Revisiting Banff National Park

I was super excited to go back to Banff National Park. The first time Jerud and I visited was in 2010 and we had an absolute blast. It’s a trip we still talk about to this day. While there we fell in love with the area, so much that during a conversation with locals we met on a trail we asked about the job market in the area.

 
Us in Banff back in 2010.

Us in Banff back in 2010.

 

But I kept my expectations low for this visit because I knew it couldn’t match our last trip where we had spent 8 days hiking, car camping and backpacking. For one, we didn’t have nearly as much time in Banff this time around. We left Missoula, MT 4 days later than originally planned and had to be in Whitehorse, Yukon in 11 days. (11 days may sound like a lot, but it’s not when you don’t want to drive non-stop and have to cover 1,790.) Secondly we couldn’t go backpacking and lastly, visiting Banff with an RV wasn’t as ideal for us as a small vehicle and tent. Oh, we also had 8 days of blue skies on that last trip while this time around we had more overcast moments than sunny.

Despite all that, I wanted to spend as much time in Banff and Jasper National Parks as we could and still get to Whitehorse on time.

We entered Banff National Park through Koontenay National Park on Hwy 93. At the time I thought that would be the better way to go for two main reasons:

1.     I wanted to avoid the town of Banff because I knew it would be crowded with people and vehicles. I figured driving the Toaster through town would be a pain in the butt, which it was.

2.     I didn’t want to stay at Tunnel Mountain Campground because I had thought the hikes we would end up doing would be further away from that campground and I wanted to minimize our daily driving as much as possible.

An overlook in Kootenay National Park.

An overlook in Kootenay National Park.

But I was also banking on that the intersection of Hwy 93 and Hwy 1 would have a Banff National Park information center where we could find out up to date information on campgrounds and which campgrounds could host RVs our size. Turned out there wasn’t a visitor center at the intersection, which forced us to drive back south into Banff where we had to drive through town and ended up staying at Tunnel Mountain Campground. Good job planning, Ching. It ended up working out because all the activities we did were in that area.

Since we did all the classic hikes in Banff and Lake Louise last time, we chose all new hikes this time around. We were eager to check out Banff’s mountain biking trails because even though we brought our mountain biking gear on the previous trip we didn’t end up riding.

Tunnel Mountain Campground

We had car camped here during our last visit, but it wasn’t until this trip that we realized how freaking large this campground is. Tunnel Mountain Village 1 (where we stayed) alone has 618 sites! It’s also damn pricey at CAD $27.40/night. Ouch. Especially since we hadn’t paid for a campground since November 16, 2015. That’s 212 days of continuous free camping. But stealth camping with an RV in this area is impossible. So we sucked it up and paid for two nights and decided we’d figure something free out for the last night.

There are three upsides to this campground:

1.     The Tunnel Campground Loop can be easily accessed from any campsite and it’s a great trail to walk the dogs on. It’s a 4 miles (6.5 km) loop and bikes are allowed on it.

2.     You can bike from the campground to the Tunnel Bench Cycling Trails.

3.     And it’s really close to downtown Banff if you want to hang out in town. You can actually ride the city bus from the campground to downtown. (I think it’s CAD $2)

 
Tunnel Campground Loop

Tunnel Campground Loop

 

Tunnel Bench Cycling Trails

The visitor center has a great handout listing the numerous mountain biking trails with detailed descriptions and information. You can also download the map online to save paper. The trail we really wanted to ride was Lake Minnewanka, but we weren’t sure if we were totally up for riding 30 miles. So instead we opted for making a loop out of the Tunnel Bench Cycling Trails. The park information center downtown has a map of it and also has a copy of the map with handwritten information like which direction is a super fun going down, things to look out for, etc. They only have one copy of this so we took a picture of it. 

Tunnel Bench cycling trail map with notes.

While the Tunnel Bench trails were fun to ride, I wouldn’t go back to Banff just to ride them again. But the route offered great views, so we took our time riding and taking pictures.

One of the Star Wars trails.
Hoodoo trail in Banff.
Ride down to the Bow River.

Ride down to the Bow River.

 
Jerud mountain biking in Banff.
 

Stoney Squaw

Our hike on Stoney Squaw trail was mainly for Tyki since we didn’t bring him mountain biking. The day hike park map lists this trail as an out and back, but we ran into The Wandering Heffalump in the Mount Norquay parking lot. They had just finished hiking it and told us it can be done as a loop trail. To make it into a loop trail, once you get to the top of the hike just keep hiking forward to go back down instead of turning around. I’d recommend doing it as a loop because the second half of the trail includes a copious amount of lush bright green moss in the forest that the first half doesn’t have. There was also a great view of Mount Norquay at the end of the hike. (Neither of which I can show you pictures of because I lost about 70 photos. Shit fuck!)

"Please brush me."

"Please brush me."

If you want a little variety from glacier and lake hikes, this is a nice change where you hike in the woods and get a view of Cascade Mountain at the top before heading back down. We kind of lost the trail while hiking up. There’s a confusing section at the first “peak” where it’s not clear where the trail goes. There’s a false trail to the left by this rocky ridge (there was a cairn there when we hiked it) and there’s also a false trail to the right that goes downhill. The real trail actually goes over and to the left behind the rocky ridge. I’m not a fan of giving directions like this because most of the time it doesn’t make sense but I mainly want you to know that the trail does get confusing at one point.

Bourgeau Lake/Harvey Pass

I highly recommend this hike! The park describes this hike perfectly: “A steady climb through lush forest and across rushing mountain streams leads to Bourgeau Lake, the closest subalpine lake to the town of Banff. A glacially-carved amphitheater provides a dramatic backdrop to the lake, with large boulders… Although most hikers make Bourgeau Lake their final destination, a 2.2 km slightly more difficult trail continues upwards to Harvey Pass, from where exceptional views extend to snowcapped peaks along the Continental Divide.” Doesn’t that description make you want to go hike that trail right now?!

View from Harvey Pass.

View from Harvey Pass.

First half of the hike.

First half of the hike.

From Bourgeau Lake to Harvey Pass there was a steep switchback section that led into a loose talus section covered in snow.

Hiking back down the steep switchback section to Bourgeau Lake.

Hiking back down the steep switchback section to Bourgeau Lake.

We were surprised to see three more lakes on our way up to the pass, one of which was still frozen. (We have no idea which one is Harvey Lake.)

Hiking up to Harvey Pass by the frozen lake.

Hiking up to Harvey Pass by the frozen lake.

The view at the pass is totally worth the extra mileage. I just wish the sun had come out at some point during the Bourgeau Lake to Harvey Pass section.

Icefield Parkway

The views here made me want to stay forever so I could hike and backpack everything in sight. I’m so in love with this area.

Toaster on the Icefield Parkway.

I got to see my first grizzly bear on the Icefield Parkway and we saw a solid black wolf.

Grizzly bear at the Icefield Parkway.

While both were stunning, the black wolf was especially so. The wolf totally caught both of us by surprise (so much so that I didn’t get the chance to photograph him). I didn’t know there were black wolves. He laid in the grass to the side of the Icefield Parkway looking very poised and confident. Gosh, he was absolutely beautiful.

 
Here's another beauty, but she's mine.

Here's another beauty, but she's mine.

 

TIPS:

  • Canadian national parks allow dogs as long as they are leashed. There may be certain trails they are not allowed.
  • The town of Banff is located inside the national park so you need a park pass to even be in town.
  • If you buy daily park passes, keep the receipts for them because that cost can be used towards an annual park pass if you decide you want to upgrade.
  • Canada is offering free entry to all their national parks in 2017 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada's Confederation.
  • The Banff information center in town can give you up to date campground information so you know which ones still have availability.
  • The main Two Jack campground by Lake Minnewanka in town is cheaper than Tunnel Mountain campground (it was full when we were in town).
  • Make sure you follow the campground rules and don’t leave any food out. We accidentally forgot about our unopened bag of dog food in the truck bed and it got torn open by ravens.
  • There are several RV parking spots in the town of Banff, which you’ll need to utilize because parking is limited and regular spots are, well, regular sized. Follow the signs to them.
  • The Wandering Heffalump told us that the train station allows parking up to 12 hours (this is also listed as one of the RV parking locations on the town map). We left the Toaster in there while we hiked Bourgeau Lake/Harvey Pass so that we didn’t have to pay for another night at a campsite.
  • Look for the Banff by BMV publications. It’s a pretty good map for being free.
Free Banff map.

Free Banff map.

 

  • We found the best free and reliable WiFi was the Banff Public Library.
  • If you’re looking for a great backpacking trip, we did a two night backpacking trip in October 2010 from Sunshine Village Ski Area to Egypt Lake shelter with day hikes to Egypt, Mummy, Scarab, Pharaoh, Black Rock and Sphinx Lakes. We had the shelter all to ourselves and the views were breathtaking no matter which direction we turned.
Hiking up to Egypt Lake shelter.

Hiking up to Egypt Lake shelter.

We visited Banff National Park June 15 – 18, 2016.


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