Banff National Park: Know Before You Go

The Swiss Alps have nothing on the stunning Canadian Rockies

Head north for epic views.

It’s easy to see why Banff National Park was once advertised as 50 Switzerlands in one. Each massive mountain piercing the sky in Banff is a reason to stare, each with its unique shape. And so many valleys between are filled with pools of water—each a different shade of ethereal glow—or a glacier slipping slowly from an icefield.

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sure, Banff is renowned for skiing come winter (though some heights have enough snow to backcountry ski all year long, even in July), but the valleys are pleasantly warm throughout summer and offer pleasantly crisp hikes in fall. The Canadian national park is covered in larch conifers, the only evergreen to change colors and shed its needles in fall.

The area has enough going on to keep you busy for days or even weeks. Immediately north of Banff, you’ll find Jasper National Park, located in such proximity that it’s difficult to tell where one park ends and the other begins, a real two-for-one deal. Plus, if you somehow tire of gondolas soaring above a sea of trees, incredibly scenic drives, glacier hikes, and Banff’s tasteful lodge towns, the nearby cities of Edmonton and Calgary offer innovative restaurants, bars, and art. No matter how much time you have, here’s what to cram into your trip to Banff.

Edmonton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start and end in a buzzing city

To get to Banff, you can drive out of either Edmonton or Calgary to the national park. Both are newer cities with sky-scraper-filled downtowns; Edmonton feels artsy and green while Calgary is a little more polished.

In Edmonton, look for the enormous parks system running through the center of the city, thanks to protected land on both sides of the North Saskatchewan River. Locals bike, walk, or scooter around the 40 miles of pathways weaving through the trees and descending to blue water. Whether you hike, kayak, or sign on for a dinner or party on a river boat in North Saskatchewan, no worries about trekking back uphill at the end of the day—you can ride the funicular instead.

Rogers Place, home of the Edmonton Oilers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whyte Avenue is the street to check out while you’re in town with its restaurants, indie theater, beer gardens, farmer’s markets, and street art. Here you’ll find a bar in an old train station, board game cafes, arcade bars, and restaurants dishing ramen, ice cream, vegan eats, curries, Cajun food, and more.

The other option is Calgary. You’ll also find gentle rafting and kayaking on the Bow River, a haunted ghost tour around the city, and chuck wagon races at the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, the world-famous Calgary Stampede (July 7-13, 2023 where old wooden food carts go neck and neck.

Icefields Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take in the drive

Getting anywhere in or around Banff and Jasper means you’re doing a scenic drive so I won’t recommend specific routes—though you’ll probably take the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) and the Trans Canada Highway (Highway 1). In any case, just follow your maps app and be ready to look up a lot. Even the driver will be wowed—while still focusing intently on the road and keeping hands on the wheel at exactly the 10 and 2 o’clock positions, of course.

Don’t be surprised if a massive elk stands majestically by the road allowing puny humans to snap their little photos. And yes, there are bears here but whether you see them from a car or on the trail they’re not particularly interested in humans.

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hit up tea houses and gondolas while hiking in Banff

Whenever you decide to stop the car, it’s time for an open-air adventure. The most popular destination for hikers and non-hikers alike is Lake Louise, or Ho-Run-Num-Nay, meaning the lake of little fish. This is where you’ll find the most Instagram posts as well as kayak trips on the turquoise water.

One excellent hike in this area is the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail which is a moderate 6-mile roundtrip hike from Lake Louise up about 1,000 feet to a lovely tea house serving cakes, warm entrees, hot cocoa, and—of course—tea. The hike to Lake Agnes Tea House also starts from Lake Louise and is easier to reach at only 4.7 miles roundtrip.

If you don’t want to pack your trekking poles and lunch or stress about where to find the best wildlife spotting, stopping points, and photo opportunities, companies like Discover Banff Tours offer guided hikes to take all the worry out of the outdoors.

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just across from Ho-Run-Num-Nay is the Lake Louise Gondola that runs through early October. From the top dropoff point you can hike one of the many trails on the summit or dine at the ski lodge that’s open year round.

For an easy but stunning hike in Banff, try Johnson Canyon Lower Falls which is a flat 1-mile walk on boardwalks suspended over a river in a narrow canyon. You’ll feel like you’re levitating above the river until you get to a small cave and waterfall at the end where teal blue water gushes into shimmering pools. You can continue onwards from there to Upper Falls for higher vistas.

And close to town, Stoney Squaw is another short 2-mile hike that’s steeper and more secluded with few people and many tree roots along the trail. You’ll mostly be surrounded by pines the entire time except for some quick views at the top so this is one for the forest bathers out there.

Columbia Icefield © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Climb up glaciers and into hot springs in Jasper

Walking on top of a glacier is a rare experience—and one that’s getting even rarer since many of them are melting away. Going on a trek with a responsible tourism group allows visitors the chance of a lifetime. The glaciers from the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park are shrinking but they’re still hypnotic to gaze upon as they sit like eerie, silent giants.

Whether or not you opt to walk on the icefield—for which a guide is required lest you fall into one of the deep cracks—you can also hike a short trail that takes you to the edge of the glacier. The hikes start at the Glacier View Lodge which is an elegant place to stay and see the bluish ice from the hotel’s huge floor-to-ceiling windows. From here, you can also purchase tickets for the Skywalk where visitors walk out onto a glass platform suspended 900 feet above the rugged glacial landscape.

Glacial Skywalk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If even the thought of a glacier hike is chilling there’s also plenty of heat to be had in Jasper. The Sulphur Skyline Trail is a stunning hike that ends in hot springs. About 5 miles roundtrip and with around a 2,000-foot elevation gain this hike climbs gradually up inclines and switchbacks until you’re suddenly beholding the world from its crown. You’ll want to be extra careful with your footing at the very top since it’s somewhat gravely.

Or just skip the whole thing and sit in the natural Miette Hot Springs at the foot of the trail, surrounded by all the peaks you can admire regardless of whether you decide to climb them. At time of writing Miette Hot Springs was closed due to a road washout resulting in the closure of Miette Road. Check with Parks Canada for an update on the reopening of Miette Road.

The Bald Hills trail is another iconic hike in Jasper with huge views at the top. The majority of the 8-mile route goes through forests, either steeply to the left or on an easier fire road to the right until emerging for the ridgeline view. The trail starts and stops by Maligne Lake where you can opt to go on a boat cruise.

Jasper Townsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Relax each evening in a lodge town

A couple of towns located within the national parks exemplify the best version of lodge towns. While there are certainly many tourists, the villages don’t feel overdone; there’s an authenticity to the buildings that perhaps comes with weathering many long winters. The main towns are Banff and Jasper. You’ll find numerous shops and restaurants all within wooden mountain houses. Tour operators pick guests up directly from the hotels in town and make it easy to get around the national park without having to drive or fight for parking at trailheads.

Elk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you get back to town and still have the stamina to take in more mountain views, bike trails are the best way to explore the immediate area—which can be done via e-bike for those who want to see the sights but whose legs have called it quits. One nearby option with a glorious vista is Lake Minnewanka Loop which goes up and down some hills in a 15-mile route along protected bike lanes and a low-traffic road.

Rocky mountain sheep © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While Jasper has plenty to offer as well, Banff is the perfect home base to return to after a long day of excursions. Three Bears Brewery is a highlight where the food is as inventive as the beer. Whatever you do, order the lamb rib with pomegranate glaze and a hint of chili oil, which is an outrageous dish you’ll keep dreaming about on the trails. And though the beer menu is extensive, with hoppy trail brews and local pine pilsners, the restaurant’s signature drinks are infused beers. Using teas like rooibos and fruit such as blueberries or peaches, brewers experiment with flavors that come out fresh from the on-site infusion chamber. Look out for a peppermint stout as the seasons get colder.

Worth Pondering…

The mountains are calling and I must go.

—John Muir