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Trip Report 8 Days of Hiking, Driving, Sipping and Eating in Banff

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This trip had a rather Rocky history (pun intended). We were planning a trip to Greece but really did not have the budget or enough vacation days after our 2009 Italy trip. Then we found an amazing 4-week program for high school kids at DD’s dream college in Sarasota. After a few weeks with many ’back to the drawing board’ moments it was decided we were going to Florida to drop off DD in college and then DH and I would take off and do ‘something‘. But maybe, since a lot of people don’t like to read long trip reports, I will summarize the trip before getting on with the story:


Dates

- June 28th to July 7th

Waaaaay too early in the season. Hindsight is 20/20.


Flights

- Three one way tickets from San Juan to Tampa with American Airlines
- Two Open Jaw tickets Tampa (via Huston) -Calgary (via Seattle and Newark) -San Juan with Continental
- One one-way ticket Sarasota to San Juan

It seems almost ridiculous but it was the cheap Tampa to Calgary flight which FINALLY settled the destination for this vacation.

Hotel

- The Ptarmigan Inn in Banff

This was NOT the plan. Our reservation was for the Rundle Manor Apartments/Hotels. This will be discussed later in the report. We were happy with the Ptarmigan (and the Ptarmigan people who accommodated us!).


Itinerary

This is the itinerary we actually followed, as opposed to the planned one; as a few adjustments were required:

Day 1 - Tuesday, June 29th - Bow Valley Parkway, Lake Louise, Plain of the Six Glaciers, Lake Agnes and Mirror Lakes (not the smartest choice as a first day hike)

Day 2 - Wednesday, June 30th - Johnston Canyon and the Inkpots

Day 3 - Thursday, July 1st - CANADA DAY - Icefields Parkway, Atahabasca Glacier Bus Tour, back to the car and turning around at Athabasca Falls

Day 4 - Friday, July 2nd- Lake Moraine Rockpile and Shoreline and Minnewanka Driving Loop after the weather started to deteriorate in the afternoon.

Day 5 - Saturday, July 3rd - Lake O’Hara to Lake Oesa (the weather was marginal but that was the reserved day, so no adjustments could be made). Drive to Takkawaw Falls, Emerald Lake (no hiking) and Natural Bridge.

Day 6 - Sunday, July 4th- We made it as far as the Sunshine Meadows parking lot before giving up due to the awful weather, then we did Banff townsite, Bow River trail, the Banff Springs Hotel.

Day 7 - Monday, July 5th- Sunshine Meadows

Day 8 - Tuesday, July 6th- Moraine Lake (the plan was to do the Larch Valley but that did not work out), drove back to Yoho and did the Emerald Lake and Basin hike.


Next: The Food and Wine Report

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    Bars, Restaurants and more Bars

    Eating in Banff is expensive. But we knew that. But still…it is expensive. I’ll note what we paid because I always find it helpful to plan my own trips when I read other trip reports. The prices listed include taxes and tips. I’ll discuss the menu details when we get to the story part of this report.

    One more word of caution: The money spent drinking wine in Banff could finance a short vacation somewhere else (but then…we sip a lot of it).

    Breakfast was the most challenging meal of the day. We got an early start on most days (we did not try to adjust for the time change in order to get a better chance to see wildlife) and had a hard time finding things open before 8:00AM.

    We found most waiters and restaurant staff in Banff to be highly professional and capable.

    Arrival Day:
    - Lunch at the Pappas Bar-B-Q in Houston Airport, surprisingly good and very filling baked potatoes with pulled pork. Real good value for $19.64 **Considering this is airport fare**

    - Small dinner at Athena Pizza. It was OK, but not more than OK as we like Roman-style (thin and crispy) pizza and this was not. If a DiGiorno pizza was sprinkled with a few extra spices and cooked in a real pizza oven, this would be the outcome. One liter of house red wine CND$ 58.93


    Day 1:
    - Breakfast at Laggan’s in Lake Louise: a Cornish Pie for me and Jamaican Chicken Turnover for DH, picked up sandwiches for lunch (which we ate for breakfast the next day)
    - Tea and Oatmeal cookies in the Lake Agnes Teahouse for CND $20.00 (we’ll talk later about overpricing).
    - Pre-dinner drinks at the Timbers patio, made for a pleasant (though windy) afternoon of people watching.
    - Dinner at the Maple Leaf was absolutely perfect. The dipping oil and balsamic vinegar were outstanding. As appetizer we shared an amazing dish of mussels, then had two steaks and a bottle of red wine. Very sophisticated flavors. Wish we would have gone a second time. Impeccable service. Very reasonable by Banff price standards vs. quality at CND $150.00. Highly recommended.

    Day 2:
    - Lunch at the Johnston Canyon Restaurant: two soft drinks, one hamburger and a spinach salad. This was one of the few places where service was marginal. Paid cash and don’t have the receipt but it was about CND $30.00
    - Pre-dinner drinks at the Rose and Crown patio, the view was gorgeous but the wind was picking up and the temperature was going down. We did not linger.

    -Dinner at Balkan’s was also very good. The lamb shanks were perfectly cooked. Two glasses of wine + bottle CND$ 117.00. Highly recommended.


    Day 3 - CANADA DAY -

    - Another stop by Laggan’s for breakfast sandwiches and coffee. It is not that it is reeeeeally good but it is OPEN early in the morning, the prices were reasonable and the quality decent. The apple turnover WAS really good! CND$ 19.00

    - We were concerned abut dinner with everyone in town for the parade. We had no reservations because we were not sure at what time we would be back. So we wound up at the Old Spaghetti Factory. We had moderate expectations and were pleasantly surprised. Not fancy. Not much depth to flavor, but certainly good. Cheapest place for a glass of wine too with a very nice barman. Two glasses of wine + bottle, appetizer, two entrees, CND$ 79.00. Recommended.

    Day 4 - Friday, July 2nd -

    - Pre-dinner drinks (3 glasses - one each and a shared one) at Balkan’s for a whooping CND$35. Should have ordered the bottle instead of by the glass.

    **Disclaimer: Aside from sushi, Asian food is not big in Puerto Rico, so even though I really like it, and try it whenever I have the opportunity, I do not have an educated palate and cannot really go into the nuances of the food, opinion is only based whether -I- liked it or not.**

    - Dinner was at Pad Thai. Two soups, two curries with rice, two beers for CND$ 59.00. Very good food AND at great price. Recommended.

    - Post-dinner drinks - yeah, I know. We drink a lot. But we do so very slowly and indulge in lots of people watching while imbibing - at Earl’s. Nice for drinks, the younger crowd hanging out. Two glasses of wine CND$24. It was STILL too early to retire so we walked up to the Elk and Oarsman. Lively ambiance, mixed crowd, more of a sports bar than Earl‘s. Another CND$35 down the drain (literarily) for three glasses of wine.


    Day 5 - Saturday, July 3rd -

    Another Laggan’s breakfast on our way to Yoho. The sandwiches were good but the apple fritter was not as good as the apple turnover I had before.

    We were beat, cold and wanting to have a solid meal. We went to Bumper’s for Prime Rib dinners. I loved mine, DH was just OK with his (too fatty, not warm enough -he always has this problem with prime rib anyway), a liter of house wine. The ambiance was so-so, this might sound ridiculous considering that we were in Banff but it was very -ahem- touristy. We can also talk about this later. CND$106. I would recommend, DH would not.

    Once again it was too early to go to sleep so we retuned to the Earl’s for one last round.


    Day 6 - Sunday, July 4th-

    - We bought breakfast (eaten) and lunch sandwiches (not eaten that day) at Safeway for CND$12. IMO, the best deal in town. Except that they open by 8:00 and we like to start before that.

    - After failing to do the hike we wanted due to the nasty weather we had a little soup lunch at the Waldhouse Pub (downstairs, not on the main floor) in the Banff Springs golf course. Food was OK. Service was not. I had this restaurant on my list but I was not wowed by what we had and decided not to go for dinner (I put a lot of weight on the quality of appetizers when trying new restaurants). CND$26 for two soups (appetizer size) and a soft drink. Not sure I would recommend.

    Dinner was at the Silver Dragon. Very efficient yet welcoming service. The waiter gave us a few suggestions because he thought we ordering too much. This is always a good sign in my book. We both really liked it and would have gladly eaten there again. CND$93. Highly recommended but refer to previous disclaimer.

    A last round at the Elk and Oarsman and we were ready for bed.


    Day 7 - Monday, July 5th

    We had breakfast at Coyote‘s (I had the wrong animal, I was really supposed to be looking for Cougar Pete’s) we were not impressed enough to consider going back. The place was not full but service was slow, very slow. DH’s Huevos Rancheros were beautiful but very bland. The mixture of hot and cold was rather unappealing too. My French Toasts were good and very filling. CND$40. Overpriced, not particularly recommended.

    For lunch we had the uneaten sandwiches from the previous day. It was so cold there was NO chance of those sandwiches going bad.

    Pre-dinner drinks were at Tony Roma’s lounge. It is separated from the restaurant and is very cozy. Good for groups or couples, maybe not for singles. A round of red only put us only CND$16 behind. There was a good mix of tourists and locals.

    Dinner was debated long and hard this day. We had been very cold during the day so we wanted something warming. We wound of at Timber’s because we had seen a few things on the menu which looked appealing when we went there for a drink. The food coming out of the kitchen was beautiful looking too. It was somewhat disappointing. The fried calamari were perfectly fried but it was all batter, no calamari taste or texture whatsoever. We both had lamb shanks. The texture was good but the flavor profile was very, very shallow. The ones we had at Balkan’s were 200% better. CND$ 114. Not awful but still, not stellar. A little bit of wasted opportunity.

    We had our after-dinner drinks at Wild Bill’s. CND$25 for half liter. It was rather quiet on a Monday night so that half a liter was almost too much to linger over people watching. The wine wasn’t that great anyway.


    Day 8 - Tuesday, July 6th

    This was the day when we FINALLY found the restaurant we had been looking for all over Lake Louise Village and thus kept going back to Laggan‘s. We had been directed to The Hostel for the ’best breakfast in town’. Well… we were naturally looking for a restaurant called ’The Hostel’. But noooooooo. Turns out that it is Bill Peyto’s Café which is located in the Alpine Center which turns out to be a youth hostel. It is simply known as ‘The Hostel’ by all the locals. How the @#$ where we supposed to figure that one out!?!?! Two ‘regular breakfasts’ included eggs (we had one over-easy and one scrambled), thick sliced toast and the most amazing, perfectly cooked home fries I have ever had. Only CND$24. Highly recommended.

    Our pre-dinner (more of a post-hike) drinks were at Cilantro’s in the Emerald Lake Lodge. Three beers (YAY, Finally…beer weather!!!) were a very expensive CND$23. But you pay for the view, your spot on the sun and amazing people watching! Several things looked good on the lunch menu but we were stuffed from breakfast and not hungry after the good hike.

    Back in Banff we had a round of red at the Magpie and Stump. Should have stuck with the beer. Quite a few locals around the bar. Buckets of peanuts. The food did not look particularly appealing as they brought it out of the kitchen.

    Our last vacation dinner was in Seoul restaurant. I had no idea what to order since I had ZERO experience with Korean food. I think the waiter had very limited experience with people not knowing what to order. I really liked the dumpling appetizer. DH was not so crazy about it. I really liked all the vegetables that were brought but my entrée was completely tasteless Beef Kim Chi (sp?). DH’s was a spicy tripe stew but still not a wonderful taste to go along with the spice. I looked around and everyone seemed to be happy with their food so I really think that we just ordered the wrong thing for us on this night. We were both very hungry and this turned out to be a bit too much on the light side. CND$65.

    I’m not proud of this, but will say it in the spirit of full disclosure: we paid our bill and went to Boston Pizza for a starter-size plate of oven-roasted chicken wings and an after-dinner drink. The bar was very pleasant and the wings just enough to get something ‘solid’ in the stomach. The food they brought out looked rather good. CND$35.


    Shopping

    We do not shop. No shopping was involved in this vacation with the exception of three things: a hiking hat (the search for the perfect hat is an eternal quest for me), hiking boot sole repair glue and duct tape (in case the glue did not work). We did not buy anything else. Nada. (Which is why we can afford to drink like fishes)

    Next: Hiking and Driving Detailed Report

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    Thank you so much for the details, marigross. I appreciate it.

    You might want to check the website for Sunday Afternoons for hiking hats. They are sun protected, very light weight, have cooling mesh and travel well.

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    But first…..Getting There

    As I said in the beginning of this report, we knew we wanted a vacation but were not sure where we wanted to go. The only hard fact was that we were going to be traveling from San Juan to either Tampa or Sarasota. A beach vacation could easily be arranged….BUT we live in Puerto Rico. How many beach vacations can you have when you live in a vacation destination yourself? A cruise from Tampa? There were several alternatives…all required killing a few days while waiting for the boat. And at the end…isn’t a cruise similar to a beach vacation? We can board cruises from San Juan too… On top of that I would feel too isolated knowing that DD was away in college and I would be hard to reach if anything happened (nothing did, BTW)

    So I plugged in ‘Tampa’ into Kayak’s Buzz looking for cheap flights out of that city. And then it happened: Calgary came up as a very reasonable alternative with not awful connections. Hummmm…perhaps…Banff??? DH had been there in the past and liked it. I was more than ready to have a ‘peaceful’ vacation after last years ‘active’ (hectic?) one. I could SO see myself hiking through mountains, meadows and forest… the smell of pine in my nose and glorious silence in my ears. I was sold.

    Naturally the flights that we bought were as cheap as the one which triggered the entire thing considering that they were open jaw and we had a fixed departure day, but still not TOO expensive - hey, everything is relative.

    The search for a reasonable hotel almost made us change our minds about our destination but we finally found an alternative within budget: Rundle Manor Apartments/Hotel, part of the Inns of Banff group. The reports on Trip Advisor were not too awful. Mostly complaints about the noise and not having A/C (most budget hotels in Banff don’t have A/C anyway) but none about cleanliness or bad service. The only thing that worried me was a very restrictive cancellation policy (very common in Banff). The reservation required pre-paying and had a limited refund options. We knew that we would be stuck if we did not like it. Anyway, we went ahead and paid the reservation, crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.


    The trip to Sarasota was good. We had a very pleasant day driving around getting to know the area. Went to Lido and Siesta Key after making the required trip to Target to get dorm stuff for DD. We dropped the kiddo off.. And not only was I able to withhold the long ‘Now-you-be-careful’ Mama-Speech but I even managed not to start sniffling until after we said our goodbyes.

    The trip to Calgary was long but completely uneventful with a two hour layover in Houston. We breezed through Canadian immigration, picked up our (single checked-in) bag, headed to Avis, got the keys to car (a red Dodge Caliber with only 900kms in it) and were out of the park house within an hour. Just slightly over 5:00PM.

    We seemed to be going against the afternoon rush traffic so we had no problems getting out of the city. We had no problems following the mapquest directions along the well-signed roads. Perhaps an hour later we came to the park entrance where we confirmed with the park attendant that we had no other alternative but to buy a year-long pass for CND$156. But we knew that already (though one can always hope for some unexpected offer!). Out came the credit card and our first significant purchase was made.

    The nice thing about the drive to Banff from south to north is that the views only get better and better. Once out of Calgary it was beautiful in a hilly/countryside kind of way. As you approach the park the mountains begin to raise into the sky. Once inside you just know that you are within Mother Nature’s Realm. Then north of Banff it only gets better, but that was still in the future at this point.

    When I started researching this trip I debated if we should stay in Jasper, Lake Louise, Banff, Canmore, or a combination of all of the above. Most posters do not speak lovingly of Banff. I was expecting over-crowded, elbow to elbow sidewalks and gaudy signs and trinket stores. Well, it was a very subdued version of all that.

    Check-in for Rundle Manor was in the Ptarmigan Inn. Which we had a bit of trouble finding because I was looking for it in the wrong side of the street! DUH! We parked at a public space and walked along Banff Avenue until we saw it, getting acquainted with the town along the way.

    My first impression of Banff was that it was not so bad after all. Keep in mind that we were early in the season. There were people on the street, but there was a lot of space to move around. The trinket stores were there, but it was not gaudy. Not bad!

    The Ptarmigan checked us in, handed over the keys and pointed us out the Rundle Manor parking. The building is outdated, with narrow hallways and steep stairs. Now, I will not say that I was misled. The apartment was EXACTLY as it had been described. We had a studio on the basement with a high window facing the parking entrance and next to a couple of benches where teens were hanging out. The room was very clean but extremely worn. I will describe it as ‘serviceable‘. Definitely a low budget accommodation. That is how far CND$120 per/night will take you in Banff. We should have winged it, as there seemed to be some vacancies around.

    No A/C meant we had to keep the windows open so we could clearly hear every car and person The bed was located just underneath the squeaky stairs. I mean, it was ok. We are NOT hotel people. We go for the day, enjoy hanging out people watching, have long dinners and only return to the hotel to shower and sleep. But the place was just unappealing and we feared that noise from the street and the other apartments would disturb us during the night.

    Well, we put up our best smiles and attitude and went back we went to the Ptarmigan. ‘Hi, we really don’t like our room and wondered if it would be possible to change it?’. Surprisingly they offered a one-bedroom in the Rundle in a higher floor, away from the entrance, ‘would we care to look at it?’ Sure! So off we went. It was very spacious, very clean but still could only be classified as ‘adequate’. Hummmm… definitely not the perfect setting for a romantic vacation… should we shell out even more money for an upgrade?

    I told the guy that we did not really need a kitchen and could look at something within the Inn itself as well and would not be opposed to changing rooms during our stay. Well, something worked because he offered us a room with a ‘courtyard’ view and handed us the keys so that we could check it out.

    Now, this was not by far a perfect room. It had no windows and only a door to a balcony over the very small inner hotel courtyard and lobby. They had two fans running at full speed to air out the room as there was no cross ventilation. However, the temperature was fine and it was not stuffy at all. So now we had to make a choice! We went back to the lobby and asked at what time the bar closed (11:30PM) and make sure it was non-smoking (it was) since the room overlooked the area. So the choice was made: the windowless room at the Ptarmigan.

    I must say that it worked out great and we had no problem with noise or stuffiness throughout our stay. We did leave the balcony door open at all times. We were happy with our choice.

    By then it was 9:00PM and the sun was shining as we went out to search for a place to grab a bite to eat before crashing. We wound up in a very nice balcony table at Athena’s Pizza overlooking the Banff Avenue action. Day trippers had gone at that time and the street was much emptier than in the early afternoon. The meal will not make it anywhere near our Top 40 All Time Favorites but it was adequate (key word of the day) and not expensive.

    We went back to our rooms, showered (great water pressure and hot water) and blissfully crashed for the evening.

    Next: Hiking on Day 1 - sheep, bears, turquoise lakes, six glaciers and two teahouses.

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    But before we embark on the hikes, perhaps I should provide some general information about the hikers, you know, for perspective purposes:


    The Hikers

    DH, 64 yrs young, happily retired, Swiss born. Taken on forced hikes by his parents since the day he learned to walk until he was old enough to half-support himself as an older teen. Overall very healthy and agile, though not exercising regularly. Could stand to lose a few pounds.

    Me, 41 yrs old, (yes, I know, it is a big age difference, but it works so get over it) corporate engineer, overworked and overstressed (at least most of the time). Born, raised and living in Puerto Rico (please notice that this is at SEA LEVEL) . Have a significant fear of heights, though I have worked on it over the years and am MUCH improved. On top of that I have depth perception issues (great for a hiker, no?) No regular exercise program but started to walk and swim a few weeks before the trip. Could certainly stand to lose even more pounds than DH. Perhaps.

    Bottomline, we are not particularly fit or thin. We found the descriptions in the guidebooks regarding the difficulty of the trails to be rather accurate. There were a few trails that though they were marked as easy, they made us sweat and puff, nevertheless we finished every one that we started and did not overexert ourselves (well, perhaps on the first day).

    So, just FYI, a trail marked as ‘easy’ should not be misinterpreted as indicative of a post-dinner, sandal-shod stroll around the lake promenade. Just remember that ‘easy’, ‘moderate’ or ‘challenging’ refers to the difficulty of the TRAIL itself, not to the elevation gain. It is up to the hiker to decide if they can deal with the ascent or not. We saw people carrying (not pushing) strollers half way up to Lake Agnes on the ‘easy’ trail , I don’t think that they all made it. The trail itself was VERY easy, no scrambling or rumble, but not everyone is ready to tackle a 385 meter continuous incline. Or perhaps they don’t realize that this means a 1,263 FEET ascent or the equivalent of a quarter of a mile straight up. Well, to each their own. As you will find out, we too sometimes underestimated the difficulty.

    So now, lets get down to business…

    Day 1: Bow Valley Parkway, Lake Louise, Plain of the Six Glaciers, Lake Agnes and back to Banff
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    Bow Valley Parkway

    We are early risers on our normal lives. We are usually up and about 7:00AM on a weekend morning. The two hour time difference worked out GREAT for us and we never quite tried to adjust. That is how we found ourselves loaded into the car at 5:30AM and ready to go on our first day in Banff.

    We drove a lot between Lake Louise and Banff, most of it was done through the Parkway instead of the Trans Canada Highway. First because the time difference was not more than 15 minutes when the construction slowdowns were considered, second because it is much nicer and third, because we always had a greater chance of encountering wildlife.

    So not more than 100 meters off the Trans Canada Highway (#1) exit ramp into the Parkway we saw a huge coyote crossing the street. I did not even have the camera out of the bag yet! Another minute and we saw the first elk grazing along the side of the road. I did get THAT picture. Kept driving ahead until we encountered a stopped car. A young woman was hanging out of the window with a huge tele on her camera. And what was she taking pictures of? A black bear. WOW! We were on a roll (though we might have missed that one if not for the photographer). Lots of pictures but it was a bit far away so they did not come out that great.

    The ladies continue to drive and we tag along behind them. Suddenly their brakes flash red and again the photographer hangs out of the car. It was a small grizzly bear! Right on the ditch next to the road, lazily eating away the dandelions. The girl did get out of the car, way to close for her own safety (or the bear’s induction to human activity) and must have gotten some amazing images, she was not more than 10ft away from the bear. We stayed put but we did get some great pictures (a bit shaken due to an overexcited photographer -me-).

    We did see some more wildlife along the Parkway that day and other days but nothing nearly as impressive as that first morning.


    Lake Louise

    We got to Lake Louise just before 7:00AM. The parking lot was nearly empty. We walked out to the lake and WOW! It is really impressive enough to be a destination by itself. The water was pure turquoise, magnificently set against the glaciers in the morning. It was blessedly quiet so we got to enjoy the view virtually by ourselves. We took some great pictures without having to wrestle for space (the scene was VERY different when we came back from our hike!).


    Since we had not had anything to eat yet we returned to car to find a place for breakfast before taking off on the trails. We asked the Parc Canada girls where to go for breakfast and they enthusiastically recommended ‘The Hostel’ . ‘On the second stop sign to the left, it’s a big gray building. Can’t miss it.’ Well, we could not find it nor anyone along the road to ask. So we drove into the ‘village’ mall to find a place to eat. The Parc girls also cautioned us to try to be back before 9:00AM or we would have trouble finding parking.

    Nothing looked particularly appealing so we headed up to the upstairs restaurant which had just opened at 8:00AM. The waitress was a bit frazzled and not very organized. She kept mangling the order of the only other occupied table. So after sitting there for 10 minutes without a menu or coffee we walked out (something I absolutely hate to do!).

    So came our first visit to Laggan’s Bakery. We had not noticed the place on the way in, but when we came out the line to order was almost out the door. Good sign. We stood in line for perhaps 10 minutes and then ordered a Cornish Pie (so-so but very filling) and a Jamaican Chicken Empanada (very good but not very filling according to DH, though he was VERY happy not to have an overfilled stomach when we were huffing and puffing on the trail). Those two we ate there and we also got two sandwiches to eat later: ham and sausage. We drank our two coffees and we were set.

    We were back in the parking lot by 8:45 and though it was filling up very fast there was still plenty of space. The first buses had arrived and there was already a lakefront lineup for picture taking. We bypassed the throng and went straight for the paved easy-easy lakeshore walk that would lead us to the trailhead.


    Plain of the Six Glaciers

    In a perfect world we would have done this hike later on the trip but I wanted to do it before the Canada Day (July 1st) crowds started to arrive and officially kick off the high summer season. Considering that we are not particularly fit and that we were still getting acclimatized to the elevation, it was rather strenuous. The hike itself is rated as ‘easy/moderate‘ or ‘moderate’ depending on the book but I should have known that a 370m (1,215 ft) ascent on the first day was a bit overambitious. And…this was not the only hike on the plan!

    A side note on demographics? Most of the people along the trail were Europeans: lots of Germans, many French, a spattering of Swiss, a couple of Spanish groups and a small representation of other countries. There were some Asian hikers, and the clear present minority were North American. The vast majority of hikers were people seemingly over 50, followed by a many young parents (late 20’s) with their kids in tow (or in backpacks) and quite a few young couples (20-25). Throughout the vacation I thought I was one of the very few to represent the 35-50 age group. Older teens were not well represented on the trails either, but could be seen around town.

    Even though we huffed and puffed and frequently had to stop to catch our breaths, the hike is 100% worth the effort. There are wonderful views of the lake below, and you can see the chateaux getting smaller and smaller. It took us a good 4hrs to get to the Plain Teahouse (I didn’t know this one existed, I only knew about the more famous one, the Lake Agnes Teahouse). Then it was another kilometer to the ‘Plain’ itself. This required a bit of walking in the snow along a dropoff of I don’t even want to know how many meters, a few narrow ledges (steel rope is attached to the rock to use as support) and a walk on the ridge of the moraine.

    Have I said that I’m afraid of heights?

    Have I mentioned that I have depth perception issues and I find it very hard to step from rock to rock on rumble fields? Frequently stopping to think about the placement of my feet for the next step?

    I think I might have, what I have certainly not said is that I absolute LOVE my hiking poles. They have made a huge difference in my confidence as a hiker (though DH thinks I hike better without them) and I would wholeheartedly recommend them to anyone that feels a bit unsure on uneven trails.

    You see, hiking is kind of like karaoke for me. I love to do it but I absolutely stink at it.

    I made it up the rumble ridge and we sat along the rocks, hearing the thunderous cracks up the mountain and watching the avalanches come down. It was truly amazing, worth every labored breath, drop of sweat and twinge of fear.

    When it was time to come down, I almost regretted going up (up is good, down in scary), but I made and much to my surprise… I was NOT terrified. A little tense, but I did not even break into a cold sweat. Walking down on the ridge did not even rattle! I have found through the years of pushing myself to do semi-adventurous activities that things as NEVER as scary as you THINK they will be.

    Anyway, Part A of the hike was done, and we returned to the Teahouse picnic area to sit down and rest a bit. Neither DH or myself were hungry so did not go into the Teahouse to drink or eat. So after our break we were off to….


    Lake Agnes

    Now, I did not have a good description or topographical map of the area, since we were keeping to well marked trails, so I made the -erroneous- assumption that the trail between the Plain and Lake Agnes would be rather flat. NOT! I did not even mention the Beehives.

    We had to go waaaaay down. And then up, and up and up. And THEN you find yourself at the foot of a long, steep wooden staircase. We sat on the bottom rung to try and pump some oxygen into our bloodstreams. Well, we made it up and what a beautiful sight.

    The wind was blowing around Lake Agnes and we had to put an additional layer of clothes. We sat on the Teahouse tables and enjoyed a large teapot (perhaps 4 cups of black tea and a little more) and some cookies (well, I had the cookies, DH did not feel up to eating after the exertion). It was very overpriced at $16, but what you really pay is for the warmness of the tea and the view.


    Mirror Lake and back down to Lake Louise

    So we went down on the other side of the stairs (the ones next to the Teahouse) and started on our way down. It was a very smooth path and a LOT of people were coming up. After having at least 200m between parties in the Plain trail, this felt like a crowd!

    Though the temperature was in the lower 70ºFs/20ºCs, several persons looked overheated with huge red blotches on their cheeks. There even was a poor guy literally carrying a stroller -with a baby IN it- while the lady steadfastly walked ahead. He looked just about ready to faint.

    Mirror Lake was very nice, but I don’t think it is a destination by itself. So after a few pictures we were back on the trail. An hour later we were down on the lakeshore.

    I wanted to walk through the Chateaux common areas so we went in. There was a harpist playing in full medieval regalia. People were having afternoon tea (or drinks, or both) looking over the huge windows. Now, my first and true love will always be Jackson Lodge on Grand Teton National Park. I think it is the most elegant park hotel in a subdued way that is very much attuned to its surroundings. It was also my first time in a big lodge like that so it made a HUGE impression.

    The Lake Louise Chateaux is not my personal flavor of elegance, nor do I think it is intended to merge with its surrounding; something which I find to be very important and appealing. It certainly has a lot of things to admire and a drop dead gorgeous view, even possibly the BEST view of all the big lodges I have been to, but it is just not my cup of tea. We left rather quickly.


    Apres Hiking

    After promising DH that we would NOT have any other hike as long (the whole thing took about 8 hours start to finish) we got back in the car and drove back to Banff on the Trans Canada Highway. We went back to the hotel, and happily found the windowless room to be not stuffy and at a comfortable temperature. Big sigh of relief! We took loooong hot showers, relaxed a bit and headed out to town for the evening.

    We were hungry but it was barely 6:00PM, too early for us to have dinner. So we found ourselves sitting in the Timbers patio, DH with a Canadian and me with a wonderful glass of Oregon Rosé for the next hour. The weather was getting quite blustery and we even had a few umbrellas attempting to take off. When it looked like it might start to rain we decided to take off and find a dinner place.

    Both of us were hankering for something solid after our light fare and heavy hiking…perhaps a steak? We asked the Timber’s waitress for a recommendation, ‘a good place which is not too expensive’ (we have found this to work very well on most occasions) and she mentioned Bumper’s, Saltlik and The Bison and some other places which I cannot remember right now. She told us to STAY AWAY from the Grizzly House because it was a huge tourist trap (not that it was in the plan, we have enough fondue and raclatte at home). DH asked her about how expensive the places were. She said that perhaps the most expensive place was the Maple Leaf.

    Anyway, we started menu browsing along the streets for a nice steak. Well, let me tell you… there were none to be had for less than $35 per plate. Ok. OMG. This trip was going to get expensive!!!!!

    So what do we see along the street? The Maple Leaf. Possibly due already having experienced sticker shock, we found the prices to be not that bad and the menu had a lot of appealing choices. So we went in. Hint: They get you with the wine.

    The hostess sat us on the lounge but the chairs were too big to go under the table, and too plush (I sank down until the table was almost breast high!). Now, this is great for LOUNGING but not for dining. We asked if another table was available and we were promptly relocated upstairs.

    They brought The bread was great, but the olive oil was the fruitiest, silkiest, most delicious I have ever in an independent restaurant (as in not associated to the oil press or vineyard). The vinegar was sweet and so deeply flavored. It made for perfect bites. We gorged on that stuff.

    We ordered an appetizer plate to share of Mussels on a light Thai Broth. They were delicious! Very sophisticated use of lemongrass and ginger, not overpowering the mussels at all. And these were plump, moist, perfectly cooked. There was not a drop of broth left.

    The steak was perfectly medium rare and beautifully marbled. It had been caramelized with a balsamic sauce, just enough to give it a taste but not to attempt upstaging the meat. It was served with mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables. Very well cooked and seasoned. The service was impeccable.

    The only thing that I could find for improvement was that though the music was good, the speakers were a bit harsh. But you know, when you start noticing silly things like that, you know that you have had a @#$#@ good dinner.

    After all the bread, mussels and meat, we were too stuffed to try anything else so we decided to retire early and hope for not too much muscle pain in the morning.

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    Marigross, we just returned from Banff. Your report is spot-on. We enjoyed the town and loved Lake Louise, but encountered the same rain and cool weather, which put a damper on things for us. We had a good dinner at Giorgio's, including an excellent antipasto platter. It sounds like you had great luck with seeing wildlife.

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    I love the Canadian Rockies so I love reading your report. Our first hiking trip there--we visited in Sept. was rainy but we still loved it. If you can fall in love with a place in the rain, I think it is really special.

    That first trip (actually our second trip, our first visit was in the winter for skiing--and we vowed to return in the summer), we had made the decision to visit at the last minute and couldn't find any accommodations in Lake Louise so we stayed at Emerald Lake Lodge on a last minute special--OMG--we loved that place.

    I too never liked the Chateau(shouldn't they have balconies on the lakefront rooms?)--do love the Banff Springs though. Can't believe you could get a great airfare from Tampa. From Cleveland it is always expensive.

    I could visit the area every year. I love it there. Many thanks for writing your very entertaining trip report.

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    Thanks to all for the responses! I'll post some more tonight or tomorrow morning.

    cferrb, yes, we had great luck. But we drove a lot and early in the morning so we got lots of opportunities.

    Linda, expensive is relative ;) We live in Puerto Rico so any fligth to get off the island is always extra expensive. Everything seems cheap by comparisson.

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    Interesting report. Really enjoy your comments marigross :)

    Unfortunate about the weather - it's been unpredictable lately. Last year the hottest month was not July, not August, but September!! And the year before that, the very hot weather was in July. You never can tell what you're going to get.

    I think that the reason tea and cookies are expensive on the hiking trails is that it takes more effort and time to get that stuff up to the tea house. In Canada, the more remote the location, the more expensive the food.

    Glad to hear that you loved Maple Leaf. Our experience has been exactly the opposite (especially the service), but that too may depend on staff turnover.

    Did you drive the Icefield Parkway and visit Jasper?

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    I agree with your comments about the chateau at Lake Louise. Although the tea room looked lovely and had a great view, I felt otherwise as though I was in a large casino in Las Vegas. It just felt very corporate.

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    I'm loving your report. I haven't been since 1991 and its calling my name again.

    I agree with your take on the Chateau. It's a little too formal for such an outdoorsy location.

    Agnes Teahouse prices are high because it is expensive to get the food and the servers up that mountain. We also had tea and split a muffin but it was hard to relax because of the chipmunks who thought you had bought it for them. Very entertaining.

    In Peurto Rico fish is abundant and fresh. In the Canadian Rockies, it has traveled about as far as you did and is not at its best. Stick with the beef and lamb which stands to be much better.

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    Just caught up on this report. Thanks it is really helpful - I am off to Banff next month, and it looks like I may have to pack sandwiches because of the prices!

    The hiking information is particularly useful, as I intend to do several longish walks while there.

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    Hi marigross
    This is a terrific trip report and very helpful. My friend and I are planning to be in that area in 2011 and your experiences around Banff and Lake Louise have been very valuable in our planning. I have told my friend that she is going to have to get fit enough to do that 8 hour hike at Lake Louise.
    I know how much work it takes to write a report like this but I want you to know how greatly it is appreciated. Please keep going. We are waiting anxiously for the next chapter :)

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    Hellow everyone! I kept my promise for an installment this weekend:

    Day 2: Johnston Canyon and the Inkpots to Lake Minnewanka Loop Drive
    I opened my eyes in the morning and silently started a lower body check…. Hips? No problem. Thighs? Not bad. Knees? OOOps, worse than usual. Calves? Sore, but not bad. Ankles? No problem. Heels? Check. Soles? Perfect. This was followed with a big sigh of relief. DH reported some hip joint and shoulder pain (He volunteered to carry the backpack and I –quickly- agreed). Not too bad for our level of unfitness combined with an 8-hr hike.
    We ate our leftover lunch sandwiches from the previous day for breakfast and were ready to go by 6:00AM. We hit the Bow Valley Parkway around 6:30 but ‘only’ got to see a huge elk male munch around the roadside. I mean, after yesterday’s all-star wildlife viewing? I still got lots of pictures.

    Johnston Canyon – Lower and Upper Falls

    The parking lot was very empty when we arrived. I mean: empty. So far my plan to hit the biggies before the Canada Day crowds arrived was working (possibly the fact that it was not yet 7:00AM had something to do with it as well). However, we did drive a few times by the parking entrance during the following week and cars were parked on the street.

    The walk to the Lower Falls is very easy, with a few rolling ups and downs. The path is fully paved so I would say most people can get to them without problems. I had been a bit apprehensive about walking on the catwalks (have I mentioned my fear of heights?) but it was a non-issue. They are very sturdy, are not really see-through and do not vibrate unnervingly when you walk on them. We were basically by ourselves.

    I must report that when we started walking my calves felt a bit sore after yesterday’s long hike and I began to worry a bit about my knee. But once the initial warmup was over, I was fine for the rest of the day (as long as I kept going). On the positive side, this was a good motivation not to stop long enough to cool down!

    We reached the lower falls and DH went through the peep hole to get a closer view for all of three seconds. The temperature was in the mid 60’s so he had no desire whatsoever to get wet with the mist. No thank you, for me.

    The trail to the Upper Falls was a little more rugged but still very, very manageable for anyone that has been able to reach the Lower Falls. It is only a matter of keeping the stamina for another 45mins and a shallow but constant incline. The falls are very beautiful, hidden around the multicolored rock, and definitely worth the walk. After admiring the view for a few minutes were ready for Part B of the hike.


    The Inkpots

    The walk to the Inkpots is recommended in quite a lot of the guide books I consulted as well as in the forums, so I was really looking forward to this. The Inkpots are five pools of varying degrees of color, ranging from turquoise to green. They are very cold and bubble.

    The walk itself is quite nice, though at a continuous incline. I personally prefer trails with variations of up and down, if even for short breaks. You walk through the forest and sometimes it opens up to magnificent views into the canyon. These are worthwhile by themselves and are better appreciated on the way down, and not only because of better oxygenation!

    It was around 9:00AM when we reached the Inkpots and we had only two other couples and a single hiker along the trail. We took our time walking (and stopping often to reoxygenate our bloodstream; remember: we live at sea level!) so I would estimate the total time to be just under 2 hours.

    The trail suddenly opens up into a beautiful meadow and you find the Inkpots. Now, this was a case of not doing my homework, but I must say that I was somewhat disappointed. First, the pools are small. Second, and more important, I was expecting bubbling like in regular hot springs, like the ones you see in Yellowstone. To actually see the bubbles in these pools you have to look into the bottom and then once in a while you see the sand rolling. It is more of a slow simmer, than a rolling boil. And last, the colors were nice, but again, once you have marveled in the multicolored depths of Morning Glory, it is a little hard to be open-jawed impressed. Still, it was very nice and we (I) were glad to the hike.

    After hanging around for perhaps twenty minutes we started to make our way down. People were really beginning to hit the Inkpots trail, so contrary to what guidebooks indicate; you might not have the Inkpots mostly to yourself unless you go early.

    When we hit the Upper Falls the crowds were really beginning to thicken, and by the Lower Falls we had to stop a few times to let people with strollers and big groups go by. . I mean, it was certainly not a mob scene (though still around 10:00AM) but it was certainly not the type of hike you would undertake to commune with nature in silence.


    The Summer Waitress

    After making a dash to the bathroom –Note to self: Limit coffee intake before hiking – we decided to have a little lunch on the Canyon restaurant. We sat on the outside terrace to enjoy the sun. The single hiker we had seen earlier was sitting next to us and we engaged in a nice little chat. He said he enjoyed the hike itself (he looked rather fit) but was somehow disappointed with the Inkpots themselves. He also expected to see hot-spring-like bubbling so apparently it is a common misconception.

    The waitress was a tall, blonde, eastern European girl. She was spending the summer in a guest-waiter program to improve her English. She had arrived two days before and was boarding at the staff cabins. She worried it would be boring because she wanted to also be able to go party.

    Now, we knew this because she kept talking with the cute single hiker while ignoring the rest of the tables. It would have been funny if we had been kept waiting that long. Poor girl was not pretty at all. She was wearing a denim mini-mini skirt with a sheer black pantyhose underneath. The awful part was that all the dark control top area was showing under the hem, halfway down her thighs.

    But we were on vacation, the long hike of the day was done, we did not need to be anywhere else, the sun was shining (we still did not know how much it was going to be missed) and we were somewhat sheltered from the wind so we waited patiently to give our order. Perhaps twenty minutes later we got our drinks (we did need to take a few sips from our own water bottles in the mean time).

    Another 20 minutes go by and we get our food. I had low expectations but was almost pleasantly surprised. Aside from being overcooked, my hamburger was rather tasty and the fries were decent. DH’s salad was not bad either. Our second round of iced tea and sprite got there wayyyy after we were done eating. And then we asked for the bill………

    Anyway, we spent almost as much time in the restaurant as in the one-way hike to the inkpots. But no problem, we were not in a rush! I doubt that at that rate the girl would finish her Canadian summer while still employed for that restaurant.

    On a side note: I was really impressed with the level of professionalism of most of the waiter we encountered throughout our stay in Banff. I asked a few of them and most had been regulars over quite a few summers and some of them even stayed year round. It is not a place for rookie waiters.

    We still had the afternoon to fill up so we got into our red Dodge Caliber which was not really red anymore but rather a yellowish brown from all the pine dust in the air. And when I say covered, it WAS covered. We decided to do a little driving tour.


    Lake Minnewanka Loop

    We drove back to Banff and took the road to Lake Minnewanka for a driving tour which was recommended on all the guidebooks. You can google it up (or bing it if you prefer). The loop seems to be on every tour bus schedule. Also according to the books, this area is the one place its almost guaranteed to see bighorn sheep up close.

    We did it counter clockwise: Johnson Lake, Two Jack Lake and Lake Minnewanka. Then back via Upper and Lower Bankhead and were happy with the sequence.
    Johnson Lake was full of families having picnics and sunbathing (at least their legs, upper torso being covered by long sleeved sweaters). There were lots of little kayaks on the water: students and an instructor practicing turning the boats upside down and back up. That water looked very, very cold. It was very nice as long as you stayed in the sun.
    The next stop was Two Jack Lake. There were two huge bighorn rams on the parking lot. They were still shedding their winter coat and looked a little ragged. They did not even flinch when cars or people went by.

    Two Jack Lake was absolutely beautiful. The mountains reflected on the water. It had a few islands with small groups of trees bravely clinging to the scarce soil above the water. It was very picturesque but we had to wrestle with swarms of tiny Japanese women vying for the best picture-taking spots. We got some nice pictures in between departure and arrival.

    I think that there must be some really awesome vacation packages from Asia to Banff because the majority of people in all the bus-accessible locations like Lake Louise, Lake Moraine, Icefields Parkway and Banff itself were Asian.

    As we approached the parkway a little herd of sheep was moving. The ewes were moving calmly along while the baby lambs ran in bursts and skittishly stopping. Won the prize for cutest wildlife spotting of the trip!

    My original plan had included taking a boat tour in Lake Minnewanka but ahhhh… I was not quite in the mood. So we barely got out of the car and admired the views from the lakeshore.

    On the way through Bankhead we saw some more sheep and a huge coyote dashing across the street. It must have been around 3:00 PM so there IS hope for the sleep-inners.


    One more stop

    It was too early to call it quits for the day so we drove up to the Norquay overview to admire Banff from above. We did not go into the Banff Springs hotel because that was in the plans for a later date. We considered the gondola but it was too hazy to be really worth shelling out the big bucks. Overall a very pretty ride if you are in the vicinity but not a ‘destination’ drive, IMHO.


    Après Hiking

    So we went back to our windowless room and were happy to find that it was still not stuffy and the temperature OK. I began to feel relax about the decision to move to the Ptarmigan.

    We emerged around 6:00PM showered, rested and ready for the evening. A look through my research material led us to the great little roof top patio at the Rose and Crown. Once we made it up past the steep staircase (remember I start to hurt after cooling down) we saw that there was a nice table next to the veranda with a great view of Banff avenue but we decided not to sit there because the wind was really picking up. Little did we know that this was our last opportunity for al fresco lounging until our last vacation day. Still we enjoyed the great mountain views. The food brought to the tables next to us looked decent but we were not up for pub fare.

    The temperature was going down fast so after our round of drinks we (I) hobbled (that might be an understatement) down the stairs and we headed for our dinner destination even though it was too early.

    The Balkan is a Mediterranean/Greek restaurant and DH had eaten there a few times on his solo Banff vacation (before we met) and liked it very much. Contrary to our usual preference we took a high table on the bar because it was next to a big window facing Banff Avenue. We ordered our drinks and settled for great people watching from our cozy vantage point.

    We both ordered the lamb shanks and were very, very happy with them. Fall-off-the-bone tender, wonderfully seasoned and spiced; we both would have liked to have them one more time. The plate was huge! Vegetables, roasted potatoes and rice. Being Puertorrican, I’m very particular about my rice and after one mouthful I did not touch it again. But it was still more than plenty and utterly delicious. DH did eat everything on the humongous plate. He was a happy man when we hobbled out almost two hours later back to our windowless room to crash for the night.

    Next: Kilometers of Icefields, monster trucks and Canada Day

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    Thanks for the link, I greatly enjoyed it. I think that since we were very early in the season we got the permanent and semi-permanente (read: well-trained) staff. The unruly / clueless kids had not yet arrived.

    The so-so waitresses at the Waldhaus pub did mention that they had arrived two days before and that all their friends were coming the following week.

    Now that I think about it, there were 'help wanted' signs on almost every shop and restaurants in town.

    I must say that I rather be a little cold in June than endure 10 days of bad restaurant service in August.

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    marigross, I'm enjoying your report! I just got back last week from Banff and did some of the same things. We also did the Plain of the Six Glaciers hike, though we didn't combine it with Lake Agnes and the Beehives. I laughed when I read this: "I think that there must be some really awesome vacation packages from Asia to Banff" - it's so true! I had no idea the Canadian Rockies were such a popular tourist destination for Europeans and Asians. We hit Peyto Lake twice, partially in the hopes of getting sunshine the second time, but partially to avoid the massive tour group that we ran into the first time.

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