It’s easy to see why Banff National Park was once advertised as 50 Switzerlands in one. The mountain range—comprising bizarrely jagged peaks many exceeding 12,000 feet—goes on for thousands of miles. And so many valleys between are filled with pools of water—each a different shade of glowing, ethereal teal.
Banff is renowned for skiing in winter though some heights have enough snow to backcountry ski all year long, even in July while the valleys offer perfectly crisp hikes in spring and fall. Come summer, the balmy 70-degree weather keeps you from sweating too much as you ascend peaks or enjoy sparkling pools in the valleys.
Visiting here is a real two-for-one deal since immediately next to Banff is Jasper National Park located in such proximity that it’s difficult to tell where one park ends and the other begins. Plus, if you somehow tire of gondolas soaring above a sea of trees, incredibly scenic drives, glacier hikes, tasteful lodge towns, or tea houses serving steaming treats and drinks directly on the trail, 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.
Start and end in a buzzing city
To get to Banff, drive your car or RV from Calgary to the national park. But, instead of doubling back to the Stampede City an ideal option would be to continue onward through the park and onto Jasper and onto Edmonton to hit up both cities. Both are newer cities with sky-scraper-filled downtowns; Calgary is on the more polished side while Edmonton feels artsy and green.
In Edmonton, you’ll notice a chain of parks 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 pine trees and descending down to glacier-blue water. You’ll find art scattered through the park and the city some of which is created by indigenous artists and celebrates Métis First Nations or the Cree language. Whether you hike, kayak, or sign on for a dinner or party on a river boat on the North Saskatchewan, no worries about trekking all the way back uphill at the end of the day—you can ride the funicular instead.
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.
Across town there’s some newer development in the ICE District, a 25-acre mixed-use development project located in the heart of downtown Edmonton. ICE District is a modern, urban destination and gathering space and ranks as the largest mixed-use sports and entertainment district in Canada and the 2nd largest in North America after Hudson Yards in New York. ICE District is home to a mix of premium office space, high-end residences, a luxury hotel, boutique shops and restaurants, all anchored by Rogers Place, a state-of-the-art sports and entertainment facility that is home to the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.
The other option is Calgary. Also known as Cowtown to the rest of Canada, this cosmopolitan city is rooted in its wild Western heritage. It’s also Canada’s energy centre—both economically and culturally. You’ll never find yourself bored in Calgary.
Calgary’s downtown has everything you’d expect from a big city: shopping, fine dining, museums and endless entertainment options. The surrounding neighbourhoods each have a unique identity, with boutiques, breweries and a bevy of public art. Two large rivers wind throughout it all, forever nourishing its parks and people.
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 Calgary Stampede (July 7-16, 2023) where old wooden food carts go neck and neck. Check out the cool neighborhood of Kensington for nightlife.
Located in the heart of the city, the Calgary Tower offers a spectacular 360-degree view. Enjoy a one-of-a-kind view of Calgary on the incredible glass floor and see the bustling streets below. An informative and inspiring multi-media tour is available for free and accessible from your mobile device.
Take in the drive
Getting anywhere in or around Banff and Jasper means you’re doing a scenic drive so I won’t even bother recommending specific routes—though you’ll probably take the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) and the Trans Canada Highway.
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 but you’ll still need to use caution.
Hit up tea houses and gondolas while hiking in Banff
Whenever you decide to stop the car, it’s time for 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 walk 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 though the less crowded Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House is more rustic and rewarding.
Just across from Ho-Run-Num-Nay is the Lake Louise Summer 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 Johnston 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.
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.
On this incredible experience you’ll travel on a massive Ice Explorer all-terrain vehicle to the Athabasca Glacier, a 10,000-year-old sheet of ice where you can walk on, feel, and drink from the glacier.
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.
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 jaw-dropping 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.
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.
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 plasticky; there’s an authenticity to the wood and fireplaces that perhaps comes with weathering many long winters. The main towns are eponymously named 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.
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. At Snowtips-Bactrax in Banff, workers will outfit you with either a mountain or electric bike and offer maps and suggestions of which routes to take from the center of town depending on how long you want to ride. 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.
While Jasper has plenty to offer as well, Banff is the perfect home base to return to after a long day of excursions. The Three Bears Brewery is a highlight where the food is as inventive as the beer. 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 for fruity combos in warmer months and a peppermint stout as the seasons get colder.
For a final dose of relaxation, one highly suggested activity is to soak in a steam room full of eucalyptus. Steam rooms might seem like they’re the same all over the world but the humble mini-spa that’s free (I repeat, free) for guests of Peaks Hotel & Suites must have a rejuvenating secret beyond just a lovely smell.
The new hotel in Banff is beautifully designed with rustic-chic vibes, small private balconies, and free hot cocoa by the gas fireplace—but their indoor pool and plunge pools are transformative after mountain climbing. The potent eucalyptus in all that steam seems to penetrate both your muscles and lungs for a deep hiking recovery that’ll have you ready to get back at it in no time.
The mountains are calling and I must go.