Banff National Park truly is a gem in Canada. The Park was established in 1885 and is Canada’s oldest National Park. Located in the Canadian Rocky Mountains it is a nature lover’s paradise- even those preferring cities will gasp of wonder! A lot of love and effort is put in, to keep this place the beauty it is. Visiting Canada’s National Parks (or any place for that matter) you should do your bit to maintain the beauty:
- take your rubbish with you
- stay on the assigned paths to keep the flora intact
- don’t feed any wildlife
- leave no traces of food
- keep your distance to wildlife
- visit the Parks Canada website to learn more about small things you can do to keep the parks beautiful, clean and the wildlife wild
In this article you will discover our 5 Must Do’s in Banff National Park, so let’s begin…. 🙂
1 Go for a hike
Hiking is definitely a Must Do in Banff National Park! Connect with nature, breath in the fresh mountain air and enjoy the most stunning views. There are plenty of hikes in Banff itself and the surrounding areas. No matter what fitness level you’re in, Canada’s first National Park offers hiking experiences for everyone! In our Banff Guide we have included 5 hikes starting in the town Banff for you.
Lake Agnes Teahouse -> Big Beehive (~5km one way, 🕥 ~4hrs return)
A must do hike in Banff National Park outside of Banff is to Lake Agnes and further up to the Big Beehive. From here you get a breathtaking view over the picturesque Lake Louise with its unique milky blue color. The hike to Lake Agnes is well maintained, rated as moderate and is extremely busy in summer. To avoid the major crowds it’s best to do the hike early summer or early fall; and to start walking first thing in the morning. We walked this trail early October and didn’t experience it to be packed.
Next to Lake Agnes is a little Tea House which is open from June to October. As hiking in the morning can be quite chilly, sipping hot chocolate at this quaint spot while warming up in the sun felt like a life saver! Walk anti clockwise around the lake and up the stoney Big Beehive. Once at the top make sure to walk through the trees, all the way to the front for the best panoramic view over Lake Louise.
The Valley of Ten Peaks (~4.3km one way, 🕥 ~4hrs return)
The best things in life usually take us by surprise. I (Dan) was told briefly about this walk from friends, however, didn’t expect much from it. I did this trail in September, the time of year where snow began to scatter on the ground adding a mystical effect to the hike. It’s an easy to moderate walk; mostly through forest. You get to see hints of the peaks through the trees – and this is where the real anticipation begins.
Once I got to the top, I was completely blown away – never before experiencing such a silence in my mind – taken away by the beauty of the tall peaks surrounding the the valley. To this day, it’s still one of the most incredible views I’ve had experienced in my life.
2 Visit the stunning blue glacial lakes
You’ve surely seen pictures of these outstanding Rocky Mountain lakes. It might be hard to believe, but their color is not photoshopped. Depending on the time of day and the location from which you’re looking at the lakes their colors vary between shades of turquoise towards azure.
Lake Louise is without a doubt the most visited tourist spot in Banff National Park. The unique milky blue color and the beautiful backdrop attracts people from all parts of the world. We’ve seen the lake in both summer and winter, and it was incredible to witness the seasons change the landscape. From ice skating on completely frozen water in winter; to floating and paddling in a kayak (literally at the exact same spot) in summer – it was a special feeling to connect the seasons in this spot.
Chances are that seeing a photo of this beautiful lake has inspired you to come to Banff National Park- this is how it went for Dan at least. Standing above the lake, looking at this stunning blue color and the majestic mountains in the background you can’t help but feel in awe! Not surprisingly, you’ll probably share this viewpoint with many others. However, it gets way quieter once you walk along the shoreline.
Note: Due to the high altitude which results in heaps of snow in winter, the Moraine Lake is only accessible in the summer months.
Seeing photos taken at this popular viewspot makes it seem like the person in the picture just finished a big hike. Truth is you barely have to hike to have this incredible view revealed to you. Park your car at the Bow Summit parking lot just off the Icefield parkway and follow a paved walkway for less than 2km upwards. You’ve now reached a wooden viewing platform, which again is most likely crowded. Just before getting to the platform you’ll find a path leading through trees out to an open lookout. Here you can take the best photos and can enjoy the breathtaking view with fewer people around.
Arriving at Bow Lake we were stunned by its clear water and the amazing reflection of the surrounding mountains. The lake looks very inviting to swim in, but once you step in the water you’ll be taken back to the reality of it being a glacier fed, icy cold lake. You can see Bow Lake when driving along the main road which leads through the Banff National Park- the Icefield Parkway. However, it is definitely worth stopping and getting out of the car!
For the best photo opportunities, leave the highway towards the Simpson’s Num Ti-Jah Lodge. Park your car in the public parking lot just off the highway and walk past the Lodge towards the lake. There is a trail along the shore which makes up the start of the Bow Glacier Falls Trail. As we had the Columbia Icefield Adventure booked for later in the day (see Must Do #5) we only walked a tiny part of this trail. We would have loved to continue! If you have the time add this walk to your list.
Tip: to see the best reflection of the mountains in the water visit Bow Lake in the morning
3 Rent a canoe and paddle on one of the glacial lakes
The canoe takes up a big part of the Canadian culture. It was first used by Natives then also by settlers. Due to its great agility, it was the main means of transport in many regions and was often used for trading. Nowadays, Canoeing counts to the most popular outdoor activities in Canada. What more iconic way to enjoy the lake than paddling in a canoe on it? Being out on the water you experience the lake from a completely different perspective and have more stunning views revealed to you.
Lake Louise is a popular location for canoeing. Its stunning scenery leaves you in awe and makes up the perfect photo backdrop. You can rent canoes at the Lake Louise Boat house. With the Banff Ambassador pass (which you are eligible for when living and working in Banff for a few months) we were lucky to experience one hour of free canoe rental. Canoes can be rented at Lake Louise for $125 per hour and hold a maximum of 3 people.
Tip: If it doesn’t match your budget, we recommend renting a canoe at Emerald Lake in the neighboring Yoho National Park. This way you save $55 and keep off the crowds without missing out on the beauty of a canoe experience in breathtaking surroundings. Canoes can be rented from May to September 10am-5pm (with longer rental hours in the peak months July and August).
4 Relax in the Banff Upper Hot Springs
Since the 1880ies travellers come to Banff to bathe in the mineral rich water. The Banff Upper Hot Springs are the perfect way to unwind and soothe your from hiking sore muscles. You can take in the fresh mountain air and enjoy an amazing view of the surrounding mountains while sitting in the hot water. For a historical experience – or if you forget to bring your swimmers like Dan the first time we went – you can hire one of the historical swimsuits at the entrance.
We loved the springs so much that we returned many times during winter. Feeling snowflakes fall on your head while soaking in the hot water with all the steam around you is truly magical! As the water temperature reaches over 40degrees, we had to take little breaks and sit on the pool’s edge for a minute – even in outside temperatures of -10degrees or lower.
Our favorite time to visit was in the late evening about two hours before closing. At that time the Hot Springs, which can get super busy during the day, are way quieter and can be enjoyed in more privacy. The only downside of going after sunset, is not being able to see the surrounding landscape. If you like to have both- the view and less crowds- we suggest visiting the springs early in the morning.
By car: it is super easy to drive to the Banff Upper Hot Springs. Simply head south on Banff Avenue. After crossing the Bow River turn left onto Spray Avenue and take the next right onto Mountain Avenue. Follow this road all the way to the top. About 200m further down, you find a big car park where you can park your car free of charge.
By bus: Route 1 will take you to the Banff Upper Hotsprings. Walk to your closest bus stop located on Banff Avenue heading South; hop on and get off at the ‘Banff Upper Hot Springs’ bus stop. To return downtown, you’ll have to walk to the bus stop at the nearby Rimrock Resort Hotel and catch the bus from there. The schedule varies depending on the time of year.
5 Visit the Athabasca Glacier just outside of Banff National Park
Less than 10 minutes outside of the northern border of Banff National Park you can visit the Athabasca Glacier. This glacier is part of the Columbia Icefields and covers an area of 6km², which is only 2% of the complete icefields! You can see the Athabasca Glacier from the highway and can walk towards it.
For a close up experience, we recommend booking the Columbia Icefield Adventure The ‘Ice Explorer’ vehicle will bring you right on top of the glacier, you’ll hear much interesting information and the team is making sure to get good vibes happening! Standing on the 200m thick ice and learning about the glacier was such a unique experience. It definitely counts to our favorite moments in the Canadian Rockies!
Note: please never walk on the glacier by yourself as it can end fatal
If you cover all these 5 Must Do’s in Banff National Park on your visit, you will have a great insight into this breathtaking area! For ideas on what to do in winter, check out our Top 8 Banff winter activties.
PS: to visit Canada’s National Parks, you will need to purchase a National Park Pass. Find more info here.