Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, is probably the most beautiful and scenic trip I have ever been on.
If you’re a fan of the outdoors then you owe it to yourself to visit this expansive wilderness filled with glaciers, mountains, vivid blue lakes, and wildlife. I went at the beginning of summer, and was greeted with warm weather perfect for hiking, and lush green landscapes. The snow hadn’t quite melted off the mountains (in fact, sometimes it never does) and this offered a surreal contrast of cold and warm ecosystems.
Banff is the perfect destination for the adventure traveler, featuring hiking, backpacking, canoeing, swimming, skiing and snowboarding (in the winter), horseback riding, and much more.
Top Things To Do
If you come to Banff and you’re able bodied enough, then you simply must go on a few hikes.
I highly recommend doing some research into the various available hikes before you set out – there are some for all skill levels – and plot out your course. There are almost too many hikes for me to suggest any – but our favorites were the Bow Valley Lookout and the Emerald Lake loop.
Our longest hike was up to the Bow Valley Lookout, and despite all the tourists crowding the base to see Peyto Lake, once we got beyond the short paved path we were the only ones up there – it was beautiful and serene, and we felt like the only ones for miles around. The view was amazing–we could see small glacier lakes dotting the landscape as far as the eye could see.
At one point we veered off the trail and made a makeshift sled out of one of our coats, and went sledding down one of the unmelted snow banks.
If you do go hiking be sure to carry plenty of water – even if it’s not hot out you can still get dehydrated. We didn’t bring quite enough water on our long hike, and although it never got dangerous, it was easy to see just how quickly you can run out of water and get tired.
If you can, find a hike that will take you to the top of one of the peaks so you can take a look at the entire landscape around you, especially the vivid blue glacier lakes.
- Research your hikes beforehand
- Bring printed maps, cell phone coverage is spotty or nonexistent
- Use the buddy system
- Pack plenty of water
- Do at least one hike up to a mountain peak to see the views
Canoe The Glacier Lakes
Several of the lakes in Banff National Park offer canoe rentals. The prices are extremely reasonable, and this is one of the must-do’s that I recommend if you venture to Banff. My friends and I ended up canoeing in Moraine lake, one of the most photogenic lakes in the park. The photo opportunities are endless!
From the lake you can see the surrounding mountains, and if you look closely you can see a waterfall up on one of the peaks. The waterfall itself is actually rather big, but it’s so high up that it looks tiny–it was one of those magical moments that make you realize just how vast these mountains are.
- Get out early to avoid the wind and the crowds
- Plan for at least two hours
- Use a polarized lens to get the best photos of the lakes
3. Drive The Icefield Parkway
Listed as one of the most beautiful drives in the world, the Icefield Parkway is a long road that goes north through the park connecting Banff to the town of Jasper, passing several lakes, mountains, and other attractions.
It’s a perfect all-day drive. We started in the town of Banff and went all the way to the Icefield Center, which is a large glacier where you can take a glacier tour or simply admire the vastness of this natural wonder.
In hindsight we should have driven all the way to Jasper and booked a hotel in Japser, however since we had already booked our Banff hotel for the duration of our trip, we had to turn around halfway through the drive.
Along the way we saw lots of wildlife, including black bears, a mountain goat, and elk. We stopped to see a few lakes and Athabasca Falls, an enormous waterfall that winds down crags and rock. Athabasca Falls was quite a sight, but was quite crowded with tourists. We preferred the more quiet attractions along the way and were willing to go a bit out of our way to see them.
- Plan for an entire day to do the Icefield Parkway
- If you can, drive all the way to Jasper and spend the night
- Get a map and plan out stops and things to see, cell coverage is spotty
- Ensure you have a full tank of gas
- Bring snacks and plenty of water
- Don’t forget your camera!
4. Admire The Glacier Lakes
The lakes of Banff are one of its most recognizable features. Each has it’s own unique shade of vibrant blue-green, caused by glacier silt or rock flour that gets eroded by icemelt in the spring. This silt is suspended in the water and reflects the sunlight, causing the blue green color.
One of the best ways to enjoy the lakes is to do one of the hike loops that surrounds most of the lakes, or take out a canoe. For the brave, on a hot day you can jump in and take a swim, like we did at Emerald Lake.
Our favorite lake was Moraine Lake. It has the most vivid blue shade, and the surrounding snowcapped peaks make this one of the most picturesque and photographed lakes in Banff. We got there early before the crowds and snagged a canoe to paddle out while there was no afternoon breeze. This allowed us to enjoy the lake at it’s most mirror-perfect.
- Get out early to enjoy the lakes at their most mirror-smooth, before the wind picks up.
- Rent canoes to enjoy the lakes from up close
- Do one of the loop hikes around one of the lakes, such as Emerald Lake
- If it’s hot enough, jump in and take a swim!
- Polarized filters for your camera will yield the most stunning lake photos
5. See The Many Waterfalls
Banff is littered with amazing waterfalls. In fact, there are almost too many to see in a single trip. One of the biggest waterfalls we saw was Takakkaw Falls, which lies just inside Yoho National park. We did this waterfall on our way to Emerald lake.
The drive was quite scenic, following a switchback up the mountainside along a river, up to a trailhead where we saw many cars parked where tourists were observing the falls. Takakkaw Falls is enormous and powerful, and the second highest waterfall in Canada.
Another amazing waterfall was Athabasca Falls. Extremely beautiful and enormous, this waterfall has wound intricate pathways into the surrounding mountainside. A network of bridges and pathways allow you to observe this waterfall up close, however the crowds at this particular location were a bit much to handle.
- Be prepared to get wet from the spray!
- Check a list of waterfalls to see and pick out a few top choices
6: Observe the Wildlife
Observe The Wildlife
While we were in Banff we saw many different animals. We saw quite a few moose and elk, as well as a bighorn sheep and black bears.
Most people want to know where to go to see certain animals, but the truth is that there’s a lot of luck involved with seeing them, especially with some shy species. You will almost certainly see moose and elk, however bears and mountain goats are more rare.
If your main goal is to see wildlife, then you might have better luck in the less popular parks with tourists, such as Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay. The best times of the year to see many of the animals is in Spring, Fall, and Winter. In the summer the animals tend to avoid tourists and the hot temperatures.
Banff has Grizzly bears, and so if you’re hiking or backpacking it’s advised that you carry a can of bear spray with you.
- Bring a telephoto lens if you want to photograph animals, or binoculars if you simply want to observe
- Carry bear spray on hikes, and do not approach animals
- Venture to the lesser-traveled parks and trails in the area for better chances of seeing wildlife
- Spring, Fall, and Winter are the best times to see many of the animals