Banff National Park is responding to continuing health restrictions and the backcountry invasion by pandemic-weary hikers with a number of new policies. These policies affect access to the park’s most popular day hikes—trails in the Lake Louise-Moraine Lake district and at Johnston Canyon.
Bow Valley Parkway closure
There have been evening closures to the Bow Valley Parkway every spring to mitigate wildlife disturbance. However, this year the 24-km eastern section of the Parkway will be closed to motor vehicles for the entire summer.
The closure is seen as a boon to cyclists, who will be permitted to ride the road throughout the closure period. Due to limited parking at the eastern end of the Parkway, cyclists will need to park vehicles at the Fenland or CPR Station lots in Banff and begin their trip on the Vermilion Lakes Road.
The only motor vehicles permitted on this section of the Parkway will be guests at Johnston Canyon Lodge and ROAM Transit buses. Both Johnston Canyon and Castle Mountain Campgrounds will remain closed for the summer.
The 2021 limitations will undoubtedly reduce the number of hikers on the Johnston Canyon trail, one of the busiest in recent years, and relieve the overflowing parking lot.
Lake Louise parking fees
As during past summers, motor vehicle access to Lake Louise will be limited to parking lot capacity. When the lot is full, travellers are turned back at a control point below the lake. There are no options for queuing up and awaiting vacancies.
In addition, Parks Canada is instituting a new daily parking fee of $11.70 at the lakeshore parking lot from mid-May until mid-Oct. (An effort to reduce the number of vehicles turned away at the control point?)
Parking at the Moraine Lake remains free and, like Lake Louise, subject to capacity of the parking lot. It is expected both lots will reach capacity by sunrise. (There are discussions about establishing parking fees for Moraine next year.)
Parks Canada Shuttle Buses
While shuttle bus service from the Lake Louise Park-and-Ride was cancelled last summer by COVID-19, buses are scheduled to return this summer, but only by reservation.
Shuttles will run to both Lake Louise and Moraine Lake from the Park-and-Ride (on the Trans Canada Highway 6 km east of the exit to Lake Louise). Reservations begin on April 28 for the shuttle service, which will run from May 14 to Oct 11.
There will be shuttle buses connecting the two lakes at no additional cost, so visitors can reach both destinations in a single day. However, hikers should focus on one destination or the other.
ROAM Transit buses
The ROAM Transit system, which provides service for getting around Banff and Canmore, will operate routes on the Bow Valley Parkway and Lake Louise from May 21 to Sept 19. A direct route to Moraine Lake runs from Sept 20 to October 11.
ROAM has traditionally been the best way to reach these destinations. But with reduced capacity due to the pandemic, fewer riders will be allowed on the buses and masks are required.
ROAM buses will provide the only public transport on the Bow Valley Parkway this summer, including a stop at the uber-popular Johnston Canyon trailhead. For the first time, transit will require reservations for Johnston Canyon (Route 9) and Lake Louise Scenic (Route 8S), booked in advance for trips between May 21 and Sept 19.
Lake Louise trips originate in downtown Banff and terminate at the lakeshore parking lot after a brief stop at the Samson Mall in Lake Louise Village (check Route 8X Express on the ROAM Transit website).
The best laid plans…
As I post this piece, the Banff-Lake Louise district is recording the second highest rate of COVID-19 cases per-capita in Alberta. And Alberta has the second highest rate of infection per million people in North America (just behind Michigan).
If COVID-19 cases remain this high over the next couple months, the Parks Canada shuttle and ROAM Transit bus protocols will undoubtedly be adjusted.
But if the Canadian vaccination program contains the pandemic and case rates subside, things should trend back towards normal by mid-summer. Shuttles and ROAM buses may loosen social distancing protocols.
Regardless of what happens with the pandemic, expect record numbers of hikers on the trails of Banff National Park, particularly on the most popular trails around Banff and Lake Louise-Moraine Lake.
To keep track of the latest, check Parks Canada’s COVID-19 and your visit to Banff National Park webpage.