The Best of Banff

15 July 2015

I have to be honest, we didn't do very much research before we left for Banff. Whoops! Usually, I'm nose-deep in guidebooks, blogs and Yelp reviews before I leave for any trip. This time? Not so much. We just packed the car and headed north to Canada, picking up park maps and free guidebooks at visitor centers along the way. Without ample planning, we missed out on a few top sites and experiences in Banff, but we still ended up covering a lot of ground during our 3+ days in the area. For a full Banff itinerary, check out this post.

Emerald Lake from The Best of Banff | The Brave Little Cheesehead at
Two of our friends joined us for our summer road trip, and we each chose a site or activity we were most excited to see or do—the pillars of our itinerary, if you will. They were non-negotiable. And everything else we did had to be planned around our four picks. Those aside, we all agreed that Lake Louise had to be at the top of our agenda. So, we made it the first thing to cross off the list. 

But the ranger at the Field Visitor Center threw a wrench in our plans when she basically begged us to do a U-turn and go see Emerald Lake. It wasn't even on our radars. 

But thank goodness for rangers. It took our breath away.

The Best of Banff | Brave Little Cheesehead at
Left to right, top to bottom: Moraine Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Bow Valley River by canoe, Lake Louise 

We continued on to Lake Louise. As soon as Kyle turned off the car in the lot, I could feel the jitters. My favorite moment of every bucket-list trip is when I finally step foot in front of the very reason the destination made my list. Lake Louise was just that. I'd ooh-ed and ahh-ed at hundreds—if not thousands—of photos of Lake Louise before we finally, finally made plans to visit. 

I walked up to the spot where those hundreds of photos had been taken. And seeing it in person, with my own two eyes, it was one million times more incredible than any photo of it could ever be. You need to visit this place.

Lake Louise from The Best of Banff | The Brave Little Cheesehead at

After taking a thousand photos of my own, we stopped off at Moraine Lake, another recommendation from the ranger. She was so excited just talking about Moraine Lake that I thought it had potential to trump everything we'd already seen. But walking up to it, I wasn't so sure what all the hype was about. I chalked up my disappointment to the possibility that I was still on cloud nine from Lake Louise. After reading about Moraine Lake's Rockpile Trail days later (and just hours before we started our trip home to Seattle), we decided to stop back to see what it was all about. 

And we're so glad we did. At the top of the rock pile, we laid eyes on the most incredible scenery of our entire trip: Moraine Lake reflecting the dramatic Valley of Ten Peaks. People, do not miss this.

Moraine Lake & Rockpile from The Best of Banff | The Brave Little Cheesehead at

As for our pillars, we covered all four and then some.

Johnston Canyon | This was my pick. It was recommended in just about every guidebook I could get my hands on, and the photos looked stellar. Yet, I was 10 feet from the coolest photo of all and I didn't even realize it until after we'd left. Don't make this mistake! Do a little off-roading on the Upper Falls trail and get this shot. (You'll know you're on the right path when you see the upside down tree. Also, if you're not following Jordan Herschel, you should. He's so good.)

Whitewater Rafting | So, we fucked up here. The best rafting is on Kicking Horse River, way back in Golden. And all the rafting reservations were booked when we arrived in Banff (duh). So, I recommend booking this in advance. In lieu of rafting, we rented canoes (similar but different?) from The Banff Canoe Co. and paddled the Bow Valley River. It was stunning. 

Take a Hike | Originally, I wanted to hike to a teahouse (as so many guidebooks recommend). It's almost a Banff staple. Lake Agnes seemed pretty cool since guides preach about the views and photo spots just passed the teahouse. Then we considered Tunnel Mountain Trail, another well-reviewed summit. Somehow, we came across Grassi Lakes trail online and the photos spoke for themselves. This was certainly a highlight of our trip (and any easy trek, too)! I recommend bringing bear spray, just in case; there was a black bear on our trail!

Stand-up Paddleboarding (SUP) | We brought our two 30-lb. boards on the road with us hoping to get out on one of the glacial lakes. You know, enjoy the beauty of the aqua waters, be captivated in the mountain views, and maybe catch hypothermia. Yeah, we were crazy for thinking about SUPing on these waters. The lakes are freezing—always! Locals recommended a few SUP spots to us, like Johnson Lake and the Canmore Reservoir, since they're calm and warm.

We also squeezed in some breweries, a ride on the Banff Gondola (for people afraid of heights like me, consider this a $42 panic attack), and a few drives down the Bow Valley Parkway in search of wildlife. We were lucky enough to see a moose, a bear and its cub (!), a caribou, and lots of mountain goats while we were in Banff. Looking back, we wish we would've skipped the Cows ice cream shop and Banff Brewing Co. They just missed the mark to us.

The Best of Banff, Banff Bucket List | The Brave Little Cheesehead at

Had we planned better, I would've liked to hike to a teahouse and Tunnel Mountain, take a dip in the hot springs, raft the Kicking Horse River, bike the Legacy Trail, and get on the water at Emerald Lake. Maybe it was because it was the first glacial lake of the trip—I'm not sure—but, to me, something about Emerald Lake made it even more memorable than the others. And I think I'd like to spend a lot more time there.

Next time, we'll do it all. ;)

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  1. Ahh, you guys, this was SO helpful! I'm from nearby Banff (but now based in Virginia!) and I still had no idea what to do when I visit the area in May. Going to be crossing these all off, hopefully! Thanks so much!

    -Lindsay @

  2. You're so lucky to have grown up near this gorgeous region. I loved it so much I started searching for a new job in Alberta, no joke.

    Hopefully this helps you start planning! There are so many incredible places to visit in this area; you won't be disappointed no matter what you see and do. Have a great time!