Please help me plan my trip to Banff!
June 6, 2010 3:14 PM   Subscribe

I'm planning a trip to the Canadian Rockies in May, and I'd love to hear your suggestions. I've looked at this question, which was incredibly helpful (especially furtive's comment), but I was hoping for some more specific advice. Sorry for the length... any help would be welcome!

We're flying into Calgary on Friday night, and flying back out of Calgary on Sunday morning, the following week. With that in mind, I was thinking of the following:

Saturday: Head to Banff Springs, walk around town.

Sunday: Spend the day in and around Banff Springs: visit the Hot Springs, the Banff Springs Hotel, Bow Falls, Tunnel Mountain. Maybe ride the gondola?

Sunday: A couple of short hikes: Johnston Canyon? Other?

Monday: Go to Lake Louise; hike up to either Plane of Six Glaciers or Agnes Lake tea house. (Also Takakkaw falls?)

Tuesday: Go to Moraine Lake; hike to Sentinel Pass.

Wednesday: Drive up to Jasper along Columbia Icefields, with a stop at the Icefields. Stay in Jasper.

Thursday: Either Maligne Lake or Mt. Edith Cavell/Angel Glacier?

Friday: Drive back to Banff? Sunwapta Falls, perhaps?

Saturday: Drive back to Calgary


My questions are:

1) Are there any absolute must-see attractions that we'll be missing? Are there things that I've listed here that aren't worth it?

2) Do you have any suggestions of places to stay in the Banff Springs/Lake Louise area or in the Jasper area? There will be three of us, on a budget -- would $100-$150 be possible in July?

3) Will we want to spend a day in Calgary at the end of the trip? If so, what would you suggest we see?

4) Any other suggestions?

5) Bonus question: Any great recommendations for vegan-friendly dining in the area?

Thanks a lot!
posted by cider to Travel & Transportation around Banff, AB (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It's been decades since I lived in Banff. (I went to high school there in the Sixties.) In those days, at least, the Hot Springs were a must-experience, ditto the big hotel. And you can't go wrong with hiking, it's all good.

Calgary was not anything to hang around for in those days, not sure now.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 3:55 PM on June 6, 2010

Your itinerary looks like it covers all the bases and I think you'll have a great trip.

As far as Calgary itself goes, there really isn't much to see for tourists. Unless you plan on going in early July instead and can catch the Stampede. But having grown up there I can tell you that I always wondered what on earth tourists did there. It's a big, brown, suburban blob in the middle of the prairie. Stick to the mountains.
posted by fso at 5:33 PM on June 6, 2010

When in May? On Victoria Day it's slush cup, the official end of the ski season and a chance to watch dru Ken skiers and snow borders diveninto a pool of ice water. Not for everyone but if you're a powder hound then it's a must.

When you go to the Banff Springs go for a drink at the Rundle Lounge, it's fancy yet accessible, drinks are under $10 so you won't bust the bank but you can also have a macaroni & cheese with truffles for $25 if your feeling decadent. The view is to die for, and there's a galley on the same floor.

Strike tunnel mountain from your Sunday plan, too much for one day and Tunnel Mountain is out of the way from the rest of those items.

Maligne canyon is pretty good too, nicer gullies than Johnston but the trip back is all uphil so maybe just check out the top half.
posted by furtive at 6:37 PM on June 6, 2010

Best answer: Just a data point, Sentinel Pass was the best hike of our whole trip to the Rockies, definitely worthwhile...
posted by chromatist at 6:40 PM on June 6, 2010

Best answer: For vegan food I'd recommend Nourish Bistro, it's ranked number one on trip advisor and I have friends that vouch for it, and they have a liquor license. It's easy to miss since it's on the second floor of the Sundance Mall, above the confectionary.

I'd also recommend the WildFlour cafe, they've also got a good selection of wheat/gluten free items. The Bison, while not vegetarian, definitely has veg dishes that are worth checking out.
posted by furtive at 6:46 PM on June 6, 2010

"dru Ken" should have read "drunken".
posted by furtive at 6:47 PM on June 6, 2010

And for Calgary, I agree with the above, but check out Stephen Avenue a pedestrian commercial street along 8 Ave SW (Stephen Avenue) and spans from 1 St SE to 4 St SW. I'd you start on the east end near Chinatown and work your way west, you can go into the Devonian Gardens, a big indoor garden at the top of a mall, very lush and humid and good people watching and there's other interesting stuff along the way.
posted by furtive at 6:59 PM on June 6, 2010

Btw, the sun is nicest for photos and the crowds the least if you go to Moraine lake early in the day. Same for Lake Louise.
posted by furtive at 7:01 PM on June 6, 2010

Best answer: Also, the mountain air is thin, plan to have a day where you don't do much at all. It's happened to just about every one of our guests.
posted by furtive at 7:03 PM on June 6, 2010

Good spots to see animals: the green spot (aka bald patch) up to Norquay and the road near lake Minnewanka are good spots to see bighorn sheep. Elk and deer are also common along the Minnewanka loop road near Two Jacks lake. Mule deer on Tunnel Mountain. Birds and fish on the cave and basin boardwalk. Moose (rare but not uncommon) and bears: along the 1A to Lake Louise.
posted by furtive at 7:09 PM on June 6, 2010

May is not a great month to visit the Rockies if you want to hike. There is still a lot of snow around at higher elevations. Just to give you an idea, from where I live I can see snow on the BC side of the Rockies down to about 2000m. A couple days ago, there was fresh snow down to about 1700m. If you go in early May, you may not be able to hike at all and even in late May you'll be limited to a few low elevation trails.

Plain of the Six Glaciers would not be possible. Agnes Lake Teahouse may be doable in late May, but it won't be open. Sentinel Pass will be covered in deep snow and there is a good chance the road to Moraine Lake won't even be open. There will be snow along the Icefields Parkway.

If you want to do your trip as planned, you'll need to aim for at least mid June to be safe.

Calgary is not worth spending much time in. Also, Takkakaw Falls is 45-60 minutes drive from Lake Louise (near Field, BC) and the road there isn't open in May anyways.

I can recommend a number of other good hikes or places to stop along the way, but most would be too snowy in May.
posted by ssg at 7:50 PM on June 6, 2010

Response by poster: Oh dear... I don't know why I wrote May (except that I was looking at that question I linked to.) I'm actually going in July. Sorry for the confusion!

Thanks for the answers so far, everyone! I'd love to hear more.
posted by cider at 8:50 PM on June 6, 2010

Best answer: If you're going in July then a trip to Sunshine Meadows or Healy Pass is worth it to see the subalpine flowers blooming. They are both pretty much the same place, the former is accessible via gondola but you also see what a ski hill looks like in the summer (not pretty, and there will be construction this summer as a new lift is being installed where the gondola ends), while the latter begins at the same place but leads away from the ski hill, it's a nice uphill hike with shade from trees for most of the gain and that takes about 6-7 hours round trip if you go to the highest pass. Best to go mid-late July and on a weekday.

Mail me if you want links, I'm on my iPad.

Or, in town, go to the Cascade Gardens, beautiful flowers right after the bridge on the way to the Springs.
posted by furtive at 9:28 PM on June 6, 2010

Best answer: Calgary local here.

Definitely go to sunshine meadows, there is a local guide company that runs a shuttle bus up to the top which is really the way to go. You get to hike around in the most beautiful high alpine fields, with mountain lakes, and wildflowers, and you don't have to bust your butt to hike up to it. Also, the crowds are quite limited up there because there are only so many people you can fit on a bus. Its a wonderful place, bring a lunch and plan on spending a day.

If you go up the icefields parkway, you absolutely HAVE to stop off and hike up Parker Ridge. It gets busy midway through the day but for a very, very good reason. Imagine sitting on a ridge after a relatively short walk from your car, and staring down at a massive glacier spilling down into the valley a thousand feet below you. Its a wonderful spot. Oh, and go left when you get to the top of the ridge, the view is way better.

Maligne lake is pretty spot, they run a boat tour out to Spirit Island which is worth a look and seen in a thousand postcards. However if you are not planning on going on the boat, keep in mind that it is kind of a meh valley where the road stops, the scenery really doesn't get massively impressive until you are at least 11kms down the lake. (The far end, 21 kms back is just absolutely awe inspiring, but only accessible by canoe/kayak and is an overnight trip).

Mt Edith Cavel is jaw droppingly stunning, I would put it on my things you have to see list. There is a wonderful hike up to the meadows Which should be filled with flowers by July. And even the road up to it is gorgeous.

As for other things to do, stop by Barpa Bills in Banff for some absolutely amazing cheap Greek take out. Coyotes has the best lunch in town, and breakfast at Melissa's Missteak before hitting the trail is a tradition out here. (Though to be honest the food is just average, but its been the same average for at least 20 years, and the place is hasn't changed at all in that time either).
posted by Pink Fuzzy Bunny at 11:00 PM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks a lot, everyone!

Does anyone have any suggestions for hotels or cabins that we should check out? Ideally, we'd like something inexpensive, but cute and/or well-situated are definite bonuses!
posted by cider at 8:39 AM on June 7, 2010

Best answer: I'll second Nourish, but drop by and check their hours - they're not always open but there's a number on the door to call to make a reservation. The Bison, as mentioned above, has almost nothing vegan - it's primarily a meat and cheese place, but the brunch is amazing and has a few vegetarian options. Pad Thai, in Clock Tower Mall, does excellent green curries and spring rolls but the rest of the menu is not really worth ordering. Silver Dragon, the Chinese restaurant, has a separate vegetarian menu that you have to ask for - it's not on the main menu (and all the veggie dishes on the main menu include meat).

For places to stay, the HI Hostel in Banff is going to be the cheapest. The YWCA used to have a hostel section but it looks like they're only long-term accommodation and a shelter now. There are HI hostels throughout the Rockies, so that's an option. I have had visitors who did alright getting reasonably-priced hotels through expedia-type services.

Lake Agnes is a good hike, but going around the lake and heading up Big Beehive is even better. Coming down from Big Beehive you have the option of taking the Plain of Six Glaciers trail down, which is longer but would make it a full day of hiking.

Take the Bow Valley Parkway (Highwy 1A) for at least part of the way between Banff and Lake Louise - it's a little slower and prettier. There are several spots to stop along the way - my recommendation would be at Muleshoe, where if you hike about halfway up the trail on the mountain side of the road, you'll find the most amazing swing. Around Banff, you can walk up Sulphur Mountain instead of taking the gondola (2 hours hike, 10 minute ride) - it's not a particularly hard trail but the gondola is now about $30/person, but it's usually a free ride down if you walk up.

Takakkaw Falls are cool, but there's a segment of the road to get there that consists of very tight switchbacks. Have your most confident and careful driver behind the wheel.

Within Banff, you could probably skip Tunnel Mountain (you'll be going up bigger, better ones already) and go see the Vermilion Lakes instead.

Calgary is pretty dull, but if you are there for a meal, you must go to the Coup. Amazing veg food and delicious cocktails with unusual names.
posted by kyla at 11:28 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ignore the haters, because Calgary is actually awesome. ESPECIALLY in July.

Here's a quicky guide to stuff that might be going on while you're here:

If the Saturday you're in Calgary for is the first weekend of July (the 3rd), then you might want to check out Sled Island. Dinosaur Jr and the Melvins are playing the mainstage at Olympic Plaza in downtown, and the GZA and Fucked Up are playing the Legion.

If that Saturday is the 10th or the 17th, that means you're going to be here during the Calgary Stampede, which is like a week-and-a-half long party where the entire city goes nuts. Lots of drinking, shows, parties, etc. There's just too much stuff going on during Stampede to list.

If it's the 24th, then you have the Calgary Folk Festival.

I can't find anything super interesting going on on the 31st yet, but that weekend is August Long Weekend, so there will probably be something cool happening somewhere.

The Coup was mentioned already, so I'll second it. I also recommend a couple more faves of mine: Hop in Brew for beers and pizza (try the Goldspur, but only if you like sugary high-alcohol beer that gets you wasted fast and gives you a nasty hangover the day after), Kawa for coffee, Winebar in Kensington if you're in a tapas and wine mood.

Calgary Is Awesome and FFWD are good resources for finding stuff to do. And lastly, please enjoy your time in our wonderful city and province.
posted by threetoed at 2:17 PM on June 7, 2010

Banff Y Mountain Lodge is nice, clean, excellently located and has terrific prices, the only downside is they don't have wifi in their rooms (Wildflour cafe has wifi). I've stayed 3 times and had a friend stay there this past March. Private bathrooms are nice, no tv in the rooms but whatever. There's a communal kitchen in the basement but only has one stove, so avoid busy meal times.
posted by furtive at 8:07 PM on June 7, 2010

I wish people would keep quiet about the secret swing before parks gets wind and takes it down once and for all...
posted by furtive at 8:09 PM on June 7, 2010

Response by poster: Hey everyone,

Thanks so much -- my trip was fantastic! We didn't get to do QUITE as much as we were hoping, but everything that we did do was incredible.

Some notes, for those who are curious:

The tramway in Jasper, followed by the (short but steep) hike to the top of Whistler's was absolutely incredible -- we went around 6pm and had gorgeous 360 degree views with no one around.

Nourish and Wild Flour were our favorite restaurants, for sure.

Budgeting a full day for the trip up to Jasper was worth it -- such a beautiful drive! (Parker ridge was great, too -- and there were bighorn sheep at the top!)

The one thing that we didn't get to do that I really wanted to do was the Sentinel Pass hike, but it was rainy/snowy on the most likely day -- but that gives me an excuse to get back.

I really appreciate all the advice!
posted by cider at 10:18 AM on July 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

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