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Trip Report jent103 goes to Canada: Banff Trip Report (with a tiny bit of Jasper)

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This is a continuation of my trip report for Vancouver/Victoria; since a lot of people tend to go to one or the other, I thought it might be more helpful to split them up. Again, thanks so much to everyone who gave input during the planning stages - I hope this is helpful to others in the future!

Here’s a quick rundown of hotels, restaurants, etc. for those just interested in that:

Car rental: We went with Avis, purely because of cost. (We initially looked at Zoom, actually, but I’d never heard of them and no one else on Fodor's seemed to have either. We also would have had to catch a shuttle to the Best Western at the Calgary airport to get our car. So we went with Avis instead.) Hassle-free, good experience. We got a Chrysler Sebring, which, being Office fans, made us laugh. Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute were there with us in spirit. It was about $540 for six days, with leather seats and Sirius radio (and an MP3 jack). My brother brought his Magellan GPS, which had Canadian maps already loaded.

Hotels:
Banff Aspen Lodge, Banff: I really liked this hotel. It’s less expensive than many in the area - I’m not sure why. (We paid just under $200/night on the “last minute special,” booked a few months before our trip.) It seems recently renovated; decor was modern and clean, bathrooms were big with full tubs, staff was friendly and helpful, and the included breakfast was pretty good (toast, jams, some form of baked good that was usually dry, fruit salad, a few cereals and some type of yogurt each day). The location was good; it’s on the western end of town and just five minutes’ walk from the main action in Banff, with easy access to the Trans Canada Highway. The only real negative is the thin doors. We could hear a lot of what happened in the hallway, and it would be hard to sleep in due to hearing the housekeeping staff outside starting around 8am. But I always bring earplugs and we got going pretty early most days, so it wasn’t a problem for us. There’s no air conditioning, but we were there during what was probably the warmest time of the year, and opening the sliding door kept us cool at night. There’s a mini fridge, a coffee maker and an electric tea kettle in each room.

Glacier View Inn, Columbia Icefields Centre: This hotel normally goes for about $300/night, which is out of my budget. But hotels.com had a few nights for about $190, which was about the same price as our Banff hotel, so we booked a night. How do you say no to waking up to a glacier out your window?! Our room (and all of them, I believe) had one bed and a sofa downstairs, and a loft with two twin beds. We had a glacier view room - I can’t imagine staying here and *not* paying the extra few dollars for that. The biggest down side to this hotel is that the only restaurant for an hour or so in either direction is the hotel restaurant.

Holiday Inn Express, Calgary Airport: The area is not exciting, but the hotel was everything we could ask for. Cheap (another hotels.com booking), well decorated and comfortable, with a free airport shuttle. Definitely a good choice if you need an airport hotel.

Restaurants: This was the hardest part of our trip, for me. This was a somewhat unexpected trip and we're both budget-conscious, so finding places within our budget in Banff was a little more work than usual.

Evelyn’s cafe, Banff Avenue: We were ravenous after flying from Calgary, driving to Banff and eating nothing but a couple of doughnuts all day. We stopped here for a light midafternoon “lunch.” I had a ham & cheese wrap that served its purpose. Adam had some sort of sausage roll and an orange creamsicle drink. I think we paid around $7 or $8 each.

Melissa’s, Lynx Street: I’d seen Melissa’s mentioned a lot here. It was okay. I had a bison burger that was fine but a little dry, and a small salad to start. With water to drink, I think it was around $16.

Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, high above Lake Louise: We did the Plain of Six Glaciers hike our first full day in the mountains, and ate lunch at the teahouse (along with a throng of other hikers). The teahouse was built by Swiss mountainers 150 years ago or so and has no electricity. They helicopter in most of the supplies at the beginning of the season, and the employees hike up the fresh things with them when they come to work. So given all that, my $20 lunch seemed like a good deal! I had lemonade, tomato vegetable rice soup with homemade bread, and the famous chocolate cake. It was all delicious (though next time, I wouldn’t bother with the lemonade - it tasted like it was from a mix). They had a really nice selection of hot teas and cookies; I wish, in retrospect, I’d tried one of the teas instead of the lemonade!

Athena’s, Swiss clock tower mall, Banff: This was highly recommended in my guidebook. Again, it was okay. We did not try the pizza, which apparently they’re known for - we just weren’t in the mood, so we got a couple of the baked pastas instead. They were fine. Dinner was around $17-18 total.

Saskatchewan River Crossing cafe, Icefields Parkway: This is the only place to eat, besides the Icefields Centre, between Lake Louise and Jasper. It’s basically cafeteria style. We both had grilled ham & cheese sandwiches with fries and slaw. The slaw was actually pretty good, the fries were tasty (it’s hard to screw up fried potato products too badly), and the sandwiches were greasy. But you take what you can get! I think this was around $14 with a drink.

Glacier View Restaurant, Columbia Icefields Centre: As I mentioned, we stayed in the hotel here one night, so without driving all the way to Jasper this was basically our only option. The food was good; I got a salad with tons of veggies and vegetable soup with bread. Adam got fried rice. (The menu is about half "generic" - burgers, salads, pasta - and half Chinese.) You do pay for the experience; his fried rice was $23, without a drink or tip. But it’s good food and they don’t charge as much as they probably could. We also had breakfast here the next morning; he had an omelet and I had pancakes. I think he really liked his omelet; my pancakes were okay (but our mom makes amazing pancakes, so I’m spoiled :) ).

Patricia Street Deli, Jasper: We drove up to Jasper mostly just to eat lunch before heading back down the Parkway to Banff. (We were hoping to see Maligne Lake and/or the canyon, but the weather did not cooperate.) After wandering around town and not finding much that we were in the mood for - we were both feeling picky that day - we saw this place and I remembered seeing it in my guidebook. The sandwiches here are great; it’s also a full deli, so they have cheese, meats, all that. The staff was efficient and fun - they'll kid around with you. I got a great sandwich (chicken with Caesar sauce on multigrain, with lettuce and sprouts), chips and a bottle of Coke for about $11. Definitely recommended. (Heads up: there’s no public washroom.)

Johnston Canyon restaurant, Johnston Canyon: I didn’t realize there was a restaurant here before we arrived. It’s reasonably priced with pretty good food - I got a bison & brie burger (again, a little dry, but fine) and Adam got the barbecue burger. I think each was around $13 or so total.

Wild Flour Cafe, Banff: I’d read about this cafe in several different places, so I really wanted to try it. We finally went for lunch on our last day in the area, around 2pm on a rainy Tuesday. We both got paninis, and split a focaccia that just looked too good to pass up. I also had a whole wheat chocolate chip cookie and Adam got a blueberry scone. The paninis were really good (I had one with bison, and Adam had one with pulled pork). The focaccia was good, as was my cookie. Adam’s scone... well, neither one of us were impressed with it. To each his own. It was crowded when we first got there; we had to wait awhile for our table, but got one just before our food came out, so it worked out well. They recycle and compost as much as possible and have live music sometimes. Our lunch for the two of us was around $25.

Pictures: I posted a few different sets of photos on Flickr, dividing by location, but the whole collection can be found here if you’re interested.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jenthompson/collections/72157624595634483/

And Adam’s are here. (He takes more than I do and is actually only halfway through editing and putting them up.)

http://www.flickr.com/photos/abthompson/collections/72157624789532352/

And now, the details...

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    Thanks, willit! It's hard to mess up pictures of the Rockies, I think. :) I'm a little jealous that you get to go - I'm already wanting to go back!

    --

    This was an add-on trip to a conference I attended in Vancouver. My brother Adam flew up toward the end of the conference to go to the Rockies with me. We’re both amateur photographers, so we spent lots of time taking pictures.

    We flew from Vancouver to Calgary on Westjet on Thursday, August 5. Our flight was cramped and packed - I got the impression that Westjet is similar to Southwest in the States, though the seats felt smaller on Westjet! Regardless, we landed in Calgary, grabbed our bags and rental car, and drove up to Banff, geeking out about all the mountain views on the way.

    After we checked into our hotel, Adam discovered that I get very cranky when I’m very hungry, so we grabbed a quick bite at Evelyn’s and discussed what to do with the rest of our day. We decided to drive to the paved trail to the hoodoos viewpoint on Tunnel Mountain Road, then go out to Lake Minnewanka and Two-Jack Lake. It’s hard to beat a sunny afternoon with a view of the Bow Valley for your first day in Banff. (Note: the mosquitoes, or whatever bugs those were, at Lake Minnewanka are huge and MEAN. Take bug spray.) We drove around taking pictures for awhile (well, we got out of the car to take pictures... except for a few I took out of the sunroof!), then went back to Banff for dinner and rest. Next day was a big one!

    (Aside: When I was planning the trip and trying to decide where to stay - Banff, Jasper, Lake Louise - I kept reading things that said Banff was really touristy. Well, people, I am from East Tennessee, and let me tell you that no one who said that can possibly have been to Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge. Even in the highest of summer high season, Banff never felt very crowded. There were plenty of places to spend money, but nary an airbrush t-shirt, laser tag venue or aging country star in sight. For a “touristy” mountain town, I thought it was great.)

    Pictures from these lakes and the hoodoos are in the Banff set:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jenthompson/sets/72157624756971986/

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    Thanks, cmcfong! I bet we did.

    --

    One thing I forgot to mention: We were taken by surprise by how much it cost us to get into the park. My guidebook mentioned the costs of day and annual passes, which sounded pretty cheap, but for the two of us it cost $98 to be in the parks Thursday afternoon through Tuesday. Completely worth it, but I wanted to give a heads up in case someone else hadn’t done research in appropriate places!

    Friday morning we got up relatively early, ate breakfast and headed to Lake Louise. (Side note: This morning, the breakfast room at the hotel seemed very quiet and only half full around 7:30. Every other day, when we went down around 8:30 or later, it was packed. Just a tip if you’re planning to stay there.) It was a little cloudy, but we were hoping any rain would hold off until we were done with our hike, to the Plain of Six Glaciers.

    We had discussed whether to go on this hike for a long time the day before. Initially I was all for it. Then I read a review that said it was pretty difficult, and a review of my guidebook that said it minimized the difficulty of some hikes. Now, I’m in decent shape, but neither one of us goes hiking every weekend. My idea of a major hike is four miles. I went camping... once. So we went back and forth. Finally we decided to go for it - you can always turn around, right? Turns out we shouldn’t have been afraid. Now, it’s not an easy hike. There are some steep sections, some gravel you have to watch out for (especially if you’re prone to slipping like me!), and some switchbacks that never seem to end. But if you have no major physical issues and don’t mind taking it slow, you can do this one. (Good excuse to stop: “Oh, look at that view! I want to take some pictures!”) There is also one section where there’s a narrow trail and fairly steep dropoff on one side. The park has put a rope into the rock here so you can hang on if you want to. I didn’t use the rope; I just refused to look to that steep side, and I was fine. But I don’t really have a major fear of heights. If you do, you might want to think about it a little harder... or develop some coping mechanisms. :)

    It took us about two hours going up to do the hard part of the hike (the first 2km is flat and paved along Lake Louise - barely counts, really). Again, if you’re more used to this sort of hiking, you’ll be a lot faster, plus we stopped a lot for pictures. Everyone we spoke to along the way was really nice; I think it’s some sort of hiker code. When we were almost to the end of the trail, everyone we passed started telling us we were really close! Almost there! I’m not sure if they were just excited for us or if we looked that awful! The hike itself was certainly populated, but we never felt too crowded on the way; we did, though, have to wait a little bit for a table for lunch at the teahouse. It was a great place to sit and rest with a gorgeous view of the glaciers. Even if you don’t eat at the teahouse, there’s a rest area with several benches, landscaping and dry toilets. The best part of the hike? Hearing what you think is thunder, then looking up at the glacier and realizing it’s an avalanche.

    We went back down in about an hour and a half, with picture stops for things we missed on the way up. The clouds were starting to roll in, but we were so thankful that the rain held off until we hit that last, flat 2km. By the time we got back to the main viewpoint of Lake Louise, in front of the Fairmont, you couldn’t even see Victoria Glacier over the water. We were pretty wet - I feel bad for the people who were just starting the hike as we came down. I wonder if they finished. But as we got to the car, the rain let up enough that we decided to drive over to Moraine Lake while we were in the area.

    Moraine Lake is definitely on my “must visit again” list - I wish we’d had the time and weather to do some hikes around here. The sun never did come out again; I would love to see it on a sunny day, but it was beautiful regardless. We walked up to the main viewing area and stayed awhile. We thought about checking out the Consolation Lakes hike, but there were bear restrictions (at least four in a group), so we skipped that one! Plus it was getting to be dinnertime. So, back to Banff to clean up and eat dinner at Athena’s. We stopped by Lush on the way back to me get a bath bomb - a hot bath felt really good after the hike and the rain!

    Pictures: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jenthompson/sets/72157624649026183/

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    Saturday, we checked out of the hotel around 10 and headed up the Icefields Parkway. The plan was to see beauty and eventually wind up at the Glacier View Inn. This ended up being the only day that I was truly disappointed with the weather - it was rainy and very cloudy almost all day. Still, what can you do but roll with it? We stopped at Crowfoot Glacier and Bow Lake, then headed to Peyto Lake. We shared the lake viewpoint with a large group of very enthusiastic Chinese tourists, so we didn’t stay too long. That was really the only super crowded experience we had on the trip, though. The viewpoint is at the end of a fairly easy hike on a paved trail - a few steep-ish spots but nothing major.

    We kept going up the Parkway, stopping where we wanted to and eventually landing at the Saskatchewan River Crossing for a late lunch. We hit some road work there and stopped again at the Icefields Centre, thinking we’d at least check into our room and then decide whether to go to Jasper for sightseeing and dinner, returning late, or just hang around there and maybe go ahead and do the Icefields Experience (snowcoach ride). We asked the woman who checked us in about the weather. She kindly informed us that the high the next day was supposed to be EIGHT. Single digits - yes, even in Celsius, that sounded cold! And it was already very windy and chilly. So we decided to go ahead and take our ride that afternoon, getting the second to last coach of the day.

    I was a little afraid that this would be one of those overpriced tourist things, but it was worth every one of those fifty dollars. Such a cool experience (literally - one guy was in shorts and moccasins and he must have been freezing). I don’t know that I would do it again and again, but to be able to stand on a glacier and really see what it’s like up there - so awesome. The guide was great; very informative and experienced at picture-taking! After the snowcoach ride was over, we drove back up to the glacier trail and hiked close to the toe. There’s an ice cored moraine over on the right side - it’s dirt on top but bright blue ice underneath that you can see from the road. We hiked the little loop they have set up and were about to leave when we heard a big crack. Adam turned quickly enough to see some of the ice in that moraine falling down - a mini-avalanche. So we have pretty great before and after shots.

    The next morning, we drove the rest of the Parkway, stopping at Sunwapta and Athabasca Falls. Sheer amazing force. We managed to have a little good weather in the morning, but by the time we made it to Jasper we could see dark, dark clouds rolling in. We walked around town for a little while, had lunch and decided to skip the hour-long drive to Maligne Lake that we’d been planning. I’m sad about it, but one more thing to get me to go back.

    As we anticipated, it rained again on the way back. Thankfully, though, these storms were more short-lived than the rain we drove through the day before, and we were able to see some of the same places with better views. We stopped by Peyto Lake again; still cloudy, but not as hazy, and no tour buses! We ended up back in Banff pretty late, ordered pizza for dinner and hung out in our room. (By the way, there was quite a bit of construction on the Trans Canada between Banff and Lake Louise; we hit that traffic especially hard on the weekend.)

    Icefields Parkway: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jenthompson/sets/72157624794126344/

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    jent103 - nice detailed trip report. Too bad you were on a budget for meals, there is some good dining in Banff and Jasper.

    When were you in the Rockies? was it August?

    It was quite cool in August this year, unfortunate for people who love hot weather. The rainy weather can have a damper (pun intended :D !)on photography.

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    Thanks, Borealis! Yes, we were there the first week of August. I thought the temperatures were great (but then, I came from a VERY hot Tennessee summer). Could have done without all the rain, though. :) We made do, but I really want to go back sometime to see some things in the sunshine!

    I wish I weren't on a budget for meals too! I don't usually plan on spending a ton for meals regardless (just not a priority for me), but do wish we'd had a little more leeway in Banff just to make things easier on us - it just took more effort to find restaurants in our price range. We kind of gave up by Monday. :) Jasper seemed like it had more moderately priced options, but that's just an impression based on a quick walk around town.

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    Monday we decided to go to Johnston Canyon. We barely found a parking spot! This was by far the most crowded hike we did (though serious hikers probably wouldn’t call it a real hike - it’s on pavement almost the whole way). We spent the morning there, hiking to the upper falls and back. The cloudy day actually made for great pictures of the water and the canyon walls. Lunch was in the restaurant there, then we decided to head to Takakkaw Falls.

    There we were, blissfully driving down the Trans Canada Highway, when we crested a hill and saw the blackest clouds I’ve seen in a long time. (And I used to live in tornado country.) We kept going, hoping against hope it would get better, but... no. We stopped at the pullout for the spiral tunnels (which are a pretty cool feat of engineering), then immediately turned around and tried to beat the storm back to Banff. We did, by 45 minutes or so. I really wish we had gotten to see the Falls; when I asked a friend of mine for recommendations, that was the one thing he said we really should do. But driving on mountain roads with switchbacks in a storm out of those clouds was not something either of us wanted to experience!

    That night was rainy and chilly; it felt like December in Tennessee, which is to say mildly cool for Canadians but freezing for Southerners who came from 95-degree heat. Adam ate cold leftover pizza for dinner, and I went to Safeway and picked up a panini and carrots. Adventurous, aren’t we?

    Johnston Canyon and scary black clouds: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jenthompson/sets/72157624646793191/

    We had to be back in Calgary Tuesday night, so we spent Tuesday morning seeing things around the town of Banff that we hadn’t yet. The morning was sunny with bright white clouds; we drove to Vermillion Lakes and got some great pictures of the reflections and clouds around Mount Rundle. Back in town, we went to Bow Falls, then Cascade Gardens. At that point it started to rain. We went to Wild Flour for lunch and watched it pour outside. After a stop at the Banff Tea Co (banffteaco.com I got 100g of Banff Rocky Mountain blend, and it is delicious! - great souvenir), we got in the car and headed to Calgary.

    In/around Banff: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jenthompson/sets/72157624756971986/

    I had thought it would be nice to spend our last night in Canada having a nice dinner, so we tried to find the Stephen Avenue Walk area. Fail. When I looked at the web site, I thought that knowing “between 1st and 4th” would be enough. Well, we out-of-towners did not realize that there are both streets *and* avenues with those exact numbers, and of course the GPS was completely unhelpful. We drove around for 20 minutes, getting more stressed and hungrier by the minute. Finally we agreed that, as tired as we were, this was so not worth it. So we returned the car, called for the hotel shuttle and ordered Domino’s while watching Canadian dramas on TV. It was awesome.

    The next morning, we awoke eeeaaarrrly and were at the airport before 6am - both our flights left around 8am. We flew home to different places, so we said goodbye at security. Uneventful trips back for us both; my flight back to Nashville was delayed slightly because the flight attendant had some trouble getting through US customs. Pretty funny.

    I really, really enjoyed this trip. Canada in general had never been on my travel radar much, but I’m so glad I got the opportunity to go! All the jokes about nice Canadians are spot on, in my experience - I’ve never met an entire group of people who were so welcoming. I’ll be back... sometime.

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    Very nice indeed, Jen. Thank you for such a detailed, down to earth and readable report. We will be making our 4th trip to Banff in a few weeks (since 2003, which is a feat considering we live in Florida. Your restaurant reviews are very useful, and I'm adding your report to my "trip folder."

    Thanks. I hope you get your wish to go back in the not too distant future.

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