It was a series of fortunate events for my friends and I: none of us had been on a road trip before, we all wanted to go on one, we also wanted to go camping, and then we found a mystery road trip service that had a trip on the way to the area we planned to camp in.
My mother was the one to tell me about this service. It’s called Guess Where Trips and it’s a Canadian company that has pre-planned mystery road trip packages for day trips. The idea is that you pick a trip based on your location and interests, and then they send you all the info in individual envelopes so you can open them up as you go and have it all be a complete surprise. My mom’s friend had bought a few as gifts and they went over well. I looked on the website and was excited to find one on the way to the park my friends were going to camp in that perfectly aligned with our interests (it was called the Weird And Wonderful trip—a perfect way to describe my friends).
This is not a sponsored or affiliate post. I genuinely just think it’s a cool thing and wanted to tell you about it.
Each trip package comes with 3-4 main attractions that can be done in a day but also lists some other places nearby to see, eat, or even sleep to extend the trip. Everything is organized and laid out so all you have to do is drive and enjoy, which is nice considering how stressful trip planning can be.
The mystery/surprise aspect is very fun, but I also like being in control. So what my friends and I did was I bought the PDF version of the trip plan (instead of the physical version with the cute envelopes) so I had all the info ahead of time and could ensure we stayed on schedule so we could get to our campsite at the proper check-in time before it got dark. I set the GPS and didn’t tell my friends any of the fun destinations until we were approaching. This way, we managed to keep that surprise element and we were able to see some cool places.
We didn’t see or do everything on the plan that we wanted to due to the camp check-in time we had, but if you have a full day to use for this adventure, it’s very worth it and fun to go to places you didn’t know existed.
As I said, Guess Where Trips is Canadian, so all their trips are in Canada only. If you’re visiting the country and want to see things outside of the normal touristy destinations, give it a go! I don’t know if there are similar companies in other countries, but if there are, I can say that my friends and I enjoyed this experience. It’s a fun way to explore new places with friends, family, or dates.
I’d love to share pictures of what we saw on our trip, but that’d ruin the mystery for you!
For the first time in many years, I took a vacation that was more than three days! And for the first time ever, I helped plan and research this trip, which was cool. So if you’re considering a trip to Canmore/Banff, here’s the itinerary plus tips from what my parents and I did, and we had such a good time (note it was late May/early June). If you’re not planning a trip and just want to read about my vacation and see pretty pics, you’re in the right place for that too!
Day 1 – Getting to Canmore
Day 1 was our travel day. We flew from Toronto to Calgary and got a rental car. Before leaving Calgary, we went grocery shopping for some light breakfast and lunch stuff we’d need for the week. Despite our accommodations being a VRBO in Canmore, it’s best to do grocery shopping in Calgary where food is much cheaper. It’s about an hour drive from Calgary to Canmore.
Day 2 – Lake Minnewanka and downtown Banff
This was our first day of adventure! We rented some bear spray and put on our hiking shoes. It’s about 20 mins from Canmore to Banff. We crossed the border into Banff National Park at about 11am. The parking pass we had to buy was technically good for like 36 hours. We ate lunch at a Tims in Banff and then drove 15 mins to Lake Minnewanka. It’s a pretty lake with mountains right across the water. We hiked up along a canyon trail for about 45 mins. Since it was our first day and our bodies were adjusting to physical activity, we didn’t go the full trail, so I can’t tell you what’s at the end.
After going back down the trail and taking pics by the water, we drove back to Banff and walked around the city center for a few hours, going into shops and taking in the sights. I bought a little dragon! Pro tip: there’s free parking on the top three floors of the public transit parking garage in the middle of the city.
We wanted to see the famous Banff Fairmont hotel, which is to the south, so we got back in the car. On the way, we saw signs for Bow River lookout, so we went and looked out. There’s a trail there too, but we didn’t walk it for more than 10 mins. Then we went to see the hotel. And then we drove back to Canmore.
Day 3 – Lake Louise, Emerald Lake, and Johnston Canyon
Since our Banff pass was still good until 4pm, we went back out that way early the next day. We drove to the Lake Louise area first (about 45 mins from Canmore). In some brochure my dad had, there was a coupon for a discount on the Lake Louise gondola (aka ski lift), and since it was a clear morning, we paid for the ride where we got to see a wonderful view of all the mountains. It was expensive, but anything that involves getting those high-up views of the mountains will cost you.
Then we drove down to Lake Louise. It wasn’t yet peak tourist season, so we were able to find a parking spot easily (there is a $12 fee), but we heard that if you’re going in the middle of summer, you better get there very early if you want a spot. Despite being late May, the lake was still mostly frozen, which was cool to see, but that meant that a lot of trails around the lake were closed or not recommended because of snow. We ended up walking on the trail by the lake’s edge, getting about halfway around the lake before snow stopped us. The walkway is flat and busy, so while the view is nice, my family agreed that it was our least favourite stop on the whole trip. This walk was about 2 hours (1 there, 1 back).
After lunching at Bill Peyto’s Cafe, we drove to Emerald Lake (~30 mins from Lake Louise). This lake is actually in Yoho National Park and is actually in British Columbia, but we didn’t see a place to buy a new parking pass, so we just went for free. Emerald Lake was fully thawed and really pretty. We walked about 20 mins around the left side of the lake, then turned back.
Lastly, though we were basically at our 4pm parking pass deadline, we decided to stop in at Johnston Canyon since it was on the way back to Banff. It’s about 20 mins outside of Banff, and no one checked our pass, so we were good. Johnston has three waterfalls to get to, as well as an attraction called the Ink Pots past those, but we only went to the first falls, called Lower Falls since we were tired from our full day of activity. It was still really cool to be up in the canyon and go through a little cave to see a waterfall! This took us about an hour total.
Day 4 – Grotto Canyon and Troll Falls (Kananaskis Country)
The first Wednesday of every month is known as Wilderness Wednesday in Kananaskis Country, which is to the east of Canmore, and this means free parking! It just so happened that June 1st was a Wednesday, so we took advantage of this (otherwise, a family pass is like $21). The following two activities were my family’s favourites out of the whole trip!
Our first stop was Grotto Canyon (15 mins from Canmore). You have to walk through a bit of a clearing and past a processing plant to get to the canyon, but it’s worth it! We had two options once we got to the canyon: hike up on the trail along the top of it through trees, or go down into the actual canyon. This second option may not always be available if the water is rushing through the canyon, but aside from a very small stream, we had plenty of dry rocks to walk on. If you can, go with option two. It was so cool to be in the canyon. About halfway in, there was a waterfall that was still frozen. My dad and I climbed up about halfway. I tried to go up further but it was too slippery. Past the waterfall, there’s more canyon, but it was marked as an unmaintained area to enter at your own risk, so we didn’t go farther. Grotto Canyon took us about 1.5 hours total.
Next, we drove deeper into Kananaskis (20 mins in). We ate lunch on a bench and then went to Troll Falls (another 10 min drive). Troll Falls was very cool and was only about a 30 min hike one way. Its name comes from a Troll-like rock to the side of the waterfall. You aren’t supposed to climb up to the Troll, but Dad and I did. There were also signs for an Upper Falls, so up we went. It was steep, but beautiful, and if you take a recommended route (follow the signs) to Marmot falls as well (where you can walk behind the falls), you can see three total waterfalls on this hike. This whole excursion took us maybe 2 hours total but we all loved it.
Day 5 – Staying in Canmore
Every Thursday in the summer, there’s a Canmore Mountain Market from 10-4 in the downtown area. There are little stalls of food, art, and more. So after three days of hiking and activity, we returned the bear spray and took it easy by going to the market. After that, we walked in and around the Canmore stores on the main street. We got lunch at a cute little place called Bella Crusta that’s known for its focaccia bread. We all got sandwiches and my dad said it was the best sandwich he’s ever had, so we highly recommend this place. We even got a disc of focaccia to take back to eat for dinner because it was so good.
We also saw these ducklings in the river downtown. There were no ducks at my house this year to show you, so enjoy these Canmore ducks instead.
Day 6 – Dinosaur Provincial Park
Okay, so technically this is not in Canmore, nor is it near it. But since we were to be flying out of Calgary on Saturday morning, we knew we needed to head back in that direction anyway. Dinosaur Park is two hours east of Calgary (making it a 3hr drive from Canmore), so it’s certainly a trip, but worth it. You drive through flat farm land and then all of the sudden you’re at the park with these huge canyons and badlands all around. It’s free to enter and park. We hiked the Badlands loop and the Trail Of The Dinosaur Hunters. There are two real fossil exhibits near the second trail, which was cool to see. There’s even a place called the Cretaceous Café, which had remarkably good prices considering it’s the only place to get food in a 30 km radius. We expected to be let down by DPP as we had just come from mountains and waterfalls, but we were all very impressed and had fun, so we do recommend going if you have a free day and don’t mind the drive.
Then we drove back to Calgary and checked into our hotel by the airport.
Day 7 – Home
We flew back to Toronto and got home to find that my brother didn’t water my plants. 😦
What We Didn’t See
For a variety of reasons, there were things we wanted to see/do but did not:
Peyto Lake – we wanted to go here after Emerald Lake but were told it was still snowy and not the best place to hike. I’m not too mad, though, because we went to Johnston Canyon instead!
Moraine Lake and the Tea House – due to an avalanche, this whole area was closed off completely.
Three Sisters Disc Golf – I found this little place online that had free disc golf and thought it’d be the perfect afternoon activity for the day we stayed in Canmore, but I did not know you had to bring your own discs, and there’s no place to rent them.
Banff Hot Springs – we just didn’t have time. We packed bathing suits but never used them.
The Dinosaur Park museum – it’s a small museum with a $2 entry fee, but it was late in the afternoon and we knew we had a 2 hour drive back to Calgary, so we skipped it.
Jasper – this park was simply too far from Canmore and we didn’t want to do six hours of driving in one day.
Go to the visitor/info centers! Canmore, Banff, Lake Louise, and Kananaskis Country all have one. The workers were all super nice and had up-to-date info on trails so they can make hike recommendations and answer questions. You can pick up a map or refill your water here, so we found them great places to stop into.
Rent bear spray, don’t buy it. We rented it for three days and luckily didn’t have to use it. You can’t fly with it, so we were happy to not have to throw it out before we left as we just returned it. We rented from a place called Gear Up in Canmore.
As I mentioned, the Banff parking pass is good for over 24 hours, so get it early in the day and plan for two days of going into Banff to make the most of it.
Have a few bandaids in your bag. I slipped while climbing the frozen waterfall in Grotto Canyon and my mom tripped at Dinosaur Park, so having bandaids handy was great.
Going in late May/early June was perfect. The weather was perfect (not too hot or cold!), and nothing was too crowded. It’s still ‘off season’ for a lot of places so accommodations and passes are cheaper than they may be in July.
Assess your walking speeds. Some places had estimated hike times, and we found that they were pretty slow speeds. This allowed us to plan for more stuff because we knew we’d be through it faster than we thought.
If your phone is your go-to picture-taking tool, have a wrist strap or popsocket on it. There were so many times when I was taking a picture and gripping my popsocket so tightly because I was on the edge of a cliff or waterfall or something where it’d be unrecoverable if it dropped.
All in all, this was a great trip! It was so much fun, and that’s coming from me, someone who is not a big outdoorsy person. We got very lucky with the weather, and everything that we saw was so pretty! If you’re planning to go and have questions, ask away! Alberta’s mountains and blue lakes are so different than what I’m used to here in Ontario, so I’m really glad I got to see them.