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 their 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, dry 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 as well as my one-year family reunion visit 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, and instant coffee, as well as a list of glacier lakes, forest hiking trails, and waterfalls we had to see.
Once mom got involved, however… this short and sweet to-buy list stretched into an entire notebook. Orders were made from three different Walmarts consisting of 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 those extras actually 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 of these parks as they are all a drive-able distance apart and equally as stunning.
The area we stayed in was called Yoho National Park, which is just an hour’s drive outside of the more popular Banff National Park. I would suggest checking out the sites between both of these parks as they are all within driving distance and equally 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 stoically up 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 our instant coffee several times during the morning to sit and caffeinate ourselves before attempting propane stove pancakes. Though I thought the little extra char and propane scent was made edible with some extra syrup, Emma was not impressed.
Overall, it was a convenient site to camp I would say. At $27 per night, it includes clean showers, toilets, a dishwashing sink, garbage disposal, even a little outdoor theater 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 for you 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 naturally carved out over time by rushing glacier rivers into a walkable bridge. Right next door to Emerald Lake, its worth a stop for some cool geological 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 stunning, less crowded and cheaper (canoe rental wise), though still expensive at a hefty $65 per hour rental fee.
But this is like most tours and rental expenses in Banff, pretty pricey.
So I took the free route and just dived in. Though I lasted about two minutes, it’s not called a glacier lake to sound pretty… its freaking cold.
As we continued around the loop, there is a trail connecting off the lake that goes directly up a mountain to The Burgess Shale. Called a “seabed in the sky” and a UNESCO heritage site, due to its plentiful fossils left behind when oceans used to crash above the now rugged peaks of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
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 the side where you brush shoulders with thousands of Christmas trees. We were overwhelmed with the sweet, piney scent of evergreen trees like I’ve never experienced before, making it one of my favorite parts to hike in Canada…
LOUISE LAKE AND LAKE AGNES TEAHOUSE
The following day we took the 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 Louise Lake has frozen over.
Since Louise Lake canoe rental rates were priced at an even more expensive per hour rate ($95 for half an hour, $105 for an hour) and I wasn’t up for another icy dive into glacier waters again, we took the trail connecting Louise Lake up to Lake Agnes Teahouse, an organic, solar powered, teahouse serving sandwiches, snacks and over one hundred 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… It’s definitely not for everyone. But I adore it here.”
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. Though Emma and I were actually looking forward to a little rain as we sat snug in our sleeping bags playing “Phase Ten” cards and eating boxed ramen noodles. Which we did… 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 about as enthused with 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 to make another hiking trip sound appealing, we decided to spend our day in Banff Town, picking up a few more 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 claims 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 yourself, here are some additional notes I’ve 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 little mini trip made quite the impression on both of us. It was definitely 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 the ice castle on Lake Louise anyone??