SFC Trip to Banff, Part 2

In my last post I told you all about fishing and hiking around Lake Louise. It was beautiful. Now I’m going to introduce you to Johnston Canyon and the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.

After the big hike at Lake Louise we (I) wanted something a little flatter (for my knee). Barbara and I bent over a map with our coffees and found the Johnston Canyon hike and – if we (the kids) were up to it – continuing on to the Ink Pots.

Johnston Canyon is an extremely popular hike because of the flatness, well maintained trails, and incredible grandeur payoff in the views of the lower and upper waterfalls. It’s only a half mile to the lower falls and another mile further to the upper falls. So a really doable and quick hike. People any fitness of ability level (including crutches or wheelchair) can go on these trails. If you want/need to park close get there before 9am. If you don’t you’ll have to park in the over-flow parking or along the road. My knee was pretty stiff and I had very little problem. The kids bounded ahead with Mark racing after them.

I was actually glad to be going a little slowly because it was so freakin’ beautiful.

The Canadian National Parks have taken special care to put in these walkways that (a) even the terrain and (b) let you walk almost over the top of the creek bed.

The water had that wonderful blue color that glacial water has. It was the same color as the Rhine River.

There are plenty of waterfall along the way. Shorter. Wider. Not quite a grand as the lower falls, but very beautiful.

And then you come to the lower falls. You can tell it’s the lower falls because you run into a bit of a traffic jam. People patiently wait in line to get a view and plenty of pictures of the falls. It is worth the wait.

From here you can go up a steeper incline (you’ve only gone about 30 meters up so far) and get to the upper falls. My knee wasn’t up for that so I waited by this wonderful view contemplating life and the existence of everything as they went on to the upper falls.

Mark and the others reported the upper falls were beautiful. You can see that this is a view of the same “lower falls” just at a higher point on the trail. It really puts into perspective just how tall these falls are.

We didn’t get to the Ink Pots – deep pools of water along the river that flows to the falls – unfortunately. Perhaps this means I’ll go back again sometime to see them. There were also other trails we wanted to hike but didn’t have time for, like the C Level Cirque, the Banff Cave and Basin National Historic Site, the Upper Hot Springs, the Banff Gondola… and that’s just in Banff! Jasper and Canmore are just a short drive away. Up there you can hike on the Columbia Ice Field, Burgess Pass, and the Bow Valley Provincial Park. Even that still only scratches the surface!

Our travel companions continued on and experienced Jasper and bears!

But before they had an encounter with a grizzly we went to check out some of the most luxurious accommodations in Banff. And, arguably, all of Western Canada: The Fairmont Banff Springs.

Mark’s dad had told us about it when we were talking about our upcoming trip. Back in the 1880s a guy named (Sir) William Cornelius Van Horne became the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway and oversaw the development and completion of the trans-Canadian Railway. One of the things he and other railway VIPs loved was the beauty that was surrounding the construction path of the railway. Being not completely stupid, they also saw a money making opportunity knocking on their door.

Tourism. And if you have tourism you’re going to need hotels.

If you want the RICH tourists you’re going to need really, really nice hotels.

And this hotel is stunning. The guidebooks tell us that it was built in a Scottish Baronial Style because apparently Banff, Canada is named in honor of Banff, Scotland. The building as it is today (which I am given to understand is a bit different than the original structure) looks like late-19th century castle.

Here is a picture from the Banff Springs website….

We admired it for a while in temporary parking – they have free 10-min parking set aside for touristic gawking – and decided (a) we really would like to see the inside and (b) we also needed a snack. So I said I’d check it out and apparently walked in like I owned the place.

The inside was absolutely gorgeous. Grand. Magnificent. You can tell their guests are the rich, famous, and royalty. They have guest rooms, suites, and then the “gold” experience. I will never be rich enough for the gold experience.

They really feel their Scottish heritage. The Tartan rugs. The bluestone walls (very like the stone you find in Scotland). And several paintings by Scottish artists of both the Canadian and Scottish Banffs. Even the porters wear kilts.

Now that they are open year-round I imagine those kilts become slightly drafty around January.

We could have gone for the Rocky Mountain Afternoon Tea at $49 per person ($24.50 per child), however, given the hiking ensembles we were wearing and how we probably smelled we decided to go to the small cafe at the end of the grand hall.

If the drinks and treats available at the cafe were any indication afternoon tea would have been spectacular.  There were individual tiramisus,  creme brulee, mini fruit tarts, fresh croissants, pain au chocolate, … you name it, that had it. And every non-alcoholic beverage you could want. About 30 different kinds of teas, 4 different coffees, 10 different types of coffee drinks, fresh juices, and about 7 different kinds of bottled waters.

We picked our desserts and drinks and sat at long tables that reminded me of old library tables with lights wired into the middle of them. It was fun and we had a really nice little snack in the midst of incredible opulence.

Re-energized, Barbara and I went shopping and the boys went out and found the candy store. Banff had your normal touristy stores, but also had some galleries that showcased beautiful works of art – European and First Nation. I came away with a couple of pieces to decorate our new house. Now I just have to find a frame…

Banff is a great place for families to go. It doesn’t have the tourism crush that places like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite can have, but it does have a variety of amenities that ensure hikers of all ages will have a great time. I highly recommend it!


The Swiss Family Carlson go to Banff!!

Just when you thought our travels were over, we went off to Banff, the onomatopoeiadic capital of Canada. It’s the sound an exclamation mark should make. It’s also one of the most beautiful places in the world.

The trip got all planned when I was on a Skype call with my friend Barbara. As you may recall she was our downstairs neighbor and became one of my best friends. She taught me how to make rösti and shared Epiphany cake with us. She and her family were going to go on a vacation in North America. Specifically Canada. And even more specifically the Canadian Rockies in the Banff/Jasper area. For 3 weeks, because Europe cares about their working people and know that everyone needs a long vacation break in order to come back rested and reset.

But for us this would be a vacation of 3.3 actual days. Because we’re American. We would get into Calgary in the early afternoon and drive the 1.5 hours to Banff in a really swanky Fiat 500x rental car that Avis swears is a “mid-sized car.” (I am really liking their definition of mid-sized. The Fiat 500x is definitely on my list of Cars To Buy.)

The drive was promising. The car was smooth and the landscape promised some grandeur.

Our hotel was actually a sort of condo complex called The Hidden Ridge Resort. It was very resort-y in that it had a pool and a hot tub and featured a lot of redwood beam-type architecture. The room we reserved was the most basic you could find there – a one bedroom condo with kitchenette and living room (I think the pictures of are our actual room!). It had a nicely sized range, a microwave, a coffee pot, a hot pot, a full-sized fridge with freezer, and all the pots, pans, and dishware you would need for a family of 8.


Their mascot was a bear.

In our case we were a family of 4 with another family of 4 who was camping near by. We cooked dinner at the condo several times and had breakfast there every morning. That was perfect, actually. We didn’t have to worry about where we would get food first thing in the morning and we would sit pouring over our maps deciding which hike to take while comfortably sipping our coffee. And then in the evening when we were wiped out we could fire up the grill and sit at a comfortable table having burgers, sausages, salad, and beer and chatting for as long as we wanted. It was 5 times the comfort at about a third of the price of eating out.

Everyday we tried to see something new. Banff was full of wondrous view and beautiful hikes for people of all ability levels. The easy hikes were the most crowded so I was glad that all of us were at about an intermediate hiking level. Well, really Richard and Barbara and their boys are advanced hikers and climbers and they were very gracious about us holding them back for the first 3 days of their Canadian vacation. But every hike was more beautiful than the last.

The first day the 4 boys requested that we go fishing. Now I have been fishing ever since I was 2 years old – In fact, the night before my wedding my dad took me out to our river fishing spot and he and I caught catfish in the dark – so I knew what I was doing in the fishing department. I was actually the only one who knew what they were doing. It was a little scary.

I had found this shop called Wilson Mountain Sporting Goods online. They were right by Lake Louise and had fishing tackle for rent for $9CAD per day. They also have bikes, mountain bikes, climbing gear, and bear spray for rent.

Yes, bear spray.

This was a big deal around Banff. There are grizzly bears there. Big ones. And they are very active. Just this April, a grizzly chased a woman and her dogs down a path in Banff and then in May, a grizzly chased a couple of people and their dog for 20 minutes until they made it to a Parks’ truck where they hid until the bear left. Just about every camping and hiking supply store in and around Banff sell or rent bear spray. Barbara bought two canisters at a whopping $40 each, but if you think about it, $40 is quite a low price to save yourself from being mauled by a bear.

Not that we saw any during our hikes.

But I digress… We were fishing!

The gentlefolk at Wilson Mountain rented us 4 poles and then I bought some spinners and hooks to help actually catch the fish. Lures are not included in the rental of the poles. Then we walked across the parking lot and bought our fishing license from the Parks service station. We got a nice map and some descriptions of the local lakes and the fish therein.

Right down the road and just off of a railroad depot was a river spot that our helpful Parks guide assured us was (a) a good spot for fishing and (b) devoid of people at this time of day. He also circled a few more locations to try should this spot on the Bow River not pan out.

The Bow River has Cutthroat Trout, Bull Trout (which I had never heard of), Rainbow Trout, Brook Trout, and Mountain Whitefish. We caught a bunch of rocks instead.

So we moved on to Emerald Lake, which our guide assured us was also great for taking kids fishing. Emerald Lake had all the trout that the Bow River had and none of the Whitefish.  The boys perfected their casting technique and their patience.

But we didn’t mind too much. It was just so gorgeous. The water is actually emerald green. Mark took two of the 4 boys out in a canoe. Emerald Lake is one of those lakes in the Yoho National Park were you can rent canoes right along with some fishing poles. Our guide told us that Emerald Lake is a great spot for kids and for beginning fisher-people.

There was also a hike along the edge of the lake that was about (if I recall correctly) 2.5 miles around. The route was flat and practically paved so it’s perfect for novice hikers or people with kids. And you don’t get nearly the traffic that you see at the more popular lakes. We walked up to the resort that is just up the hill and over looking the lake. There is a cafe and a restaurant there that serves ice cream, sandwiches, and hot tea, along with fuller meals and adult beverages.

After a whole day of fishing and being surrounded by beauty we called it a day and went out to eat. The restaurant scene in Banff is quite varied. You can get just about anything there, from some lovely Indian curry to shawarma to hamburgers. The kids were all very pleased. And as our hotel has a grill and a kitchen we ended up going to the grocery store and making the rest of our dinners in the leisurely comfort of our condo.

The next day we were back out and put in a full day of hiking!

The consensus was that you can’t go to the Banff and not see Lake Louise. There are buses and tours and copious amounts of overflow parking. The crowds are thick and people cover the lawn of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.

Lake Louise is actually at the start of the trails. The parking lot is right there and if your goal is to just see LL then there is no hiking necessary. However, if you want to hike there are two different trails available.

The first trail goes right around the lake and then up along a ridge and to a tea house. The trail is an easy 5.3 km long and keep you right on the edge of the lake. It’s a very popular trail and has foot traffic that rivals the busiest New York sidewalk.

Given that we didn’t come to Banff to be in crowds of people we opted for the less busy trail up to Lake Agnes and Big Beehive.

Both trails start at the same place, but about 200 meters in they split and the Lake Agnes trail starts going uphill and slightly away from the lake. It’s a 5.5 km hike so almost the same distance as the Lake Louise trail and it also takes you to a neat tea house that sits just above the shore.

Before you get to Lake Agnes, though, you are treated to the incredible Mirror Lake.

Not to be confused with the Mirror Lake in Yosemite, this Mirror Lake is a very small lake that is mostly a pass-by destination as hikers make their way up to the must larger Lake Agnes. We took a minute there to rest, drink some water, and eat some gummy bears.

You also get an early view of the Big Beehive mountain. It rises out of the trees like some kind of bee skyscraper. And people climb this. People like Mark and our friends. But I am getting ahead of myself. We haven’t reached Lake Agnes yet.

We had another kilometer uphill to go. And it was worth the hike.

The tea house is a neat little building right at the front edge of the lake. While the others went up to the top of the Big Beehive, I stayed with the boys and we played along the water’s edge at the opposite side of the lake before heading back to the tea house and having a lovely pot of tea. The boys chowed down on chocolate chip cookies and hot chocolate. The others joined us before long and we all had a nice cup of tea. It was only 65-70F at that altitude (yes, that is snow in one of the photos above) so something hot was very welcome.

There is even a tea house challenge! You have to visit both tea houses at Lake Louise and Lake Agnes. The guide books tells us that you can connect the two Tea Houses by the Highline trail to form a 14.6 km loop. It takes a minimum of 5 hours of hiking to complete. If you are in good shape and don’t stop for tea.

The walk down to the parking lot was steep, but easy. My knee gave me some trouble when I was about 3/4 of the way down, but I would recommend this hike for someone who is in okay condition. And I would also recommend hiking poles if you aren’t in the best of shape. The boys didn’t have a problem at all. They didn’t even complain for the entire day!

(Well, H complained later and said that it was boring. We asked him what would make hikes more interesting and he said, “Not going on them.” We continue to campaign for the benefits of hikes.)

As our friend said, if you come to Banff you must see Lake Louise. It was such a remarkable hike and the woods was so beautiful and peaceful.  And in the next blog post I’ll tell you all about our hike along Johnson Canyon and show you the impressive Fairmont Banff Springs.