Ride it, hike it, fly over it, Canada’s first national park is a haven for outdoors enthusiasts. There are plenty of outdoorsy things to do in Banff National Park.
Created in 1885 as Canada’s first national park, Banff encompasses 6,641 square kilometres of Rocky Mountain magnificence, extraordinary turquoise and cobalt blue lakes, sweeping forests and serene alpine meadows.
In the park, Banff and Canmore offer two intriguingly contrasting village scenes from which to base your forays into the more accessible or extreme backcountry.
Banff was built as a tourist village, where such signature accommodations as the “Castle of the Rockies” aka Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel offer outstanding lodgings as well as full resort activities, and a fabulous spa. (Indeed, the Willow Stream Spa offers treatments directly targeted to ease ski or golf muscles…)
Canmore is the counterpoint: a more laid-back town where many of the guide-outfitters-biologists tend to live. Mind you, as Canmore expands, it also is becoming a tourist hub.
So, what outdoorsy activities do I recommend in Banff National Park, where the Icefields Parkway leads visitors north from Banff National Park to its cousin, Jasper National Park and that park’s stunning Columbia Icefield? My top recommendations introduce you to some activities centred around Banff, Canmore, then part of the Icefields Parkway.
Orient yourself to what critters you may see in the wild by visiting Banff Park Museum National Historic Site, full of taxidermied animals whose live counterparts you may see while exploring.
Next visit Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies to understand mountain culture: the first peoples (Stoney First Nations), explorers, business people, and artists who lived and loved here. (Don’t miss taking a guided tour of Catherine and Peter Whyte’s home and seeing explorer-guide Bill Peyto’s cabin on the grounds.)
Two more stops prepare you for adventure: Get maps, information (including how to be wise in bear country) at the Parks Canada Visitor Centre (224 Banff Avenue).
Friends of Banff National Park is another great spot for information. At both spots enquire about activities such as guided birdwatching trips, and movies about wildlife/mountain culture (sometimes free).
Now you’re primed for adventure – what to do?
2-Cave and Basin National Historic Site
Ten thousand years ago, people were using the Bow Valley’s thermal springs – and you can too.
Indeed, the discovery of the cave and hot springs here in 1883 created the impetus to found Banff National Park. Walk, bike or drive here from the heart of the village.
Then walk about the site including its wetland boardwalk trails, visit the cave, learn about the rare species of snail living here. Learn about the Canadian Mountain Hot Springs.
You can hike 1.1km from Spray River Loop parking lot behind the Banff Springs Hotel to the Banff Upper Hot Springs and enjoy the benefits of its mineral baths.
Take the Banff Gondola up Sulphur Mountain or do the 5.5 km hike to the top of the gondola from Banff Upper Hot Springs parking lot at the termination of Mountain Avenue.
Once at the summit, walk another 0.5 km to Sanson Peak and/or walk 1 km to the Sanson Peak Weather Observatory. There are some good hiking trails suitable for beginners through to seasoned hikers.
About a five minute drive south of the village centre find the Vermillion Lakes, a super spot to bike, hike and birdwatch which is connected to the paved Banff Legacy Trail (BLT).
Whenever I visit Banff in summertime I go here and inevitably discover birds such as common loons (look for them on their nests right in the reeds/grasses at the water’s edge), bald eagles (nests can be spied here at tops of spruce), and many others.
The BLT was built to celebrate the park’s 125th anniversary. It is super for biking as it’s a 22.3 km trail extending from Banff Park East Gate to the Bow Valley Parkway. Recently the trail was extended another 4.5 km to reach the Travel Alberta Visitor Information Centre.
Eric and I’ve been on fabulous multi-day backcountry tenting expeditions with Banff Trail Riders (BTR) this outfitter which were guided by park rangers through to more gentle backcountry lodge tours with cowboy guides.
BTR’s horses are sure-footed; guides know the terrain, mountain culture, wildlife – and cook tasty cowboy grub; while Mother Nature delivers stunning scenery in all sorts of weather (read: be prepared; mountain weather can “change in five minutes”).
I’m a keen horsewoman but even if you’ve never ridden before, this outfitter provides mounts to suit all capabilities. Try the overnight ride to Sundance Lodge or do one to five nights where you’ll ride to Halfway Lodge.
From it, do the breathtaking ride to Allenby Pass and at its summit I bet you’ll lose your heart just like my husband Eric and I did while taking in the expansive views of ridge upon ridge of Rocky Mountains on a horse. Talk about awesome!
Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise commands the signature view of turquoise-coloured Lake Louise. Or, stay at a Relais & Chateau, the picturesque Post Hotel and Spa Lake Louise. What to do? Try these ideas on for size:
Canoe Lake Louise – rent a canoe at the hotel’s boathouse and paddle the lake. Pack a picnic, kick back and take selfies. Take a guided nature tour with Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise’s mountain guide program.
I’ve done this many times and have learned lots about the wild, from wildfire management through to tracking animals and learning about grizzly bear, cougar, lynx and other species’ habitat, needs and habits.
This mountain community is another super jumping-off point from which to explore these and other activities. After you’re done? Chill with locals while quaffing coffee and ridiculously tempting goodies at Beamer’s Coffee Bar.
Flightseeing with Alpine Helicopters allows an unsurpassable aerial overview of the Canmore area and its close proximity to such lofty peaks as Mount Assiniboine.
This mountain is on the Continental Divide, being the hydrological divide where rivers flow east and west from its elevation in the Rocky Mountains. Hardy hikers and skiers can hike in to stay at historic Mount Assiniboine Lodge – or chill and be flown in by helicopter.
9-Canmore Area Hikes
Grassi Lake is fun because it’s two hikes in one: an easy or a challenging route. Both reward hikers with good views of Canmore, the Grassi Lakes waterfall, and the shallow lakes for which the hike is named.
As well, you can continue to connect with full-day hikes. As it is, this hike is a super one for families as the rewards come (relatively) easily.
The elevation is 250 metres and allow a couple of hours if you want to sight see and not “just run up and down.”
10-Mush On – In Summer?
Visit the pooches of Howling Dog Tours. Learn about winter dogsledding and meet the doggies by visiting Howling Dog Tours in summer, and learn about their training programs. And yes, you can pet the dogs and who wouldn’t love to hold one of the pups?
11-Drive The Icefields Parkway
Drives are legendary in Banff National Park. There’s the gentle Bow Valley Parkway, the Highway 1A drive that is one of the best wildlife-watching roads (especially at daybreak or twilight).
However, a must-see is the Icefields Parkway connecting Banff to Jasper National Park. While driving (or biking) north, absolutely don’t miss Simpson’s Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, named after one of Banff’s legendary “mountain men,” Lincolnshire, England-born Jimmy Simpson.
He, just as did Bill Petyo and Mary Schäffer-Warren (who married mountain guide Billy Warren), so loved these mountains that they explored, wrote about, and made their lives here at the turn of the last century.
In 1898, Simpson arrived here at Bow Lake and 25 years later built a log cabin on its shores.
Later he built what became this lodge, Num-Ti-Jah: it’s a Stoney Indian word meaning “pine marten”, a member of the weasel family that’s been historically an important fur-bearing animal. (Inside is a chair made for Mary Schäffer-Warren plus all sorts of historical memorabilia, plus a stone fireplace, library, and “mountain” dining room.)
Num-Ti-Jah overlooks Bow Glacier, which feeds Bow Lake and the Bow River which courses its wending way to Calgary. From here, hike the shores of the lake, connect to the park’s extensive hiking network, fish, kayak or canoe – or take binoculars and wildlife watch.
Just beyond Banff’s boundary the Icefields Parkway continues to the Columbia Icefield and the icy reach of the Athabasca Glacier – but that’s in Jasper National Park and is a whole new story!
So much choice – now come on out!
My list merely scratches the surface so you know the drill – over to you! Start planning your trip, with these ideas as your jumping-off point!