Banff is overrated! My top 3 hiking spots that AREN’T in Banff

There, I said it.

Banff is overrated.

The more I wander and adventure around Alberta and British Columbia, the more I realize that the Rocky Mountains are so much more than just Banff.

When I lived in Eastern Canada, “Banff” was the only word that immediately came to mind when thinking about the Canadian Rockies, immediately conjuring up magical images of pristine views of stunning mountains, golden sunsets behind shadowed peaks and crystal clear lakes. Now, after my fair share of adventures in Banff National Park and the townsite as well as other towns and parks in the Canadian Rockies, I can say with certainty that Banff is not as magical as I used to think it is – mainly because it is jam-packed with tourists and a trip to the national park actually ends up being quite costly (entry into provincial parks in Alberta is free).

Banff is by far the most visited national park in all of Canada. According to Parks Canada, in the year period between April 1, 2017 and March 31, 2018, 4.2 million people visited Banff National Park. The next most visited national park was Jasper, with 2.4 million visitors, then in third place, 1.2 million people visiting Saguenay-St. Lawrence in Quebec.

I’m not saying that Banff National Park isn’t beautiful – it absolutely is and it’s certainly worth a visit. What I’m saying is I just wish that other parts of the Rockies got the recognition they deserve and enticed the same kind of visitorship and admiration as Banff.

This isn’t to detract attention from Banff in any way, but in my opinion, there are significant consequences to Banff’s celebrity status and highlighting some of the other phenomenal Rocky Mountain territory is likely to alleviate some of the concerns like a declining visitor experience and sustainability and environmental concerns.

I think the solution here isn’t to discourage visiting Banff National Park – it truly is beautiful and anyone who hasn’t yet been there has a right to see it – but rather to encourage visiting other parks.

Here are some of my favourite jewels of the Alberta Rocky Mountains that aren’t in Banff National Park.

  1. Livingstone Public Land Use Zone
    This is probably the most underrated of Rocky Mountain regions. The Livingstone Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ) is located in the southwestern corner of Alberta, mostly lying north of Highway 3. Being mostly a hiker, I’ve discovered so many hidden gems in this area, challenging hikes with breathtaking views, pristine lakes with not a single other person around, backcountry camping in that perfect, secret spot. This is by far my favourite area to adventure in and as far as hiking “off the beaten path”, there’s no better place, in my opinion.

    DSC_0453
    The view from Mount Ward in the Livingstone PLUZ. The Seven Sisters and Crowsnest Mountain in the background, and the hole in Window Mountain in the foreground. On the way, you also pass the beautiful Window Mountain Lake at the base.
  2. Castle Provincial Park
    The Castle is Alberta’s newest provincial park, created in February 2017, located just south of Highway 3. I’ve never seen more wildlife than I have in this park. I’ve seen a Grizzly, a black bear, a fox, a frog, lots of deer and elk. One time I saw SEVEN moose in a single day! That’s certainly a hard-to-beat record for me. I feel like this park has more “breathing room” than the Livingstone and Peter Lougheed. What I mean by that it feels as though there’s more space between the peaks, with rolling hills, twisting rivers and sheltered forests intermingling with the mountains. I like that. This past summer, I’ve also found a few great Saskatoon berry and thimbleberry-picking spots, always a treat!

    DSC_04701
    One of the Southfork Lakes. The lakes have many larch trees surrounding them and make a beautiful golden mirror-image in the fall.
  3. Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
    If you still want the proximity to Calgary that Banff boasts, then Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis is a fantastic option. I’ve had some of my favourite hikes in this park. It’s filled with lakes and astonishing views of mountains carrying on for days dotted with tarns and alpine lakes among them. It’s more populated than the other two areas mentioned above, but you still get that “wilderness” feel if you choose the right hikes to do.

    DSC_0244
    View from the summit of Mount Smutwood. This is one of those hikes that’s actually quite popular, but it’s still so, so worth doing! The first bit is a walk through a gorgeous marshy meadow before the uphill starts. Just on the other side of the ridge we’re sitting on are two alpine tarns.

Do you agree that Banff National Park is overrated? Have you ever been to these parks and regions?

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