Banff National Park is big – and together with the three other adjacent mountain parks it’s nearly the size of Wales. Less than 10% is accessible by road, but the good highway system is open year round and there are hiking, biking and skiing trails throughout. Here are Culture Trip’s suggestions for some pleasurable days out.
Banff is a logical base from which to explore the region, especially as it is only 1.5hrs west of Calgary international airport. It’s a little too far from Jasper for a day trip; Canmore is only 20 minutes’ drive, with plenty of condo-style hotels; while Lake Louise is a 45-minute drive west another good hub for exploring the parks.
Together with Yoho, Kootenay and Jasper, the Banff park area is almost 20,000sqkm (7,700sqmi). On the eastern boundary of the national parks, is Alberta’s Provincial Kananaskis Country. K Country consists of a series of protected areas covering 4,000sqkm (1,500sqmi). They’re there to be enjoyed, with picnic tables, barbecue areas and au naturel toilets everywhere, but do respect the park’s designated closures.
This is a popular route connecting Banff with Canmore, and a good one to do on a bike. The trail is cleared in spring when the snow melts (generally mid-May) and stays open through fall, with bikes available to rent in both towns. The trail is just under 30km (19mi) and takes 1-1½ hours one way. If you don’t fancy cycling back, the local bus connects the two communities and allows bikes onboard. This trail is slightly easier from Banff to Canmore, as Banff is about 30m (100ft) higher and winds dominate from the west. Make sure you stop at Valleyview to enjoy the vistas.
Canmore is a former coal-mining town where you can see the impressive Ha Ling Peak (once called Chinaman’s Peak) and the iconic Three Sisters peaks. The authentic Main Street has many art galleries if you want to get away from the mountains at any point. The most popular hike from here is to Grassi lakes. The lakes are magical, and you’ll see lots of rock climbers on the cliffs above. There are two routes – the easy one takes about 30 minutes and is accessible year round, while the more difficult one leads past a waterfall and is too icy to undertake in winter. For the more ambitious, you can continue to hike above the lake to Spray Valley.
Lake Louise is less than an hour’s drive from Banff. When you get here it’s an easy, flat walk around the lake, which is fed by a glacier and overlooked by the impressive Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. In summer, you can canoe on the lake, while in winter it becomes a popular skating rink. Halfway up the hill from the village is a turn-off to Moraine Lake; the road opens in late spring and closes almost as soon as snow starts in the fall. During high season in summer, Parks Canada closes access to the lakes by car, so you’ll need to park in the valley and take a shuttle. Do check in advance as reservations may be required.
Only 5km (3mi) from the town of Banff, Lake Minnewanka is a natural lake that expanded in size and depth when a second dam was completed in 1941. Boat tours here are not particularly highly rated, nevertheless the area is worth exploring. Make sure you visit Two Jack Lake, and explore the few remaining relics of Bankhead, a former coal-mining town, on the mountain. There is a small concession with yummy ice cream by the lake, where many people choose to picnic.
Widely considered the most enjoyable hot springs in the area, these pools are about 1½ hours’ drive southwest of Banff, by the east entrance to Kootenay National Park, in British Columbia. The drive on Highway 93 south is nothing short of spectacular, and there are many places you can stop for walks. During spring, the highway is one of the best places to see bears. The pools themselves are large and spring fed. Don’t be surprised to see bighorn sheep here.
Canada’s second-highest waterfall, Takkakaw Falls, in Yoho Park, British Columbia, is a little more than an hour from Banff. Drive west past Lake Louise, then head down the big hill on Kicking Horse Pass. Once you reach the valley, take the winding road up to Takkakaw, where the walk to the viewpoint is gentle. After visiting the falls, take time to stop off in the town of Field, where you can read about the Burgess Shale, one of the most significant fossil finds on earth, at the Yoho National Park Visitor Centre.