Beautiful places exist – in pictures, in videos, in blogs, on social media . . . but seeing these places in real time is an entirely different experience. I traveled to Alberta, Canada with one of my best friends from September 28, 2017 – October 3, 2017. Three words come to mind when thinking back on this trip of a lifetime: incomprehensible, awestruck, disbelief. I had been out of the United States a few times before, so I already understood the great joy I feel when traveling and exploring. You understand where you’re going, you’ve done research, and you’ve looked at hundreds of pictures. . . Nothing can prepare you for the utter beauty of places such as Banff National Park, Jasper National Park, and Yoho National Park. Optimize your time here; wake up for the sunrises; see the sunsets; do the touristy excursions (at least once) – Every minute you spend outside is going to be worth it because the memories you leave with will be irreplaceable. Our days occasionally would span over 15 hours, and even though we were exhausted when we finally made it back to our room, we savored every second of our time exploring.
Moraine Lake is one of the iconic lakes in Banff National Park. It is a must-see, but be prepared for larger crowds. We hiked the rock pile there twice, once our first afternoon there and again one morning when we made it before sunrise. The view from the top of the rock pile is well worth the short hike that may leave you slightly breathless (in more ways than one!).
Sunrise at Peyto Lake; Helicopter Tour – Six Glaciers; Abraham Lake; Glacier Adventure
Nat and I aren’t morning people. We dread alarm clocks but need them desperately. All of our days on this trip started around 6 a.m. We ended up realizing we would be early for our helicopter tour and took a short detour to Peyto Lake before heading back to our original route, and we are SO glad we did. We found one of the most incredible sunrises I’ve ever seen with minimal people around to witness it. Peyto Lake ended up being one of my favorites . . . We ended up seeing this lake four times on our trip, and it looked different every time (each time looking more beautiful than the last).
We opted to do a helicopter tour while we were there since we are both a little more grounded financially than we used to be; we wanted this trip to be one of first experiences; and we are both a bit adventurous. A family of three rode in our helicopter with us, and a nice man sat in between us in the back so we could both have window seats (I’m forever thankful for people like this – People who want others to experience things they’ve already seen in a similar capacity; people who approach you with kindness and generosity). To this very minute, I do not believe that I was in a helicopter flying over the Canadian Rockies. It felt like a dream I never wanted to wake up from. The pilot flew us near glaciers, over mountains, over lakes and rivers, over trees – both green and yellow . . . Most of which we do not have back home. This is the first example of where the word “disbelief” comes to mind. When we stepped off the helicopter, neither of us had the words to describe just how incredible the experience was. Nat and I looked at each other, shook our heads, and had no words to exchange.
There are pull-offs all over the highways in Alberta to allow tourists to get their pictures and breathe in the views. We pulled over near Abraham Lake and hiked down a steep hill to the base of the lake. Where we are from, there isn’t a whole lot that makes you remember how expansive the world is; how small we are in comparison. From the helicopter tour to standing at the base of Abraham Lake, I managed to remember these things twice before 11 a.m. on our first full day there – our first morning set the mood for our entire trip.
The Glacier Adventure is the epitome of a tourist attraction, but the ability to say, “I walked on a glacier” is pretty dang cool and worth the experience. Expect crowds, and dress warmly! You will take a tour bus to another set of buses specifically equipped for traveling on the glaciers. Our tour guide (Nick) ended up being our driver through being dropped off at the Glacier Skywalk, so we actually got quite a treat as he was personable, funny, and full of facts. They give you about 30 minutes to walk around and get your pictures before you are to return to the snow coach. They do inform you that the water is clean/clear enough to drink! We actually saw one gentleman fill up gallons with glacier water to bring home with him.
On our way back to the lodge, we stopped at the next iconic lake in Banff: Lake Louise. We did not stay long because we had jam-packed our first whole day already, and we wanted to get away from the massive crowds. We did sit down, take in the view, and take a few pictures before heading back to town. Lake Louise is another “must-do,” much like Moraine Lake. While Lake Louise is beautiful and unique, we gravitated more toward Peyto Lake and Moraine Lake.
Mistaya Canyon; Sunwapta Falls; Athabasca Falls; Maligne Lake (Jasper); Horseshoe Lake; Lake Louise
Day 3 was our BIG driving day. We spent nearly 10 hours in the car, but we made quite a few stops along the way. We luckily had a pretty impressive Spotify playlist downloaded, in addition to mountains surrounding the highways. Mistaya Canyon was our first stop, and after this, I realized I’d spend this entire trip staring into vast distances wondering how places this beautiful even come to exist — it’s quite “incomprehensible” even though you’re aware of what you’re looking at. In these National Parks, you’ll find clean air, clear water, mountains, lakes, streams, boulders, wildlife (we saw some mountain goats, a few chipmunks, deer, and an elk — we were only disappointed that we didn’t see a moose!), and ever-changing weather. You will need to pack for many different climates since the weather in the mountains is so unpredictable and changes in seconds. On this particular day, we had sunshine, rain, and even snow — luckily, we were well prepared.
Mistaya Canyon was a short hike but well worth it. We started early again this day, so we didn’t encounter very many people on our stop here at all. This was the first of many waterfalls we saw, each one being uniquely beautiful and fascinating. There wasn’t as much to see at Sunwapta Falls, our next stop, but we preferred this to Athabasca Falls (mainly because of the smaller crowds).
Athabasca Falls is a bigger, more impressive waterfall that has plenty of exploring surrounding it. We tended to gravitate toward the quieter places, which is where we captured some of our best pictures. I’d highly suggest walking a few extra steps to get these more intimate places, where you can hear yourself think and truly drink in your surroundings.
Next, we headed to Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park. We didn’t stay here long as we were slightly disappointed that we could not figure out how to reach Spirit Island (a place frequently shared on Instagram). Pro-tip: We later found out we would have had to rent a canoe to reach it. You won’t have service in many of the places you’re looking to find, so we would both recommend researching prior to exploring many areas, especially if you’re looking to see certain places you’ve stumbled across while researching/planning your trip.
We stopped at Horseshoe Lake next. We originally thought it was an unimpressive stream but thought to ourselves that couldn’t be it and kept walking. We had our hiking boots on for this (thankfully) as we did a bit of exploring here. We found a place where we spent a decent amount of time resting because of the crisp, cool air, clear water, and beautiful ledges. I have to say one of the most impressive things I noticed myself frequently thinking about was how water carved out rock so smoothly.
We stopped at Peyto Lake on the way back to our lodge (for the third time). To my surprise, it was snowing. I squealed like a little kid on Christmas morning as I’d only remembered seeing snow in Louisiana — which is more like dirty slush that melts before it hits the ground. This snow was white and fluffy, and it stuck to the ground and the trees so beautifully . . . Snowfall: My third “first” during this trip. I personally struggle with a decent amount of depression, and the thoughts I had while in Alberta were never negative, anxious, or stress-ridden — I felt content and happier than I’d been in years throughout the whole trip. I remember looking out over Peyto Lake with Nat by my side and feeling lucky to be alive and seeing the things we were seeing, doing the things we were doing. I truly felt at peace.
Sunrise at Lake Moraine; Lake Minnewaka; Top of Mount Norquay; Vermilion Lakes
Day 4 was our quieter, less hectic day. We woke early and drove to Moraine Lake before sunrise. Again, it was snowing! We arrived right around 8 a.m., and I would suggest hitting places like Moraine Lake early in the morning because it was relatively quiet. The reflection of the mountains on the lake was clear and allowed for some truly incredible pictures.
We drove to Lake Minnewaka, the top of Mount Norquay, which overlooks dowtown Banff, and the Vermilion Lakes on this afternoon. The light hitting one of the mountains while we were at Lake Minnewaka left me a bit “awestruck.” I’d been seeing many different shapes and sizes of mountains while on this trip, but the lighting is always different. We passed so many of the same things more than once, and everything always looked different than the day before, whether it be because more snow fell, the sun was at a different place in the sky, clouds were covering an area they weren’t before . . . I loved how no place ever looked the same twice. By the time we reached the Vermilion Lakes, the wind had quieted, and the reflection of the mountains onto these lakes was flawless . . . I was “awestruck” once again.
Snowfall at Peyto Lake; Herbert Lake; Emerald Lake (Yoho); Takakkaw Falls (Yoho); Johnston Canyon; Gondola to Top of Sulphur Mountain
Day 5 ended up being our most active day. Nat wanted to see sunrise at Peyto Lake one more time, and I sleepily agreed we should. I am so glad we did because once we arrived, we realized we couldn’t see the lake, but it was for a reason we were not disappointed in. It was snowing quite densely. We were the only ones at the lake this morning; we saw snow clinging to the trees (one of Nat’s favorite views and mine too) and snow piling up on the deck overlooking the lake. I felt pure joy and excitement. My emotions on this trip were so raw, so overwhelming — in the best way. We had passed Herbert Lake several times over the few days we were there, but we hadn’t made it around to stopping yet. Lucky for us, on this day, snow was on the ground all around this lake. It was breathtaking.
We made our way to Yoho National Park next. We did some hiking around Emerald Lake and met the nicest store owner. The friendly, interested people always leave the biggest impression on me — cherish your encounters with them, and let the rude encounters (which unfortunately happen) roll off your back. My brother once told me, “You are the sky and everything else is just the weather.” I’ve carried this quote with me since I heard it, especially referencing it on this trip. People are going to be rude, but they can only affect you if you let them. This also applies to unpleasant situations or disappointments, large or small. We may have ranted about unpleasant people we encountered or something that didn’t live up to the grandeur we’d created in our minds, but the excellence of this trip can be compared to no other trip I’ve been on to date. I’d like to thank my therapist and this quote my brother provided me with for this (and the several people whom I have come to love more dearly than I ever thought possible due to recent circumstances in my life).
Around Emerald Lake, we found some of the barest elements of fall, and this lake clearly received its name for a reason. This was definitely worth the venture to Yoho. Takakkaw Falls was our next stop. The water in the river from the falls is so blue and clear, you can see to the very bottom. This was one of the larger waterfalls we saw (in height) and was another stop we made that left me thinking about how such places form. Truly inspiring.
Ahh, Johnston Canyon . . . do yourself a favor, and hike the upper and lower falls. While the lower falls are beautiful, we found a river canyon that we knew about from social media off the path between the upper and lower falls. This river canyon was completely awe inspiring. There is a massive boulder and a waterfall down here. Be careful hiking here because you’ll have to do some climbing. Not many people seemed to know about this cherished spot, which made our experience there a bit more special. We probably hiked about 4 ½ miles here, and every second was worth it.
The last thing we did was take a gondola up to the top of Sulphur Mountain. I took a gondola in the Swiss Alps, and Nat has taken one in Austria. We both agreed they were nothing like being at the top of one of the mountains in the Canadian Rockies. It had been snowing off and on for two days, so we didn’t stay up there long because of how cold it was. The mountains were covered in snow, we could see some of our favorite lakes, downtown Banff looked so quaint, and I was completely blown away by the view on ALL sides. Our gondola actually stopped for a minute on the way down, which gave us both a small fright. We laughed about it after we made it back onto solid ground, but that’s another memory I’ll always look back on.
Your experiences will always be what you make of them, and in conclusion, I’ll never tire of the mountains — I know Nat agrees.
To see the differences from this trip compared to my last trip, click here.
Lengthy post written by Catherine Hebert