A rich history, jaw-dropping natural scenery, and activities for all abilities make Banff the ideal home base for exploring Canada’s oldest national park.
Banff, Canada, has been a haven for adventurous travelers for more than 125 years. The earliest visitors came via the Canadian Pacific Railway to explore the newly minted Banff National Park, the first national park in Canada and third in the world. These days, the area is a reasonable 90-minute drive along the Trans-Canada Highway from Calgary’s International Airport. Lured by the rugged natural beauty of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, backpackers, ski bums, camera-toting tourists, and royals alike have checked the Bow Valley town off their bucket lists, and iconic images of snow-capped peaks with the promise of expert skiing terrain should convince anyone to follow suit.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site’s magnificent mountain panoramas and pristine glacial lakes will likely surpass even the most jaded traveler's sky-high expectations. Rolling into town, Mount Rundle, Sulphur Mountain, Mount Norquay, and Cascade Mountain are so close you can almost touch them—and that's just the first impression. Here are eight ways to get away from the crowds and bask in the wilderness of Banff, one of the most beautiful natural playgrounds on earth.
1. Linger Around a Lake
Moraine Lake is one of several bodies of water not far from Banff. (Jtbob168/Dreamstime)
Moraine Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Vermilion Lakes, and Lake Louise are all within a one-hour drive of the town of Banff. Whichever you choose, plan to arrive early to get a moment of quiet reflection and capture sunrise before the masses descend and parking spots disappear. Minnewanka is a prime spot to catch the Northern Lights, so check the aurora forecast (@aurorawatch on Twitter) to plan a late-night viewing, or cruise along the bike path that skirts the Vermilion Lakes—just make sure to keep an eye out for the moose, black bears, and elk that frequent this corridor.
2. Take a Hike or Two
On Sulphur Mountain, a boardwalk connects to the gondola landing. (John6863373/Dreamstime)
It’s not an insult—it’s expert advice, and the best way to get acquainted with the park and find solitude. There are more than 1,000 miles of hiking trails throughout Banff National Park, but most visitors stick to a handful of crowded routes. The longer—and yes, more strenuous—trails like Cory Pass and Mount Edith or Aylmer Lookout have less foot traffic, with beautiful unobstructed views as rewards for the exertion. As an alternative, Sulphur Mountain, right on the edge of town, boasts a renovated summit area complete with boardwalks and 360-degree panoramas. Consider giving your tired feet a rest and paying for the scenic Banff Gondola (banffjaspercollection.com/attractions/banff-gondola/experience) ride to the top.
3. Go Deeper with Guided Tours
Ice climbing in Banff. (Franky/Dreamstime)
Banff National Park’s wonderful hikes and vistas are available to all, but local tour operators open up the wilderness for a safe and memorable experience. For an adrenaline rush, ice-climbing trips with Banff Alpine Guides (banffalpineguides.com) in winter and Mount Norquay’s Via Ferrata (banffnorquay.com) assisted-climbing excursions in summer don’t disappoint. Both come with expert instruction and all the necessary safety gear, no experience required. Additionally, canoeing along the Bow River with The Banff Canoe Club (banffcanoeclub.com) seamlessly combines a history lesson and a leisurely journey.
4. Hit the Slopes in Spring
Skiing near Lake Louise, Banff. (Sburel/Dreamstime)
If you ask any local, they will recommend spring for skiing and snowboarding. Come April, there’s no shortage of fresh powder, the temperatures rise, and accommodations are plentiful and reasonably priced. Banff National Park is home to three ski resorts, Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise, and Mount Norquay (us.skibig3.com), with ample terrain for every ability. The Canadian Rockies may be famous for heli-skiing and adrenaline-packed expert-only lines, but leisurely runs still afford spectacular views of the peaks.
5. Sip a Distinctive Après Ski or Hike Drink
Hit the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise's Lakeview Lounge for post-hike refreshments. (Helena Bilkova/Dreamstime)
All that activity is bound to make you thirsty, and Banff has a reputation as a party town, with lively drinking scenes on rooftop patios and alfresco tables. Your beverage comes with at least one mountain backdrop and, if you time it right, the sunset. The Bison Restaurant + Terrace (thebison.ca) has a carefully curated selection of British Columbian wines by the glass and by the bottle. When it comes to suds, a flight from Banff Ave. Brewing Co. (banffavebrewingco.ca) is a great way to sample the local craft scene. For teetotalers, Nourish Bistro (nourishbistro.com) offers kombucha on tap with flavors changing daily, and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise’s Lakeview Lounge (fairmont.com) uses Seedlip’s non-alcoholic distilled spirits for mix-and-match mocktails.
6. Savor Local Flavors
Picturesque downtown Banff is home to restaurants and shops alike. (Helena Bilkova/Dreamstime)
Thanks to the work-to-live regulations in Banff, locally owned restaurants flourish and have fueled adventurers for years. Start your day at Wild Flour (wildflourbakery.ca) with fresh-baked bread and pastries, local coffees, and lunch to go. Don’t leave without perusing the “vintage” basket, which holds day-old goodies like focaccia and scones, ideal trail snacks at $1 (Canadian) each. Its sister location, Little Wild Coffee(littlewildcoffee.ca), has an unbeatable daily happy hour with $1 drip coffees from 8:00 to 10:00 a.m.
In addition to a local wine list, The Bison Restaurant + Terrace serves elevated Canadian cuisine with dishes like elk tartare and bison short ribs. A map on the menu notes the origin of every ingredient, three walls of windows offer mountain views, and chefs cook in a copper-accented open-concept kitchen. For more casual fare, head downstairs to The Bear Street Tavern, a local favorite for pizza and homemade sauces. Down the street, Nourish Bistro manages to make meat-eaters crave its raw, vegan, and vegetarian fare, and its colossal veggie burger requires a knife and fork to conquer.
7. Recover in Mountain Style
A thermal pool inside Banff's Cave and Basin National Historic Site. (Jairo Rene Leiva/Dreamstime)
Banff was founded after three railroad workers discovered natural hot springs at the site now known as Cave and Basin. Today, the healing waters of Banff Upper Hot Springs and other local pools remain popular antidotes to mountain adventures. Try a soak in the mineral pool at the Grotto Spa at Delta Hotels Banff Royal Canadian Lodge (deltahotels.com), or one of the rooftop pools at the Moose Hotel & Suites (moosehotelandsuites.com) or Mount Royal Hotel (banffjaspercollection.com).
8. Get Cultured Indoors
If the weather doesn’t cooperate, it’s not a total loss. Make the most of a stormy day with a visit to the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies (whyte.org), Banff Park Museum (pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/ab/banff), and Banff Centre (banffcentre.ca). The museums chronicle the fascinating cultural and natural history of the Rockies, and the Banff Centre brings it to life through art, performances, and an annual film festival.
Accommodations range from campsites and hostels to luxurious rooms with exquisite views. Summer is high season, with the most visitors coming in July and August. As a result, late winter and early fall are the best bets for scoring a deal, while nearby Canmore has even more budget-friendly lodging.