For those looking for the quick answer, yes. Going to Banff is always worth it.
I wanted to squeeze in one more trip this year before settling in for the holidays. I was tired of constantly sweating in Asia and Central America, so I convinced a friend to come along and we opted for a colder destination. 2017 was a big year for travelers to go to Canada because entrance fees to the national parks were waived to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary. As a travel blogger following hundreds of travel Instagrammers, Canada was plastered all over my feed constantly. The pictures that popped up were almost always Banff. You’ve probably seen the iconic shot of Lake Moraine more than a dozen times on your own feed this year.
We decided to road trip our way up to Alberta in the first week of November. The fall months are considered the offseason for Banff. The summer vacationers are long gone, but winter hasn’t quite made its way yet for the winter sports enthusiasts. For me, the offseason is usually when I like to travel somewhere so I can deal with lower prices, fewer people, and smaller crowds. I assumed the first week of November would still be warm enough to tolerate but late enough to not have to deal with crowds.
Hoping for warmth was very optimistic on my part. So was hoping for a smooth sailing road trip. Despite it being only early November, we hit snowstorms on every day of our trip. The storms slowed us down considerably, pretty much draining us of energy and excitement.
Maybe it was because the end of the arduous 4-day journey was finally in sight, but as we closed in on Banff, we felt rejuvenated and the magic began to feel real. I had high expectations for Banff. All of those were blown out of the water within minutes of seeing the Canadian Rockies looming in the distance. It was foggy and the mountains could hardly be seen but for a brief moment, the sun came out for what felt like the first time in a week. Three days of dealing with snowstorms and endless fog in South Dakota, Montana, and Southern Alberta had taken the wind out of our sails but we felt as refreshed as ever once we spontaneously pulled over to take in our first breaths of the crisp mountain air. The snow and ice was a headache to deal with the entire journey, but the breathtaking snowy mountain views in every direction made everything worth it.
After three nights of staying in mediocre roadside hotels and motels to break up the monotony of the drive, we were excited to cozy up in a little mountain lodge. Banff is not the cheapest place for accommodation but visiting during the offseason is more affordable. We were staying in a hostel, but trust me when I say this place did not feel like a hostel. It was called HI Banff Alpine Centre, a little lodge with cabins perfectly nestled up in the woods but also just a five-minute drive from town. As far as hostels go, this was one of the best I have ever stayed at. For budget travelers and backpackers that don’t mind sharing rooms, the price per night to stay at this place is an absolute steal. They also have private cabins if you’re with a group or prefer not to sleep in shared rooms.
Knowing that I didn’t have to drive another eight hours the next day was extremely relieving, but having a place with a warm fireplace and heated floors took my chill levels to unheard of heights. The place also has a pub and restaurant, so when it is -5 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 C or something), you don’t have to make the journey all the way into town when you’re hungry or looking for a good time. The place has some killer views as well.
The weather is going to be the biggest factor of what you’re going to be able to do while you’re here. November is definitely hit or miss, especially with how wild the weather can get. You might get lucky (or unlucky) and get warm enough weather to still do some of the popular hikes. Bow River Trail is an easily accessible one that you can do year-round. We also did the Fenland Loop, but if you’ve got proper gear and are willing to brave the snowier trails, there are a few other options.
You might get lucky (or unlucky) and get cold enough weather where the ski mountains are already operating. Right now, Norquay is partially functional, with a few of the easier trails being open. We’re considering giving it a go if we can snag some gear from other hostel guests. The later in November you go, the more likely it will be that ski resorts are open. Another popular destination is the hot springs. Banff’s Upper Hot Springs are open year-round and are the perfect place to stay warm during the colder months. The view is incredible, and at only $7.30 entrance per person, probably one of the more affordable things you can do in Banff. You don’t even need to bring your own swimsuit, in case you were like us and didn’t exactly plan on going swimming when it was -5 F out.
One of the most memorable and breathtaking (literally) things we did was take the Banff Gondola up to Sulphur Mountain. The views are to die for and you get an incredible 360-degree view of the valley and the massive mountains surrounding it. At $65 Canadian dollars per adult, it will cost you quite a bit and we were a bit tentative at the price tag. Thankfully, we were #blessed with a gorgeous day where you could see for miles and miles in every direction. It was definitely worth it and we stayed up there for over three hours. The altitude goes up to over 7,000 feet so it gets pretty chilly and windy, especially in the winter. You can follow a wooded trail to the peak of the mountain to get some views that you could never put a price tag on. Go on a day with good weather, and you won’t regret it.
While Banff is definitely best known for its incredible nature, the town is also quite a bit of fun. Exploring the city for the first time was actually pleasantly surprising. The town is pretty touristy but noticeably emptier during the offseason. The restaurants and bars are unique and while you might struggle to find fine dining that doesn’t have an obnoxious tourist-targeted price tag, you can find some pretty cool spots. We got to Banff at around three in the afternoon and braved the cold long enough to find a decent happy hour deal. $3.50 for a personal pizza, $3.50 for a plate of fries, and then a lot of cheap booze to keep us warm set our Banff trip up to a great start.
Banff actually has a respectable culinary scene. Every year, there is a sort of culinary festival called Taste For Adventure where some of the restaurants go above and beyond their usual menu to offer a fantastic dining experience for their guests. It’s more of a low-key celebration than an actual festival, though, so leave the pasties at home. This lasts about two weeks and was going on while we were there. While we didn’t take advantage of this (since at the end of the day we still outchea ballin’ on a budget), it can be a great experience for foodies with a little more dinero to spend.
Speaking of festivals, Banff’s Film and Book Festival also happens during the first week of November. It is one of the most popular festivals themed around mountains and climbing and the great outdoors. Since we got held back by snowstorms in Montana, we missed the tail end of this by just a few hours. It does attract some popular figures in the industry and is a great way for like-minded adventurers to meet cool people, hear great stories, and see the best art and literature related to their passions and hobbies.
Unlike other touristy towns I’ve been to, the town’s stores and boutiques were all pretty unique. After spending several months in South East Asia sifting through the same tourist trap stalls at every market, it was refreshing to see that the local stores all made some effort to offer something different and well-made. The town has a lot of hidden gems, and while I won’t be in Banff long enough to discover all of them, there is something for all sorts of travelers.
The nightlife in Banff is also surprisingly decent. I expected there to be some good bars but I was not expecting that there would even be one nightclub in town, let alone multiple. I’m not too picky about bars, believing that good company beats a good setting any day, but Banff’s local spots were a refreshing reminder that most bars aren’t the trashy, soulless dive bars or the ratchet nightclubs that I had grown accustomed to in South East Asia. Each bar I went to was unique, well-decorated, and had a personality of its own. That might not matter much to you, but it was nice choosing a bar for its ambiance rather than how cheap their vodka-red bull buckets are.
Oh, and it’s not hard to find a good view for some brews.
There’s always a catch, though. Drinking in Banff is not going to be that cheap. Pre-gaming is essential. $3.25 rum and cokes at the hostel’s pub, Storm Cellar, came in clutch before I unwittingly moved on to $7.50 ciders at the bars in town. There are some amazing places during the day and early evening to sip your drinks slow but once it gets a bit later, your choices narrow down significantly. I walked by a place called HooDoo when I first got to town and remember thinking, “wow, this tiny place has a nightclub?”
Naturally, everyone ends up there or Devil’s Gap once the night gets going and the chill bars start feeling a bit too tame. It’s not a bad place and is a lot larger than it looks on the outside. There’s also a McDonald’s that I think is open 24 hours, or at least until late at night. Getting home might be a struggle because the local bus stops running before midnight and taxis were few and far between.
The main reason we chose to drive up to Banff instead of fly was because Banff is definitely an area that is experienced better and easier by car. While planning our trip, our hostel recommended renting a car so that we could drive from place to place and really be able to take in all of the incredible scenery that Banff had to offer. Since we were under 25 and get charged some BS extra fees for car rentals, we drove up instead. Some roads are closed in the winter, especially high elevation roads with a risk of avalanche, but many will still be accessible. Notably, Lake Moraine is no longer accessible by vehicles or bikes, but brave (or insane) adventurers can snowshoe their way to Moraine Lake for a brutal 15-20 kilometers round trip. “Just hop the fence,” as the Aussies said when I asked about doing the hike this late into the season. I don’t know how much I recommend taking their advice since I’ll probably play it safe this time around.
I would definitely come back to Banff in the summer strictly to do more intense hiking. Just seeing Lake Moraine would make it worth it, but especially now that I have experienced how charming of a town Banff is. The town has a vibe surrounding it that can be described as fairy-tale magical, but badass at the same time. You’re in a cute town surrounded by mountains and wildlife, but everyone in it is here to do badass stuff. It is paradise if you love the outdoors, no matter the season. I won’t lie. It might be better if it wasn’t currently -5 degrees (-20C), but this place is nothing short of amazing.
Until next time, Banff.
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