Touring the Lakes & Falls of the Canadian Rockies
Our Winnebago Trend recently went on its first international adventure, taking a jaunt up to the Canadian Rockies. The area awed us with eye-popping, jaw-dropping scenery at every turn. Friends, if as you are reading this, you are anywhere near the Alberta, Canada border -- go now. Really, it's that beautiful! We just can't get our minds off Banff and the surrounding area, so we will happily reminisce and share our favorite lakes and other can't-miss spots.
When to go
As most know, Canada can be a bit cold! While there are a ton of winter time activities, we were hoping to see the famous blue lakes of the Canadian Rockies, meaning we had to visit when the lakes had thawed. Their electric turquoise color makes them world-renowned.
The lakes showcase their deepest hues during the high season in July and August. But, July and August also happen to have the most rainy days and the most tourists visiting. The months of May, June, and September, however, make up Banff's shoulder season, and are less crowded. While there is still some rain and crowds, this is a great time to visit.
We traveled through in late June, finding crowds, but also having some of the beauty entirely to ourselves. We also found typical mountain weather, with rain, sun, cold and warmth all possible in a span of a few hours. When we return we'll choose shoulder season again.
Lay of the land
Banff is sometimes used as a catchall term to mean Banff National Park and its surrounding areas. But, within Banff National Park there is an actual town of Banff. The town of Banff is roughly 45 minutes east from the famous Lake Louise and stunning Morraine Lake. (Read more about things to do in Banff in this previous GoLife article).
The unforgettable Icefields Parkway takes you north from Lake Louise and into Jasper National Park. If you head west from Lake Louise instead, you'll find yourself in Yoho National Park in less than 10 minutes.
Where to stay
The largest city near Banff is Calgary, just an hour east. On the western edge of Calgary, we found a campground called Calgary West Campground. It can serve as a base camp to explore the areas around the towns of Banff and Canmore, but it can feel a bit far to explore some of the other surrounding areas.
For this reason, we switched over to campgrounds in Banff National Park to explore the lakes and some of the hikes. Banff National Park has 15 campgrounds, and 9 of those are reservable at reservation.pc.gc.ca. They range from full-hookup to rustic, but don't count on having sewer, only one of those has sewer hook-ups. Yoho and Jasper have campground options of their own too.
Overall, be sure to book early, and don't expect to find free boondocking near Banff NP. The Banff campgrounds can accommodate big rigs, so Class As and fifth-wheels are okay. Both the town of Banff and the National Parks are RV friendly and you can tour them without a toad.
Morraine Lake, Banff National Park.
Best of Banff National Park
Nestled in The Valley of the 10 Peaks, Morraine Lake is not to be missed. If for some reason you can only see one lake, make it Morraine. We ventured out to Morraine just before sunset and we had it all to ourselves! The general recommendation is to see it at sunrise or sunset to avoid the large crowds. For a more up-close experience, you can rent a canoe and paddle around Morraine. The water was perfectly still for us, serenely reflecting the mountains surrounding it.
Lake Louise's turquoise shade is so vibrant, so electric, that you can hardly believe it's real when you first approach it. Lake Louise can be conveniently viewed from a walkway that circles around part of the lake. You can also rent a canoe if you'd like to actually get out on the lake itself. The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel is right on the lake and there are amazing pastries to enjoy inside its coffee shop.
Lake Agnes Trail & Tea House
To catch a view of Lake Louise from above, hike up the Lake Agnes Trail. It's a steep, 2.2-mile trail and can be a bit muddy and slick if it's raining, but you'll be rewarded. As you hike up, the trail will lead you to both Mirror Lake and Lake Agnes. After taking in the views of the peaceful Lake Agnes, you can recharge at the Lake Agnes tea house. They have an indoor and outdoor seating area and offer hot teas and snacks. Don't forget to take cash! Lake Agnes tea house does not accept credit cards. We went on the hike right at sunrise and were the very first to arrive at the tea house when it opened at 8 a.m.
The Icefields Parkway begins in Banff National Park. One of the many lakes along the way is Peyto Lake. Peyto Lake is an alpine lake that looks like a fox. The viewpoints are just a quick hike from the parking area. Again, we were amazed by the vivid turquoise color of the lake. It's as if someone turned the saturation and contrast way up, like they do on TVs in the electronics section of stores. It's a wonderful spot for a picture, and you'll have to wait for a turn to snap your pic of the lake, but while you wait you have one heck of a view. You can visit Peyto Lake while you're in the Banff NP area, or when you're ready to head up the Icefields Parkway to Jasper.
Peyto Lake through the trees. Do you see the fox shape?
Best of Yoho National Park
Just a 20-minute drive west from Lake Louise, and technically in B.C. rather than Alberta, you'll find Emerald Lake. The first European to see Emerald Lake accidentally came upon it when trying to recover his escaped horses. What a find! Like Morraine and Louise, a good way to see this lake up close is from a canoe.
We asked a friendly local at Wild Flour Bakery in Banff (great little coffee shop!) what the number one sight most tourists missed in the area was. He slid a receipt with the words Takakkaw Falls scribbled on it across the counter. Always, always ask the locals for tips! We drove further into Yoho, past Emerald Lake thanks to his tip. After a bit of a windy road (beware: big rigs won't fit around one of the bends!) we reached a parking area for Takakkaw Falls.
With light rain falling, we decided to take a quick nap in the RV, with the beautiful falls visible from our window. Once the rain subsided, we walked across a bridge to the falls. The water danced and billowed as it crashed down into the river below. We're glad we didn't miss Yoho with it's rugged beauty, feeling a bit more wild and unspoiled than Banff NP.
Best of Jasper National Park & the Icefields Parkway
The national parks in the Canadian Rocky Mountains form a Unesco World Heritage site, and we dare say the Icefields Parkway is the crown jewel. Unless you absolutely can't, please don't leave the Canadian Rockies without driving the entire Icefields Parkway. It's STUNNING. The drive can take three hours or many more depending on how often you stop. Should you only be able to make one stop, stop at Sunwapta Falls. You're going to be tempted to stop at the Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefield as your one stop, but drive on to Sunwapta Falls. Look Sunwapta Falls up on Instagram if you have any doubts. The crashing falls beautifully showcase the sheer power of nature during the late spring when the glacial melt is the highest. Be sure to stop at Sunwapta Falls for sunset.
Sunwapta Falls is a must-see destination in the area.
Because, can you ever really see too many waterfalls? At 60 feet wide, Athabasca Falls is known for its power. There are paved platforms all around the falls making them easy to see from many different angles. Athabasca Falls is only about 30 minutes from the town of Jasper and the end of the Icefields Parkway. If you're running short on time, don't worry if you have to turn back around here. If you need to head back south, you can turn around here and then spend the night parked at the Glacier Discovery Centre (big-rig friendly). Beware it'll be a cold night due to its location in the Columbia Icefield. But, it's worth it if you're short on time and you need to head back south.
This doesn't even scratch the surface of all there is to do up in Banff and the Canadian Rockies, but it's a great start. We took a 10-day trip in June, when sunset was at 10 p.m., and we still felt rushed. A good bit of this is because we wanted to see so many of these places at sunrise or sunset. Keep that in mind, and be sure to build in some time for hikes. Enjoy Canada, eh! (For a video version of these tips, watch our Winnebago Facebook Live session here).