As Calgary locals living on the doorstep of Banff National Park, it can be easy to take our closest national park for granted. Some of us may adopt the attitude that Banff is ‘too touristy,’ ‘too busy,’ or even ‘too expensive,’ and we tell ourselves to stay far away during the popular summer months. Sound familiar?
While I won’t disagree with you that Banff will certainly be a popular place to visit this summer, I still encourage families to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday by visiting our country’s first national park. Pick up a free Discovery Pass as you drive into the park (valid for free admission into all of Canada’s national parks, national marine conservation areas, and national historic sites) and get busy exploring!
Here are my top bucket-list worthy experiences in Banff National Park that you can try with your family this summer. See how many you can check off before the kids go back to school in September:
Hike Johnston Canyon (without the crowds). Johnston Canyon is easily Banff’s most popular hiking trail and is definitely the busiest. Escape the crowds by packing up a picnic-style breakfast and eating on the trail at the Lower or Upper Waterfalls. Get off the beaten path by searching for a secret cave and waterfall down in the canyon shortly before the Upper Falls. You’ll see side trails leaving the main trail shortly before the Upper Falls. Can’t quite make it out to Banff for breakfast? Try a dinner hike and bring a picnic with you to enjoy as you hike in the late afternoon after most tourists have left the trail. If you’re camping in the area, you could easily reach the Lower Falls as a pre-bedtime walk as well.
Take a ride on the Banff Gondola to visit the new Interpretive Centre. Consider hiking up Sulphur Mountain with discounted gondola pricing for the return trip down. (You can buy your one-way ticket at the top of the gondola.) The hike gains 650 metres of height, but you’ll be well rewarded with some of the best views of the Bow Valley from the top.
At the top of the gondola, enjoy a beautiful 1-kilometre self-guided hike on the Sulphur Mountain Boardwalk Trail to the top of Sanson’s Peak. Then visit the brand new Interpretive Centre, the best in the national park. Several dining options are available at the top as well, and the gondola is open until 9:30pm each night if you want to take an evening ride and enjoy a more peaceful (crowd-free) experience.
Climb a mountain or enjoy Tea House hiking at Lake Louise. Mount Fairview is one of the easiest ‘big’ summits to reach as a family in Banff with a good hiking trail leading all the way to the top. You’ll work for your views, though, with 1,000 metres of height gain spread over the 7-kilometre return hike. Families with school- aged children and teenagers should have few problems making it to Saddleback Pass at the base of Mount Fairview, and then you can decide if energy levels are strong enough to continue. Views are outstanding from the pass if you decide to turn around here.
If the idea of climbing a mountain is too daunting for your family, the hikes to either the Lake Agnes or Plain of Six Glaciers Tea Houses are both rewarding hikes, too. If choosing between them, Lake Agnes is easier with younger children and is the best option for limited time or energy. The Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House offers the best views and overall experience.
Start all hikes early to avoid crowds, and consider taking the free shuttle bus that Parks Canada is operating this summer from the overflow parking lot outside Lake Louise. The bus will take you to the Upper Lake parking lot. If planning to park at the lake itself, you’ll need to arrive by 9:30am.
Bike the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail from Banff to Canmore. The Legacy Trail is a scenic paved bike path that parallels the TransCanada Highway between Canmore and Banff. It is 22 kilometres in length, and is easiest ridden from Banff to Canmore if riding one way with children. Start at Cascade Pond in Banff and ride to the Travel Alberta Visitor Centre in Canmore. My family usually sends an adult back for the vehicle while the rest of us head to the nearby McDonald’s in Canmore for ice cream. You could also ride downtown to access other restaurants, parks, or cafes while waiting for the return ride in Canmore.
Look for Grizzly Bears from the Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola. Lake Louise promotes their gondola tours as “one of the best places on earth to see wild grizzly bears in their natural environment” and is proud to claim almost daily sightings. From the top of the gondola, you can enjoy one of three guided interpretive hikes (the 45-minute “Trail of the Great Bear” hike is only $9.95 per person).
Advance reservations are recommended for all guided tours at the resort. There are also various Ride and Dine packages for breakfast and lunch. My suggestion is to arrive early, enjoy breakfast at the resort, and ride the gondola before it gets busy later on in the day.
Visit the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. The Cave and Basin National Historic Site is the birthplace of our National Park System, and is located in the town-site of Banff. Here you can take a look at the original hot springs and cave that were discovered in 1883 by three railway workers. There are many special events here year-round, and the interpretive displays are interesting for the whole family.
You can also hike or bike on the paved Sundance Trail to the Sundance Canyon trailhead from the Cave and Basin site. The trail is 8.6-kilometre return with a loop of 2 kilometres through the canyon. Plan to lock up your bikes if continuing on foot into the canyon.
Finish off your day with a trip to the Banff Upper Hot Springs pool where you can enjoy a soak. (There is no bathing allowed in the waters at the Cave and Basin.)
Explore Banff by canoe, kayak, stand-up paddleboards, or raft. Rent a canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddleboards from the Banff Canoe Club and spend a couple of hours paddling up Forty Mile Creek toward the first Vermillion Lake. You’ll get classic views of Mount Rundle from the lake as you paddle around the wetlands looking for birds and other wildlife sightings. From the Canoe Club, you can also paddle up the Bow River, which is peaceful and easygoing with little current to paddle against. When you tire of paddling, turn around and float back down river to the docks. Make sure to arrive early in the day if you want your choice of boat without a lineup.
Other fun ways to get on the water in Banff:
Take a scenic drive on the Icefields Parkway. The Icefields Parkway connects the village of Lake Louise with the town of Jasper, and is one of Canada’s most scenic driving tours. Drive as far as you want if day-touring, but make sure you stop to take photos in front of Bow Lake. This is also the trailhead to Bow Glacier Falls reached in an easy 4.6-kilometre hike one way. Another popular hike starts from the highest point along the highway at Bow Summit. Follow the short interpretive trail to the Peyto Lake Viewpoint, and then continue on the trail for the Bow Summit Lookout, reached in a 3-kilometre hike one way.
Reserve an equipped campsite in Banff (complete with tent and most supplies). Camping can be scary when you don’t have the experience, background, or supplies. Simplify your outing with an equipped campsite. These campsites at the Two Jack Main Campground (across from Two Jack Lake on the Minnewanka Loop Road) come equipped with a six- person tent (already set up), six sleeping pads, propane stove, and a lantern. (Bring your own sleeping bags.) Advanced reservations are required, and there are 32 equipped campsites in the park.
Another option for novice campers is to reserve an oTENTik at the Two Jack Lakeside Campground. Parks Canada describes these units as “a cross between an A-frame cabin and a prospector tent mounted on a raised wooden floor.” Each oTENTik sleeps six people and comes equipped with mattresses, a table and chairs, and a heater. Bring your own sleeping bags, cooking stove, and basic camping supplies.
Tanya is a freelance writer and mom to a spunky eight-year-old. She loves hiking, camping, skiing, and all things mountain- related. She is the author of the blog, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies, rockiesfamilyadventures.com.
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