Avoid the crowds at Banff National Park and discover the quiet beauty of Yoho
Yoho National Park rivals Banff in every way except for long lines and traffic jams
Planning to visit Banff National Park and the Canadian Rockies but concerned about the massive crowds, long lines and overflow parking lots? We’ve got a secret to share – Yoho National Park.
Yoho National Park borders Banff National Park. Like Banff, Yoho has beautiful glacier-fed lakes with picture-perfect turquoise water. It has towering waterfalls and abundant wildlife and wildflowers. What does Banff have that Yoho does not? Massive crowds. Yoho National Park is largely overlooked by tourists. The locals know this and avoid Banff during peak tourist season and instead spend their outdoor adventure time in Yoho. Plus, Yoho is fun to say. Try it. Yoho.
Our late June/early July trip to Canada’s Banff and Jasper National Park violated our travel rule of seeking out dates to avoid the crowds. We were smack in the middle of the busiest time for these popular national parks.
Our son and his wife live in California. We call North Carolina home. We share a love of travel and being active outdoors so we met in the Canadian Rockies to spend a week together. This timing was best for their work so we sought out ways to make the experience intimate and enjoyable rather than stressful and bumper-to-bumper.
We stayed two nights in Golden, British Columbia, located just outside Yoho’s southern entrance. This is a good base for exploring Yoho National Park and the Canadian Rockies, though next trip we may seek out accommodations in the town of Field instead. We avoided Field because of limited dining and lodging options, but when we saw the historic town of fewer than 200 residents we fell in love. Field sits in the heart of Yoho, less than 20 minutes from its signature destinations including Takakkaw Falls, Emerald Lake, Natural Bridge and Spiral Tunnels. Banff’s famous Lake Louise and the Icefields Parkway entrance are 15 miles north of Field.
Wapta Falls is an easy hike to start your Yoho National Park adventure
Located near Yoho’s south entrance, Wapta Falls was our first hike because it is short at three miles with minimal elevation gain. This was a good way to stretch our legs after spending the day prior traveling, and to trail-test our gear before taking on more strenuous hikes. As the trail winds through beautiful Canadian Rockies forests we quickly forget whatever stress we carried and were reminded what a tiny speck we are in the glory of nature.
Grab some photos from the top of the falls and then scramble down the steep, rooted path to the base. Here you can wander where and as long as you like and appreciate the giant mound of rock debris carried over the falls and deposited at its base. Wapta Falls is the largest waterfall on the Kicking Horse River. You’ll have it pretty much to yourself. When we rolled into the parking lot around 9 a.m. we were surprised to find we were the only car and had the trail all to ourselves. This was cool, but slightly scary at the same time since we had been cautioned about bears along the park’s trails. We made plenty of noise as we rounded blind curves in the trail and even loudly sang a song or two.
Riding a Canadian Rockies high from our hike, we traveled the Trans-Canada Highway to Field, site of Yoho’s Parks Canada visitor center … and a gas station. Gas stations are scare in the Canadian Rockies, so note where they are and never travel with less than a half tank of gas. Parks Canada staff was so helpful in recommending hikes in Yoho appropriate for two baby boomer travelers. They also provided must-see stops on the Icefields Parkway, our destination for day two.
Hiking Yoho’s Takakkaw Falls and Laughing Falls
Restaurants and grocery stores are also scarce in the Canadian Rockies. We packed peanut butter and honey sandwiches each day, supplemented with an apple or banana. Day one we picnicked on the banks of Kicking Horse River with the snow-capped Canadian Rockies surrounding us. After lunch we made our way up the winding road to Takakkaw Falls, the second tallest waterfall in Canada. Takakkaw Falls is among the most touristed places in Yoho, but you can quickly leave the crowd behind.
Translated from Cree, the word Takakkaw means “it is magnificent.” We could not agree more. Falling more than 850 feet, the falls are fed by the melt of a single glacier. Our late June timing was perfect as warm summer temperatures meant more glacier melt and a thundering spectacle. The first opportunity to see Tak (as the locals call it) is a viewpoint just off the parking lot. Some turn around there and return to their vehicle. Most turn right for a hike to the base of the falls.
We opted for the trail less taken … to the left. We joined a handful of day hikers, campers and even a pair carrying skis in search of snow-capped peaks. Many trails lead out from here so watch the trail signs. Our destination was Laughing Falls, a six-mile round trip hike that park service literature estimates to take three hours. Trouble is there are several waterfalls off side trails on the way to Laughing Falls so it is hard not to spend the entire day gawking and snapping photos. We made the trip in four hours. It’s easy hiking most of the way with the trail getting narrow and steep near the end, but never more than we could handle. Though we may have taken a rest stop (or two) along the climb. One reviewer describes the hike this way … “a trail that passes a few amazing waterfalls en route to even more amazing Laughing Falls.”
Summer days are long in the Canadian Rockies. It doesn’t get dark until after 11 p.m. so there is opportunity to avoid the crowds by timing your visits in the evening when the tour buses and RVs are gone. Still on a hiker’s high after our trip to Laughing Falls we ventured a few miles up the Trans-Canada Highway to Lake Louise, arriving about 6 p.m. We drove right up the road to the mountain and had no trouble finding a parking spot near the lake. Had we attempted this during the day we would have waited in long lines to reach the lake, and likely would have been turned away on arrival because the parking lots were full. There were still plenty of visitors enjoying the lakeshore, but nothing like it must be during peak tourist time. We snapped photos, read all the information signs with no one blocking our way and enjoyed an evening stroll before heading back to Golden for the night.
Yoho’s Emerald Lake
Our second day in Yoho National Park was focused on Emerald Lake… named by an early explorer for its beautiful green hue. Emerald Lake is a 20-minute drive from the famous Lake Louise, yet it gets just a fraction of the visitors. Tour buses make it crowded at times, but start walking the 3.5-mile loop around the lake and you quickly share the trail with just a handful of others. Eagles, osprey and moose are common visitors to the lakeshore. We weren’t the only ones who were impressed, Trip Advisor readers voted Emerald Lake the top thing to do in Yoho.
Emerald Lake is home to the Burgess Shale fossil beds. We knew nothing about Burgess Shale until we happened upon an information sign by the lake. We were stunned to discover that the area is one of the most important fossil sites in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With fossils dating back more than 500 million years, few places anywhere have contributed more to understanding the origins of animals. Had we known this in advance, we would have booked a guided hike to see the fossils first hand and explore areas where they are still being discovered. Parks Canada and Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation offer guided walks with a ranger or scientist.
The Burgess Shale continues into adjacent Kootney National Park. We spent some fascinating time with a Parks Canada employee out hiking Stanley Glacier on her day off. She struck up conversation as we gazed at the rock-strewn hillsides where the trail ends. Unknown to us, many of those rocks contained fossils of small marine animals. She knew which rocks were most likely to hold fossils and quickly collected several to share. We enjoyed them and returned them to the rock field. It is so crazy that you can pick something up hundreds of millions of years old and hold it in your hand. Had she not befriended us, we would have never known that we were standing on such an amazing scientific discovery.
Best Hike in Yoho: Emerald Lake Trail into Emerald Basin
The #1 hike in Yoho National Park according to AllTrails users is Emerald Lake Trail including Emerald Basin. This seven-mile-trail includes the lake loop but also climbs through forest and avalanche chutes to see the glacier that started it all. It is rated moderate because of some steep sections in the climb but we found it enjoyable by taking our time. We had been told to expect friendly ground squirrels and marmots along the way. We were not told the ground squirrels are VERY aggressive.
We found a lovely spot along a creek in Emerald Basin for lunch. As soon as our food came out, ground squirrels descended on us and acted very aggressive. Feeling like they were going to crawl up our legs, we shouted and swung our hikes poles to shoo them away. We were no in danger. It is funny to think back on. But a word to the wise is save your picnic for the lakeshore portion of the trail. These backcountry squirrels know what an easy meal looks like and aggressively seek out your food.
You can tell we are fans of Yoho. And there is so much in the park that we did not get to. You could spend an entire vacation just in this park. Check it out next time you visit Banff. You’ll be glad you did. We’ve got other tips to help plan your next visit to Canada here.