Friday, April 20, 2018

A Local's Guide to Exploring the Best of Banff and Jasper - Updated 2023

We have some amazing attractions and sites right on our doorstep that many of us locals pass over because we think "it's too busy, too expensive, too crowded, or just flat out too touristy."

Local's Guide to Exploring the Best of Banff and Jasper (Banff Gondola, Pursuit Banff Jasper Collection)

I'm with you on avoiding overcrowded tourist attractions, but  as a local, you can still enjoy all of the iconic adventures in our national parks - without the crowds. (Or, perhaps in a fresh new way that's unique and fitting of a local explorer.) And, I can save you money with a few local tips as well.

Below are ten of my family's favourite attractions and sites in the mountain parks of Banff and Jasper. Each one is very popular with tourists, but equally enjoyable as a local.

Glacier Adventure, Columbia Icefields 

Local's Guide to Exploring the Best of Banff and Jasper 

1. Ride The Banff Gondola 

My son has ridden up the gondola in Banff too many times to count. Somehow though, it never gets old and he would jump at the chance to ride the gondola yet again (over pretty much anything else I could promise him in Banff.)

Kids love gondolas, and my son loves running up the boardwalk to the top of Sulphur Mountain. Adults will love the views from the top of the gondola, and I love that I can buy a good cup of coffee on top of a mountain.

Everybody loves the Banff Gondola, young or old

Local Tips:

  • Visit in the morning or evening to avoid the crowds.

  • Look for free child passes when you purchase an adult pass.

  • Always visit in the off-season.

  • Hike up, and ride down for a discounted gondola ticket. Visit the website for more info.

For full information, visit the Banff Gondola website

Hike to the top of the Banff Gondola and ride down for a fun family day trip

2. Take a Boat Cruise on Lake Minnewanka in Banff

Families love the Banff Lake Cruise on scenic Lake Minnewanka. Check out their awesome family tour below for a day trip everybody will enjoy.

"Hop aboard our Lake Minnewanka treasure hunt, complete with thrilling tales of local characters, mysterious lake monsters and much, much more. This 60-minute, highly interactive tour is specially made for kids between 6 and 12 years old and is led by an expert guide and captain. Kids receive a complimentary journal and a cool treat with their ticket. Plus, families receive one free kids’ admission for every adult ticket purchased."

Banff Lake Cruise (photo: Pursuit, Banff Jasper Collection)

Local Tips for Exploring the Lake Minnewanka Loop Road:

  • Take the short hike to Stewart Canyon along the shoreline (3km round trip) and you'll escape 80% of the visitors that never make it past the boat dock.

  • Spring and autumn will always be less busy. The Lake Cruise opens for the season in May and runs through early October.

  • As with everything, sunrise and sunset will be your best friend. (Don't go in the middle of the day and expect to have the lake to yourself.)

Visit the Lake Minnewanka Boat Cruise website to reserve tickets and find more information.

Our first visit to Lake Minnewanka 

3. Hike Johnston Canyon in Banff 

I am convinced there are billboards across the world telling people to come hike Johnston Canyon. This shouldn't deter you from experiencing one of Banff's most beautiful hikes for yourself though. It's one of the few hikes where you can see two big waterfalls in under 3 km one way, and you get to walk through a tunnel to see the first falls.

The first waterfalls at Johnston Canyon with the cave

Local Tips:

The Upper Falls at Johnston Canyon
  • May or June are great months to hike this trail. After that, wait until late September.

  • Pack breakfast with you and go first thing in the morning if you have to hike this trail in the summer. Eat a picnic breakfast at the first or second falls and enjoy hiking out while everybody else is just arriving at the parking lot.

    Alternately, go in the evening after dinner (It's a short hike.) You could even pack dinner with you for the trail.

  • Go out Friday or Saturday evening and hike in to Larry's Camp backcountry campground (JO 9,) 9 kilometres up the trail past the falls and the Ink Pots.  (Find information on backcountry camping permits here.)

    Spend a night and hike out the next morning.

Read more about the hike here on the Ten Adventures website..

And you can also check out this story from a spring hike we enjoyed at Johnston Canyon: The Most Popular Hike in Banff - Without the Crowds

The Johnston Canyon catwalks 

4. Spend a Day at Lake Louise

It never fails to amaze me how busy Lake Louise can get in the summer (and how many people will be content to take their photos without ever venturing beyond the crowds in front of the lake.) Take a hike beyond the lakeshore and you'll leave 60% of the other visitors behind. Start hiking uphill and you'll leave another 20% behind. Avoid the teahouses and you've lost all but 10% of the other visitors.

Looking over to Lake Louise from the top of the ski resort (with gondola access in the summer)

Local Tips:

  • Don't bother trying to park at Lake Louise between the months of July and September. Take a shuttle bus and save yourself the headache of trying to arrive before 8am. (and even that might be too late in summer.)

  • Spend the night so you can get up to the lake super early in the morning or so you can go up in the evening instead (when you'll find plenty of parking and fewer crowds.)

    You have two affordable options for lodging. You can either camp, or you can stay at the Lake Louise Alpine Centre (a joint venture between Hostelling International and the Alpine Club of Canada.)

    Read about overnight stays at the Lake Louise Alpine Centre here. (The story has a ski focus but the information is still relevant for summer.)

  • Get in and out quickly. Park (or take a shuttle bus) and then hit the trail! Our favourite way to escape the crowds (with awesome views) is to hike up to Saddleback Pass. From the pass you can also climb Mount Fairview or Saddle Mountain.

    Read about our hike up Mount Fairview here.

    Read: First Summits - Mount Fairview and Saddle Mountain, Lake Louise
Mount Fairview Summit, Lake Louise 

  • As mentioned already, visit in the evening. The parking lot will be relatively empty and you'll have a much quieter experience if you want the classic photos standing in front of the lake.

  • Bring your own boat or inflatable paddleboard! Even if you have to rent in Calgary or Banff for the day, you'll spend $100 per hour to rent a canoe at Lake Louise (which is crazy.) And you can use your own boat on any lake in Banff National Park!

    Make sure you don't go mid day though, trying to carry a canoe through the crowds! Go in the evening when it won't feel as if there are hundreds of other boats on the water with you. You wouldn't find parking anywhere near the lake as well in the daytime.

  • Go in May or June, or wait until October. (September is still very busy.)

  • There's plenty of parking at the Lake Louise Ski Resort! Park here and take a shuttle to the lake. Then you can also ride the gondola up the mountain for great views over to Lake Louise.

  • Have to hike to one of the teahouses? Go up first thing in the morning or in the evening with a picnic breakfast or dinner to eat on the trail.

Read more on the Banff and Lake Louise Tourism website.

Paddling across Lake Louise (bring your own stand up paddleboard)

5. Spend a Day at Moraine Lake in Banff

Lake Louise and Moraine Lake are premier destinations when visiting the Canadian Rockies and access has never been easier thanks to the affordable and easy-to-book Parks Canada shuttle bus system. One ticket gets you access to both lakes for an entire day with free parking and transfers between the two lakes. And you won't have to arrive at 4am this year if you want to visit Moraine Lake to hike!

Access for Moraine Lake:

New in 2023 - The Moraine Lake Road will be closed to personal vehicles year round.

Parks Canada shuttles, Roam Public Transit, and commercial buses will be permitted from June to mid-October.

Visit both Moraine Lake and Lake Louise in the same day. Reserve your shuttle ticket online and park your vehicle at the Park and Ride, located at the Lake Louise Ski Resort. (See shuttle fees here.)

Reservations can be made online starting in April with additional seats released in a rolling window, at 8am two days prior to departure day.

Read more about booking shuttle bus tickets on the Parks Canada website. 

Views of the emerald colored lake from the top of the rock pile beside the lake

Local Tips:

Once you're at Moraine Lake, escape the bulk of the crowds by heading off for a day hike. The trail to Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass is the busiest. For a quieter hike visit the Consolation Lakes Valley or Eiffel Lakes Valley.

Read more about hiking at Moraine Lake here on the Parks Canada website. 

And for an EPIC day hike, traverse one-way from Moraine Lake to Lake Louise over Sentinel Pass and Saddleback Pass. 

  • Visit Moraine Lake before the road opens to shuttle bus service in the spring by bicycle! You can ride up to the lake and visit this famous tourist site without the crowds. It's a climb to the lake, but a very fast ride back down! The return ride is ~ 25 km. 

  • Visit first thing in the morning on one of the earliest shuttle busses you can take for a much more quiet experience. Mid day will be the busiest time.

  • Visit late afternoon after the tourists have started to leave for the day. Just make sure you catch one of the last return busses back to Lake Louise.

  • Bring your own inflatable stand up paddleboard on the bus to save yourself $$$ by not having to rent an overpriced canoe at the lake.

  • Make sure you visit late September if you want to see the golden larch trees up in Larch Valley. They peak around the third week of September.

Visit Moraine Lake late September to see the golden larch trees

6. Go Exploring along the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper

The Icefields Parkway connects the Village of Lake Louise with the Town of Jasper in the north. It is one of the most beautiful highways in the world and it's recommended you try to drive it on a clear sunny day (if you have a choice or flexibility with your plans.) 

Expect snow on the Icefields Parkway through late spring

You can read all about the Icefields Parkway here (with hikes to enjoy along the way.) 

You can also find information on the Travel Alberta website (with a great list of places to stop along your drive for the best photos.) 

Also, the Banff National Park website has a fabulous list with points of interest.

And finally, check out this new story:

Peyto Lake on the Icefields Parkway

Local Tips: 

  • Hike around the backside of Herbert Lake (hiking clockwise from the parking lot) and you'll find a very old historic diving board perched on a pile of rocks. It's super fun to jump off of. (and the water isn't as cold as you'd expect.)

  • Leave the crowds behind at Bow Lake and hike to the Bow Glacier Falls (4.6 km one way)

  • Escape the masses at Peyto Lake with a hike to the Bow Summit Lookout (2.9 km one way.) And, the photo above of Peyto Lake was not taken from the tourist platform. It was taken from the short little interpretive hike you'll find leading off from the platform.(Follow it left from the platform as if hiking in the direction of Lake Louise)
Bow Summit Lookout (Bow Lake in the background)

  • Drive the highway early in the morning or in the evening (less crowds of course.)

  • Visit before July or after September

  • Camp along the Icefields Parkway. (Note that the campgrounds don't take reservations so you'll want an early start in the day to get a spot as people clear out from the night before.)

  • Spend a night at the Glacier View Inn right at the Columbia Icefields Centre (more on that in the next paragraph.) It will allow you to enjoy this amazing landscape first thing in the morning, or in the evening without the crowds.

  • For a great hike, head up the Parker Ridge Trail (2.7 km one way) or the Wilcox Pass trail (4 km one way.) These are our two favourite hikes on the Icefields Parkway. 

Wilcox Pass, Columbia Icefields (Athabasca Glacier in the background)

7. Take a Columbia Icefields Glacier Adventure 

This is one of those adventures that most local families will quickly dismiss as being "touristy" or "too expensive." I highly encourage you to reconsider though for a few reasons:

This is a chance for your kids to walk on a real glacier with no risk of falling in a crevasse (a giant crack in the ice that's often covered up with snow, and often deep enough to cause serious injury or worse if you fall in.)

And unless your family plans on taking up mountaineering as a hobby (and you have the training to take the kids out on a glacier walk,) this is probably the only way your children will ever get to walk on a glacier.

Take the kids for a glacier tour on the Athabasca Glacier

Glaciers are melting. (rapidly melting.) Take the opportunity to explore nearby glaciers now because the next generation might not have many left to experience.

The Columbia Icefield is one of the largest non-polar ice fields in the world. And while you won't be on the icefield itself, you'll be walking on the Athabasca Glacier which comes off of the icefield.

In this tour you get to travel on a gigantic ice explorer bus (a highlight for the kids by itself) onto a sheet of ice that's 10 000 years old.

Finish your tour with a fun walk on the glass-floored, cliff edged, Glacier Skywalk  (with great views over to Mount Athabasca and the Icefields Centre.)

Ride a large ice explorer bus onto the glacier

Read more about the Glacier Adventure here on the Pursuit Banff Jasper Collection website.

And, check out my story about our day trip to the Columbia Icefields here: Day Trip to the Columbia Icefields Centre to Walk on a Glacier. 

Glacier Skywalk with Mount Athabasca in the background

Local Tips:

  • Don't wait until summer. Go now! The Icefields Centre opens in April and the Glacier Adventure starts running early spring for the season. (And by visiting in spring, you'll avoid the majority of the summer traffic.)

  • Save 10% when you book in advance.

  • Save your trip for fall if you want the experience of walking on bare ice without any snow covering it.

  • Save money with combo packages. The Ultimate Explorer package for example allows you to experience the Banff Gondola, Lake Cruise, and the Glacier Adventure. (Something you'll want to keep in mind if you have friends or family visiting from out of town this summer.)

  • Spend the night at the Glacier View Inn (located on the 3rd floor of the Icefields Centre) and be first to board a bus for the Glacier Adventure the next morning. You'll also enjoy exploring the area in the evening without any of the daytime crowds.

    And if you're spending the night, make sure you have at least one meal at the new restaurant, Altitude. It has amazing food along with incredible views of the glacier.

Glacier Skywalk (Photo: Pursuit, Banff Jasper Collection)

8. Take a Boat Cruise on Maligne Lake in Jasper

I was skeptical of this tour when we boarded the boat to Spirit Island because I was expecting a quick pass by of the famed iconic island, everybody fighting for deck space for photos, and no opportunities to get off the boat at the island.

I was completely blown away when I realized there was a dock right beside Spirit Island and that you got a good half hour to get off the tour boat, and to take as many photos as you wanted of the beautiful island.

Spirit Island from the Jasper Maligne Lake Cruise

And while you can't actually step foot on Spirit Island as it's a sacred spot to the local indigenous people, you still get very close to the island without having to spend two days paddling your own boat  to get out there.

Maligne Lake Boat Cruise, Jasper 

Local Tips:

  • The lake cruise opens late May, and you'll find it easier to get a reservation if you visit before summer starts. Otherwise, save your trip for fall (open through early October.)

  • Make a reservation in advance. If you don't, there's a good chance you won't get on the boat. And it's a long drive out to Maligne Lake from the Town of Jasper (a beautiful drive, but very long if you've promised the kids something you can't deliver.)

  • Make the most of the trip out to Maligne Lake with a short hike along the lakeshore trail. The Mary Schaffer Loop is an easy 3.2 km loop. Read about all of the hiking options in the area here.

  • Combine your trip with a stop at Maligne Canyon (featured in the next paragraph)

For more information, visit the website for the Maligne Lake Cruise.

Iconic Spirit Island in Maligne Lake, Jasper 

9. Go Hiking in Maligne Canyon, Jasper

I've hiked this trail countless times with my family and my best tip here is to arrive early (or later in the afternoon/evening.) This is Jasper's version of Johnston Canyon and you don't want to be stuck hiking this narrow canyon trail in the middle of the day during July or August. (I'm not sure you'd even get into the parking lot.)

While this hike is very popular, it's still worthwhile to stop en route to Maligne Lake and kids love running up and down the stairs along the top of the canyon. They'll also be fascinated by all of the waterfalls you'll see from the bridges.

Hiking the Maligne Canyon Trail in Jasper

Local Tips:

Bridge over Maligne Canyon 
  • Go early or late in the day. Avoid mid-day hikes in Maligne Canyon

  • Combine the hike with a trip out to Maligne Lake. It takes an hour to drive to the lake from town, and you'll pass right by Maligne Canyon en route.

  • Spring and fall are ideal times to visit the canyon. Go in May and enjoy a peaceful experience. October is another one of my favourite times to enjoy this hike.

  • Hike to the 6th bridge and you'll leave the majority of people behind after the 3rd bridge. There's a separate parking lot at the 6th bridge if you want to hike the trail one direction with a car shuttle.

    If you only have one vehicle, send one adult back for the car and have them drive down to the 6th bridge parking lot to meet you and the kids. - note you want to start at the 1st bridge and hike down to the 6th bridge. It's less than 4 km one way from 1st to 6th bridge.

  • Finish your hike with a snack on the outdoor patio of the Maligne Canyon Restaurant near the 1st bridge (which would be a great way to end the outing if you hiked all the way to the 6th bridge and back.)

Read more about the hike here.

One of the many waterfalls in Maligne Canyon

10. Ride the Jasper Sky Tram 

The Jasper Sky Tram is one of the best ways to climb a mountain in Jasper without too much effort. Once you arrive at the upper terminal you can enjoy a gorgeous alpine hike up to the summit of Whistlers Mountain in a short 1.2 km distance (one way.)

One of my favourite photos along the hike up Whistlers Mountain

My son made it to the summit when he was 4 years old and it was a great adventure for our family. We're hoping to go back this summer while we're in Jasper.

This is also a tour that's worth every penny for the views you'll get on your hike to the summit of Whistlers Mountain.

Switzerland or Jasper? Hard to tell as you hike the Summit Trail at the Jasper Sky Tram

Local Tips:

  • As with everything, go early in the day to avoid the crowds.

  • Families can save money with a family package (actually quite reasonable for an attraction of this quality and experience)

Summit games at the Jasper Sky Tram 

Resources and Additional Reading

Family Guide to Banff National Park - Top 10  Places to Explore with the Kids 

Top Ten Things for Families to do in Banff

Our Top Ten Favourite Things to Do in Jasper 

Where to Camp in the National Parks of Alberta 

Day Trip to the Columbia Icefields Centre to Walk on a Glacier

A Family Guide to the BEST Adventures on the Icefields Parkway (Lake Louise to Jasper)

Iconic Adventures across the Canadian Rockies (photo: Pursuit Banff Jasper Collection) 

Disclaimer: This story was not sponsored and all words/opinions are my own. My family has received complimentary tickets to many of the attractions featured over the past several years.

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