Banff : Gateway to the Canadian Rockies

The Rocky Mountains are America’s answer to the Himalayas. Having visited the Himalayan hill stations growing up in India, and stayed in the US for a decade, I’ve had ample opportunity to visit both extensively. I’ve always felt the US Rockies never match up to the grandeur of the Himalayas, which tower above the Rockies both literally and figuratively. 

The most famous lake in the Canadian Rockies, Lake Moraine

However, a trip to Banff brought up the wow factor of the Rockies considerably. I’ve visited the US Rockies (Colorado, Wyoming and Montana) multiple times, mostly for skiing and some National Parks, and while they are no doubt extremely pretty, I feel the Himalayas still have the edge. The beauty and grandeur factor of the Rockies do rise as we go North, and indeed, Glacier National Park that borders Canada is one of the most underrated gems in the lower 49. However, the Rockies extend into Canada, and they get subjectively much more prettier the higher up you go! The alpine lakes of the Banff region are iconic, and the region has been on my bucket list for a long time. 

Peyto Lake on the Icefields Parkway, the Canadian rockies are famous for the turquoise lakes!

My first job out of graduate school took me to Portland and the Pacific NW (another hidden gem and one I will get around to writing about soon). It also took me much closer to the Canadian border and within a 2 hour flight to Calgary (which is the base for any trip to the Canadian rockies). 

Crisp golden autumn leaves make any trip extra special!

Banff is spectacular any time of the year, and it deserves a trip in each season. But autumn (fall in the US) is a personal favorite of mine, with nature blanketing the already gorgeous landscape in golden hues and magnificent reds. The slight nip in the air and the changing color of leaves elevate the alpine scenery to another level. 


I had planned my trip to Banff in October of the same year that I was taking a month long vacation in December to South America, so holidays were scarce. That said, if wanderlust ignites you, you will find a way. I had no vacation left, so I booked a red eye for Friday night, and an early morning flight back on Monday morning, so I could be back in office before lunchtime! Talk about a tight trip! Is this the best itinerary to explore the Banff region? Absolutely not! If you have time, I would recommend at least a full week (9-10 days) to explore the entire region of Banff, Jasper and Yoho. But if you’re strapped for vacation days (like I always am), 3-4 days will give you a great taste of things to come, and I guarantee you will come back for a second visit. 

Stunning autumn colors and jagged peaks will keep you company throughout the trip!

This post will cover my three day itinerary, intended to give you the most bang for your buck for a short getaway. At the end, I’ll mention some of the other places you can hit up for a longer trip.

Day 0

Fly into Calgary and aim to reach by nightfall. Rent a car at the airport and check in to any suitable hotel close to the airport and get a good night’s sleep. You’ll be driving and walking a lot in the next 3 days! 

Day 1

Aim to get up bright and early so that you can get the most out of your short trip. Calgary is about two hours outside Banff National Park, and Canada’s Highway 1 (the Trans-Canada Highway) is the road you take to get into the park. About an hour into the drive, the scenery starts to pick up and you are driving through a carpet of green and bright yellow pines on both sides, with the craggy mountains of Banff providing a perfect framing to your view. You will pass through the pretty town of Canmore, an ideal spot for a quick coffee or snack (Communitea Cafe or Eclipse Coffee Roasters are highly recommended, would recommend picking up a picnic lunch as well). About 30 mins later, you will come by the quaint town of Banff, which should be your base for the next few nights. The main street has an excellent view of Mt Rundle and though quite touristy has a great vibe. Your first proper stop will be the magnificent Lake Louise (about 2 hours from Calgary). The stunning turquoise colors with the magnificent craggy mountains welcome you to the beauty of Banff. If you have time, I would highly recommend you do the Lake Agnes tea house trail (8 km round trip), sadly time was a luxury I didn’t have so I had to restrict myself to short hikes and walks only. If you want to splurge, the Chateau Fairmont is the place to stay with an amazing view of Lake Louise from the property. If not, do treat yourself to a beverage when visiting the lake.  

Lake Louise, I was unfortunate in getting terrible weather both times I visited!

The incredible Moraine lake is a twenty minute drive (the road turns off from the main road that goes to Lake Louise). Now Moraine lake is probably my favorite lake of the area, and it is gorgeous if the wind is less, and with clear skies. So unless the conditions are favorable, I’d save it for a stop on your way back closer to sunset, or the next day at sunrise. 

Moraine lake, clearly the most picturesque in Banff!

From Lake Louise, make your way back to Highway 1 and continue leftwards. You will soon hit a fork where Highway 1 continues to the left and the iconic Icefields Parkway start to your right. The left we will reserve for tomorrow! The scenery kicks up a couple of notches as you start on the Icefields Parkway, and within 5 minutes you are at your next stop, Herbert Lake. It’s a small turnout on your  left and a teaser for the scenery to come. Stretch your legs, take a couple of shots and hop back in to continue. 

One of the many turnoffs on the Icefields parkway, you will be tempted to stop a lot!

You’re back on Icefields, with the peaks of Mt. Hector and Mt. Andromache to your right and Mt. Waputik to your left. The mountains of Banff have a weathered craggy look, with diagonal ridges across them that give them a distinct look I’ve not seen anywhere else. Make sure you pick some great music for your drive to go with the wonderful alpine scenery. It is autumn/fall, and the turning leaves make this drive even more memorable. 

Bow lake, weather in the Rockies can be fickle, cloudy and gloomy one minute and bright, clear skies the next!

About 25 minutes later, you will see the enormous Bow lake to your left (easily visible from the car) and a pull out right after. Mt. Thomson towers over this lake and the waters make a beautiful gradient of colors from light brown to deep blue as the lake gets deeper. Skies had turned cloudy at this time so my pictures didn’t have the pop, but I can imagine how good it would look on a clear day. Just a 5 min drive ahead is my second favorite lake, the fox lake or Peyto (which is its actual name, but it’s shaped like a fox head). You turn into a small road to the left to a trail head, from where its a very easy 15 min walk to the Peyto lake viewpoint.

The fox-head shaped Peyto lake

Your jaw will drop when you first see this stunning, sharp turquoise colored lake, with a distinctive shape of a fox’s head. The equally stunning Caldron peak provides a fitting backdrop. Stay and soak in the views, and enjoy a packed snack while you do so. Given more time, I’d have gladly bought a book and spent a couple of hours here. But alas, I just had just two days, so 30 mins later, I trudged back and got back onto the Icefields Parkway. 

Autumn foliage in full blaze as they obscure the blue waters of Waterfowl lake

Next stop for today was the Waterfowl lakes, a pair of two extremely picturesque lakes on your left with the most stunning bright yellow foliage by its side. This is a good place to grab lunch while you enjoy the crisp fall air and the gorgeous views. 

The drive through the Rockies in autumn is stunning to say the least!

From here, the drive becomes even more pretty (if that’s even possible!) as you head about an hour up to the Columbia Icefield. The main draw of this place is a chance to get on a snow coach which will take you atop the Athabasca glacier to give you a chance to walk on a glacier. This again was one activity I had to skip because of lack of time as you have to pre-book your ride and reach here accordingly. I’d definitely come back and do this on a return trip sometime. This is also the upper end of Banff National park and the starting of Jasper National Park. Even if you’re not doing the glacier ride, it’s worth stopping by to read about the history and see the glacier from afar. 

Where in the world can you see a glacier from the parking lot along a major road? This is the stop where you can book a glacier ride on a snow coach.

The last stop of the day will be 30 mins further ahead as you near the town of Jasper, the beautiful Sunwapta falls. While it is not very big or grand, it makes up for it due to its unique shape. The stream of water goes around a small island and then meets up to tumble down a gorge. It’s an unique waterfall and one that you shouldn’t miss. It will be evening by the time you reach the falls, and it’s time to turn around and drive back. Jasper is just 45 mins further, but alas on a 2 day trip it doesn’t make sense to stay there as you won’t be able to do the town or the national park justice. 

You can make out the island around which the water flows before joining and tumbling down to form the Sunwapta falls

You now retrace your path back down to the town of Banff (a three hour drive) as the shadows lengthen and if you’re lucky the sky lights up with the sunset colors on your drive back (in my case it started raining!). In Banff, you have a great selection of local places to grab dinner, I’d recommend Bear Street Tavern (great pizzas) or Eddie Burger + Bar (delicious poutine). 

When nature turns up the saturation.. haven’t seen such bright golden leaves in quite a while!

Day 2:

Get up bright and early, and hope it’s not raining! First stop today in Moraine lake. Get here bright and early to avoid the crowds and get the highly elusive view of the array of ragged peaks perfectly reflected in the mirror still waters of this stunning lake. Moraine Lake along with Lago Pehoe and Crater Lake, are my three favorite lakes in the world so far. When I arrived, there was a bit of a drizzle going on and the lake surface was not still so I was a bit disappointed. But as is the case with mountains, the weather is fickle, so give it some time and hope for the best. In my case, in just 45 mins, the weather cleared up, the wind died, and Moraine lake transformed into a picture postcard. Crystal clear reflections, azure blue waters and a deep blue sky. I literally could not have asked for anything more. Just this view alone justified my trip! 

Enjoying the solitude of Moraine Lake

You can hike around Moraine lake (very easy paths, 30 mins max) to admire the lake from multiple viewpoints and get as many pictures your heart desires. I got a packed breakfast with me, so I thoroughly enjoyed my meal with a jaw-dropping view. When you’ve finished clicking all the pictures you want, head back to the main highway and keep going till you hit the junction with the Icefields parkway. You will recognize it from yesterday, just for today take a left and continue along the Trans Canada highway.

The more I waited, the more mirror like the lake transformed into!

I spend the rest of the day in Yoho National Park (the third and the least talked about among the trifecta of parks in this region, the other two being Banff & Jasper National Parks respectively). I got to admit though, Yoho is just as stunning as the other two. The fall colors as you drive along are mesmerizing. I pulled over on more than one occasion to take in the views!

The majestic Trans-Canada highway

My main destination for the second half of the day was Emerald Lake. It is about a 40 min drive from the fork, but will take you longer as you will stop along the way to admire the scenery. I found the area around the town of Fields very nice and there is a small side road just before you hit Fields that lead you to Takakkaw falls which is a worthy detour. It is only 20 mins from the main highway and you can see this exciting viewpoint with its two bright red lounge chairs! I found it very funny, and apparently these pairs of red chairs are present at many other areas in the Banff area (they make for a great shot, I found another pair at Snows peak and I’ll try to find the others when I visit again!).

Armchairs to admire the view! That is Takakkaw falls in the distance.

Next, make your way back to Highway 1, and just after crossing Fields, you will see a turn to the right towards Emerald Lake. A short drive and you’ll reach another picturesque lake with a beautiful wooden lodge sitting on its shore. If you make a longer trip definitely try to book a night here. 

The pretty wooden lodge on the aptly named Emerald lake in Yoho National Park

It was late afternoon as I finished walking around Emerald lake, and soon time to make my way back. My short trip was almost over, and I had two more places to visit before I headed back to Calgary to stay at an airport hotel.

Kayak awaiting people to come and explore Emerald lake

Both of these locations are very close to the town of Banff. For sunset, it’s a good idea to drive up to Norquay Scenic road, with an excellent view over the town of Banff and the peaks of Mt Norquay, Mt Rundle and Snow peak. You will see another pair of red chairs here! 

Sunset vibes, you can see a shaft of light filter through! The red chairs are placed at many such picturesque locations in the Banff area

The other place you should definitely visit are the Vermillion lakes just a stone’s throw away from the town of Banff. I got terrible weather when I was visiting the lakes, but in good weather you can get some fantastic shots of Mt. Rundle. 

The unique Mt. Rundle reflected on Vermillion lakes

With that, it was a wrap on my short but extremely fulfilling trip to Banff. Fun fact, I had booked the smallest cheapest car possible for my trip since it was a solo trip, but the rental company had run out of all the small cars by the time I reached late night on Thursday, so I got handed a gigantic Toyota Sequoia, a gas guzzling 8 seater behemoth! I really felt bad that I was wasting so much fuel for a solo trip. 

The town of Banff from the Snow peak viewpoint (the pair of red chairs are just a little further down the road from here)

As I mentioned at the beginning, Banff with its 3 national parks is a region which really needs more time. If you are coming for longer, definitely split your time between staying in Banff and Jasper. Some of the additional places to check out in Banff are Lake Minnewanka loop, Two Jack lake and the sulphur mountain gondola ride. For the Jasper area, do check out the glacier tour (book ahead!), Maligne canyon, Medicine island and Spirit island (in Maligne lake). Time permitting, do venture ahead to Mount Robson area which has some of the most stunning hikes in the area. Also an offshoot from the icefields parkway is the man-made Abrahams lake. If you’re visiting in winter, this is a must stop as you get fantastic shots of ice bubbles in Abraham Lake (Google it to see some stunning images, this is one of my check-list items for a return trip). South of Banff is the fantastic Kootenay national park and Mt Assiniboine provincial park that are not as popular but have amazing alpine scenery.   

Signing off with another look at one of my three favorite lakes in the world: Moraine lake! (the other two are Crater lake & Lago Pehoe)

Calgary is an excellent base to explore the Canadian rockies. With so many national and provincial parks to choose from you can make repeat trips in multiple seasons and still find new places to explore. The hiking is exquisite, something I missed doing because of time constraints. And I’m sure in winter the mountains will look resplendent in white. I will have no hesitation in making a repeat trip to Canada for another visit to the Canadian rockies! 

2 thoughts on “Banff : Gateway to the Canadian Rockies”

  1. Wow that’s a lot of driving, but you did get to the best car-accss spots. Next time hopefully you can visit longer and see how much more beautiful it is from one of the hiking trails! We live in the Rockies so can give you tips on the best views.

    1. Yeah, was strapped on time and wanted to get the most of my weekend trip. Banff is gorgeous and I’m sad I didn’t get to do any hikes, will be back for sure some day once the whole pandemic is over!

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