Lake Louise sits inside Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, resting at an altitude of 5,680ft (1,731m), and it’s the starting point for amazing hikes up to two different tea houses. The farther of the two is the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House, which offers hearty meals and a pristine view of the mountains and glaciers sitting high in the mountains. The hike is gorgeous and fun, too, making this a great way to spend a day with your family in the outdoors!
But there’s so much more! With everything from hiking to climbing to mountain biking to horseback riding to caving, Banff is a wild wonderland of adventure with something for all ages and abilities. Here’s a long weekend’s worth of awesomeness to consider…
The Big Hike to the Glaciers
Start by parking in the public lots near the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a massive hotel facing the northeast end of the lake. There’s a big lot close to it, but it’ll fill up fast, so loop through, then head back out the road to the remote lots and catch the shuttle bus back. If you have a large RV, this is probably the best option anyway.
Once everyone’s there, walk down to the shore and this is your view once you get past all the other tourists that come for the photo-op. Rent canoes if you want to head out on the water. Or turn to your right and start the hike.
Follow the trail along the lake side to head to Plain of Six Glaciers, which is what we’re showing off here. There’s also a hike that heads up to the Lake Agnes Tea House, which is a shorter hike, but not necessarily easier. For the truly fit, you can loop both teahouses into a single hike if you want.
The path along the lake is smooth and groomed and leads to a beach on the other side, good for a short hike with smaller legs trying to keep up. Venture just a bit past the beach, before the trail really starts gaining altitude, and you’ll find some rock climbing spots with bolt anchors on the wall.
The beach on the southwest end of the lake is a great spot for a quick snack, but it’s really just the start of the “real” trail.
The locals will want to join you for a treat, but please don’t feed them.
Even in the summer, the trail to the @plainofsixglaciers Teahouse can have plenty of avalanche crossings to keep you on your toes. Or off of them, as it can get slippery in spots where it’s packed down and has become icy.
Good hiking boots or trail shoes are key, and not just for traction, but also comfort – the trail is 5.5 km (3.4 miles) with 370m (1,215ft) elevation gain from the start up to the tea house. And then you’ll need to hike back, too…so it’s around 7 miles round trip.
The hike “up” isn’t all up, it has some downs, too. Leave time and energy for scrambling off to the sides and playing on the rocks here and there. We’ve found that patience is key with kids, they like to explore, so why not join them!
There were several sections where the snowpack hid rushing streams underneath. Or, hid them partially, but was still thick enough to walk across. It’s always a good idea to test it first with a stick.
The reward for that hike? An incredible meal. And we ate all of it.
The Tea House is open seasonally, and be sure you check their hours if you’re starting your hike in the early afternoon (we probably wouldn’t start this hike after 3pm regardless, but it does stay light pretty late in the summer). And be sure to bring cash, they take $USD and $CAD, but really, really don’t want to take credit cards because they have to hike the paper slips down the mountain to process them! There’s no data service up here.
Or roads! Most of the bulk ingredients for their homemade bread and cakes are helicoptered in once a month or so. The rest is hiked up as needed, which helps explain the prices. Our lunch of a couple sandwiches, teas, soups and chocolate cake was probably about $80USD, but well worth it. And delicious!
Be sure to leave time to sit back and enjoy the view of the glaciers, explore the upper area a bit, and let that food settle before starting back down…which rewards you with amazing birds eye views of Lake Louise.
On the way down, we took an alternate path along the rushing river of snow melt. We found some interesting stuff, like a dead goat that got caught in one of the avalanches and had been mostly preserved until the the melting snow exposed him. And the snapped trees were both beautiful and an ominous reminder of nature’s sheer power.
Keep an eye out for fossil imprints on the rocks!
It’ll be a big day, especially with kids, but when the chateau comes into view, you know you’re almost there. Be sure to note the bus transfer times (and “last bus” time) to be sure you’ll catch a shuttle back to the remote parking lot. We missed it, but another friendly visitor who parked in the closer lot offered me a ride!
Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking & More
Banff is such an expansive place that it’s worth staying for a few days just to do everything around the main downtown area. To really see the whole park would take more than a week!
If riding horses sounds fun (and it is!), check the Park Visitor’s Center for flyers that offer deals and packages. We found one that had a half day (about 90 actual minutes on the horse) of riding with Banff Trail Riders plus gondola tickets for less than the regular rates for just riding. BTR offers 1-3 hour rides, as well as wagon (summer) and sleigh (winter) rides.
Wear pants, long sleeve shirts, a hat and bring bug repellent with Deet, the mosquitoes are thick and relentless on the horse trail. Spray it all over your clothes, neck and back of hands and you’ll be fine. Then just sit back and enjoy the casual clippety clip through the woods. It’s super kid friendly and perfect for first timers.
If pedaling through the woods is more your speed, grab a free trail map from the Visitor’s Center and start on the Tunnel Mountain Trail from the Tunnel Mountain Village Campground, then ride clockwise. It’ll lead you around to plenty of options and loops, then end at the Star Wars trails and more, which have a wild mix of berms, technical trail features and rippin’ fast sections. Just mind the connections at the bottom, it’s easy to end up stuck between a hike-a-bike into town, or backtracking a ways back toward the campground (but on the other side of the road).
The trails loop near a cliff’s edge, which offer views of the hoodoos in the distance. The trail network is expansive, with lots of side loops to add miles, and it’s easy to get mixed up or miss some of the best stuff. Download Trailforks (free, iOS) for a complete map of the trail network here (and pretty much everywhere) that you can save for offline use…it’ll help keep you on track.
You’ll want to ride with a friend and talk loudly to alert any nearby bears to your presence (never startle a bear!), or wear a bear bell. And keep your eyes peeled for Elk and their babies! Elk are one of the most commonly seen animals in Banff, and its best if you slow down and give them some space if you do see them, especially if they have young ones.
We parked our RV at the Tunnel Mountain Campground on the outskirts of downtown Banff. Which is to say, we were an easy bike ride down the hill into town, but it’d be a long-ish walk. Because it was a holiday weekend (Canada Day!) during the summer, the campground was packed, but they opened up the surrounding ring road to offer non-hook up camping. This type of easy-going, friendly and accommodating nature personifies much of Canada, which is why they’re often called our “friendly neighbor to the North.”
Canada Day is like the U.S.’s 4th of July, but our kids even remarked that “everyone seems happier here.” Indeed, they do, and you’ll be happy you came here. There’s a ton of great outdoor stuff to do, from the activities mentioned above to cave exploration and even a Via Ferrata for the truly adventurous.
The Bow River Trail runs along the water in downtown. Take it for a stroll past Banff Central Park, where on weekends May through October is a massive Banff Farmers Market full of local artisans, produce and music. Don’t worry, you can sleep in, it doesn’t start until 10am and runs until 6pm! That’s our kind of market!
If you have kids, be sure to swing by the Banff National Park visitor centers and pick up the Parks Canada Xplorer’s booklet. This is Park Canada’s equivalent to the U.S. National Parks’ excellent Junior Ranger Program. What’s really cool is that each park office within Banff has something different for them, so if you have more time here and venture outside of the downtown and Lake Louise area, be sure to scoop up the various packets and help them (and you) learn more about the area.
Speaking of kids, most restaurants love them. Buuuuut, bars won’t allow them, and restaurants won’t let them sit in the bar area. Which means, as we found out the hard way, if you want happy hour food specials at some places, you’ll either have to sit outside or don’t bring the kids. Downtown Banff has a ton of restaurants, though, so finding something to keep everyone happy shouldn’t be hard.
If you like art, check out the Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity. Or plan ahead and book rooms during the Banff Film Festival, which they host. If you’re really into theatre, the Centre has multi-month and year-long programs to teach everything from set design to theatre creation to assembling the orchestra and musical choreography. It’s a conference center, too, open for your business to host an event of its own.
Winter is a whole ‘nother post, but yes, they have massive ski and snowboard options, too. Summer season is typically May through October. Earlier than that and some of the trails higher up may be covered in snow or there’s still risk of avalanches.
The official visitor’s website is BanffLakeLouise.com, and the visitor’s center in downtown has decent WiFi (with big comfy chairs!) and respectable-looking shirts, hats and other souvenirs if you haven’t already found something.
Enjoy the trip!