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Exploring Banff National Park

The Canadian Rockies showcase nature’s beauty and wonder, particularly in the areas around Banff National Park.

banff national park

Moraine Lake

From outdoor adventures to educational opportunities to just kicking back and relaxing, Banff National Park is a great place to get in touch with nature. Discover all the reasons why Canada’s first national park is a can’t-miss destination.

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Wildlife viewing

Perhaps one of Banff’s biggest attractions is its abundant wildlife – majestic elk, grizzly and black bears, cougars and bighorn sheep, as well as numerous song birds, birds of prey and waterfowl. Though animals can be spotted anywhere in the park, some tips for successful spotting include:

    • Go out at dawn and in the late afternoon near dusk, when the animals are more likely to be active and feeding.
    • Visit the park in the off-season. During the spring, fall, and winter, many creatures move closer to town in the search for food and mates.
    • Check out areas of the park such as Vermilion Lakes, Bow Valley Parkway and Minnewanka Loop, which are less traveled and quieter.

Of course, always remember that wildlife is just that – wild. Keep your distance, and do not disturb the animals. If your presence causes an animal to move away, you are too close.

Paddling

The tranquil turquoise waters of Banff’s numerous lakes invite paddlers of all kinds. Whether you choose to canoe, kayak or stand-up paddleboard, the serene lakes and meandering rivers are the perfect destination for those seeking a quiet exploration of the scenery. Many areas along the shoreline are accessible only by boat, and wildlife-viewing opportunities are around every corner.

Like other activities in the park, visitors can set out in their own boats or can participate in a guided outing through one of the many outfitters in the area. In the Banff Town area, boat launches can be found in Vermilion Lakes, Johnson Lake and Two Jack Lake, as well as the Bow River. A little further away, Lake Louise and Moraine Lake also offer scenic vistas from the water. Along the Icefields Parkway, Herbert Lake features spectacular scenery with fewer visitors than some of the other waterways in the park.

banff national park

Peyto Lake

Hiking

With more than 1,000 miles of maintained trails, Banff National Park is a hiker’s paradise. Options can be found for visitors seeking a quiet walk in the woods as well as for those looking for a more strenuous climb. Sunshine Meadows, which straddles the Continental Divide, contains several popular trails. Adventurers can set out on their own or take one of several guided excursions through the alpine meadows. Or for a quicker ascent to summit, the Sunshine Village ski resort’s chairlift gondola ferries passengers to the Standish platform, where a breathtaking view of the surrounding Rockies awaits.

The Parker Ridge Trail off the Icefields Parkway is a short climb with a big payoff; though moderately steep, this 1-mile climb leads to a panoramic view of the mountains and the Saskatchewan Glacier. Another easier climb that begins right in downtown Banff is the Tunnel Mountain Trail. This two- to three-hour hike affords a 360-degree view of the town of Banff and the surrounding mountain ranges.

Soak in the hot springs

Though the park offers an unending supply of physical adventures, sometimes it’s nice to just sit back and relax in the geothermally heated waters found throughout the area. The hot pools at Banff Upper Hot Springs were first enjoyed by local indigenous people. Their “discovery” by workers on the Canadian Railway led to the creation of Banff National Park, in an effort to protect this natural wonder. In addition to a dip in the warm mineral waters, visitors can learn about the history of the springs at the Cave & Basin National Historic Site. This educational center features a tour as well as multimedia presentations about the bubbling waters and cave system.

Drive through the icefields

The Columbia Icefields, the largest body of ice in the Canadian Rockies, covers 125 square miles along the Continental Divide. Visitors can take guided or self-driving tours of the area, with photo opportunities in every direction. The icefield consists of eight major glaciers, including the Columbia, Athabasca, and Saskatchewan Glaciers. During the summer months, snow coaches transport passengers onto the glaciers.

Take a gondola up a mountain

The quickest way to the summit of Sulphur Mountain, just south of Banff Town, is on the year-round gondola. The enclosed four-person cars whisk passengers to the top of this 7,486-foot peak in around eight minutes. From the moment the car leaves its base station, the vast views of six mountain ranges make the short ride memorable. At the top, visitors can stop in the restaurant for quick meal, explore the ridgetop boardwalk for more bird’s-eye views of the surrounding landscape, or learn more about the geophysical work that once was carried out on this mountaintop at the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station.

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