Taking Banff out of the Idea Vault
“Cheers to not knowing where we’re going!” was my dad’s first salute to adventure as we headed out on a 12 hour road-trip from Southern Washington to the Canadian Rocky mountains. Other than Banff and our 3 nights of campground stays, everything else was purposely unplanned. No campsites were booked for our first or last overnight stops and there was no minute by minute itinerary. All we had packed into the car was the necessary camping gear and little bit of room for spontaneity.
Summer after summer, I seem to spend time sitting behind my laptop screen creating itineraries for various road-trips that I only dream about taking. Banff National Park had been in the idea vault for a couple years now and I finally decided that I was going to complete the trip, no matter how it was going to happen. Like many people, I was drawn to the vivid images of turquoise lakes surrounded by the grandiose light grey mountain ranges, and just the thought of such a beautiful scenic drive made me want to hit the road. However, money and time were a couple of the obvious variables that concerned me. Who I would be going with as well as how I would book such a desired camping location with limited amount of time before the trip, were also critical factors I had to consider.
Knocking out my concern of who I would be traveling with, I decided to ask my dad if he would be up for the grand road-trip I had in mind. Rather than coordinating travel with a whole group while balancing different schedules, I decided to keep it less complex by travelling with only one person who also has a tolerance for unexpected circumstances and a similar craving for the great outdoors. Although, the planning of the trip was entirely in my hands. Checking campground availability in the stunning glacer-filled wilderness of Banff National Park one month before my desired trip window, was not an easy task. Both Two Jacks Main and Lakeside Campgrounds: Full. Tunnel Mountain I & village II Campgrounds: Full. I even went as far as checking the surrounding national park campgrounds including Yoho and Jasper which were each entirely full. My rule number one of the trip: there would be NO hotels, only camping. Eventually, there were campground cancellations which left single random spots open. I got lucky enough to book two nights in the Tunnel Mountain Campground and the third night in the Two Jacks Main Campground. Counting down only a couple of weeks, we would be exploring the wonders of the Canadian Rockies!
Hitting the Road: Pre-Canada
In my book, the journey on the road can be equally as important as the destination itself. For this reason, we decided to take one route to Banff National Park, and a completely different one on the way back home. The two routes were nearly equal in length, between 12-13 hours. The first path took us east through Idaho and directly up to Alberta, Canada. The way back down, we headed west towards Vancouver BC and down through Washington. Road-trips this long would not be complete without hours of music playlists, and the occasional podcast. My spotify was loaded with all kinds of music from alternative like The 1975 and Smallpools, to my throwback 2000s playlist, to Arizona party music. Downloaded onto my phone were also a variation of podcasts. I found quite the range of topics being on the road for multiple hours. At least one coffee a day made the drive that much easier too!
Camping Without a Campground
The halfway point in our drive left us near Coeur D’Alene Idaho, and it seemed perfect that Farragut National Park Campground was within only a few miles. Well, it would have been perfect if only there were open lots in the campground, but we arrived too late in the day for that to even be a possibility. Park Ranger Rick came to our rescue and offered to find us another camping spot for the night. Driving down the road and up to a totally isolated yellow field where a couple rickety picnic tables were randomly placed, I wondered why no one else was at this campsite. Come to find out, it was not actually a campsite. Park Ranger Rick had decided that he would create a new one for us, but he had to document it and warn us about potential wildlife in the area including mountain lions, coyotes, and cougars. The fact that this was not an actual campsite, and the thought of being eaten by a wild animal were a bit unsettling, but this seemed to be the only option… Cheers to adventure and not knowing where we’re going right! I guess that wildlife warning was necessary because as soon as I started to drift off to sleep in the tent, the growl of what seemed to be a cougar nearby made me go pale and totally freeze up. Fortunately, it did not eat us and I am glad we were not featured in the news as the Idaho campers who got brutally attacked.
Reaching the Rockies!
The grey mountain entrance into the Canadian Rocky Mountains was totally breathtaking following the second leg of the 12 hour drive, and crossing the border from the United States. After entering the National Park area, we drove a solid 2-3 hours deep into the mountains before hitting Banff. Reaching the picturesque downtown area, I hadn’t anticipated how large and lively it would be. My dad and I stopped for dinner downtown that evening, and over the course of our trip, we explored a few different restaurants after our activity-packed days. One of the mornings we had the best omelettes at Tooloulous, a popular breakfast spot. Then 20,000 tracked steps later, we ended that long day at 10:00 pm eating excellent food at the Indian Curry House. Honestly, exploring the beautiful downtown area was not even something I had considered much prior to the trip, but it was a great addition to the experience.
Camping, Canyons, and Very Cold Weather
Cleverly innovated bear trash-receptacles and warning signs lined the road on the drive towards our first campground in Tunnel Mountain.
Thankfully this time there would be an actual campground with actual people that occupied it, instead of just us and the wildlife. Not long after setting up our tent the temperature in the park cooled down rapidly to around 40 degrees. Thunderstorms, lightning and heavy rain accompanied the chilling temperatures at 4:00 in the morning.
My temperature insulated sleeping bag was not enough to keep me comfortable since the thunder was sounding more vigorous and my exaggerated fear of death by lightning was all consuming. We also made the genius choice not to stake our tent down, so my dad got up to do that as I comically ran around the inside trying to keep the tent from blowing away. Needless to say, I slept in the car for the next hour until the storm was over.
As PNW natives, the full day of rainstorms ahead did not stop us from visiting the upper and lower falls of Johnston Canyon. The rush of the turquoise water through the giant canyons and crevices was well worth the hike even in the pouring rain. The lower falls portion of the trail ended in a cave opening up to a misty waterfall on the other side. As we hiked up further to the upper falls, we were rewarded with even better views of the roaring waterfalls from above, which all made for stunning photo-ops with our Nikon and Go-pro.
Tunnel Mountain Moments
We returned back to our campsite with quite a surprise after our first long day. We never took our tent down... so where did it go?! The wind speed must have really picked up while we were gone because we found that our originally staked down tent collapsed and had blown a few meters into the trees. I could not help but laugh at the sight of my dad dragging the whole tent through the dirt once he spotted it. The night continued with comical struggles consisting of trying to build a fire in the rain and running away from the swarms of mosquitoes every five seconds.
Exploring Turquoise Lakes and Grey Glaciers
Sleep in the storms was very minimal, but our next day trip to Lake Louise had me re-energized and ready to go! If you ever travel to Banff for any reason, the sole thing you absolutely need to do is visit Lake Louise. Nothing compares to the view of the vibrant turquoise lake with the backdrop of grey glaciers, lined with evergreen trees. However, the view of so many visitors photographing around the lake is something I could do without. I had the chance to take a few pictures of Lake Louise before we hiked a couple thousand feet more in elevation up to Lake Agnes. One thing I certainly did not understand was the dad carrying a stroller up the mountain that maxed out at a 51% grade. That right there is dedication. Despite the significant grade on the lengthy trail, the exhaustion was worth the views on the way up. Mirror lake is a smaller spot hidden within the glaciers before continuing all the way up to Lake Agnes, near the top peak of the glacier. A unique addition to the hike was the log cabin TeaHouse that had been built all the way at the top, overlooking Lake Louise, thousands of feet below! Finishing the hike, we decided to end the day with the classic Lake Louise activity of canoeing.
How could you not take the opportunity on a lake that gorgeous!
The 4th Tent Set-up and a Grizzly Bear
Night number 4 on the road meant the 4th time putting up the tent, including the set-up following the “missing tent incident”. On the drive up to the Two Jacks Main Campground, we had a grizzly bear sighting along the grass by the road, 2 miles from our camping location. I was pretty stoked to have seen and captured a couple pictures of a bear our last night in the rockies… trip officially made. Upon arrival to camp-spot #41 seemingly miles deep into the forest, we were greeted with an even larger swarm of mosquitoes. I was practically covered head to toe in bites by the end of the trip. Thanks to the mosquitoes, this last attempt took us less than 9 minutes before zipping up the tent for the night.
Following the “No Hotel” Rule
A final “cheers to not knowing where we’re going” was made as we grabbed a coffee in downtown Banff and started our second route headed towards home. We had in mind two separate 6-7 hour drives between that day and the next, but the storms at the halfway area in BC deterred us from wanting to set up the tent for a 5th time. A diner stop and a second coffee were exactly what we needed to carry us over into doing the full drive home in about 13 hours, walking through our front door at 4:00 am.
The most worthwhile experiences do not go perfectly according to plan and there are always little lessons to take with you.
Lessons Specific to Canada:
#1: 120 km/hr on the highway means 75 mi/hr, don’t be a psycho American driver.
#2: The exchange rate of $1 in Canada= $0.76 in the US. So that's a plus!
#3: There is a time change in Alberta, not BC. There is also a time change in Northern Idaho... Driving through time-zones, we got confused.
Random Lessons for Camping and Road-tripping:
#1: Have ideas, but don’t over-plan. Expect the unexpected and you won’t be disappointed… there was so much to do where we were and it was impossible to do it all in such a short amount of time. But we made the most of what we did!
#2: Roughing it camping is fun, but still go prepared. The little things really can make all the difference. We didn’t have sleeping pads, so we slept practically on rocks, which was not conducive to good sleep for any of the nights. If you’re camping in cold conditions, have lots of extra blankets and a temperature insulated sleeping bag.
#3: If you have two phones on the trip, leave one on airplane mode. I had to do this so I would not get charged for cellular data outside the country. This turned out to be really beneficial too, because I used my phone way less and got to appreciate the experience so much more.
With that last note, put down your phone and go start a new adventure!