Our previous hiking post about the Gap of Dunloe ended up being a list of mistakes we made while planning and executing the four-hour hike over some of Ireland’s most beautiful lands. Now that we got back from hiking in Banff and Jasper National Parks, I am tempted to repeat the same format, as plenty of mistakes were made once again! Thankfully, everything worked out and we loved our visit, but there was so much anxiety and second-guessing prior to the trip that these mistakes need to be aired out for all to see and learn from.
Mistake #1: Planning a visit during a busy weekend.
We bought airfare to Banff for the U.S. Independence Day weekend, reasoning that “Canada doesn’t celebrate the Fourth of July, so it shouldn’t be too busy”, with no research. When we did start looking into the itinerary for the upcoming trip, we found out that we were completely and absolutely wrong. Due to its location, Banff National Park has only a two-month high tourist season, and it happens to be from July to August. On top of that, Canada celebrates “Canada Day” on July 1, making that weekend extra busy. And to add insult to injury, following our same line of reasoning, tons of U.S. visitors fly to Canada on Independence Day weekend, making it extra-extra busy. But by the time we realized this, it was too late to make a change. Our only hope was that Banff National Park cover a gigantic swath of land and that it shouldn’t be too hard to escape the crowds. But this oversight directly brought us to our second mistake.
Mistake #2: Not making reservations ahead of time.
By the time we started planning our trip, EVERYTHING WAS SOLD OUT. You may wonder, as I did, what could possibly be sold out. What could we possibly need? It’s just hiking after all, it’s not like the hiking trails have timed entries! We didn’t even start putting together an itinerary until a few months before the trip and by that point, it was too late. Well, here’s a short list of everything that needs to be reserved 6 months to a year ahead of time for your Banff visit: hotels, motels, camping spots, rental cars, Parks Canada shuttle buses, gondola tickets, lake cruise tickets, and restaurant reservations. Turns out, there is a lot more to Banff National Park than just hiking. There are chateaus, lounges, world-class restaurants, historic hotels that offer spas and afternoon tea service, and everything to make this destination one of the most luxurious and expensive in the world. It might be a surprising level of indulgence for a national park, but not for Canada’s oldest national park that has recently been named one of the “Most Beautiful Places in the World” by Travel + Leisure magazine.
While we could easily forgo spas and luxury hotel rooms, we did need transportation and somewhere to sleep. Considering that economy rental cars were being advertised for $300 per day and all hotels and camping spots in the area were sold out, I was thrilled to find a camper van for rent for around $200 per day. It was a Dodge Caravan with a full-size mattress in the back and a small kitchen which included a refrigerator cooler, a sink with running water, and all kitchen utensils. And just like that, we didn’t need to worry about accommodations, transportation, and restaurant reservations.
But we did have another major issue on our hands. We wanted to visit the star attractions of Banff National Park – Moraine Lake and Lake Louise. Starting the summer of this year, 2023, it is no longer possible to drive to and park at Moraine Lake. No personal vehicles are allowed on the road to that lake and the only way to get there is to book a shuttle or a private tour. As I mentioned earlier, all of that was already sold out. Now, Parks Canada does hold back some reservations which it releases 2 days ahead on a first come, first serve basis. We made a plan to drive to Lake Louise at 5 am in order to secure parking and spend a few hours exploring around that lake. Getting to Moraine Lake was going to be more complicated and involved waking up early in a campervan, somehow getting Internet connectivity in a middle of a national park well known for its lack of cell coverage, and hysterically clicking on the “reserve” button on the Parks Canada website to get a Lake Louise to Moraine Lake shuttle reservation. I created an account on the website ahead of time, set up an alarm to wake up at 8 am… and didn’t get the reservations. Turns out the Parks Canada system is on Toronto time, two hours ahead, and by the time I logged in, all reservations were gone. We were upset. And then came mistake #3.
Mistake #3: Letting the first two mistakes freak us out.
In the end, none of it mattered. We didn’t get to see Moraine Lake, but we spent an entire day hiking around Lake Louise and could not believe that our initial plan was to only spend an hour at this site. Had we only showed up to take pictures by the base of the lake and rushed off to stand in line for the shuttle, we would have missed incredible hiking, and seeing how the clear lake water transforms into milky teal color when viewed from the surrounding mountains.
We were able to escape the crowds by spending the weekend in the less-known Jasper National Park and coming back to Banff on Monday. We slept in a campervan and woke up next to glaciers, lakes, and mountains. We cooked on a small propane stove and every peanut butter and banana sandwich tasted like Michelin-star cuisine. We saw bears, deer, marmots, pikas, and goats, and none of them required a reservation. We walked through dense pine forests, marveled at glacier-fed lakes, climbed picture-perfect peaks, and took endless pictures. The only mistake we really made was second-guessing ourselves and needlessly worrying about our itinerary and reservations.
If you have a chance to go to Banff and Jasper National Parks – just go. And don’t sweat the details.