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BANFF NATIONAL PARK is the most famous Canadian Rockies park and Canada’s leading tourist attraction – so be prepared for the crowds in its key centres, Banff and Lake Louise, as well as the most accessible of its 1500km of trails, most of which suffer a continual pounding during the summer months. That said, it’s worth putting up with the crowds to enjoy the sublime scenery – and if you’re camping or prepared to walk, the worst park excesses are fairly easily left behind.
The actual town of Banff, a busy and commercial town where you can pause for a couple of days to soak up the action and handful of sights – or stock up on supplies and make for somewhere quieter as quickly as possible. Then head 58km north along Hwy-1 to Lake Louise, a much smaller but almost equally busy centre with some unmissable landscapes, plus readily accessible short trails and day-hikes if you just want a quick taste of the scenery.
Two popular roads within the park offer magnificent vistas: the Bow Valley Parkway from Banff to Lake Louise is a far preferable route to the parallel Trans-Canada Hwy, and the much longer Icefields Parkway leads from Lake Louise to Jasper. Both are lined with trails long and short, waterfalls, lakes, canyons, viewpoints, pull-offs and a seemingly unending procession of majestic mountain, river, glacier and forest scenery.
Modern road routes into the park provide transport links that have superseded the railway that first brought the park into being. The arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway at the end of the nineteenth century brought to an end some ten thousand years of exclusive Aboriginal presence in the region. This area had previously been disturbed only by trappers and the prodigious exploits of explorers like Mackenzie, Thompson and Fraser, who had sought to breach the Rockies with the help of Aboriginal guides earlier in the century. Banff itself sprang to life in 1883 after three railway workers stumbled on the present town’s Cave and Basin Hot Springs, its name coined in honour of Banffshire, the Scottish birthplace of two of the Canadian Pacific’s early financiers and directors.
Within two years the government had set aside the Hot Springs Reserve as a protected area, and in 1887 enlarged it to form the Rocky Mountains Park, Canada’s first national park. Yet the purpose was not entirely philanthropic: the new government-sponsored railway desperately needed passengers and profit, and spectacular scenery backed up by luxurious hotels was seen – rightly – as the best way to lure the punters. Cars were banned from the park until 1916.
Today Banff National Park attracts some five million annual visitors, putting inevitable pressure on the environment. Park authorities try to manage this, with measures including a 10,000-person ceiling on Banff’s population, strict building controls and regular closures, of some roads during wildlife migration seasons and certain trails during berry season. But many experts agree that Banff’s ecosystem is on a knife-edge: more restrictions may save it, but they’re in constant conflict with the park’s recreational role.
Some of the best backcountry hiking options lie in the Egypt Lake area, accessible from the Sunshine Village car park, with good side-trails radiating from the lake’s campground. Elsewhere in the backcountry around Banff the choice of trails is huge. Classics include routes that lead from Banff to Lake Louise – the Sawback Trail and the Bow Valley Highline – or the tracks in the Upper Spray and Bryant Creek Valley south of town. You’ll need a specialist guidebook and topographic maps before tackling any of these.
Wherever you choose to hike in the backcountry, your first step should be to pick up the Banff National Park Backcountry Visitors’ Guide at a park visitor centre, or download it from the park website (w pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/banff/activ/activ33.aspx). Then you’ll need to come up with a planned hike with dates and book the relevant backcountry campgrounds ($11.70 booking fee, plus $9.80/night) up to three months in advance by phone or in person at the Banff or Lake Louise visitor centres. This per-night fee is variously called a Backcountry Permit or a Wilderness Pass, and you’re best off picking it up just before your hike so you can easily check the very latest on trail conditions and closures. The sooner you book your spot, the better, as the most popular of the fifty-odd backcountry campgrounds fill up well in advance; reserve ahead in particular for Marvel Lake, Egypt Lake, Luellen Lake, Aylmer Pass, Mystic Meadow, Fish Lakes, Paradise Valley, Hidden Lake, Baker Lake, Merlin Meadows, Red Deer Lakes and Mount Rundle.
BANFF is the unquestioned capital of the Canadian Rockies, and with its intense summer buzz it can be a fun, busy and likeable base – but if you’ve come to commune with nature, you’ll quickly want to leave. For a small town, it handles an immense amount of tourist traffic, much of it of the RV and coach-tour variety: up to fifty thousand daily visitors arrive in high season.
However you feel about this, some contact with the town is probably inevitable, as it contains essential shops and services and a range of restaurants and nightlife absent elsewhere in the park and even much of the region. And while many of the best local walks are some way from the town – you’ll need a car or bike to explore properly – some surprisingly good strolls start just minutes from the main street.
With some of the world’s most spectacular mountains on your doorstep, sightseeing in Banff might seem absurd, but it’s good to have some rainy-day options. Among these are a couple of small museums, a cable-car ride and people-watching on Banff Avenue, a thoroughfare lined with outdoor-clothing and souvenir stores.
Banff’s first hot spring – now the Cave and Basin National Historic Site – was discovered on November 8, 1883 by three railway navvies prospecting for gold on their day off. The government quickly bought them out, promoting travel to the springs as a means of contributing to the cost of the railway’s construction. A small reserve was established in 1885, from which the present park eventually evolved.
Banff soon boasted eight hot springs, and for a long time the next stop on the standard itinerary after the gondola ride was a plunge into the waters. In their early days the springs were vital to Banff’s rise and popularity, their reputedly therapeutic effects being of great appeal to Canada’s ailing Victorian gentry. Dr R.G. Brett, chief medical officer to the Canadian Pacific Railway, used his position to secure an immensely lucrative virtual monopoly on the best springs. In 1886 he constructed the Grandview Villa, a money-spinning sanatorium promising miracle cures and wonders such as “ice-cold temperance drinks”. Its handrails were reinforced with crutches abandoned by “cured” patients, though Brett reputedly issued crutches to all arrivals whether they needed them or not.
Two roads run parallel through the Bow Valley from Banff to Lake Louise (58km): the faster Highway 1 (the Trans-Canada); and the quieter Bow Valley Parkway (Hwy-1A), opened north of the river as a special scenic route. After Banff, there’s only one link between the two roads, at Castle Junction, 30km from Lake Louise. Both routes are impressively beautiful as the mountains start to creep closer to the road, and for the entire run, the mighty Bow River, broad and emerald green, crashes through rocks and forest. Despite the tarmac and heavy summer traffic, the surroundings are pristine, giving a sense of the immensity of the wilderness to come. Sightings of elk and deer are common, particularly around dawn and sundown, and occasionally you’ll spot moose too.
Both roads offer some good trails: one of the best day-hikes in Banff National Park is the Bourgeau Lake Trail off Hwy-1; Johnston Canyon, off the Parkway, is a classic short hike.
In past years the 17km of the Bow Valley Parkway between Johnston Canyon and its Banff entrance has been closed every day from early March to late June between 6pm and 9am. This allows animals forced to look for food at lower altitudes by late snow to graze in peace. At these times access to Johnston Canyon and campground is from Hwy-1 only. Closures are clearly posted – or consult a park visitor centre in advance for the current arrangements.
Five major trails branch off the Bow Valley Parkway, while there are two outstanding options along Hwy-1.
The best short walk is the Johnston Canyon Trail (2.7km each way), 25km from Banff, an incredibly engineered path to a series of spray-veiled waterfalls. The Lower Falls are 1.1km, the Upper Falls 2.7km from the trailhead on the Parkway. From the Upper Falls you can continue on to the seven cold-water springs of the Ink Pots, which emerge in pretty open meadows, to make a total distance of 5.8km (215m ascent; 4hr return).
Another short possibility is the Castle Crags Trail (3.7km each way; 520m ascent from the signed turn-off 5km west of Castle Junction). Short but steep, and above the tree-line, this walk offers superb views across the Bow Valley and the mountains beyond. Allow ninety minutes one-way to take account of the stiff climb.
The best day-hike is to Rockbound Lake (8.4km each way), a steepish climb to 2210m with wild lakeland scenery at the end; allow at least two and a half hours one-way, due to the 760m ascent. Another fifteen minutes’ walk beyond Rockbound and Tower lakes at the end of the trail lies the beautiful Silverton waterfall. The other Parkway trails – Baker Creek (20.3km) and Pulsatilla Pass (17.1km) – serve to link backcountry hikers with the dense network of paths in the Slate Range northeast of Lake Louise.
The trek to Bourgeau Lake (7.5km one way) is considered by many to be among the top five day-hikes in Banff; it starts from a parking area 10km west of Banff – allow two and a half to three hours for the 725m ascent. The second is the long day-hike to Shadow Lake (14.3km each way), where the lakeside campground (at 1840m), in an impressive subalpine basin, gives access to assorted onward trails; the main trail starts from the Redearth Creek parking area 20km west of Banff – allow four hours for the 440m ascent.
Banff National Park comes close to paradise if you’re a skier or snowboarder. The terrain here is some of the best and most varied in North America, and three world-class resorts lie in the park: two close to Banff – Mount Norquay and Sunshine Village – and one in Lake Louise. On top of great snow and pristine runs, you get crisp air, monumental mountains, sky-high forests, and low prices and space that make a mockery of Europe’s exorbitant and crowded winter playgrounds. The Ski Banff Sunshine-Lake Louise-Mt Norquay SkiBig3 Pass (skibig3.com) is valid for between three and nine days’ skiing at the three resorts; a three-day pass is $265, six days $507.
The park also offers the full gamut of winter activities, embracing everything from skating, ice-fishing and toboggan trips to dogsledding, snowshoeing and sleigh rides. What the brochures don’t tell you is that it can be bitterly cold for much of the skiing season, so come prepared.