And we’re back! After a brief four-month hiatus we are back on the road in Swifty in Canada, trying to see as much as we can before winter sets in. In case you missed our story of the first 3 months on the road, make sure you check out our west coast adventure, the best slot canyons of Utah, and hidden places in Utah.
We got back into our old vanlife routine quickly, but struggled with cold weather much sooner and much more frequently than we had imagined. That being said, we’ve seen some beautiful sights and are enjoying being back on the road.
Welcome to our fourth monthly update on our overlanding adventure where we share the Kootenays, Canadian Rockies, and our thoughts on Canmore vs Banff.
Catching Up – Where Have We Been
When we left off at the end of Month 3 on the road, we were forced to leave the U.S. as Bettina’s visa was expiring. Bettina reached Switzerland without any issues in early June, and went on a self-imposed short quarantine before heading out to explore recently reopened Europe. There was a family trip to Milan and Cinque Terre as well as a whirlwind travel blogger photoshoot trip through the lavender fields of Provence, as well as sights in Nice, Monaco and Paris.
Kyle went into a mandatory two-week quarantine and immediately headed out camping the first day he was free. He also took Swifty out on a few other trips in British Columbia to make sure everything still worked properly.
Finally, after two months apart, on August 1st we were reunited again when Kyle flew to Switzerland, booking his flight the day Switzerland opened its border to Canadians. From there it was a jam-packed month exploring new sights in Switzerland, going on hikes, and enjoying summer in Europe.
We were super excited that we got to take our trip to Greece that was originally cancelled in April due to COVID. It was a new country for Kyle and the weather and sights were fantastic in Mykonos, Santorini, and Athens.
Our last European adventure was an extended road trip to Germany, Austria, and Italy, where the highlight was a much quieter than usual Venice.
Note that throughout all of our trips, we were being very cautious and made sure to take all the COVID precautions such as wearing masks, social distancing, and washing and sanitizing our hands frequently.
We flew back to Canada in mid-September to reunite with Swifty and continue our vanlife adventure the best we thought we could. After a two-week quarantine, which went faster than expected, we were back on the road!
Summer Heat in Osoyoos
We left Vancouver with the goal to drive to the Canadian Rocky Mountains and explore the area in fall. Of course, none of our road trips are complete without finding countless places to stop at along the way.
Our first stop was Osoyoos. The desert city is less than four hours from Vancouver. It is the hottest city in Canada and the weather certainly did not disappoint during our short stay. We enjoyed summer-like temperatures with a high of 79 F (26 C).
Osoyoos and the whole Okanagan region is known for having an excellent climate for growing fruits and vegetables, including grapes, and contains more wineries than you can count dotting the hillsides.
Given our love for wine, we couldn’t visit the Okanagan and pass on some wine tasting. We made an appointment at NK’MIP Cellars for an afternoon tasting. The tasting was very COVID safe, with lots of distancing and restricted movement. We sampled a flight of wines, with the 2019 Riesling being our surprising favorite as we usually prefer full-bodied reds.
Before we knew it, we had to get back on the road. We were on a mission to catch the larch trees in Banff, and were racing against the incoming winter weather that would cause the trees to lose all of their colorful needles.
Exploring Fall in the Kootenays
The Kootenays are a region of British Columbia that we really haven’t explored, until now. Even though we drove through fairly quickly, we still got to see the famous lakes and mountains of this region and are already planning to come back when the weather is better.
Our first day here was amazing as we explored an old Canadian Pacific Railway route through the mountains, complete with tunnels that you can drive through and restored trestles that you can drive over. One of the tunnels Kyle thought was super exciting is 2,992 ft (912 m) long, but is also curved, so when initially inside you cannot see the end of the tunnel in front of you. We had this whole area to ourselves, and were also treated to a fantastic sunset. It was an amazing day that really made us excited to be back on the road.
As we continued through the Kootenays we made a detour north to visit the impressive Wilson Creek Falls in Goat Range Provincial Park. The falls are accessed via a relatively easy 1.8 mile (2.9 km) return hike through the forest. Bettina climbed further up towards a ledge near the falls so we could get some incredible shots.
Our last days in the Kootenays were mostly spent driving, but we did manage to catch some more of the beautiful fall colors in the trees.
Banff National Park: Larches, Lakes, and Lack of Sleep
After a few days in the Kootenays, we finally made it to Banff and were relieved to see that it was not covered in snow yet. This meant we were able to explore the area more and hike some of the peaks which had been on our bucket list for a while.
We woke up at 4:30 AM on our first morning in Banff National Park as we were determined to catch the sunrise at Moraine Lake. We had read online that even though the actual sunrise is not until 8:00 AM, that the parking lot may be full by 6:30 AM, and once it’s full you’ll be turned away. Not wanting to take any chances, we woke up extra early and drove to Moraine Lake from Banff, arriving around 6:00 AM. The parking lot was already about half full as we popped Swifty and took an hour nap.
Our lack of sleep the night before was rewarded with a stunning sunrise at Moraine Lake. The sun rises behind you and first hits the mountain tops behind the lake with golden light. This was a bucket list moment for us, and totally worth taking in if you have the chance. The weather here can be unpredictable at the best of times, so we were lucky to have an almost clear sky the morning we were there.
One of the other great things about Moraine Lake is that it is where the trailhead is located for Larch Valley. Larch Valley is a high-altitude valley with a ton of larch trees, that is easily accessible with a 1-2 hour hike up the mountain. Larch trees are unique in that although they are conifers, with soft green needles, they are also deciduous as their needles turn a bright golden yellow and drop off in the fall.
There is usually about a two-week window to see these beautiful trees in all of their golden yellow glory, however the timing of the color change is different every year, depending on the weather.
We arrived at the tail-end of the larch season, with the trees having lost about half of their needles already. It was still incredible to see them though, and something that we plan to see again in the future when the trees are at their peak.
Lake Louise is the other quintessential Canadian Rocky Mountains lake with its vibrant turquoise color. The weather here is equally unpredictable, and although we arrived for sunrise again, the weather was mostly cloudy, so we didn’t have quite the same impressive display as Moraine Lake the day before.
That being said, taking in any sunrise is always special and while we always hate getting up early, we also always agree that it was worth it.
After taking some sunrise photos we decided to tackle the hike to the famous Lake Agnes Teahouse and the Big Beehive viewpoint. We got rained on, snowed on, and blown around in the wind. However, when we reached the top the weather cleared briefly and we were rewarded with beautiful views of Lake Louise and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, from above.
Town of Banff
While we were just in Banff in February of this year, exploring all of the same sights in fall was a totally different experience. The Vermillion Lakes are only a 5-minute drive from the town center, but feel like you are a world away. The fall foliage on display was excellent, and it was also surprisingly free of other tourists and visitors compared to Moraine Lake and Lake Louise the days before.
Of course, no trip to Banff would be complete without a picture of the iconic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel and a photo looking down Banff Avenue towards Cascade Mountain!
Canmore: The Unsung Hero of the Rockies
After spending almost a week in Banff National Park, we headed south-east to the town of Canmore. Canmore is the underrated neighbor of Banff, however, it has gained a lot of popularity in the last few years. If you ask us where you should stay in the Rockies - Canmore vs Banff - we are very torn but will share all our knowledge further below.
Our first order of business was tackling one of Canmore’s most famous hikes: The East End of Rundle. It was a windy day, but the views from the top (or close to the top, as we didn’t actually make it the whole way!) are spectacular.
Canmore is also more convenient for exploring Kananaskis Country, which is directly south from Canmore. We ventured out one stormy day to hike to some hot springs. The combination of wind and rain on the way up was brutal, as was the steep climb. However, the weather subsided for a bit and we were able to take a dip in the mountainside hot springs (although they are more “warm springs” than hot springs!).
The rest of our time in Canmore was spent relaxing at a hotel and enjoying the outdoor hot tub and pool with direct views of the famous Three Sisters peaks in Canmore.
Canmore vs Banff
One question that always seems to come up is whether Banff or Canmore is better as a base to explore the Canadian Rockies. We think that they should really be treated as separate destinations, as both are worthwhile of your time. Below we’ll go through some of the main categories in travel and discuss the merits of each to see if there is a winner of the great Canmore vs Banff debate.
- Hotels: Both Banff and Canmore have a decent number of hotels, but in general you will find that Banff hotels are more expensive and cater more towards a typical “tourist” rather than Canmore hotels which give you more opportunities of mainstream hotels for all budgets, while still offering more luxurious accommodations. Canmore vs Banff Verdict: It depends on what you are looking for.
- Dining: There are plenty of restaurants in both towns to keep you satisfied, but again Banff caters to a more touristy crowd with more high-end restaurants and prices to match. There’s fewer fast food restaurants and more steakhouses. Canmore has plenty of fast food options and more down to earth pubs and bars, however, also offers amazing high-end cuisine if that is what you are looking for. Canmore vs Banff Verdict: It depends on what you are looking for, Banff has more high-end dining experiences available, but Canmore has more widespread appeal.
- Shopping: If you are looking for high-end brands and souvenirs, then Banff definitely has you covered. If you are looking for basically anything else, you may struggle to find it in Banff, whereas Canmore offers multiple major grocery stores, a Canadian Tire, and a number of other stores where you should be able to find anything you need while in the area. Canmore vs Banff Verdict: It depends on what you are looking for.
- Views: Banff has iconic views of Mt. Rundle and Cascade Mountain, both of which are beautiful. Canmore however, has the edge here with the towering Ha Ling Peak and East End of Rundle immediately above the city. Slightly further away, though it still feels like you could reach out and touch them, are the iconic Three Sisters. That’s not to mention all of the other mountains that completely surround Canmore. Canmore vs Banff Verdict: Canmore has the better views.
- Proximity to Moraine Lake and Lake Louise: One of the main sights which people are looking to see on their trip to the Rocky Mountains are Moraine Lake and Lake Louise. Banff is located closer to both lakes, as well as to Morant’s Curve and the Icefields Parkway. Canmore vs Banff Verdict: Banff is closer in proximity to the famous Rocky Mountain sights.
- Activities: No matter which month of the year you visit, both Banff and Canmore have all sorts of activities to keep you busy. Banff has more organized tours available and also caters to those looking for spa retreats, whereas Canmore has hiking and mountain biking closer to the city as well as more adventure-oriented options. Canmore vs Banff Verdict: Canmore has more options, and they are closer to the city.
If we had to choose a winner in the battle of Canmore vs Banff, I’m not sure that we really could. It really depends on the type of trip you are looking for. For anyone traveling a long distance to this area, you absolutely have to visit Banff, and you won’t regret it. However, if this is an area you plan to return to multiple times, I think we would give a slight edge to Canmore. Ultimately, we recommend that you visit both, ensuring there will be no disappointment.
Canmore vs Banff FAQ
Is it better to stay in Banff or Canmore?
This depends on the kind of trip you are going on and how long you are staying. For short trips, it is better to stay in Banff as it is closer to the main attractions such as Moraine Lake, Lake Louise, Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, etc. If you are on a budget and are looking for reasonably priced hotels, it is better to stay in Canmore as you have more options to choose from in every price category.
How far is Canmore from Banff?
Canmore is 15 miles (24.6 km) from Banff. Canmore is South of Banff and it will take you 20 minutes to drive from Canmore to Banff on Highway 1. If you are taking public transport, the line 3 will get you from Canmore to Banff in 37 minutes.
How long does it take to bike from Canmore to Banff?
It will take about 3 hours to bike from Canmore to Banff, depending on how fast you bike and how many stops you make along the way. The Legacy Trail from Canmore to Banff is 15.5 miles (25 km) and is mostly uphill. You will gain about 446 ft (136 m) in altitude.
Where is Canmore in relation to Banff?
Canmore and Banff are both nestled in the Rocky Mountains. Canmore is located a 20-minute drive and 15 miles (24.6 km) south of Banff.
How far is Canmore from Lake Louise?
Canmore is about 50 miles (80 km) from Lake Louise on Highway 1 which is roughly a 50-minute drive.
The Second Ill-Fated Attempt at the Icefields Parkway
After seeing everything in Banff and Canmore that we had high on our list, we decided to head to Jasper National Park on the famous Icefields Parkway. Back in February we attempted to make this same drive, however the weather had other plans. A heavy snow storm had closed the parkway for almost a week and so we had to take a long detour to get to Jasper, missing the famous waterfalls, lakes, glaciers, and views along the Icefields Parkway.
We were determined to drive the parkway and so we set off on a beautiful sunny afternoon. We briefly saw Peyto Lake and were continuing on when we noticed our truck making worrying noises and vibrations anytime we were under power and accelerating. We made the difficult decision to turn around and head back to civilization.
The Icefields Parkway is remote, with no hotels, gas stations, or restaurants open in winter. There is also no phone reception. The last thing we wanted was to get stranded on the Icefields Parkway with no cell service and freezing temperatures. And with our truck sounding worse by the minute, we decided the best course was to limp the truck back where we could have someone look at it.
We retraced our steps towards Lake Louise and then Banff, driving as fast as we dared (though still well below the speed limit) to civilization and the comfort of having a phone signal. As it was the weekend, there was no shop that could take a look at the truck until Monday, so we had to wait it out.
We also decided to drive further to Canmore, which has better options for automotive repair shops. After the first two shops were so busy they couldn’t even look at the truck for a week, we finally found one that would look at it that day. Turns out part of the rear driveshaft needed replacing. A mission critical part in making the truck move, and something that could go catastrophically wrong if it fully broken.
While we now knew what needed to be fixed, the replacement part wouldn’t arrive for a week. So we had an unexpected extra week in Canmore awaiting the part to fix our truck.
In Hot Water with More Problems
With the truck fixed, and having spent an unscheduled week in a hotel, we were ready to get back out there and start exploring. However, we had one more day to spend in Canmore to wrap up some work on the blog. After an afternoon in a coffee shop, we returned to find the inside floor of Swifty covered in a thick layer of ice.
In our haste to find a mechanic to work on the truck and check into our hotel the week before, we forgot to drain the hot water tank in Swifty before settling into our hotel for the week. The days in the hotel were very cold -4 F (-20 C) and during that time the full hot water tank in Swifty froze and burst. We didn’t immediately notice the damage when we packed up to leave, however after driving for a bit and returning to Swifty after the coffee shop, the water had found its way all through our cabinets, underneath the bench and onto the floor. Because it was so cold, it was all frozen.
We spent the next day trying to heat up Swifty and mop up the continuous water coming out from under the cabinets. We knew that we needed some proper equipment to properly dry out Swifty, and we weren’t able to find what we needed in Canmore, so off we drove the one hour to Calgary.
Our afternoon was spent driving around the city trying to find a dehumidifier, but everyone was either out of stock or the unit was way too big/expensive for what we needed. We were able to purchase a small industrial fan, and checked into an Airbnb for three nights where we could plug in Swifty and run our electric heater and the fan in an attempt to dry everything out.
It seemed to work, as by the time we were checking out of our Airbnb, everything was dry in and under the cabinets. We packed up again, and were once again back on the road. This time, we hoped without any issues. With warmer weather in the forecast, we headed East to uncharted territory.
The Stats – Month Four
Miles driven: 1,594
Nights in Swifty: 17
Canadian Provinces crossed: British Columbia, Alberta
Number of Grizzly Bears Spotted: 1
Tim Horton’s Coffees Consumed: 18
Number of Sunrise Photoshoots: 5
Number of Nights Snowed On: 7 (this is October!)
Days below 0C / 32F: 13
Favorite Meal: “Trust the Chef” dinner at The Sensory, Canmore, Alberta
Favorite Campsite: Shore of Upper Arrow Lake
2020 is not going quite as we planned, however we know that is the same for just about everyone and that we are fortunate to continue to go on adventures, even though we are unable to truly follow our dreams at the moment. We are making the best of things for the moment and taking in new sights and experiences, even if they weren’t what we were planning.
It was great to get back into life on the road, although we sure are missing the warmer temperatures we had earlier in the year in the southwestern U.S.
With winter fast approaching, it looks like we may only have a few more weeks on the road before retreating to the milder Vancouver area. Stay tuned for more updates as we explore Canada!
Pin this post to your Canada Pinterest board for when you plan your trip to the Rocky Mountains and have to decide between staying in Canmore vs Banff.
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