a while to even realize it was a B&B... very nice (I can take pictures for you if you'd like). I should mention though that Glen Sather is building a house across the street, so sleeping in on weekdays may be a nuisance, but surely you'll be out and about doing stuff, right?

Stuff to do:

Within walking distance of downtown:
- Bow Falls (walk along Bow river to where it meets the Spray river at the foot of the Banff Springs Hotel).
- Tunnel mountain (smallest of the mountains that surround Banff, an easy hike that takes an hour to go up and 30 min to go down. Great view, especially when you see the cliffs from the backside).
- Hoodoos: Longer walk, pack a picnic lunch, to see some interesting geological formations in the Bow Valley.
- Cave and Basin: First part of walk isn't that special, but to see and smell the bubbling hotsprings coming out of the earth, or to stroll along the walkway in the marsh can be very relaxing.

Within short driving distance:
- Johnston Canyon. A must see, it's a fun drive along the 1A to get there (20 min from Banff), has fantastic falls and walkways that bring you deep into the canyon and high above it. This one is a no-brainer.

- Lake Louise. I shouldn't have to explain this one. If you came to the rockies and you didn't come here then you lack the judgment to plan trips. My suggestion to you: bring some hiking shoes or good sneakers and hike The Plain of Six Glaciers, at least up to the Tea Hut. That moment will stay fresh in your mind the rest of your life. If you want to avoid some of the tourists and have better legs then hike up to Agnes Lake instead, it also has a tea hut, and you can go from there to the Six Glaciers tea hut too if you like, while avoiding all the lollygaggers walking along the edge of Lake Louise.

- Moraine Lake: A 10 min drive from Lake Louise, with some good hiking trails around it too. If you've got okay legs than the hike from Moraine Lake to Larch Valley up to the lip of Sentinel Pass (which looks onto Paradise Valley) is a must, and can be done round trip in about six hours. Those photos are all mine from last month.

A bit further:
Yoho Park / Takakkaw falls: A half hour from Lake Louise, a bit more than an hour from Banff, this is a great drive (steepest grade for trains in Canada) and the second highest falls in Canada, and prime bear sighting area, but unfortunately the road to the falls doesn't open until June, so you'll have to miss out on this one.

Columbia Icefield. Come see a huge glacier. A great drive from Banff to the edge of Banff/Jasper park. I'd suggest avoiding the big snow bus gimmick and just drive down to the foot of the glacier and walk up to the glacier's toe. The scale and perspective will blow your mind. If you do go out here and you aren't driving up to Jasper, I still highly recommend you drive for another 20 minutes or so past Columbia and then turn around, as it is some of the nicest scenery along the whole parkway.

Drive up to Jasper along the Icefields Parkway: Budget five hours for the drive to Jasper, including a few stops along the way for photos (you can do it in three, but I doubt you would). Add an hour or two if you're stopping at the Columbia icefields. You'd probably want to spend the night in Japser, if you do email me and I'll recommend some awesome pine cabins along the Athabasca river. This is regularly in the top 10 drives in the world, and I wouldn't hesitate to say it's the nicest drive in all of Canada.

Oh, don't worry about bugs.

And for entertainment, I cannot recommend enough checking out The Banff Centre. They have top notch world class entertainment year round, but most of it gears up in the spring, if you are a fan at all of: classical music, jazz, opera, dance, theatre, mountain movies, or speaking events then you are sure to find something that interests you, and at extremely reasonable rates (click on events to see what's currently going on).

Hell, The Banff Center is the reason I moved here, and now I'm their webmaster. How's that for full disclosure? MefiMail me if you have further questions.
posted by furtive at 12:20 PM on November 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

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