Nothing can prepare you for the splendor of Banff National Park, but knowing where to start can make all the difference.
From castles and waterfalls to the towering peaks and the bluest lakes you’ll ever see, Banff truly is a nature lover’s paradise. Canada’s first national park is also it’s most visited, and once you finish this list you’ll know why.
Below, we’re breaking down the 10 best experiences while in the Alberta park, and we cannot recommend each one enough. Let’s get to it!
10. Experience the Crystal Blue Waters of Moraine Lake
Moraine Lake is breathtaking, period. This crystal blue glacier-fed lake is rivaled only by its counterpart in Banff: Lake Louise. Moraine is less-traveled, however, which makes it perfect for visitors seeking a bit more privacy.
And once there, it is truly a breathtaking sight. 9,000-foot peaks surround the lake, as does Wenkchemna Glacier. The short drive from Lake Louise up into Moraine’s basin is full of spectacular views, too. A parking area is available for the lake, which allows canoeing and kayaking but no motorized boats. Here, you can also take the flat, easy trail that runs Moraine’s northwest shore.
Or, if you’re up for it, make the brief climb up Rockpile Trail for an astounding view of the lake like the one seen above.
9. Travel Icefields Parkway by Vehicle
Want to see as much of this gorgeous landscape as you can? Head to the Icefields Parkway, or Highway 93. This is, without a doubt, one of the most scenic highways in Canada and one of the best drives in North America.
Here, you’ll cross the northern portion of Banff National Park, and can even take it up into Jasper National Park if you so wish. The best part? Unlike the jammed Trans-Canada Highway, Icefields Parkway is only for sightseeing. Overlooks and parking spots are plentiful, too, so there’s plenty of spots to stop and take in this unrivaled Canadian Rockies scenery.
In Banff, Icefields Parkway travels from Lake Louise out to Jasper, offering an astounding 142 miles of scenic views. If you make time for one drive on your trip, this is the one.
8. Explore the National Park’s Own Banff Town
Down in the south end of the park lies Banff town, or simply Banff. This picturesque little town bustles around Banff Avenue, which leads directly up into the towering Canadian Rockies in the background. A day or three tooling around Banff town is an Alberta-must, even if you don’t plan on exploring the national park.
Here, eclectic restaurants, niche shops, lodging options and chalet charm abound. Warmer months are typically swelling with visitors from across the globe as people flock to Banff for both the town and surrounding nature. It’s a great hub for exploring the area, after all.
Then, in winter, skiers make Banff their vacation home as surrounding slopes whiten with fresh snow. Whichever is your scene, Banff town makes for a truly unique and enjoyable experience that’s unique from the rest of the national park.
7. Spot Wildlife at Lake Minnewanka & Beyond
Banff National Park is famous for many things. Among them is its moniker as a wildlife watcher’s paradise. Canadians recognize it as one of the finest places to see bighorn sheep, moose, mountain goats, woodland caribou, deer, and of course – grizzly and black bears.
Always be cautious and bear-aware on your Banff excursions, too, as bears are plentiful and active here throughout spring, summer, fall, and even winter in some instances.
For wildlife watching, the park’s largest lake – Lake Minnewanka – is an excellent destination. Bighorn sheep frequent the lake and are often spotted by visitors walking Minnewanka’s trails.
In total, over 50 species of mammals are found in Banff National Park, and they’re only the tip of the iceberg. If you’ve got a zoom lens and a passion for wildlife, then Banff is for you.
6. Experience Glacier-Fed Lake Louise
As I’m sure you’ve gathered, Banff is a land of lakes. But one shines above them all as the crown jewel of Canada’s finest national park: Lake Louise.
The blue water and mountain peaks of Moraine Lake (#10 on our list) are just as (if not more) breathtaking, sure. But Louise holds glistening emerald waters that are unlike anything else you’ll see. Mountains abound here, too, as does canoeing and kayaking. And one of the most spectacular sights while boating, hiking, or simply basking is Mount Victoria towering in the background.
To complete the experience, Louise holds one of the finest resorts in Alberta: Château Lake Louise. Despite being a gorgeous marvel of early 20th century engineering, this enormous resort also offers the best views of the lake, and damn good food to fuel you for your next Banff trek.
5. Castle Living: Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
It was very hard not to put the Fairmont in the #1 spot; I had to put my personal obsession with castles aside. Regardless, “The Castle in the Wilderness” as it is known is an unmissable sight in Banff National Park.
The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel was built in 1888, and remains the heart of this remarkable place today. You can reach it by foot or vehicle from Banff town, making it the perfect extension of #8 on our list. And once you’re there, you’ll have no choice but to be entranced by it’s mixture of French and Scottish castle architecture, the surrounding Canadian Rocky evergreens, and the Bow River roaring on below.
For more information on this incredible castle/hotel, be sure to check out our Top 10 Things to Know About Banff National Park.
4. See Banff National Park from Sulphur Mountain
Looking to see Banff National Park from above? Sulphur Mountain is another unmissable destination. From here, you can see the entire Bow Valley below and take in an eagle-eye view of what makes Banff so remarkable.
A visitor-favorite activity is taking the Sulphur Mountain Gondola up to the Upper Hot Springs resort. And once there, you’ll be greeted by the best views you’ve ever seen from a Canadian terrace. The mountain top dining is a major plus, too.
To continue out into nature, a number of trails lead out from atop Sulphur Mountain, alongside the Banff Skywalk (also known as Vista Trail).
3. Bathe in Upper Hot Springs
And yes, we said hot springs. Did you know Banff has been known for its pristine hot springs since it was founded in the late 1800s? Visitors have been bathing in the springs since 1893, and it’s a hallmark of any Banff experience.
Aside from experiencing this ancient, crystal-clear hot water, the biggest bonus to the hot springs is the view you get while bathing. The modern springs are situated so you can see out across Banff to Rundle Mountain – and it’s breathtaking.
It’s the perfect place to unwind after a world-class Banff hike, which we’ll dive into next.
2. Hike Banff National Park’s Best Trails
Looking to hike Banff National Park? Of course you are! This is Outsider, after all. And rest assured, it took me this long to get to hikes simply because they have to be at the top of this list.
There are so many excellent hikes in Banff, however, that it’d require a Top 10 Hikes list to even scratch the surface. So instead, check the park station and maps for these trails and mark them down. You won’t regret a single one you choose to trek.
Lake Louise Area:
- Lake Agnes
- Big Beehive Trail
- Plain of Six Glaciers
Icefields Parkway Area:
- Wilcox Pass
- Parker Ridge
Longer Banff Excursions:
- Bow Falls
- Sentinel Pass
But there’s one trek we’re saving for it’s own slot, right at the #1 spot.
1. Walk the Marvels of Johnston Canyon
If you’ve seen photos of Banff National Park that aren’t of it’s glacier-fed lakes, then chances are they were photos taken along Johnston Canyon.
Located off the Bow Valley Parkway, this unmissable excursion is known as a “walk” because it’s main path (or Lower Level) can be travelled by pretty much anyone. This, combined with it’s unparalleled geographical diversity and beauty, make it the most popular hike in Canada.
Johnston Canyon features waterfalls of all sorts; from towering to rippling, fascinating canyon walls and rivets, and leads into more difficult areas for the adventurous.
Choose to continue on into the canyon, and you’ll traverse bridges along steep, towering cliff walls. Head 3 miles in and you’ll reach the Ink Pots, a group of striking emerald springs that look straight out of a fairytale.
For a less crowded and completely different experience, head to Johnston Canyon in winter months. Just be sure to come prepared and hike safely!
For more ahead of your Banff excursions, check out our Top 10 Things to Know About Banff National Park: PHOTOS next.