Authored by Patrick Horsfield of Adventographer.
If you were asked to picture Canada in your mind you’d likely be looking at Banff. The town of Banff and the park it takes its namesake from is likely one of the most widely recognizable pieces of mountain scenery in the world. Even if you’ve never been there you know about the glacier capped peaks, winding rivers and vibrant blue-green lakes.
It’s everything you’ve been led to believe. Banff National Park is a mountain paradise and a playground for those who embrace the outdoors. From top-notch hiking trails and mountain biking in the summer months to world class skiing and mountaineering in the winter there’s something for everyone here in Canada’s 1st national park.
So you’ve made the decision to visit Banff, but what should you see? No matter if it’s your first time in the Canadian Rockies or your fiftieth these are some of our favorite must-dos.
Top Banff Activities For Your Itinerary
The Town of Banff
While Banff may be an adventurers dream there’s still plenty to do if you’re not the outdoorsy all-day-in-the-mountains type. From boutique shopping to gourmet meals and sweeping views the town of Banff has you covered.
A stroll down Banff Ave taking in the sights and browsing the shops will set your appetite for a bite to eat at any of the amazing local eateries. Try the Grizzly House where fresh exotic game is the flavor of the day.
The waterfront parkway along the Bow River is easily accessible and great for an afternoon bike ride taking in the scenes (rent from any of the local sports stores or borrow from your hotel). If two wheels isn’t your thing wander down to the Banff Canoe Club and dip your paddles in the Bow River for an unforgettable experience.
Sulpher Mountain & Banff Gondola
A trip to the Canadian Rockies isn’t complete without getting high (we’re talking altitude). A mere ten minute bus ride (25 minutes if you’ve still got that bike) from Banff town center and you’ll find yourself at the base of Sulphur Mountain and the Banff Gondola.
From the top of the Gondola at the Sulphur Mountain meteorological and interpretive center you’ll enjoy stunning panoramic vistas. The boardwalks lead along the ridgeline and eventually to the original stone meteorological hut. Around you the mountains of Banff National Park rise up, the bow river winds and the town site of Banff itself somehow manages to squeeze in.
For a more active outing consider riding the Gondola up and then taking one of the well-marked and mapped trails back down the mountain as preparation for your next stop!
Cave & Basin National Historic Site & Hot Springs
Cave & Basin National Historic site is the birthplace of Canada’s National Parks. When railway workers installing the Canadian Pacific Railway stumbled across the site in 1883 they inadvertently helped create Canada’s first national park. The historic site still allows access to the original hot springs cave and has an interpretive area built upon the remains of the original 19th century mineral baths.
To take a dip in the healing waters of Banff you’ll have to make your way up the road to Banff’s Upper Hot springs where a naturally heated, outdoor mineral bath awaits you. Don’t fret if you forgot your swimsuit or towel, everything can be rented at the springs.
We couldn’t talk about Banff National Park without discussing the world famous lakes, especially Lake Louise. It is one of the top activities in Banff. The turquoise blue glacier fed waters of the Canadian Rockies are famous worldwide and Lake Louise is the pinnacle. Located at the end of a mountain valley and fed by the hanging Victoria glacier this sight isn’t to be missed.
45 minutes north-west of Banff you’ll find the small hamlet of Lake Louise. 10 minutes further into the hills from there has you standing in awe at the foot of this famous lake next to the almost equally impressive Chateau Lake Louise built in the late 1800’s.
Eat drink and be merry at one of the Chateau’s lakeside restaurants or make a more adventurous choice. Paddling the lake in a rented Canoe is an almost surreal experience. The well maintained moderate hike to the Lake Agnes Tea House (3 hours return) high in the alpine above the lake is a must-do and being rewarded with fresh baked delicacies and a hot drink in such a setting make it well worth the effort. (See more of the world’s best hiking trails)
Moraine Lake is likely the most famous & photographed lake in the world. It’s the lake you think of when talking about Canada. It’s been featured on our currency (known as the “$20 view”), in countless magazines, and advertising campaigns across the globe.
Amenities are sparse here compared to Lake Louise but then you are only 10 minutes from the Chateau. Bring a lunch and enjoy the world class hiking available at Moraine Lake. The Valley of Ten Peaks (the ones you see from the lake parking lot) is an easy half day trek with epic views.
If you can get yourself out of bed early enough the sunrise at Moraine Lake is world famous (this is made 100% easier by staying close at Moraine Lake Lodge or Chateau Lake Louise). As the sun rises the first rays kiss the mountain peaks surrounding the lake and the deep blue-green water begins to sparkle. Bring your camera, you won’t be disappointed!
Johnston Canyon is unique to the area and likely like nothing else you’ve ever experienced. This mildly sloping 2.5KM (3hr return) hike follows Johnston Creek on a suspended walkway as is tumbles through a deep, steep walled, limestone canyon.
The upper and lower falls of Johnston creek are both head turners and the well signed trail had interpretive stations along the way telling the story of the place. But the real excitement for most who visit are the unique cantilevered walkways suspended from the vertical rock walls of the canyon.
Bow Valley & Icefields Parkways
While less of a concrete destination than the others on this list, you’d be amiss to leave out the Bow Valley and Icefields Parkways. These scenic secondary roads connecting Banff to Lake Louise and then on to Jasper are some of the best places to get away from it all and experience the mountains.
These roads are also where you’re going to have wildlife sightings and encounters. Elk, moose, wolves, bighorn sheep & bears are all commonly sighted. Have your camera ready and pull over if you see more than one other call one the side of the road somewhere odd. Likely you’ll be treated to something amazing!
Even if you strike out on the hunt for wildlife you’ll be treated to spectacular views through the valley and of the mind-boggling mountain peaks.
When you see photos to the lakes in Banff National Park, it’s initially hard to believe they are so stunning. Photos of Peyto Lake are some of the most fascinating, because the lake is shaped like a wolf and has some of the bluest water you’ll ever see. You may think it can’t possibly really be like that. Until you see it for yourself! The lake is located in Banff National Park approximately 40 kilometers northwest of Lake Louise. It’s best viewed from the Bow Summit along the Columbia Icefields Parkway. During the peak summer months, the access to the lake can be shut off due to overwhelming crowds, so you have to get there early or risk being turned away. The lake gets it’s color from the large amounts of glacial runoff that flows into it during the summer months.
What is the Best Time to Visit Banff National Park
There are two main seasons in Banff National Park. Warm and cold. There are activities in Banff to suit both seasons, so whether you’re a skier or a hiker, you’ll find exactly what you want in Banff.
The “warm” season extends from early June to August. It never really gets “hot” in Banff – just warm. So the summer season is perfect for enjoying the outdoor activities that Banff is so well known for – and many of the things listed above – including seeing the beautiful lakes, taking walks, hikes and climbing.
If you choose to travel on the shoulders of this range of months, you may find snow in places, and some closures. However, it is a good time to get a fantastic deal on accommodations and save some money, plus there are a lot less tourists to contend with.
The “cold” season runs from end of November to March. Skiers will want to wait until late December to March for the best skiing conditions. Be prepared for large crowds by booking your accommodations and activities well in advance. It can get really packed around Christmas, and later in the ski season, when the snow conditions are at their best. Again, if you visit during the shoulders of this range, you may not love it. There can be big fluctuations in the weather conditions that make it less than ideal for enjoying the area to its fullest.
So bring your adventurous spirit (and your camera). Take a walk with me on the wild side. Experience all that the Canadian wilderness has to offer and see for yourself why this place is held in such high regard the world over!
Have you visited Banff or the Canadian Rockies? Do you have somewhere to add that I’ve missed? Drop a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick is the traveller, explorer, writer and photographer in chief at Adventographer Travel & Photo Blog. He grew up with a healthy appetite for adventure on the west coast of Canada, shook the mindset that he needed material things and made travel a priority in his life. He writes from a wealth of travel experiences both good and bad and endeavors to create & share amazing, inspiring content from around the world as a catalyst for change. Follow along with him as he Explores, Creates & Educates!
Laura Lynch, creator and writer of Savored Journeys, is an avid world traveler, certified wine expert, and international food specialist. She has written about travel and food for over 20 years and has visited 70+ countries.