Best Things To Do in Banff
Seasons dictate the popular activities of Banff. In the winter, skiing is king. In the summer, hiking, biking, scrambling (a mix of hiking and rock climbing) and fishing rule. If you make the trek to Banff, you probably have an outdoor sport in mind. Take advantage of the rugged terrain in whatever manner you see fit. On your day off, leave your posh resort to explore the stores and restaurants in downtown Banff, which encompasses just 1 ½ square miles and sits at an elevation of 4,537 feet, making it the highest town in Canada.
Updated April 13, 2018
- #1View all Photos#1 in BanffHiking, Recreation, SkiingTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDHiking, Recreation, SkiingTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDRead More
Located miles 11 miles west of Banff Town, Sunshine Village offers 12 lifts, more than 3,300 skiable acres and a peak elevation of 7,200 feet. And thanks to its location straddling the Continental Divide, Sunshine sees more snow than its neighbors, meaning the ski season here is long – typically from early November to late May. The powdery terrain beckons skiers of all levels (another point of praise from recent travelers), and the Sunshine Mountain Lodge offers a great setting for dinner and drinks after a day on the slopes.
If you're not in Banff for ski season, you should still make a point to visit Sunshine, according to reviewers. From mid-June to early autumn, the Sunshine Meadows are open for hiking and provide visitors spectacular alpine views of the surrounding peaks, including Mount Assiniboine. Hiking is free and so is the shuttle from town, which runs from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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The Banff Gondola is a relaxing way to experience the town's natural beauty. The eight-minute ride to the summit of 7,500-foot Sulphur Mountain leads to breathtaking views of the Bow River Valley and Banff, not to mention a boardwalk, a handful of eateries, a gift shop, interactive interpretive exhibits, a multi-sensory theater and a 360-degree rooftop observation deck.
Recent visitors gushed about the views seen from the top of the mountain. And though they do bemoan the high ticket prices, they said it's worth the cost. One tip from travelers: wear layers. The temperatures at the base of the mountain can change drastically from the summit.
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Located about an hour's drive north of town, Moraine Lake is the visual highlight of any Banff trip and labeled a must-see bucket list item by many recent visitors. Nestled in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, the lake mirrors the snowcapped peaks and is surrounded by backcountry hiking trails. The easiest trail is the flat Moraine Lakeshore path, which starts near Moraine Lake Lodge and takes about 45 minutes to complete (round-trip). As you walk along the lakeshore, you'll spot stunning views of Mount Fay and the Fay Glacier. If you've got a bit more time on your hands, consider embarking on the nearly 2-mile Consolation Lakes trail, which takes about two hours to complete. You'll encounter some elevation gains with this one, but you'll be rewarded with views of the high alpine meadows, enormous talus slopes and the Quadra Glacier. For a detailed list of all the available hikes in this area, visit the Parks Canada website.
When you're not admiring the bright blue waters from the trail (rock silt that's deposited into the lake from melting glaciers contributes to its vibrant hue), consider hopping in a canoe and experiencing it for yourself. You can rent canoes at the nearby Moraine Lake Lodge (rentals are available from mid-June to mid-September), which is also where you'll find parking and restrooms. Speaking of parking, recent visitors offer a word of caution: Parking becomes scarcer as the day progresses; if you can, try to get to the lake early in the morning. Not only will you have an easier time securing a parking spot, but you'll enjoy a little more peace during your hike or paddle on the lake. Canoe rentals cost CA$105 (or about $83).
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The Lake Louise Ski Area is one of Banff's most popular ski locales and one of the largest ski areas in North America. It encompasses three mountains, 145 runs – including a 3,250-foot vertical rise – 10 lifts and a terrain park, not to mention several lodges touting top-notch eateries. Plus, Lake Louise boasts one of the longest ski seasons in North America: The first chair runs in early November and doesn't stop until mid-May. Though Lake Louise is a skier's paradise, it also provides other activities, such as snowshoeing and tubing. And when the weather warms up, the resort offers guided hikes, a wildlife interpretative center and a sightseeing gondola.
According to recent visitors, this resort is home to some of the best skiing in the Rocky Mountains. Reviewers were quick to praise the knowledgeable staff and manicured trails. Visitors also applauded the variety of après-ski venues; travelers especially loved the eateries in the Temple Lodge.
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Although it is the smallest of Banff's three ski areas, Mount Norquay is also the closest – it's about 5 miles northwest of Banff Town. Beyond its convenient location, the resort is also considered the area's best skiing locale for families because it offers daycare for children and ski and snowboard instruction for ages 3 and older. Mount Norquay is also home to the "North American," one of the steepest slopes on the continent; the ride to the summit offers a spectacular aerial view of Banff Town. You can get your adrenaline pumping with some of Mount Norquay's night skiing (available select days from December through March), or you can head off on one of the area's trails for a cross-country hike. Complete an adventure-filled day with a hearty meal at the Cascade Lodge.
Though recent visitors agreed that Lake Louise and Sunshine Village offer more terrain, reviewers loved the convenience of Mount Norquay's location. They also described the views as "out of this world."
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Though Banff is perhaps best known for its stellar slopes (it's considered one of the world's best ski destinations), its hiking trails are just as impressive – and free to access. No matter which trail you choose to tackle (there are a variety of options for all skill levels), you'll likely stumble upon indigo-tinted waters, fields of wildflowers and stunning alpine vistas.
Aside from Sunshine Meadows (found in Sunshine Village), travelers also recommend the Parker Ridge Trail, which you'll find in the Icefields Parkway Area of the national park. Though visitors do warn that the climb up this trail can be steep, they also gush about the views of the Saskatchewan Glacier seen at the peak.
- #7View all Photos#7 in BanffRecreation, Sightseeing, ToursTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDRecreation, Sightseeing, ToursTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDRead More
When you're not admiring Banff's stunning scenery from a hiking trail or in the comfort of your car, get out on one of its rivers. Whether you're craving the excitement of a whitewater rafting adventure or just want to peacefully glide through the water, you'll find Banff tour operators satisfy a variety of interests.
For a scenic, guided tour of the Bow River and the Hoodoos, consider Rocky Mountain Raft Tours. During these float tours, which can span one to nearly three hours, you'll be seated in a raft as a guide paddles you calmly through the river. Not only is this a great tour for seniors and families with young children, but it's also ideal for anyone who isn't interested in getting wet (even your shoes are safe thanks to the rafts' elevated floorboards). Prices range from CA$55 (about $43) to CA$90 (approximately $70) for adults, depending on the tour. These tours are also the closest to Banff since they take place on the Bow River.
- #8View all Photos#8 in BanffNatural Wonders, ToursTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDNatural Wonders, ToursTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDRead More
Covering 130 square miles on the southern edge of Banff National Park, the Columbia Icefield is the largest body of ice in the Canadian Rockies. It's a bit of a drive from Banff Town (about 2 ½ hours), but you'll quickly find the views are well worth the trip. Seasonal tour buses are available from Banff Town (such as this one offered by Discover Banff Tours and Brewster Sightseeing), but consider driving the Icefields Parkway (Route 93) north from Banff to enjoy the stunning trip, which is considered among the most scenic drives in the world. Along the way, you'll spot turquoise lakes, rushing waterfalls and impressive glaciers.
Whether you come on a tour or drive yourself, once you arrive, you'll hop on an Ice Explorer – a specialized bus that's equipped to handle the icy terrain – which will transport you out onto the glacier (an 80-minute journey), where you'll be allowed 20 minutes to explore. Departing Ice Explorers leave the Athabasca Glacier every 15 to 30 minutes. If you're short on time, you can purchase tickets for the Glacier Skywalk, a glass-floored observation platform that sits 918 feet over the Sunwapta Valley.
- #9View all Photos#9 in BanffSpas, Swimming/PoolsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDSpas, Swimming/PoolsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDRead More
These springs, which were first discovered by Canada's First Nations people prior to the 1880s, were regarded as sacred waters that could cure illness and maintain health. Now, the springs are a popular tourist attraction thanks to their serene atmosphere and stunning alpine views. The facility, which is akin to Budapest's thermal baths, features all of the modern amenities you would expect from a public swimming pool (such as railings, ladders, lockers, changing areas, a cafe and a gift shop), but the water is kept at 98 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit and is infused with minerals like sulfate, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium and sodium.
Recent visitors described the springs as "relaxing" and a great thing to do at the end of the day. Along with the mountain vistas, travelers also appreciated how clean the facility is kept, though, they do warn that it can get crowded, especially during ski season. Another gripe with reviewers: at times, the natural flow from the springs is insufficient, so the pool is supplemented with municipal water. That means if you came to take advantage of the springs' "sacred" properties, you may be out of luck.
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This is a popular attraction among nature lovers and history buffs alike. Experts refer to this site as the birthplace of Banff National Park and the natural hot springs have lured travelers in search of solace for years. Although the original springs are no longer open to the public (the Banff Upper Hot Springs are the new hot spot for comfort-seekers), the Cave and Basin National Historic Site does feature interactive displays educating visitors on local wildlife and the history behind the park's establishment.
Travelers who stopped here while in Banff said this a must-visit, not only for its historical significance but also for the stunning views. Others commend the informative displays and friendly staff. If you have time, you should plan to tag along on the hour-long, guided Discovery Tour, which is included in the cost of admission. The tour explains how railway workers first discovered the thermal pools and their uses and allows participants to dip their hands in the steamy thermal waters.