Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Playing Tourist in Banff National Park

Being a local from Calgary, there are places I know NOT to visit in Banff National Park in the middle of summer.  I'm sure there are billboards across Asia and Europe telling people that they should visit the World Famous Johnston Canyon when they come to Canada!  And Explore Rockies does an amazing job at getting the word out that their tours across Lake Minnewanka, up Sulphur Mt. and on the Athabasca Glacier will blow your mind.  Hence, we tend to avoid many of these beautiful places in favour of finding quieter trails, less crowded summits, or lakes that we can paddle on our own steam.

The Upper Falls at Johnston Canyon

That being said, we were given the opportunity to play tourist for a day when I won a Brewster Travel Package last winter after entering a contest I discovered through Twitter. If you have a Twitter account and plan to visit the Canadian Rockies, I highly encourage you to follow @ExploreRockies for other great contests in the future and to find out about family-friendly deals on their tours.  Right now for example, you can get a child's ticket for free if you pledge to "Unplug and explore" this summer.  (Alberta residents only)

The tour I won involved a full day of travel on a bus across Banff National Park - which with a three year old in tow, didn't sound like much fun.  Brewster Staff were amazing though and offered me tickets for their top three attractions in exchange:  The Lake Minnewanka Boat Tour, The Columbia Icefields Snow Coach Tour, and the Gondola ride up Sulphur Mt.  It was a no-brainer for me and I was super excited!  I was given three adult tickets and since preschoolers are free, it meant I could always bring a couple friends or family members with me on the trips.  My mother was thrilled when I told her I'd be able to take her up the gondola and on the boat cruise - two things she'd never gotten to do before.  I was ecstatic that I'd be able to take my son on all these tours - tours that for a local are an absolute indulgence; Locals just don't typically splurge on this kind of sightseeing.  We have to climb mountains instead of riding gondolas up them.  We have to canoe across lakes rather than being whisked across on a comfortable boat cruise.  And if we want to walk on a glacier, we get out our crampons, rope, climbing equipment - and leave the kids with grandparents!

We plan to do our snow coach tour in late September when we are out that way but we've already done both the boat tour and the gondola ride.  And what fabulous experiences they were!!  I wish more locals could have the opportunity to partake in these luxury tours.  

Lake Minnewanka

I took my mom with me on the boat tour across Lake Minnewanka and my son was thrilled with the experience.  We aren't really water people so he hadn't been in a boat before.  I'd never been on the boat tour either and was happy to finally see the famous Devil's Gap at the far end of the lake.  I'd heard tales of this beautiful place and wanted to see it with my own eyes.  The ride was about an hour long and we got to ride in a covered boat that protected us from the sun.  Being more adventurous in nature, I would have enjoyed a ride in an open boat more, but it was perfect for my mother and son.

Devil's Gap, Lake Minnewanka

Noah standing out on the back of the boat

Looking out at Cascade Mt. from inside the boat

We finished the day off with some sightseeing along the Lake Minnewanka Loop Road.  We hiked the easy Lower Bankhead Trail to see the remains of an old Coal mining operation and we stopped for some water play at The Cascade Ponds.  My son loved the hike because of the old coal shuttle train that we found along the trail.  My mom loved the whole "history" aspect.  I thought it was a pretty place with lovely views across open meadows.  As for the Ponds, it was probably the highlight of the day for my three-year-old who loves water!!  The water wasn't warm but it was warm enough to splash and wade in.  (and I did see some people full on swimming.)  Fortunately, I had planned ahead and brought sand toys in the car as well.  For more great picnic areas, swimming holes, and day trip ideas check out my resource Guide on The Best Day Trips and Picnic Sites.

Investigating the Coal Shuttle Train on the Lower Bankhead Trail

Meadows on the Lower Bankhead Trail
Cascade Ponds


Sulphur Mountain Gondola Ride

Last week we headed out to Banff again for our Gondola Ride up Sulphur Mountain, located right in the town of Banff.  In addition to bringing my mom and son, I brought a girlfriend along this time with her two boys.  The six of us all managed to fit into one gondola car for the 15 minute ride up to the top station.  From there it was a 30 minute hike (at a preschooler's pace) to the very top of the mountain where we found an old observatory and many friendly squirrels - note to other visitors, don't leave your goldfish and cheerios unattended!  We had perfect weather and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves looking down on the beautiful town of Banff.  I hadn't been up the gondola in years and it was a very nice treat for me.  The boys will remember their first gondola ride for a long time!

The boys reaching the top of Sulphur Mt.

Noah and Grandma making their way down from the Observatory on top of Sulphur Mt.

The boys heading back towards the Upper Gondola Terminal

We rounded out our day with a trip to Quarry Lake in Canmore for some swimming - a recurring theme and popular way for us to finish day trips on hot days!  Quarry Lake has the best beach hands down in the Rockies and is awesome for small kids.  Small rock pools line the beach creating natural wading pools.  You'll also find nice mud pools along the edge of the lake which are always popular with the kids.  Just don't expect to have the beach to yourself!  It might be a bit of a local's secret but the locals come out in force on hot days.

Quarry Lake, Canmore


Johnston Canyon

This popular tourist attraction doesn't require a ticket and you won't have to win a contest to afford the trip.  That being said, I wish they did give out tickets for the day to get on the trail because my goodness, does it ever get busy in Summer!!  My girlfriend and I (with our preschoolers) decided to hike the canyon last week when rain chased us away from another objective.  I knew it would be busy but I had no idea that cars would be lined up and down Hwy 1A in both directions on either side of the over-filled parking lot.  There was so much bug spray in the canyon from the visiting tourists that at times I really couldn't breathe for inhaling it.

Highway 1A at the entrance to Johnston Canyon

Crowded trail and parking lot aside, it is a fabulous hike and if you complete the 5.4km return hike to the Upper Falls you'll be rewarded with a 30m high set of gorgeous waterfalls that are among the most beautiful in the Rockies.  Along the way you'll pass the Lower Falls that are also stunning and very powerful if you squeeze your way through the cave in front of them to get an up close and personal look.  Both of our kids hiked the full distance - so proud of them, and they absolutely loved  the trail!  Yes it has waterfalls and smaller cascades every kilometre or so but it also has these metal catwalks and bridges that you walk on for about 60% of the distance.  Traversing the narrow walls of a canyon on a metal catwalk is pretty exciting for a youngster.  Heck, I find it interesting and fun myself and I'm hardly young anymore.

A rare moment where Noah had one of the cat walks to himself
Traversing high above the canyon bottom on the catwalks
The Lower Falls with the cave you can go through to see them up close

One of the narrow spots in the canyon

Noah and his friend chasing each other along the catwalks

My general opinion of this hiking trail:  Stunningly beautiful, worth pushing your way through the crowds, super fun for kids and a great way to motivate them to like hiking - BUT, much better in shoulder season (early or late season.)

A big thank you to the friends who joined me on these trips and to Explore Rockies for making two of the trips possible.  Playing tourist close to home is fun and luxurious.  I can't wait for our Snow Coach Tour in September.


  1. Awesome, thanks for the info.
    Never been on the coach tours. I spend one day minimum a wek planning activities with nieces and nephews, will definitely ge the free tickets!