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Canadian Rockies: Banff National Park

Editor's note: Part one of a four-part series. See the related articles at the bottom for the following three installments.

When people ask for my all-time best trip, I usually reply with the great national park destinations of the Canadian Rockies: Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper. Each scene is so perfect, so stunningly beautiful, it’s like you’ve become part of a fairy tale. This trip is so extraordinary that we’ve broken it into four parts, so we can give it adequate coverage and show you all the photographs that will make you want to drop everything and fly there right away! The manageable itinerary, with two nights in each park, showcases all the “greatest hits” of this unique region. This trip was truly unforgettable—our best ever.

  • The town of Banff lies in the Bow Valley, below Mt. Rundle. The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel can be seen right of center, appearing as a small castle. The Rimrock Resort Hotel and Banff Upper Hot Springs are perched above the valley along the road seen at upper right. Photo courtesy Travel Alberta.
  • From this photo, it’s easy to see why the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is often called “the castle in the Rockies.” Photo courtesy Travel Alberta.
  • The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is perched above both its golf course and the Bow River. Lacking major rapids, the Bow River is perfect for a relaxing float trip. Photo courtesy Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.
  • Enjoy a relaxing outdoor massage at the Fairmont’s Willow Stream Spa. Photo courtesy Travel Alberta.
  • Guests enjoy the Fairmont’s outdoor whirlpool, open year-round. Photo courtesy Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.
  • The multiple-award-winning Willow Stream Spa at Fairmont Banff Springs offers three waterfall treatments whirlpools designed to soothe and rejuvenate. Photo courtesy Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.
  • The indoor swimming pool at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Photo courtesy Travel Alberta.
  • Renowned for its panoramic beauty, the Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course also provides both a challenging layout and Stanley’s Smokehouse and Patio restaurant. Photo courtesy Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.
  • Hikers look down at Bow Falls, on the Bow River near the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Photo courtesy Travel Alberta.
  • Exterior view of the Rimrock Resort Hotel, Banff. Photo courtesy Rimrock Resort Hotel.
  • A corner view room at the Rimrock Resort Hotel offers wide-ranging views of the Bow Valley and the Spray Valley, as well as Mount Rundle. Photo courtesy Rimrock Resort Hotel.
  • Ha Ling Peak, on the left, towers above the town of Canmore, a 30-minute drive from Banff and home to an Olympic training facility. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
  • The author hikes just below the treeline on the trail to Ha Ling Peak. Allow about four hours round-trip for this hike, and go early to have the trail mostly to yourself. Photo by Fred Worthy.
  • Above the treeline now, Fred Worthy approaches the last portion of the trail to Ha Ling Peak. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • View six mountain ranges from the 360-degree observation deck at the top of the Banff gondola and enjoy world-class fine dining with world-class views in the elegant Sky Bistro. Photo courtesy Brewster Travel Canada.

Each glacial lake sports a different, utterly impossible shade of turquoise, framed by diamond-bright glaciers, pearly snow-capped peaks, and emerald conifers. Easily navigated hiking trails transport you into an alpine paradise dotted with colorful flowers—home to bighorn sheep, elk, and other wildlife you can see up close. The fresh air’s stillness is broken only by the sound of meltwater cascading down hillsides and the songs of birds busily raising families in the short summer. When it’s time to relax, the über-luxe, much-acclaimed hotels are staffed by friendly, intelligent people who know the meaning of fine service: paying attention and planning ahead to provide what the guest needs at any time. Even the flightseeing is “over the top,” if you’ll excuse the pun. 

A Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer stands near the entrance to Cascade Gardens in downtown Banff. These lovely gardens are missed by many tourists, as they are tucked behind the Parks Canada administration office, near the south end of town. Photo courtesy Travel Alberta.

AOPA provides an excellent overview of flying into Canada. Those with drunk driving or other criminal convictions, carrying restricted items, or traveling with children, should check with Canadian Immigration to be sure they will be allowed into the country. Follow the rules—passport, eAPIS, sticker, be on time, etc.—and it’s a breeze. If you’re based far from Canada, stopping and spending the night near the border on the U.S. side leaves you fresh the following day and eases compliance with customs procedures (i.e., arriving on time). Read the Canadian aviation regulations to understand standard operating procedures for flight within Canada. Our cross-border flight began at Missoula, Montana, and provided spectacular flightseeing over Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Springbank Airport, just west of Calgary, is an airport of entry and has rental cars.

It’s a 60-minute drive west from Springbank Airport to Banff, located in the Bow Valley. The Bow River runs past the iconic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, first opened in 1888 and rebuilt after a fire. The Canadian Pacific Railway originally built and operated the luxury hotels of the Canadian Rockies to attract wealthy tourists, employing Swiss hiking guides to assist hikers. When CP Hotels purchased Fairmont in 1999 the hotels took on the Fairmont name, maintaining the highest-quality service and food and modernizing where needed. Having seen this hotel in so many photos, it’s almost déjà-vu to actually pull up the driveway. Enjoy stunning views of Mount Rundle and the Bow Valley as the Banff Gondola carries you to a mountaintop 2,900 feet above Banff. Photo courtesy Brewster Tours.One of the world’s premier resort hotels, this Scottish Baronial “castle in the Rockies” is built of stone and looks toward the famed Mt. Rundle, whose seabeds have been thrust up, tilted toward the east, and exposed by eons of weather. The lush gardens are a riot of color; baskets overflowing with flowers hang from the lampposts. Numerous fine restaurants, a 27-hole championship golf course alongside the river that’s famed worldwide, and luxurious spa all ensure the hotel lives up to its reputation.

We stayed at the equally fabulous Rimrock Resort Hotel, perched above it all beside the Banff Upper Hot Springs and gondola. The Rimrock, deservedly an AAA/CAA 4-Diamond Hotel, features rooms and a lobby decorated with rich woods and furnishings, large windows, and a luxurious spa. A high corner room like the spacious Grandview Room 800 boasts views of both the Bow and Spray valleys. The next morning we followed the concierge’s directions to a hike up Ha Ling Peak to carefully crawl the last few feet and hang our heads over the cornice, with thousands of feet of air between our faces and the forest below. If you’d rather not climb a mountain, ride the gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain, reminiscent of the Mt. Pilatus gondola above Lucerne in Switzerland. Enjoy the view at the restaurant or take the easy 1-kilometer self-guided tour of the Banff Skywalk; hikers here will find access to trails where wildlife abounds.

Next, it’s on to Lake Louise.

Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: Canada

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