What is the first thing you think of when you someone says Banff? Chances are its Lake Louise, that’s what most people picture. Having just been, I can’t say I blame them. The lake and surrounding scenery is beautiful. But, while I’m glad to have seen it, sharing it with about 20,000 people in a single day wasn’t exactly my ideal. I hate crowds; the pushing, yelling, and waiting in line for the chance to take a photo, only to have someone run in front of you anyway. It drives me crazy. That being said, I also realize that in many places, my dream of having beautiful scenery to (almost) myself is, well, a dream. But thankfully not here. There are lots of amazing and quiet places to be found for those wanting to get off the beaten track in Banff National Park. These are my top suggestions.
Skip Canoeing on Lake Louise, Do it at Bow River
How many times have you searched for photos of Banff and stumbled across photos of someone canoeing on turquoise water with mountains in the distance? About a million? Yeah, me too. I’m not going to lie, canoeing on Lake Louise does make for great photos. But it’s also become a bit of a tourist trap. Rentals cost $105/hour, the lineups can be massive, and the lake isn’t really that big; meaning you probably won’t escape the other noisy, clumsy paddlers all keen on getting their perfect Instagram photos.
My advice? Skip it and head instead to the Banff Canoe Club on Bow River. You get your choice of a canoe or kayak, it’s only $40 per hour ($20 for each additional hour), there’s a very small wait time (if any), and the river is massive so you can go as far (or near) as you please. Plus, there is still pretty green/blue water and plenty of mountains in the background. You really can’t go wrong.
Skip Peyto Lake and Head to the Waterfowl Lakes
I thought Peyto Lake was going to be an off the beat destination on its own but, wow, was I wrong. Granted, it was no Lake Louise or Moraine Lake, but it was back to the same old move around a million people, wait for your photo etc. Oh, and the hike we did (the hike that everyone does) doesn’t even take you to the lake; you go way above it. Pretty? Yes. Quiet and peaceful? Absolutely not.
However, just past Peyto Lake are two gorgeous Lakes that almost nobody seems to go to: the Waterfowl Lakes. We stopped by chance thinking it might be a great spot to have lunch, and it turned out to be one of our absolute favourite spots. Why? Aside from two men leaving when we arrived, we had the entire lower lake to ourselves. Add gorgeous blue waters, surrounding mountains, a loon calling, and a warm breeze and it’s the idyllic ‘Canada’ that most people imagine.
Skip the Banff Gondola, Do the Mt. Norquay Chairlift
The Banff Gondola is on the top of the ‘must-do’ list along with Moraine Lake and Lake Louise. And it is pretty cool. But like everything else on the top of must-do lists it’s crowded, expensive, and hectic. Was the view great? Yes, it was. But in an area surrounded by mountains, you have to know that there will be other equally awesome viewpoints.
About 15 minutes outside of Banff Town is Mt. Norquay. Best known for downhill skiing or rock climbing, it also has a chairlift for those who want to take in the mountain top view. I’ll be honest; our early morning view was impeded by clouds, but while we didn’t see Banff town, watching the mountains appear and disappear through the cloud cover was pretty magical in itself. Perhaps the best part? The area is natural bear habitat, so keep your eyes open as you go up. While we didn’t see a bear we did see a fully grown long-horned sheep on the hill and a young one near the top. There is a bit of a walking path at the top with a couple of benches so grab a hot chocolate or coffee from the bistro and enjoy the view. If you are lucky, which we were, you won’t have to share with anyone else.
Skip Sunrise at Moraine Lake, Watch at Vermillion Lakes Instead
I love mornings. There’s something incredibly peaceful about watching the sun rise to greet the day. Unless of course you are surrounded by a few dozen others all trying to do the same. Most of which have 100 pounds of photography equipment and have no problem telling you and your DSL-R with only one lens to get out of ‘their shot’. Which is what tends to happen at the more popular spots like Moraine Lake where everyone clamors atop the huge rock pile to watch the lighting change.
So do yourself a favour, sleep in an extra hour, and go instead to the Vermillion Lakes. They are literally just outside of Banff Town; so close you could walk. There are three viewpoints with benches and/or docks around the lake. We went right to the far end with two docks and there was only one other vehicle there with us. We managed to set up our cameras for time lapses with nobody interfering and then relaxed in the peace and quiet of the early morning as we watched the sky change from inky blue to cotton candy pinks.
*Bonus tip: Sunset is pretty gorgeous here as well
Banff National Park is beautiful, and while I am definitely not saying avoid the tourist highlights of Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, or the Banff Gondola, don’t be afraid to explore a little more. There are definitely some off the beaten track spots in Banff, and they are worth finding. Not only will they save you from the crowds, but these places will probably be kinder on your budget as well!
*Thank your to Banff tourism who provided us with a media pass during our stay