I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery – air, mountains, trees, people. I thought ‘This is what it is to be happy.’
Welcome to Alberta’s majestic backyard, our larger than life playground. Each and every time I pass through the park gates, I can feel the weight of the world drift out the window, replaced by serenity, passion and contentment. Banff National Park is one of my favorite places on earth. What I can share with you are some of our highlights and memorable moments, but what you’ll be missing is the experience. Those moments when you hear a massive rumble above, like thunder in the distance, followed by a cloud of water shooting out the side of the mountain. You can’t hear the squeals of excitement when the kids climb inside a hidden cave or watch the dreams form in their heads as they witness climbers scaling the rockfaces. You’re missing the complete awe one feels when standing in front of an emerald green lake framed by snowcapped rockies, the sounds of the roaring waterfall or the quiet of sitting and watching a heard of sheep as they graze lazily next to the road.
The Rocky Mountains are a place that you can stand for a thousand years, and each moment will be new. Each will be better than the last. Join me as I present to you a small slice of what is Banff, Alberta.
As only one of two municipalities incorporated into a Canadian National Park, Banff, Alberta is a bucket list destination that calls to travelers around the world. Sitting at an elevation of 1,383 meters, it is the highest town in Canada, and federal law keeps it from expanding beyond it’s current 3.93 square km border. But Banff is more than just a rocky mountain townsite. Banff is mother nature in her finest moment, a haven of majestic views, unbeaten paths, powdery slopes and backcountry glory, with a splash of animal kingdom and gourmet food for good measure. It is a place where Canada is able to showcase the true fortune of having four very distinct seasons, even allowing for a few to be experienced in the same day as folks take in a morning of snowboarding followed by a bike ride in the sun of the afternoon. In winter, the Big 3 mountain resorts reign supreme and in the summer, it’s a hiking and camping paradise.
We are fortunate enough that the park is an easy roadtrip, so we are frequent visitors to this slice of paradise. We love to take the scenic route from Edmonton, passing Abraham Lake, then covering the southern half of the world renowned Icefields Parkway, one of the world’s most stunning roadways that runs 232 km from Lake Louise to Jasper.
Banff is the opposite of it’s much quieter counterpart, Jasper, to the north. Main street is electric with energy, offering a vibrant selection of stores, pubs and eateries. This iconic alpine village sees throngs of tourists navigating main street every day, as people pop in doorways to view everything from high end art and expensive jewellery to stuffed animals, tshirts and even a year round christmas store.
While much of Banff is within an easy walking distance, there is plenty of public parking (see map and details here) or you can use the ROAM public transit. Crosswalks (that also run diagonally!) can be hazardous as sightseers get caught up in the views, so be cautious.
For Mom and Dad: Start your day with a latte and a slice of lemon loaf from Whitebark Cafe and enjoy a cheese and steak fondue at The Grizzly House for dinner. Let your hair down at the Dancing Sasquatch, grab a drink at the Rose and Crown or get in touch with your English side over afternoon tea at the infamous Fairmont Banff Springs
Iconic Sites and Stops for Families:
Visitors shouldn’t miss out on seeing world renowned Banff Springs Hotel, the 19th century “Castle in the Rockies” has been dedicated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Families can enjoy a dip in Canada’s highest hot pools, the Banff Upper Hot Springs, check out the emerald colored mineral springs at Cave and Basin or enjoy a bird’s eye view of six mountain ranges on a summertime ride up the Banff Gondola. If your family loves biking, then spend a day doing the 22 km Legacy Trail trail connecting Banff and Canmore.
Hike Your Heart Out:
This area is a hiker’s dream. Miles upon miles of scenic trails that lead to stunning, hidden lakes the color of the caribbean sea or end in a breathtaking cascade of water. Providing spectacular view as you push limits and expectations, with trails ranging in distance and difficulty, hiking can be enjoyed by any age and ability. Favorites for families here include Johnston Canyon and Tunnel Mountain. Super adventurers? Then get your thrill on with a day of Heli Hiking. The options and routes are nearly as endless as the views. For a more in depth look at hiking options, visit Here.
One of our favorite hikes has been to Grassi Lakes from the Canmore townsite (just 15 minutes from Banff). This trail offers 2 varying degrees of difficulty that both end at the same destination, two stunning emerald green lakes with breathtaking views below. This is one of the areas most popular and picturesque, favored by the climbers you will find scaling the rock faces at the top. The beginner trail is 3.8 km return with an elevation gain of 250 meters, but the uphill hike is wide and gravel, and easily accessible for those with strollers.
Lake Minnewanka Area:
Each time we go to Banff, we make a trip out here. Just across the highway, 5 km from town, this glacial lake is a must see. Spectacular at any time of year, the lake is most enjoyed in summer by families sharing a picnic, trying out the fishing (license required) or enjoying a boat trip out on the lake. It offers hiking and mountain biking trails along the north shore as well as six back country camping sites.
Have a Picnic at Two Jack Lake:
Located on the Minnewanka Lake Road is this beautiful picnic spot. Believe it or not, these photos were taken just after our stop at Minnewanka (above). Proof positive that weather and conditions change on a dime, or in this case, a corner.
Easy Day Trips from Banff:
- Check out the legendary Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. We’ve all seen the iconic photo of the lake, nestled within the mountains. This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and offers world class activities to its patrons. In the summer you can do the popular 7 km round trip hike to the Lake Agnes Tea House.
- Drive the Icefields Parkway. This 232 km drive runs from Lake Louise to Jasper, and is some of the most amazing scenery you will ever witness.
- Stop off at the Columbia Icefield Glacier. There is a large discovery center across the main road. You can walk up to the glacier, but make sure to bring warm clothes, even in the height of summer! You can choose to board an ‘Ice Explorer’ excursion that will take you onto the glacier where the ice can run as deep as 1180 feet!
- Conquer your fears as you stand on the glass floor of the Glacier Skywalk, 918 feet above the Sunwapta Valley. Tours leave from the Columbia Icefield.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
- First and foremost….DO.NOT.FEED.THE.ANIMALS. It doesn’t matter that they are furry and look like giant stuffed animals, or that their eyes are sweet and innocent. They WILL seriously injure a person, or worse. The saying goes “A fed bear is a dead bear.” When they start coming around because they are being fed by humans, they have to be dealt with in an unfortunate way. So keep your hands and food to yourself!!
- Be prepared: Weather can be extremely unpredictable in the mountains no matter what time of year you visit. When it feels like summer in the townsite, it can feel like winter not far away, and it can change on a dime. Even if you visit in summer, you should travel prepared for colder temperatures, especially for things like visiting the glacier or hiking at higher elevations. For more info, visit here.
- National Park Passes: To visit any National Park, you require a park pass. You can find information about the fees here. You can also buy them online.
- Sunscreen, Sunscreen and more sunscreen, especially if you are heading down the slopes! I’ve seen plenty of unfortunate burn cases.
- Ticks: These bugs have a potential to cause some serious issues, so while severe cases are rare and it shouldn’t cause alarm, you should educate yourself and be aware. Tick season is worst in the early spring. For more information, you can read here
While the resident numbers may be less than 10,000, this alpine townsite is larger than life. Banff is a playground for adventure seekers and a wanderlusters paradise. Its majestic scenery, fresh air and never ending possibilities make it an experience for the senses. This is my backyard, and I’d love for you to come and play.
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