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A week in Banff Park: tips and trekkings

14-22 September 2018

10-15 km

1000 mt

Moraine Lake, Plain of Six Glaciers and Valley of Ten Peaks, Larch Valley, Natural Bridge


    Last summer I embarked on my first solo vacation. Before, I had never considered traveling alone, probably restrained by the opinions of others, who considered it dangerous and tasteless. I have always loved to travel though, and since I was a child, I promised myself that I would spend as much time as possible on it. Therefore, last year, the fact, I think, of living away from home, gave me the thrust. The realization of this project began long before the summer, in January, when I started documenting myself on the places I wanted to visit and which paths I wanted to hike. Trekking would have been an integral part of the journey: the fact of walking encloses many values, from the love for the mountain to the living at the pace of man, for me the most fulfilling choice, as well as the most sustainable. I became acquainted with Banff through the Banff Mountain Film Festival, a mountain film festival that takes place every year in different cities of the world and Italy, including mine. By seeing the challenges of climbers, skiers and mountaineers in places so far away but at the same time so close to my passion, I was captured and I decided that I wanted, too, in my small world, to see new mountains closely, and pursue my own adventure.

                                                      Me on the way to Mount Pocaterra, Kananaskis Country.

    Calgary: Between green neighborhoods and skyscrapers

    An international flight takes me to Calgary, where my friend is hosting me in the weekend, at her home in the beautiful Montgomery neighbourhood, surrounded by greenery. Calgary is a fairly large town (1.2 million inhabitants), but if you are in the suburbs you have the chance to dwell on hilly terrain, surrounded by firs and parks. To mention the most important, the Bowness Park owes its name to the homonymous river, which rises near the glacier and Lake ‘Bow’, in the Rocky Mountains, within the Banff park, and winds almost 370miles to the Saskatchewan River which, through Lake Winnipeg and the Nelson River, flows into Hudson Bay in the Arctic Ocean. The name ‘Bow’ derives from the reeds that grow along its shores, once used by the natives to construct the arches. The park is to be visited for an afternoon or morning stroll, pleasant is the path that winds alongside the river, in the meadows and in the desolate forests, where sometimes you can come across some ungulate or some small wild animal. If you prefer the city life, the center of Calgary can be reached in about twenty minutes from the suburbs: In addition to the skyscrapers in construction, the modern sculptures and the beautiful ‘historic’ center, there are many interior environments, such as a large greenhouse on the 6th floor of a Mall, which are connected by closed corridors overhanging the streets: by this way people can move between buildings without having to go out, since the city is subject to the winter cold for more than 6 months a year. If you are a ski enthusiast, passing west of Calgary, south of the Trans-Canada Highway, you can admire the Olympic Park where the Winter Olympics were held in the far 1988.

    A view of downtown Calgary.

    Detail of a public space inside a greenhouse, in the center of Calgary.

    The unspoiled nature of the Kananaskis Country

    The following day we venture into the Kananaskis Country, a little-known but extraordinarily beautiful area, a couple of hours from Calgary and the southeast boundary of Banff Park, which encompasses many provincial parks, including Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and Elbow Valley. Although most tourists face a direct stop to the most famous Banff, many locals prefer this valley, where the trails are quieter and because of this, it is much easier to get in touch with the wilderness, through its wastelands and its breathtaking views. We head to Highwood Pass (7227ft), the highest car-transitable pass of Canada. From the parking lot, equipped with restrooms and anti-bear bins, we walk on the path that leads to the top of Mount Pocaterra (about 3,1miles and 1312ft of altitude difference) but it is also possible, if conditions permit, to carry out all the Pocaterra Ridge, a spectacular path in crest of 6miles total and about 2296ft slope. On return, after about 5 hours ‘ walk, we take the car, stopping to admire the beautiful Upper Kananaskis Lake, a very large lake nestled in the middle of the mountains, whose shores are walkable in a path of 12miles, and whose waters are pleasantly cut through by canoe or kayak. The lake, of natural origin, has been converted into a basin, that together with others constitutes a hydroelectric reserve and controls of the floods. The view does not disappoint and, on our way back, we are so lucky as to sight a Bighorn sheep and a moose, the largest living Cervidae. Because of their short neck, these animals do not graze, so you will find them easily, even along the way, eating sprouts and leaves of willows and birches, especially in the mating season, which starts with the autumn.

    View of the magnificent Kananaskis area, on the trail to Pocaterra Mountain.

    The view from the top of Mount Pocaterra.

    Male moose, on the way to Upper Kananaskis Lake.

    Banff: A jewel at the foot of its guardian, Mount Cascade

    In the early morning, after renting a car, I head to Banff. The weather breaks and with the rising of the clouds, I realize that the mountains are getting closer and closer, as I proceed. I can’t help occasionally stopping along the road to take some pictures. Before reaching the town, I divert to the right, to Minnewaka Lake and its extension, Two Jack Lake. Minnewaka, 14miles long, is the largest lake in Banff Park and owes its name to the old belief of the indigenous people that the lake hosted spirits (Minn-Waki, Lake of spirits). It is an excellent stop for a snack in the early afternoon, when the time of lunch is slowly retreating, leaving me to admire the quiet waters of the lake in which the silhouettes of the surrounding mountains are reflected. Minnewaka is also the only lake in Banff Park that is accessible by motorboats. A long exposure helps to make the last tourists ‘ disappear ‘ from my photos and soon after, I take back the car for another 3-4miles. Once you arrive in Banff, you can park for free 2h along one of the small lanes (you can also stop for more time in one of the many parking lots). The town, purely tourist but with a beautiful view of the Cascade Mountain that seems to guard her, looks a lot like the Italian mountain villages, it is small and has only one main street (Banff Ave) which is crowded with souvenir shops and cafes/bars. The secondary streets easily take you to more beautiful and peaceful views, like the Vermillion Lakes or the Tunnel Mountain. If you are fond of ‘ hot water ‘, taking the car in 10min you can climb to the Fairmont Hot Springs, a thermal pool in the midst of the greenery (but also many people!). I recommend, in any case, to stop at the Visitor Centre in Banff, where you will find a lot of information about the condition of the trails, the weather and the restrictions regarding certain areas of the park. If you are going to trek, it is mandatory to equip yourself with an anti-bear spray (which you can rent or buy).

    Lake Minnewaka, few kilometers from Banff.

    Cascade Mountain in the small town of Banff.

    From Banff to Lake Louise Village: the Bow Valley

    After buying a couple of things from one of the only two grocery store in downtown Banff (I recommend shopping in Calgary, where prices are lower), I finally head to Lake Louise Village, my ‘ final ‘ but also initial destination, which will be my base for both the two main trekkings that I planned to do, and the visit to the other areas of the park, with more calm and flexibility, according to the weather. To get to Lake Louise, you can drive along the classic and faster Trans-Canada Highway 1, but if you are a tourist and want to appreciate the mountains and the surrounding environment, I strongly recommend you climb down the parallel Bow Valley Parkway 1, to capture some shots along the wonderful valley and stop to admire some natural hidden glimpses. One of these is Johnston Canyon: after parking in a lot just above the road, on the right, in just 30min walk you’ll reach the Lower falls, while with another hour you can get to the higher waterfalls (Upper Falls). In both cases you will be accompanied by the thunderous noise of the stream that opens up between the fresh fronds of coniferous trees, and you can admire the blue fairy color of the water, while stopping on the catwalks that wind above it. Other beautiful places to visit along the Bow Valley, if you have time, are Castle Mountain and Rockbound Lake.

    Johnston Canyon with its crystal-clear waters and lush vegetation.

    The Pilot mountain, on the way down the Bow Valley towards Lake Louise Village, at sunset.

    Lake Louise and the Plain of Six Glaciers

    Shortly after sunset, I arrive at Lake Louise Village and park my car in the parking lot of the Hi Lake Louise Alpine Center. In my life, attended few hostels and when I did, it was in big cities where I only used the bedroom. Hi Lake Louise is part of the Canadian chain Hihostels, and gives me a great impression from the beginning: the hostel is really well equipped with everything, clean and quiet during the rest hours. In addition to being placed on the edge of the forest, it has a restaurant inside, a large kitchen with all the utensils necessary to those coming from afar, and the refrigerator. You can choose a mixed, a separate dorm or family dorm, the cost is fair but I recommend making the reservation 5-6 months in advance, because it fills up very quickly. The quieter ‘ summer ‘ months are June and September. The trek I face the following day starts from Lake Louise, perhaps the most famous lake in Banff Park. After an early morning breakfast (it is still dark outside, and the kitchen only sees the first, brave trekkers), I start towards the lake parking lot and realize I forgot to charge my camera battery, so I get there at 7.30 (only 10min trip from the hostel), but I have no problem finding a place. Being the lot quite big (it’s next to the huge Fairmont Hotel) so it only fills around 8-9, depending on the days. The light shows up, but the lake is covered by fog, and I head straight for trail 2 (Lake Agnes Trail). Along the way in the woods, I make the first short stop to take a picture of the Mirror Lake, and after about 2,4miles and 1.30 h walk totals, Iget to the Tea House (about 1150ft slope from the car park), at 7000ft. Many people stop here at the scenic Big Beehive above the refuge, where you can get a beautiful view of the underlying panorama. After a few photos of Lake Agnes, where the fog is thinning, I continue along the Highline Trail towards the wonderful Plain of Six Glaciers. The path is already icy and snowy in some parts, so I kindly ask a rare couple who continue to walk with them, at least for that stretch. I’m gladly welcome and so I have the opportunity to get to know two very nice Bavarian Germans. As we advance among the firs, the valley opens and the fog that disappears gives us a spectacular view of the six glaciers that overlook the snowy spires. After about 2,1miles, we reach the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, where you can stop or you can continue for another 0,8 miles reaching the ‘ viewpoint ‘ under the rocks of the highest glacier. I stop halfway to the lookout point, I’m a little tired and personally I would rather have micro-spikes, there is a lot of snow, as before the rest, but now there is a lot of slope. After a good lunch with the hot sun reflected from the snow to my face, I go back alone to the path through the valley and then taking the lower path that heads to the opposite side of the lake from where I left in the morning , and I take a few pictures before it starts raining. The color is spectacular, but not the view of the gigantic hotel that was built on its shores. After a hot shower and a mushroom-based dinner (mushroom soup, mushrooms-and eggs), I go to bed, tired but excited for the current day and the following one.

    The fog on Lake Agnes fades away in the morning.

    On the way to the Teahouse of the Plain of Six Glaciers.

    View from the lookout point on the Plain of Six Glaciers, with Lake Louise on the background.

    Lake Moraine: A 24-hour show

    The following day I probably live the most beautiful experience of this journey: 12 hours of outdoor, in order to capture the lights on Lake Moraine from sunrise to sunset, when the peaks of the Valley of the ten peaks are reflecting on it as in a mirror. Moraine Lake is a glacial lake at 6184ft elevation, and you can reach it from Lake Louise Village in about 15min (8,6miles) by car. The green water color that characterizes it, is due to the thin dust of the surrounding rocks that, depositing continuously on it, refracts the light giving the typical coloration. The small parking lot of the lake fills very quickly and, in the high season, closes very early, already at 7 in the morning! Therefore, if it is summer, make sure you start from the village around 6.30, to secure a place (and the opportunity to get there). The road, in fact, is closed to traffic all day, except for free shuttles (and private buses), but they start to transit only at 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. The morning in Lake Moraine is something magical: I realize that it is still dark to start walking, but the parking lot is already full: the bravest are already equipped with the backpack and the front lamp, other temporize in the car waiting for the first lights. When the dark begins to thin out, I discover that most people are heading right in front of the lake, behind a boulder of rock: I take the same path, that in a few minutes leads me to the probably most frequented viewpoint of the whole region. Dozens of tourists with cameras and mobiles are stationed waiting for the sunrise on the lake. Grateful to have discovered the position but less for its popularity, I find a spot in front of a wall and many people, bending on my knees and reducing the height of my tripod to not disturb other photographers. The spectacle, as the clouds rise, is as wonderful as the peaks that slowly show themselves; even the cold is made to feel because the sun will come only later. When the sunrise is over, many leave the location and I also head towards the path of the day. I decide to go along the main path, to the Eiffel Lake: the first 1,5miles are the same ones that lead to the Larch Valley Trail, much more frequented, but past the crossroads the trail is much calmer and begins to show the wonderful peaks that open down the valley. The snow is already a lot but the few groups that pass through contribute to make it perfectly walkable also in the most sloping areas. Almost everyone stops at the lake (1345ft elevation from the parking lot), because besides, where you could face the Wenkchemna pass, the snow is abundant: here I enjoy the hot sun and I wipe off the wet snow. Immediately after an early lunch, I go back to the Larch Valley (1,8miles and 1280ft of altitude difference from the initial car park), returning to the same path, this time taking the detour to the left. It’s a good idea to get here early in the afternoon, because the Larch Valley is the most ‘ famous ‘ trail of the area, so most tourists just visit that starting late in the morning are already returning to catch the shuttle before it’s too late. Instead, I walk the valley immersed in the surreal straw yellow color of the beautiful larches, I arrive at the shores of a glacial lake before the Sentinel Pass and I enjoy the silence, in the company only of many small chipmunks, that do not let escape the bread crumbs of a tourists ‘ lunch. When the air starts to cool down again, I take the road back and in 1 hour I am back on the shores of Lake Moraine. The day is not over, because, equipped with my dawn jacket, I station at the same lookout of the morning and wait for the sunset: people are, luckily, much less than before, there are still some noisy tourists but as the temperature decreases, only the quieter photographers stay, allowing me to enjoy the magic of the sunset in this enchanting place.

    The Eiffel Lake and the Valley of 10 Peaks.

    Lake Moraine view from the trail in the Valley of 10 Peaks.

    Lake Moraine and the Valley of the 10 Peaks at sunset.

    Yoho Park, the Natural Bridge and Peyto Lake

    In the next two days I decided to visit the nearby Yoho Park and some areas north of Banff Park, on the border with Jasper Park. Cloudiness is foreseen with rain/sleet, so I take the opportunity to rest from the previous morning walks and explore farer areas with the car. I first visit the Takakkaw waterfalls, reachable within 10min on foot after you have parked. Takakkaw means ‘ magnificent ‘ in the Indian Cree language, and represent the third highest Canadian waterfall, falling for 820ft from the above Daly Glacier. The Natural Bridge is another place along the Trans-Canada Highway where I recommend to stop: a natural rocky bridge with an opaque blue water that allowed me to do several photographic tests. If you are able to arrive at lunch time, or soon after, you can avoid some bus of tourists and enjoy these places. September should indeed be less crowded than July, better season if you want to be sure not to find cold and snow in these areas (but also busier). In this area of Alberta, including Calgary and the parks of Banff and Jasper, the winter lasts very long and often starts to peep already in September. Other times it only shows at the end of October, so the warmer summer season is confined in July, when the spring snow of June has finally melted and the fires of August have not blurred the valleys. Pleasant alternative is definitely September to see the yellowing larches, but you have to equip yourself for a mountain climate of medium altitude (3000-6000ft). Lake Emerald is another pretty touristic spot that is worth a visit along the circular path on its shores (3,1miles), to admire its incredible emerald color. The following, and last, day, I visit, this time heading north along the Icefields Parkway, Bow and Peyto Lakes: two magnificent, for location and color, glacial lakes, but also placed in the snowiest of the area. In fact, the panorama starts to whitewash but it allows me to do my first winter walk already in September! I salute the neighboring Jasper Park with a ‘see you soon’ when I’ll be back to visit the mythical Icefields Parkway. Meanwhile, Banff has already given me a wonderful ‘ holiday ‘ which was a dream come true. To the next.

    Canadian chipmunk.

    Natural bridge, Yoho National Park.