Banff is an adorable ski town. One main road with lodges and restaurants all within walking distance of each other with winter adventures just around the corner. Sweet mom and pop everything stores and restaurants all super well kept with friendly shopkeepers and wait staff. Be prepared to watch and talk a lot of hockey in the winter. When you hear “Are you going to have the game on tonight?” they are talking hockey – not football. 😉
I flew into Calgary, Alberta and drove 1 1/2 hours west to the beautiful village of Banff. The highway between the 2 areas is mostly flat and very well maintained. While approaching Canmore (the cute town before Banff) the mountains are just stunningly laid out ahead of the highway. Ask for an AWD rental car if you have any reservations about driving in winter. There is also a shuttle service that runs between the two locations.
Day 1: Lake Louise Hiking and Ice Skating
Lake Louise is an absolute must – a magical experience. I have to admit that until I got to Banff – I thought that Lake Louise was right in town. Actually Lake Louise is about a 45 minute drive from downtown Banff but gorgeous the entire way with tall pine trees layered in snow and snow covered Canadian Rockies (especially Castle Mountain) which are absolutely stunning. This is also a mostly flat and easy drive with cleared roads if it isn’t currently snowing. Lake Louise is one of those turquoise blue lakes, in the warmer season, that you see in all the photos. (Other turquoise blue lakes at Banff National Park: Peyto Lake, Bow Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Moraine Lake)
To get to Lake Louise – navigate to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (a world-famous luxury resort hotel built in 1890) which is the impressive landmark hotel of the area that sits alongside the beautiful, frozen Lake Louise. Parking is free in the winter.
We hiked the flat yet picturesque trail #4 next to the frozen lake which is surrounded by thousands of ginormous snow covered pine trees outlining the lake in splendor. A beautiful and magical sight to behold! Hike out (on trail 4) to the massive frozen waterfall. There was a woman ice climbing her way to the top while we were there. Terrifying even to watch, actually. The trail continues into the forest past that point or turn around and walk back on the frozen lake.
The Fairmont rents good quality ice skates near the lobby of the hotel. The skating is right on Lake Louise in an area that is checked frequently for the integrity of the ice, so I had no reservations about safety. It is probably the most scenic place to ice skate in the world.
There are a few restaurants at the Fairmont and even a very cool outdoor ice bar. Note that the food options are expensive at the Fairmont, but the reviews are that all is delicious and there’s always that fantastic view.
Other options are sleigh rides pulled by horses, cross country skiing on the lake and snowshoeing. All can be purchased at the Fairmont.
Food options in Banff
The restaurants in the town of Banff are located mostly on and around Banff Avenue and Wolf Street. It’s a cozy little area with loads of restaurants and paid parking. Banff seems to have a restaurant for most every type of cuisine. Remember that Banff is a well-laid out ski town. A hotel that’s walkable to this restaurant area is ideal and most of them are close by. I stayed at the Royal Canadian which was a lovely hotel (worth it to get the fireplace in the room) within walking distance to the center of town. The hotel also had a hot tub, steam room and small indoor pool.
The restaurants that were reasonable (for a remote ski resort) with delicious food and great service were Pacini (Italian food with an all-you-can-eat-bread bar – toast your own bread and choose from a variety of breads and spreads), Bear Street Tavern was a cozy nook with seriously good pizza and sandwiches plus a bar area that was like a sports bar. There are so many restaurants and breakfast cafes in this area that there’s really no need to plan out your destination ahead of time – just take a walk and see what strikes your fancy. Unless it’s the busy season – then make reservations ahead.
Day 2: Cross Country (Nordic) Skiing and Hot Springs
Cross country ski rental was very reasonable at Snow Tips and included skis, boots and poles plus some advice on locations to ski. We headed to Tunnel Mountain Campground , right outside of downtown Banff, which is great for beginners with mild ascents and descents and gorgeous mountains surrounding the quiet and peaceful area. It had just enough of a slope to be exciting without getting out of control. The campground has about 1 1/2 miles of groomed tracks (albeit it’s back and forth down roads covered in snow, but it’s really a lovely area) for beginners and those who have classic skied a few times.
After working up a sweat an option is to head over to the Banff Upper Hot Springs.* The water is a toasty (ok, super hot) 104 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s like really hot! It’s good on the muscles and relaxing for a bit. However, please do not expect to be outdoors in a secluded, quiet and rock covered little oasis, as I had anticipated. *The Upper Hot Springs are an outdoor chlorinated, crowded pool with lifeguards. Honestly, it wasn’t really for me. 🙁
Northern Lights at Banff
Hopefully you are lucky enough to be in Banff when the Northern Lights appear. They did make an appearance the night before we arrived, so close. Get the app: Aurora (it’s purple) and it will give the probability and location of the Northern Lights near Banff (or anywhere, for that matter).
If you are up for an adventure at the bottom of the world with interesting and new landscapes at every turn, then Patagonia, Chile is right for you. Hiking and/or backpacking at Torres del Paine National Park is the adventure. No, you will not be trekking completely alone. There are other adventurers out there as well, but the trails are no where near crowded, and they are well-marked. I did feel comfort in knowing that there were other people doing similar treks. Like-minded people! I opted for the “Classic W Trek” which is a solid 5 days of hiking (quick trip!), an intermediate hike level (~6-8 hours of hiking/day), and is perfect for experiencing all that this region has to offer – magnificent Grey Glacier, Lago (lake) Grey with its turquoise colored water, the bluest of blue icebergs, temperate rainforest, mountains, and pastures. October through April is the ideal time frame to visit this beautiful region.
Ahead of time: You must make reservations at the campsites (even for tent camping) and book way in advance. Bring a printed confirmation with you. For the W trek, I reserved at the following campsites in this order: Camp Grey (paid campsite; https://reservas.verticepatagonia.cl/index.xhtml), Camp Italiano (free), Camp at Los Cuernos (paid campsite which offers meals – recommended!- and has showers and free 5 minutes of internet); https://www.fantasticosur.com/mountain-lodges/cuernos-mountain-lodges-and-camping/ , Camp Torres (free). Packing and renting: The essential packing list is at the bottom of this post. Also know that in Puerto Natales – the only town to stay at before the trek – there are restaurants, ATMs, hotels, hostels, and stores with rental equipment for hiking including good tents, sleeping bags, etc. More on that later.
Money. Don’t forget to get Chilean pesos, at your bank, before you leave for Chile. It may take a couple of weeks for your bank to get them, so plan accordingly. You will need pesos to travel in the smaller towns. Some places are starting to take Paypal, so have that on your phone.
Passport. You will need to show your passport and migration ticket (that you receive at the airport when you enter the country) for entrance to the national park and at each campsite.
Eating. There was a huge forest fire, caused by negligence, in 2012 that destroyed 17,000 acres at Torres del Paine. Therefore, lighting fires within the park is forbidden. Even the use of a camping stove (e.g., Jet Boiler) must be within a structure, which you can easily find at all the campsites. I ordered Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry meals and brought them with me to cook in the Jet Boiler. I also brought along oatmeal packets and nuts for breakfast. Lunch was canned salmon and tuna with crackers. Clif and Kind bars, beef jerky and cheese for snacks. Los Cuernos had a nice, heavy dinner and breakfast which was very welcome on day 3. Check with the campsites as many of them have hot water for re-hydrating meals. Although, I did find it easy to use and carry the Jet Boiler.
Water. Water can be found all over the park, and it’s pretty fun to bend down and fill your bottle or hydration bladder. It’s clean water (right from the glacier!) and doesn’t require filtration. However, I don’t like to take chances, so I put a filter on my hydration bladder and never had to worry.
Gear. I opted to carry all that was needed for the 5 day trek including the tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, trekking poles, Jet Boiler, etc. (Scroll down to see packing list.) At the Erratic Rock store (in Puertos Natales) you can rent these things and purchase a small gas canister for the Jet Boil. Alternatively, many of the campsites offer the rental of tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping mats if you’d like to lessen your load.
How to get to Torres del Paine
Options for getting there: I flew to Santiago, Chile, and then took a ~3 hour flight to Punta Arenas. From the airport, you will need to get to downtown Punta Arenas to a bus to get to Puerto Natales. Take a taxi or shuttle downtown – about a 20 minute ride. Use cash (~730 pesos for shuttle; ~6000 pesos for taxi). There are 3 bus company options to take you on the 3 hour ride to Puerto Natales: Buses Fernández, Buses Pacheco or Bus-Sur. Note that there is not a centralized bus station, but the bus companies are all within 8 minutes (walking) of each other. I used Buses Fernández. It’s actually easy peasy to get there – it’s a frequented trek, so people expect that you’ll be going to Torres del Paine.
When you arrive in the cute and small town of Puerto Natales – you’ll be let off at the bus depot which is centrally located and a quick walk to most hotels. Check the bus timetable to get the current departure times for Torres del Paine the next day – there are typically 2 buses per day – one in the early morning and one in the afternoon. Then walk to your hotel (book ahead of time). I stayed at the nice, clean, friendly Hotel Hallef (booked through Hotels.com) at Eleuterio Ramirez 604. Most of the hotels will hold your extra luggage for you for when you return from the trek. This helped to store all my traveling clothes and suitcase that I could not take on the hike.
Erratic Rock is a store/hostel right in Puerto Natales and offers rentals for all the hiking stuff that you couldn’t load into your suitcase, such as a sturdy (very wind-proof) tent, sleeping bags, sleeping mat, hiking poles (needed), gas canisters (for your Jet Boil – can’t bring gas on the plane, of course), lighters, and whatever else you may need. All at reasonable prices. They also offer free daily info seminars at 3:00. I arrived too late for this talk, but I’d recommend it, since there are many variables on this trek. Address: Baquedano 719, Puerto Natales, Chile.
Day by day on the W trek
The next morning start off on the first bus (7:00am) to the CONAF office located in Laguna Amarga. It’s about a 2 hour, comfortable ride (CLP 20,000/US$25) to this welcome center/entrance to the park at “Portería Laguna Amarga.” Bring your passport as you’ll have to check in when you arrive. *2022 update: You must pay your park entrance fee online and in advance. (There is poor internet service at the entrance, so do this ahead of time.) No advance booking needed for buses or catamaran.) Buses are timed with the catamaran/ferry departures at Pudeto to bring passengers across the spectacular Lago Pehoé (a 45 minute ride) to start the trek. *2022 update: the boat now only goes once a day at 10:00 am. The boat costs CLP 20,000/US$26 and drops off at Refugio Paine Grande (where you can book ahead to stay in their hostel and/or dine at their restaurant). I opted to hike 11km (6.83 miles; 4-5 hours) to Refugio Grey to tent camp. Note that one of the lookouts to Glacier Grey is at Mirador Grey (2km/1.24 miles before Refugio Grey. (Mortifyingly, I accidentally left my tent fly at the bathrooms near Refugio Paine Grande. Insert eye roll and embarrassed face here! So I do know that if you get to Refugio Grey and you don’t have a tent or fly, they will happily rent you one! Cash again.) The campsite area has a small structure where you can use your camp stove to make your meal(s) and possibly meet new friends. Options if you’d like to see more: just set up your camp and then hike another 15 minutes north of Refugio Grey – climb rocks and get good view of the eastern side of Glacier Grey. (That’s where I took the photo at the top of this page – the stunning blues of the iceberg looked fake!) Another option: trek forward ~1 hour towards, but before, Los Guardos campsite to view the southern ice field behind Glacier Grey (world’s 3rd largest ice field after Antarctica and Greenland). Another option is to Ice Hike (5 hours) the following day with Bigfoot Patagonia https://bigfootpatagonia.com/services/ice-hike-grey-glacier/. It’s just a short walk from the campsite – ask the park ranger. If you ice hike I’d recommend staying a 2nd night at Refugio Grey.
This trek is a backtrack toward Refugio Gray. Yes, it’s the same route, but it’s a lovely route, so enjoy it twice. Pass the starting point (where the catamaran docks) and continue on to Campamento Italiano (7.5km/4.66miles/~2 hours from Refugio Paine Grande/catamaran drop off). The hiking hits various terrain including rocky areas, wilderness, woodsy, and lakeside (Laguna Scottsberg). There are peaks and valleys and rock strewn trails. At Campamento Italiano, set up camp.
Here it’s recommended to head to Valle Francés/Mirador Británico. However, it takes ~5 hours round-trip to hike this option, so plan it for either late day 2 or early day 3. Climb the loose rock trails (you will need your poles and a daypack with water and snacks) and over and around boulders up through Valle Francés and/or Mirador Británico (~5 hours round trip). Look one way and there’s the glacier and the other way is the turquoise lake or continue on for views of the entire valley. The wind. It was so strong at this location that it was difficult to stand upright at times or make your voice heard. Also, rain/ice pellets. They are prevalent here too. All part of the experience! It was well worth the hike to see this space.
This day winds along the rocky, pebbled Lago (lake) Nordenskjöld to the very appreciated Los Cuernos. The hike takes about 2.5 hours (5.5km/3.41m.) and is flat with frequent high winds and rain. As was my experience as well. This is a short day of hiking unless you opt to do the Valle Francés and/or Mirador Británico in the morning. Either way, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the warm reception and wonderful meals (it comes with the campsite reservation) offered at Los Cuernos. Family style seating with hot meals and many interesting stories overheard. 🙂 Overnight, expect strong gusts of wind; therefore, make doubly sure your tent is very secure. Your tent will most certainly sway with the intense gusts.
This lovely day includes breakfast is at Los Cuernos. This day is my favorite kind of hiking: lush, green valleys with tall grasses, mountains with cliffs and rivers cutting through them. Beauty. It was about a 6 hour hike to Campamento Torres which was nestled in a forest. (**this campsite was temporarily closed 2020; another option is Camp El Chileno)
It’s an early wake-up day (4:20am in my case – start the ~45 minute hike an hour before sunrise) to view the 3 peaks of Torres del Paine. Leave the tent as-is and bring breakfast and warm clothing. Many of the campers will be doing the same thing. (Unfortunately for me, it was pouring rain that morning, so no good views.) Afterward, pack up camp (checkout is at 9am) and head toward the Hotel Las Torres to take the shuttle bus to Laguna Amarga which will cost CLP 3000/US$4. (If you want more hiking on this last day, you can walk the 11km/6.8 miles to Laguna Amarga.) At Laguna Amarga there are buses to take campers back to Puerto Natales where you can go back to the hotel where you started.
Day 6 will have your traveling in reverse. Puerto Natales bus to Punta Arenas to a plane to Santiago, Chile.
Packing list for the W trek
This was my packing list and there was nothing clean by the end of the hike:
Bring from home:
Chilean pesos (from bank) - $600
blow up pillow
phone charger & backup charger
quick drying towel
plastic bags for wet stuff
1st aid: moleskin, band-aids, ibuprofen, cold meds
small shampoo & conditioner
toothbrush & toothpaste
hand & foot warmers
food: oatmeal, beef jerky, cheese, peanut butter, crackers, protein bars, nuts, salmon, powdered milk, tea, instant coffee, pre-made meals
collapsable bowl, spork, KNIFE
map of park
PASSPORT (plus migration paper from airport)
knit hat (that covers ears)
2-3 wicking long sleeve shirts
2 yoga and hiking pants
Rent/Purchase in Puerto Natales:
gas canister for Jet Boil
Take ferry at Pudeto across Lake Pehoe to Refugio Paine Grande. Hike (11km/6.83 miles/3-4 hours) to Refugio & Camp Grey.
Lookout to Glacier Grey is at Mirador Grey (2km/ 1.24m) before Refugio Grey
Set up camp: Camp Grey (paid)
Options: *just after Refugio Grey – climb rocks and get good view of eastern side of Glacier Grey *trek forward ~1 hour towards but before Los Guardos campsite to view the southern ice field behind Glacier Grey (world’s 3rd largest ice field after Antarctica and Greenland)
Lunch: salmon and crackers, fruit
Snacks: Clif bars and beef jerkey
Dinner: Backpacker’s Pantry pouch
Option to kayak at 9:00am – need to reserve day before @ Bigfoot Patagonia. If so, stay another day at Camp Grey.
Hike to Refugio Paine Grande (3-4 hours) – backtrack. Then hike to Campamento Italiano (7.5km/4.66miles/ ~2.5 hours from there.)
Set up camp: Camp Italiano (reserved –free)
Breakfast: oatmeal and tea/instant coffee
Lunch: Backpacker’s Pantry pouch
Snacks: Kind bar, peanut butter & crackers
Dinner: Mountain House pouch
Early: Keep backpack at Camp Italiano and take daypack and poles. Hike to Valles Del Francés and/or Mirador Británico (11km/6.83miles/~5 hours round trip time) Return to Camp Italiano and gather backpack.
Hike to Los Cuernos. (5.5km/3.41miles/~1 hour) Hike is flat with high winds.
Camp at Los Cuernos (paid – has meals if paid ahead, showers, and free 5 minutes of internet)
Breakfast: oatmeal and tea/instant coffee
Lunch: Backpacker’s Pantry pouch
Snacks: Clif bar
Dinner: @ Los Cuernos
Hike to Campamento Las Torres. (~4-5 hours)
Set up camp: Camp Torres (reserved – free). If not open, use Camp El Chileno.
Hike to Mirador Torres (to see 3 peaks of Torres Del Paine) which is ~45 minutes each way. Dependent on weather forecast, do this hike in afternoon or next morning for sunrise.
Breakfast: @ Los Cuernos
Lunch: Mountain House pouch
Snacks: Kind bar, beef jerky
Dinner: Backpacker’s Pantry pouch
Hike to Hotel Las Torres for shuttle bus to Laguna Amarga (~3 hours). Or, hike the 11km/6.8 miles to Laguna Amarga to meet the bus to Puerto Natales.
Breakfast: oatmeal and tea/instant coffee and whatever’s left in bag.
Lunch: leftovers or quick lunch at Hotel Las Torres
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