Hikers, horseback riders, bicyclists, kayakers, rafters, naturalists and ice cream mavens will all equally fall in love with this charming town within Canada’s first national park. There are only a few places in the world that truly look like the glossy postcards tourist shops sell – Banff, Lake Louise and Lake Moraine are kissing cousins in that lofty category. Established in 1885, Banff National Park became part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. It’s beauty so breathtaking it’s no small wonder National Geographic named Banff as number four on its 2017 Nature list – a nice gift for Canada’s 150th nationhood anniversary.
While the locals like to joke that Banff stands for “Be-Aware-Nothing’s-For-Free,” the truth is that the free things are in fact the most impressive: towering, emerald-colored pine trees as far as the eyes can see, gleaming turquoise lake water so blue it seems Easter egg-dyed, ideal hiking and walking trails amid sparkling, rushing rivers, all surrounded by snow-capped jagged-edged mountains. This environment is shared by all types of ungulates: elk, deer, moose, bison, mountain goats, cows, horses, bears, over 260 bird species and just 8,500 year-round residents of the human variety.
Most of Banff’s central sights can be visited by foot, or by the convenient complementary town shuttle that departs from Evelyn’s Coffee World, 215 Banff Ave., every half-hour, June 17 – Sept. 7. I walked around Cascade Botanical Gardens on Cave Ave., with its unusual bridges, then took the 10-minute Gondola ride up Sulphur Mountain for glorious, panoramic views. I walked the 3.5 miles down, and once at the bottom, stopped next door at the Upper Hot Springs for a well-deserved and relaxing soak among the pines.
The Bow River, 365 miles long, and fed by the Bow Glacier, is a wonderful backdrop for both short walks or long hikes. A visit to the Whyte Museum is worthwhile to see regional artwork and a modest Japanese art collection. It also contains a Heritage Collection with artifacts of the Aboriginal people, immigrants, climbers and explorers.
If you’re in Banff on a Wednesday there’s a small local craft and Farmers’ Market at the Bear Avenue parking lot that has wonderfully fresh produce, including juicy cherries the size of apricots. Open from 10-6, June 8 – Oct. 5.
Although there are many good places for happy hour along Banff and Bear Avenues, not to be missed is Rundle Lounge at the historic Banff Springs Hotel. Here the perfect view is enhanced by perfectly made raspberry mojitos served with delicious rice crackers.
Along the Bow Valley Parkway, built in the 1920’s by WWI prisoners mainly of Hungarian, Austrian and Ukrainian descent, I stopped at Castle Mountain Bridge, where an enormous osprey had constructed for her offspring an even more enormous nest – measuring approximately eight feet in diameter. About 30 minutes later I arrived at Lake Louise.
With just over 1,000 full-time residents, Lake Louise is one of the most photographed lakes in the world. No small wonder – it truly is a sight to behold. While gaping in awe at this miracle of nature, I overheard one Spanish-speaking tourist describe it to his friend as taco de ojo, eye taco, or in English slang, eye candy. Another visitor called it a tourgasm. The lake was named after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta (1848-1939), the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, and wife of the Marquess of Lorne. Incredibly, Louise never actually ever set foot at the lake.
Not to be confused with the likes of Louise, I walked around the lake until the trail ended at a small, sandy beach. Walking back, I had a late lunch at the famed Chateau Lake Louise where every table faced floor-to-ceiling windows. With such a spectacular view, it would not have mattered one bit had I eaten the white linen tablecloth instead of the salad I enjoyed.
While hard to imagine that anything could come close to mesmerizing Lake Louise, I was told the lesser-known Lake Moraine was not to be missed. This turned out to be the best advice ever. Climbing up to the top of the Rockpile for prime views, Moraine’s intensely cobalt water had me distrusting my sunglasses in utter disbelief. The water’s incredible color comes from silt rock flour carried into the lake from glacier melt. Lake Moraine is surrounded by the majestic Valley of the Ten Peaks – ten mountains ranging from 10,010 to 11,234 feet in elevation, named by one of the first non-native explorers, Samuel Allen, with numerals one to ten in the Stoney First Nations language. Seven of the ten peaks were later renamed after prominent individuals, including peak six, named after Allen.
Wanting to both bike ride and kayak, I lucked out that Banff Adventures had a paddle and ride package that included excellent, front-suspension bikes and a canoe rental that I swapped for a kayak. Stopping at IGA Market on Elk Avenue for deli sandwiches, I rode on a separate, dedicated bike path for most of the way up to Lake Minnewanka. Even after I turned off the path heading toward the lake, the few cars that passed were respectful and gave me wide berth.
After a lovely lakeside picnic, I returned the bike, had ice cream and walked the few minutes down Wolf Street to the Banff Canoe Club where both canoes and kayaks are stored. Shortly after leaving the dock, I found myself in a scene akin to the 2004 film “The Notebook” starring Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling, with winding waters, stately fallen trees and intense quiet, all amid a marvelous mountainous, snow-capped backdrop. It became abundantly clear that I was not paddling in South Carolina, when, two minutes out, I came within 10 feet of two massive elks enjoying their hooved happy hour, munching peacefully on lakeside bushes while granting the ultimate Kodak moment as I propelled silently by.
I stayed at the comfortable three-star Mount Royal Hotel in the heart of downtown. It’s walking distance to everything in central Banff. With 135 rooms and helpful staff, its high season doubles rates start at $259, including breakfast.
I enjoyed traditional pub fare plus vegetarian and gluten-free menu at Elk & Oarsman Pub and delicious lamb shank at Balkan Restaurant. Bear Street Tavern had great gourmet pizza and Nourish Bistro has vegan and vegetarian options with organic wines.
Park Distillery Restaurant & Bar serves homemade spirits and campfire cuisine. Last, but definitely not least, Cow’s Ice Cream that originated on Prince Edward’s Island. 134 Banff Ave., 403/760-3493 cows.ca. Given the cult-like following for this super premium, high butter fat content ice cream, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cow’s signature handmade waffle cones one day replaces Canada’s maple leaf as its national symbol.
The lessons learned
There are few places as pleasant as Banff and fewer still as gorgeous as Lakes Louise and Moraine. Best of all it can be enjoyed without breaking the bank. In 1888 Yale professor and Canadian explorer Walter Dwight Wilcox wrote, “No scene has ever given me an equal impression of inspiring solitude and rugged grandeur” adding that the view from the Rockpile was the happiest half-hour of his life. Thank goodness that some things have not changed.