Banff National Park. National Park in Alberta, Canada

Banff National Park

National Park in Alberta, Canada

Banff National Park Photo ©

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Banff National Park

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Hoary Marmot (Marmota caligata) - Banff National Park
Hoary Marmot (Marmota caligata) - Banff National Park. Photo by Josefine Stenudd
Banff National Park became Canada's first national park, and only the second established in North America, when it was founded in 1885 in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The park, located west of Calgary in the province of Alberta, encompasses almost 7,000 square km of terrain dominated by mountainous landscapes, expansive ice fields, coniferous forests, and pristine glacier-fed lakes and rivers. Ninety-three percent of this land is pure, untouched wilderness. The main commercial center of the park is the town of Banff, in the Bow River Valley.

The park was established in response to conflicting claims over the discovery of Banff’s natural hot springs and who had the right to develop the area for commercial interests. In 1885, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald decided to set aside a small, protected reserve of land surrounding the springs (now Cave and Basin National Historic Site) for a public park known as the Banff Hot Springs Reserve, after the Banffshire (Wikipedia Article) region in Scotland. In 1930, the passage of the National Parks Act enlarged the park and renamed it Banff National Park.

Moraine Lake sunset - Banff National
Moraine Lake sunset - Banff National Park. Photo by Alexander Shchukin

What to See and Do

If you plan to enter Banff National Park from the south, you will take the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) into the town of Banff. The town itself makes up only a fraction of the entire park, but there is still a wealth of places to see and things to do in the area.

Banff Upper Hot Springs

Sulphur Mountain
Sulphur Mountain
You can take Mountain Avenue from town to see the Upper Hot Springs. All the amenities of a modern facility are featured in this splendid, historic spa and bathhouse – against a backdrop of spectacular alpine scenery. From here, you can choose to hike to Sulphur Mountain Summit or take the Sulphur Mountain Gondola for spectacular views of the town of Banff and the Rocky Mountains. Alternately, you can take the 2-hour trail up Sulphur Mountain and catch the gondola down. Guests will find a restaurant, gift shop, boardwalk, observation deck, and incredible photo opportunities at the summit of the mountain.

Lake Minnewanka

If you take Banff Avenue northeast from town, en route are the Cascade Ponds (often warm enough for swimming), and if you drive a bit farther you can follow the Minnewanka Loop to see Johnson Lake, Two Jack Lake, and Lake Minnewanka, the largest lake in the park.

Cave and Basin National Historic Site

Take Cave Avenue from town to see the birthplace of Canada's national park system. This is where hot sulphur springs were discovered and the original bathhouse was built in 1887. There are also a couple of short nature trails. From here, take a three-hour hike to Sundance Canyon. Or, hike in the other direction to Bow River Bridge to see Bow Falls.

Vermilion Lakes

A little ways northwest on Highway 1, on the outskirts of the town of Banff, turn left onto Mount Norquay Road and then right on Vermilion Lake Drive. Here, you can see all three of the very beautiful Vermilion Lakes (Wikipedia

Castle Mountain Banff
	National Park Alberta Canada - Banff National Park
Castle Mountain Banff National Park Alberta Canada. Photo by MarculescuEugenIancuD60Alaska

Bow Valley Parkway

Follow Highway 1 past the Mount Norquay Road intersection until you reach the turn off for Bow Valley Parkway. This was the original road that connected the town of Banff to the town of Lake Louise. Your first stop should be on the east side of the Parkway, to see Johnston Canyon. Take a short and easy hike to see the Lower Falls and go a bit farther to reach the Upper Falls and the Ink Pots – several bubbling spring water pools. Further along the Parkway you can stop and take a short walk to Castle Mountain Viewpoint for a spectacular view of the mountain. Keep driving until you reach Morant’s Curve, just before the Parkway takes you back to Highway 1, where you can stop and take in the roadside panorama of the Bow River, Wenkchemna Peaks, and Mount Temple.

If you chose to take the detour down Bow Valley Parkway instead of leaving Banff and continuing north on Highway 1, you will have to get back on to Highway 1 and drive straight until you come upon the town of Lake Louise. Here, like in Banff, you have many options as far as what you’d like to see and do.

 - Lake Louise
Lake Louise. Photo by unknown

Lake Louise

Take Lake Louise Drive from town to see the beautiful Lake Louise. Beginning at the shoreline of Lake Louise, you can take Lake Agnes Trail for a 2.5-hour round trip to see Mirror Lake and Lake Agnes. Alternately, you can take Lake Louise Lakeshore trail to the other end of the lake, where it connects to Plain of Six Glaciers trail that leads to the foot of Mount Victoria. The Lake Agnes trail will also eventually connect you to the Plain of Six Glaciers trail via Highline trail.

Moraine Lake
Moraine Lake

Moraine Lake

Take Lake Louise Drive and, instead of following it all the way to Lake Louise, turn off on to Moraine Lake Road to visit Moraine Lake, which some say rivals Lake Louise in its beauty. The lake provides a stunning backdrop of the *Valley of the Ten Peaks. Choose to walk the trail along the lakeshore, or, for a longer and more challenging hike, take Larch Valley trail. This trail will eventually split, giving you the opportunity to choose a destination. If you choose to go north, the hike is a steep 3-kilometer to Larch Valley and another 3-kilometer to Sentinel Pass. If you want to go for a long hike, follow the trail even further and it will eventually connect to Lake Annette Trail, which you can take to see the Giant Steps Waterfall. If you choose to go west, you can hike 5.6 km to see Eiffel Lake. From here, you can hike an additional 4 km to Wenkchemna Pass. From Moraine Lake, you can also take Consolation Lakes Trail for a two-hour round trip to see the Consolation Lakes.

The Icefields Parkway begins just north of the town of Lake Louise. Named for the mighty glaciers that flank it’s west side, this famous road stretches 230 km north from the outskirts of Lake Louise to the edge of the park that borders Jasper National Park. It is not a drive to be missed, nor are the countless wonders available for you to visit should you choose to travel north along Icefields.

Bow Glacier Falls: Follow the Icefields Parkway to an access road on the west side of the highway, 36 km from Lake Louise. From here, you can take a three-hour trip to see the falls. The falls are fed by meltwater tumbling down from the Wapta Icefield, and at the base of the falls begins Bow River, which feeds into Bow Lake. The trail will take you past the lake and the river before you reach the falls.

Peyto Peak
Peyto Lake: Just north of Bow Lake, make sure to stop here on the west side of the Parkway. The lake is located in a convergence of valleys surrounded by majestic mountains and rich forests. It is fed from the Peyto Glacier, giving the lake a magnificent blue color in the summer months due to the mineral content. Take a trail from the lake to Peyto Peak. Beyond the viewpoint you can hike another 0.5 km to reach Bow Summit Lookout, the highest point along the entire stretch of Icefields. If you continue north past Mistaya Lake, you can stop at Waterfowl Lakes Campground for an opportunity to hike to either Cirque Lake or Chephren Lake.

Glacier Lake: Once you reach Saskatchewan River Crossing, 77 km north of Lake Louise, drive 1 km further to find a parking lot on the west side of the Parkway. From here, take a six-hour round trip to see Glacier Lake.

Sunset Pass: Should you continue 16.5 km north of the Crossing, you will find the entrance to Sunset Pass Trail on the east side of the highway below Norman Creek Bridge. Here, you can hike 8.2 km through a thick forest to get to an expansive meadow. Or, 2.9 km up the trail, you have the option to branch left and hike another 1.6 km to Sunset Lookout, where you will have an almost vertical view down to where the Alexandra River joins the North Saskatchewan River. 30 km north of Sunset Pass, past Mount Saskatchewan and the Columbia Icefield, you will have reached the northern edge of the park, bordering Jasper.

Banff National Park is also home to three world-renowned alpine ski and snowboarding resorts:
  • Mount
    Mount Norquay
    Sunshine Village: Located 8 km west of Banff on Highway 1, Sunshine includes 3,358 acres of lift-accessed terrain spanning three mountains. With a peak elevation of 2,730 meters, you can see well into British Columbia from the top.
  • Lake Louise: An impressive complex that includes four mountains and 4,200 acres of lift-accessed terrain, Lake Louise Resort is the single largest ski area in Canada. It is located 60 km northwest of Banff on Highway 1.
  • Mount Norquay: Famous for its super-steep slopes, Norquay is 6 km north of Banff on the Mount Norquay access road. Enjoy 190 acres of lift-accessed terrain.

How to Get There

By car: Highway 1 (Trans-Canada) splits the park from east to west. Banff is about 90 minutes from Calgary, Alberta, and the same from Golden, British Columbia. Other ways into the park include taking Icefields Parkway south from Jasper National Park, Highway 11 from Rocky Mountain House and Red Deer, Alberta; or Highway 93 from Radium Hot Springs and Cranbrook, British Columbia.

By bus: Greyhound and Brewster provide regular buses to the towns of Banff and Lake Louise, departing from Calgary and places in British Columbia. Guided bus tours that visit the park are also available, most of which depart from Calgary or Vancouver.

By air: The closest International Airport is in Calgary. Banff has an airstrip, but an expensive charter flight is required to land in the park.

	Herbert Lake
Lake Herbert, Banff National Park. . Photo by Jeff Clow

Planning Tips

Weather: Summers are typically mild and July is the warmest month with an average temperature of 22°C. It rarely snows at ground level in the summer, but the mountain tops will be covered year-round. Temperatures drop drastically in winter, and January is the coldest month with an average of 15°C. Snow can be found at any elevation in the winter, and harsh weather should be anticipated at all times.

Fees/Permits: All visitors stopping in the park, even if just for gas, require a park permit. If you are driving straight through, the pass is not required. Day pass: $ 8.00 USD adult, $ 4.00 USD youth, $ 7.00 USD senior, $ 16 USD family. Annual pass: $ 55 USD adult, $ 27 USD youth, $ 47 USD senior, and $ 109 USD family.

Lodging: Whether camping or looking for a luxury hotel, Banff National Park has something suited to your needs. Camping grounds can be found throughout the park, though camping outside of designated spots is illegal without a special backcountry permit. There are many hotels, lodges, and bed-and-breakfasts throughout Banff and reservations should be made well in advance. Vacation rental apartments can also be easily found and some resorts provide log cabin rentals as well. RV parking is available very close to Banff.

Remember: Give all wild animals you see the respect and space they deserve. Binoculars should be used to see animals up close and photographers must shoot from a safe distance. Remain at least 100 meters away from bears, cougars, and wolves and keep back at least 30 meters from elk, moose, and deer. Bighorn sheep are especially tolerant of our presence, but you should still give them at least 10 meters of space. When viewing roadside wildlife, remain in your vehicle and quickly move on after a few seconds.

 - Banff National
Banff National Park. . Photo by unknown

Nearby Landmarks

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Author: kristen7225. Last updated: Jan 10, 2015

Pictures of Banff National Park

Two Jack Lake - Banff National Park
Two Jack Lake - Banff National Park. Photo by [bastian.]

Banff HDR - Banff National Park
Banff HDR - Banff National Park. Photo by Paul Gorbould


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