Banff and Lake Louise have been all over social media the past few years because they’re some of the most stunning spots in North America. Before becoming major blogger hotspots, I knew them as my favorite childhood vacation destination. I spent many winters and spring breaks hiring the slopes, drinking hot chocolate and enjoying the snowy mountains and clean air. I finally made it back as an adult and wasn’t sure if it would live up to the hype in my mind. Fortunately- it’s just as beautiful as I remember. While I wasn’t able to stay as long as I would have liked, my friend Michelle and I had the most fantastic weekend getaway in Banff National Park.
Visiting Banff & Lake Louise
Getting to Banff
We flew into Calgary in the late afternoon on Alaska Airlines. The flight was actually pretty inexpensive—I’m used to flying Delta all the way from Atlanta, so having a west coast home base really helped! It was my first flight since COVID happened, and I was a bit nervous, but the first leg of my flight was virtually empty and very comfortable. After we picked up our rental car (it’s not necessary to have one but super handy if you plan to explore), we hit up Tim Horton (my road trip necessities) and headed towards Banff.
We made a stop in Canmore on the way up to catch the sunset at the Canmore Engine Bridge. There’s really never a bad view around the Canadian Rockies because every angle as far as the eye can see is just stunning. We finished the sunset at Quarry Lake before heading back on the Trans Canada Highway north towards Banff.
Where We Stayed
Our hotel was conveniently located right on Banff Avenue, which made it easy to get to from both Downtown Banff and the main highway that leads up towards Lake Louise. We paid for our park pass (Banff is a national park, so there is an entry fee, and you can pay multiple days) and arrived at our hotel shortly after.
We stayed at Rundlestone Lodge, and we absolutely loved it. There is a small parking garage below (there is a storage area in the garage, especially for skis and gear), and the access to the main road made it perfect. We got a free upgrade (thank you, Expedia) and had a suite with a queen-size bed, king-size bed and a sweet little balcony facing Banff Avenue. The suite also had a living room area and plenty of space to move around.
We bundled up, and headed down Banff Avenue for dinner at Elk & Oarsman. I absolutely love game meats and Banff is perfect for carnivores since Canada has so many elk. I had the elk poutine which was perfectly warm and filling. After dinner, we headed back to the hotel so we could rest up for a day of exploring.
Johnston Canyon & Lake Louise
The next morning, we grabbed a quick breakfast at JK Bakery Cafe, where they have a variety of coffee and tea beverages, sweet pastries like apple strudel and savory items like sausage rolls. We did a little shopping in downtown Banff and then made our way north towards Johnston Canyon.
I’d never been to Johnston Canyon before, and the drive up was stunning. It was still fall, so the trees weren’t yet capped in snow, and the weather was perfect. As we made our way up the trail towards the Lower Falls, you could see areas of ice and snow gathering in the shadows. The scenery was gorgeous, and the hike was relatively easy (even with asthma). After the walk, we made our way up to Lake Louise.
Lake Louise will always have a special place in my heart. I first visited when I was just two years old, and it’s one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been to in my life. Oddly enough, I had rarely seen the lake not covered in ice, so this was a rare treat for me. While snow and ice had begun to gather in the surrounding areas and on the perimeter of the lake, the water itself was still fluid and the most beautiful shade of blue. If you visit, walk around the lake. The color almost appears to change from different angles. In certain spots, the water seems to be a dark blue and others a gorgeous turquoise.
If you have the time (and the spare cash), have a meal at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. My family and I often dined here on our visits because it’s the perfect place to enjoy the stunning lake views in comfort (and warmth). There are shops too, and it’s the ideal place to get out of the cold. There aren’t too many places to shop and eat in the area—if you aren’t planning to partake in outdoor activities, Banff is usually a better choice for lodging.
After our explorations, we headed back to Banff. We grabbed dinner at Balkan and had one of the most amazing meals ever. I don’t say this lightly, but the food was truly outstanding, and so was the service. We both had lamb (I love lamb), and we split the Pikilia Starter Platter (it had a little bit of everything, including the most incredible spanakopita I’ve ever eaten).
Change of Plans
This is where our adventure gets interesting. We were really hoping to catch the Aurora Borealis, which is apparently quite easy to spot in nearby Jasper National Park. We were going to make the trek up there to catch the lights and had been checking the Aurora Tracker for days. As we headed out of Banff, the tiniest little snow flurries began to fall. When we got to the Trans Canada Highway, the flurries had turned into legit snow. Five minutes later, it was snowing pretty hard, and ten minutes later, we couldn’t see a thing. We turned around and headed back to our hotel as the snowplow on the other side of the road went through and ensured we could once again see the road.
We arrived safely back at our hotel parking garage…and immediately backed into a pipe that broke our entire back windshield. Ouch! Luckily, the pipe wasn’t damaged (so no extra charges on my credit card), and Enterprise was AMAZING about getting us a tow and a replacement the next day. The local branch in town had cars, but sadly no four-wheel drives, so we weren’t quite able to catch all of the nature spots we had hoped to since the roads were becoming extremely icy.
Banff Gondola & Downtown
The next day, fall had officially disappeared, and winter had arrived. The streets were covered in snow, the trees had a lovely blanket of white, and the whole town looked like the inside of a snow globe. We had breakfast at Pacini—it’s a nice little spot with a huge breakfast menu and a little added bonus. Meals come with unlimited trips to the restaurant’s bread bar. Yes, a bread bar. The bar has a variety of breads, jams, butter and other spreads, and you can grill your bread on the large open grill. It was amazing.
We did some local shopping after breakfast. There are a million souvenir shops along Banff Avenue, so make sure to shop around for the best prices before buying anything. If you’re into crystals and gems, you’ll find plenty of them around the downtown area. If you’re in the mood for sweets, Beavertails is a personal favorite, and you can get them in a variety of flavors.
Next was a drive to Vermilion Lakes. We’d seen lots of photos of it online, and it did not disappoint. The lake was already getting a bit icy, but the views were stunning, and the drive around the perimeter was also gorgeous since every tree was capped in snow. There are several docks that are great for photos but make sure to wear appropriate footwear—you wouldn’t want to fall into an icy lake!
After the lake, we headed up to the Banff Gondola. I have to admit; I hate gondolas. I hate heights. Even so, I can usually overlook SOME of it in the name of a good Instagram photo. I think I complained the entire ride up! Michelle did her best to distract me, and the views at the top were worth the 5-10 minutes of total terror. The top of Sulphur Mountain is like being on top of the world. The highest level of the complex has fire pits and Adirondack chairs, so you can enjoy the view as long as you want. As we took in the scenery, it started to snow again, and it was just the most magical place. Michelle opted to do the hike to the top of the other peak (she was gone about an hour), and I explored the inside of the summit.
Once we arrived back on the ground, we made our way back to the hotel. Michelle needed to take her COVID test to go home—I had been randomly selected for a PCR test upon arrival, and my negative test was administered within the three-day timeframe the United States required at the time, so I did not need to test. We had purchased Binax-NOW antigen tests in advance—you have to buy the ones that include the telehealth call to use them for travel (the ones at Walmart will not work for travel, and we were required to take PCR tests prior to entering Canada).
Testing to Come Home
After the testing was complete, we headed out for our last dinner in Banff. We would have loved to try again for Jasper, but in hindsight, I’m glad we chose not to since it snowed even more that night, and we would have likely ended up stranded. We had dinner at Masala and enjoyed some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had (the service was also fantastic). During our visit, virtually all indoor dining facilities and attractions required proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test from the past 72 hours in order to enter.
Revisiting Banff and Lake Louise had been on my list for years, and it was truly a dream come true. If you’ve considered visiting, I can’t recommend it enough.