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How to Hike Canada's Most Expensive Mountain for less than $50... Theoretically
Do as I say, not as I do.
My fellow substack writer Christopher Brunet, AKA Karl of Karlstack, recently went exploring in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. My friend from the north came to me with an intriguing idea: trying to visit an iconic, bougie, influencer haven of a mountain — on the cheap.
I think there’s a lesson we can all learn from how his story ends, I hope you enjoy hearing from a different perspective, exploring a different region!
I just moved to Calgary.
Here is my advice to people who move to Calgary: don’t tell people you moved here, because an amusing local custom is that everyone will ask “have you been to the mountain yet?” and it’s exhausting having the same conversation over and over.
So, I guess I had to visit the mountain.
I am not really a big hiker, per se, but my friend Cole Noble runs a Substack dedicated to mountaineering, hiking, and outdoor adventure, so it is a perfect fit to pen a guest-story about my amateur mountain adventure.
I run my own Substack, which has nothing to do with mountains:
I had serious reservations about writing this article, actually, because the entire point of hiking is to be alone with nature. If you hike a mountain, and then blog about it, did you really hike a mountain? I therefore resolve to come back and hike it a second time, more ascetically, without blogging.
I especially had trepidations about Lake Louise, where I was headed, because it’s the single most popular “Instagram influencer photoshoot” location in Canada; an ancient rite of passage for Canadian e-girls. This is their Mecca.
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Calgarians refer to the mountain as "our mountain," but technically they are referring to the town of Banff, Alberta, which is a 90-minute drive away. Whereas Calgary is situated on a sprawling, flat plain in the middle of an empty field, Banff is nestled at the base of the Canadian Rockies, between Mount Rundle, Sulphur Mountain, Mount Norquay, and Cascade Mountain.
The Town of Banff was the first municipality to incorporate within a Canadian national park, and is the #1 most visited national park in Canada, with more than 4 million annual visitors. In 1985, the United Nations declared Banff National Park a World Heritage Site.
It has since become a bourgeoisie resort town — here a picture I took of new luxury units going up:
Banff's real estate market, with a median house price exceeding $1 million, ranks among the world's priciest. Essentially, you can't even buy a home here unless it's family inheritance. The local population is strictly regulated; Banff's size hasn't grown since 1990 because Banff residence requires Banff employment, a Parks Canada rule known as “eligible residency”. Banff's land limits are strict with a set four-square-kilometre boundary, meaning that Banff has a massive housing shortage — town officials estimate the local vacancy rate is 0%-1%.
Cheaphotels.org says that it costs $563 to spend New Years Eve in Banff, compared to $175 in Calgary or $158 in Edmonton. The most famous hotel in Banff, Fairmont Banff Springs, sets the bar even higher, with rooms starting around $1,000 per night:
In an attempt to minimize expenses and prevent my excursion from turning into a multi-day, multi-thousand dollar trip involving a hotel stay, I wondered if I could do it in under 1 day. So I turned to Reddit. To my surprise, my post in /r/calgary received over 100 upvotes and an equal number of comments.
The consensus on Reddit is that the best and cheapest way to get from Calgary to Banff is Onit, a bus that costs $10. The problem with this bus service is that in summer it only runs during the weekends, so you can’t visit Banff during the week. Also, there is huge demand for tickets, so they sell out. They were sold out for me. Another good option to get to the mountains is poparide, a carpool app that dominates the hiking carpool market in Calgary.
I didn’t want to carpool with strangers, so I chose to take a shuttle. I arrive in Banff at 9am and depart at 9:30 pm, leaving roughly 12 hours for me to aimlessly explore the mountains.
The night before, I ate a large pizza, telling myself that I needed to carb up, but really, I think that was just an excuse to eat a pizza. I then packed this in my backpack for the next day:
The reason I packed this food is to save money… but when I arrived in Banff, the first thing I did was spend $6.72 on a medium cappuccino.
Even worse, I clicked 15% tip.
The coffee shop was staffed by 3 stunning Australian girls - a recurring theme that struck me throughout my day. It seems Banff attracts a slew of hot, young Australian ski bums, bringing an irresistible ski-bum charm to the whole town. I asked one about it and she said, “Banff is like a mini-Australia.” I have half a mind to drop out of the Substack rat race and become a ski bum this winter.
I set off on my next venture - renting a bike. If I had a week in Banff, I would prefer to explore on foot, however given the constraint of a single day, biking was the optimal choice to see as much as possible. A lot of the trailheads are outside of the town or on the edges of it, so biking is just easier.
I set off on my noble steed.
The first stop was Lake Minnewanka.
This is what it looks like:
Next I decided to bike to Lake Louise, where the e-girls roam.
It was a 6 hour round trip.
About an hour into the ride, I came across this lake, so I stopped to smoke a joint.
Freshly stoned, I set off to Lake Louise.
The entire trip, I expected to get ambushed by a bear. I really wish I had a gun. People in Canada laugh when I say this, they preach “bear spray” here, but bear spray only has a range of 20 feet. In my amateur opinion, if you are spraying a bear that is 20 feet away from you (or less), that bear will kill you. Better to have a rifle. Since I didn’t have a rifle, my plan was to bike away from any bears as fast as possible, but then I googled it and learned that grizzlies can run twice as fast as I can bike. So I accepted my own death.
I do not mess with bears, or sharks.
Halfway to Lake Louise, I made eye contact with a cute girl walking the opposite direction, so I stopped to talk to her. What followed was an unexpected change of plans as I found myself walking my bicycle beside her, accompanying her on her journey back to the town. So if anyone ever asks me if I have been to Lake Louise, I will tell them no, I had to go see about a girl.
Upon arriving back in town, we went drinking.
First we stumbled upon a brewery tour:
Then a gin tasting tour:
And more drinking…
At this point, the story gets fuzzy, so this is where our story will end.
In total, I spent $338 on my “shoestring budget” trip to Banff.
public transport: $7
bike rental: $56
oranges , nuts, crackers: $10
energy drink: $4
I could have kept it under $50 if I…
Scheduled the trip in advance
Ignored women, weed, wine, caffeine
Walked instead of biked
Despite the budget blowing up, I consider it money well spent.
It was easily my best day of 2023!
If you are curious how this story with the cute backpacker will end, so am I. I have her phone number, and I will text her a link to this article, which she knows I am writing. Maybe I will see her again, maybe not, who knows. If it is meant to be, it will find a way.
If you enjoyed Chris’s storytelling style, I encourage you to check out his substack, where he reports on econ and academic scandals with a flair that I think is engaging to even more casual readers.
If you’ve found your way here and you’ve not yet subscribed to my substack, I’d encourage you to click the button below for outdoor content in your inbox on a weekly basis.
This is my first guest post in a long while; I’ll be back next week with either one of my own essays, or the first new episode of Trail Talk in literally half a year. See you then!