In the depths of Alberta’s wilderness lies Banff National Park, one Canada’s crown jewels that’s packed full of beauty and adventure. Banff dates back to 1885, making it Canada’s oldest park and the third oldest in North America. Made up of staggering and impressive ruggedness found only in western Canada’s wilderness, the park makes a strong case for the importance of conservation. Its lakes, waterfalls, and trails enchant  people from all over the world, enabling their connection with nature in memorable fashion.

Photo by Joe Mackin

BASICS

  • Location: Southeastern Alberta
  • Established: November 25, 1885
  • Size: 2,564 mi2 (6,641 km2)
  • Closest Major Cities: Calgary and Edmonton
  • Annual Visitors: Roughly 3.6 million

PLANNING YOUR VISIT

As with any national park in Canada, the weather must be taken into consideration since many of the activities are seasonal. From the powder-covered mountains in winter to the golden larches of fall, each season brings something new and refreshing. Choose which season you’d enjoy most and plan from there!

Banff is one of the country’s largest national parks, with both the Trans-Canada Highway and the Icefields Parkway running through its mountains. Because of this, the park sees a lot of traffic, by both feet  and vehicles. With this in mind, be sure to book your trip as far in advance as possible, no matter the accommodations or activities you’re interested in.

Campsites are easily reserved online, as are lift tickets. You will also find plenty of hotels, restaurants, and shops in the village area, and a parking app to help save time. There are Airbnb options in nearby Canmore and Calgary, too, but deciding what you’d like to do in Banff as early as possible will alleviate stress and help you enjoy your visit even more.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Between June and September, Banff becomes a hotbed for hikers. The park seems to have an endless amount of trails ranging in both length and difficulty. Before lacing up your hiking boots, familiarize yourself with what you’re signing up for. The Parks Canada website lists hikes by difficulty, and has tips on proper etiquette such as “Leave No Trace.”

Photo by Fabian Hurschler

With the park’s pristine location, wildlife is abundant in the area, and can be encountered while out hiking or exploring more remote areas. Don’t let that hinder your plans by any means — (figuratively) embrace the animals you’re lucky enough to share the land with. But be careful and aware while doing so. If you’re lucky, you might spot an elk or mountain goat. And, though they’re rare to see, bears do live in the area. The park’s website suggests carrying bear spray while out in the mountains, and also offers a weekly bear report.

GETTING THERE

One of the many great things about Banff is its proximity to other parks: Jasper National Park to the north, Yoho National Park to the west, and Kootenay National Park in the south. Driving around these spectacles is an experience in itself, highlighted by the Icefields Parkway, which follows the Continental Divide and connects Banff and Jasper. This route is touted as one of the best in Canada — and arguably beyond — and will provide plenty of stops to take in the majestic views that shoulder the road.

Photo by Joe Mackin

If you’re leaving from Calgary (the closest major city), you’ll head west on the Trans-Canada Highway and see the mountains unfold before you. The highway runs directly through the park, with smaller roads veering off into different pockets of adventure-filled wilderness.

For those unable to drive themselves, On-It Regional Transport is a shuttle service that brings visitors to and from Calgary. The shuttle is comfortable and relatively cheap, with a handful of stops around the city.

FEES

As of January 1, 2018, admission for visitors 17 and under is free. If you’re older, admission is just under $9.80 (CAD). For an annual pass that will grant you entrance to all of Canada’s national parks, you’re looking at a fee of $67.70.

If you’re visiting during winter and are looking to hit the slopes, Banff has three glorious options: Banff Sunshine, Mt. Norquay, and Lake Louise Ski Resort. Lift tickets can be purchased for each resort individually, or you can buy one ticket that provides access to all of them through SkiBig3.

Photo by Shane Gier
Photo by Danica Wieler

Camping in the park is rewarding, but unfortunately, not free. Prices change depending on the campground (there are 13 in the park), and fire permits are an additional charge. Backcountry permits are much cheaper and this option also offers annual passes, which can be used at neighboring national parks such as Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho.

Finally, if you’re looking to cast a line during your visit, Banff requires a fishing permit as well. A daily pass rings in at $9.80, and the cost for an annual pass is $34.30.

WHERE TO GO

 

Peyto Lake (From Bow Summit)

Peyto Lake could be the poster-child for western Canada’s turquoise, glacier-fed lakes. And what better way to see it than from on the top of Bow Summit, 6,800 feet (2,088 meters) above sea level?

Johnston Canyon & Ink Pots

Located halfway between Banff and Lake Louise, Johnston Canyon is a seven-mile (11.6 kilometers) trail (round trip) filled with cat-walks and staircases that lead to two waterfalls, and, if you’re feeling up for it, seven ink pots (bubbling mineral springs). The gushing waterfalls are best visited in the spring, but check the trail conditions since it can get a little messy around that time of year.

Lake Louise

Like the town of Banff, Lake Louise is another small village within the greater park. The lake itself is picturesque, as is the nearby Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. But the area’s biggest draw comes during winter, as the resort boasts 4,200 acres of skiable slopes.

Photo by Shane Gier

The Cave and Basin National Historic Site

If you’re interested in learning more about the genesis of national parks and preserves in Canada, this is the place to visit. As its name suggests, the site allows visitors to explore both the caves and the thermal water that moves beneath the Rocky Mountains in a relaxed and welcoming setting.

Banff Legacy Trail

Built to commemorate the park’s 125th birthday, the Banff Legacy Trail is a multi-use trail that stretches between the Banff Park East Gate and the Bow Valley Parkway, traveling 14 miles (22.3 kilometers) one way and offering captivating views without requiring too much strain on the body.

Vermillion Lakes

Huddled together at the base of Mount Rundle and Sulphur Mountain are the Vermillion Lakes, the perfect place to enjoy the serenity of Canada’s most popular national park. Here, you can enjoy the subtle serenity of nature by hopping in a canoe, wandering the shorelines, or simply standing still to enjoy the sky change colors.

Photo by Fabian Hurschler
Photo by Brigid Scott

Hot Springs

The Banff Upper Hot Springs sit at 5,200 feet (1,585 meters) above sea-level, and have mineral-rich water flowing through the many pools. A stop here is high on the list for many visitors, and adds to the overall Rocky Mountain experience.

Glacier Skywalk

The Glacier Skywalk — located along the Icefields Parkway — is a glass-floored observation deck that looks over the sweeping Sunwapta Valley. From 918 feet (280 meters) above, the skywalk offers visitors a unique vantage point from which to view the beauty of Banff’s vast ecology and striking glaciers.

Header image by Shane Gier.

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Brad Donaldson is a writer and editor proudly based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Although his roots are in Canada, his desire to see more of the world frequently takes him away from home. His work, both as an editor and writer, has appeared in local newspapers and publications, most recently showcased through the co-founding of his former university's inaugural creative writing journal.