You won’t be bored in Banff. This quaint little town and its stunning environment revolve completely around tourism and there’s a plethora of activities to keep the visitor occupied. It can be hard to make the right pick. To get you started, here are fifteen fantastic activities – hiking, nightlife, tours, museum, and tourist attractions – to consider.
First a word of caution: the hikes described here take you into an enormous forest that you’ll share with predators like grizzly bears and cougars. Both of these species have, however rarely, killed human beings in the park before. Don’t be foolish in thinking that it won’t happen to you. Hike in groups, carry a bear bell and bear spray, and ask at the Info Centre on Banff Avenue what advice they can give you on the current situation.
Okay, having said that, let’s get on with our Top 15 Things To Do In Banff!
15 -Hike up the backside of Sulphur Mountain
Sulphur Mountain is the only mountain in Banff of which anyone can reach the summit, not least because there’s a gondola to take you there. There are also people who choose to hike the narrow trail from the gondola’s parking lot. But what many visitors don’t know, is that there’s a very quiet road leading up the back side of Sulphur Mountain. It can be a strenuous hike for those not used to a constantly ascending road: the altitude gain is about 655 metres spread out over 5.8 kilometres.
To get to the “Back Road,” walk to Cave and Basin National Historic Site, and then keep going past the parking lot and the building. You’ll find a wide, paved footpath that leads into the forest. Follow this footpath for nearly 2 kilometres until you reach a very obvious bend to the left. Just before this bend, you’ll see two dirt trails: one to the right, and one to the left. Take the one to the left. From here, it’s 5.8 kilometres to the summit. Keep an eye out for the hoary marmot that resides near the top and sunbathes on the rocks.
Once you’ve reached the summit, definitely have a look at the old stone hut where a true legend, Norman Sanson, observed the weather for many, many years. Afterwards, you can hike down the switchback trail down to the Upper Hot Springs (see below) or ride the magnificent gondola down with its (literally) moving views. Don’t attempt this trail while mountain tops are still covered in snow.
14 -Hike the Spray River Loop (or onwards to Canmore)
This 11 kilometre loop starts at the parking lot behind the Banff Springs Hotel and runs along both sides of the Spray River, which ends up in the Bow River just past the bridge to the golf course. The trail is fairly level, wide, and goes through a narrow valley. The walk can be shortened by taking the little bridge across the Spray River about 800 metres into the forest. You’ll be mesmerized by the rising mountains on both sides. Hike until you reach the bridge after about one hour, and then return on the other side. You can also start this hike at the golf course, though the trail head is harder to find there.
The first half of the hike can also be done as part of a wilderness walk to the town of Canmore. At the bridge, simply keep going. After about another five kilometres, you’ll get to a turn-off to the left. About 100 metres into the turn-off, you’ll see a bridge you’ll need to cross. Then simply follow the trail on the other side. At the park boundary, turn left. You’ll get to a mountain road, which will take you down to the town of Canmore.
This latter hike is relatively long (more than 26 kilometres) and goes into the back country proper. I did it alone, because I like to think that I’m Superman and can fight off the largest grizzly bear, but wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Carry your bear spray, walk with other people, and take water and food with you. In Canmore, you can take the bus back to Banff. This is a great day hike, but there are no facilities along the way and you may not always have cell phone reception. Please go prepared.
13 – Hike up Tunnel Mountain
Now here’s a hike that will make you feel like a true mountaineer: hiking up Tunnel Mountain is a relatively easy hike that takes about 45-75 minutes, and brings you to an altitude of about 1,600 metres – although the real altitude gain is only 220 metres, or so. The summit provides you with fantastic views of the valley and the surrounding mountains.
To reach Tunnel Mountain, walk to the end of Caribou Street where a footpath takes you to St. Julien Road. Follow the road to the right, and after 100 metres you’ll find the trail head on your left, beside the parking lot. The first part is pretty steep, but don’t let this discourage you as it will get better and much easier. The trail is popular with locals and visitors alike, so there’s very little chance of encountering wildlife here. Tunnel Mountain is the perfect introduction to hiking in Banff National Park. After you’ve had a taste, you’ll only want more of it!
12 -Hike Sundance Canyon
Like Tunnel Mountain, the hike to Sundance Canyon can be done by anyone who’s not on crutches. It takes you to a great waterfall, which you’ll cross at the top via a bridge. Then the 1.6 kilometre Sundance Canyon Loop brings you through the forest back to near the waterfall.
Getting to Sundance Canyon is simple: from town, walk to Cave and Basin National Historic Site, cross the parking lot and walk past the building, after which you’ll see a wide, paved path leading into the forest. That path brings you straight up to Sundance Canyon, from where the Loop starts.
Taking in the breathtaking scenery, you should allow about two hours for this hike.
11 – Hike the Cory Pass Loop
This one is said to be one of the more strenuous hiking trails in Banff National Park, and I can confirm that it is indeed. But it’s also the most rewarding one. You’ll ascend above the tree line and the trail becomes more or less a scrambling route. The most agreeable aspect is that it’s a loop which – no matter which direction you take it in – first ascents about 900 metres before descending 900 metres.
The trail head is about six kilometres outside of Banff. Walk or cycle along Vermillion Lakes Road out of town, continue on the bike trail until you get to the second wildlife gate, and take a left on the 1A. At the wooden gate, turn right, and follow the dirt road until you get to the Fireside picnic area. This is where you’ll find the trail head to the Cory Pass Loop.
10 – Drink a Banff Brew
When I first heard of Banff National Park, I had not expected that there was a vivid nightlife scene, let alone a beer brewery. But now I have tried them all – they serve fine, often smooth beer. Perfect for your first drink in Banff.
You can find the brewery along Banff Avenue, in the Clock Tower Mall, right near McDonald’s.
9 – Where the locals drink
Maybe I shouldn’t put this bar in here for the sake of keeping it authentic, but Bruno’s Bar is where the locals drink. It has a great, relaxed atmosphere with talkative bartenders. You’ll find it on Caribou Street, just off Banff Avenue.
8 – Play Bingo at the Legion
The Legion’s building is situated right at the Bow River Bridge, and hosts a bingo evening every Thursday night. Get there early: the $1,000 jackpot makes it a very popular event. Inquire beforehand about the exact time. Almost anyone working in Banff can tell you about it, because bingo in Banff does away with the grandmotherly image that the game generally holds. The Legion also offers the cheapest beer in town. Because the Legion honours the Canadian soldiers and forms a support organization throughout the country for those who have served, respectful behaviour is most important. This includes taking your hat or cap off when you enter.
7 – Rock it out at the Rose & Crown
There are many great bars in Banff, but the bar where live performances are almost guaranteed is at the Rose & Crown. What I enjoyed there mostly, is that the acoustics are one of the best in town. Whereas other bars may play loud music in (too) confined areas, the Rose & Crown has the perfect setting for a nice evening of rocking it out with engaging Canadian and American (cover) bands. You’ll find the Rose & Crown near the corner of Banff Avenue and Caribou Street.
6 – Have a tranquil pint at the Irish pub
One of the most comfy bars in Banff is, in my humble opinion, St. James’ Gate. There is a huge selection of beers, the service is good, and you can actually have a conversation because there’s no intrusive music. I’ve often enjoyed sitting in that great bar, in the midst of great company, local friends. Go to Wolf Street to check it out for yourself.
5 – Read a book on a bench at Central Park
Central Park is the go-to place for relaxation in the summer time. You’ll find people there who are running, couples walking hand-in-hand, backpackers trying to balance atop a slackline, families having a picnic, and so on – all the great park activities you’ll find all around the world with the sound of the raging Bow River in the background.
4 -Take a Lake Minnewanka cruise
Brewster Travel Canada offers four activities that will help you look at the mountains from a different perspective: the Glacier Skywalk, the huge buses on the Athabasca Glacier, the aforementioned Banff Gondola on Sulphur Mountain and the Lake Minnewanka Cruise. The latter is expensive, but the cruises are executed in a great way.
To get to Lake Minnewanka, follow Banff Avenue out of town and keep going underneath the highway overpass. The lake has an interesting and even surprising history that is explained while on the cruise by engaging tour guides. Buy your tickets on-line to avoid having to stand in line on the mooring docks.
3 – Soak in the Upper Hot Springs
Banff is all about hot springs. They’re even the reason the town exists: railroad workers found the hot springs around Cave and Basin and foresaw a touristic goldmine. Those are closed nowadays, but you can still get a taste of the original tourist magnet by visiting the Upper Hot Springs.
The water is kept at a beautiful 40º, and especially in winter it’s an almost magical experience to sit in water that releases steam constantly while your hair freezes.
To get to the Upper Hot Springs, go up Mountain Avenue by bus or car. Local bus line 1 takes you up there for $2 one-way, and can be taken from every bus stop along Banff Avenue.
2 – Visit the museums
Banff has three unique museums. Here are brief descriptions of each:
The Luxton Buffalo Nations Museum
This museum, which looks a trading post, is all about the native cultures that were once present in the Bow Valley. The depictions of Aboriginal life are fantastic and the museum guide is a knowledgeable Nakoda native who can tell you everything about the things you see in here. The museum is located on the other side of the Bow River: cross the bridge, look to your right, and you’ll see the trading post sitting right there.
The Parks Museum
This one is by far my favourite. It has been open since 1903, and still looks the way it did in 1914. So it’s a museum within a museum. It’s filled with stuffed animals and specimens from across the national park. On the second floor is the office of Norman Sanson, the man who built the weather observatory atop Sulphur Mountain. To get the full picture: visit this museum before ascending the mountain to the hut – you’ll see a sign on which Sanson has written that he has gone up Sulphur. Try meeting him there! The Parks Museum is the square wooden building right at the bridge, on the edge of Central Park.
The Whyte Museum
This museum is probably the most classic museum of Banff. It changes exhibitions periodically, and deals with the local history, mountain culture, and the likes. It also hosts the Banff Archives, which I needed for the writing of Baffling Banff. The Whyte Museum is behind the library. On its premises are original cabins from the old days which have been donated to the museum. Definitely visit the museum when they tour those cabins!
1 – Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon will always remain my favourite leisure activity within the national park. It’s open year round and gets very crowded in the summer. The visitor walks through a narrow gorge with waterfalls, cascades, and rising rock walls with the aid of an especially constructed walkway. I can highly recommend this one and it only takes a few hours to visit.
You’ll get to Johnston Canyon by heading west to Lake Louise along the highway, then take the first exit onto the 1A. Johnston Canyon appears on your right after 17 kilometres. The relatively short distance also makes for an easy bike ride, in which case you would get to the 1A by cycling down Vermillion Lakes Road.
The story of Banff has been detailed in a little travelogue titled Baffling Banff. The e-book version can be purchased for only 1 dollar; the paperback costs only $9 (on Amazon.com).