There are countless things to see and do in Banff National Park that are suitable for singles, couples, and families. It is especially a haven for nature lovers, outdoor enthusiasts, athletes, and artists, not to mention a place frequented by celebrities. Deciding what to do in Banff National Park can be a daunting task, so I have used my extensive knowledge of the area from countless visits to narrow down the list for those of you who have a limited amount of time to spend in the park so that you can maximize your experience (this however is by no means the only activities of interest). The 5 best things to do in Banff National Park in summer and/or winter, in no particular order, are:
Banff National Park has numerous hiking trails to choose from, offering a variety of choices for both length of time and level of difficulty. Trails can range anywhere from about a half hour or 1 hour round-trip to all day hikes or a hike spread over several days. Plus, trails range from easy (with some even being stroller accessible) to difficult. There are over 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) of trails in the park, although they are prone to seasonal closures. The hiking season generally begins in May and continues through to October. Nevertheless, many passes may still be blocked by snow with most trails accessible only at lower elevations or on the drier, south facing slopes between mid-May to late June. It is important to note that trails tend to be muddier during the spring. Most passes are usually open around the middle of July. Hiking is a great way to see the wide variety of plants and wildflowers that exist in the park.
Tunnel Mountain is popular for short hikes year-round (approximately 2-3 hours round trip). Its name came about because surveyors initially wanted to construct a tunnel for the Trans-Canada (Canadian Pacific) Railroad right through the mountain. As the tunnel never came about, you will not see one during the hike. However, at the top you will have panoramic views of the Town of Banff, the Bow Valley, and various peaks. This is a moderate 4.8 kilometre (3 mile) hike with an elevation gain of 260 metres (853 feet). There is the possibility to shorten the hike slightly if you take the Upper Trailhead (which begins at Tunnel Mountain) instead of the Lower Trailhead (which starts in the Town of Banff), although the Upper Trailhead may be closed to vehicles in the winter.
If you would like a more challenging hike, try the trail to the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, which offers stunning views of several mountains and glaciers. Depending on how fast you like to walk, your fitness level, the weather conditions, the size of your group, etc., the 11 kilometre (6.8 miles) return hike usually takes between 4-6 hours, but may take longer if you stop at the teahouse and/or to take pictures. This trail is moderately difficult in my opinion and not for the faint of heart; it has a series of switchbacks that rise in elevation for a total gain of 365 metres (1,198 feet) and there is a section that you must use a steel cable wire to hold on to in order to pass a somewhat wide low cliff ledge. (I am afraid of heights but did not find it too scary). There is supposedly another trail at the bottom of the cliff that you can take instead to avoid having to pass over the ledge, which I was not aware of at the time. The Teahouse is at an elevation of 2,100 metres (6,890 feet) and has refreshments and light food. It was originally built by the Canadian Pacific Railway between 1924 and 1927 to house mountaineers en route to Mount Victoria and Mount Lefroy. This trail may be slippery in sections due to melting snow and you should also beware of the possibility of avalanches (check avalanche warnings before heading out). One place you may check avalanche warnings is here. You may also combine other trails with this hike.
For the even more adventurous, Banff National Park also offers a wide range of backcountry experiences. There are over 50 backcountry campsites, 2 trail shelters, 4 backcountry lodges, several alpine huts, as well as commercial horse outfitters and licensed guide services available. For safety reasons the back country should not be explored alone, only with a licensed guide or someone with a number of years of back country experience in this park due to rough terrain and the threat of avalanches and wildlife in an isolated area.
If you are looking for a different kind of hike, try an ice walk in winter. This can be done at Johnston Canyon with a professional guide.
2. Downhill Skiing/Snowboarding
There are three fantastic ski resorts located in Banff National Park; Banff Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village, and the Lake Louise Mountain Resort. They have a combined total of 200 kilometres (124 miles) of trails spread over 3,136 hectares (7,748 acres). They are sometimes referred to as the “Ski Big 3” Banff resorts.
Mount Norquay is both a mountain and ski resort located about 10 minutes northwest of the town of Banff. This ski resort caters to all levels of skiers and riders. It offers not only stunning scenery, but 28 ski trails covering 77 hectares (190 acres), including a terrain park as well as a tubing park. It is the smallest of the three ski resorts, nonetheless it is famous for being the training ground of Olympic and World Cup athletes. Banff Mount Norquay has a long history of supporting alpine ski racing and hosts many local and major international events for this sport. This ski resort also used to be famous for ski jumping, having hosted many international competitions. It is the only ski resort in Banff National Park to offer night skiing, including a fully lit terrain park.
Sunshine Village Ski and Snowboard Resort is about 15 minutes southwest of the town of Banff and is Canada’s highest elevated resort. It sits on the continental divide so it is possible to ski or ride in both Alberta and British Columbia on the same run. Sunshine Village’s location causes it to get more snow than the other two resorts in Banff National Park and is also the reason that the resort has the longest non-glacial season in Canada (seven months). The resort is composed of Mount Standish, Lookout Mountain, and Goat’s Eye Mountain, and its scenery is the basis for which it was awarded “Best View from the Best Off-Piste Run” 2008 by Ski Canada magazine. There are over 145 runs and 1,359 hectares (3,358 acres) of terrain, including a massive 5 hectare (12 acre) Terrain Park along with ski-in, ski-out accommodation (the only one in Banff National Park). This resort ranges from beginner runs all the way up to extreme runs. SBC Ski and Snowboard Resort Guide has named Sunshine Village as one of the Top 5 freeride spots in the world due to two of its extreme runs, the Wild West and Delirium Dive.
Lake Louise Mountain Resort or Lake Louise Ski Resort is located 57 kilometres (35 miles) west of the town of Banff and near the village of Lake Louise. This resort, also simply referred to as Lake Louise, was voted Canada’s Best Ski Resort at the 2013 World Ski Awards and is nominated again for 2014. Lake Louise is consistently called the best ski resort in North America, or is at least in the top three without fail for numerous years now. It is especially popular with Europeans and, accordingly, was awarded “the best ski resort in North America” by Skiresorts-Test.com, chosen by around 3,000 users from all over Europe. It is quite common to see Swiss and Austrians skiing at Lake Louise in the winter. In addition, Lake Louise is on the list of top 25 ski resorts on earth. What’s more, Lake Louise is one of the largest ski resorts in North America. There are over 145 runs and over 1,700 hectares (4,200 acres) of terrain, suitable for all abilities. The resort is spread over four mountains; Mount Richardson, Ptarmigan Peak, Pika Peak, and Redoubt Mountain, and offers spectacular views. Lake Louise is consistently called the most scenic ski area on the planet. A unique advantage of this ski resort is the actual altitude at Lake Louise is quite low; the top elevation is well under 3,048 metres (10,000 feet).
Lake Louise is the first stop on the FIS Ski World Cup circuit, also known as the Lake Louise Winterstart World Cup, and the only resort in Canada to hold the event. It was also host to its first FIS Snowboard Cross World Cup in December 2013, which helped prepare the athletes from various nations for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, and is supposed to be an annual event in the future.
Tip: There is a Tri Area ski pass which provides access to all three ski areas in Banff National Park, including Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village, and the Lake Louise Ski Area.
3. Visit a Lake
There are literally hundreds of lakes in Banff National Park, so there is no shortage of choice. Several of the lakes are of a beautiful emerald coloured hue. Not only are the lakes themselves picturesque, but most are postcard perfect due to the backdrop of stunning scenery surrounding them. Many of the lakes would be the ultimate spot for a picnic. Keep in mind that the water is extremely cold though, even in summer, as they are glacier-fed lakes, so they are not ideal for swimming. There are, however, some brave souls who do partake in swimming in July and August at some of the lakes. One popular spot where swimmers may be found is Johnson Lake.
Additionally, angling/fishing, bird watching, and boating are common when visiting lakes in the park. Rowboats, canoes, kayaks, sailboats, and other non-motorized boats are allowed on most lakes and certain sections of the rivers in Banff National Park. Motorized boats, both gas and electric, are only allowed on Lake Minnewanka.
Note: Be careful as there may be very sudden strong winds and waves on the bigger lakes, especially in the afternoon.
Boat cruises with an interpretive guide are available on Lake Minnewanka between May and October.
4. Visit the Lake Louise Area
Lake Louise is a hamlet and is the highest community in Canada at 1,534 metres (5,033 feet). It is known as the “Jewel of the Rockies.” Lake Louise is actually split into two communities; the main community, which is called “The Village” and is adjacent to the Trans-Canada Highway, and the second community, which is centered around Chateau Lake Louise, and is at a higher elevation.
The hamlet of Lake Louise was originally called “Laggan” and was a station along the route of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The rail station building is no longer there, though it has been preserved and has since been moved to Heritage Park in Calgary, Alberta. The hamlet is now named after the nearby lake, Lake Louise.
While in Lake Louise, besides visiting the lake, it is recommended to visit the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, one of the Canadian Rockies` best known heritage hotels. Moreover, there are many outdoor summer or winter activities in the area which give you the opportunity to soak in the stunning scenery. Popular activities in the summer include taking a stroll around Lake Louise, hiking (especially to one of the two teahouses), canoeing on Lake Louise, sightseeing on the Lake Louise Gondola, horseback riding, and rock climbing. In winter many people can be found ice skating on Lake Louise, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, dog sledding, and a few ice climbing. The village of Lake Louise offers dining options, shops, and accommodation.
5. Visit Banff Town
Banff is a very picturesque town nestled in between Mount Rundle, Cascade Mountain, Mount Norquay, Sulphur Mountain, and Tunnel Mountain. It is the main commercial centre in Banff National Park and the highest town in Canada at about 1,383 metres (4,537 feet). There are over 8,300 people permanently residing in Banff, which increases greatly in the summer due to the rise in tourism during these months.
The town of Banff attracts many artists due to its beautiful surroundings and the fact that it is a centre for cultural activities. In addition, it is a community of athletes, families, outdoor enthusiasts, restaurateurs, and hoteliers. There are many things to see and do in the town; such as attending a festival, sporting event, or other special event, sightseeing, visiting museums, art galleries, historical sites, spas, sampling cuisine at a variety of restaurants, or enjoying the nightlife (there are several bars, a few saloons, a brewery, and a couple of night clubs). Banff also has shopping as there are a fair number of small stores with unique items that may be purchased as souvenirs.
Furthermore, there are many other awesome activities to take part in while visiting Banff National Park so do explore more options if you have the time. Unfortunately, in many cases a visit does not always allow enough time to do everything. Thus, these are some of the most popular activities and top things to do in Banff National Park not to be missed!
Map of Banff National Park
What is your favourite activity when visiting Banff National Park or any national park?
Entry to Banff National Park was with a complimentary Discovery Pass courtesy of Parks Canada. As always, all opinions are 100% my own.
Information compiled from Parks Canada, Banff Lake Louise,Wikipedia, Banff Norquay, Ski Banff, Ski Louise, and Ski Big 3,
(Photos courtesy of Randy Smith).