Etched into mountainous terrain; saturated with iridescent conifer; and framed by glaciers, ice fields, and emerald lakes, Banff is Alberta’s eldest national park and one of the world’s most visited. The Canadian Rockies run directly through the preserved 2,564 square miles, offering a premier habitat for stunning wildlife and a heap of plants, flowers and trees.
The town of Banff is the highest in Canada at 4,540 feet above sea level and serves as a stopping point for climbers, skiers, photographers and all-around outdoorsy folk visiting the park year-round.
Read on for seven things not to miss during your trip to Banff.
1. Stop in Town
Although small, Banff is teeming with activity and nightlife. Walk Banff Avenue for delicious maple snacks, local shops and live music. Try Bison Restaurant & Terrace for your main meal where the menu rotates seasonally. This farm to fork restaurant delivers plates such as bison ravioli and seared scallops served with parsnip chips. Additionally, don’t miss Banff Ave. Brewing Co. for a refreshing libation, and Evelyn’s Coffee Bar for an intimate pour-over or brew batch.
With the aid of a nature high, Canadians and tourists in Banff are very friendly. Over three million people visit Banff National Park per year, creating ample opportunities to get picked up by amiable locals, regulars migrating from Calgary or mellow tourists passing through. The success rate varies, but if meeting new faces and sharing stories sounds enthralling, try hitching a ride via casual conversation or the classic thumbs-up method aside Icefields Parkway. Of course, safety comes first so we don’t recommend hitchhiking alone or at night, and always stay alert.
Regardless of the season, the park’s lakes offer limitless activities. When the sun is high in the summer, refresh mid-hike in a glacier-fed tarn, or take a dip in Banff’s more popular (and warmer) lakes near town. Minnewanka and Johnson have kayaking, fishing, a beach area and a rope swing. Lake Louise offers an up close and personal red-canoe experience of Victoria Glacier and The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise’s famous view. You can also skate Lake Louise or Bow River during the winter.
This classic trek can be completed by the greenest of hikers in a lengthy afternoon. Stop at the Lake Agnes Teahouse for lunch and picturesque reflections of Mount Whyte and Mount Niblock on Lake Agnes. Continue up switchbacks to the top of Big Beehive for clear views of the jewel of the Canadian Rockies (Lake Louise) and Bow Valley. From Lake Louise, the one-way path to Big Beehive is 3.1 miles with a 1,710-foot elevation gain.
Dedicate a day to a leisurely voyage on Highway 93 North (Icefields Parkway). This main road runs parallel to the Continental Divide for 141 miles, providing dramatic views in every direction and opportunities for remote day-hikes. Among the most known drives in the world, this highway is sweeping with valleys, glaciers and easily accessible campgrounds and lakes. Travel slowly (but not accident-worthy) and take advantage of scenic lookouts dotting the drive.
In the summer, spend a few nights under the Alberta sky where face-sized bear prints appear in the mud, the sound of distant water falling soundtracks the trail and marmots scurry through the valleys. Try the Skoki Loop for three days of uninterrupted views. The loop will pass through Boulder Valley and plenty of emerald mountain lakes before reaching the famous Skoki Lodge.
is the editor of a local magazine in Grand Rapids, Michigan and a freelance writer and designer with a keen interest in nature and culture.