One thing that never fails to intrigue me about travel is, just when you think you’ve found the “most beautiful place you’ve ever been”…
You discover Canada.
I never thought of Canada to be my next destination. The way I pictured it, it was a vast, empty, terrain, where bears outnumbered people, and scattered mountain men lived confined within the walls of rustic, wooden cabins.
I guess in the same way this is how people would guess Texas to be… only instead of bears, snow and mountain men, there would be cows, plains and cowboys.
Though the above is more or less true, there is always so much more than one expects when traveling in a new country.
The idea started when my sister and I were planning her early 18th birthday trip during my visit back to the States from Athens. Ideas evolved from a cross-country road trip, to a Pacific Northwest coastal drive to eventually, a few days camping in Banff and Yoho National Park.
After quite a bit of Pinterest research and pumpkin-spiced lattes at Starbucks (I was quickly being re-Americanized), we came up with our camping to-buy list which included food, a tent, propane, instant coffee, as well as a list of glacier lakes, hiking trails, and waterfalls we had to see.
However, once mom got involved, this short and sweet to-buy list stretched into an entire binder. Orders were taken from three different camping equipment stores for bear spray (which I didn’t even know existed), a rescue whistle/compass contraption, rain ponchos, two Canadian road-maps, portable cell phone chargers, a giant knife (just in case), and enough bug spray to kill off the Amazon.
There was also a scheduled “how to change a tire” refresher course with Dad (again, just in case) for our nine-hour drive up.
By the time we drove into our campsite, you would’ve thought we were the world’s best prepared Armageddon conspirators. Though, all kidding aside, those extras did come in handy more so than we thought…
So thanks, mom 😉
KICKING HORSE CAMPSITE
Now back to Canada. The area we stayed in was called Yoho National Park, which is just an hours drive outside of the more popular Banff National Park. I would suggest checking out the sites between both these parks as well, since they are all a drivable distance apart and equally as stunning.
Here, exists the real Avatar, where mountain air is sweetened by the piney oil of evergreen trees, subzero glacier lakes reflect the sky to impossible shades of blue, castle-like hotels stand against giant, jagged mountain peaks, and powerful 300-meter waterfalls mist you from hundreds of feet away.
Our campsite was nestled right alongside Kicking Horse River, a cloudy, green, glacier river that rushes audibly alongside the Kicking Horse campsite.
We went up with instant coffee several times in the mornings to sit by the river and caffeinate ourselves before attempting propane stove pancakes. And although I thought the little extra char and propane scent was made edible with extra syrup, Emma was not impressed.
Overall, I would say it was an overall convenient camp site. At $27 per night, it includes clean showers, toilets, a dishwashing sink, garbage disposal, even a little outdoor theatre for music events—all within two minutes walking distance.
But if you’re one of those hardcore campers, they have plenty of cheaper, less accommodating sites to rough it out to your heart’s content!
THE NATURAL BRIDGE, EMERALD LAKE, AND THE BURGESS SHALE
We spent our first day planning to drop by The Natural Bridge site—a rock, carved overtime into a walking bridge by rushing glacier rivers. Being right next door to Emerald Lake, it’s worth a stop for some cool rock formation pics.
A ten-minute drive later, we were taking the easy hike listed in Yoho’s travel brochure which looped around Emerald Lake. Though this glacier lake is less popular than Banff’s famous Lake Louise, it’s equally as stunning, less crowded, and cheaper (canoe rental wise); though still expensive at a hefty $65 per hour fee.
But this is like most tours and rental expenses in Banff, pricey.
So I experienced the lake the free hands-on way and just dived in. Though that idea lasted about two minutes. It’s not called a glacier lake to just sound pretty… it’s freaking cold.
As we continued around the loop, there was a trail that branched off, leading directly up a mountain to The Burgess Shale. Called a “seabed in the sky” and a UNESCO heritage site, it is an area famous for its plentiful fossils left behind when oceans used to crash above the Canadian Rocky Mountains peaks.
At this Burgess Shale trail marker, you’ve reached the halfway point around Emerald Lake. If you continue around the loop a rustic bridge will cross you into the “shady side” of the trail, which is where you brush shoulders with thousands of Christmas trees. We were overwhelmed by the sweet, piney scent of evergreen trees like I’d never experienced before, making it one of my favorite hiking parts.
LOUISE LAKE AND LAKE AGNES TEAHOUSE
The following day we took an hour drive and headed up to Banff to see the ever famous Louise Lake. Breathtaking, just a bit more crowded, as it’s surrounded not only by a few extra tourists but by the bustling, impressive Fairmont Chateau Resort. Many weddings and other events are hosted here, including an incredible winter wonderland ice skating event once the Lake has frozen over.
Since Louise Lake canoe rental rates were priced at an even more expensive rate ($95 for half an hour, $105 for an hour) and I wasn’t up for another icy dive into glacier waters, we took the trail connecting Louise Lake up to Lake Agnes Teahouse, an organic, solar powered, teahouse which served sandwiches, snacks and over one hundred different types of tea to hikers since the early 20th century.
It was an hour and a half hike up steep mountains, where you pass not only Louise Lake but Mirror Lake, a small pool of water, filled by a sputtering creek which is fed by a waterfall flowing from Lake Agnes, which is the same lake that named our teahouse destination, since they neighbor each other.
Though once again, a bit expensive, each menu item is prepared individually and has a quality hard to find in tourist areas.
Talking to our waitress, she told us they lived in small cabin dorms behind the teahouse with no electricity. All main products are delivered by helicopter, as it is impossible to drive up the narrow trails. And once the trash needs to be taken out, there is the hour and a half hike down to the nearest garbage disposal. “Though some customers are awesome and carry a few bags down to help us out. Working here is definitely not for everyone but I adore it.”
And so did we.
TRUFFLE PIGS BISTRO, BANFF TOWN AND FAIRMONT SPRINGS HOTEL
Once back at the campsite, we heard rumors of rain coming that evening. And rain it did. Emma and I were actually looking forward to a little rain as we sat snug in our sleeping bags playing “Phase Ten” and eating boxed ramen noodles. Which we attempted… except we did find out boiling water on a propane stove in a zipped up tent was not the brightest idea. We tried airing it out by sticking the stove halfway outside the tent, but even under the rain guard, it was as enthused about working out in the rain as we would be. So we settled for a ready-made dinner of Doritos, Fritos and cheese crackers.
The next day, we decided to grab a more substantial breakfast at the Truffle Pigs Bistro in the tiny Yoho town of Field outside of our campsite. Though we were late for the breakfast buffet, the waitress was nice enough to offer us fresh blueberry muffins and coffee, which we were more than happy to accept.
Since it was still too drizzly for another hiking trip, we decided to spend our day in Banff Town, picking up a few gifts and doing a self-guided tour of the neighboring Fairmont Springs Hotel (link to tour here)!
TAKKAKAW FALLS AND CHIPMUNKS
On our last day, I was determined to fit in sightseeing at least one waterfall before we made the long nine-hour drive home. Takkakaw Falls caught my attention as it claimed to be one of Canada’s tallest, most magnificent waterfalls. And being only a twenty-minute drive up windy mountain roads, we made sure to make the stop.
If you ever want to take the trip up yourself, here are some additional notes I made on the ins and outs of camping in Yoho and Banff National Park…
- Due to extreme fire hazards, there is a pretty strict fire ban in Alberta county. So don’t waste your money on bringing firewood.
- 2017 is Canada’s National Park 150th anniversary! So all entrance fees are free!
- Bears are something to take extra caution of in Canada. Keep all food locked and covered in your car. Leaving anything out can leave you with a pretty hefty fine by one of the park rangers.
- These national parks are huge so having a car is necessary (unless you want to stick to just one area of the park). Though I have heard of some buses taking campers from place to place… but you do have to reserve seats. And they fill up fast.
- The nearest grocery store is an hour and a half drive out… so fill up on everything before you reach your campsite!
- Be prepared for all equipment rental, tours and activities (other than campsite fees and hiking) to be quite expensive.
Though between Yoho and Banff there are a million different sites and hiking trails we didn’t even scratch the surface of, our mini trip made quite the impression on both of us. It was a refreshing change of scenery from my last year in Athens.
Already getting ideas for future Christmas vacations… renting a cabin in the snowy Rockies and ice skating around an ice castle on Lake Louise anyone??