The Banff area is one of the most scenic and spectacular places in North American. I visited the area twice but have only seen the scenery once. On my first trip severe forest fires to the south obscured most of the scenic views. When visiting the Banff area be prepared to be amazed but also expect to do LOTS of driving. We stayed in Canmore, just north of Banff, and it seems as though everywhere is at least an hour away. Click on a photo for a more detailed blog article on the specific places.
We live in the Seattle, Washington area and it takes at least two long days of driving to reach Banff. There are plenty of sights to see along the way and part of the fun is the journey. When taking a trip of this distance through the countryside be sure that you are prepared in case of an emergency (see TonysPrep.com).
On day one we took Hwy 2 to Eastern Washington. Along the way we made a stop in Leavenworth, walked around, found a very nice tea shop (Cup and Kettle on Front Street), and continued on the journey. We went through Spokane, picked up I-90, and stopped for lunch near Post Falls, Idaho. I wanted to camp around Cataldo, ID since I have the same name and they have a really cool mission there. We got into the town of Cataldo, took some evening photos of the mission, and took a well-maintained gravel road to the Lost Moose Campground (almost 9 miles with 7 miles of gravel).
On day two we drove from Cataldo, ID to Tally Lake, Montana. I drove too far on I-90 and we stopped at the old mining town of Wallace, ID. This entire town is registered as a National Historical Site. We did not get a chance to explore the town much but it looks like one could easily spend the better part of a day exploring and taking some of the tours. I backtracked west on I-90 and we went north into Montana. We did not log as many miles on day two because I spent way too much time in Cataldo, ID taking photos. We camped at Tally Lake, MT near the town of Whitefish.
On day three we had a reasonably long drive from Tally Lake to Canmore. We drove through Golden and took the Trans Canada Highway (Hwy-1) to Canmore. I must say that Hwy-1 out of Golden was not a fun drive. The road is narrow for a major highway with more curves than expected. It is a major commerce corridor so there are lots of large trucks moving fast. In addition, there was major roadwork going on with lots of construction equipment and blasting. In the future I will try to avoid this stretch of Hwy-1.
We spent a week in the Banff/Canmore area and there is just and unbelievable number of things to see. My humble blog article cannot do proper justice to this area but I will give a few highlights of some of our favorite places. With only a week you can only get an overview. In reality you could spend many weeks just in just the icefield parkway. Here is my quick tour (in no particular order).
If you like trains then be sure to stop at the Spiral Tunnels on the Trans Canadian Highway (Hwy-1) near the town of Field. You may have to wait to see a train but it is worth the wait. The scenery on Hwy-1 going to and from the tunnels is worth the drive. At the tunnels you can see a single train going in three directions at the same time.
There are hiking trails throughout the area and they vary from trivial to super advanced. One of the coolest trails that I have ever hiked is the Johnston Canyon trail. The trail is very well traveled and maintained. It includes trail, catwalks, waterfalls, cliffs, rock overhangs, and lots of scenery. The trail is very popular and we hiked it a little later in the day when the crowds subsided.
We stayed in Canmore which is a little northwest of Banff. Canmore is a small town with a very nice, but touristy, downtown area. The downtown contains mostly tourist shops, galleries, and various food establishments. In contrast, the city of Banff is way to large, busy, and touristy for my taste. You can spend hours just wandering through the shops and galleries and this was a pleasant break from our other day trips that required lots of driving. One particularly good gallery was the Hoehn Walker Gallery on Main Street. I do photography and I am pretty good at it but Ken’s photos are on a completely different level. He has several amazing books and I highly recommend purchasing one. I selected the Alberta Wild book and he even signed it for us.
We took a day to do the Spray Lakes loop on Hwy-742 from Canmore to Kananaskis. I thought it would take a few hours but it took all day. This is a well traveled and wide gravel road and it was pretty smooth most of the way. It was a pretty long drive but there was LOTS of impressive scenery mostly lakes and snow covered mountains. Many of the lakes were very clear and quiet and I got some very nice reflection photos.