Over the last few months, as people would ask me about my next trip I'd usually nonchalantly say something along the lines of "Oh, just Canada." Even though I was stoked out of my mind to go, I assumed I should downplay my excitement since people might not understand. Canada isn't remote or exotic like some of my other travels, and when I'd bring it up, people never had the light in their eyes like when I'd talk about Thailand or the Galapagos Islands. But - and I know I'm making a bold statement here - Banff National Park, Canada is absolutely the most magical place I have ever been.
As I started sharing photos on Instagram and Snapchat, the comments and questions started rolling in. "OMG WHERE ARE YOU" and "Holy crap, this is gorgeous!" Were common responses to my social posts. I soaked up each chance I had to tell someone I was in Canada - as if I were proving them wrong in an argument they didn't even know was happening. But the last thing I'd want to do is keep this secret to myself - so I'll tell you all exactly what to do and how to do it - so that hopefully at least some of you will be able to see the spectacular beauty of Banff National Park.
Fly into Calgary, Alberta. It's the closest city to the park, just about 2 hours by car east of Banff. It's echoes similarities of Denver with a downtown of skyscrapers, though the feel of the wilderness and the outdoors manages to creep into the metropolis. I explored the city for a day before heading to the park - like most cities, there's a ton of great spots to eat or grab a coffee, but I chose the coffee shop at the Heritage Park Historical Village so I could watch the old trolleys go by while chatting with a new Canadian cyclist friend who offered me plenty of tips for exploring Banff.
Rent a car*. Banff National Park is huge. While there are ways to get into the park without renting a car (there are a few bus services that pick up from the airport and drop off in the town of Banff), you'll be able to see much more of the park with the freedom of your own vehicle. Driving down the Icefields Parkway is an attraction in itself, and you'll be able to see far more points of interest and get out to explore at your own leisure than if you were a part of a group trip sharing a coach bus. *I'd only recommend renting a car in the summer months when the roads are clear of snow and safe to drive!
Don't miss Banff staples. It's worth fighting the crowds to see the staple sights of the park. Sometimes finding parking is difficult and there seem to be too many people using selfie sticks, but once you reach the destination and bask in the view, you'll forget all the annoyances. Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and the Athabasca Glacier are all bound to be packed but beyond worth it to see it yourself. I'd recommend going a little earlier or later in the day to try to beat the midday crowds - some of the best lighting for photographing and viewing happens in the early morning and late evening, anyway!
Camp! Some of Banff's campsites are truly incredible - I had to log online to book the campsite featured in the photo above as soon as they went up for reservation - but our site at Two Jack Lakeside was spectacular. Book sites through the online portal, and do so as far in advance as possible to secure the best campsites. Keep in mind that July 1st is Canada Day, so the park is usually packed around that time! And if camping just isn't for you - there are plenty of lodges in downtown Banff and throughout the park as well - and if you're prepared to splurge, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise sits right on the glacial lake of it's name with views to be rivaled.
Use the available resources to choose what you'd like to do while in the park. The Banff and Lake Louise tourism board was incredibly helpful (and responsive on Twitter!) and the Travel Alberta website was equally as helpful. These sites are aggregates for information about what to do while in Banff and the surrounding areas, and both offer direct links to book excursions like the Athabasca Glacier experience and the Wolf Dog Sanctuary that my sister and I visited (I'll write more about these later on)! Do your research on these sites and determine what's important to you - Banff has so much to offer and everyone's vacation can - and should be! - different.
Regardless of what you decide to do or how you decide to do it, Banff won't disappoint. So camp, or splurge on a nice lodge, or backpack; hike around, spend your time in town, hop on a tour bus; drink the local beer, opt for a smoothie, or cook your meals over a fire - whatever you do: JUST. GO.