Big Bears And Breathtaking Beauty In Banff National Park
Looking for a family vacation north of the border? When most people think “Canadian Vacation”, they think Niagara Falls. While this spot is still on my list to visit some day, I’m thinking of a different location, filled with beauty and endless adventure. It’s just north of the western united states, in Alberta and British Columbia. The Canadian Rockies and the Banff National Park!
This rugged, world-class alpine range attracts mountaineers and climbers far and wide. There may not be a range in the continental United States as expansive or as visually impressive as these. Rising to a height of nearly 13,000 ft. at the highest point, these mountains straddle the border between Alberta and British Columbia, and are home to 4 national parks between the two provinces. The most visited of them is Banff National Park in Alberta.
In terms of north American national parks, Banff is a “classic”, like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. It’s visited by over 3 million people a year for a reason. I’ve never seen anything like it.
The 1st Leg Of The Journey
Of course it depends where you live when you are traveling to Banff National Park, but I would suggest a road trip. When you’re driving together it is so much more fun than a quick plane ride. The trip gives you time to enjoy each other’s company in a way and for an amount of time that is rarely given to us in our normally daily lives. Even if you just listen to music or audio books together it can be such a great time together.
Personally we took off from American Fork, UT, about 30 minutes south of Salt Lake City, and our drive took us through northern Utah, southeastern Idaho, and western Montana. Once you pass through the metro areas of the Wasatch Front in Utah, cities are sparse the entire way, and you get to see a lot of beautiful country. The drive in its entirety took around 17 hours and it was a blast. We even stopped off at a few iconic places along the way.
First, an most important thing to remember if you are crossing a border is to have your passport ready. It’s something you actually have to plan for, particularly if your passport has expired. There is nothing worse than planning an amazing trip get on the road and then have to turn back because you can’t cross the border.
Another thing that I would personally suggest is to see what spots you can stop along the way. You are going to have a fantastic time at Banff, but why not add a few fun stops along the way. Road trips are great, but breaking up your long hours of driving just makes it better. On our way we stopped at a few places, my favorite had to have been Butte.
If you happen to be passing Butte in your travels to Banff National Park, I would suggest a small detour. If you’ve never been, it’s definitely worth getting off the road and pulling into downtown for gas, lunch, or just a drive. It’s an old almost-abandoned mining town with a unique red-brick look and a lot of early 20th-century character. Feels like walking back in time. It’s rough around the edges, and a little dirty, but that just adds to its rough-and-tumble cowboy feel. Ordering shots before noon is normal. We got out and grabbed lunch at “Sparky’s Garage,” a bar-and-grill kind of place. Check it out! It’s friendly for the whole family.
Once in Alberta, spend some time in Lethbridge (maybe an hour and a half into Alberta) to admire… well, the BRIDGE of Lethbridge. Spanning a mile-wide river valley, this 107-year-old rail bridge is the largest and tallest of it’s kind in North America. We watched trains move from one side to another of this thing, suspended over 300 ft above ground. It was quite the sight.
Then we stopped by Costco for some good old Canadian Poutine. 3 words: fries, gravy, cheese curds. OK, that’s four. Regardless, if you’ve never had Poutine before, do not leave the country before trying it. It’s simply amazing.
When you finally reach Calgary, a surprisingly big city at the foot of the mountains, you’re only an hour or so away from the mighty Canadian Rockies. Banff National Park is near.
Banff National Park
After some teaser views of peaks soaring over dense evergreen forests you’ll pull into the town of Banff. There’s all kinds of restaurants and shops here, so if you have the cash to spend and there’s a bad weather day on the trails, you could spend some time here.
We didn’t camp anywhere near the town, or hang out very long, but if you want my advice, I would spend most of your time around Lake Louise. It’s about 40 minutes down the road into the interior of the park. Something to keep in mind if you do plan to hang out at the lake, however, is the availability of camping sites. If you plan to go at a more popular time of the year, then it would be a good idea to book some lodging ahead of time. It is a popular National park after all. Luckily, Banff is RV-friendly! If you are planning to take your RV along for the trip make sure to find out ahead of time what campsites will permit allow your house on wheels.
The best Viewpoints here aren’t the ones you will see from you car. No. To see the most beautiful and awe inspiring sights you will have to go on foot. To truly see all that this national forest has to offer, you will need to hit some of the many trails. They range from short nature walks to daytrip-length mountain ascents. It doesn’t matter what your “speed” is, there’s something for everybody.
A Word Of Warning
There are lots of bears in Banff. Like, a lot. While in the States we’ve mostly eradicated grizzlies from their ancestral habitats (that once stretched as far south as Arizona and maybe even Mexico only as recent as the last 200 years), in Canada that isn’t the case. You need to plan and prepare for the case of coming across bears. For those of you that have visited Glacier National Park in Montana during the bears’ active seasons and been down to the riversides where they feed on the berries, you’ll know that they for the most part keep to themselves and aren’t interested in your human business, but bear attacks do happen. Don’t be anxious, though, there are just 2 simple things to do that will make the most difference in keeping them away and keeping you safe.
Travel in groups and carry bear spray. Don’t go anywhere alone, in this case, the more the merrier! Have fun while you’re out there… keep a conversation going, it never hurts to make a little noise like clapping every so often, bear attacks happen not because a bear is hunting for you, but because you startle it when it’s not expecting you to come around the corner. If it hears you coming, it will usually move and chances are you’ll never even see it. Bear Spray is the best thing money can buy for convincing an aggressive bear that he doesn’t want anything to do with you. Yep, better than a handgun. Besides the fact that it would be a major headache to get your firearms across the border legally, bullets don’t change a bear’s mind like bear spray does; it renders it’s senses of sight and smell more or less useless instead of just making it mad.
Something A Little Extra
When adventuring It’s always a good idea to have a base camp, a solid one too. A place where you can stay overnight and then get back to the trails the next day. So, check out these fantastic off road campers! https://www.rvsofamerica.com/inventory/?swoof=1&product_cat=in-stock
And here are some awesome off road videos: https://www.youtube.com/@ROAOffRoad