LAKE LOUISE – Visitors to the lakeshore of Lake Louise will have to pay for parking this year as part of a two-year pilot project to help ease congestion at the tourist hotspot.
Parks Canada is introducing paid parking this summer at Upper Lake Louise lots from mid-May to mid-October, charging visitors a flat rate of $11.70 per vehicle per day.
Officials, however, say they hope visitors choose to take the reservation-only shuttle buses from the park-and-ride lot east of the hamlet on the Trans-Canada Highway instead of circling looking for a parking spot at the lake.
“Vehicles will be turned around when the parking lot is full and you won’t be allowed to stop and wait for a spot,” said Jed Cochrane, visitor experience manager for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay.
“We think shuttles are the best way to come up and see those busy places.”
Banff National Park’s visitation is about 4.1 million people per year; with only 7.2 per cent, or 287,000 of those people arriving by mass transit such as private bus tours. The rest arrive in private vehicles.
Over the past 10 years, vehicle traffic in the park has increased 30 per cent overall, with some tourist hotspots such as the road leading to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake showing increases of up to 70 per cent.
Parking at Upper Lake Louise is limited to about 450 stalls, typically filling up by sunrise and leading to excessive vehicle congestion, sometimes backing up down the hill towards the highway. Moraine Lake experiences similar problems.
“Taking a shuttle is the only way to guarantee you will see both lakes in one day,” Cochrane said.
Based on a similar model in Zion National Park in Utah, Parks Canada decided to make the shuttle buses to both Lake Louise and Moraine Lake reservation-only, with no walk-ups.
Reservations open beginning April 28. Parks will release 50 per cent of the seats at that time and additional seats may be released 48 hours prior to departure, depending on provincial COVID-19 health orders at the time.
“We’ll do the 50 per cent because that hits a good mark with regards to physical distancing,” Cochrane said.
“If things do change and we can open up more seats, then we’ll go ahead and do that 48 hours ahead of departure.”
Visitors will be able to book a shuttle bus seat within a one-hour window, rather than an exact departure time.
Cochrane said this will allow for greater flexibility.
“If you’re travelling, and maybe with your family, you might show up 10 minutes late and you miss your bus, and that’s going to be the worst thing ever,” he said.
“This allows a little more flexibility and it also means there’s no set departure time; the buses will roll as they fill.”
Cochrane said summer 2019 saw people standing in line for hours to catch a shuttle bus at the park-and-ride lot, sometimes for up to 2.5 hours.
“Nobody wants to be there standing in the hot sun with their families in that park-and-ride parking lot for two hours,” he said.
“The biggest complaint we heard loud and clear from our visitors was the lines, and so we felt a reservation system was the best way to address the lines.”
Meanwhile, Bruce Peninsula National Park in southern Ontario is the only other national park in the country where Parks Canada has introduced paid parking.
If the paid parking initiative proves successful at Lake Louise, Parks Canada may consider it for other tourist hotspots in Banff National Park such as Moraine Lake, for example.
Cochrane said Parks will be monitoring the two-year pilot project to see how it goes, noting the agency hopes the program will also help inform the expert panel being struck to look at visitor management in Banff National Park.
“If it’s successful and it’s something that works, then I think it will be something we would want to see in other places where we’re facing similar problems,” he said.
The fees collected from paid parking will go toward offsetting the cost of the traffic management program in Lake Louise, which includes traffic flaggers from May to October.
The $11.70 flat rate for parking is on top of the entrance fee to Banff National Park. Pay stations at Upper Lake Louise will also provide the option to purchase a park entry pass while paying for a parking permit.
Visitors can reserve their shuttle seat in advance at reservation.pc.gc.ca. They will be issued a proof of purchase that allows them to access the Lake Connector shuttle between Lake Louise Lakeshore and Moraine Lake.
That shuttle will run every 15 minutes and boarding will be on a first-come first-served basis.
Pricing for the shuttle buses is return and includes the use of the Lake Connector: Adult (18-64) - $8; Senior (65+) - $4; Youth (6-17) - $2; and Child (under 6 years) – free.
“We really ask visitors to plan ahead this year as it will look a lot different,” Cochrane said.