June/July 2019 Trip Report: Planning for Banff & Jasper National Parks

In case you’re unaware, I am very OCD about planning my trips. Mainly because time is money and time is also very precious to me. However, as much as I am a scheduler, I also add in flexibility to my vacation schedule as I know you can’t control everything (especially the weather!).

Earlier this year (January 2019) I spent a good 3 weeks planning my summer 10-day vacation to Banff and Jasper National Park’s. All that planning and research really paid off though as we’ve been having a wonderful time out here in Canada and yes, you really do need to book things that early! There are limited accommodations throughout the park so if you want to limit the amount of time of driving back and forth from place to place because you couldn’t get a room, definitely book by early January. Even when I was looking, a lot of the rooms I wanted were booked up! However other places also didn’t open up their reservation system for the summer until just after New Years (i.e., the wonderful Alpine Village in Jasper). I may have even started planning a bit around Christmastime last year, now that I think about it!

Planning for Banff & Jasper National Park (with a bit of Yoho on the side)

My holiday in Banff started at the end of June 2019, flying out Wed. June 26 and leaving Saturday, July 6. I’m currently still in Jasper (writing a long post since it’s been raining all day!) and I will say that I think you can do all the highlights in a week. However, it’s nice to have a couple of extra days to relax and unwind or to burn in case of bad weather. One great thing about the park system here is if you make a reservation for a gondola ride or lake cruise online, you can change it if your plan or weather changes.

Below is a brief outline of out overall itinerary as well as places we stayed at and brief comments:

The town of Banff on our first day (which was unfortunately cloudy and foggy).

The town of Banff on our first day (which was unfortunately cloudy and foggy).

Trip Overview

  • Flew into Calgary International Airport from JFK. Stayed one night at the Country Inn & Suites by Radisson near Calgary Airport. Great easy hotel, seems new, very comfortable and clean, decent free breakfast. We arrived at 9 pm so had to stay the night.

  • Drove 90 minutes from Calgary to Banff, stayed for two nights at Mount Royal Hotel. Loved it here, very boutique and luxe feel. Worth the $$$. No breakfast but nice rooftop indoor lounge and outdoor hot tubs (which were always in use). Centrally located with parking.

  • Drove 60 minutes from Banff to Lake Louise, stayed for two nights at Mountaineer Lodge. Based on my research, they just renovated these rooms in the past year and it shows! The outside may not look like much but inside was very comfy, clean and well laid out. Free breakfast included and parking. The proximity to Moraine Lake is CLUTCH. One night is really enough here but I’m glad we stayed two in case the weather was bad (and we definitely found things to do). Also, book this place early!! I initially booked one night back in Jan. and a few days later, tried to change it to two but the original room size I wanted was sold out so had to upgrade to a bigger one (which was ok since I’m traveling with two others anyway). The hotel allowed me to get the bigger room while paying one night fee of the smaller room, which was nice (I e-mailed them to ask if I could have the smaller room for two nights but glad we got upgraded for one night instead). While we stayed here, we stayed a few tour buses stayed here so it gets booked out for those. Has an indoor hot tub/sauna/locker rooms near the reception which I wish we got to use but didn’t have time.

  • Yoho National Park is twenty minutes away from Lake Louise, which is why we chose to spend two nights, not one here. Yoho is more underrated than Banff and Jasper. Emerald Lake is the highlight here, and if you want to go see Lake O’Hara, you must make rsvps online in advance as only shuttle buses are allowed to travel down there. I didn’t do this but it’s an option.

  • Drove 3 hours from Lake Louise to Banff, stayed four nights at Alpine Village Jasper. This place was SO WORTH THE MONEY. It’s expensive, but it’s the #1 rated place to stay in Jasper and they just renovated all their log cabins in 2018. It is so cute and cozy and feels like they were built yesterday. The grounds are so well maintained and it’s a comfy place to hang out in when the weather is bad. I think two nights is good for Jasper but we don’t mind staying four as we did a lot on this trip and it’s nice to relax and unwind in the country the last couple of days. If you pay in cash, you save a bit on taxes (plenty of ATMs in Jasper. Also side note: you really don’t need cash for anything else). Has a nice outdoor hot tub area but we didn’t use. Cooked meals in the nice clean kitchen.

  • Plan to drive 4-5 hours back from Jasper to Calgary on July 5 for our flight home to NYC July 6 (staying at another hotel airport).

  • Other tip: If you’re doing a 10 day trip like us, it’s a better value to buy the ANNUAL pass for Canada’s National Parks. You can do this when you arrive at the park gates. Once you buy a park pass, you hang it on your car. Otherwise buy the pass that best suits you but generally anything longer than a week, you should just get the annual pass.

  • Other things I booked online in advance included:

    • The Ultimate Explorer package. This included entry to the Banff Gondola ride up Sulphur Mt. (was foggy when we went but otherwise seems like it would be spectacular to do on a sunny day), a cruise on Lake Minnewanka (skippable), and the Glacier Adventure & Skywalk tour on the Columbia Icefields (nice, if you like glaciers and scenery). I booked this a few months earlier but you can wait a few weeks before your trip.

    • Gondola at Sunshine Village. This is a must do! I loved it. It’s a very long 20 min. ride to the top, and then another chairlift to the very top to Sunshine Meadows, where you can go for multiple hikes down to lakes sitting up 8,000 ft. at the top. Breathtaking, especially on a clear day (our day was partly cloudy). I booked this a couple of weeks before we left. The first day of operation was June 28 so you definitely should check/plan your trip around when they open (which is what I did when I started research back in Jan.).

    • Jasper Skytram. Also a must do. Gorgeous views of Jasper and the opportunity to hike up a mile up to the top of Whistler summit. You’re basically walking above the clouds up here! They are running a summer promotion where if you get on before 10 am (the open at 8), you get a free breakfast at the restaurant at the top! Amazing value and also great views. They run the same promotion for after 5 pm for dinner. You only get like 3 food choices but it’s still a nice deal. Peak tram times seem to be btwn 11-5 (when we left by 12:30 pm it was soooo crowded. We got there at 8:15 and it was quiet and so enjoyably peaceful). Booked this a week before we left.

    • Maligne Lake Cruise, premium. If you want to do a lake cruise, I would pick the Maligne one over Minnewanka. And you should do the premium one so you can have a nice little walk on Spirit Island (half hour stop which is enough) and take in some nice pictures. After seeing so many lakes here, they all pretty much start to look the same. Minnewanka is very nice and you should definitely stop over to see it but no need to do the lake cruise (just motors out to the middle and back, and there isn’t a huge outdoor walking deck on the boat).

Another thing you can do/book in advance is the Lake Louisa gondola ride but I think it’s probably less impressive than Jasper, Banff, and Sunshine (we went there and looked at the webcam views from the ticketing office).

So with all that being said, I’ll try to recap my trip by day so you get an idea of how much was crammed in.

Day 1: Banff

Banff Gondola up to Sulphur Mt.

Banff Gondola up to Sulphur Mt.

We arrived in Banff on Thursday morning from Calgary at about 10 am, leaving Calgary by 8:30. The day was pretty cloudy and drizzly but we really had no other time on our schedule to do this so we up to the top anyway.

At the top—nice observation deck

At the top—nice observation deck

We could not see a thing but there were several indoor exhibits inside including a brief movie on the park and other factoids. There is also a nice boardwalk outside where you can walk up to the weather station and we enjoyed that even though we couldn’t see much. The clouds did lift a bit but overall not much of a view, I was okay with it though as I knew we would have other nice days and views ahead.

Boardwalking in the clouds

Boardwalking in the clouds

Afterwards we headed down on the gondola and walked around town a bit. The town of Banff is so cute with a lot of character, shops, and restaurants. I like it better than Jasper though Banff is probably more commercialized. Banff is more concentrated and compact though while Jasper feels more spread out and rustic.

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Since it was drizzling we were limited on what we can do outdoors. Banff has a TON of things to do and we only did a handful of it all.

After some lunch, we checked out the Cascade of Time Garden, which is free and easy to get to. Everything in Banff is easy to walk to, which is why i think I like it more too.

Cascade of Time Garden

Cascade of Time Garden

From there we tried to walk to Bow Falls Viewpoint (about 15 minutes from the garden) but when we arrived near the trail, we saw it was all roped off by the rangers. Apparently it’s calving season and this mama cow elk has been charging at hikers since she has a baby calf with her!

Mama Cow Elk

Mama Cow Elk

There were at least 5-6 rangers trying to herd her off and away from the trail so that was cool to see. You will definitely see animals coming into Banff/Jasper! We have seen at least one kind of animal every day.

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Since we couldn’t go to Bow Falls Viewpoint, we decided to go to Surprise Corner instead, which is probably a 15 minute walk from town but we drove there since it was raining. After you park at the designated parking lot, walk along the side of the road where you can hear the raging rush of the Bow River and you’ll get a great view of the Fairmont Banff.

Bow River

Bow River

Fairmont Banff

Fairmont Banff

This was all we got to do on the first day. We had wanted to do Tunnel Mountain, which is a hike next to Surprise Corner and is supposed to be a great view of the town but due to the weather and time constraints, we were unable to do it.