Banff - The Story of Bears, Beers & Running
Banff has been on my bucket list for a long while. After not-so-sneakily stalking some of my favorite Canadian Instagrammers, I had created a list of places that I wanted to visit on our excursion into the land of mountains and maple syrup.
Banff. It's hard not to fall in love with the pictures that you see online - quiet snow-capped mountain settings with crystal clear turquoise water. The occasional bear. The free-roaming wildlife and so much untouched wilderness!
There's nothing about Banff that disappoints. We were there for the marathon, but also as a vacation.We had rented an amazing condo through AirBnB, in the quaint little mountain town of Canmore. Canmore is about as perfect of a small town as you can imagine. With the mountains looming in the background, Canmore has a sleepy eclectic style - full of log buildings, local cuisine, and ski shops. It was a great spot to stay if you're in the area and a perfect jumping off point for the much busier city of Banff.
We started the first day of our adventure with a long drive up through Banff National Park and into the city of Jasper and to Jasper National Park. The Trans-Canadian Highway is much like you would expect in any national park - long, winding, and full of gorgeous scenery. We were on our way to the Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Ice Fields to take a tour of the glacier. I'd never seen anything remotely close to this, so I was really excited!
The glacier tour was definitely worth the drive (although, it could be construed as a bit touristy). We took an ice crawler out to the base of the glacier after an informative tour and the guides instructed us where to stay on the ice. I thought that Brewster did a great job with the tour. The guides were having fun (yes, even though they were reading from a script. Ask me about my personal life!), and were thorough in their explanations of the how's and why's of the glacier. This was my first tour of any place that I had been so far this year, and I had been a little reluctant to sign on. Even though it catered to those with the selfie sticks, I thought it was an amazing experience.
Being on the ice definitely has a way of making you feel tiny. Even though they were discussing the amount of ice melt it loses each year, it was still immense and expansive. It felt otherworldly to stand on a land of ice, seeing the bright crystal blue water of the glacier run underneath our feet. Several of my friends stopped to drink the water (as the guide suggested!) and we definitely took plenty of photographs.
After we finished with our time on the ice (it was incredibly cold and windy!), we headed to the skywalk, an open overlook maybe half a mile up from the glacier. The overlook (again, touristy, but that's to be expected) offered some picturesque views that extended across the entire valley. The skywalk was also a feat of modern marvel - you could feel it move in the wind, but it was suspended over the entire canyon by what looked like a few steel beams. We used this time to test our mettle by doing handstands!
Bonus: I got to see my first mountain goat! Hello little guy!
After the tours, we headed back towards the town of Banff, stopping along the way to do some small hikes. A lot of the hikes in the area were snow covered, so it made it difficult (but beautiful!) to climb to the top. We spent a bit of time taking pictures, before ending the day with a dinner at Park Distillery in Banff. Yum! Note: Might I mention a liter is a lot of beer? Oh metric system, you tricked me! But it was delicious!
The next morning, we headed to check out the fabled Lake Louise. Even though I knew that it was a popular destination, what drew me was the magnificent photos of the clear blue water. What I really wanted to do was grab a canoe and paddle out onto the lake but the tourists were everywhere (It was also pricey - 100 CAD an hour! Eek.). The guides around the lake informed us that this was normal for a weekend and helped find us some less populated trails. Since it was the day before the race, we decided to keep it easy and walked the paved route around the lake. The tourists lessened as we walked the 2 miles to the backside of Lake Louise and we were able to get onto a cool and desolate sandy beach. It looked like the trail went on for miles, but we decided to keep it nice and easy on the legs. The Lake Louise Teahouse is definitely a hike I'd want to come back for. (Can you tell I'm already planning another excursion?)
On the way back, we encountered our first grizzly bear! Everyone had talked about the frequency of bears in the country, but we had only seen a small black bear walking along the roadside. You could say that we were a little bear obsessed!
But first things first. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that grizzly bears are dangerous wild animals and we are not in a zoo. Having just come back from Yellowstone, I knew that this was something that tourists just seem to forget. A grizzly can turn and charge and run you down before you can turn quick enough to get back to your car. What we witnessed in Banff was tourists with cameras running out into grassy fields, only yards from the grizzly. We sat and watched from the car at this incredible display of buffoonery. If I had popcorn, I might have eaten it. Instead, our grizzly was more interested in roots, so after a few shots, we headed back to Canmore for some dinner before the race.
Saturday morning meant race morning! Race recap is here.
As soon as the race had finished, we collected at the finish for the best part about racing - BREAKFAST! We had scouted out a local restaurant called Tooloulou's and immediately headed there. I'm never hungry after a race (my stomach quite hates racing!), but with a huge menu that went on for pages, I was immediately drawn to the Corned Beef Hash scramble. The inner Irish could in me couldn't wait! Our waitress was polite and attentive (like almost everyone in Canada!) and I guzzled cup after cup of coffee. Breakfast was delicious - as expected - and we quickly shimmied out of our chairs to head back to the condo.
We had heard of the local hot springs in Banff as a must-do attraction. Yet another first for me! The hot springs are located on Sulphur Mountain, a quick drive from where we were staying. For about $7, you were able to get admission and a towel. We had all brought a form of swimwear, but if you didn't, you could rent some!
The pool itself looked like a swimming pool, but on a grand platform that gave a gorgeous view of the mountain. The springs are naturally fed from a mountain source and average between 98F and 104F. Did it ever feel good on tired legs!
We stayed for awhile at the springs before we decided it was time to move on and finish the day with a hike. We headed up to a lookout point that allowed for a steep climb to the top of a mountain. Mountain climbing was not in the cards for me that day - my leg was still feeling tight and uneasy from the race - so I headed down with one other to explore flatter side of the canyon as others climbed. It was just getting to about dusk and as we walked through the trees, two mountain bikers came through to warn us of a friendly grizzly up ahead.
As we both looked as each other, we decided it was best also to turn back and meet everyone. They were soon down from the mountain and we headed back into Canmore for a small dinner. And more beer at a local brewery! Delicious!
On our final day in Banff, we headed to Johnston Canyon for a tour of the Ink Pots. This was probably the longest hike that we went on during our time in Banff, but it was nice to have such a gentle, rolling path. Although that didn't mean it wasn't without its climb (oof!). The entire route to the Ink Pots wound us three miles past countless beautiful waterfalls and rapids, suspended on metal walkways out into the canyon itself. Obviously, these were manmade and installed, so it loses some of its "natural" feel, but it's an incredible way to allow you to stay in the canyon, hovering just above the rapids below.
One of my favorite spots on the route was of the Lower Falls. You're able to take a small cave back to a lookout point deep in the waterfall! The mist sprays in your face and thousands of gallons of water roar over the cliff. The air smells so clean and fresh. I just closed my eyes and took a deep breath. So refreshing! (Except this was a popular spot, so it was quite full of people doing the same thing!)
As the trail to the Ink Pots stretched on, we found the trail much quieter. In fact, once the trail from the Upper Falls splits to the Ink Pots, you might even say the trail is silent! Those are my favorite kinds of trails. This was by no means a hidden or exclusive trail, as it was nicely manicured and clean, but it was nice to be away from the endless chatter and selfie sticks of the other tourists.
As we reached the Ink Pots, we headed into a small valley, with beautiful views of the mountains. The Ink Pots themselves were so unique - crystal clear, still-fed ponds that quietly bubbled up at the bottom, each giving a different watercolor impression.
Wooden walkways were built around the ponds to navigate and benches created the perfect place to stop and have a bit of lunch. I marveled at the quietness of the forest and the mountains, so serene and peaceful! I watched warily at the overcast sky in the distance. It seemed ominous, and with our first big hike under our belts, I wasn't too keen about trying to hike back in the rain.
After a bit of down time, we headed back down the route, this time turning for a less occupied dirt trail that took us back through the quiet, potentially bear filled forest, to the parking lot of of Johnston Canyon. We spent the final night in Banff, eating at the Maple Leaf. I had some delicious BC trout - happy girl!
I set an alarm for the ungodly hour of 2:45am and went to bed, content with everything we had accomplished this trip, and already scheming about a return visit in the fall when the leaves changed colors. Banff is such an amazing place, full of wildlife, beautiful scenery and mountain air. I can't begin to recommend enough! Take the time to travel through; you won't regret it! But also always - don't forget your bear spray!