Spectacular Mountains, Lakes, and Wildlife in Banff

The author shows his delight with the Canadian Rockies at Moraine Lake

The author shows his delight with the Canadian Rockies at Moraine Lake

Banff National Park is a World Heritage Site for good reason: It offers some of the finest scenery, wildlife viewing, and outdoor activities in North America—some would say in the world. I experienced this fact firsthand one early morning as I drove the 10-kilometer Lake Minnewanka Loop. At Lake Johnson, my first stop, I stood by the water’s edge in the cool morning air, soaking in the reflected image of serrated mountaintops tinted by the dawn’s rising sunlight. Nearing Two Jack Lake, I was elated to find a herd of large, rust-colored elk grazing on an embankment just 30 feet from me, posing elegantly in the amber morning light.

An elk doe poses in the morning light

But the morning’s highlight awaited me as I drove across a narrow stretch of road atop the Lake Minnewanka dam; in the middle of the road, about a hundred yards in front of my car, stood two dozen bighorn sheep of all ages and sizes, staring intently at me. After a few minutes of indecision, they ambled toward me as I pulled over, turned off the car, and stood in silent reverence as the procession of cautious, tawny creatures passed just a few feet away from me. Their tiny hooves clattered delicately on the pavement, the only sound to be heard.

Bighorn sheep share the road at Lake Minnewanka

Although Banff is a renowned ski destination, my wife and I chose to fly into Calgary in late July to experience summer in the Canadian Rockies. We rented a car and headed west for the 90-minute drive on the Trans-Canada Highway to our timeshare at the Banff Rocky Mountain Resort.

Banff is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Canada—it’s an attractive resort town wedged among soaring mountains, with lots of interesting places to see and things to do nearby. The Bow River runs serenely through the middle of town, but we stopped just a short distance downstream to hike on the trail that overlooked the cascading Bow Falls.

An early morning view of the Bow River near the middle of the town of Banff

We continued our excursion to the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, a historic and architecturally imposing landmark that dominates the landscape like a medieval castle. We explored the hotel’s elegant interior, but what attracted us most on that sunny afternoon was the outdoor terrace restaurant with its spectacular mountain and valley view—a place not to be missed.

The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel’s outdoor terrace restaurant offers a spectacular view

Finally, at the end of a pleasant, winding country road, we came upon the Fairmont Golf Course whose Stanley’s Smokehouse restaurant had reasonably priced food and great views of the mountains and golf course, all framed by flower-filled planters.

Among the many attractions in Banff, two must-do items for most visitors are the Banff Gondola and the Banff Hot Springs (Banff’s origin lies in the 1875 discovery of hot springs at the nearby Cave and Basin National Historic Site, which is worth seeing). The gondola carried us to the top of a mountain just before a thunderstorm began, so our 360-degree view of the town and encircling mountains was enhanced by storm clouds and occasional bolts of lightning and thunder. Consider having a meal (or picnic) at the top of this must-see destination.

The view from the top of the Banff Gondola is enhanced by a summer storm

Across from the gondola, the historic and popular Banff Hot Springs’ crowds and lukewarm thermal waters proved disappointing, although its outdoor pool did have a fabulous view.

To console ourselves, the next day we got high, but not in the conventional sense. Instead, we went 7,000 feet up on the rock face of Mount Norquay to try “safe mountain climbing” with a guide from the new Via Ferrata. Modeled after the Italian army’s WWII method of training troops to climb mountains, this experience proved to be one of our favorite adventures on this trip. It began with an enjoyable ascent on a ski chairlift to the upper lodge where we met our guide, who fitted us with helmets and climbing gear, showed us how to use them, and then led us to the start of a two-hour route up the mountain. We used a well-planned series of footpegs and cables (which we were securely fastened to at all times) to navigate the rocky slopes.

Our guide, Katsu, assured us, “On this climb you can only fall a few feet. You are safe.” This taste of mountain climbing did feel completely safe and only moderately physically challenging, so our advice to any active person who doesn’t suffer from vertigo is this: Just do it.

Most people with modest fitness and a sense of adventure can enjoy mountain climbing on the Via Ferrata

Heading north, we spent almost half of our time in the Lake Louise and Icefields Parkway area. It’s no exaggeration to say this area ranks among the most beautiful mountain and lake spectacles anywhere. We began, as all tourists must, at the world-famous Lake Louise, where we eagerly joined the other guests being photographed beside the mirror-like, milky-blue waters of Lake Louise reflecting the opposing snow-capped mountains. In all my travels, this particular scene rates near the top of my all-time great photo-ops.

Lake Louise in the calm of morning presents one of the famous photo ops in the world

But another photographer there caught our attention when he asserted, “Moraine Lake, just a few miles from Lake Louise, is even more beautiful.” We went, we saw, and we were captivated by the sight of Moraine Lake. In the mid-morning stillness, as the sun rose higher, the lake revealed varying shades of blue hues we had never seen before, and the water reflected in detail the sharp, snow-covered peaks that framed the far side of the lake. Standing there, I tried my best to memorize what has to be one of nature’s greatest masterpieces.

Moraine Lake is one of the most beautiful lakes anywhere, with amazing blue hues that reflect the surrounding jagged mountains

Later that day, we drove a few miles across the valley to the Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola, which claims to have “the best grizzly bear viewing and scenery in the Canadian Rockies.” That claim proved true; as we rode up the open chairlift to the 6,850-foot summit (there are closed gondola cars, too, for nervous riders), our host, Dan Markham, pointed out a large, female grizzly bear feeding in the grassy area a mere 50 feet below us. The lift took us to a restaurant near the top of the mountain, where we dined while admiring a splendid panoramic view.

Grizzly bears are regularly seen at the Lake Louis Gondola

Between Banff and Lake Louise we found one of Dan’s favorite hikes, Johnson Canyon. This fabulous hike turned out to be a mixed blessing. We hiked on a remarkably engineered trail fastened to sheer cliffs not far above a rushing river, finally arriving at a small footbridge that led to a short tunnel guarding a hidden, spray-filled view of a 70-foot waterfall. But the secret was out, and there were many hundreds of tourists on the trail by midmorning. I highly recommend this hike, but get there early!

It’s rush hour at the bridge in Johnson Canyon as hikers wait to see the hidden tunnel view of the waterfall

We also enjoyed the Sunshine Meadows Day Hike, called “the No. 1 hike in Canada” by Lonely Planet. Situated at 7,300 feet in altitude, these trails passed by several alpine lakes ringed by picturesque mountain ranges, but it was the flower-filled meadows that made this hike special for us.

Like almost every visitor, we drove the renowned Icefields Parkway toward Jasper. Glacier-carved mountains lined most of the drive, and the occasional V-shaped peaks brought back memories of my childhood drawings of mountains I had never actually seen in real life until now. We stopped at the Glacier Discovery Centre, the hub of many activities including the newly built Glacier Skywalk, which offered a unique view of the distant glacier and the valley floor hundreds of feet below the glass walkway; the Glacier Adventure, in which the world’s largest ATV-like bus took us to the top of the nearby Athabasca Glacier; and the short hiking trails that led (for free) to the glacier.

The largest all-terrain buses in the world take visitors to the top of the Athabasca Glacier to walk on the ancient ice sheet

After a week of indulging in Banff’s inspiring scenery and activities, we headed home feeling rejuvenated, just as naturalist John Muir predicted in his 1901 book, “Our National Parks”:  “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

Sunset reflection on the Vermillion Lakes near Banff