Banff- Kootenay National Parks Road Trip
1. Don’t go to Banff/Lake Louise on Canada Day weekend
2. If you do, go everywhere at 7:30pm or later. It stays light until 11pm
Our Banff/Kootenay trip started on a Friday afternoon. I got off work a little early at 4 and we headed East. I thought leaving a little early would allow us to not hit so much traffic but I should have known… I live near Seattle…there’s always traffic. We got stuck several times as we crossed the Snoqualmie pass but once we left Cle Elum it was smooth sailing. Friday concluded in the dark, in Sandpoint, ID. I couldn’t see how beautiful it was there until morning and I wish I had planned to stay longer!
Saturday morning we drove around the town of Sandpoint and then headed out. We reached the Canadian border and sat in the line for only about 10 minutes. This was my first time crossing as an adult. I was 3 the last time I went to Banff and I believe we didn’t need passports then. We found out that it was Canada day as we talked to the officer she gave us a little commemorative flag at the gate.
The drive continued for what seemed like hours. Speed limits are a lot lower in Canada and I was a little thrown off by kilometres/hour instead of miles. I felt like a dumb American as we are the only ones who don’t use the metric system.
On the way to the cabin, we drove 11 miles down a gravel side road to Lussier Hot Springs. The drive takes you deep into what seems like deserted forest, but when we pulled up to the lot, there were at least 10 cars there. We climbed down a short but steep hill and found the natural rock pools set right on a river. The lower 2 springs were flooded with river water and too cold to lounge in, but the higher pool was really warm. It was also really full. We found a little hole just below the big pool that we could both barely fit in. We sat down in the shallow pool end enjoyed the little waterfalls of natural hot spring pouring into it. We stayed a little while and it was warm and pretty but the crowds made the hot springs slightly less enjoyable. We headed out to find our cabin at the Kootenay Park Lodge.
We pulled into the Kootenay National Park at Radium Hot Springs and the scenery immediately blew me away. The road was carved through tall red rocks and majestic pines. It was like driving through the boarder to heaven.
We found our cabin deep into the Kootenay National Park which spans parts of both British Columbia and Alberta. It was surrounded by tall peaks and trees and a glacial river ran alongside of it. When reading about the history of the lodge I discovered it was built in 1928, the same year the road was constructed from Radium Hot Springs to Banff. The cabin was built in the 1930s, meaning people have been staying in here for almost 100 years!
After heating up lunch on my propane stove (I didn’t notice there was a microwave) we explored around the cabin. We went down by the river and I watched Tom throw rocks into the raging water, his favorite pastime. The rocks jutted out of the ground at an angle and were reminiscent of when the earth’s tectonic plates pushed against each other. There were so many thin layers of the slate that it looked like you could just break pieces off with your hand.
After enjoying the cabin a bit, we then headed out to Johnston Canyon. I had been most excited about this part of our trip. The Canyon is a gorge cut by bright blueish/white water. The glacial run off is filled with silt making the water opaque. Magnificent pines lined the canyon. The trail veered from either being a boardwalk over the river to up into the foothills next to the canyon. There were several waterfalls along the gorge. We hiked to the top first. The upper falls was tall and spectacular. We got to view it from below and above. Tom threw rocks in the upper falls from above. We watched the intense water push the rocks back out towards us before crashing into the river below.
Before hiking back to the lower falls, we detoured off the trail into a cave below a smaller waterfall in the gorge. A large rock sat in the middle of the water and made for a cool view. About 20 other people saw us walk off the trail and followed. Our view was obstructed by tourists, but was beautiful none the less.
There was part of the cave where you could walk behind the waterfall a little ways. Tom stuck his head into the water fall… three times! I opted out after seeing the reaction he had to the cold spray.
We headed back down to the lower falls where you can go through a little cave to be right on the cusp of the spray. It was almost like a little porthole. Once through you were right up on the waterfall, so close that you would get soaked standing there for more than a minute. We got back to our car near 9:30pm and drove back to the cabin for the night.
Sunday we slept in until about 8:30am which is pretty late for me. We checked out the free breakfast at the lodge and then headed out for Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. Big mistake. Everyone and their brother was trying to go up there at the same time. The plan was to hike around Moraine Lake and then go see Lake Louise but there were so many people going there that they had traffic directors. They would not let us turn onto the road for lake Moraine. We got diverted up to the parking lot for Lake Louise so I figured we might as well see it. We trolled around the parking lot dodging people and getting stuck behind jerks….you know the kind…they will sit with their blinker on for an hour when they think a car might be leaving. We finally parked and fought the crowd to go stand in front of the lake with the 500 other people there. We decided we should just try to come later when there were hopefully fewer people. This was doubly realized when we drove passed the road to Moraine Lake just to see it had been closed because the parking lot was over full.
We drove the hour back to the cabin and ate lunch. I had pre-made everything food wise for the trip all the way down to homemade bread rolls for sandwiches. Tom wanted to see if there was a trail to a waterfall he had been eyeing on the side of the highway by our cabin so we headed out for that.
We found a trail pretty close to the water fall and started to hike up it. It turned out to be longer than we thought and I had to turn back to go get sunscreen. Once I got my pale self slathered up, we headed back out. The trail started out over the river then cur through the burnt pines. There had been a big wildfire in 2003. Newer smaller trees were growing though the fallen logs. The trail curved up near the waterfall but veered in the other direction and did not turn back. We could not forge our own trail as there were too many fallen logs. We headed back down to the cabin.
After dinner we thought it might finally be a good time to head out to the lakes. When we first got into town we got stuck in traffic getting to Moraine Lake but luckily more people were pouring out than going in. Moraine Lake is incredibly beautiful. The bright turquoise water rests along jagged mountain peaks which hold at least one glacier. A trail runs 1.5 km along the edge so you can see it from many angles. We spent hours walking up and down the trail, taking photos and checking out the scenery.
I planned to stay until it was dark to get a photo with the stars but the mosquitoes in the area were relentless. I decided when I started seeing clouds roll in that it wouldn’t be worth it. I already had at least 12 bites all over me. As we headed out at 10:30pm and drove back it was clear to me that I would have had to wait a long time. It still wasn’t even fully dark when we got to the cabin at 11:30pm.
Monday we knew not to go into Banff early so we lounged around a little bit before deciding to go on a hike. We were going to go to Stanley Glacier but when we arrived, the lot was overflowing with cars. Neither of us thought sharing the trail with that many people was worth it so we went back to the same trail we went up the day before. We walked about a mile in and sat on the rocks by the river. We were there for quite awhile but we were both feeling a bit tired from all the previous day’s hikes so we napped and hung out at the cabin until dinner time.
We drove into the town of Banff and walked the streets. The area was pretty crowded. We ate at a Mexican restaurant and although the food was a bit pricey, it was really delicious. They used far less grease than we do in the US. We walked some more and I got an ice cream cone. We then headed up to the Banff gondola.
The gondola is the only thing I remember from the last time I visited as a child but I’m pretty sure the one we went on was new and much more expensive. My dad told me it may have been about $20 for our little family of 4 and for Tom and I, it cost $91. The gondola glided straight up the tall mountain to the observation building. The ride was swift and the view was amazing. You could peer down at the trees flying by or look out at the town of Banff. At the top there was an extended board walk/ stairs that went up to an old fire watch tower. We trekked up there and enjoyed the 360 views. The wind was pretty strong up there but felt good in the heat of the day. There were signs posted around sharing the history of the observation building. We learned that it used to be a scientific research lab. The scientists studied cosmic rays since the atmosphere was much thinner at that elevation.
We didn’t stay up top long hoping to go down and enjoy the Banff Hot Springs. We had a local ride down with us. He came here from the UK and was telling us about the cost of living in Banff, which actually seemed fairly inexpensive! We had noticed the guy running up the 12km road on our way in. We asked if he ran and then road the gondola but he told us he ran all the way up the 5.5km trail to the top of the mountain. That was a steep trail!! I suddenly felt extremely out of shape. We got down and headed for the hot springs. Once we walked up there and noticed that way too many other people were enjoying a soak, we decided to opt out. We drove back to our cabin to relax for the rest of the night.
The morning of our drive home came too quickly. We headed out at 8:30am and drove West through Canada home. The scenery on this route was amazing. We stopped just short of the US border and Tom tried Poutine for the first time. It wasn’t that spectacular. We crossed the border and made it home in time to hear the fireworks of everyone celebrating our independence day. Happy 4th of July USA. It is good to be home!