Being home to some of the most celebrated mountain scenery in the world, Banff townsite, lying a few kilometres within the gates of the national park that bears its name, is the birthplace of the Canadian national park system, and as such, is one of Canada‘s most visited attractions, with more than 4 million visits to the town and surrounding park per year.
Back in 1885, railway workers taking a break from the arduous labour that was part and parcel with their profession heard about a hot spring located in a cave not far from their camp. After experiencing the divine nature of this natural miracle, they took it upon themselves to broadcast the existence of this wonder to the world, and not long after, the Canadian government had granted the area protection from certain types of development as Canada’s first national park.
Of course, when the first tourists rolled in on the newly constructed railroad, the hot springs were far from the only thing that stuck in their minds, as some of the most exquisitely carved mountains in the Canadian Rockies rose up with a short distance of Banff’s townsite.
More than 100 years later, it is one of the most enduring segments of any foreign traveler’s first visit to Canada. Despite the crowded nature of this place in peak season, it is well worth a visit even if your itinerary has you traveling through here during July and August (book campsites and accommodations well in advance to avoid disappointment), as the visages of glaciers, steep limestone, sandstone and shale peaks, and abundant wildlife will make up for the mass of people you might have to endure at some of the more popular attractions.
So scale some mountains, photograph as many mountain goats as possible, and stare contemplatively across the Vermillion Lakes at Mount Rundle. It is a seminal part of the true Canadian experience, something that any traveler visiting Canada should experience.
Start your cultural explorations in Banff with the Cave & Basin National Historic Site, the site that began the age of preservation of natural areas in Canada in the late 19th century. Be aware that outside of the peak summer season, this site can be closed on Mondays and/or Tuesdays, so factor this into your plans. The cornerstone attraction here is the grotto within a cave that was artificially built, but most patrons bathed at the bathhouse that you’ll see on arrival at the site, with this facility being closed for the final time in 1992. Please show respect for the endangered Banff Springs Snail by NOT sticking your hands in the water, as tempting as it may be!
True thespians will simply adore The Banff Centre, an artistic and educational facility built here in 1933 that has attained worldwide recognition for its work to promote art, culture and the creation of new progressive ideas to change the world for the better. In addition to its educational programs, this campus regularly hosts musical, film screenings and other performance art events, making this facility a can’t miss attraction for the culture vulture.
For those looking to immerse themselves in the personal experiences of the mountain men and women that have called Banff their home over the past century or so, the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies is a place that is dedicated to telling their stories. Visual art depicting mountain scenes, artifacts relating to the alpine life, and even houses of seven prominent figures in the town’s young but active history are all featured here, which makes for an excellent rainy day activity.
The best way to get in touch with Banff National Park is to get out in the forests and mountains surrounding the town by going for a hike. Trailheads can be found all over town, with difficulties ranging from easy strolls like on the Fenlands Trail (which leads you through the montane forest to the Vermillion Lakes viewpoint), and hikes like the moderately challenging Tunnel Mountain Trail, which is steep and long enough to provide a workout, while being short enough to summit, gaze out upon the town below for a lengthy spell, and then return to the bottom all in the space of a few hours. The Sulphur Mountain Trail is a great choice for those looking for a difficult and steep trail that will grant views and a 50% savings on a gondola ticket (100% if you walk back down too!)
Of course, if looking at the trajectory of the Sulphur Mountain trail makes you weak in the knees, then taking the Banff Gondola is a quick and easy way to get up to the roof of Banff. Accessible in any season, you will be able to not only get great pics of the town from up here, but of the entire Bow River Valley, which is lined by the equally impressive front ranges and main ranges of the Canadian Rockies, topped by snow in all but the peak of summer and early fall.
If all this physical effort has your muscles screaming bloody murder, then a trip to the Banff Upper Hot Springs is in order. The modern replacement for the defunct Cave & Basin Springs, the hot water that rises up from deep within the geometrically heated reservoirs within Sulphur Mountain will sooth your battered body, while granting you the opportunity to gaze upon how the mass of humanity looks minus most of their clothes … fun!
If a day out on the water appeals to you, then heading to Lake Minnewanka for a boat cruise will fulfil this need handily. The narrated cruise trolls the lake looking for wildlife that makes frequent appearances on most journeys, and even if they are feeling a little curtain shy on the day that you do, the combination of lake and mountain scenery will more than make up for this disappointment.
Winter time equals play time at Banff’s Big 3 Ski Areas, with Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise Ski Resort all attracting locals and snow enthusiasts from all over the globe in hot pursuit of some of the best powder in the world. Norquay is a favourite of veteran skiiers and boarders locally, as it features shorter lines, uber steep faces, and the quickest home to ski lift time of the three resorts. Sunshine Village is the highest of the three areas, with a base elevation of 7,000 feet. This allows the ski season to start in early November, and continue on with copious snow straight through to the 3rd weekend in May. Lake Louise Ski Resort is famous for having one of the most expansive in bounds terrain in North America (4,200 acres), as it offers skiing on both faces of the mountain on which it sits.
About 45 minutes northwest of Banff is the village of Lake Louise, which is world famous for one of the most iconic lake views in the world. This vista can be found behind the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, and after snapping an epic selfie of yourself and the aquamarine jewel behind you, you can avail yourself of the luxuries of the hotel in front of you, rent a canoe in order to have that true Canadian experience of paddling out into a scene that you have dreamt of so so many years before this trip, or you can hike to the teahouses in the heights above, and purchase some of the best chocolate cake you have had in your life upon arrival (trust me on this one!)
Before leaving the Lake Louise area, don’t forget to check out Moraine Lake, a lake so beautiful that it was once featured on the back of the Canadian $1 bill (which was decommissioned more than 25 years ago). It is only visitable in the summer, so don’t miss the opportunity to not only visit it, but to hike its many trails (get a group of four, as park rules require it due to the heavy presence of bears in the local area).
Finally, if you are coming from Calgary (like most people), head towards Jasper on the Icefields Parkway, ranked by countless travel publications as one of the world’s most beautiful drives. Marvel at the glaciers along the way (Bow and Crowfoot Glaciers chief among them), as well as the many jewel-like lakes along the route (don’t miss Peyto Lake for the world, as it is composed of a shade of blue that will be seared into your memory forever more), and stop every time you feel like taking a pic (be sure to pull completely off the road, as some geniuses actually stop in the middle of it) … you are on the trip of a lifetime, so don’t take it for granted!