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I visited the most popular national park in Canada for the first time. Here's what it was really like.

Keith Langston   

I visited the most popular national park in Canada for the first time. Here's what it was really like.
  • I traveled to Banff — Canada's most-visited national park — for the first time and loved it.
  • Located in the Rockies, it's a popular destination for skiers and hikers from all over.

Located in the Rocky Mountains, Banff is Canada's most-visited national park. Between the soaring peaks, ski resorts, epic glaciers, and abundance of wildlife, it's easy to see why.

With numerous resorts like Lake Louise and Sunshine Village, the destination is popular for skiing and snowboarding in the winter, though visitors from all over travel to the park year-round.

I had never been to Banff or the Rockies, so I was really excited to travel to Alberta, Canada, and check out this national park.

After just one visit, I'm already dreaming of the day I can return.

I drove in from the nearby city of Calgary, which has the closest international airport to the park

After landing in Calgary, a short hour-and-a-half drive took me from the flat plains surrounding the Alberta city into the towering front ranges of the Rockies.

Upon entering the mountains, I was instantly blown away. Even from the car window, it was clear just how truly beautiful they were.

The Canadian stretch of the Rockies has more than 50 peaks that top out at over 11,000 feet, creating a stunning skyline that rivals anything New York City has to offer.

Banff has a surprising number of excellent restaurants

Fantastic dining is another popular draw to Banff. This was a huge change from what I'm used to in America's national parks, where you normally pack your own meals for picnics or eat at food stalls.

My favorite restaurant in Banff was Sky Bistro, which is located at the top of Sulphur Mountain. It serves dishes crafted from local Alberta ingredients, like duck wings, fried mushroom poutine, root-vegetable salad with local cheese, and more.

To get there, I ascended the 8,000-foot mountain on the famous Banff Gondola, which takes visitors to the peak in eight minutes. There's also a trail leading to the top that can be hiked in about two hours.

The restaurant provided stunning, sweeping views of the mountains and the town of Banff, which locals call "the townsite" to differentiate it from the national park it's located within.

Paired with the excellent food, this dining experience was one of the highlights of my trip.

Hiking is one of the most popular activities in Banff National Park

Even though skiing is big in the winter, hiking is arguably a more popular activity. Many locals even told me that the park's high season is during the summer because of this.

I did a lot of hiking up mountains, along frozen rivers, and through dense pine forests.

Though I was really glad I brought two pairs of boots for the trip. Everything was snowy and icy, as there are policies that restrict how much rock salt can be dumped onto the roads, sidewalks, and trails since it's bad for animals' paws.

I was outfitted with MICROspikes, little chains that wrap around your boots for better stability when stepping on ice and packed snow.

Virtually every hotel, resort, and rental shop in the park had some, so they were easy to come by. They came in handy when hiking steep slopes that were almost completely iced over.

That said, I actually enjoyed hiking in the snow.

One of my favorite hikes was Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain — formally named Tunnel Mountain. I got stunning views of nearby Mount Rundle, the town below, and the sprawling mountains in the distance.

It's considered one of Banff's smaller peaks, but it's great for a leisurely afternoon hike since it has well-traversed trails and conveniently sits just outside of the townsite.

Snowshoeing was a great way to explore the forest in areas where the snow was deep

I love traveling somewhere that's accessible and friendly, and Banff is just that.

It was easy to rent equipment almost anywhere, and the guided tours and classes were offered by helpful, friendly professionals who never made me feel like I didn't know what I was doing.

I snowshoed along Mount Fairview and got a look at the famed Lake Louise, which is one of the most-photographed destinations in Banff because of its stunning surroundings and turquoise-colored water enhanced by the rock-flour sediment.

Lake Louise is surrounded on three sides by mountains, and the massive Victoria Glacier forms the lake's backdrop, towering over 11,000-feet high.

I had never seen a real glacier before, so it was awe-inspiring and surreal.

I also took advantage of the cold weather and ice-skated on the frozen lake

I made sure to head back to Lake Louise and get out on the ice.

From what I learned, ice-skating on a frozen lake is a Canadian tradition dating back hundreds of years to when the Iroquois would tie animal bones to their shoes to create homemade skates.

Lake Louise is frozen for much of the year, so it made for an excellent spot for ice-skating.

It had cracks and dips you wouldn't find on a groomed skating rink, but that was part of the excitement. It was more wild, adventurous, and thrilling.

Being in nature was a healing experience

I'm originally from Ohio and now live in New York, so I'm no stranger to snow, but this was different. With an entire foot of snow resting on the limbs of pine trees, the forest landscapes looked like a scene from a Thomas Kinkade painting.

Nature is big, dramatic, and unbelievably pristine, and I believe this is the true power of national parks.

But the practice of using nature to heal is nothing new. Emerging in 1980s Japan as a restorative practice, forest bathing — or shinrin-yoku — is a popular activity in Banff. There are guided experiences at hotels and independent excursions.

My forest-bathing journey took place along the Spray River, which was still flowing despite its frozen surroundings.

Our guide taught us to use our senses to be fully present and allow our bodies to embrace the world around us. I noticed the smell of pine trees, the sounds of the running river, and the crisp feeling of winter air on my nose.

We were even given time to walk off on our own for a few minutes of silent reflection.

While we were gone, our guide made a pot of foraged tea using ingredients he had just picked from the woods, including juniper berries, pine needles, and lichen. It was delicious, with a woody, herbal taste, and made for a perfect ending to my outdoor excursion.


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