A few weeks ago, I had the chance to briefly drive through a favorite region of mine, Banff and Lake Louise in Alberta Canada. The only other time I had been there was a couple of years ago in the middle of winter. My snowy experience in this famed winter destination was fun and well worth the adventure of traveling out there, but I was curious what the summer version of this beautiful part of the world would be like. While my experiences were very different, I learned that the answer to this question is truly a matter of taste.
Where and what am I talking about?
Before my first trip to Banff, I really had no idea where it was. I knew it was in Canada and that it had a funny name and that was the extent of my geographical awareness of this wintry travel destination. I asked some of my friends and more than half hadn’t even heard of Banff before much less able to place it on a map. So for those of you who were wondering, Banff is a town within Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada located 78 miles west of Calgary and 36 miles east of Lake Louise. From Washington, DC it takes about 6 hours to get there with one connection; from Los Angeles it’s an easy three-hour hop and from Dallas there’s a convenient 4-hour direct flight to Calgary, the home of the 1988 Winter Olympics.
Wintry Banff and Lake Louise
I love visiting places that are fun in the winter. Roaring fires, fresh snow and bundling up all appeal to me. Banff is certainly one of those places and the small town comes alive with the first flake of snow every year. I’m not a skier and I have no desire to even get near a slope, so for me the trip was about enjoying all of the non-ski things that there are to do in Banff National Park. Near the top of my list was dogsledding and it was the snowy forests around Lake Louise where I first tried this fun sport. As the owner of three huskies, dogsledding appealed to me on every level and the actual experience was just as much fun as I had hoped it would be. Another active experience was ice hiking through Johnston Canyon. Beautiful in the summer, this area sparkles during the winter and is popular not just for hikers, but ice climbers as well. Attaching crampons to my shoes, I followed the guide as we explored a true winter wonderland, complete with hot cocoa as a reward for our toils. Of course it’s not all about active experiences, if you like to take it easy then be sure to include a visit to the Banff Upper Hot Springs themselves; one of the earliest draws to this beautiful part of the Canadian Rockies. There’s something a little otherworldly about being outside in the snowy weather relaxing in a steaming pool and it’s one of the most relaxing experiences I’ve ever had. The springs have brought people to Banff for generations, and with good reason.
Gorgeous anytime of year, I think there’s something a little extra special about the wintry landscapes. It’s hard not to smile when you see the sparkling snow or frozen waterfalls, without having to rough it to enjoy the sights.
Summery Banff and Lake Louise
Summers aren’t long in the Canadian Rockies, so locals and visitors alike make full use of this warmer time of year. Driving into Banff National Park on a gorgeous summer’s afternoon was the perfect introduction to learning about all there is to see and do when there’s no snow on the ground. The first thing I noticed was just how accessible everything is in the summer. During the snowy winter months, many roads and trails are off limits – just too inaccessible or dangerous to venture out on. That includes one of the key attractions in the area, and one I wasn’t able to see in the winter, Moraine Lake. The star of more postcards and calendars than anyone can count, this stunning glacially-fed lake attracts hundreds of thousands of people every summer; every one wanting to capture the magic of the Canadian Rockies for themselves. I knew it would be pretty, but nothing prepared me for just how incredible this lake is to see in person. Just down the road from Moraine is Lake Louise itself and while I did see it in winter, the experiences could not have been more different. Standing there on the banks of the lake with hundreds of other tourists around me, I thought back to that morning in January when I stood there alone, watching a few intrepid hockey players out on the frozen lake. In the summer those hockey players were replaced with canoers, having fun experiencing the lake albeit in a completely different way. Just because there’s no snow in the summer doesn’t mean you can’t hit the slopes, just in a different way. Take the Lake Louise gondola up to the top to enjoy stellar views of the area. Mountains, lakes and the small town of Lake Louise itself are all visible from the top of the mountain. Although I didn’t see any, this is also one of the best ways to see bears without putting yourself in actual danger.
Perhaps predictably, I found exploring Banff National Park to be a lot of fun both in winter as well as summer. But let’s be clear, they are both very different experiences. In the winter, Banff was packed with skiers and snowboarders, families out with the kids for some time on the slopes. Restaurants were packed, hotels were enjoying their peak season and it was cold – very cold. I loved experiencing it in winter though. I’m a firm believer in visiting places at their best, and Banff and Lake Louise were made for the winter. Summer though brings different experiences and new sights to see, and spending some time on Moraine Lake specifically was a highlight of my time in Alberta. There were crowds as well, but of a different sort. More tour buses and day-trippers, out to get their own moment in the Alberta sunlight. It’s essential though to visit Banff National Park in the summer if you want to see some of these iconic places for yourself, as they’re mostly inaccessible in the winter.
Ultimately it comes down to personal preference. If you ski or if you’re like me and actually enjoy bundling up, sipping cocoa around a roaring fire and embracing winter for all of its charms, then this is the place for you. Many folks don’t like cold weather though and so for them, perhaps a warmer and easier summertime experience is the best choice. No matter which one you opt for though, even if it’s both, be sure to include it on your travel to-do list. Alberta in general and the Canadian Rockies in particular are amongst the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited and I know a lifelong love affair has been created that will never fade.