Fact: Lake Louise and Banff National Park are beautiful and you want to plan a visit. Only problem is, so does every other Canada-bound tourist and their car/caravan/coach full of camera-wielding countrymen.

Does this mean you shouldn’t go? Absolutely not, this place is incredible. Just take a moment to read these quick Banff travel tips and plan accordingly.

We received the following advice from a knowledgeable park employee at the visitor center in Radium Hot Springs. It all turned out to be accurate and indispensable travel advice in making our Banff road trip smooth and nearly crowd-free.

The crowds gather at Lake Louise.

Arrive at Lake Louise before 9 a.m. Even sooner if possible!

The beauty of Lake Louise draws large crowds all summer long, and during our visit they were larger than normal thanks to the Canada 150 celebration. Access to the lake is up a winding, single-lane road, so you can imagine how backed up the traffic can get when crowds of tourists converge on the lake. Alternate overflow parking is available several kilometers south on the Trans-Canada Highway 1, but even there we saw long lines of tourists awaiting shuttle buses.

So, if you’re lucky enough to find nearby accommodation like we did—at the Lake Louise campground or elsewhere—set your alarm early and head up to the lake well before 9 a.m. We managed to leave our campsite at 7:30 a.m. and were rewarded with open roads, the second parking stall at the front of the lot, and still water reflecting the morning light on the mountains. By the time we returned a few hours later from a hike to the Plain of the Six Glaciers, the lakeside was a madhouse and, as expected, traffic jammed the parking lot and road.

Sunset at Moraine Lake in Banff National Park, Canada.

See sunset at Moraine Lake and sunrise at Lake Louise.

We assumed that the best time to visit both these famous Canadian lakes would be in the morning hours as the sun rose from the opposite side of the valley, bathing the east-facing mountains in morning light. However, it turns out that the famous line of peaks viewed beyond Moraine Lake—including Mt. Fay, Tonsa Peak, Mt. Allen, and Deltaform Mountain—face north.

So, as the summer sun sets in in the west, it pours light in through an unseen saddle around the corner from the lake and its famous viewpoint, and bathes the mountains in a golden glow. Thanks to the advice of the helpful park employee, we arrived close to 8 p.m. and enjoyed a beautiful sunset from the viewpoint above Moraine Lake, saving those valuable morning hours for something else…

A mama grizzly bear and her two cubs, which we observed from the top of the Lake Louise Ski Resort.

Go to the Lake Louise Ski Resort early in the morning to see bears!

Our last morning in the area, we got to the Lake Louise Ski Resort just after it opened at 8:30 a.m. In the comfortable cool morning temperatures, we rode the gondola up the mountain with high hopes of seeing bears in the wild.

That we did. From the top of the mountain, we saw what we first thought were oversized squirrels playing on a bank of melting snow. Upon a second look, they turned out to be grizzly cubs and moments later their massive mama bear came into view. We enjoyed watching them for another 30 minutes before they wandered off into the woods, leaving the later-arriving guests a little disappointed.

There’s no guarantee that you’ll get to see a bear or any wildlife up there, but employees at the resort confirmed what our helpful guide had told us: The ski resort is a feeding ground for bears in summer months and the bears are more active in the cooler summer morning hours before the temps rise.

Once again, Britnee’s lightweight Nikon Coolpix camera with its 30x zoom allowed us to capture the memory from a safe distance. 😉

Walking in the water at beautiful Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park.

Visit Emerald Lake

Not originally on our to-do list, we followed advice from fellow tourists and drove into Yoho National Park across the border in British Columbia to see Emerald Lake. Despite all the beauty we’d enjoyed at Lake Louise and along the Icefields Parkway, Emerald Lake struck us as one of the most stunning stops on the trip. Maybe it was just the perfect time of day to visit (mid-afternoon), but the water was a shimmering gem of bright turquoise surrounded by rugged peaks and deep-green forest.

Best of all, parking was a breeze and we enjoyed a peaceful couple of hours hiking around the lake.

Peyto Lake up the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park.

30 minutes up the Icefields Parkway

Due to time constraints, we couldn’t make the drive all the way up to Jasper on the Icefields Parkway. So, to make the most of our time, the park employee told us an approximate half-hour trip up the Icefields Parkway would give us an ample taste of the beauty of the area. We ended up pushing a little further to the Saskatchewan River Crossing before turning back, and this gave us great views of countless lakes, glaciers, and mountain peaks. Of note was our stop at Peyto Lake and an extended walk beyond the crowded viewpoint to enjoy a peaceful view of the famous landscape.

Stunning views along the Icefields Parkway.

Go all the way to Jasper!

If I could change anything about our trip, it would be this:

We chose to explore just the southern end of the Icefields Parkway then turn south to explore around the towns of Banff and Canmore. And, while this still made for an enjoyable road trip, both Britnee and I found ourselves being called back to the mountains and lakes farther north. So, on our last day, we loaded back into the Subaru and drove north again.

Part of me now longs to return and explore the full length of the Icefields Parkway. The landscapes are endless and there’s so much to see up there, but if you have one shot at it, make sure you complete the drive to Jasper and maybe throw in Mt. Robson Provincial Park for good measure.

That’ll all be included in our next trip to Canada! 😉

See the full photo gallery from our first road trip to Canada.