The Best of Banff
Banff, Alberta is Alberta’s top tourist town, and Banff National Park now hosts at least 3.6 million visitors every year. The majority of these visitors spend significant time in the town, since most of the restaurants, accommodations and tourist services are located here. Banff is a great place to get supplies and shopping done for the many backcountry trips in the area.
If you’re planning a trip to the Park, you’ll stop in the town at some point to help organize your trip. There is a lot to do in the Town itself. So where should you start?
1. The upper hot springs
These are a must at almost any time of year. Even in the summer you’ll appreciate these springs, since summer evenings are never too hot in these mountains. The springs can get very busy, but if you go later in the evening, there will usually be less people. The hot springs are open until 10 pm in the winter. The winter is definitely the most magical time in the springs. The water temperature changes but on average stays at 39 degrees C (102 F). Entry is under $8. Visit the Parks website for details.
2. Climb Sulphur mountain
Sulphur mountain has a well-graded hiking trail all the way to the summit, which climbs 700 meters over about 5 km. The trail is well maintained, and you will see the Sulphur mountain gondola crossing the trail high above you. You can do this hike year round as the snow packs down nicely with the year round hiker traffic.
3. Horseback riding
There is one stable in Banff for trail rides, Banff Trail Riders. They are located on Sundance Road. You ride right from the stables. The outfitter offers 1-3 hour rides, even a ride with a BBQ cookout. Rides start at $62. These trail rides are aimed for the beginner. It’s a great way to explore the backcountry without having to haul a heavy pack.
Banff is a scenic little town, and the most popular places for photography are the very scenic Vermillion lakes and lake Minnewanka. Lake Minnewanka also has hiking trails and swimming at nearby Two Jack lake. Swimming is advisable two months of the year, in July and August when it gets hot out. Two Jack lake and Lake Minnewanka also feature lots of picnic areas which are great for those outdoor barbeques. You’ll also find some great mountain biking on the west side of the lake.
As a bonus, Lake Minnewanka is also a popular spot to photograph the Northern Lights, which are best viewed in winter. In the summer, the days are so long you have to stay up very late or get up in the middle of the night to see them.
5. Mountain bike or climb
Tunnel mountain is also home to several multi-pitch climbing routes on the north facing cliff side. One of the most popular routes is Gooseberry (5.8), but there are many single pitch sport and traditional routes on the cliff. For route descriptions, get a copy of Bow Valley Rock or hire a certified guide.
There are also some great mountain bike trails on tunnel mountain. Check out Star Wars, Return of the Jedi and Top Notch . Access is from Tunnel Mountain Drive near tunnel mountain meadow. Park on the street or ride up the road from Banff, and find the trails up the road on the left hand side. For trail descriptions, check out Trail Forks which has specific trail information.
6. The historic Banff Springs hotel
The historic Fairmont Banff springs hotel is worth a visit. This hotel was built in 1888 and marked the beginning of the tourism era in the Canadian rockies, this hotel is 130 years old this year. This luxury hotel features beautiful architecture, fine dining, and also history (including rumours that it’s haunted) make it a must see. This luxury hotel is operated by Fairmont.
Take a walk through the grounds, in the hotel, and sip a beer at the Waldhaus pub near the Bow River.
7. Banff Park Museum National Historic Site
Built in 1903, this is Canada’s oldest natural history museum. You’ll see more than 5000 historic biological and zoological specimens. Daily admission is less than $4 and free for youth.
8. Tunnel mountain hike
Tunnel mountain is an easy hike with great views which anyone can do. The views are very rewarding for not much time or effort. It’s 4.3 km round trip with 300 meters elevation gain.
To get to the trailhead, drive east on Buffalo street from Banff Ave (downtown Banff). Turn east on Buffalo st. (turns into Wolverine) to St. Julien Rd. Trail starts on north side of this road.
9. Banff Centre
The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity is the hub of the arts for the Bow Valley, bringing in arts, performers, music and films from all over the world. Their most famous event is the Mountain Book and Film Festival which takes place every year around the end of October. It’s very popular, and highly recommended if you are in Banff at that time of year. It’s also well timed to take place during the off season: after summer and before winter really begins. To see their schedule check out their website.
Are you traveling to Banff? Great! Here is a pro tip: if you’re driving, stay off Banff Avenue (the main street through town) as much as possible. Congestion on this street, particularly on summer weekends is very intense. If you need to get through town, take one of the side streets such as Buffalo or Lynx. Yes, many of the streets in town are named after wild animals, part of the magic of the place.
Tired of the crowds? Read our advice on how to find solitude in Banff National Park.