We had Ultimate Airstreams do some much-needed modifications to our 2017 27′ International Signature Airstream. We lived in it for a year and a half and decided to make some changes in order to make it more full-time friendly. We contacted Ultimate Airstreams back in April to discuss the changes we’d like make and to schedule an appointment. We worked with Ian to design a new layout that would work better for us and we dropped the Airstream off on September 3rd for a five-week renovation.
The factory-installed Airstream ‘couches’ are notoriously uncomfortable. Airstreams are not designed for full-time living, and the seating is a good indicator of that. The most important aspect in our new layout was having a comfortable couch. Like, a real couch. And that’s what Ultimate Airstreams did. Our couch actually started as a couch from IKEA that was manipulated and altered to fit into the Airstream. The cushions were reupholstered with a durable vinyl material that looks very much like leather in the Vintage Pretzel color. To replace the storage that was lost under each bench seat, two large drawers were installed under the couch. While the couch no longer converts to a bed, it is large enough for one person to sleep on, if needed. There are cup holders in the arms of the couch and two pop-up outlets behind it — one inverter and one regular. We absolutely love our couch and are finally able to watch TV in comfort!
The long bench seat was never really utilized in our Airstream — hardly anybody ever sat on it and nobody every slept on it. We replaced it with a desk, which has really changed our daily life. After about 21 months of setting up and breaking down the 27″ iMac every day, or leaving it sitting on the dinette table where it always seemed to be in the way, we finally have a functioning ‘office’. We are full timers that still work full time. There’s no end in sight for living the full-time lifestyle, so we needed to make our space work better for us. Thanks to the modifications, we have a dedicated work space by day and a comfortable lounging space by night that allows us both to see the TV without having to put the computer away every evening. We chose a butcher block top for the desk, which looks great alongside the cabinets and couch. When designing the desk, a must for me was to have a pull-out garbage can. The Airstream came with one tiny, under-sink garbage — again, not really meant for full-time living. We had a full-size garbage that would sit in front of the pantry, but we had to move it any time we wanted to open the pantry. Super annoying. We now have an out-of-sight, out-of-mind garbage as well as a drawer for storage above it.
(And because I always get at least one message asking about how we store the iMac while traveling whenever I post about it, read this blog post about the case we use and where we store while under tow.)
We purchased the desk chair from the Laura Davidson website. It’s a knockoff of the ridiculously priced Herman Miller Eames Soft Pad chair. It comes with rolling casters on it, but the website also sells these stationary glides. In order to keep the chair secure while towing, Kenny at Ultimate Airstreams installed hooks to which we attach a bungee cord that is wrapped around the base of the chair.
They found a new home for the fire extinguisher that always seemed to be in the way (Max’s collar got caught on it a couple of times.) They also fixed a few things that had been on our to-do list — replaced missing rivets, replaced the broken bathroom doorknob, made our door easier to open and close (it previously took a lot of muscle), and fixed our awning LED lights that have never worked.
We are beyond thrilled with the finished product! Ian and Kenny were fantastic to work with and they actually finished the project almost a week ahead of schedule, so we were able to pick it up early. Ultimate Airstreams is located in Clackamas, Oregon and is owned by Airstream Adventures Northwest, the five Airstream dealerships located in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and NorCal. If you dream it up, they can make it happen! We’ve been living in our newly remodeled trailer for a week and a half now and have commented almost daily about how nice it is and how we wish we would have done it sooner. However, waiting so long let us figure out exactly what we wanted/needed.
While Ultimate Airstreams was working on our home, we rented a condo in Portland for five weeks. It was located in the South Waterfront neighborhood, which is a clean, quiet neighborhood along the Willamette River. There’s a really nice, dog-friendly green space along the river, a farmer’s market every Thursday night in the neighborhood park, a few shops, an Orange Theory Fitness (which we both joined for a month), and a handful of food options within a few blocks of where we stayed, which was the The John Ross building.
We didn’t venture out as much as we would have liked for a few reasons: We were busy with work; I (Missy) took a trip to Wisconsin to visit family; and the parking situation wasn’t ideal. The building has underground parking, but it’s not really built for a large truck. We technically fit without scraping the ceiling, but the assigned parking spots are very snug. If other cars were parked around us, it took both of us to get in and out of the spot — Travis driving and me directing him through a 27-point turn so we didn’t hit anybody. Not really ideal for exploring the city. However, we did make it to the following sites:
Washington Park: Home to the Hoyt Arboretum, International Rose Test Garden, Oregon Zoo, Portland Children’s Museum, World Forestry Center, and the Portland Japanese Garden, the latter of which we spent a decent amount of time at. The Japanese Garden is laid out so beautifully and is very serene. We grabbed a bite for lunch at their Umami Cafe. I would definitely put this on the list as a must-see when visiting Portland!
The Pearl District: It’s only about a 10-minute drive from South Waterfront to this neighborhood where you’ll find Powell’s Books, Deschutes Brewery, trendy boutiques, big-name stores, restaurants, bars, breweries, coffee shops, and galleries. There’s also a Whole Foods with an Amazon Locker where we had a package sent. If we were to recommend an area for someone to stay who is going to visit Portland, this is it.
Cannon Beach: It’s a little over an hour and half drive to Cannon Beach from Portland. It was a much needed and enjoyed trip by all three of us.
Studio One Theaters: A luxury movie theater with a more personal vibe. Our particular theater was set up and decorated like a New York penthouse.
We know there is so much more to explore in Portland and hope to get back some day to do so. After picking up the Airstream from Ultimate Airstreams, we stayed at Pheasant Ridge RV Park, about 20 minutes south of Portland. We spent a few days there while moving back into the Airstream and getting everything organized. We’d highly recommend Pheasant Ridge as a basecamp while the visiting the Portland area. Read our review here.
Pheasant Ridge RV Park is located 20 minutes south of downtown Portland and was a great place to stay for a couple of nights as we got moved back into our Airstream and reorganized after picking it up from Ultimate Airstreams. Even though it’s easily accessible from the I-5 and across the street from a shopping center (Target, Starbucks, Costco, PetSmart, etc.), it’s a very quiet and peaceful place to stay. They have one of the best features I’ve seen at an RV park — a separate laundry room specifically for pet stuff! The property has beautiful trees throughout that offer great shade, which I’m sure is very welcome during the hotter months. The sites are concrete with grassy yards. We didn’t use the pool or restrooms, but both seemed very nice and clean.
Pheasant Ridge is the perfect place to stay if you want to explore Portland. During our long weekend there, we saw a musical at Portland Center Stage at The Armory, which is located in the Pearl District. It’s only a 20-minute drive to this neighborhood where you’ll find Powell’s Books, Deschutes Brewery, trendy boutiques, big-name stores, restaurants, bars, breweries, coffee shops, and galleries.
For more about our Ultimate Airstream modifications and what we did while in the Portland area, check out this blog post.
We chose to stay at Portland-Woodburn RV Park due to its location between Springfield, Oregon where AM Solar is located and Clackamas, Oregon where Ultimate Airstreams is located. We had updates done to the Airstream at both places and booked our appointments with both back in April. We were able to schedule them close enough together that we only had five days between where we needed a place to stay and Woodburn-RV Park was a good option.
The RV park is located right off the I-5 and next door to the Woodburn Premium Outlets, which was a very popular place during our stay over the Labor Day weekend. We took advantage of the fact Oregon doesn’t have a sales tax and purchased a few things during our stay. There are a handful of restaurants within a short walk from the RV park. The sites are blacktopped and grassy, but offer no privacy from your neighbor. The property is clean and the people are nice. It’s about a 40-minute drive into downtown Portland. Woodburn is a nice little city with all of the services you might need, including a Walmart. For those that aren’t RVers, a Walmart is always nice to have as they have an RV supply aisle in which they sell the good RV toilet paper – the only other place I’ve been able to find it is Amazon, but it’s pricy. If you’re looking for something closer to the city, I’d recommend Pheasant Ridge RV Park, which is only a 20-minute drive. It’s a bit pricier, but it’s a beautiful RV park where we stayed for a couple of nights after picking up our Airstream from Ultimate Airstreams. Review for Pheasant Ridge coming soon.
When we bought the Airstream in June of 2017, we had the dealership install two 100w flex solar panels. We never upgraded the batteries to anything beyond what was installed at the factory, and even after replacing those first batteries with a new set (of the same), they were never able to hold a charge like we would need to successfully function without shore power (that’s what RVers call an electric hookup). We talked about upgrading the batteries for a while, and in doing research, found that our flex panels don’t generally have a long life expectancy either. In April, after 15 months on the road, we decided we wanted to add two more solar panels and upgrade to lithium batteries. We knew we were missing out on one of the benefits of this lifestyle, which is to be able to stay places without having to hook up. There are so many options out there for boondocking, especially in the West. We wanted to have the convenience and flexibility to be able to subsist for a few nights and not have to depend on electricity. We scheduled an appointment for late August with AM Solar in Springfield, Oregon, who we found to have rave reviews.
We originally were going to have them install just two 100w rigid panels, but decided to have them replace the flex panels as well. We now have four 100w rigid panels. We swapped our crappy batteries for two Battle Born 12v 100Ah lithium batteries. Our original converter has been disconnected and replaced with two lithium-compatible chargers. To complete the upgrade, a Victron battery monitor system was installed so we can monitor our battery levels as well as our solar input on our phones in the Victron app.
There are two big decisions that need to be made when upgrading solar and batteries: Lithium vs AGM batteries and Fixed vs Portable solar panels. You should make these decisions based on how YOU are going to use YOUR rig – don’t worry about how other people are using theirs. We weren’t looking to be able to live off grid 100% of the time, though we are fully capable of doing that now, but to have the flexibility and convenience to make decisions about where we stay independent of whether or not there’s an electric hook up. Sometimes we want full hookups, other times we don’t. We have a great setup now for the times we don’t.
There are some solar purists out there that feel that anything other than portable solar panels are a waste of money. Again, this depends on how you’re going to use your rig. For the non-RVers out there, when you park a trailer in direct sun, it gets hot inside. Alternatively, when you park in the shade, it stays cooler. For the people that like to stay off grid regularly, being able to park in the shade but still receive sun on the solar panels is a necessity. In cases like this, one would need to have portable solar panels that are plugged into the RV by a long cord, but sit on the ground and are able to be moved around and adjusted as needed in reference to where the sun is in the sky. We don’t like heat. When it’s hot, we like to use our air conditioning. In order to use a/c, we need to have an electric hookup as our inverter does not support running a/c. It’s possible to install an inverter powerful enough that will allow you to run a/c strictly off of battery power as opposed to shore power, but it’s very pricy, and as I said, we aren’t looking to go off grid permanently so it’s unnecessary for us. If it’s hot, we like to be on shore power. Therefore, we don’t need to be able to park in the shade and still get sun to our solar panels. We’ll save our dependent-on-solar-panels days for cooler temps that allow us to sit in direct sun without feeling like we’re slowing baking inside our Airstream.
Wholesale Solar has a great blog post that explains lithium vs AGM batteries better than I ever could, so please click here to read it if this topic interests you. For us, the deciding factors were that lithium has a much greater depth of discharge, a faster charge rate, and a longer lifespan.
So, what exactly what can we do with our fancy new batteries and solar panels? We recently spent about 24 hours at a Harvest Hosts to try our new system out. We made dinner in the oven, watched hours of TV, had the furnace kick in a few times, ran the fridge on propane, charged cell phones, used the water pump as needed, turned on lights, and used the stove to heat water for the French press. The lowest our batteries got to was 78%, and seeing as they can safely get down to 20% and we were not holding back on using power, we were very impressed. Even though it was raining when we hitched up and rained for about half of our 4-hour drive, we were back up to 100% when we reached our next destination, thanks to our solar panels.
While this project was not cheap, to us, the convenience it provides and the money we can save boondocking is worth every penny. The staff at AM Solar are consummate professionals and did an amazing job. Everything is under warranty for an unheard of seven years, so we have peace of mind that if any issues should arise in years to come, AM Solar has our back!
The day before we dropped the Airstream off at AM Solar, we pulled into a campground in Cascade Locks, Oregon and noticed an odd rattling sound coming from the wheel area on the passenger side of the Airstream. Travis crawled underneath to see if he could see what was going on, but didn’t see anything obvious. Seeing as there was nothing we could do where we currently were, we hitched up the next day and continued to Springfield with bated breath. We knew there was an Airstream dealership/service center in Portland, so figured that was going to be our best option. After we dropped the Airstream off at AM Solar, we drove to our hotel in downtown Eugene. Along the way, we noticed a billboard for Sutton RV, the ‘Pacific Northwest’s Original Airstream Dealership’ which was located in Eugene.
Guys, this is the second time we’ve had an issue with the Airstream and both times we happened to be in a city with an Airstream dealership/service center. What are the odds?
We called them the next morning, which was a Monday. We explained our situation: weird noise; full timers; Airstream currently at AM Solar until Thursday; Airstream would be dropped off at Ultimate Airstreams the following Tuesday. It was a small window of time. They were busy. It was short notice. BUT, they told us to bring it in Thursday and they would look at it to at least diagnose the problem. We cancelled the first night of our RV park stay and extended our hotel stay one night. We picked the trailer up Thursday from AM Solar and drove 15 minutes to Sutton RV. Just 2.5 hours later we got a call saying one of our brakes was basically shredded and needed to be replaced. They had the part and the Airstream would be fixed and ready to go Friday afternoon. Yay! We were able to pick the Airstream up 24 hours after dropping it off and continue on our way to Portland. Kelly at Sutton RV did us a solid and was awesome to work with. While we hope we never have to see them again, we know we’d receive fantastic service from a hard-working and honest service department if a problem were to arise in their area again.
While AM Solar was working on the Airstream and Sutton RV fixed our brake issue, we stayed at the Home 2 Suites in Eugene. While the hotel was very nice – suite with kitchenette, indoor pool, free breakfast, free laundry, decent fitness center – I would not stay there again. There’s a very large transient population in downtown Eugene, which made us feel a little uncomfortable walking around. After living in San Diego for a while, homelessness is not unfamiliar to us, but we saw some really nasty things that were pretty off putting. Our recommendation for anyone getting work done at AM Solar that needs to stay in a hotel for a few days would be to stay in Springfield.
Our stay at the Cascade Locks/Portland East KOA was our second one-night stay in a row and the second stay in a row where I forgot to take a picture of our site. We were really torn about this KOA. The property is actually pretty nice, though I’m not sure what qualifies it as a KOA Holiday as opposed to a KOA Journey. It has a real woodsy feel, as there are a lot of trees that provide great shade. However, the streets are pretty narrow and those lovely trees can impede rigs trying navigate through the campground. We ended up with what had to be the worst site in the campground, which was site 106. It was a tight turn to get into the site and an even tighter turn to get out of it. We were directly across from the pool, which was fully patronized all day long. The site next to us had a travel trailer and three vehicles, which amounted to about 15 people and 15 people worth of noise. When we walked Max, we noticed that the rest of the campground was pretty quiet, so if we had been in pretty much any other site, we probably would have enjoyed ourselves a bit more. The campground is in a great location to explore Cascade Locks and the surrounding area.
After getting settled in, we drove into town to get some lunch. We got burgers at Bridgeside, a restaurant on the banks of the Columbia River on the Oregon side of the Bridge of the Gods. Because we brought Max with us, we sat on the patio, which we had all to ourselves. Cascade Locks seems like a great little town to explore, but we just didn’t have the time this trip.
We spent one brief night at Coyote Run as we quickly made our way from Glacier National Park to Springfield, Oregon, where we would be dropping the Airstream off at AM Solar to upgrade the batteries and add more solar panels. Our stay was so brief that I forgot to take a picture of our site. When we left Glacier, we decided to just keep driving until we didn’t feel like driving anymore, and this day turned out be our longest driving day of the year thus far. As we started to lose steam, I opened the Campendium app to find a place nearby. Coyote Run looked like a good option, and seeing as it was kind of in the middle of nowhere, we didn’t call ahead as we figured they wouldn’t be full. Well, we got lucky, because we ended up with the last site that would fit us. It was a buddy pull-thru site, so we shared our grassy front yard with our neighbor, which was perfectly fine. Most of the rigs seemed like long-term residents — the gigantic propane tanks give it away — who we assumed were employed by the large prison nearby. This is a very basic, small RV park right off the highway that worked well for our one-night stay. We didn’t use any of the amenities, but I did peek in the restrooms, which were individual restrooms with showers and they looked clean.
We visited Glacier National Park in July of last year, but were only able to spend five days — which was not nearly enough. We knew then that we would return for a longer stay in the near future, which turned out to be August 9-23 of this year. We spent two amazing weeks in West Glacier at the West Glacier KOA, which is one of only 19 KOA Resorts amongst the 480+ KOA properties throughout North America. We had friends fly in from D.C. and Tampa to help us celebrate my 40th birthday. They stayed in one of the Deluxe Cabins, which is a great way for friends and family to join RVers on the road in great destinations like Glacier. During their 4-day visit, we explored trails and lakes and waterfalls and hiked/walked almost 88,000 steps, or more than 37 miles. We drank whiskey and beer and ate burritos and churros and trout. The guys went whitewater rafting and we all enjoyed campfires in the evening. Their visit flew by, as did our 2-week stay, and we’re pretty sure that Glacier National Park will be a place we return to again and again.
Nightly Entertainment (Wildlife Expert, Magic Show, Music, etc.)
2.5 Miles to West Entrance of Glacier National Park
Our site, #166, was a back-in Super Site with full hookups and a tent pad. It’s on the end of a row and backs up to a tree line. It’s next to a bathroom, which was very convenient for when we our friends were hanging out at our site. We LOVED our site. It was huge and quiet and pretty private for a KOA.
There are a number of things that we enjoyed about this KOA:
For such a large property, it’s pretty quiet. Because we were in an end site that backs up to trees, our stay may have been quieter than if we were in a different site, but overall, the place was pretty low key even though it was at max capacity most nights
The sites are well spaced apart. Again, this might have something to do with our particular site. We didn’t walk the entirety of the campground, but every site we saw looked nice.
Breakfast and dinner are available every day, which is very convenient for those days you don’t feel like making a meal or going out.They have a pretty substantial breakfast menu each morning, along with pastries for purchase. There’s also a coffee bar to get your day started right. Each evening, Gene mans the grill, where you have a choice of trout, ribs, flat iron steak, or ribeye steak. The ribs were pretty good but the trout was our favorite (we didn’t try either of the steaks).
The. Adult. Pool. Is. Everything. Due to most people staying at KOAs with kids, the family pool was always pretty busy. However, the adults only pool never had more than a half dozen other people at it and was incredibly peaceful. There are also two small hot tubs at the adult pool — again, very nice to enjoy without kids.
The location to the national park entrance gets two thumbs up. It’s only a couple of minutes drive into West Glacier Village, where you’ll find the west entrance of the park, a post office, an urgent care clinic, the newly opened West Glacier RV Park & Cabins, a motel, a food market, retail/gift shops, coffee cart, ice cream, a bar, and a cafe.
Mobile dog grooming? Yes, please. Every Saturday, a woman brings her RV that’s converted into a mobile dog grooming salon to the West Glacier KOA. There’s a sign-up sheet in the office. This was super convenient for us, as Max hadn’t been groomed in a very long time due to having a back injury. Also, it’s really hard to get a dog in for grooming on short notice in most places and we’re usually not somewhere long enough for it not to be short notice. She did a great job and Max was done in less than an hour, unlike the three hours that are normally required at other groomers.
Things to Do
The hike to Avalanche Lake can be anywhere from 4.6 to 6 miles roundtrip, depending on how far you continue along the lakeshore once you reach the lake. This trail can be busy, as there is a shuttle stop at the trailhead (which is actually the Trail of the Cedars Trailhead), and is accessible during the off-season months when the Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed. There’s ample parking, but as with most trails in any national park, the earlier you get there the better. However, we didn’t arrive at the trailhead until 9am on a Saturday during mid-August and we were able to find a parking spot. The trail is rated as moderate and seemed to be popular with families. We did this hike on an overcast day, but the views from the lake were still gorgeous. We hiked the extra distance to the opposite side of the lake, as most people stop on the near side. Only a few parties continued to the far side which made it a quiet and peaceful place to drop in with our Kokopelli Packrafts and paddle around for a bit. Drive time from West Glacier entrance: ~32 minutes
Saint Mary Falls and Virginia Falls
We did this hike last year when we visited and both Travis and I remembered it as being easier than it was this year. We accessed the trail from the Saint Mary Falls Trailhead, but you can also start at the Saint Mary Falls Shuttle Stop or from the boat dock on Saint Mary Lake. The first mile of the hike is pretty flat and fairly easy, and brings you to the three-tiered Saint Mary Falls. This a good place to turn around for those who aren’t very steady on their feet. If you continue an additional three-quarters mile up the trail, which starts to gain and lose elevation regularly just pass Saint Mary Falls, you’ll reach Virginia Falls, which is approximately 50 feet tall. Drive time from West Glacier entrance: ~1 hr, 15 min
A few tips:
Throughout the hike, there are a handful of smaller unnamed falls, and some people may mistake these for Virginia Falls and turn around before reaching the actual Virginia Falls.
The earlier in the season you visit, the more impressive the falls will be. That’s true for any of the 200+ waterfalls located throughout Glacier. We visited Glacier in mid-July last year and mid-August this year and noticed a big difference.
There is a third waterfall that can be reached from the Saint Mary Falls Trailhead, though the Sunrift Gorge Trailhead is a closer option. When starting the hike to Saint Mary and Virginia Falls, you’ll see a sign that says Baring Falls to the left, while the other two are to the right. We’ve never hiked it, so I can’t comment on the difficulty of the trail or the brilliance of the falls. I believe it’s about a mile to the falls from where the trail splits in two directions.
There’s a pit toilet near Virginia Falls if needed, though don’t expect it to be as nice as the pit toilets you find at trailheads. And pack your own toilet paper.
The trailhead to Iceberg Lake is found behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in the Many Glacier area of the park. There are a number of hikes that leave from this area, so everything I read about the Iceberg Lake hike said that arriving early is important, even though there’s a very large parking lot. We did this hike on a drizzly Monday morning and when we arrived at the parking lot around 7:30am, there was quite a bit of parking still available. Maybe it was because of the weather, maybe it was because it was Monday, but whatever the reason, we probably could have shown up at 8 or 8:15 and still been fine. The park’s hiking guide rates this hike as very challenging, though AllTrails says moderate. Even though it’s about 10 miles roundtrip and has approximately 1800′ of elevation gain, I’d have to agree with moderate. About halfway along the trail is Ptarmigan Falls, which is a nice place to stop for a snack. There’s also a pit toilet here, but as with the one by Virginia Falls, it’s more of an outhouse and requires you to bring your own toilet paper. Once we reached the brilliant turquoise lake, which was sans icebergs (we missed them by a few weeks), the wind really picked up and it was freezing. We spent a short time at the lake before heading back and being treated to some moose sightings along the trail. Drive time from West Glacier entrance: ~2 hr, 10 min
Hidden Lake Overlook
This is another very popular hike in Glacier, but with good reason. It’s rated as challenging, or moderate, but is less challenging than other moderate hikes we’ve done. It’s fairly accessible, as the trailhead is right behind the Logan Pass Visitor Center. At 2.6 miles roundtrip, the payoff is pretty great without having to put a lot of miles in. The hike can be extended an additional 1.2 miles each way if you choose to hike down to the lake itself. We saw what seemed like every rodent that calls the park home as well as a momma mountain goat with her babe. It’s a busy trail, but one that I would say should be on your must-do list. We arrived at 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon and were lucky enough to score a parking spot without having to circle the parking lot for too long. Drive time from West Glacier entrance: ~1 hr, 3 min
While I stayed back at the Airstream with Max, the guys went whitewater rafting with Glacier Raft Company. They enjoyed it, but it was a little tame for their liking. As with the waterfalls in the park, the water level and flow of the Flathead River peak in early June and slowly recede throughout the summer.
Food & Drink
Wandering Gringo Cafe
Delicious tacos, quesadillas, and burritos the size of your head. Cash only.
Glacier Distilling Company
They specialize in small-batch whiskey but also offer brandy, vodka, gin, rum and liqueurs. Do some tastings, order a cocktail, or buy a bottle to take home — or all three.
The rafting guide swore by their chimichangas, so we partook after our hike to Iceberg Lake. We also sampled the margaritas and churros. ‘Twas a delicious trifecta!
West Glacier Restaurant
Located right in West Glacier Village, a good place to stop for breakfast, lunch, or dinner either on your way in or out of the park. The food was good, the service was fast, and the prices were reasonable.
Boat Club Restaurant – Lodge at Whitefish Lake
The Lodge is a 40-minute drive from the West Glacier KOA. We visited on a busy Sunday afternoon, so the service was a tad bit slow, but the views made up for it. Whitefish is a fantastic town and deserves to be explored, but we only had time for a quick lunch at the lake.
North Fork Pizza
Located in Columbia Falls, North Fork Pizza is about a 20-minute drive from the KOA. The pizza is fantastic and worthy of the drive.
The Glacier National Park area does not disappoint. It’s not the easiest to get to, but everyone should try their best to get there. When the park was established in 1910, there were 150 active glaciers. Today, only 26 remain. By 2030, that number may be zero. The park itself is mind-blowing, but there is so much in the area that we haven’t yet gotten a chance to explore — Kalispell, Whitefish, Flathead Lake, etc. We spent 45 glorious days in the great state of Montana this summer, but it looks like we’ll need to spend more.
We stayed one night at the Cranbrook/St. Eugene KOA after we left Banff National Park. Cranbrook seems to be a popular place for RVers to spend the night before crossing the border back into the United States. This property became a KOA just this year and thus far, seems to be a KOA in name only. There’s signage, but not much else that differentiates it from its past life as the St. Eugene RV Park. This is a KOA Journey, but is nicer than most KOA Holidays that we’ve stayed at. It was once part of, and sits adjacent to, the St. Eugene Golf Resort and Casino, which is a beautiful property. Staying at the KOA gives you access to the resort’s amenities, including the swimming pool, hot tubs, steam room, sauna, and fitness centre. There’s also a spa, golf course, and casino on site, as well as a couple of restaurants. It’s a nice, quiet place to spend a night or two.
The park sits along the St. Mary River and is well maintained. The only negative that we found is that there are no trees, so you’re always in direct sunlight. It was pretty warm when we stayed, so I can see this being a drawback for longer stays.
Note: Just before we reached the KOA, Google Maps routed us down a 13km washboard gravel road that was VERY rough. The notice below was posted in the KOA laundry room, so it seems this is a usual occurrence.
When planning our trip to Canada, the border crossing was the biggest question mark for us. We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be nothing to worry about and took less than five minutes.
We crossed at the Sweetgrass, Montana crossing, which is listed as Montana’s busiest border crossing and the only one that’s open 24 hours for commercial vehicles. There are six lanes, with one reserved for people holding a NEXUS card and two reserved for commercial purposes. There were two cars ahead of us when we pulled up, but they moved through very quickly.
When we pulled up to the window, the agent asked for our passports immediately and then asked the following questions:
Where are you headed?
How long will you be in Canada?
What’s the purpose of your visit?
Do you have any alcohol? How much?
Do you have any tobacco products?
Do you have any cannabis products?
Do you have any weapons?
Do you have a taser or pepper spray?
Do you have more than $10,000 cash with you?
Will you be selling any goods while you’re in Canada?
Americans crossing into Canada are each allowed to have 1.5 liters of wine -or- 1.14 liters (40 ounces) of liquor -or- 24 cans of beer, as well as 1 carton (200) of cigarettes, up to 50 cigars, and 200g of loose tobacco. For more information about the items you can and can’t cross with and the possible duties imposed, visit www.ezbordercrossing.com. There were also signs posted that stated “All cannabis items must be declared,” but we have no idea what the rules are for that.
He then asked to see Max’s rabies vaccination record. After that, he handed everything back to us, and we were on our way!
The city on the Canadian side of the border is Coutts, which is where we spent the night before driving up to Cochrane, just west of Calgary, the next day. There is a duty free shop in both Sweetgrass and Coutts, so you can buy all the alcohol and tobacco your heart desires without having to pay a duty fee. If we were to cross the border via this route again, we would keep driving past Coutts to Lethbridge, about 100km (60mi) north. Coutts is a tiny, dusty, agricultural city without many amenities while Lethbridge is the third largest city in Alberta, offering food and recreation options.
We crossed back into the U.S. at the Roosville, BC border crossing. It was much busier than when we crossed in Sweetgrass — maybe because it was a Friday instead of a Thursday, and there were only two lanes as opposed to three. The border agent gave us a hard-to-explain uneasy feeling, but again we had no issues crossing once answering his questions:
How long were you in Canada?
Do you have any fresh produce or plants?
Did you buy any items to declare?
From there, it was less than a 2-hour drive to our destination of West Glacier. Be prepared and be honest when crossing the border, and you should have no issues. We recently read of a fellow Airstreamer forgetting to declare a couple pieces of produce at the same border crossing and were fined $300 and had their passports held until they paid it.
The idea of a visit to Banff National Park in Alberta can be a bit daunting — almost as daunting as trying to put all of the info about actually visiting Banff into a blog post can be. But, it’s the most beautiful place we’ve ever been and completely worth the hassle it takes to get there!
So, I’ll start at the beginning:
Getting to Banff National Park
Obviously, we drove to Banff, which involved crossing the international border. We drove from Helena, MT to Milk River, AB (crossing at the Sweetgrass/Coutts border crossing) to Cochrane, AB to Banff National Park to Cranbrook, BC to West Glacier, MT (crossing at the Roosville crossing). To find out more information about crossing the border with an Airstream and a dog, read this. If you aren’t making a road trip out of your visit, then you’ll most likely be flying into Calgary. Calgary is a very large, great city that deserves a few days of exploration itself. From there, it’s a 90-minute drive to the town of Banff and an additional 45 minutes to Lake Louise. This drive can be accomplished by renting a car, taking an airport shuttle, or buying tickets for the On-It Regional Transit bus (make sure to check the schedule). Another option that many people choose is to rent an RV. We saw a lot of RVs from CanaDream, so check out their website if this interests you.
Camping in Banff
Reservations for Canada’s national parks open in January. I’m not sure if it’s the same date every year or if it changes, so keep an eye on the Parks Canada site for information. I booked our sites on January 10th this year, which I believe was the day after reservations opened. We stayed in the Lake Louise Hard-Sided Campground for three nights and the Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court Campground in Banff for three nights. Lake Louise Hard-Sided is open year round and has a period of about three months during the summer when reservations are available. Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court is open from the beginning of May to the beginning of October and accepts reservations during the whole season. Two dates that you should avoid during the summer are July 1st, which is Canada Day, and the first Monday of August, which is a civic holiday. We did not know this and were in Lake Louise over the long holiday weekend at the beginning of August. According to employees in the park and at restaurants, the area was MUCH busier than normal during this weekend. There is an $11.00 CAD nonrefundable reservation fee for each reservation made and a daily park entrance fee of $9.80 CAD per adult or $19.60 per family/group. A Parks Canada Discovery Pass, which gives you unlimited admission for 12 months from date of purchase at over 80 locations, is $67.70 CAD per adult or $136.40 per family/group. It was most cost effective for us to purchase the family annual pass, which is approximately $103.50 USD, and is valid through August of next year.
Lake Louise Hard-Sided Campground
Price: ~$24.50 USD ($32.30 CAD)
Amenities at Site: Pull-Through, 30amp Electric Hookup, Picnic Table
Amenities in Campground: Restrooms with Flush Toilets, Showers, Phone, Dump Station, Recycling
The sites are designed that two RVs park in each pull-through. They’re separate sites with separate hookups, but you’re close enough to each other that you can’t drive a vehicle between, especially if you have slides. We were lucky and barely had neighbors during our stay. The electric box is on the wrong side of the trailer. Most people just ran their electric cord under their trailer, but seeing as we have a second 30amp connection on the front end of the Airstream, we used that. There are restrooms with flush toilets, sinks, soap, and hand driers throughout the campground. There’s one larger restroom that has free showers. All sites have a picnic table, but not all sites have a fire ring. When you make a reservation online, it tells you if a site is with or without a fire ring. There is a dump station near the entrance/exit of the campground. We didn’t see any water fill stations (and none are listed on the map), but the map does state “all water in this facility is potable unless otherwise posted.” The campground is in a great location for exploring the Lake Louise and Moraine Lake areas, but not really walking distance to anything. I believe there’s a shuttle pickup at the front of the campground that takes you to the main park and ride where you can catch a shuttle to wherever you’re looking to go. We never saw it, but according to the public transportation map, it’s there.
Note: You HAVE to be in a hard-sided trailer to stay in this part of the campground. There’s a separate tent section that is surrounded by an electric fence and equipped with bear boxes.
Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court Campground
Price: ~$29.06 USD ($38.20 CAD)
Amenities at Site: Pull-Through, Full Hookups with 30amp, Picnic Table
Amenities in Campground: Restrooms with Flush Toilets and Showers, Recycling
Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court is a 322-site campground with full hookups at each site. Most sites are single pull-throughs, but there are a few buddy sites referred to as ‘shared sites’. The Trailer Court Campground is right next to the Tunnel Mountain Village II Campground, which has a dump station, potable water, a phone, and bus stops, which according to the Camping in the Banff Area pamphlet, “Public transit is available to many top destinations and is free from most campgrounds.” Tunnel Mountain II also has oTENTiks available, which are exclusive to Parks Canada and are a cross between an A-frame cabin and a prospector tent mounted on a raised wooden floor. The sites in the Trailer Court are pretty unlevel side to side, but also fairly shady. Unlike Lake Louise Campground, the roads throughout Tunnel Mountain Campground are paved and in good condition. A short drive (or long walk) from the campground is the town of Banff, a beautiful and clean quintessential mountain town full of restaurants, shops, and other services. Yes, there is a town of about 10,000 residents in the middle of a national park, and yes, it’s gorgeous.
If camping isn’t your thing, there are PLENTY of hotels, motels, hostels, resorts and short-term rentals in both Lake Louise and Banff.
Note: We had a good cell signal with AT&T in both campgrounds and most areas of Lake Louise and Banff.
Out and About in Lake Louise
The best place to start is with a quick hike to the Fairview Lookout. It’s a steep, 1.5-mile out and back with pretty great views of Lake Louise and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
Lake Agnes Tea House
When researching hikes in the Lake Louise area, the hike to the Lake Agnes Tea House kept coming up. It’s 2.2 miles one way with over 1300′ of elevation gain. We hit the trailhead at 7:25am in order to avoid the crowds and be able to get a parking spot — arriving any later than 7:30 on a Saturday of a holiday weekend is not a good idea. It took us 50-55 minutes to get to the top. The tea house has sat at 7005′ of elevation on the shores of Lake Agnes (and on top of a waterfall) since 1905. Known primarily for their selection of loose leaf teas, they offer other beverages as well as baked goods, soups, and sandwiches to warm you up — it was 44° when we started the hike and only 60° when we got back to the truck. We each got a piece of apple blueberry crumble and split a small pot of Madagascar Almond Spice tea. We wrapped up the remaining complimentary biscuits and jam to enjoy after the hike back down.
Start early. Parking is limited around Lake Louise as it’s a VERY popular area. The Tea House opens at 8:00am. We got there at about 8:20 and had to wait 15 minutes.
Cash only. Preferably Canadian, but it seems they do accept US dollars as well.
Moraine Lake Rock Pile Trail
This is a short, half-mile trail with stairs that leads you to the top of an actual rock pile where you’ll have the best views of Moraine Lake.
We didn’t do any other hikes in the Moraine Lake area, but there are definitely some great ones available. On the easy end of the spectrum is the Moraine Lake Shoreline Trail, which is exactly what it sounds like — a nice, flat trail that follows the shoreline of the lake with both lake and forest views. There’s also the hike to Consolation Lakes, which starts from the rock pile trail and recommends groups of four due to bear activity. This trail is rated as easy. Eiffel Lake Trail is rated as moderate and the Larch Valley Trail is rated as hard. Both trails start at the Moraine Lake lakeshore.
Food & Drink
The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise offers a range of dining options, from grab-and-go to fancy schmancy. We tried to get reservations at the Fairview Bar and Restaurant, but didn’t book far enough in advance. Priority seating is given to hotel guests, which is understandable, as they’re paying upwards of $700/night to stay there. The Fairview also offers daily afternoon tea service. The Lakeview Lounge is probably the most sophisticated hotel lobby lounge you’ll come across. We had a drink at the beautiful bar in the lounge before eating dinner at the fondue restaurant, Walliser Stube. Lago Italian Kitchen, Poppy Brassiere, Alpine Social and Chateau Deli round out the dining options at the Fairmont.
Note: If you have a reservation at one of the Fairmont restaurants, you’re able to park on their property for free (after getting the parking ticket validated).
There are plenty of other places to eat in Lake Louise, from fast casual to fancy-ish, but the only other place we ate was the Mt. Fairview Dining Room at Deer Lodge. The decor is a little worn but the food was absolutely delicious. The Samson Mall is located in the main part of the village and here you’ll find a small grocery store, a liquor store, souvenir shops, a book store, a bakery/deli, a cafe, and services including banking, postal, and car rental — everything you need to survive for a few days if eating out isn’t really your thing. Of course, the Lake Agnes Tea House and the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House are also alternative dining options — you just have to work a bit to reach them.
Access to Moraine Lake is limited during the day (more about that later), so dining options at Moraine Lake are also limited. The Moraine Lake Lodge offers the only accommodations and food options in the area. The Snowshoe Cafe is open during the day and offers a number of grab-and-go selections. The Walter Wilcox Dining Room is open for breakfast, afternoon tea, and dinner, with reservations being required for dinner. The lodge also has a fantastic gift/souvenir shop.
Things to Do
People are drawn to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake for the beautiful views, great hikes, chance to see wildlife, and delicious food — but also, of course, the lakes! Both lakes have canoe rentals available, but at $125/hour (bananas!) it’s a little steep. Of course, people will stay pay that crazy price so they can paddle around the milky waters of Lake Louise and bright turquoise waters of Moraine Lake. We prefer to bring our own, however. Our Kokopelli Packcrafts are super convenient and give us access to areas we wouldn’t otherwise have access to. We’ve used them on a number of alpine lakes, including Jackson Lake in Grand Teton NP and Avalanche Lake in Glacier NP.
As I mentioned earlier, access to Moraine Lake is limited. During the busy season, the parking lot at Moraine Lake is full most of the time, especially on the weekends. When the parking lot is full, the 11km road that leads to the Moraine Lake area is closed. The road is windy and takes a bit to drive, so they avoid an obscene amount of traffic and people sitting in their cars waiting for a parking spot by just not allowing anyone to drive it. As space becomes available, they sporadically allow people through the blockade. To avoid getting shut out, there are a few options: 1) Take the shuttle. 2) Get there early. Like, really early. 3) Ride a bike. Seeing as there’s little traffic on the road during the day, this road, though windy, is actually pretty safe to bike.
Before we move on to our stay in Banff, here are a few more pics from our time in and around Lake Louise and Moraine Lake:
Out and About in Banff
As an unfortunate side effect of working full time, we were only able to do one hike while staying at the Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court in Banff. Johnston Canyon is one of the more popular day hikes due to its family-friendly nature. The trail starts behind the Johnston Canyon Lodge. There are a couple of parking lots, but they fill pretty quickly unless you arrive early in the morning or later in the evening. The only time we could make the hike was smack dab in the middle of the day, which was not very ideal. We ended up parking along the side of the road almost a half mile from the trailhead. Again, this is a VERY popular hike and some parts of the trail are only wide enough for single file (sometimes very slow single file), so to avoid crowds, get there early.
The first part of the hike to the Lower Falls is flat, easy, and fairly short at 1.1km (.68mi). The entire hike is gorgeous as it winds through the canyon on catwalks along the creek. At the lower falls, there is a bridge across the creek that gives a better vantage point of the falls and at the other side of the bridge is a small cave. Walking through the small cave allows for a second vantage point of the falls, but beware that you may get a little wet. People wait in line in order to walk through the cave to see the falls up close, but honestly, it’s not worth the time unless this is your last stop on the trail.
If continuing on to the Upper Falls, the trail will become a little more difficult, as this part of the trail is rated moderate due to the incline. It’s not dramatic, but substantial enough that some people may have difficulty. From Lower Falls to Upper Falls is another 1.6km (~1mi) or 2.7km overall. The same beautiful views continue and again, if you go during a busy time, you’ll find yourself in a line. Unfortunately, this line is unavoidable if you want to catch a glimpse of the Upper Falls. The way the falls are situated, you can’t see them until you are pretty much right in front of them. There’s a small platform that extends from a narrow boardwalk from which you can see the falls. Only a few people can fit on this platform at a time, so a line forms. Obviously, you don’t have to wait in line, but then there’s no point in doing the hike unless you’re just looking for some exercise.
If we had had more time and if we didn’t waste time waiting in line at the Lower Falls, we would have continued on the trail to the Ink Pots, which are seven cold water spring pools in varying shades of blue and green. The Ink Pots are an additional 3.1km (1.93mi).
Food & Drink
Our one major dining out experience in Banff can also fall under the ‘Things To Do’ category. We purchased the Sky Experience Package, which included a round-trip gondola ride and dinner at the Sky Bistro. The Banff gondola takes you to the summit of Sulphur Mountain, where you can find boardwalks to take in the views, an interpretive center, a theatre, a rooftop deck, a gift shop, a cafe, and two restaurants. We made the trip on an overcast day, but the views were still beautiful.
I was really looking forward to this meal as a food and travel writer occasionally featured by Travel & Leisure said this was his best meal while in Banff. We were a bit disappointed with the quality of the food — it wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t great like we were expecting it to be. Unfortunately, none of the food was that flavorful.
Make sure to get outside and walk the boardwalks in order to take in the 360° views. You might also be lucky enough to see mountain goats!
Just an FYI, there’s also a Starbucks and a second gift shop at the base of the gondola.
Things To Do
The town of Banff is full of great restaurants, great shops, and a number of things to do, including the Banff Hot Springs, Cave and Basin National Historic Site, and Cascade Gardens. It’s cute and clean and offers a pretty great public transportation system. I wish we would have had more time to explore the town and the surrounding areas of the park, but we’re treating this trip as an introduction to the area and now know what to expect when we return.
A week is not nearly enough time to spend between Lake Louise and Banff. I would say at least two weeks, if not longer, are needed to get a better feel for the area. We were so limited with our time that we couldn’t even think about driving the Icefield Parkway, which is said to be one of the most scenic drives in the world (and runs between Lake Louise and Jasper in Jasper National Park). Banff National Park really charmed us and we hope to return in the future in order to enjoy more of its beauty.