The forecast called for -6°
Just let that sink in.
I always go into trips feeling a little unprepared, even though I’ve mulled over every scenario to attempt being as prepared as I can. I’ve seen people outside unprepared and it’s miserable. People who didn’t anticipate rain getting soaked and having to huddle over their unprotected gear, whereas if they were ready for it they could soak in that moment (pun only slightly intended). Or people camping who never used the tent before turning their sleeping bags into water beds. I try to focus on what’s the LEAST I will NEED. That’s always a good starting point for me, thinking in terms of least and needs puts good boundaries on taking a little, but not sacrificing the ability to enjoy adverse moments.
So I guess that’s my first thought. Expect things to not go as expected and be ready to stand in the rain. Don’t let a change in weather ruin your trip. Some of the best experiences are when, even if you need to put your gear away, you stand there in the midst of a storm and watch nature battle itself.
Banff particularly offers a huge spectrum of trip possibilities. You can hike 4-5 days in the backcountry or drive right up to the side of “Instagram lake” (Moraine Lake). I won a trip contest held by Expedia and PassionPassport and knowing that I wanted to turn it into a photo trip with a lot of being knee-deep in the snow I decided to take a couple friends (Ben Sasso and Katch Silva) with me rather than my wife and daughter.
Our first day was spent mostly waiting for our shuttle to our rental car, making quick food choices, and going straight to Moraine Lake. I booked the trip before I was able to look up closures. Living in Southern California doesn’t give me much of a reference for when seasons change in other places in the world. The Thanksgiving holiday in Canada is a typical day that certain roads and trails close, and that was the day we landed so I kept the fire underneath our feet to get to the lake. I got there with about an hour of light to spare and shot like compact flash cards were going out of style. The color of that still glacial water is something that looks artificial even while you’re standing there looking at it. I stood there as the low pressure clouds and fog passed and obscured the peaks while fields of trees disappeared in the distance. I wasn’t sure what to anticipate with the entirety of Banff in cloud cover and the snow falling in spots. I knew it would be a beautiful and mysterious landscape but I also assumed I’d need to manage my expectations with some flexibility. The road to get to Moraine is off the road leading to Lake Louise (arguably the other Instagram lake). It closes October 10th typically and if you want to catch a sunrise where the early morning amber light paints the tips of the many mountain peaks in the distance you’ll need to go before then.
In fact, take a look at any national park’s websites for current conditions. I’ve had more than one trip almost not happen because of last minute closures.
You’ll want to catch sunrise at one of the amazing lakes nestled close to Banff, or Lake Louise/Moraine a bit further NW. We stayed in Banff so it was really only a 15 minute drive to get to Vermilion Lake which has an amazing sunrise opportunity with a chance of some pre-sunrise cloud magic. On the loop to lake Minnewanka there is a pull out for Two Jack Lake and the views are good looking in all directions there. The more I drove around the more I wished that the canoeing season hadn’t just ended 24 hours prior, every single lake begs for it. (Thanks to @itsbigben for bringing your own canoe out for some shots).
I worked with the Banff/Lake Louise tourism office and they got us up on a Gondola to the top of Sulfur Mountain climbing just under 4,000 feet of elevation from the bottom to the top. There is a really nice restaurant and one of the coolest kids exhibits up there and if you have kids I would DEFINITELY recommend it. If you’re looking for a great sunset spot too, this one overlooks mountain ranges on one side and the entire valley floor on the other side.
Many of the actual hiking trails at this point were either closed or so slick that without Yaktracks or some kind of snow shoe it was impossible. We tried the hike up to Lake Agnes from Louise but after about 30 minutes of struggle to only go at most 50 yards we decided to bail on that and walk around Vermilion some more (also really cool for sunset). The moods shift here quite quick and they are all worth catching. One morning it was really dreary and spooky, the other was alert and sharp.
I was able to see another example of how varied the views can be at the same spot, same time, two different days on the two times we visited Lake Louise.
The Icefields Parkway stretches between Jasper NP and Banff NP and if you could spend, and I wish I would have, an entire day here. The weather kept us from going too far forward and we saw that it was closed to northbound traffic after a certain point but we were able to stop by Herbert lake, which is a really small and unassuming one right after the split paths between Jasper and Yoho NP.
Using the popularly visited spots is not something I’ll ever scoff at or have any cynicism for, but leave room in your schedule to just walk around, take a drive to view wildlife (we were able to drive our car in between probably 40-60 elk bleating and foraging. Use these areas as landmarks to move towards but when you’re there and on your way there let yourself get distracted and wander and explore. Banff/Canmore/Jasper are wildly good places to do that.
Oh and bring bear spray.