Fridays are for fun. The thing is, most days feel like Fridays when you add adventure to them, the way we have. This Friday was no different.
After what was truly a magical sunrise in the clouds, we packed up and headed to Banff. We couldn’t believe the mountains towering around us, so jagged and raw — like the Tetons. My grandfather put it best when he texted me: “I think that Banff is the most daunting country I’ve ever personally experienced. The massiveness just says to you, ‘Climb on me, I dare you. I’ll overwhelm you.’”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Amidst these imposing views, I was charmed as usual by the little differences on the road between Canada and the US — speed “maximums,” and far more detailed signage depicting specific animals and activities.
It took only an hour and a half to arrive at the town of Banff, and at that point we were (or at least I was) ravenous. We walked all the streets of town, undecided on food. There’s actually quite a bit of Asian cuisine in Banff, but it just didn’t feel right as our first meal of the day. I had really been banking on a Tim Horton’s donut on the way, but there weren’t any between Radium and Banff. At last, we selected poutine as our lunch, and man, what a great call.
My college roommate and best friend, Marta, showed me the ways of poutine the last time I was in Banff in 2019. We had backpacked for 10 days on a grant from our school. Marta’s birthday happened on the trip, so her parents treated us to lunch in Banff once we got out of the woods. All Marta wanted was poutine, and I understand why. I’m pretty sure the last time I had poutine was with Marta and Ryan in Durango back in March. Really, it’s a dish that fulfills the soul.
Now fortified with cheese, potatoes, and gravy, we could properly poke around town without feeling like fainting. Ryan wanted to get some more durable hiking socks, so we popped in and out of outdoor shops. I asked this young guy working at the first shop if he lived in Banff, curious where workers may be commuting from.
“Yeah, I live here,” he responded. “You have to work here in order to live here — it’s a requirement.” It sounded like you’re essentially guaranteed housing if you work in town, which sounds like a much fairer system than the folks trying to make a living in Colorado mountain towns, unable to afford the cost of living. This gent was from the UK and had come out here to work for a summer and loved it; he decided he’d move here. We fully supported. He gave us some recommendations in town and we thanked him for his help.
After bopping around a bit more in town, Ryan found his socks. We checked in at a visitor center to confirm the logistics I had planned months ago, specifically the buses we’d need to take after coming out of the woods. Gratefully, the plans I had concocted back in May still tracked.
We had a couple hours before we really needed to start backpacking, so I acquired a map and found some town trails we could meander along. As crowded as Banff can be, you can’t help but marvel at the blue of the water and appreciate the gardens and falls. We took a trail called “art in nature,” and throughout it were various sculptures and paintings seamlessly lining both sides of the walkway. It added interest and fun to an already pleasant path.
We got back to the car and proceeded to drive to our trailhead. We set about packing our individual bags, reconvening to choose what food we’d bring and split it up. Once we had finished packing and locked up the car, we made our way down the road to the trail.
Our route to our first campsite was just 4 miles, and the trail was relatively flat. It was a trail that was ideal for beginner mountain bikers — wide and not too rocky. We were surrounded by tall pines, so we didn’t get many views until we arrived at our site, Cascade Bridge. There, we had those imposing mountain views on either side of the bridge over the Cascade River. It was just about 7:00 when we got there, and all but one of the tent sites had been occupied. Luckily, the remaining site was the most secluded. We set up our tent and sleep stuff, then went to the river to read.
Both of us are reading The Hobbit right now, though Ryan is further along. We concurrently read all of Lord of the Rings last year, watching each movie every time we finished a third of the book. The Hobbit was the next natural step for us. I cannot overstate how good this book is to read when you’re in the woods, trekking. At one point this evening, while seated along the river reading, I came across this line: “On they all went, leading their ponies, till they were brought to a good path and so at last to the very brink of the river. It was flowing fast and noisily, as mountain-streams do of a summer evening.”
It was a blissful 45 minutes of reading while listening to and watching our surroundings. We felt ready at 8:00 to finally eat dinner — dehydrated pasta primavera (actually delicious) — followed by a dessert of Twix bars. We then returned to the bridge to watch the sun set.
We slept till 8 a.m. the following day. In no rush, we slowly packed up our things, then went back to the food storage and cooking area to make coffee and oatmeal. We sat by the river and read a while longer, finally rolling out of camp by 10:30.
We had 11 miles to hike that day, all steadily uphill. The first half blew by, us talking and the trail never getting too aggressive. We started veering west and made it to the confluence of the Cascade River and Stoney Creek. When I booked our campsites in May, there were warnings that hikers would need to ford this confluence, as there is no bridge. It noted that if it’s early season or there’s been significant rainfall, it may be too dangerous to ford. We had looked up trail conditions and it sounded like folks had been able to cross recently. In fact, a woman at our first site said she had forded it the day before, the water reaching mid-thigh.
As we approached the river, Ryan was undeterred. “Mid-thigh? It doesn’t seem that deep.” I was skeptical. I pointed to one section on the other side that looked potentially deeper. Ryan pulled off his shoes and went straight on through, but sure enough, yelped in surprise at the exact spot I had identified. The water was definitely at least mid-thigh, and cold. He made it across fine, though, and I followed suit.
We walked another mile and a half or so before breaking for lunch. We had 4 miles to go, and the trail started to get a little gnarly. I recalled from my last time in Banff that this area of the park is much less traveled, leaving trails a little overgrown (or as some hiker on All Trails wrote, “mogul-y”). We had several longer, tougher climbs on this stretch, but we eventually reached the valley where our campsite was, and it all started looking familiar. I had actually spent a couple nights in this campsite the last time I was here, so I felt very comfortable in the area. It ended up being over 11.5 miles to arrive, and I was relieved. My hips and back take a real beating when I backpack, as much as I love it.
Unlike Cascade Bridge, no one was at Elk Summit when we arrived. We had our pick of campsite, so we put up our tent and unloaded our food, then took some time to decompress.
There’s a short hike to Elk Lake from this second campsite that I did last time here, and I really felt compelled for us to do it — but my body didn’t. After an hour of chilling, it was admittedly difficult to rally, but I knew it would be worth it. Both of us felt our legs groaning in despair as we made our way, Ryan complaining that it definitely felt further than 1.5 miles (it was 1.6). The view opened up and I felt totally validated. It was just as stunning as I remembered, perhaps even better seeing it at golden hour. We stayed and read a little, then hiked our way back, sore but content.
For dinner, we ate two disparate dehydrated meals — breakfast skillet and Kathmandu curry — and ate GoMacro bars for dessert. Food tastes so good when you’ve worked really hard for it. So good.
We went to bed early, exhausted by the long day and with an alarm set for 7:00. Turns out, you don’t need an alarm when you’ve got a couple chipper Canadians as your tent neighbors. At around 6 or 6:30, a loud male voice (in a thick Canuck accent) made a proclamation, “I mean, my buddy was telling me he always gets up at 5:00 when he’s camping. Now, I’m not trying to get up when it’s still dark. I mean, c’mon bud.” You cannot make this stuff up. Now we were fully awake, so Ryan went to make coffee while I packed up the tent. He returned laughing and shaking his head, having found the two Canadians waking and baking in the shared picnic area. What entertainment for a Sunday morning.
Once all our personal gear was zipped up and strapped down, we started our journey out, mugs in hand. The hike down was laidback, as we watched the sun rising on the mountain ridges and felt the air warming. Ryan stopped to stare lovingly at many creeks and mosses, mesmerized. His pauses reminded me to slow down and still appreciate the beauty around us, even if I’d already seen it before.
The trail sloped downward for five miles before kicking uphill again for the last two. We trucked ahead, ultimately reaching the base of Mt. Norquay at around 10:00. We would await a bus back to Banff there. There were several other backpackers at the lodge, all curious about the route we took and where we began. Like fellow van-lifers, there’s an appreciation amongst backpackers for logistics and stats. I felt proud to explain my planning, after fretting about it somewhat in the months prior. Sometimes you don’t really know if all will fall into place until you’re there, on the ground.
The bus back into town departed at 10:30 and dropped us at the high school, where we boarded another bus to take us to our trailhead at lake Minnewanka. It was a relief to finally shed our packs at the car, unloading and reorganizing all the gear. By noon, we were already rolling back into town to “grub down,” as Ryan would say.
We hadn’t had anything to eat yet, and I was fading fast. Ryan pulled over briefly so we could eat some of our Nesquik cereal, which may very well be Cocoa Puffs, but we couldn’t tell. If eating cereal on the side of the road is wrong, I don’t want to be right. Before the cereal, I was hovering at about 17 percent capacity. Post-cereal (no pun intended), I was maybe 35 percent. I could carry on, at least.
We had a hot agenda item, which was: book an Airbnb in Canada. We hadn’t showered in 10 days, and it was unrealistic to get back to the US that day. Besides, why would we want to? It’s so gorgeous in Canada that we may as well linger some.
We parked and grabbed our laptops to do some research at a cafe. We had barely been there for 10 minutes when I received a text from my mom that my grandmother had passed.
I was utterly taken aback and cried in the coffee shop, something [crying in public] I have been doing increasingly, no matter how hard I try not to. I will say that I wasn’t particularly close with my grandma and hadn’t seen her for over 7 years — perhaps that’s what hurt the most about the news. I am fine, but obviously processing now two deaths in a single month while separated from family and home. But that’s all for a separate post.
I collected myself enough to take a look at what Ryan had found and agree to booking a space in Revelstoke, a ski town three and a half hours northwest of Banff. We agreed that we deserved some good food and a beer, in light of the news and also in celebration of a successful backpacking weekend. But first: McDonald’s.
Ryan was intrigued to see what a Canadian Mickey D’s had to offer, and he wasn’t disappointed. He got a spicy habanero chicken sandwich and I got an egg BLT, both quite solid. I was now operating at 57 percent.
Now we made our way to 3 Bears Brewery, which turned out to be even better than anticipated. We sat upstairs in an open air space full of hanging plants and vines. We ordered IPAs and a hot chicken sandwich with waffle fries to share, and all was perfection. Though upset, I was so grateful for the weekend we had had — not only the immaculate views, but also the hard work and earning this nice meal, too.
We did a bit more walking around and window shopping, and couldn’t help but stop at Beavertails, this hopping pastry shop. We got a m”eh”ple beaver tail, essentially fried dough in the shape of a beaver tail with maple icing and a cinnamon crunch slathered on top. You could say we devoured it in … seconds.
Now we were ready to hit the road. We were interested in hitting a hike by Lake Louise or driving the Ice Fields Parkway, but neither were in the cards given the time and traffic. It didn’t really matter — the peaks along the Trans Canada Highway were so miraculous that Ryan was hooting and hollering the whole way. We couldn’t believe how much snow capped these mountains. Meanwhile, it was 80 degrees outside the car. It was an absolute cruise to Revelstoke, so beautiful and traffic free.
Now we are relaxing and restoring in our Airbnb, finally clean and washing our clothes as I write. Ryan is currently passed out in a panini-induced stupor. All is well!