This is the first in a series of posts about visiting the Canadian Rockies. There is so much to do and see in that region, you can easily feel overwhelmed. I want to help you by listing the most important places to visit in each of the national parks, starting with Banff National Park. Wipe the dust off your specs, I have some gorgeous images to share too!
The Canadian Rockies. Undoubtedly, one of the most beautiful places in the entire world. We visited the region in July and let me tell you, the word “stunning” doesn’t begin to describe their sheer wild beauty of the Canadian Rockies during summertime.
There are four national parks in Alberta’s Canadian Rockies: Jasper, Yoho, Kootenai and Banff. Jasper is the northernmost park, Kootenai is in the south. That leaves us with Yoho and Banff in the middle. Together, these two parks cover one of the most spectacular mountain areas in the world.
Established in 1885, Banff National Park is the third oldest national park in the world! It spreads across 2,564 square miles (6,641 square kilometres) of amazing scenery: mountains, glaciers, icefields, rivers and lakes.
When’s the best time to visit Banff National Park?
Obviously, the region gets very cold during winter. No huge surprises there. Average daytime temperature during January is 12°F (that’s -16°C). Waaaay below freezing point.
This doesn’t mean you can’t visit during winter. On the contrary, Banff is teeming with tourists that time of year. They come not just for the ski slopes but also for the huge array of winter activities. Dogsledding? Ice walks & climbs? Snowmobile tours or maybe heli-skiing? Whatever your winter passion is, Banff National Park has you covered (as long as your bank manager also has you covered, that is).
However, most visitors arrive during the short summer season. If you want to enjoy the green alpine views and gushing waterfalls, June-September is your best bet. After all, hiking is free of charge (though unfortunately accommodation isn’t…) and you can easily have a wonderful time just visiting the places described in this post (and others!)
Where to stay when visiting Banff National Park
If budget isn’t an issue, you’ll want to stay in one of the two towns that are within the park’s borders: Banff and Lake Louise. Banff is the larger of the two, with thousands of luxury rooms within hotels and lodges across town. None of them are cheap and the more cost-effective ones get snatched up quickly, as soon as they begin to take reservations. If you’re planning on staying in Banff, expect to pay anything between $150 and $1500 (or more!) for a room for two. Lake Louise is just as expensive if not even more so.
For our family of four, Banff and Lake Louise are simply too expensive. If you’re like us, you’ll stay just outside the park. We stayed (and will probably stay again this summer) in the town of Canmore. It’s a great choice for us, for several reasons –
- It only takes 25 minutes to drive from Canmore into Banff National Park.
- While not cheap, accommodation can be 20-30% cheaper than in Banff.
- It’s not a tourist trap, meaning there are supermarkets and services at reasonable prices.
On our last visit, we stayed at the Rocky Mountain Ski Lodge in Canmore and had a great experience. We opted for the one bedroom apartment and had plenty of space as well as our own kitchen. Perfect for our five days of visiting Banff and Yoho national parks. Here are more hotels in Canmore for you to choose from.
And finally… here’s why you absolutely have to visit Banff National Park –
4 Natural Wonders to visit in Banff National Park
1. Lake Louise
Which is the most beautiful lake in the Canadian Rocky mountains? There is no shortage of contenders for the title but I bet if you held a poll among visitors to the area, Lake Louise would come in first place. It’s probably the most iconic and most photographed of them all, and for a good reason – it truly is serenely beautiful.
The sight of a majestic glacier coming down from the mountains into this huge lake – a turquoise shade all its own – is literally unforgettable. Besides, if you ever forget, you can look at your photo album. I guarantee you, you’ll be taking many pictures at Lake Louise (and in Banff National Park in general).
Across from the lake, you’ll find the picturesque Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. If you can afford to stay in this luxurious five-star resort, make sure you go for a room with a view to the lake.
You can take in the views, snap some pictures and drive on to your next destination in Banff National Park, or you could hike around Lake Louise. The classic hike is the one that goes all the way up to Lake Agnes, where you can stop for a hot beverage at the famous Lake Agnes Tea House, and then make your way back, either the same way you came up or by continuing to the Plain of Six Glaciers and returning via the Lake Louise lakeshore trail.
The trails are well-maintained but it is a long hike – 6 miles or 10 kilometers if you make the full round – and there’s a significant elevation gain, so come prepared.
2. Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon offers visitors a unique viewpoint on gushing waterfalls in a deep rocky ravine. Normally, you would have to be a rock climber – and a very good one at that! – to gain access to these kind of views. At Johnston Canyon, you enjoy the luxury of hanging trails, making this an easy walk for the entire family. These metal catwalks cling to the rocky walls of the gorge, getting you through safely. Take that, climbers!
A dirt trail gets you to the canyon where you hike along several of the platforms to the Lower Falls. You can – and should – continue on to the Upper Falls, but know that there’s more elevation gain to get there. If you’re parents with a stroller, you may want to stop at Lower Falls and take turns hiking to Upper Falls and back.
3. Valley of the Ten Peaks & Moraine Lake
The view of Moraine Lake and the stunning peaks behind it is nothing short of iconic. Canadians know it as the “20 Dollars View”. That isn’t to say that they value it at $20 – seriously, you don’t have to be a professional appraiser to tell that this view is worth billions – but simply that it was iconic enough to be on the Canadian $20 bill a few decades ago.
A short walk from the parking lot gets you to this view, so this is perfect for those looking to avoid long hikes. Of course, if you’re the kind that actually enjoys hiking (like we do) you can stretch your legs some more by hiking the easy lakeshore trail, or go for one of the more challenging trails in the area. These are the Canadian Rockies, after all, so no shortage in steep elevations and trails of all kinds.
4. Peyto Lake
There are many lakes in the Canadian Rockies but none has that striking neon-bright turquoise shade that Peyto Lake does.
Peyto Lake looks surreal. Literally, beyond real. It’s like someone poured the contents of the Crayola factory warehouse into a lake, picking only the barrels of bright turquoise pigments. The effect is made stronger by the strange opaqueness of the water.
The most recommended viewpoint – and the one we went to – is Bow Summit aka Bow Pass. You can get there by driving the Icefields Highway, about one hour north of Banff, making this a great stop along the drive up north to Jasper National Park (You are doing that, right? Please don’t miss out on Jasper National Park when visiting the Canadian Rockies!)
One more place for your Banff NP Bucket List…
This post was originally titled “5 Natural Wonders in Banff National Park” but I figured naming a road as a natural wonder was taking it too far. I do think you ought to add this road to your list of things you have to do in the park, especially if nature appeals to you. And I know it does, or you wouldn’t be visiting Banff National Park to begin with, right?
5ish. Bow Valley Parkway
Bow Valley Parkway offers an alternate route to the Canadian Highway 1 (aka the Trans-Canada-Highway) between Banff and Lake Louise. This 48-kilometer-long road section is slower than the highway but oh, so worth it! You’re going ot have to get on the Bow Valley Parkway anyway, if you want to visit Johnston Canyon but my suggestion is to stick to this route and return to it as often as possible during your visit to Banff National Park.
Why? In one word: Bears.
Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. This place has the three big predators of the Rockies: wolves, cougars and bears and the latter aren’t at all shy about getting to the roadside for a nice lunch made of
tourists fresh grass.
We once saw no one, not two but six bears while driving the Bow Valley Parkway! Including these two –
Some were distant, others very close. Please, be bear-smart and don’t get too close to shoot your pictures. We’ve seen people do that and not only were those stupid tourists risking their own lives, they were getting the bears habituated to human presence. That’s bad for the bears. Very bad. Please don’t do that.
Is that all there is to see in Banff National Park?
Well, duh, of course not! You could easily spend a couple of weeks here and not see it all. Especially if you’re willing to hit the trails and hike for a few miles. Beautiful lakes, mountains, streams and waterfalls abound in this area and – barring the bears – it really is a hiker’s paradise.
Then there’s the town of Banff itself. This historic resort town is beautiful and can easily fill a traveler’s day. Three museums, a superb visitors center, cable cars that take you all the way up to Sulphur Mountain and even The Cave and Basin National Historic Site – the site that led to the creation of the entire park! – are all within the town’s limits. In other words, it’s well worth a post in its own right but just know that I’m not ignoring the natural – and manmade – wonders of Banff itself!
If you’re thinking about visiting the Canadian Rockies, plan for at least 3-4 days in Banff National Park. More is better. I hope this post made you see why. As always, if you have any comments or questions, please do share them in the comments section below!