(Last Updated On: October 21, 2019)
When I found out I’d be heading to Canada for the first time, specifically Banff, my heart leaped! I had seen Banff National Park plastered all over social media for a while and couldn’t help but think, when will I get to visit this majestic creation? My eyes were set on visiting the turquoise blue lakes that glistened beneath the breathtaking Canadian Rockies. I envisioned walking up to the clear waters, sipping in the fresh Canadian air, and having a moment of blissful peace as I stared out in wander at what laid before me. Of course, this isn’t quite how it went, and having been through it I now know the nitty gritty details of what it’s really like to visit the famous Banff Lakes in high season.
While you can simply Google any of these lakes and have a plethora of information at your fingertips, I found that the information I was truly craving wasn’t in these posts. While I was inspired by the pictures, and the words around the pictures made me excited to visit; I didn’t truly know what I was getting into. Especially during high season. Below you won’t find, “Why you should visit X lake”. Or, “Where to stay in X”. Instead you’ll find details in making your trip as easy and seamless as possible, while trying to avoid the crowds, and hopefully getting a few good pictures along the way!
What to Know Before Visiting the Most Popular Banff Lakes
To get a lay of the land before heading to Canada, it’s important to know a few details of how Canada ‘works’ per say. Canada is split into provinces, which operates much like an American state. There are 10 provinces, with three territories to the north, totaling 13. Banff is located in the province – Alberta. Banff itself is a town; while Banff National Park of Canada is a national park encompassing the town of Banff. Where I got confused is when talking about Lake Louise. Not only is Lake Louise one of the most popular lakes in Banff National Park, but it is also its own village. Clear as mud, right?
So if you choose to visit Banff you are visiting the province of Alberta. The town of Banff. Which is found in Banff National Park. If you’re arriving by air you’ll fly to Calgary (YYC), another town in Alberta, and drive an hour and a half west to get to Banff.
Boasting world class ski resorts, Alberta is a winter wonderland. However, there are also tons of summertime activities as well! Alberta has short, warm summers and long, cold winters. The prime summer months range from mid-June to mid-September where Banff can see upwards of 3+ million tourists per season!
If you’re planning to visit during hiking season and want to avoid the masses, steer clear of mid-June through early September. However, these are the months that Banff also see’s the best weather. The “shoulder-seasons”, the seasons that people are less likely to visit, range from late March to mid-June and late September to mid-December.
Accessing Banff National Park
To access Banff National Park, or the surrounding parks such as Yoho National Park (to the west) or Jasper National Park (to the north), you must purchase a Banff Park Pass. You can buy passes online here and they will be mailed to you within a few weeks. But don’t worry, if you’re like me and wait until last minute you don’t have to wait for the passes to be mailed to you. You will also receive a confirmation e-mail that you can print out and show as proof of purchase. This piece of paper is only good for one month after purchasing the pass.
Your park pass only covers up to seven people, so if you have a bigger group, you may need to purchase more than one. These passes are checked as you enter each park. You will have to stop at a checkpoint and show proof of purchase.
This glacial fed, turquoise lake is located in the village of Lake Louise, in Banff National Park. Sandwiched between Moraine and Peyto, it’s a 20-minute drive north from Moraine Lake, and a 40-minute drive south from Peyto Lake. Lake Louise is wildly famous for the luxurious Fairmont Chateau overlooking the lake.
In my opinion, Louise was the most overrated of the three lakes. Although breathtakingly beautiful, if you have time to only visit one lake… I wouldn’t pick this one. I visited on two separate occasions, once arriving early afternoon, around 11am, we were already bombarded by crowds, which never seemed to go away. From the moment we drove up the mountain, we were already queuing to reach the lake. Even with a large parking lot, if you don’t want to shuttle in, you have to arrive early in the morning. Another option is to park in the underground parking structure at the Fairmont. If you eat lunch in the hotel, your parking is paid for. However, if you don’t eat lunch you will have to go in to the hotel and pay a $20 parking fee at the front desk.
The second time I visited I arrived early morning around 0730 to hike. Again, there were no parking spaces and there was a line to arrive to the lake. If you’re set on visiting Louise and avoiding the crowds, make sure to arrive even earlier. If you still can’t manage to get a parking spot, another option is to drive to the Lake Louise Gondola and catch a shuttle from there. You can find the shuttle information here.
While I was able to snap a few pictures, I had to work quickly and wait for crowds to disappear. I’d recommend moving away from where you can rent canoes, passing the Fairmont, to get further away from the crowds.
Popular Hikes Near Lake Louise
Some of the popular hikes here include Lake Agnes Trail, Plain of Six Glaciers, and the Little and Big Beehive. The Lake Louise hikes are known for their tea houses that sit at the top of the mountain. You can hike up the Lake Agnes Trail to arrive to the Lake Agnes Tea House or hike the Plain of Six Glaciers (longer and harder), to arrive to the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House, which is a bit more secluded.
We chose to hike the Lake Agnes Trail, which began easy and got harder once we neared the top. It was a mere two miles until we reached the tea house and the crowds never disappeared. We started the hike at 0800 and arrived to the tea house at 0915 and had to wait in line for an hour to get a table. I’d recommend leaving a bit earlier to avoid more of the crowds. Once you reach the tea house, you can continue up the Little and Big Beehive Trail to the top of the mountain.
Located just outside the village of Lake Louise, you’ll find Moraine Lake in Banff National Park. Situated 20-minutes south of Louise and 50-minutes south of Peyto, Moraine is also a glacially fed lake. I was in awe and most stunned by the mountain views encompassing the lake. Moraine is situated in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, and although you can’t see all 10 peaks from the ground, you can see them if you choose to hike.
Like Louise, there’s also a place to stay on Moraine – Moraine Lake Lodge. Unlike the Fairmont, it’s not the main draw to Moraine and is hidden behind trees so you get a more authentic feel for the nature and beauty surrounding the lake.
The parking lot at Moraine holds approximately 50 cars, is much smaller than the Lake Louise parking lot, and fills up early in the morning. We arrived at 0550 (with the sun set to rise at 0551) and every spot was taken. We managed to find street parking on our way back down the mountain, but street parking is very limited and we had to walk a mile to the lake. Do not park where there are no parking signs, there were cars getting towed. If you can’t manage to get a parking spot you have to drive to Lake Louise campground and take a shuttle up. The shuttles leave every 15 minutes starting at 0815 and ending at 1745. You can find further shuttle information here.
Because we were at Moraine so early, it seemed less crowded than Louise. While there were people around, they tended to flock to each other. Everyone was on a pile of rocks taking pictures, while I was able to walk a few feet away and find my own little corner to take photographs. If you face the rock pile, I headed to the right, past the lodge, to find my own rock pile to shoot pictures from. However, once I started a line formed behind me.
I wore normal clothes to Moraine (for pictures), and took hiking clothes in my backpack. Once done, there was a public restroom I changed at and we began our hike around 0630. While there were people on the trails, it was serene and felt like we had a piece of paradise to ourselves. If able, I’d recommend waking up early to avoid the crowds. On our way down the mountain there were groups of 10+ people coming up at a time.
Popular Hikes Near Moraine Lake
Some of the popular hikes here include the hike to Eiffel Lake and Sentinel Pass. The trailheads for both of these hikes began a couple of miles up the mountain, splitting off different ways; Eiffel Lake to the left, Sentinel Pass to the right. All trails are marked well with signs.
Also a glacier fed lake, Peyto is the farthest north of the three lakes nearing Jasper National Park. While you can only view the lake from above, there are no trails to get down near the lake, it was by far the most stunning of the three. Looking down on the deep colored turquoise water with the green trees surrounding, it felt as though Peyto was truly untouched nature. Something close enough we could appreciate, but far enough away that we couldn’t spoil.
We arrived to Peyto at 0845. There is a small parking lot, with a public restroom available for use. If your back is to the parking lot, facing the restroom there is a trail to the left and to the right. The trail to the right will lead you on a 10-minute walk to reach the lookout point for Peyto Lake.
While there was a fair amount of people already at the viewpoint, if you walk further down on the rocks there are less people around. By the time we left at 0915, the parking lot was packed and the lake was starting to get crowded as shuttles brought in droves of people.
While there were tons of people on the viewing platform, if you walk to the right, down to the rocks below you’ll have more places to take photos without people around. Coming before nine, I noticed much less people versus leaving after nine. I wore normal clothes to the lake, using the bathroom to change into hiking clothes as we moved on to hike in Jasper National Park.
As you see the best of Banff can be found in one territory, in one park. However if you have the time there is so much more to explore in Alberta outside of Banff National Park. It truly is the gem of the rockies and an incredible spot to spend time in.
Do you prefer visuals over words? Head over to my Instagram page/highlight reel for a visual look at my time in Alberta! Or check out Photos to Inspire You to Visit Alberta in the Summertime.
Or if you’re looking to plan a trip to Alberta, check out my Canadian Rockies Itinerary – How to Make the Most of 3 Days in Banff and Jasper