As Canadians, we've both seen a startlingly small part of Canada. Once you set out on a road trip driving between provinces, the reason becomes clear: Canada is huge, and just driving across British Columbia (our home province) can take time.
Vancouver, B.C., to Banff, Alberta, is about nine hours of driving. Add on to that a 90 minute ferry ride to or from Vancouver Island, and that distance gets even longer. Luckily, it's an enjoyable drive overall. This section of the Trans-Canada Highway winds through forested valleys, up over mountain passes, and alongside rivers and lakes. This sort of natural beauty, coupled with the occasional wildlife encounter, makes driving across British Columbia a must-do.
There are also a lot of great places to stop for food and beverages along the way. If you're looking for vegan options, Janice wrote a little guide to some of the best places to find vegan food from Vancouver to Banff (and beyond).
Golden, British Columbia
One of the best things we did on this trip was staying in a tipi at an amazing place near Golden: Quantum Leaps Lodge (Janice found this gem!). They do have other accommodation options on site (so there's something here for everyone), and they run group retreats fairly regularly—this is definitely something we would love to revisit and take part in one day.
Quantum Leaps also takes steps towards sustainability which we found really inspiring. Along with the retreat and accommodations, which include a shared outdoor shower and kitchen next to the river for guests to use, they also operate a small farm complete with roaming chickens. If you're interested in sustainability and permaculture, and/or are looking for a more spiritual experience where you can reconnect with nature (and with yourself), this would be a great place to start.
We didn't realize prior to this experience how functional and practical tipis really are. Having a fire in the tipi without getting smoked out is easier than I thought: convection caused by the heat of the fire pushes the smoke up to the top of the tipi, where it then gets vented out into the open air through a hatch. This works because the tipi itself is actually an open-air structure that's fully ventilated from the bottom of every wall. Even the door to the tipi is essentially just a piece of fabric draped across the entrance, which did make it a little eery at night by the fact that our hosts had a black bear roaming around their property on the day we arrived.
With this constant flow of fresh air cycling in at all times, smoke would get pushed up and out of the top of the tipi (as heat rises)—meanwhile, you get to enjoy all of that fresh mountain air while falling asleep to the warmth of a crackling fire. I did make a mistake that first night when I got it in my head that I should try and keep the fire going all night long...
After early success adding fresh wood to the fire, I eventually overslept and woke up in the middle of the night with just a few smoldering coals left. Here, I made the mistake of trying to get the fire going again. This resulted in a huge amount of smoke being generated, but with no actual fire—and hence very little heat. This lack of convection caused the excess smoke to flood our tipi (oops!). I solved this problem by tossing the smoldering/smoking logs out the entrance and keeping the door flap open so that the smoke would vent out—this eventually worked and we went back to sleep, with no fire.
The next night, I decided I wouldn't make that same mistake and would make sure to add more wood before the fire died. I woke up about two hours after falling asleep and the fire was completely out (oops again!)—this time, I just left it. I'd wanted to keep the fire going as a bit of an animal deterrent (in addition to that bear sighting on the property, we'd also found what appeared to be wolf tracks earlier that day), and it just so happens that later that night, Janice thought she heard something outside while she was going out to pee and woke me up thinking it might be a bear. That put us a little bit on edge for a while, but we eventually got back to sleep and woke up still alive in the morning (the hosts had also provided bear spray in the tipi, just in case).
Besides the smoke and wildlife incidents, we slept like a dream in the tipi, cozied up under a mountain of blankets, with the peaceful sound of the river rushing by to lull us into a deep and restful sleep. Needless to say, it was a great couples' retreat!
While we loved sleeping in the tipi, it wasn't only the tipi that made this experience so special. Just getting to spend so much time up-close with nature is revitalizing, and the perfect way to balance out the constant hum of the structured work-week and the stress that comes with it. If city life is the ailment, then cooking and showering outdoors, falling asleep in the open air to the sound of the river, and frolicking in the clay and mud on the riverbank is the perfect remedy.
Lake Louise, Alberta
In short, Lake Louise is quite beautiful and quite touristy, and you can't get the beauty without dealing with the crowds.
We found out that Spring is not the best time to visit Lake Louise—the lake is still covered in ice and snow, creating a kind of slush that's not the most pleasant thing to look at. Here's what it looked like when we were there near the end of May, 2019:
For comparison, I also happen to have visited Lake Louise in early September, 2018, and hiked up to a viewpoint above the lake. In the summer, the lake looked like this:
A bit of a disappointment this time around is that a lot of the trails were closed or not very accessible because they were still covered in snow. We had planned to trek up to one of the teahouses for a mini picnic, but found out part-way along the trail that the teahouses don't open until well into June.
Spring might be the worst time to visit, because the seasons are still changing and you get the worst of both worlds. In winter, the lake is fully frozen over and you can walk on it—it becomes a winter wonderland. In summer, the lake is fully thawed and you can take a boat out on it and hike up to viewpoints in the surrounding area. When we went in May, neither of these things was possible (the lake is too melted to walk on, but the trails are still covered in snow and slush).
With slushy trails and no hopes for a soothing tea at the end of it all, we decided to cut our day short at Lake Louise and head into Banff instead.
For reference, here's what Lake Louise looks like from the front at different times of the year. This first picture was taken on September 4, 2018:
This second picture was taken on May 20, 2019:
To top off our Lake Louise experience, Moraine Lake was also closed (I believe due to snowy conditions), as were other nearby hiking trails. We really didn't expect going in that trail conditions would be a problem, or that Lake Louise would still be frozen over—but that's what we get for not doing all of our research ahead of time!
Overall, tourist attractions like Lake Louise generally aren't our cup of tea. It seems things like this most often lead to disappointment and a solemn sense of unfulfillment. Instead, getting off of the beaten path and pursuing more spiritual and fulfilling experiences tends to be more our style. Our time at the retreat in Golden was a far more enriching experience than the time we spent at Lake Louise, and we found ourselves wishing we'd taken more time at the former (although, part of that could be due to the disappointing conditions).
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Some tips for visiting Lake Louise in Banff National Park: 🏞 1. It's going to be crowded. There will be people everywhere, looking for the perfect instagram shot. Expect all of the good photo spots to be swamped, but also know that this means lots of opportunities to requisition strangers to help you take that perfect couples' photo (if that's the sort of thing you're in to). 🏞 2. Stick to the Summer or Winter months. We tried going in Spring, which may be the worst time. The ice is still melting and turning to slush, and the lake just isn't at its best (I guess it doesn't fully thaw until late June?). Also, the trails were still snowy and some weren't yet open. You'd be best either a) going in Winter when the lake is fully frozen and you can walk or cross country ski across it, or b) going in late Summer when the snow and ice have melted in all of its turquoise glory and you can get out on the lake in a boat. Also, hiking trails leading to scenic teahouses aren't fully open until Summer. 🏞 3. Parking is a nightmare. If you can't get there super early or by some other means, consider taking the shuttle bus (err... school bus) from the overflow parking lot located 5km up the highway towards Banff. The trip via shuttle bus is included in your park pass. 🏞 4. If you see wildlife, give it some space (and respect!). This goes for everywhere in general, but it's particularly important inside of National Parks where animals tend to be part of the experience. We got to see a momma grizzly with two grizzly cubs on the main road up to Lake Louise - this quickly caused a traffic jam as people started getting out of their vehicles, pulling out their cameras, and approaching the bears for an up-close photo. The momma bear didn't seem to notice or care, but this could have been a super dangerous situation had the momma grizzly became agitated - not to mention it's super disrespectful to these wild animals who may not have an interest in appearing in everyone's selfies. Yes, nature is cool - but use some common sense! #Banff #LakeLouise #BanffNationalPark #ExploreAlberta #TravelCanada
Banff, Canmore, and Kananaskis
After our chilly Lake Louise experience, we decided to head into Banff and check out the Upper Banff Hot Springs to help stave off the cold. These hot springs are reasonably priced and get you some decent views over the surrounding area (they're located part-way up a mountain)—also, it's an artificial swimming pool that spring water gets fed into. Not quite a natural wonder, but still a nice way to relax while visiting Banff.
The Upper Banff Hot Springs provides bathing suits and towels in case you forget yours. We went in the early afternoon (around 1:00 PM) and it wasn't too busy when we got there, but started getting busy as we were leaving.
Overall, we enjoyed Banff. But, as with Lake Louise, Banff is a bit too touristy for our tastes. After exploring Banff across two days, we headed to Canmore—this town has a much better vibe (more of a real town instead of a tourist town), and you still get beautiful mountain views and a more relaxed vibe. If we're back in the Banff National Park area in the future, we may very well choose to stay in Canmore and spend more time exploring there (there's also a bike path that runs all the way between Banff and Canmore, which seems like a fun day-trip option).
On the last couple of nights on our road trip, we stayed in a Trapper's Tent at Sundance Lodges in Kananaskis—about a 30 minute drive from Canmore. Unfortunately, after our rejuvenating and fulfilling experience in our tipi, we weren't very impressed with the Trapper's Tent setup and experience.
The tent itself is aesthetic and looks cool from the outside, but it's not the most practical. Inside, the "tent" doesn't warm up from body heat alone (like a normal tent)—instead, they provide a small kerosine heater to help warm the place up at night (as it does get quite cold). A byproduct of burning kerosine for heat is that you get to inhale the kerosine fumes all night long. Instead of doing that, we decided to do without the kerosine heater and endure a couple of frosty nights (our sleeping bags and gear were enough to keep us warm, but not as warm as we were in the tipi).
Another issue is that, for some reason, the sides of the trapper's tent hover above the ground and don't fully enclose the area. This means lots of bugs and spiders crawling around inside of the tent all night (because it's warmer and more sheltered than being outside)—they also come up through the floorboards, which have gaps in between them.
Overall, we would have been far better off in our own tent, and were on the verge of setting it up outside on our second night here rather than enduring another frosty night in the trapper's "tent" with all of the bugs. While we did enjoy our time at this campsite overall, it couldn't match our tipi experience in Golden. It could also have been that we just didn't visit at the best time, as the entire campsite was almost completely empty apart from ourselves, which made it a little bit spooky. Overall, the trapper's tent wasn't quite worth the price we paid, and we would have been better off setting up our own tent instead.
From Janice Green:
The absolute highlight of Kananaskis was the Nordic Spa. This is a new addition to the area, and it's a bit off the beaten path. However, it’s very much worth the trek. Set in the scenic mountains of Kananaskis, off of the Pomeroy Kananaskis Mountain Lodge, you’ll be transported into another world. This spa is so well done. It’s a really creative fusion of Canadian elements mixed with traditional Nordic Spa concepts (saunas, hot pools, cold pools, steam rooms). There are also some amazing hammocks that our friend practically got stuck in (and by stuck I mean loved so much she wanted to stay forever). This is a place where you could easily spend all day. Keep in mind, though, it’s a no cell phone zone. Complete rest and relaxation are highly encouraged. I highly recommend trying a massage, which is an experience in itself.
We ended our trip in Kananaskis, pulled a U-turn and drove back to Victoria in one day. It took nearly 10 hours to drive from Kananaskis, Alberta, to Vancouver, British Columbia. As we came down from the Rocky Mountains, we felt the humidity return to the air and watched landscapes transform back into the West Coast ecosystem we're so familiar with. Sitting on our 90-minute ferry ride back to Vancouver Island, we breathed in the thick, salty ocean air and felt grateful to be returning to our little island paradise.
It's only when we go on a road trip like this that we realize just how far away we are from the rest of the world sometimes. There's still so much to explore—in B.C. and in the rest of Canada!