Pets allowed
Allowed with Restrictions
Guided tours
Yes
Backcountry camping
Yes
Lodging
Yes
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Overview | SeasonsHikingPhotography | Mountaineering | Rock Climbing | Backcountry Skiing | Ski Mountaineering | Mountain Biking | Whitewater | WildlifeOther Activities | Getting Around | Places to Stay | Guidebooks

The expansive Banff National Park based in the Canadian Rocky Mountains is world famous for its dramatic scenery, incredible adventure opportunities, and friendliness to visitors. It is one of the world's most visited mountain national parks with over 4 million annual visitors. It's nearly impossible to be on the internet and not stumble onto iconic images of Valley of The Ten Peaks, Peyto Lake, or Lake Louise. (In fact, all three are default desktop backgrounds for Windows.) As if this weren't enough, the park has ample adventure opportunities of all types. Each season brings excellent new options that make for quality adventures.

Today, the park exists on Stoney Nakoda, Blackfoot, and Rocky Mountain Cree territory. For thousands of years, people migrated to and through these valleys in search of food and trade. Today they are the only ones allowed to hunt, a privilege they were excluded from for many years.

The park itself was founded in 1885, and unlike many early parks it was created with the express purpose of attracting tourism. Workers on the Canadian Pacific Railway had discovered a hot spring on the side of Sulphur Mountain. The idea of an escape to fresh mountain air and a hot spring for health and vitality was used to sell the idea and purpose of the railway. It is a key part of Canada’s westward expansion and represents some of the earliest aggressive international tourism attempts.

During the war years, several coal mining towns flourished in the area as there were massive deposits of extremely pure coal, known as anthracite coal. Cascade Mountain to this day is honeycombed with hundreds of kilometers of defunct mining tunnels. At the time, the park boundaries were adjusted to account for the British Empire's demand for coal.

Today, Banff is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it continues to draws millions from around the world each year.

Overview

The Park is huge, covering more than 6,000 kilometers, most of this on the eastern half and almost totally inaccessible. The main sections of interest sit along the Trans Canada Highway as it passes through the Bow Valley heading northwest toward British Columbia. The park continues north along Highway 93 north to the border of Jasper National Park.

Most people arrive to Banff from Calgary International Airport. Car rentals or shuttles will get you to the park from here. Rentals are preferable, as it’s tricky to leave the townsite without a vehicle. On the eastern edge of the park, there is a gate for purchasing passes to the park, which are required for stopping anywhere that is not the Banff Townsite. Most are encouraged to purchase an annual pass for around CAD $130 if they are a staying for more than a week. There are 3-day rail tours from Vancouver that travel to Banff as well, but they are an experience unto themselves rather than a means of transport.

The Banff Townsite is the only population center of size and is located in the southern corner of the park, just beyond the main gates. It is a midsize town with ample amenities, including two grocery stores, a movie theater, many, many bars and nightclubs, and ample shops and too many hotels. There are several museums and interpretive sites in the town, as well as the spectacular Banff Fairmont and the hot springs. Most of the town is located along Banff Avenue, the main drag. Here you will find the largest outdoor gear store, Monod’s, as well as a number a chain stores like Atmosphere and The North Face. It’s generally best to park outside of town if possible, as traffic can be a nightmare. If you do go into town, there is a large multi-story parking garage on the western edge of the downtown core near the Whyte Museum.

If you fancy a touristy party scene, Banff has you covered, as there are three active nightclubs. The best beer in town is the Brewpub, located on the southern edge of town, just before you get to the bridge in a faux alpine-style building. Sunday night is the big night out in town. For a (slightly) more relaxed, authentic mountain town vibe, Canmore, 20 kilometers south, is a better bet. Most locals tend to move to Canmore.

There are few adventures that are available by foot from the townsite. Vermillion Lakes Paddling, Tunnel Mountain Hike, the Golf Course, Rundle Mountain, and Sulphur Mountain are the main ones. An hour of walking takes you to Cascade trailhead and the Norquay Ski Hill. A bit farther is Lake Minniwanka and its many trails. A 20-minute drive gets to Sunshine Village Ski Resort, where there is rock climbing, skiing, and hiking.

Leaving Banff heading north up the valley, the highway splits. The Trans Canada Highway with the animal bridges and fenced four-lane roads is faster, and it has no wildlife accident risk. But there is also a more scenic drive called the Bow Valley Parkway that runs parallel to the highway on the other side of the Bow River. The winding two-lane road has a multitude of points of interest along the way, and it is much better for animal viewing. Be forewarned: Stopping for animals is generally illegal, and accidents between distracted tourists are common. For those looking to take in the sights, this is the obvious choice if you're heading for Lake Louise and beyond.

The hamlet of Lake Louise is about 80 kilometers north of Banff. Much smaller, it receives mostly day visitors. There is a far greater density of impressive mountains in this area, with the Valley of Ten Peaks, Paradise Valley, and Six Glaciers Valley each making worthy destinations. Parking 2 kilometers outside of town at the overflow is recommended if arriving after 8 a.m. as there is only about 200 parking spaces for the 10,000 daily visitors in the summer. Shuttles buses run until 6 p.m. The solid turquoise glacial Lake of Lake Louise is the main attraction. Moraine Lake is equally stunning, though there are only 40 parking spots and a long scenic drive to get there. Across the valley is the Lake Louise Ski Resort, the largest in the park. All these areas host numerous hikes, scrambles, ski tours, cross-country ski routes, biking, and even some horseback riding. 

Continuing farther north is the less-crowded Icefields Parkway. There is little civilization beyond a long winding road, but the ice-capped mountains are spectacular, and there is a much higher chance of seeing wildlife along these roads. The best skiing and mountaineering is up this way.

To the west along the Trans Canada from Lake Louise is Yoho National Park, which is well worth stopping by. The two parks share a close relationship but are their own distinct bodies as they sit in different provinces.  

Seasons

Summer is the most popular time and routinely the busiest. Days vary in temperature from 30 degrees Celsius to 5 degrees when the sun goes down. It's not uncommon to see snow in the alpine even in August. The dry temperatures make for warm days when the sun is out and cool temperatures when it's not. The past few years have seen weeklong wildfires nearby. These fires throw up colossal plumes of smog and smoke that seep through the valleys, reducing the visibility to only a couple miles. As climate change worsens and the summers become hotter and drier, this trend is likely to continue. On the bright side, the sunset are spectacular.

Fall is also popular, as this is when the larches go from their verdant green to bright gold as the needles change. Whole valleys turn bright gold in a truly magnificent display. Temperatures drop to freezing at night, especially in the alpine, but the days are very pleasant. While Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park is most popular for larch hikes, Healy Pass, Mosquito Creek, Sentinel Pass, and Paradise Valley are also superb areas to explore the changing larches.

In early winter, November to December, ice climbing is the main adventure sport. By about December, most routes have frozen into shape thanks to minus-30-degree days that roll in mid-November. Skiing is generally mediocre until February, though many people start much sooner. Many of the resorts open in November, but generally aren’t much good for a couple months. Hiking is still possible, as there generally isn't too much snow until mid-November. The snow is thin, and dry microspikes are much better than snowshoes for getting about. There is some snowshoeing around Lake Louise and in the higher country, but avalanche training is recommended as the Rockies snowpack tends to be prone to remote triggering. More than a few snowshoers have been killed in seemingly benign areas.

Spring is primarily ski season when the snows tend to be best and most plentiful. Couloirs are at their best, and multi-day traverses get very popular as the snow tends to be more stable and predictable come late March, early April. Also, the crevasses are generally more covered by this point. Lower down, the hiking trails become useable again, with microspikes being needed higher up. Most folks start climbing on rock around this time.

The lull between spring and summer brings ample ticks to the valley, but they are generally gone by June, just in time for the tourists to return. Banff is world famous for plentiful outdoor adventures of all kinds. Adventures change with the seasons, but there are always ample options. 

Hiking

Hiking is very popular with most people sticking to the trails near Lake Louise, Lake O’Hara, and Johnson’s Canyon. Near Lake Louise, Plain of Six Glaciers and Lake Agnes are the most popular. Pretty much anywhere else sees about 20% of the traffic. Healy Pass, Rockbound Lake, and most routes are there-and-back routes that tend to go to peaks or high points.

There are several excellent backpacking routes in the park, ranging from 3-days loops like Skoki Lakes or simple overnights like Mosquito Creek. Parks Canada makes several suggestions on their website, as well as having excellent information on the area and how to stay bear aware.

Photography

Banff is an endlessly beautiful place with many iconic locations. Landscape photos are the most common. Peyto Lake, Lake Louise, and Moraine Lake are the most common areas to visit and photograph. You can expect a cacophony of shutter clicks as the sun goes down in these areas, but the results are often worth it. Wildlife is pretty particular and hard to shoot unless you know where to go. Most animals appear randomly, at best, with roadways being the best option.

This part of Alberta also frequently sees the Northern Lights, so astrophotography is a popular pastime. If you want to find the best spots, your best bet is checking in with Paul Zizka, a incredible photographer who runs workshops in the area. If you're more into adventure photography, John Price is another photographer in the region who is incredible to work with.

Mountaineering

The park has a good variety of mountaineering routes, from fairly easy scrambles to bold alpine-style ascents on very technical terrain. Late spring and early fall are the best seasons for alpine climbing. Mount Temple’s southwest face is easily the most grand scramble in the area, and the East Ridge is one of the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. Peaks like Mount Victoria, St. Nicholas Peak, and Athabasca on the border with Jasper are good first true glacier mountaineering climbs for first-timers.

It’s worth noting that Rockies limestone is notoriously poor quality, so even on easy, fairly low-angle peaks, a helmet is recommended. Wilson's Sports in Lake Louise and Gear Up in Canmore offer rentals.

Rock Climbing

Rock climbing is very popular in the area. There are many local crags like Sunshine Slabs, and Tunnely Mountain, and internationally known crags like Back of the Lake. Multi-pitch climbs are also very popular, like the bolted Rundlehorn, Aftonroe, or the super aesthetic Grand Sentinel Spire.

Winter brings ice climbing early in the season. There are several crags for practicing like Bear Spirit or Johnston Canyon, but Banff’s true uniqueness lies in having some of the longest ice routes in the world. Professor Falls is the most popular, though less famous than the likes of Polar Circus, Nemesis, and Slipstream.

Backcountry Skiing

Backcountry skiing is pretty good in the park. The post popular area is Bow Summit for its relative low risk and beginner friendliness. Tree skiing is rarely good; the lodgepole pines grow too densely. Due to the frequent bluebird weather all year round, skiing in the alpine is generally popular.

For good turns, most folks look for evidence of wind-travel snow that lands between ridges, as this is where you tend to get powder. Wind blowing off the Wapta Icefield makes places like Crowfoot Glades more ideal. This does mean windslabs are a problem, and the seasonal snowpack tends to create dangerous Deep Persistent Slabs. The park safety team releases daily avalanche forecasts throughout the relevant seasons.

Ski Mountaineering

Ski mountaineering is definitely one of the major highlights of the park, and something a lot of people travel for. The Wapta Traverse is the most popular of route. Running between a network of six well-positioned huts, the route offers many great diversions. There are plenty of peaks like Mount Olive, Balfour, and Mount Baker, not to mention plentiful powder skiing. Steep skiing and couloir skiing are getting more popular, and something this area is beginning to attract attention for. The Grand Daddy, the Aemmer, and Bell Peak couloirs are well-known areas for excellent skiing.

Mountain Biking

Mountain biking is generally discouraged in the area. There are a few trails around Banff where it is possible, but generally the best trails are near Canmore or in the foothills where there are fewer restrictions.

Whitewater

The Bow River is a popular rafting option, though it’s mostly calm enough for canoes. Near Banff, there is very relaxed paddling on Vermillion Lakes, and Minnewanka has several campsites ideal for overnight paddling trips. Sunshine River is a decent whitewater descent, but most whitewater paddlers tend to go for Kananaskis River instead.

Wildlife

The park is famous for the wildlife. Photos of elk casually wandering through Banff Townsite make the rounds often, and to locals it is more of an annoyance than something out of the ordinary. Mule and whitetail deer, bighorn sheep, moose, marmot, pika, porcupines, and mountain goats are commonly seen in the park, especially when hiking in the alpine. Cougars, wolverines, and lynx are plentiful, though less commonly seen. While there were more wolves, they have been eradicated due to poorly cleaned campsites, which resulted in multiple conflicts.

Grizzly bears and black bears are common sights in the area. Generally, they keep well away from people, but Parks Bear Guardians and officials are frequently working hard to educate the public. Every year, there are conflicts as bears follow their natural inclination to collect as much calories as they possibly can for the coming winter. It’s important to never leave any food out, as they are very curious creatures. When in the backcountry, bear canisters are required, and it is recommended to travel in groups making noise and carry bear spray, which is far more effective than a firearm. Campsites, whether backcountry or front country, typically feature bear boxes or suspension systems. Use them. Once adapted to human food, bears become a hazard; they are caught and euthanized.

On the roads, it isn’t uncommon to see huge car jams of people. Technically, it is illegal to pull over on any of the highways without cause. While tempting, it’s best to keep driving until you reach one of the many, many turnoffs that exist on the highway.

Feeding any animal, be it a squirrel, bird, or moose can result in a serious fine. It is also very bad for the animals who often fail to adequately prepare for winter and die off.

Other Activities

There are several horse outfitters that lead tours deeper into the eastern portion of the park, some of which can go for many days.

Getting Around

The best way to see the park is with a car. Without it, most of the good places to visit are very hard to access. Hitchhiking is a common way to travel, but be mindful of government limitations, which restrict where and how hitchhiking can be done. The area has an extensive bus network that regularly stops in Banff, Lake Louise, and beyond. Be advised that routes may be pricey.

Places to Stay

The sprawling Tunnel Mountain Village is the largest in Canada with hundreds campsites. RV hookups exist for most, and there is public transit to service them all. A small network of trails is nearby as well. Just outside of town, Two Jack Lakes is much more scenic, and generally quieter. There are several other roadside campsites as you head north. All camping reservations are available online.

Backcountry camping is plentiful with all sites listed on Parks Canada’s website. The new online booking tool has led to a rapid increase in bookings made well in advance. Booking well in advance is highly recommended. If you plan on illegally camping, be warned, this is an extremely serious offense and fines range from $500 to $10,000. Helicopters regularly report any signs of illegal campers.

HI Hostel is located just outside the Banff Townsite. It’s the most comfortable, with its own bar onsite. There are two more on Banff Avenue, and one across the river, but HI Hostel is the best. Lake Louise Alpine Centre is the best accommodation in Lake Louise. The Lake Louise Campground is fairly large, though almost always full. It’s divided into drive-in spots and RV areas.

There are also “backcountry” hostels at Mosquito Creek, Castle Mountain, and Rampart Creek run by Hostelling International. If you have a car, these are great options to get more into the wilderness. 

The Alpine Club of Canada has several huts located in the valley. Neil Colgan, Castle Mountain, and Abbott Pass require steep scrambles, helmets, and in some cases rock climbing equipment to access. The Bow Hut and Egypt Lake Shelter can be accessed via hike.

As for hotels in Banff there are a multitude of options that any website will display. Airbnb is illegal in most cases. Such accommodations drive up the cost of rent in the valley dramatically, making it impossible for many people who make minimum wage to live there. It's had a big negative impact on quality of life, and forced many people to leave the valley.

Guidebooks

For anything uncovered by this adventure guide, supplement with these guides:

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Winter
Spring
Fall
Summer

Congestion

High

Parking Pass

National or state forest pass

Open Year-round

Yes

Pros

Countless adventures. Photography options. Incredible landscape.

Cons

Busy. Hard to book campsites. Expensive.

Features

Family friendly
Guided tours
General store
Vault toilet
Flushing toilets
Potable water
Dump stations
Picnic tables
Covered picnic areas
Rental facilities
Amphitheater
Boat ramp(s)
Swimming pool
Near lake or river
Shelters
Backcountry camping
Cave
Mine
Historically significant
Geologically significant
Old-growth forest
Wildflowers
Big vistas
Waterfalls
Wildlife
Big Game Watching
Bird watching
Bouldering
Lodging
Bicycling
Horseback riding
Fishing
Playground

Location

Field Guide

Nearby Lodging + Camping

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