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.

November 2018: Planning for Patagonia

Planning for Patagonia is not logistically easy. It basically took me and my friends three days to get to Torres del Paine (pronounced Torres del “Pine-ay”), which resides in Chile, from NYC. Most people fly into Santiago, Chile to travel to Torres del Paine but we chose to go through Buenos Aires, Argentina as we wanted to end our trip visiting the vineyards of Mendoza.

This is the fourth time I attempted to plan this trip and I’m glad I waited this long. The first time I looked into going was more than 10 years ago and information on Torres del Paine is not as plentiful as it is today. The internet/communication infrastructure has probably improved over this period of time as well and a lot of things in place years ago are no longer. Four years ago I went to Argentina to visit Iguazu Falls (amazing, highly recommend waterfall lovers to go) and had to pay a $100 or so reciprocity fee (valid for 10 years) to get into the country. Well, apparently as of last year that’s no longer in place. In addition, the last time I was in Argentina, I had to exchange all my money on the ‘black market’ because the exchange rate was fixed as $1 USD = 8 pesos (on the black market you could get up to 12 or 14 pesos) and today, $1 USD = 35-38 pesos!

Anyway, planning a trip to Torres del Paine is no easy feat unless you have a lot of time on your hands. You need to register with the park and also make reservations in advance if you want to stay at the limited number of refugios (hostel lodges) in the park. From what I read on the internet, booking a bed or tent at the refugios was frustrating (payment won’t go through, people don’t respond, sold out, etc.) so early on my friends and I decided to bite the bullet and sign up with a tour guide instead to do all the bookings for us.

After a bunch of research, we decided to go with Swoop Patagonia. They have a flashy website and were very responsive and their itinerary worked out for us. However, as soon as we said yes to booking, they turned us over to Chile Nativo! So it turns out Swoop Patagonia is a 3rd party seller of tours and Chile Native is the local operator who actually takes you on the tour. It worked out anyway though as we LOVED Chile Nativo (and after speaking with them, I can see why they need Swoop—the agency has been around for over 15 years but is a small-run tour operator which has grown bigger in the last year and they just haven’t done as much marketing as they can be doing).

We found the price to be reasonable for our budget (we did the 5-day trek for $1695) though yes, if you planned this on your own, you’d be saving more than half. We just didn’t have the time to plan it all ourselves so to us, it was worth it. And no one in our group is an experienced camper or hiker so we felt more comfortable going with a guide in case something happened or someone got sick/injured but you don’t really need one. The trails on the W Trek are all well marked paths.

When I was doing my research for the tour, I read many mixed things about going either west to east or east to west on the W Trek (the other option is the O trek, which is much longer and you’ll see all of the park while the W hits the highlights). As Torres del Paine is known for its wind, most people suggested going west to east (to move along with the winds) but I am SUPER glad we went with Chile Nativo and did the route from east to west. I think this route is better because:

  • you’re moving along with the sun (if it is sunny—this will be incredibly helpful, hiking without the sun in your eyes)

  • we got the hardest part of the hike over on day 1, going up to the Blue Towers (which is what Torres del Paine means)

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This is literally what you can expect from hiking Torres del Paine. Our trip started at Refugio Las Torres and we stayed overnight in Los Cuernos, Paine Grande, and Grey. The first day of the hike to the Base of the Towers was the hardest (22 km roundtrip back to Refugio Las Torres) and took 8 hours.

This is literally what you can expect from hiking Torres del Paine. Our trip started at Refugio Las Torres and we stayed overnight in Los Cuernos, Paine Grande, and Grey. The first day of the hike to the Base of the Towers was the hardest (22 km roundtrip back to Refugio Las Torres) and took 8 hours.

In addition to planning all our accommodations, meals, and guides in Torres del Paine, Chile Nativo also booked our first and last night in Puerto Natales (the gateway into the park). We stayed at Hotel Vendaval, which was a wonderful stay, and you’re able to leave whatever luggage you’re NOT taking into the park here (which we found to be safe and we had locks on our luggage as well).

Getting to Torres del Paine from New York City

We traveled through four airports, two taxi rides, and two buses over a 72 hour period to get to Torres del Paine. We flew with Aerolineas Argentina (pretty decent airline, I have no complaints—besides the very first 5 minutes of my trip, the check ins were smooth, service was friendly, and had no issues traveling with this line). In summary, these were our travel logistics:

  • On Tuesday, Nov. 6, we took a 3:30 pm direct flight from JFK to EZE, the international airport in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The trip may have started off on the wrong foot had I not watched out for my luggage! I ended up bringing just two pieces—a carry-on size hiking backpack for the trek and a carry-on size suitcase that I checked in. Well, while the Aerolineas Argentina agent gave me my plane ticket at check in, I noticed he totally forgot about my checked-in bag! When I asked him about it, his eyes got wide and said “Oh, yes! Sorry about that!” and ticketed my luggage, stuck the slips on, and put it on the conveyor belt. Had I not watched/said anything, who knows if my luggage would’ve made it out! Probably not, since he didn’t even issue a luggage ticket until I asked! My other friend also had an issue with her luggage and bringing on her trekking poles. Mine were foldable and hidden but hers were bigger and sticking out and had metal tips and they had to recall her luggage (after she checked it in) to put the metal tips away. They wouldn’t let her pass security otherwise. Anyway, after the luggage issues, we otherwise had a smooth overnight flight and arrived in EZE by 4 am, and in November, Buenos Aires is two hours ahead of NYC.

  • By the time we got our luggage and through customs, it was 6 am. I was paranoid about getting money from the ATM (last time I was in Argentina my cards didn’t work at all!) so I exchanged U.S. dollars at Banco Nacional, a local Argentinian bank. The bank is located directly outside the luggage, to the right. ATMs may have a limit to how much you can withdraw every day so I withdrew $600 USD which was more than enough to get me through the two week trip (most places except taxi cabs take credit card). The exchange rate I got it for was AR 34.60 vs. the official rate at the time of 35-36 pesos so not much of a difference. And if you do use the ATM, you will probably pay additional fees there too.

  • We booked a car transfer with Taxi Ezeiza. I made the rsvp a few days beforehand online and they charged $35 USD for 4 people. They’re also located right outside the luggage terminal, at a big booth and if you make a rsvp your name will be on a sign at the desk. You can pay in dollars or pesos (or in credit card). We had rush hour traffic and it took just over an hour to get to AEP, which is the domestic airport in Buenos Aires.

  • From AEP, we took a 12:15 pm flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate, Argentina. You can either fly to El Calafate to get to Puerto Natales (the last town before Torres del Paine) or to Punta Arenas, Chile (which is further south than Puerto Natales). Two of my friends told me there was NOTHING to see in Punta Arenas whereas in El Calafate you at least have the Perito Moreno Glacier so I’m glad we stuck to El Calafate. Also, if you plan to visit more of Argentina after Torres del Paine, it’s cheaper to fly within Argentina than to fly to Chile and then back to Argentina. We arrived in El Calafate by 3:30 pm and grabbed a taxi to pick up our bus tickets for the next day’s trip to Puerto Natales. The bus terminal is about 15 min. away from the airport and costs like $10 USD to get there by taxi. We had to pick up our tickets the day before because they needed to verify our passport info for the border crossing. The bus office (Cootra) closes at 4:30 pm so keep this in mind if you choose to use them and fly into El Calafate before then! We stayed overnight at Hostal Gnomos, which is a 5 min. walk from the bus station.

  • The next day: woke up early to catch the 7:30 am bus to Puerto Natales. We got to the bus station by 7 am though as we heard horror stories of buses leaving without people if they were not on time. The Cootra bus was quite nice and comfortable. It’s a double decker bus (you can reserve seats in advance) and there is a bathroom on board for the 5-6 hour drive. The driver didn’t really speak English though but we figured things out. By the time we got to the border crossing it was about noon and the whole process took an hour. On the Argentina side, they just stamp your passport. On the Chile side, they stamp your passport but they also scan your luggage (we had no problem bringing in snacks or food—I think someone got fruit in—but from what I heard it really depends on the mood of the officers!). The Chile passport security check has bathrooms which was much needed after the long drive. The Argentina side does not, and going on the bus is not really fun. So after security check it was another 45 minutes to Puerto Natales. When we arrived, we grabbed a taxi for 2000 Chilean pesos to Hotel Vendaval (like $5 USD). I had gotten Chilean pesos before the trip at Chase Bank (they didn’t offer Argentian pesos though and all I took was $60 USD equivalent in Chilean pesos which was more than enough. I never needed Chilean pesos on the W trek, just for the taxis. We ended up using the money for dinners in town though but they take credit cards). Checked into Hotel Vendaval.

  • In the evening, we had our briefing at the office of Chile Nativo (literally a 2 min. walk from the hotel) and met our two tour guides, the rest of our tour group (10 people in total!) and got the details of the trip.

  • The next day: got picked up at 6:30 am on Friday morning, November 9, 2018 for the hiking trip of a lifetime!!!

Other Info

Other resources that really helped me for the trip:

  • This website someone recommended on Trip Advisor was amazingly helpful to check out the weather forecast in Torres del Paine: www.mountain-forecast.com. Just be sure to pick the lowest altitude and convert it to Fahrenheit if needed. I checked the forecast every day for a week before arrival and it was 90% spot on in predicting the weather we would be having in an unpredictable place.

  • REI. I love this store. I know I’m late to the game but I grew up as a city slicker. I never grew up camping or being in the outdoors! But REI and the people who work there were wonderful resources for me in terms of what gear I needed for this trip. I got my backpack, trekking poles, jackets, windproof pants, blister bandaids, everything here. I’ll do a post later on the gear I got.