As we entered Banff National Park, the ubiquitous Rocky Mountains greeted us. The snow-capped mountains hovered overhead with an alluring magnificence and the trees, with their lush bodies, maintained a warm brilliance. We were immediately immersed in the splendor of our surroundings.
I quickly felt part of something greater than myself. It was Thanksgiving morning, and a wave of gratefulness instantly rushed over me. As Mother Nature stood before me, my soul experienced an overwhelming appreciation for the opportunity to travel to this extraordinary place and to continue my quest to live an adventurous life.
The majestic views, the striking colors and the wonder of God’s creations awaited us, and I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if we stayed in Banff forever.
Someone once said, “Banff is the closest thing to Heaven,” and now I know why.
For more on traveling to Banff, itinerary ideas, and places to visit, keep scrolling.
Please note, this post is based on my opinions and experiences.
3 Reasons Why You Should Go to Banff
- Banff was listed on National Geographic’s Top Trips for 2017
I’ve been on some amazing trips, but my experience in Banff was next level. Don’t believe me? National Geographic featured Banff on their list of Top Trips for 2017. According to Norie Quintos, “Banff offers everything from mountain hikes and horseback excursions to hot spring soaks and luxury accommodations—making it an ideal destination.” Quintos also added that it’s “the perfect place to escape to for answers to life’s questions.” Enough said.
- Banff is truly an outdoor playground
Banff is famous for both its winter and summer seasons. While both seasons are extremely different, they both offer their fair share of fun outdoor activities. In wintertime, visitors can still experience the great outdoors through snowboarding, skiing, dogsledding, hiking, snowshoeing, and much more. In summertime, Banff is known for exceptional hiking and wildlife viewing. Whichever season you prefer, just know there are tons of things you can do to make your trip a memorable one.
- People from all over the world call Banff home
Along with the location and the activities, the key to a great vacation is the people you meet. Whether you chat with someone in a restaurant once, or make a friend for life, there’s something special about engaging with others in new places. During our trip, we had the pleasure of meeting millennials from countries all over the world, especially Australia, that moved to Banff to experience new lives. I loved hearing different stories, and sharing my own, because that is what traveling is all about; meeting others and sharing life experiences.
Our Trip Overview
Airline Departure: Air Canada from Los Angeles to Calgary (slightly over 3 hours)
- The plane had built in TV’s with in-flight entertainment, but did not offer complimentary headphones.
Airline Return: WestJet from Calgary to Los Angeles (slightly under 3 hours)
- The plane offered in-flight entertainment through their app. I, unfortunately, did not download it before the plane took off so I was unable to use it during the flight.
Hotel: Sunshine Mountain Lodge
- This is a ski-in, ski-out hotel at an elevation of approximately 7,000 feet. In the winter, the gondola is the primary mode of transportation so it’s important to check out the gondola hours of operation to see if this hotel is a fit for you.
Car Rental: Dodge Journey
- This 4WD car handled the snow really well. The heated seats and steering wheel were an added bonus. Fun fact, certain insurance companies will cover the underage rental fee for drivers under 25. We learned this about a year ago and it was a great discovery for us so I recommend others look into it.
Length of Trip: Wednesday through Sunday
- We fit the trip into our Thanksgiving break from work. While we were able to see many things, I would have liked to stay at least 2-3 more days to visit Jasper and Glacier National Parks, and possibly snowboard a second time.
Our Trip Itinerary to Calgary, Banff National Park & Lake Louise
Day 1 Wednesday: Fly to Calgary, Alberta
Since we arrived late in the evening, we decided to stay in Calgary for the night. After fetching our rental car, we drove to the Clique Hotel which was only a few minutes away. Upon check-in, the hotel staff gave us a complimentary room upgrade to the Applause Hotel which was the higher-end part of the hotel, with its own check-in desk on the other side of the building. For an airport hotel, we were expecting the bare minimum. We were, however, pleasantly surprised when we walked into our spacious room. We were also treated to free breakfast vouchers for the hotel’s eatery, Tonic Restaurant + Bar.
Day 2 Thursday: Drive to Banff, Snowboard @ Sunshine Village
After breakfast, we drove about 20 minutes to downtown Calgary and did a quick drive-through of the city to see the buildings and skyline. Once we had a feel for the city, we were off to Banff National Park which was slightly under two hours away. To enter the park, we paid about $40 (CAD) for a park pass through Sunday afternoon.
After entering the park, we had a short drive until we reached the Sunshine Village exit. We continued down the road for a few miles towards the village at base of the mountain where we were to check in and receive our gondola passes for the duration of our stay. We were informed that the hotel goes on the honor system since it’s a ski-in, ski-out hotel and that it’s the guest’s job to inform the front desk which days he/she is skiing/snowboarding. They automatically pre-charge guests for lift tickets each day, so it’s important to check in each day you don’t ski/snowboard so they can knock the charges off. During check in, we purchased our half day lift tickets.
After a 15-minute gondola ride, we arrived at the top of the mountain and walked a few steps to our hotel. We checked in, ate lunch at a small coffee shop inside the hotel, and then walked down to the Saloman tent to rent boots, bindings and boards for around $50 (CAD) each.
Next, we hit the slopes. We are by no means experienced snowboarders, but we enjoy sports and outdoor activities. Also, when in Canada, it’s just the thing to do. We weren’t about to miss out on the gorgeous vistas, the fresh powder, and the panoramic views. What’s also great about Sunshine Village is that once you’re on the mountain, there’s no waiting in line to scan lift tickets so we basically just hopped on and off at our leisure. It was also a weekday so there was plenty of open space on the runs.
That night, we ate dinner at Mad Trapper’s which is the bar + restaurant on the mountain, just steps outside the hotel lobby. Most items on the menu are in the upper teens and last call is around 11:30 PM. After, we got free smores on the hotel deck under the stars while it was snowing. Surprisingly, it was a nice night out even with the snow falling down.
Day 3 Friday: Explore Banff and Hike Johnston Canyon
We intentionally planned to see as much as we could on this day since the gondola is open the latest on Friday’s. Since we didn’t have to return until 10PM, we took full advantage of the day exploring the town, and local tourist spots including Bow Valley Falls, and Cave and Basin. We also parked near the hot springs so we could walk up to the property and admire the view.
The highlight of our day, however, was the drive along Bow Valley Parkway and the hike at Johnston Canyon. When we began the hike, the signs informed us of three different destinations: lower falls, upper falls and inkpots. The distance to the lower falls was slightly over a half mile one way and had a relatively minor elevation gain, and the hike to the upper falls was slightly over 1.5 miles one way and was more of a moderate hike. We made our way to the upper falls, and upon arriving, decided to take another path to the overlook which gave us an even better view of the falls from about 130 feet high.
The hike was stunning. It was a winter wonderland and we were lucky that we didn’t have too many issues with the snow-covered terrain as we were only wearing casual snow boots and hiking shoes. Many other hikers were wearing picks and chains on their shoes, so we were thankful to have only experienced a few minor slips along the way.
Day 4: Drive to Lake Louise, Watch the Lake Louise Audi FIS World Ski Cup, Drive Along Icefields Parkway and Hike Marble Canyon
Since Lake Louise and Moraine Lake are famous, we wanted to see them, even though they were frozen. When we arrived at Lake Louise, we took in the beauty of the surroundings, but since the sun had not fully risen over the lake, it was absolutely freezing so we didn’t spend too much time there. Next, we headed down the street to the Moraine Lake entrance but found that it was closed to cars and only accessible by foot or cross-country skiing. This was disappointing, but we didn’t miss too much since the lake was frozen. We got back in the car and drove to the other side of the town to watch the Lake Louise Audi FIS Ski World Cup. This was a cool experience because we were surrounded by fans from all different countries proudly waving their flags and cheering on the best skiers in the world as they flew down the mountain.
One our way back to Banff, we decided to veer off the main highway onto Highway 93, a.k.a Icefields Parkway, and experience one of National Geographic’s fifty drives of a lifetime. We entered into Kootenay National Park in British Columbia, passed the Continental Divide and then spent about an hour at Marble Canyon which is an easy nature walk/hike with stunning scenery.
Day 5: Back to Calgary
Because we had to get an early start to the airport and the gondola wasn’t open at the time, we paid $75 (CAD) to take Sunshine Suzi down the mountain to our car. We packed up the car, made our way back to the airport, returned our car, passed through customs (long line), and boarded our flight. It was an early morning, but everything went relatively smoothly!
All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our trip and the activities we chose. We spent our time well and made the most of each day. Both the Johnston Canyon and Marble Canyon hikes were highlights for us, as was driving along Bow Valley Parkway and Highway 93. Even though we went to Banff during a cold time of year, most roads were fairly clear of snow and our clothes kept us pretty warm for the duration of the trip. My North Face down jacket was the real MVP.
As mentioned above, if we had to do the trip over again, we would have chosen to stay 2-3 days longer and made the trek up to Glacier National Park and Jasper National Park, and possibly even gone snowboarding a second time. While I intentionally wanted to stay at a ski-in ski-out to be on top of a mountain and close to the slopes, we would have been able to explore more had we stayed in the main town with easier hotel access. But, that was part of the experience and overall, we thought the lodge was cute and cozy.
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