Banff National Park
A short drive from Calgary, one of the oldest national parks of the world, Banff National Park is home to placid lakes, sharp cliffs, glaciers, snow clad mountain ranges and a diverse ecology. Here, you will spot serene lakes as you may spot bars in New York City. While you can choose to come during any time of the year, certain roads may not be accessible in winter.
Suggested Time Spent: 2 Days | Best Time to Visit: May – Oct | Entry Fee: CAD 9.80 per adult
As you drive from Calgary to Banff National Park through the Trans-Canada Highway 1, you will pass the entrance. To save some time, buy the pass online. Unless you are going to visit multiple parks in the same year, only buy the day pass that is valid for two consecutive days.
Before hitting the road and the trails in Banff National Park, it is good to have an idea on the geologic history of the Canadian Rockies. Tectonic activity and glaciers primarily formed and shaped the topography of this area. Get all your answers on our short coverage of the Geology of this area here.
Things to see
Banff National Park has plenty of marked attractions for photography and hiking, but real treasures are often in the ‘road less taken’. So even if we recommended 2 full days, we also suggest taking a break from the list of places to cover and go in that trail that looks interesting, albeit safety permitting.
We set up our base in Canmore in a charming little cabin. There is debate on whether to stay in the town of Banff or Canmore. Banff is inside the park, therefore is, not surprisingly, extremely touristy. Whereas Canmore, outside the park boundaries, is a quaint town and has a bit more local feeling. Here are a list of spots that cannot be missed –
- Lake Minnewanka and Vermillion Lakes: As you exit the highway towards the town of Banff, a small byway will take you to the serene Lake Minnewanka and the Vermillion Lakes. Soak in the beauty of the reflection of the mountains behind on placid lake waters before hitting the road to a few more attractions.
- Johnston Canyon: Driving north on the Trans-Canada highway, first major stop is at the Johnston Canyon. A quick hike up on a fairly flat trail takes you to the narrow but spectacular Lower Falls. You can crouch up through a small tunnel to get closer to the falls.
- Lake Moraine: This is one of the top most attractions in the park, with seven peaks surrounding the pristine waters of the lake. Dramatic landscape with clouds hanging above the cliffs, makes incredible photographic memories. There is an easy hike up to a small rock pile (possibly created by glacier debris, known as Moraines) from where you can get magnificent views of the lake with all the seven peaks in the background and reflections of the same in the foreground. In late May, we found portions of the lake surface still being frozen, but between June and September, the view is even more exceptional. Try to spot all the 10 peaks surrounding the lake.
- Lake Louise: This is the flagship attraction of the park. Hike the popular Lake Agnes trail for an up close view of the Mt. Saint Piran. In summer and early fall, the water of the lake becomes so still and reflective that you can clearly see the peak merely from the reflections. This is in an avalanche zone, so look to the right and you will see evidences of landslides all around.
- Bow Lake: Further north on the highway, you will reach the pristine Bow lake which is the source of the Bow river that accompanied you so far along the highway. The turquoise blue of the lake with reflections of the Bow glacier makes unparalleled photographic opportunity.
- Peyto Lake: Slightly to the north, is another gem. In late may, we found the trail up to the Bow summit mostly frozen. But we still endured the treacherous hike up to the summit for a fascinating view of the turquoise glacier lake with Mistaya mountains to the left and Marmot mountain range in the far right background. Be careful on your way down, as the trail may be slippery.
- Yoho National Park: A gem hidden inside the larger park, this is a few must-see attractions including the Takkakaw falls and Emerald Lake.
- There is a lookout for the Spiral Tunnels which is still used for cargo trains. The slope was so steep when they tried building a railroad here that the coaches would dangerously slide back down the slope. Therefore an ingenious solution to build multi-level tunnels was designed. If you wait a bit, you may spot a cargo train spiraling from tunnel to tunnel. The tunnel pitch is so short that at some points, the same train can be seen entering into one tunnel and exiting another at a different level. Don’t miss it.
- Town of Banff: We recommend ending your day here. Walk around the streets filled with local souvenirs and interesting restaurants. Grab a beverage and some food in one of the pretty restaurants, and end with an ice cream at the COWs Ice Cream Shop. While you are in town, walk to the gorgeous Cascade Gardens, stone clad Park Canada building and the scenic Fenland Trail.
- Forest rangers have found ways to minimize wildfire damage by producing controlled burns. You will spot remnants of these burns at the lower altitudes.
- Something interesting happens when the Pines are burnt. You may spot new trees have sprouted in the forest full of ancient ones. Under fire, the Pinus cones release a type of resin that germinates paving way to grow new trees whereas other trees perish in a controlled fire.
- Meadows around the road in the lower altitudes show stories of the rise of tourism, beginning at the stage of horse driven carriages to the modern day cars.
Tips for an incredible trip
- DO NOT speed up in these roads due to dangerous curves and wild animals.
- Do Not stop if you spot a bear walking by or grazing. Slow down and take photos as you slowly cruise by.
- Take the Bow Valley Parkway between Banff and Castle Junction. This road runs parallel to albeit at a slower pace than the Trans-canada highway, but gives you ample opportunities to soak in the beauty around.