Prepare all you want, but unexpected twists make for the best kind of adventure. You can have all your gear laid out, but still forget your hat in the car at the airport (guilty). You can go over the lists a bajillion times, but don’t buy rain pants (also guilty). We had checklists, booked our sites in advance, read book after blog after tweet about camping with bears but our camping trip in Banff National Park in Canada was nothing like what we expected, which was exactly what we were looking for.
The actual process of getting to Canada, and Banff even, was really smooth. We left the house ahead of schedule and boarded our flight with no issues. We opted to not cover our packs for the flight, which went just fine – none of our gear was damaged by United. We arrived in Calgary around 10:30 Wednesday night, and took the 5 minute cab ride to Hotel Clique to hit the hay before our big day!
Going to sleep and waking up in Alberta was already an experience, it doesn’t get dark till around 11 p.m. and the sun rises before 5 a.m.! We woke up, took our last showers, and headed back to the airport for the bus ride to Banff. Still going according to schedule.
Our Brewster bus ride from the Calgary airport to Lake Louise Visitor Center was uneventful in the sense that everything was on time. We did get our first look at the Canadian Rockies up close, and also, our first time at Tim Horton’s. When in Rome…
We got to the Lake Louise Visitor Center and got our bear spray, fuel and final tips from the folks at Wilson Mountain Sports. Logan recommended a dayhike that we were looking forward to called Packer’s Pass. Challenging, he said, but worth it.
Geared out, we set up in front of the visitor center to rearrange our bags to be better suited for hiking. As we’re about to shoulder our packs, a group of 5 approaches us and asks us where we’re heading to.
“The Fish Creek parking lot for the Skoki trailhead,” we replied.
They proceeded to tell us that once the first portion of the hike ends (4 km up a fire road), that the trail turns to waist-deep snow, and that unless we have snowshoes (we didn’t), it’s impassable.
We’ve been preparing for about 2 months for this, and we’re THIS close, and the rug’s pulled out from under us?!
But adventure has a funny way of presenting itself.
Change of plans.
No longer is it just the two of us hiking the Skoki Loop. Now, we’re 7 deep and we’re going to Larry’s Camp JO9, just past the Ink Pots at Johnston Canyon. About a 30 minute drive away in our new friends’ rental truck. We’re doing just the one night there, since our new “trail fam” were going their own way the day after and we were sans vehicle. Three guys up front, four ladies in the backseat and we were off to see what Johnston Canyon held for us.
By the time the drive was over, we shared enough candy, chips and sing-a-longs to know each other well enough to go camp together.
From the parking lot to our campsite was about 5.5 miles away. After getting our raincovers on, we took off through Johnston Canyon.
Following along Johnston Creek, we were exposed to the most powerful waterfalls and forceful rapids we’ve ever witnessed. Lower Falls is only just over 1 km in, and Upper Falls another kilometer and a half past that. Both have great viewing decks that allow you to (safely) get wet, cool off and really experience their power.
The crowds were mostly restricted to Upper Falls. Past that, the trail splits away from the creek and begins to wind up and through the mountains, leaving the throng of visitors behind.
The further into the mountains we went, the tougher the hiking got and our views became fewer and further between (trees), but we kept on.
I should note that we were expecting “inclimate” weather. What we were not expecting was hail and sideways rain. What happened, just before the Ink Pots, a couple of miles from our campground?
Hail and sideways rain.
It’s at this point that shit definitely went off schedule. Very off schedule.
The rest of our trail fam had gotten ahead of us, and had already crossed “the” bridge by the time we arrived. They were more soaked than we were and two only had trash bags to protect themselves from the elements. We had a decision to make:
- Cross the bridge, hike the remaining couple of miles to the site and risk not being able to return if the creek rose, or
- Set up shop in this freaking meadow, immediately.
Obviously, we set up shop in the middle of this valley, walking distance from the Ink Pots. Shivering, from the cold and unknown, we all worked together and got all 3 tents (including rainflys!) up in less than 15 minutes.
If we weren’t a real trail fam before, we definitely were now.
The rain finally subsided allowing us to come out and actually enjoy the incredible landscape that we were living in for the night.
We were completely surrounded by mountains, clouds rolling in…it was…unreal.
We had all changed into dry(ish) clothes and were finally able to really set up our campsite; setting up our kitchen and food storage areas about 100 meters downwind from us, getting dinner and drying our boots around our small fire. The night ended as peacefully as the day had began, despite that smattering of adventure in between.
We woke to the soft pitter-patter of light rain in the morning. Not the sunshine we hoped for, but much better than the hail from the previous day.
For fear of getting trapped in another storm, we didn’t waste any time in getting outta that valley, despite it’s overwhelming beauty. Turns out, we made the right decision by camping in the valley. The creek had risen to a level that we wouldn’t have been able to safely cross and was flowing at such a rate that none of us could’ve escaped had we fallen in.
We made great time hiking back; turns out going down the mountain goes by much faster than going UP the mountain. We learned, though, that this storm was a much bigger deal than we thought. We had to climb under, over and around downed trees the entire trail. By the time we got back to the trailhead, we discovered that there was only one other group who stayed out over night and over 100 people were evacuated from Johnston Canyon due to the storm.
But we seven, our trail fam, stayed throughout!
We spent a few minutes in the parking lot decompressing and drying wet clothes. Before long, we were back at the Lake Louise Visitor Center, saying our goodbyes to our new family members. We vowed to return, together, to take another stab at the Skoki Loop.
We were now on our own, and it was pretty apparent that backcountry camping in Banff wasn’t an option. We decided that we would spend our remaining two nights at the Lake Louise camping village. It was only a 10 minute hike (along flat roads) from the visitor center, and would allow us walking access to the bus that would take us to Lake Louise.
The buses to Lake Louise run until 4 p.m. and return buses run until 6 p.m. That left us just enough time to get our new campsite set up and still go check out the lake.
We just started laughing when we saw it. There aren’t enough words to describe how gorgeous the lake is, or how majestic the mountains are surrounding it.
We returned to camp changed; unable to believe what we saw.
Dinner tasted a little more delicious that night, our sleeping pads a little softer, everything a little better.
A soft sprinkling woke us on Saturday morning.
Here we go again.
Except not quite.
We didn’t get our fill of Lake Louise the day before, so we wanted to go back and spend the entirety of our final day there, exploring all the trails we could.
Holy shit are we glad we did.
We took the 9 o’clock bus, and while we were riding up the mountain, the sprinkles turned to snow.
Snow. In June.
When we arrived at Lake Louise, we walked into a snow globe.
I’ll stop talking now.
Our first backpacking trip to another country went nothing like how we expected, but exactly the way we wanted.
You were gorgeous, Canada. We’ll see you again, eh.