After seeing stunning pictures of Banff National Park on Adrienne’s Instagram, I knew I had to make my way out there. This past Memorial Day, I finally had a chance to take a whirlwind trip to Canada, where we had only 48 hours to explore as much of Banff as we possibly could. Armed with our cameras, a griddle (yup), and a Spotify playlist; Jenny, Robin, and I came from New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to converge in Calgary for one epic weekend. See what I ate, drank, and spotted during my trip.
For those of you who aren’t as familiar with Banff, it’s Canada’s oldest park, dating back to 1885, which pretty much blows my mind. Set in the Rocky Mountains, Banff is part of the province of Alberta, and is pretty much 2,500 miles of remarkable lakes, mountains, glaciers, and even ice fields.
We first landed in Calgary, which is about two hours east of Banff. It was my first time in Calgary and like all other cities I’ve been to in Canada, I was quickly smitten with its charming streets and friendly people. For our one night in Calgary, we stayed in the Marriott Downtown, which I would highly recommend. It’s super close to a lot of restaurants, cafes, malls, and parks. Look around for deals as the Marriott is pretty swanky, but you can get it at an affordable price like we did. Since we only had a night, we decided to make the most of it and go restaurant hopping. Had drinks and a charcuterie plate at Charcut Roast House, then stuffed our faces with poutine at Briggs Kitchen + Bar. Being a “roast house,” Charcut was a little more upscale, a little more buttoned up. Would recommend if you’re looking for a more fancy dinner. Briggs Kitchen + Bar had a much more welcoming feel, with its industrial modern decor and metal accents, it reminded me a lot of a cozy San Francisco restaurant. Service was uber friendly and we loved our time there.
The next morning, we got caffeinated before our drive at deVille Luxury Coffee & Pastries, which is best known for their nutella latte. I was hesitant at first—it sounded like I was going to get a toothache, but it was delicious. Not too sweet, perfectly nutty and creamy. The perfect treat before our little road trip.
But of course, we had one more detour before we actually headed out to Banff. Couldn’t explore a new city without hitting up one of their most popular donut shops, could we? We gorged ourselves on donuts from Jelly Modern Doughnuts and also learned that their donut lab is working on donut ice cream cones. MIND BLOWN. Guess we’ll be making a trip back soon…
The best part about Canada, especially Alberta, is that it’s just so. damn. scenic. I typically hate being in the car and taking long road trips, but even the drive towards Banff (and throughout Banff) was absolutely gorgeous. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, filled with rolling green hills, cows in pasture, and content horses flicking their tails. It reminded me a bit of The Sound of Music, actually. Our first stop was Lake Minnewanka.
A beautiful glacier lake where you can take boat tours and float your way close to the mountains. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t have time to take a tour, but clambering up and down the rocky shores was entertainment enough for us. The water was freezing cold and glistened like sapphires, even in the overcast weather.
Next, we headed to one of our favorite spots throughout the whole trip— Lake Moraine.
It was a moody, woodsy dream. Dramatic snow-capped mountains, lush green trees and crystalline waters made this lake a beautiful stop, despite the overcast weather. The place literally looked like a desktop wallpaper (which I think it was). We even saw a couple getting their wedding pictures taken there.
My only regret is that we weren’t able to stay at the cabin, nor take a trip on a canoe on the lake! Next we headed to the Banff Hot Springs, which were super touristy. The little place that its in is really cute, but I wouldn’t recommend heading to the hot springs.
One thing I didn’t realize until I was in Banff was how far away everything is from each other. On the map it looks close, but a lot of places are 45 minutes to even two hours away from each other. Fortunately, there are many vista points through the Banff where you can easily pull over and enjoy another postcard view.
One of my favorite spots was Cilantro, a popular little cabin restaurant in Emerald Lake. It’s picturesque— everything you would picture for a cabin on the water. It was like a scene out of a movie!
I’d like to come back in the heart of summer, and also in the heart of winter, just to see that cabin through the seasons.
Lake Louise is by far one of the most known and popular spots in Banff. Not only is there a luxury mountain resort of the same name by the water, it has a hamlet which takes its name from the lake. As you can imagine, it was much more populated and had more tourists roaming around.
Could this place be real?! The gleaming sapphire waters are unbelievable. All we could really do is stand there and really absorb the majestic views that Alberta had to offer us. I know it sounds a bit cheesy, but it was jaw-dropping.
It started lightly snowing right before we left, which only added to the magic of the whole place.
I didn’t realize there was a downtown Banff, but it was the cutest little downtown that perfectly matched the overall vibes of Banff. Small streets, slightly kitschy decor (whatever, I love it), and some epic sunsets.
We ate dinner one night at Grizzly House, which is a decadent fondue house that served exotic meats. It’s like a weird mix of cowboy meets cabin dweller and camper, but I loved it. Talk about kitsch! It was our night of “fine dining”, where I tried rattlesnake for the first time…
Lodging: Castle Mountain Chalets
Ever dream of staying in a log cabin, like you would imagine they would have in Oregon Trail? Well that’s what Castle Mountain Chalets. We stayed in a cozy log cabin that was still spacious enough to fit the three of us, complete with a wood-burning fireplace, kitchenette, and a general store.
Besides some crazy aggressive birds, the picnic tables were a perfect spot for us to enjoy a griddle breakfast set against the Canadian rockies.
The last morning before we headed out to catch my 11am flight, I woke up at the crack of dawn to catch one last sunrise. I drove along the highway and watched the sun slowly emerge behind the craggy mountains, and was filled with a sense of peace. Despite not being able to catch many pictures, it (for once) didn’t bother me at all. Usually I get a sense of anxiety, and am like, “I NEED TO DOCUMENT THIS MOMENT!” but it was one of those rare times where I could really just sit and be in the moment. Nothing beats cruising along in the car, heater blasting, watching the sky change colors before my very eyes, and the mist slowly uncovering the trees like magic.
What’s interesting is that if you told me a few years ago that I’d be so obsessed with gorgeous landscapes and views, I would’ve said, “you don’t know me at all.” As I’ve gotten more into photography, it’s given me a new appreciation for the outdoors. I wouldn’t say I’m an “outdoorsy” person, but photography has made me closer to one, and given me a deeper appreciation for nature and all it has to offer. Even though we literally saw lake after lake, each scene filled me with the same sense of awe and wonderment at its beauty. F*** yeah, nature!!
- When we went in May, the sun rose at about 5:30am and didn’t set till about 10pm, so take advantage of the extra long days!
- During May, most of the water recreational activities weren’t open yet, so be aware of that.
- The speed limit is really slow. Make sure to take advantage of cruise control and stick to the speed limits as there are a lot of cops. We learned this lesson the hard way.
- Rent a car with GPS if you can, cell service is pretty bad.
- Make sure to get an Icefield Parkway National Pass to explore Banff
- The great part about Banff is that you can literally drive up to all these views, and don’t have to hike unless you want to
- I never thought I’d wear Eddie Bauer, but my Eddie Bauer parka literally saved me from freezing. It was light, easy to pack, and wind proof. Would highly recommend.
- My camera backpack is from Vinta Co.
Where should I go next? Give me some ideas in the comments below.