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cursed travel diaries: how I spent 24 hours in Banff, Alberta

My road trip from Calgary to Banff is a cautionary tale about the importance of checking your flight itinerary, but it is also about how magical short term traveling can be if you're willing to make a bit of a mess of things.


I'm going to talk about myself and about Calgary for a while. It's going to be pretty entertaining, but you can click here to skip to when I actually talk about Banff.


A light gray rocky mountain is pictured from below, surrounded by trees in fall colours.


This past Fall, I traveled to Calgary, Alberta to attend a the Scottish Dance Teacher's Alliance North American conference. Fun fact about me: I teach, perform, and compete Scottish highland dance!


This was my second time traveling to Calgary - the first being in 2018 for the ScotDance Canada Championship Series. On that trip, I saw a little bit of Calgary, and then flew to British Colombia to visit family and the mountains. Of course the mountains of BC were incredible, but I managed to skip the rockies of Alberta completely.


So when I went this past September, I yearned to find a way to venture out of the city and into the neighbouring Rockies. This wish didn't feel super realistic to me - I only had a day and a half between the end of the conference (Sunday afternoon) and my flight home (Monday night). I was also alone, and I didn't really want to venture far outside of the bubble of expenses covered by my employer who sent me to the conference.


While waiting for my flight to Calgary in the Fredericton airport, I received a message from a friend in Banff. She advised me that if I found myself in Banff and needed a place to stay, she had a couch I could stay on. Believing my wish to visit the mountains to be out of my reach, I thanked her for her generosity and politely said that no, I probably wouldn't find myself there.


I arrived in Calgary in the middle of the night. I hadn't eaten since New Brunswick (flying on a budget airline which only provides water + poor planning on my part), so I bought myself a luxury dinner of a Clif bar and instant ramen from the 7/11 in the airport. I shuttled to the hotel and had a lengthly chat about Russian literature with the driver.


A person sits on a purple suitcase eating a granola bar. Two more large purple suitcases sit nearby.
Eating the first course of my delicious and nutritious dinner outside the Calgary airport while awaiting the Tolstoy-mobile


The next day was spent huddled in my hotel room. The conference didn't start for another day, so I did schoolwork and counted inventory for the clothing booth I was working at for the weekend. I navigated the back halls of the hotel chasing down inventory that had been mailed out to us, and I made a perilous journey across an industrial park and an 8 lane highway to buy groceries.


Cindy, the co-owner of the apparel company and my companion for the weekend, arrived that evening. Shortly into her unpacking and organising of our supplies for the beginning of the conference the next morning, we discovered that a very essential part of the business was left behind. When I say essential, I mean VITAL. Like, we were missing half of the supplies we needed. Like, we both traveled across the country and now we wouldn't be able to sell ANYTHING.


Chaos and distress ensued. Cindy called her partner back in the Northwest Territories to see if he could mail our supplies to us in the morning. In the meantime, there was nothing we could do but hope. We went to bed that night with the weight of stress on our shoulders.


Amidst the uncertainty of the day ahead of us, a nagging in the back of my mind demanded my attention: I had flown all the way across Canada... for my biggest adventure to have been crossing a highway overpass to buy some yogurt and beer?? It just felt WRONG.


That night, as Cindy fell asleep, I got out my laptop and booked a rental car before I could second guess myself. If I thought about it too hard, I would have focused on the fact that I was going to be alone, that I only had a day and a half, that my friend probably only offered her couch to be polite, etc. etc. etc.


Booking that rental car was the only way that I could banish those doubts and shove myself out of my comfort zone. Plus, I could cancel it within 24 hours and get refunded. So if I woke up and realised it was all a mistake, I could just pretend it didn't happen. Only I knew I wouldn't do that. Now, I was invested in this.


 

In the morning, Cindy and I got up early and set up our booth. We delayed opening while we waited on a verdict from her partner on the mailing situation. Because of wild fires, cargo shipping out of NWT was hampered, making next-day shipping impossible. I'll spare you the details on the intense stress that this was causing us, but let's just say it was bad.


I didn't tell Cindy about my rental car booking yet - it felt wrong for me to be thinking about my personal plans when my friend was in the throws of a possible business blunder.


But eventually, Cindy's amazing partner managed to get what we needed on a WestJet flight arriving in Calgary the next afternoon. We breathed many loud sighs of relief. We were then able to begin selling our inventory.


The rest of the conference only included a few more glitches (broken suitcase, lost wallet, multiple fire alarms, lost ID, etc.), alongside some real highlights (Cindy finding a Tiffany's bracelet at a Plato's closet, an awesome meal and delicious cheap margaritas at Añejo downtown, and seeing the dancers I teach achieving great results at the conference).



Soft tortilla tacos with toppings and greens sit beside a large rock bowl of cheese dip
Cindy and I each got tacos, several margaritas, and we shared an awesome dip served in a hot lava rock bowl.


Cindy and I rode out the chaos while stuffing our faces with Taco Bell, and the supplies miraculously arrived on Saturday evening. While I worked on a paper for school, Cindy filled a mountain of orders.


We celebrated the end of our stress by eating pizza and drinking beer in bed. This was when one of the weekend's fire drills happened. We ignored the alarm for a while, but eventually figured it would be embarrassing to die in a hotel fire. We ended up in the lobby with our beers, in our PJs, greeting all of the conference attendees (including the 10 year old dancers I teach and their parents) in their finery for the conference banquet.


Going to Banff


When the conference finished up the next day, Cindy and I went to the airport and said our goodbyes. She got on her flight home, and I picked up my rental car. I put on the awesome playlist I made for the road, stopped at a Sobeys for groceries, and got on the road.




I have never felt such joy while driving. As the mountains appeared on the horizon, I screamed my head off. It was a perfectly clear fall day. I laughed maniacally at the absurd beauty of the view.


Despite the beginning of a sharp edge in the fall air, I drove with the windows down for large parts of the drive. There's a reason the Rockies are so beloved: they're genuinely breathtaking. I turned a less-than-2 hour drive into almost 4 hours; stopping at every roadside turn off that sparked my interest.


When I wasn't singing loudly (as I always do in the car), I was screaming. My throat ached with the sound of my overwhelming happiness. I had recently downed a can of Monster. I couldn't hold all of my wonder inside my body. It kept bubbling up in shouts of OH MY GOD IT'S SO BEAUTIFUL.


Cars are stopped on the side of the high way to view towering snowy mountains under a blue sky
Between Calgary and Banff, there were lots of roadside pull-offs where one could stop and take photos of particularly spectacular vistas. I took advantage of several!


I did a lot of advance research into stops along the way, as well as asking my friends in the area for their recommendations.


My biggest stop along the way was in Canmore to do the Grassi Lakes trail. It was short but promised wonderful views. Perfect for my dinner break.


I gallivanted about the trails, admiring the lakes below. The clear skies, beginnings of fall colours, and vibrant teal lakes below were beautiful. I ate my wrap from Sobeys and enjoyed the view while the sun neared the horizon.



A girl in a brown sweater, green shorts, and a pony tail is photographed from behind as she overlooks a small lake and a towering rocky mountain
This photo was taken after I hiked the Grassi Lakes trail - I was on my way back to my car and noticed a little walk down to the side of this beautiful little lake. I briefly thought I was being stalked here but it was a false alarm <3


I highly recommend Grassi Lakes for anyone looking for a short, moderate hike. The trails are very well maintained and marked and the views are impressive. It is conveniently only a few minutes outside of Canmore, maybe 15 minutes off the main highway. There are a few benches along the trail, making it perfect for a little snack. I'm no trail runner (though I saw a few in passing), but I did take the opportunity to run along the well-groomed trails. Take this excerpt from my diary entry written that night:


I hiked Grassi Lakes and it was gorgeous. The little and big lakes were BLUE! The sun still shined as the evening wore on. The hike was quite steep at the start, but waaay worth it. At one point I went off the trail because I'm dumb and ended up on some scary cliff beside some sort of a pipeline (?) A mark of a great hike for me is having a section or two when I can RUN/prance at full speed on easy-ish terrain with no eyes around. This checked that box. I ate my grocery store wrap and admired the views - towering mountains with the year's first snow, yellow mixed into a sea of evergreen, wispy cloud, calm teal waters, and rock stairs to new heights.

A deep blue lake is surrounded by evergreen forests. Rocky, snowy mountains are seen in the background
From one of the many Grassi Lakes viewpoints

I made a quick stop at a gift shop in Canmore (I am a sucker for gift shops) and shared knowing looks with the cashier listening to the obviously American customer in front of me complain about their lack of plastic shopping bags. I then continued on to Banff. The sights along the road just kept getting more and more spectacular.


I pulled into Banff as the sun was setting. I made a quick trip to drop a fat wad of cash at Patagonia, and then enjoyed the sunset over the mountains from the Bow River Bridge just a few steps away.


A blue and gold sunset is seen over the mountains and reflected in water below
Sunset from Bow Valley Bridge in downtown Banff

I stopped into yet another gift shop, and walked the streets for a while. Banff is a lovely place. It is touristy as hell. And extremely expensive. But hey, I'm a tourist. Who am I to complain. And I had a couch to sleep on. So, I may as well enjoy it.


I made my way to my friend's house. I went with her and her girlfriend to High Rollers, an awesome establishment which hosts bowling alleys, a brick pizza oven, and lots of beer on tap. A place was almost empty, it being Sunday night, and we managed to find some food and drinks. A group of their mutual friends invited us to bowl with them, and it was fun (though moderately embarrassing as they were all completely fried and I still managed to come in last place).


A flight of 4 light beers is in the foreground, and people playing bowling is in the background
The housemate of the friends I was staying with worked at Highrollers, so when we ordered flights of beers, he asked what our taste in beer was and then curated our flights for us. 10/10.


We talked of Banff, of seasonal work, of moving out West. I have had a fire burning in me to get out of my hometown for a minute now, and my conversations with these people who managed to find such joy - even in an expensive and touristy place like Banff - really set my mind to wandering.


I got their input on my plans for the next day. I had already booked a shuttle to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake for bright and extremely early the next morning. Note to travellers to Banff - you need to book a shuttle in advance to access Moraine Lake (closed to personal vehicles) and Lake Louise (parking is a nightmare). Find info and reservation bookings here!


I planned to get up at 5am, drive 45 minutes to the shuttle pick up point, and then have the day in the park to see the lakes and do a hike. After getting my friends' input, I decided I would do the Big Beehive hike. It was achievable in my time frame, and would allow me to see some of the best sights Banff has to offer in a single day tour.


I went to bed that night with such a light heart. These things - impromptu trips, meeting new people, bowling very badly, getting up early to hike and see the sights - are what a very intrinsic piece of me wants very badly to be doing.


I long for adventure in the sense that I want to spring out of bed eager to start the day, and I want to fall into bed with heavy limbs at the end of it.


Looking back, I remember thinking that night about how proud I was of finding such joy without having a plan in place.


A towering mountain is seen above, with a forest of evergreen trees below. There is a small green lake at the bottom, which reflects the top of the image
From Grassi Lakes. That silver tower thing is where I somehow ended up when I took my little off-trail detour LOL.

Things take a turn


I woke with a start in the pitch black. I had only been asleep for 5 hours, and I am never one to wake in the night. Something was off.


I checked the time, and it was 4:45. 15 minutes until my alarm. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. Something urged me to check my plane ticket - just to ease my mind.


I looked at my ticket and it said 0700. Hmmmm. Don't plane tickets usually use 24 hour time? And the math on my arrival time isn't mathing... it seems like I would have to travel back in time for these numbers to be correct.

The next 30 seconds while I wrapped my mind around the scope of my idiocy were the calm before the storm.


The boarding time of flight was not 7pm like I had thought. No. It was at 7am. In just over 2 hours. And it is an hour and 45 minute hour drive back to the airport. And I have a rental car to return. And I have a bag to check.


Chaos ensues.


I shove all of my belongings in a bag and jump in the car. I wasted no time. I did manage to brush my teeth in the scramble between when I realised my mistake and when I got on the highway.


Apologies to the laws of Alberta and to my mother, but not a single speed limit was obeyed that morning. I white-knuckled it the whole way back. The music was significantly more subdued that morning than the day before.


The me who had travelled along the same stretch of road 8 hours earlier, who had been literally screaming - unable to contain their overwhelming mirth - felt a universe away. A blissfully unaware idiot. I couldn't even be mad at past me. She was so naive.


I hoped to maybe see the sun rise between the mountains as a goodbye while I made my mad dash. But alas, I saw only silhouettes of those behemoths against the starry sky as I drove.


The moon shines bright above mountains and a hourse
I took 2 seconds to take this photo as I ran to my car in Banff before I got on the road. Timestamp: 4:54am.

I made it to the airport and RAN to the bag check. I RAN to security and nearly jumped out of my skin when I was selected for random extra security screening. I RAN to my gate. Miraculously, I made it to the gate 2 minutes before boarding began.


When I got to my seat on the flight, I collapsed with relief... and disappointment. While I avoided shelling out hundreds of dollars on a missed flight, my beautiful day in the mountains was lost.


To the present, I mourn that lost day. When I see photos on Instagram of the views on the Big Beehive hike, I am filled with bitter resentment toward those god awful crystal clear teal blue pools and the majestic rocky peaks which surround them. When I hear about that stupid little adorable teahouse at the top of the hike I am reminded of what could have been. Don't even talk to me about the view from the shores of Moraine Lake. I'll cry.


When I go back and finally see Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and the views from Big Beehive trail, all will be right with the world. They are now my white whale of travel.

Summing up


All in all, while I harbour some lingering resentment at myself, my whirlwind 12 hours (I had to title this post "24 hours" so I wouldn't give away the plot twist, lol) in Banff were a positive experience. It speaks volumes to the magic of the rockies that 12 hours was enough to snare me so deeply. I'll leave you with the ending of that diary entry I pulled from earlier in this post:


So, there's yet another place I feel drawn to; whether for reasons of attachment or of unfinished business. Realistically, both. I'll definitely be back there as soon as I can - for a lot longer than one day.

Horses graze in a field surrounded by grey and snowy mountains
Taken in Kananaksis - one of my roadside stops before Banff. I took the exit for Kananaksis and was enamoured with these horses. I didn't do anything else there, sadly. But I did enjoy the horses.

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