Things to Do in Banff
Hemmed in by the dramatic Valley of the Ten Peaks, Banff National Park’s glacier-fed Moraine Lake is renowned for its bright blue-green waters. The surreally vivid color results from light refracting off of tiny glacial rock particles. Stunning Lake Moraine was famously featured on the back of Canada’s $20 bill between 1969 and 1979.
Within the boundaries of Banff National Park lie some of the world’s most spectacular landscapes. The park, which showcases Canada’s Rocky Mountains in all their glory, offers world-class skiing, hiking, biking, and outdoor attractions. It’s a year-round haven for day-trippers from nearby Calgary and for international visitors galore.
The Bow Falls are located on the Bow River in Alberta's Banff National Park, within walking distance of the Banff Springs Hotel. The short, wide, cascading falls make for a popular sightseeing stop, likely because of how accessible the natural destination is—the falls can be easily enjoyed by people of all abilities and all ages. Trails for pedestrians and cyclists wind along the south shore of the Bow River and its rapids, with the walking trail climbing up to the clifftop where the falls begin (bicycles aren’t allowed at the top).
The viewing areas at Bow Falls offer vistas of the river and the falls themselves, while a cement promenade located at the base of the cascade has a few benches to sit on, though most people sit on the ledge of the promenade and enjoy the views from there. At the far end of the promenade is a small, sandy beach where rafting and kayak tours often begin.
What begins as a drip of water from the melting Bow Glacier turns into the stunningly beautiful Bow River, which flows slowly and steadily through the Rockies in Canada’s oldest national park. The river also flows through Banff, Canmore and Calgary, making it a constant presence on any journey through southern Alberta.
The best way to appreciate the beauty of Bow River is by heading out on the wheelchair-friendly walking and cycling path in downtown Banff to complete the short trip to Bow Falls. Countless picnic tables and park benches make Bow Falls an ideal lunch spot, and float trips, in giant inflatable rafts, begin right at the base of the falls, too. Both wildlife and wildflowers are often seen along the river, where canoe trips are popular. The river is divided into three half-day canoeing sections, all of which require intermediate experience: Lake Louise to Castle Junction, Castle Junction to Banff and Bow Falls to Canmore.
The Bow Valley Parkway, a scenic route between the town of Banff and Lake Louise, offers plenty of photo-worthy riverside stops, but one of the most spectacular is right where the Bow River flows beneath the towering walls of Castle Mountain, near Castle Junction.
Bow Lake in the Canadian Rockies is one of the smaller lakes in Banff National Park. It is the source of the Bow River and lies along part of the Great Continental Divide, which creates the border between Alberta and British Columbia. As with all of the lakes lining the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park and Jasper National Park, Bow Lake boasts spectacularly colored water and top-notch mountain scenery. One of the most interesting features of these Rocky Mountain Lakes is their differences in color. Some are green, some are bright blue, and sometimes (after a major rain) some of them are brownish. The lake’s colors might even change with the weather. As you continue north along the Icefields Parkway, you will have several different views of the bright-blue waters of Bow Lake, as it lies quite close to the highway. The lake is a great place for a picnic and a stroll, and is especially beautiful at sunrise when the sun shines off of the water and Crowfoot Mountain.
Just outside of Banff, Lake Minnewanka is everything a mountain lake should be: crystal clear, glacier fed, and surrounded by alpine forests and imposing peaks. A visit to Lake Minnewanka is a perfect introduction to the beautiful Canadian Rockies. It’s also the only lake in Banff National Park that allows privately operated motorboats.
The jewel-blue water of Johnston Creek streams through the sheer-sided canyon, foaming white as it careens down waterfalls into pools below. A well-maintained trail—including a cliff-affixed walkway with incredible views—makes Johnston Canyon one of Banff National Park’s most accessible and beloved day hikes.
The turquoise jewel of the Canadian Rockies, Lake Louise sits nestled between glaciers, beckoning visitors with its mirror-like waters, serene setting, and plethora of summer and winter activities, from hiking to snowshoeing. The mountain resort town of Banff is just down the Trans-Canada Highway from Lake Louise.
The Crowfoot Glacier, named for its three glacier toes that once formed a very visual representation of the black bird’s foot, has retreated so much since early explorers discovered and named it that it has actually lost an entire digit. Despite its lost toe, the Crowfoot Glacier viewpoint on the Icefield Parkway is still spectacular, especially for northbound travelers due to its position as the first of many up-close viewpoints along the drive.
Opposite this spot is the Helen Lake trailhead. This popular hike is strenuous, but the reward is in the stunning mountain scenery, as the trail crosses a series of alpine meadows covered in summertime wildflowers as it climbs toward Helen Lake. The best views of the Crowfoot Glacier are found further up the trail, but only hikers willing to tackle the steep Helen Lake Headwall will have unobstructed views of the Wapta Icefield, which lies beyond the Continental Divide.
Every twist and turn of the spectacular 143-mile (230-kilometer) Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) reveals cloud-piercing peaks, valley-carving glaciers, teal lakes, and dense forests. Running from Jasper to Lake Louise, this scenic Alberta drive offers stunning views of the Canadian Rockies, with lots of roadside lookouts and trailheads along the way.
More Things to Do in Banff
Bubbling up from beneath the Canadian Rockies at a toasty temperature of around 102°F (39°C), Banff Upper Hot Springs have been drawing visitors to Western Canada since the late 19th century. For weary travelers, a soak in the warm mineral-rich waters of the pools, which overlook Mount Rundle, is the ultimate tonic for sore muscles.
The unofficial slogan for UNESCO World Heritage–listed Yoho National Park, “rock walls and waterfalls,” aptly describes the stunning Canadian Rockies scenery here. Yoho in the indigenous Cree language may not be as descriptive, but it’s more fitting—as an expression of wonder and awe, it can roughly be translated as, “Wow!”
When you first see Peyto Lake, nestled in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta, the striking blue color of the water will astound you. The hue is thanks to the geologic makeup of the silt (“rock flour”) that mixes with the runoff from nearby Peyto Glacier. Take in the spectacular view from the Bow Summit or hike in for a closer look.
Named after its gushing thermal springs, Sulphur Mountain rises to a height of 8,041 feet (2,450 meters), towering over the town of Banff and Bow Valley. Banff Upper Hot Springs sit on its lower slopes, while the Banff Gondola carries you up to the summit ridge for views out across the peaks of the Canadian Rockies.
The Cave and Basin National Historic Site in Banff National Park is more than just a neat place to explore. The First Nations who discovered the cave consider the hot springs a sacred site. Today, interactive interpretive exhibits make the birthplace of Canada’s national parks system—known today as Parks Canada—a must-visit.
Alberta’s stunning Rocky Mountains are one of the biggest attractions in the province. Protected by Banff and Jasper National Parks, the Canadian Rocky Mountains run along the border of British Columbia and Alberta through a landscape of glaciers, snow-capped mountain peaks, hot springs, and turquoise lakes.
An outstanding feat of engineering, the Spiral Tunnels in Yoho National Park were the ingenious early–20th-century solution to climbing or descending the impossibly steep 4.5-percent grade to cross Kicking Horse Pass by rail. Watch long freight trains cross themselves as they travel the tunnels in different directions at the same time.
Banff’s Buffalo Street transforms into the picturesque Tunnel Mountain Drive at Surprise Corner. It provides a view most visitors know before they’ve even seen it, as the area looks out on Banff’s most famous landmark, the historic Banff Springs Hotel, which has been featured in countless photos. The rest of the driving loop is equally beautiful with panoramic views of Bow Valley as it winds through pristine fir and pine forests. Even though Tunnel Mountain Drive is on the edge of Banff’s town limits, it’s common to see both elk and deer along the route. It’s also possible (especially in the spring and fall) to spot a black or grizzly bear in the area.
Whether jumping out of the car to explore Banff’s hoodoos (impressive geological formations) or to climb to the summit of Tunnel Mountain, the immense beauty of the Canadian Rockies is never far away. It’s even possible to spend the night in the mountain wilderness while remaining within walking distance of downtown. Hotels, cabin rentals, a youth hostel and several campgrounds lie along Tunnel Mountain Drive and most are only a little over a mile from town.
Takakkaw Falls—whose name means “it’s magnificent” in the indigenous Cree language—tumble 1,260 feet (384 meters) down a rocky mountain, making it one of the highest waterfalls in the Canadian Rockies. Located outside Field, British Columbia, the glacier-fed falls are the gateway to some of the best hiking trails in Yoho National Park.
Part of the vast Columbia Icefield that straddles the border between Alberta’s Banff and Jasper National Parks, the Athabasca Glacier—a huge swath of moving ice—is one of the most accessible and awe-inspiring glaciers in North America. Like most glaciers, Athabasca is shrinking, though the slowly moving ice mass is still impressively large: It covers an area of about 2.3 square miles (six square kilometers) and measures up to 980 feet (300 meters) at its thickest point.
Named after Queen Victoria in 1897, Victoria Glacier created the iconic Lake Louise over 10,000 years ago and continues to feed the lake with the glacial waters that gives it its famous emerald hue.
Located in the heart of the hiking capital of Canada, the 3.4-mile Six Glaciers Trail is a great way to get up close to Victoria Glacier and make your way to the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House. From the Fairmont Chateau hotel, walk the shoreline trail, where the crowds will thin as you head up to the moraine trail left behind by Lower Victoria Glacier back in the 1850s and out along the high rocky banks of Louise Creek. The hike is quite challenge, taking about seven hours roundtrip, but knowing there’s a cup of hot tea and cake waiting at the tea house helps. Visitors can also take the trail even further past the end of Lake Louise along the Abbot Pass and down onto Mount Victoria itself.
You can also rent kayaks and canoes for a closer peek at Victoria Glacier, which is easily recognizable, nestled in the middle of the Mount Victoria area at the head of Lake Louise. Rock climbers can make their way up the glacier itself, though its deep crevasses and the risk of avalanche mean that it isn’t a climb for beginners.
In summer, popular activities around Lake Louise include horseback riding, rock climbing and taking a peek at the fairytale-like Fairmont Chateau hotel.
It might be the smallest of the 3 major ski resorts within the Banff National Park, but since opening in 1926, Mt. Norquay has fast become a favorite destination for in-the-know skiers, and has even served as an Olympic and World Cup training ground. Today, the Mt. Norquay Ski Resort offers 16.4 km of runs, with ample opportunities for all levels, from first-time skiers to professionals, including a terrain park with a range of boxes and rails.
With a fully equipped ski school on-site, this is a great spot for beginners, and along with skiing and snowboarding, there’s also a snow tube park, snowshoeing trails and the chance to enjoy a moonlight skiing excursion.
The fun doesn’t stop when the snow melts either – the Mt. Norquay Ski Resort is open all year-round and summer visitors can ride the 8,040-foot chairlift for a view of the surrounding mountains, dine at the mountaintop Cliffhouse or tackle the Via Ferrata climbing routes.
With some of Canada’s wildest white water, the Kicking Horse River boasts numerous Class III and IV+ rapids that thrill even the most experienced paddlers. Originating high in the Wapta Icefields of the Canadian Rockies, the river winds through picturesque valleys, gorges, and steep canyons, offering fantastic views as well as adventure.
Step onto the Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefield and imagine what it was like during the last ice age. Located midway along the scenic Icefields Parkway connecting Canada’s Banff and Jasper national parks, the Columbia Icefield gives visitors a chance to experience how the landscape may have looked when glaciers covered the land.