Adventure | A Guide to Banff National Park
We just spent some time in Alberta and most of it was in one of my favourite places on earth. Banff National Park. The short, but sweet trip brought back tons of happy memories of spending my summers there from kid through adult years. Countless hiking and ski trips until life directed me eastward to Toronto. It's one of the things I miss most about living in Alberta. That's why we visit every chance we get to immerse ourselves in one of Canada's (and the world's) most stunning and refreshing landscapes. Here are a few tips for heading to Banff National Park (and a few places beyond) that I've cultivated over the years. I hope you're ready for a hike! It's a timeless place that I hope you'll enjoy.
SEE + DO
Your best bet in Banff is to get out and see the park by hiking. I'll be honest, this post is heavily biased in favour of hiking (or any outdoor activity - canoe, cycle, ski). Here is a list of my favourite day hikes in the park (there are too many to list). All are easy to moderate, but come prepared with proper clothing, footwear and sustenance. This information can also be found on the Banff Lake Louise Tourism website and the Parks Canada website.
CLASSIC DAY HIKES + EXCURSIONS
CAVE & BASIN
If you're in Banff for the first time, the Cave & Basin National Historic Site is a great place to familiarize yourself with the park and townsite. This is the birthplace of Canada's National Park system and it's fascinating to see where it all began. Naturally occurring, warm mineral springs can be found inside the cave, and outside in an emerald coloured basins. There are interactive displays at the site and the surrounding areas in the trails.
If you want to experience the hot springs for yourself, you can head over to the Banff Upper Hot Springs which is open year-round to guests. Cave & Basin is purely a historical site.
SULPHUR MOUNTAIN + BANFF GONDOLA
Distance 6km | Time 2 hours | MODERATE
Another great place to get your bearings in Banff townsite is Sulphur Mountain + Banff Gondola. Been here before? Skip this busy attraction. A short gondola ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain will give you breathtaking views of the Banff townsite and Bow Valley. Feeling ambitious? Take the short and moderate hike (mostly switchbacks) to the top and ride down for free.
If you're in Banff on a hot day, head past Lake Minnewanka and over to Johnson Lake for a swim. It's one of the "warmer" lakes in the park and there is even a scenic sandy/pebbly beach for relaxing. There are trails for short hikes and picnic spots all around.
SILVERTON FALLS + ROCKBOUND LAKE
Distance 2km | Time 1 hour | EASY
Often overshadowed by Johnston Canyon, this short exploratory hike is a local secret and takes you right up to a series of elegant waterfalls. This is a great short hike for families.
Distance 8.4km | Time 6-7 hours | MODERATE
After the falls, a long, steady climb through the woods takes you to Castle Mountain's "other side" where you will be treated to a pair of beautiful lakes you will not soon forget.
JOHNSTON CANYON + INK POTS
Distance 4.8km | Time 1.5 hours | EASY
One of the busier hikes in Banff, this interpretive walkway follows the edge of Johnston Canyon - at times clinging to the walls of the canyon itself (handrails are included) - and leads excited hikers to the stunning, cascading waters of the Lower and Upper Falls.
Distance 5.4km | Time 4 hours | MODERATE
After experiencing the waterfalls along the Johnston Canyon trail, continue beyond its Upper Falls to reach a set of brilliantly coloured pools. It's worth it to get past the crowds and into the backcountry.
LAKE LOUISE + PLAIN OF THE SIX GLACIERS
Distance 10.6km | Time 4 hours | MODERATE
By far one of the most scenic hikes in the Canadian Rockies, the Plain of Six Glaciers trail offers expansive views of the impressive mountain features that surround Lake Louise. After your steady hike up, enjoy a snack at the historic Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse before continuing 1 kilometre to talus slopes that provide a high viewpoint of Abbot Pass.
MORAINE LAKE + LARCH VALLEY & SENTINAL PASS
Distance 11.6km | Time 4-5 hours | MODERATE
The hike into Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass is a must for any hiker wanting to have an experience that closely resembles the backcountry of Banff National Park. This hike offers remarkable views of the Ten Peaks and, if you head up Sentinel Pass, the dreamlike vista of Paradise Valley. As the name suggests, this valley is spectacular in autumn, when the larch needles turn gold.
BOURGEAU LAKE + HARVEY'S PASS
Distance 14.4km | Time 5-6 hours | MODERATE
Bourgeau Lake and the Harvey Pass area above it deserve a full day's trip. The trail climbs steeply through a forest of lodgepole and spruce before opening out into meadows that lead to Bourgeau Lake. From there, continue 2.2km past several smaller bodies of water to the lake at Harvey Pass for impressive views of Mt. Assiniboine.
Distance 3.6km | Time 3 hours | EASY
Rated #1 hike in Canada by Lonely Planet, Sunshine Meadows (Sunshine Village Ski Resort) is a unique area on the Continental Divide that boasts carpets of alpine wildflowers in summer and golden larches in fall. Shuttle busses to Sunshine Village are available.
After hiking and taking in the scenery of Banff National Park, you're going to be hungry. While you're here for the natural setting, Banff offers world-class culinary delights that are the icing on the cake during your visit. From casual to fine-dining, Banff has it all.
THE GRIZZLY HOUSE
A Banff institution with a frisky history is The Grizzly House. They offer traditional fondues and hot rocks in a setting that hasn't changed since the 1970s. You can sample exotic meats like buffalo or rattlesnake, or maybe you want to stick to Alberta beef. Try the Bagna Cauda if you like vegetables. You can't fail with the Swiss Cheese Fondue to start, and the Chocolate Fondue for dessert. The choices are abundant and so is the wine and beer list in this quirky atmosphere. Be sure to make reservations and don't wear your best clothes... You'll leave smelling like fondue, but it's worth it. banffgrizzlyhouse.com
In beef country it's nice to have a vetted vegetarian option in town. Head to Nourish Bistro for farm to table, plant-based comfort food. Try the 27 ingredient nachos for something unexpected, but delicious. You can find dishes that will satisfy vegans to carnivores, along with organic wines and craft brews. nourishbistro.com
WILD FLOUR BAKERY
From simple treats to full breakfast and lunches to take on your hike, you'll find it all at the authentic and community-based Wild Flour Bakery. It's fresh, wholesome and lovingly made. Located in the vibrant Bison Courtyard near Nourish Bistro. wildflourbakery.ca
GAUCHO BRAZILIAN BBQ
While not in the park, it shouldn't be missed. In Canmore, you'll find Gaucho's second location (originating in Calgary) of the famous Brazilian Churrascaria. If you're going to enjoy Alberta beef this is a mouth-watering authentic way. Servers bring fresh meat to the table that you can enjoy alongside traditional Brazilian cuisine like Feijoada (black bean stew) and Farofa (toasted mandioc flour). Have the grilled pineapple to finish your meal and don't forget the Caipirinhas. brazilianbbq.ca
Notable Restaurants: The Bison Restaurant, Sage Bistro (Canmore) and The Station Restaurant (Lake Louise).
You could stay busy shopping in Banff for an entire day, but remember why you're there! You'll find shopping that includes big brands from the Gap to Cartier in shopping malls and Banff Avenue storefronts, but you can get that at home. Here is a list of classic Banff shops where you'll find unique goodies to take home as souvenirs.
ROCK & GEM STORE
My favourite shop in all of Banff is the Rock & Gem store that houses thousands of small treasures and even geodes that are larger than you. It's a fun place to pick up agate slices, quartz or amethyst pendants, colourful rocks and the list goes on. Be prepared to stay a while to peruse everything the store has to offer. rocksandgemscanada.com
ROCKY MOUNTAIN SOAP COMPANY
Take home some wholesome and luxe bathing goods from the Rocky Mountain Soap Company. A locally operated, but world known shop specializing in natural soaps and body products. They are committed to creating toxic free and simple products. rockymountainsoap.com
No trip to Banff would be complete without a stop at the Fudgery. Fudge, candy apples, chocolates and caramels are all handcrafted in the shop and ready to take home (or eat on the spot). I would suggest a bear claw.
With all the big brands taking up retail space on Banff Avenue, it's nice to step away from the buzz and meet local artisans and farmers at Banff's outdoor markets tucked away in a lot across from the Bison Courtyard. The selections are well-curated throughout the year for the Summer Farmer's Market to the Christmas Market (think traditional german style market).
Thanks for reading! Did I miss something? Comment below and let everyone know about your favourite places in Banff National Park. Enjoy.