If you found it odd that I’d never been to Waterton Lakes National Park before May 2021 despite living in Alberta for over twenty years, then brace yourself for another shock. I’d also never seen Moraine Lake until June of 2021. And Moraine Lake is a lot closer to my house than Waterton. Arguably more famous, too.
What can I say? I’m not a tourist trap junky. Maybe because I grew up in one? Whatever the reason, I struggle with motivation to scurry off to popular places inundated with people. Crowds just aren’t my cup of tea. And I don’t care to have all those strangers making cameo appearances in my photographs.
There’s also the issue of circumstance. I’ve been to Lake Louise on several occasions. Even stayed in the famed Chateau. Had an enjoyable, inspired experience each visit. I just never found the time or bothered to make the effort to scoot over to Moraine Lake, a mere 14.2 kilometers south. Seems rather silly now that I’ve written it down.
Well, I’m happy to say I’ve corrected this self-inflicted oversight. Cashing in on the final months of international-tourist-free travel (thank you Covid), I booked a weekend of family camping at Lake Louise Campground in beautiful Banff National Park. And during that weekend, I finally made it to Moraine Lake to see what all the fuss is about. Yup … … I get it.
Lake Louise Campground has been lingering on my ‘places to go’ list for a couple years now. It’s an undeniably popular spot surrounded by some of Canada’s most famous natural wonders. It’s also close to the TransCanada Highway with only the CP main rail line separating the two. I like trains well enough, just don’t enjoy camping near them.
Well, I’m glad I finally relented and gambled on spending a weekend at Lake Louise Campground. Oh, there were trains, but they didn’t disrupt my sleep as much as I’d feared, nor were they as frequent. Likewise, the highway wasn’t a constant source of noise pollution. All in all, though far from peaceful solitude, our stay was certainly tolerable.
Another factor contributing to my hesitancy, is the peculiar layout of the campground itself that left me a bit confused. Lake Louise is essentially two unique campgrounds separated by the Bow River sharing a single name and entrance.
On the east side of the river lies Lake Louise hard-sided, consisting of 189 pull-through campsites in three elongated loops. On the west side, Lake Louise soft-sided, a twelve circular loops, 206 back-in campsite community surrounded by electrified fence to keep bears out.
The former is obviously geared toward RVs while the latter caters to tents and tent trailers. In fact, tents/tent trailers are specifically not allowed in the hard-sided area. On the other hand, the latter is far more appealing, not to mention a little bit further away from the highway and railroad. Hey, every centimeter counts!
My confusion resulted from my desire to camp in the soft-sided section with our most definitely hard-sided travel trailer. Our trailer is small and can easily fit in many of the sites but is it even allowed in the soft-sided area?
An inquiry to Parks Canada assured me that I could bring my hard-sided RV into the soft-sided portion of Lake Louise Campground, further confirmed by Google street-views showing similar campers inside the electrified compound. Worries assuaged, I booked a site in loop G and was grateful for having done so. My suspicions were proven correct … the soft-sided section is far superior to the hard-sided section.
If you have a large RV and thus, no choice in the matter, then the hard-sided portion of Lake Louise Campground will suffice if you want to camp in this enchanting place. And not all campsites are equal despite the cookie-cutter nature of the pull-through layout. I’m just warning you that several of those sites are awful.
For starters, you will need to be comfortable with camping close to strangers. All the pull-through sites are setup in pairs so that your RVs are side-by-side though your doors face opposite directions. In essence, you are sharing an extra-wide driveway. Thanks, but no thanks.
To add insult to injury, the useable campsite area is surprisingly small in most cases. You’ll have an immovable picnic table on your little patch of “campsite” tucked between the gravel parking pad and the trees separating the next set of sites. You may or may not have a firepit (seriously … not all sites have them).
If you’re located on the easternmost edge of the loops and nearer the entrance, you will also enjoy fewer trees and a potentially uninspired view of the large dump station. Sites closer to the river are nicer so try to find one of those if you must camp in the hard-sided loops.
The soft-sided encampment at Lake Louise Campground is almost magical by comparison. Undoubtedly older, the varied site layouts and mature forest are a delight. This is what I imagine when I think of Rocky Mountain National Park campgrounds. This is what I want.
Aside from the safety of the electrified fence, it was quickly apparent why these twelve alphabetical loops are restricted to smaller camping units. You would be hard pressed to get anything much bigger than our 16’ Geo Pro into any of the sites. Many are small and/or irregularly configured. Only tents could possibly fit.
Our site appeared to be one of the “longer” ones and there really wasn’t much room left after our trailer was setup and towing vehicle parked. Even if you could fit a longer camper into the site, getting it there would be tricky in the narrow, curving loop roads. Some have undoubtedly tried, but the big rigs just won’t fit regardless of your driving ability or chutzpa.
Consistent with the non-uniform nature of these campsites, some are close together while others more segregated. We lucked out and had a nice amount of wilderness surrounding us. There’s not much undergrowth, so don’t expect full privacy, but the woods around our site gave us a welcome sense of separation from neighbours.
Aesthetics aside, there’s one other reason you might choose the hard-sided section over the soft-sided section; electricity. At Lake Louise Campground, all sites in the hard-sided section have 15/30/50 amp power service. If you need that toaster or microwave or air conditioning, then this is where you’ll camp no matter how small your RV. The soft-sided area has no electricity.
This power appears to be a new addition, judging by the shiny, green electrical boxes found along the loop roads. The year 2019 appears on these boxes so I’m assuming power was either added that year or upgraded. Not the most appealing accoutrements to your campsite.
And while we’re on the subject of services, neither portion of Lake Louise Campground has water or sewer. Fresh water is available from taps situated in various locations throughout the two sections. Often, they are found next to, or near, the various toilet structures. The one nearest us didn’t exactly exude first world engineering prowess, but it did the job.
If you’re got an RV water tank to fill up, there is also fresh water at the impressive dump station. After the shockingly limited dump station we encountered at Waterton Townsite Campground, the six-lane masterpiece at Lake Louise Campground was quite the sight even if one of those lanes was blocked by construction materials.
This is how you facilitate mass dumping of waste in a large, RV-friendly campground. These necessary evils will never be perfect, and the bet-hedgers that refuse to pick a line, choosing instead to block the entrance to all other RVers, will always be a nuisance, but having 5 active dump station lanes helps limit the frustration of the Sunday morning exodus.
If you don’t have an RV restroom, or choose not to use yours, then you’ll be delighted to know that flush toilets are the primary source of relief. Each section of Lake Louise Campground has several such structures readily available for your business.
Unsurprisingly but still surprising was the sheer number of them in the soft-sided area. I get that this section is almost exclusively used by folks without onboard facilities, but rarely am I left overwhelmed by choice as to which specific bathroom to use. I’m not complaining.
These too appear to be newer or, at least refurbished. Inside you’ll find a stall or two (urinal in men’s), a couple sinks, and hand dryer. There is no hot water at the sinks despite the “hot water” tap. And there is a power outlet available for shaving and hair styling apparatus or, I suppose, charging your phone.
Outside of each, you’ll find a cleanup station with large stainless steel sink. These are a must for tent campers, of course, but I was tickled to find an entirely indoor version in the hard-sided loop. I’ve never seen that before and honestly, I don’t know why it was done, but why not.
In addition to the modern bathrooms, each segment of Lake Louise Campground has been gifted a fancy, new shower house. These come with many standup shower stalls and a long line of sinks and mirrors, perfect for cleaning up after a long day of hiking or to remove the smoke from the previous evening’s campfires.
Showers are free and have fully adjustable heated water. If I were to nitpick, I’d only say it’s a pity that the shower house in the soft-sided area is not more centrally located. Found at the south end, it’s a bit of a walk from the northernmost loops but nonetheless walkable from all parts. The hard-sided version is slightly more central but still a bit of a walk from the furthest sites.
Upgrades are visible everywhere in Lake Louise Campground. From the refurbished bathrooms to newly constructed buildings, a few taxpayer bucks have been invested here very recently. One such new structure is found next to the dump station. What this building is, I have no idea. It appears to be an office slash maintenance facility of some kind for the campground.
Another building with unknown purpose sits near the confluence of the three hard-sided loops. A windowless, concrete rectangle, this peculiar edifice excels at producing an unpleasant noise (water treatment perhaps?). I recommend avoiding sites near it as it will surely diminish your camping enjoyment.
Lake Louise Campground has a single entrance to both halves, a staffed kiosk on the main road from town. Staff is friendly and helpful, but things do get backed-up on a busy Friday afternoon/evening. Thankfully we arrived before the rush (yay unemployment!).
When checking in, you’ll likely want to buy a fire permit. Like other national parks in the AB/BC mountains, firewood is sold by daily permits that cost $8.80. That’s a great price for endless wood and I’m continually shocked this remains the norm.
Wood bins are conveniently found amongst the various loops and are stocked with a decent supply of conifer corpses. Be sure you have an ax or solid hatchet because the chunks of wood are quite large. You won’t be able to just plunk them in the firepit and drop a match on them to enjoy a fire.
Moisture may also prove annoying depending on when you visit and how much rain has fallen recently. Having not explored this region of Banff in some time, okay not much ever, I was a bit surprised at how green and wet it is. That said, we had no problem with making fires for our evening relaxation.
Located in such a high-profile tourist destination, and with 189 campsites focused on non-RV campers, you can expect a, shall we say, exuberant clientele at Lake Louise Campground. Youthful and energetic, some of our neighbours were having a good time despite questionable weather. They weren’t disruptive or rude, but nor were they quiet.
I suspect this reality only grows as the summer wears on and post-covid tourism returns. I’m sure it’s a great atmosphere for many but others might not approve. How strictly the park enforces quiet hours (and generator permissible time) is unclear. I guess you’ll find out when you visit.
Speaking of post-covid, it won’t be long until all the picnic shelters are back open for use. These have been boarded up since the pandemic began and at Lake Louise Campground, I was unable to even get a peek inside one.
Found only in the soft-sided section, these covered, semi-enclosed shelters presumably contain a selection of picnic tables and an iron woodstove. They may also have a wash station inside, but I’m purely speculating.
The tent area also has robust food storage lockers inside, well, sheds. Either the squirrels are extremely aggressive or the electric fence is not 100% effective in keeping bears out of the campground.
Now for my most infamous comment regarding seemingly all Parks Canada campgrounds. There is no playground. I don’t know why that is, to be honest. Lots of families must come here. Walking around the RV area confirmed that but they’re also in the tent area. Yes, we’re in Nature’s playground but is it too much to ask for a place the kids can burn some energy while meals are being prepped?
The wooded area behind our site had the makings of a teepee from dead trees, so the youngsters are using their imaginations and making do with what’s available. Great! Something or the wee ones and non-lumberjack crowd would be appreciated, I’m sure.
I could say the same about laundry facilities. National parks on the east coast often have such amenities attached to a shower house but here we rarely see them despite all the hiking and outdoors activities going on. Should have been a no-brainer when they built the new shower houses.
Not that the place is without entertainment beyond that created by yourself. There is a large amphitheatre in the soft-sided section of Lake Louise Campground. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic there was no programming available during our stay. At least I hope that is the reason. It’s too nice of an amphitheatre to be just left to rot.
Of course, the primary purpose of camping in Banff and at Lake Louise is exploring the wonders of nature. To help make that possible, trails are plentiful in and around the campground.
Some of the trails are purpose-built. Like the rough, asphalted trail between soft-sided loops directing campers to the shower house. Others are entirely the product of campers taking shortcuts between sites and through the campground leaving trampled dirt in their wake.
Step outside the campground, or in the case of the soft-sided area, outside the electric fence, and you immediately engage with the impressive trail network of Lake Louise. Two such trails are worth noting for proximity: Riverside Loop and Bow River Trail Loop.
Riverside Loop circles the Bow River between the two portions of Lake Louise Campground. This is a lovely, groomed trail through the riparian zone surrounding the river. There are information placards regarding local wildlife along the trail making it a learning experience as well.
Bow River Trail Loop is more of a lasso shape, with the “handle” taking hikers from Lake Louise Campground into town. Once in town, a loop again circumnavigates a portion of the Bow River. We used this trail solely for getting to town and back, a relatively easy 1km trek. Bow River Trail also intersects with a couple longer hikes up to Lake Louise itself.
Getting to town is likely on everyone’s To Do list. It’s honestly not particularly special, but it’s a source for groceries, booze, treats, rentals, souvenir shops, and the visitor centre. We ventured in for information on transportation to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake as well as a snoop around the rock shop.
You can certainly drive to these two famed lakes, but we’d heard all the stories of ungodly traffic and throngs of pedestrians. It seemed reasonable that we should perhaps use an alternative, hiking being out of the question.
Within Lake Louise Campground, there is a shuttle service with a pickup location near the entrance to the hard-sided loops. This is a free shuttle but it, rather bizarrely, takes you onto the TransCanada and several miles south of town to the overflow parking area. There, you can pay for another shuttle (coach bus) that delivers you back to town and then up to either/both of the lakes.
Another option is public transit. There’s a bus route that runs from Banff to Lake Louise to the two lakes and back. It does not enter the campground, so you’ll need to be in town to catch it. The price is only slightly less costly than the overflow shuttle and the pickup times are less regular.
Neither of these options appealed to us for various reasons. During peak travel season, in a non-covid year, I’m sure their appeal escalates rapidly. While we were there, however, the tourist count was minimal and we ultimately chose to just drive. This proved the correct decision in retrospect.
Parks staff in bright orange vests direct traffic to and from both Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, an indication of how frantic this place gets when the masses arrive. They eventually close road access to Moraine once parking is filled there. All roadside parking along the two access roads has been eliminated as well. Honestly, this whole area must be a zoo at times. Thankfully it wasn’t while we visited.
Lake Louise has massive parking lots and now charges $11.75 for parking. That’s still cheaper than the shuttle or transit for a family of four. Moraine Lake has less parking but as of June 2021, it remained free of charge. For a total of $11.75 we were able to drive to and park at both lakes without delay or frustration. Timing is everything, folks.
Our first stop was Lake Louise. I’d been here before a couple times. Even stayed at the famed Chateau (oh, how I miss oil booms). Covid protocols were still in force at this time, so we didn’t get to poke our noses inside the hotel. Instead, we took a leisurely hike along the Lakefront Trail that hugs the north shore of the lake.
There are plenty of hikes radiating outward from the hotel hub. All are undoubtedly amazing with a couple taking you to mountainside tea houses. For those short on time and/or fitness, the lakefront trail is a perfect way to up your Lake Louise experience without lowering your life expectancy.
Only a couple kilometers in length with limited elevation change throughout, this trail takes you to the far end of the lake allowing for a fantastic view back at the chateau. Along the way you’ll revel in spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and approach the equally famed Victoria glacier that feeds the lake.
Well, you would have if it hadn’t melted so much over the past half century. It’s still there, just not as close to the lake apex as it once one. Still a fabulous sight and well worth the trek despite the inevitable crowds. You may even see a daring rock climber or inquisitive chipmunk. You will definitely see a chatty Northern Shrike! Good lord, those birds put even Magpies to shame with their wretched squawking.
For a more intimate encounter with Lake Louise, you can rent a canoe or kayak from a boat house on the southwest shore of the lake. We didn’t venture over this way so I can’t comment on cost, but similar rentals at Moraine Lake were $99.75 per hour! I’m sure a paddle on the lake is exhilarating, but for that price I’ll just stick to the trail, thanks.
A 14 kilometre drive to the south, I finally made my Moraine Lake debut. Having never been, I was greeted with many a surprise, most notably that it lives up to its billing. Wow. What a view.
So often these types of locales, darlings of the Instagram world, tend to be more hype than truth but Moraine Lake impressed the hell out of me, even if the presence of a lodge I knew nothing about somewhat ruined the romantic notion of untouched natural perfection.
Like its sister, Moraine Lake has many trails radiating outwards from the main parking lot and lodge hub. Once again, we chose to stroll the shoreline trail that takes hikers to the far end of the lake. This trail is an easy jaunt for most visitors, clocking in at under 2km. It’ll be busy but the views are superlative.
Passing several small creeks entering the lake along the way, you finally reach the top where a cascading river fills the turquoise waterbody. Towering above are the Ten Peaks for which this valley is named. I really can’t be excused for taking so long to see this stuff!
Back at the bottom of the lake, an unknown-to-me rockslide sits obtrusively staring out over the lake. Known as Rockpile (how … obvious), a trail winds in, around, and up this pile of earthen debris culminating with a spectacular view of the lake and Ten Peaks. This is something you could only get from a $1000 a night room at Lake Louise. Here, it’s free and worth the scramble!
Up the north shore, is the boat rental hut and the aforementioned $99.75 per hour canoes. Many were on the lake already so not everyone is as cheap as me. In my defense, a family of four would require two canoes. And, anyway, for a first visit, simply walking the shoreline trail and ingesting the scenery was enough.
I’ve now seen both prime Lake Louise tourist attractions. I suppose only the gondola at the ski remains to be checked off this mini bucket list. Perhaps we’ll do that on our next visit.
When all was said and done, our Lake Louise camping weekend was a ripping success. I enjoyed it far more than I could ever have anticipated, being a glass half empty type of person. The trains weren’t as disruptive as they could have been. The campground was quaint and interesting. And the two world-famous mountain lakes not only lived up to their reputations but had tolerable crowds. The silver lining to a global pandemic.
As for Lake Louise Campground, I didn’t mind it. I almost feel like it deserves two ratings, one for the hard-sided section (boo!) and one for the soft-sided section( yay!). I’ll call it down the middle and give it 4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5.
There’s no doubt in my mind, the tent campground gets a bit rowdy in the peak of summer travel. But as a basecamp for exploring Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and the surrounding area you can’t go wrong with booking a site here. The caveat, being, to stick to the old-school tent portion if at all possible. We sacrificed power for ambience, and for that I have no regrets.
And if you have no choice in the matter, the wonder of the surrounding wilderness will more than compensate for any misgivings with camping in the underwhelming hard-sided section of the campground. Let’s be honest. Nobody is there for the campground anyway.