After departing Waterton Lakes, we stopped for the afternoon in Calgary to catch up on the real world. The final installment of the Harry Potter movies had just been released and a little vacation wasn’t going to get in our way of seeing it. We’d purchased tickets in advance for a theatre at a mall in Calgary, so we parked, ate some delicious Greek food for lunch, and then shed some tears as the lives of our beloved characters played out on screen.
This was the extent of our time in the city, as we had campground reservations in Banff National Park that evening. As we headed west out of Calgary on Canada Highway 1, one thing became readily apparent: the further north you go, the more rugged and spectacular the Rocky Mountains become. The peaks are taller, the glaciers larger, and the angles sharper.
In short, the Canadian Rockies are incredible!
From Calgary, it’s just over an hour drive to reach Banff National Park. The park is traversed by the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1), with Highway 1A (the Bow Valley Parkway) running parallel for those who wish to travel more slowly and enjoy the scenery. I have to say, people weren’t very good at the whole traveling slowly thing. We were consistently going 10-15 km/hr over the speed limit to keep up with the flow of traffic, and even then we regularly got passed by people going significantly faster. One particular speed demon flew past us on a double yellow; we caught up to him about 2 km later, pulled over on the side of the road receiving a speeding ticket. I love karma.
Anyway, there’s so much to see in Banff, and what we were able to take in on our 4 days in the park just barely scratched the surface. We began in the town of Banff, which is a typical quaint tourist town that was absolutely overflowing with cars and pedestrians. I was driving a stick shift for the first time in about 3 years, and sitting in traffic definitely put my skills to the test.
We weren’t staying in the town of Banff, but merely stopped by to see the famous Banff Springs Hotel, located high on a hill above the Bow River. It’s impossible to miss; it’s visible from quite a distance away.
The Bow River runs all the way through Banff National Park, roughly parallel to the highways, and there are many pullouts along the way with lovely views of the river as it winds its way through the valley.
We set up camp at Johnston Canyon Campground, which I don’t remember anything about. Since nothing stands out, I assume we had an average experience there. One thing to note about Parks Canada campgrounds is that there’s a fee for a fire permit in addition to the campground fee. The fire permit does include firewood, but it costs about $9 per night. There’s also a $13 reservation fee associated with booking sites in advance, so camping in Parks Canada locations can add up pretty quickly. We solved that issue by not having many campfires and staying in the same campsite for our entire time in Banff, thus avoiding paying multiple reservation fees.
The next morning, we set out to explore the southern portion of the park: the section between the town of Banff and Castle Junction. Our first hike was to Johnson Lake – though to call this a hike may be unfair, it was really more of a leisurely stroll to the lake. Johnson Lake is located at the end of Johnson Lake Road, which branches off from the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive. This loop also leads to Two Jack Lake and Lake Minnewanka before curving back around to the Trans-Canada Highway.
Our next stop was Johnston Canyon, conveniently located right near our campground. The hike up Johnston Canyon is about 3 miles (4.8 km) round-trip, relatively flat, and includes 2 waterfalls and many cascades. The majority of the hike is on boardwalks that lead through the narrow canyon. We came first to Lower Falls and then continued on to Upper Falls, the latter portion of the trail being slightly steeper.
We continued north on the Bow Valley Parkway, passing scenic views of Castle Mountain and Moose Meadows, which was filled with wildflowers.
Our final hike of the day was to Silverton Falls. This short hike (< 1 mile/1.6 km round-trip) departs from a small parking area near Castle Junction. The trail continues far beyond the falls to Tower Lake and Rockbound Lake, but we only went as far as the falls.
For me, Silverton Falls will always be remembered as the place where I got hit by a falling rock. We were hiking across a slope with the waterfall just up ahead, so close we could hear it, when we heard a rock begin to tumble. We assumed one of us had dislodged it, but then realized the noise was getting closer. We turned our heads uphill to search for it, but too late. It had already collided with my ankle. It wasn’t a large rock, but it was moving rapidly so it hurt when it hit me. What was weird, though, was that there weren’t any people above us on the hillside, and we didn’t see any animals either. I guess the rock just decided it wanted a change of scenery.
Moral of the story: falling rocks can cause some serious damage!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Banff National Park is located along the Trans-Canada Highway about 80 miles west of Calgary. This post discusses the southern part of the park.
- Fees & passes: $9.80 CAD/person/day or $19.60 CAD/car; this is good for Banff and all the surrounding Canadian Rockies parks; Parks Canada Annual Pass accepted
- Camping: There are 13 campgrounds with almost 2,500 sites in the park. We stayed at Johnston Canyon, which is $28 CAD per night (prices of other campgrounds range from $21-38 per night) + $9 fire permit. Reservations ($13 CAD) necessary in the summer.
- Hiking: There are 1000 miles (1600 km) of trails in Banff; we hiked Johnston Canyon (3 miles/4.8 km round-trip) and Silverton Falls (1 mile/1.6 km round-trip), both located in the Bow Valley section of the park
- Other: make sure you have the proper document(s) to cross into Canada!