Ride it, hike it, fly over it, Canada’s first national park is a haven for outdoors enthusiasts. 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. There are plenty of things to do in Banff National Park.
Banff National Park is one of the most popular Canadian national parks and visitors travel from afar to explore. Its legendary beauty in winter, summer, autumn and spring puts it up there as one of the top places to visit in Canada too. Banff and Canmore offer two intriguingly contrasting village scenes from which to base your forays into the more accessible or extreme backcountry.
- 20 Things To Do In Banff
- 1- Explore Banff Park Museum National Historic Site
- 2- Learn About Mountain Culture At Whyte Museum
- 3- Explore Cave and Basin National Historic Site
- 4- Ride the Banff Gondola up Sulphur Mountain
- 5- Go biking or hiking at Vermillion Lakes
- 6- Horseback Riding in Banff backcountry
- 7- Canoe Lake Louise
- 8- Explore Canmore Village
- 9- Flightseeing over Banff National Park
- 10- Hike Grassi Lake
- 11- Meet The Sled Dogs
- 12- Drive the Bow Valley Parkway
- 13- Go Rock Climbing
- 14- Drive The Icefields Parkway
- 15- Hike The Boom Lake Trail
- 16- Hike The Sundance Trail
- 17- Hike The Sulphur Mountain Trail
- 18- Ski or Snowboard the “Big 3”
- 19- Hike To Lake Agnes Tea House
- 20- Gaze At The View At Moraine Lake
- 21- Do the Johnstone Canyon Ice Walk
- 22- Go Cross-Country Skiing Along The Great Divide Trail
- 23- Admire The Ice Sculptures At Lake Louise In Winter
- 24- Go Ice Skating On Lake Louise
- 25- Do The Columbia Sky Walk
- 20 Things To Do In Banff
Banff was built as a tourist village, where such signature accommodations as the “Castle of the Rockies” or Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel offers outstanding lodgings as well as full resort activities and a fabulous spa.
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.
To 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?
20 Things To Do In Banff
1- Explore Banff Park Museum National Historic Site
Orient yourself to what critters you may see in the wild by visiting Banff Park Museum National Historic Site, which is full of taxidermied animals whose live counterparts you may see while exploring.
Banff Park Museum is a natural history museum that opened in 1903 and is the oldest facility within the Canadian National Park system.
On display are over 5000 specimens, including stuffed bears, bighorn sheep and other mammals, insects, fish and birds.
The building itself is rich in history and has a rustic charm, with log walls, large windows and a cantilevered truss system holding up the second floor.
Banff Park Museum is on Banff Avenue in Banff.
2- Learn About Mountain Culture At Whyte Museum
Next visit the 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.
The museum has maps, newspaper clippings, books, around 700,000 photographs and 1500 audiovisual recordings focusing on the Canadian Rockies’ human and natural history.
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.
The Whyte Museum is at 111 Bear Street, Banff.
3- Explore Cave and Basin National Historic Site
10 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.
4- Ride the Banff Gondola up Sulphur Mountain
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.
The views from the summit are amazing and there is an interpretive centre with interactive displays, restaurants and cafes.
There are some good hiking trails suitable for beginners through to seasoned hikers.
Banff Gondola starts at the base of Sulphur Mountain and is open during these hours.
5- Go biking or hiking at Vermillion Lakes
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 the 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.
6- Horseback Riding in Banff backcountry
Eric and I’ve been on fabulous multi-day backcountry horseback expeditions with Banff Trail Riders (BTR) 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.
Mother Nature delivers stunning scenery in all sorts of weather (read: be prepared as 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 the ridge upon ridge of the Rocky Mountains on a horse.
Talk about awesome!
7- Canoe Lake Louise
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?
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.
8- Explore Canmore Village
This mountain community is another super jumping-off point from which to explore and experience other activities.
Canmore’s craggy summits like the Three Sisters and Ha Ling Peak are a picturesque backdrop.
The Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park offers outdoorsy activities like cross-country ski and mountain-bike trails.
Near Canmore is Grotto Canyon, which has steep limestone walls and a narrow creek bed leading to a cave.
After you’re done?
Chill with locals while quaffing coffee and ridiculously tempting goodies at Beamer’s Coffee Bar.
Canmore is 80km from Calgary and there are several golf courses around Canmore.
9- Flightseeing over Banff National Park
Gliding over the lush peaks, glistening lakes, waterfalls and pine forests of Banff National Park is an experience for your bucket list.
If you’re feeling energetic, combining a scenic helicopter flight with a downhill hike is a fabulous experience.
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.
10- Hike Grassi Lake
Grassi Lake is fun because it’s two hikes in one: an easy or 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.
So, allow a couple of hours if you want to sightsee along the way.
Grassi Lake is in Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park.
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11- Meet The Sled Dogs
Visit the pooches at one of the dog sled companies, such as Howling Dog Tours or Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours.
Learn about winter dogsledding and meet the doggies and learn about their training programs.
Of course, winter is the best time to go on a dog sled ride or to learn how to be a musher.
And yes, you can pet the dogs and who wouldn’t love to hold one of the pups?
12- Drive the Bow Valley Parkway
Drives are legendary in Banff National Park and one of the best to explore is Bow Valley Parkway, which was the original road that connected Lake Louise and Banff.
Bow Valley Parkway offers stunning scenery of glaciers, mountains, lakes and is one of the best wildlife-watching roads (especially at daybreak or twilight).
There’s a chance of spotting bears, cougars and wolves along this 48km stretch.
Bow Valley Parkway is one of the top drives in western Canada.
13- Go Rock Climbing
The Banff and Lake Louise area is a popular destination for rock climbing and there are several multi-pitch routes near Banff.
Several companies offer guided rock climbing sessions with instructors that are certified by the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG).
The reason this region is a great place to try rock climbing is because there are plenty of crags and cliffs suitable for beginners.
Rock climbing season is between May and September.
14- Drive The Icefields Parkway
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 look out for Canadian wildlife.
Just beyond Banff’s boundary, the Icefields Parkway continues to the Columbia Icefield and the icy reach o,f the Athabasca Glacier – but that’s in Jasper National Park and is a whole new story!
15- Hike The Boom Lake Trail
Banff National Park has 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) of hiking trails, making hiking in Banff National Park a top thing to do for active travellers.
Boom Lake Trail’s gradual elevation passes through a forest and hikers are rewarded with views of snow-capped mountains around an alpine lake.
Distance: 10km round trip
Time: 3 to 4 hours
16- Hike The Sundance Trail
The paved trail from the Cave and Basin National Historic Site leads to a mountain view across the Bow River.
Then, there’s a bit of a climb away from the river and the trail loops through a canyon.
Distance: 3.9km one way
Time: 3 hours
17- Hike The Sulphur Mountain Trail
It’s a hike along switchbacks on Sulphur Mountain to the summit, where jaw-dropping views of the mountains are your reward.
It’s worth taking the short side trip from the top of the gondola to Sanson Peak for more great views of the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station National Historic Site and weather observatory.
Distance 5.5 km to the top of the Banff gondola (and 0.5 km to Sanson Peak)
Time: 4 hour round trip
18- Ski or Snowboard the “Big 3”
There are three world-class ski resorts near Banff called the ‘Big 3’, Banff Sunshine Village, Lake Louise and Mt. Norquay.
One of the main differences between skiing in Alberta and other ski resorts in Canada is that these ski resorts are located within Canada’s first National Park.
These ski resorts have incredible views, and there’s the bonus of the chance of spotting wildlife on the slopes.
Cougars, bighorn sheep and lynxes have been known to make an appearance when you least expect it.
Banff Sunshine is the only resort with ski in ski out on-mountain accommodation.
It’s also an accessible ski region to access as Banff is only an hour and a half from Calgary.
19- Hike To Lake Agnes Tea House
20- Gaze At The View At Moraine Lake
21- Do the Johnstone Canyon Ice Walk
In winter, Johnston Canyon is a wonderland of ice cathedrals, frozen waterfalls, snow and plunging ravines.
A guided ice walk in Johnston Canyon is a fun activity for families.
Tour companies provide ice-cleats to help you grip on slippery surfaces.
You hike a network of steel walkways within the canyon while admiring stunning views of the gorge.
A highlight is exploring caves, waterfalls and 30m-high pillars of ice.
There are also night tours (headlamps provided), where the ice features take on a ghostly aura under the soft moonlight’s glow.