Thanks so much for those posts, you've got some great info and photos involved! I look forward to some Q&A with you.
I'll keep an eye for your more detailed response.
Huge apologies for the delay in response! Life got busy for a bit there...
Any time! Feel free to ask any questions and I'll help you out as much as I can.
First, you picked the perfect time to go. In 2017 the parks are all free. When we drove up in 2015 we bought an annual pass for $136. What route are you taking to get there? I see you're in California. There's a couple great places to cross the border, all of which are in Montana. I guess you could go in somewhere else along the BC border, but most likely you'll go in through Montana. Do you plan to go in on the east side or west side of Glacier? Both are excellent routes.
Here's what I would suggest, for the most scenic and adventurous route. Spend a day in Glacier and camp somewhere nearby. Unless you make a reservation, you'll be camping outside the park. I really recommend driving over Going to the Sun Road, making the short hike on the Trail of the Cedars, maybe taking the short offshoot to Avalanche Lake from there. Stop for a while at the Logan Pass visitor center. You can hike up, to the overlook above Hidden Lake, or down, to the first part of the Highline Trail. Both will give you amazing views and you'll likely see mountain goats there. Follow GTTSR farther down afterwards towards St. Mary. Make sure to stop at the overlook on the shore of St. Mary Lake. Be on the lookout for bears between Logan Pass and St. Mary! I've seen many on that stretch.
From St. Mary, I really recommend catching a sunset at Swiftcurrent Lake/Many Glacier. It's stunning.
You can catch dinner at the Many Glacier Hotel or the Swiftcurrent Motor Lodge, both of which are excellent. The hotel is more expensive and fancy, while the Lodge has good food for fairly cheap. I recommend the pizza from the Lodge. It's also a good place to stay. The next day, head north and cross the border at Chief Mountain, on the east side of the park. It's an easy crossing if you time it right. We had almost no traffic. From the crossing there, you can stop at the overlook and continue on to Waterton. Make sure to pay attention to the map, as it's fairly easy to miss the road going into town. You can spend a little time checking out Waterton, it's not very big. The view is nice and the town has an awesome outdoor gear shop, but not a lot beyond that. It's more of a place to hike than anything else. From there, I'd drive north to Pincher Creek and turn west, past Lundbreck and Bellevue and into the Crowsnest Pass.
At the Crowsnest Pass, you can spend a day or so in the area or just enjoy the scenery and make your way to Banff. If you're pressed for time, I'd suggest just going to Banff. Now, there's a few ways to do this. You could jump over to Fernie, north past Invermere and into Radium Hot Springs, then through Kootenay National Park and over to Banff. But that's a pretty long drive and although beautiful, it's not the most interesting way I think. I'd recommend taking the Forestry Trunk Road (Highway 40/42/43 depending on where you look) north from Coleman. Yes, it's a dirt route, but it's pretty smooth and well developed. You'll be on dirt for maybe two hours maximum, and it's so worth it. The scenery is stunning, as it takes you through the foothills of the Rockies, and you'll see parts that not a lot of tourists visit. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and it will get you to Banff very quickly compared to going through Radium. It's a lot of this:
It's maybe 30-40 miles to get to the T-junction where the asphalt starts again. Turn left and you'll be on the Kananaskis Trail, where the scenery gets even better. It's not a long drive from here to Canmore, but you'll want to stop for the scenery every so often I think.
Follow that road north to Kananaskis Lake. From there, you can go left and go past Spray Lakes straight to Canmore, or you can continue north to Seebe and link up with the Tans-Canada Highway there. I recommend going to Canmore. The scenery will only get better from there, and Canmore is only about 15 minutes from Banff. Canmore itself is a very cool city to check out, so stop there if you have the time. Of course, the main place to go is Banff.
Next, camping. I wouldn't worry overly much about reserving, though it's not a bad idea. There's a few campgrounds right near Banff itself that have huge numbers of campsites, and they have great amenities. Running water, sinks for washing up, bathrooms, etc. No, they're not the most secluded but they don't cost too much and it's kind of nice to have access to all that from time to time. The sites are very well kept, with picnic tables and fire pits, but you'll need to buy a fire permit for every night you plan to have a fire. Adds some expense, but they have pre-cut firewood for you (at least at Two Jack, where I stayed at in 2015). If you prefer to camp outside the park, it's a bit of a drive, but you can fairly easily reach the Forestry Trunk Road/Alberta 40 from there via Kananaskis Country. For ease though, I suggest camping in Banff.
Next, things to do in Banff. All three times I went, it stormed. So be prepared to do something other than checking out the scenery if needed. Downtown Banff is a spectacular place. It's such a cool, walkable city that's full of things for everyone. There's great shops with trinkets, clothes, outdoor gear, etc. The variety there is great. There are a ton of excellent restaurants too. I'd recommend trying Skoki's fresh waffles or crepes, trying a burger at The Eddie, or having some pub food at The Elk and Oarsmen. All excellent. My wife and I also make it a point to get a Beaver Tail every time we go too. Sure, it's a chain, but it's good. Also, it's a Canadian cliche, but I have a serious love affair with Tim Horton's. Great coffee and donuts.
For other activities, there's a lot to do. Learn about the history of Parks Canada at Cave and Basin National Historic Site or check out the beautiful flowers at Cascade Gardens. Both are a good time. If you want to relax during the rain or during the evening, definitely check out the Banff Upper Hot Springs. Cheap and a great way to unwind. There's also a number of good museums in Banff.
Now for the important stuff. Things to see! Near to Banff itself is the drive along Vermilion Lakes, which is beautiful during the evening around sunset.
There's a lot to see as far as scenery, and it's almost impossible to find somewhere bad to see. For the best stuff, you can head down to Kananaskis for great scenery best accessed by hikes, or you can head north and see some of the most famous sights in Canada. I'll start with what's nearest to Banff. Start off by taking the Bow Valley Parkway just off the Trans-Canada Highway and do the hike up Johnston Canyon. So incredibly cool and not too difficult. The rock formations are very cool, and the waterfalls are something else entirely. Next, two of the big ones. Lake Louise is a very famous place and a well known stop, as well as the beginning of the stunning Icefields Parkway. Spend a little time on the shores of Lake Louise.
If you're feeling like a hike from here, the walk to the Lake Agnes Tea House is a great one. A little strenuous, but the tea house at Lake Agnes is awesome. Great tea and great food with excellent views. If you're looking for a longer hike, the Plain of Six Glaciers is spectacular. From there, you MUST drive south to go to Moraine Lake. It's still the most beautiful place I've ever been to this day.
If you want to hike fro here, the walk to Consolation Lakes is extremely easy but so worthwhile. The views are excellent. If you're up to it, though, make the hike up to Eiffel Lake or up Larch Valley. It's unspeakably beautiful. I can't describe in words how amazing it is. Only downside is you'll have to wait for a group to hike with, as you're not allowed to hike in groups smaller than 4 due to bear activity. Don't let that bother you though. It's very safe.