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. It’s 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.
- Banff vs Canmore
- 12 Things to do in Banff National Park
- 1- Explore Banff Village
- 2- Explore Cave and Basin National Historic Site
- 3- Ride the Banff Gondola up Sulphur Mountain
- 4- Go biking at Vermillion Lakes
- 5- Horseback Riding in Banff backcountry
- 6- Canoe Lake Louise
- 7- Explore Canmore Village
- 8- Flightseeing over Banff National Park
- 9- Hike Grassi Lake for view of Canmore
- 10- Meet the sled dogs
- 11- Drive the Bow Balley Parkway
- 12- Go rock climbing
- 13- Drive the Icefields Parkway
- 14- Hiking in Banff National Park
- Best hikes in Banff National Park under 10km
- Things to do in Banff in the winter
- How to get to Banff National Park
Banff vs Canmore
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.
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.
12 Things to do in Banff National Park
1- Explore Banff Village
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- 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.
3- 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.
There are some good hiking trails suitable for beginners through to seasoned hikers.
4- Go biking 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.
5- 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 ridge upon ridge of Rocky Mountains on a horse.
Talk about awesome!
6- 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.
7- Explore Canmore Village
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.
8- Flightseeing over Banff National Park
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- Hike Grassi Lake for view of Canmore
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.
10- 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.
And yes, you can pet the dogs and who wouldn’t love to hold one of the pups?
11- Drive the Bow Balley 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).
12- Go rock climbing
13- Drive the Icefields Parkway
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!
14- Hiking in Banff National Park
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.
Best hikes in Banff National Park under 10km
Boom Lake Trail
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
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
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
Things to do in Banff in the winter
15- Ski or Snowboard the “Big 3”
16- Take a helicopter flight
17- Do the Johnstone Canyon Ice Walk
18- Go dog sledding
19- Wam up in a hot spring or spa
20- Go skating on Lake Louise
How to get to Banff National Park