Banff is to the outdoorsy what the French Riviera is to the wealthy: beautiful and powerful.
This may not be the place for the Champagne-drinking, designer-clad super-yacht owner. Still, it is the ultimate destination for those who like to play outdoors. Ask the four million visitors who wandered through the gates in 2019 and 2020.
And if you, like me, are not comfortable in crowds, take heart. The Banff hiking trails rate among the best on the planet, providing challenges for expert solo hikers and beginner guided groups alike.
In a sweeping tableau of steely-grey mountain peaks, Canada’s oldest national park offers unspoiled access to over 4,000 square miles (approximately 6,400 kilometers) of the Canadian Rockies. These peaks are famous for azure glacial lakes, big skies, glittering snow caps, and green forests.
You can have your pick of adventures here via helicopter, skis, and bike. But the true joy is Banff’s hiking trails. With over a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers) of immaculately maintained trails, you’re spoiled for choice year-round. Below are some of my must-do hikes in Banff.
Best Hike in Banff for Wildflowers: Sunshine Meadows
Don’t you love the name ‘Sunshine Meadows’? It drew me in like a bee to wildflowers, which this trail offers in spades: summer meadows of flowers billowing in the breeze. Offering some of the best Banff hiking options, Sunshine Meadows’ trails range from the mindless to the more challenging and provide views of some of the highest peaks in the Rockies. As a bonus, gondola rides are available for those who fancy a more straightforward ascent. This is also an option if you’re in Banff for the weekend and don’t have too much time to spare.
To learn more about the flowers and wildlife of Banff, I recommend an expert hiking guide such as Joel Hagen at Great Divide Nature Interpretation. Guides like Joel will make your experience so much richer with his phenomenal local knowledge.
Spring flowers can arrive as early as April, but for blankets of flowers, aim for mid-July to mid-August. Come later than that, and you’ll be rewarded with the golden autumn colors of the larch trees.
The 7.4-mile (12-kilometer) Helen Lake Trail is another superb option to see wildflowers.
Best Banff Hike for Views: Cory and Edith Passes
This is one of the best day hikes in Banff and great for alpine goats like me, who like to pack some serious uphill into a hike. This spectacular 8.7-mile (14-kilometer) loop starts quickly, but don’t be fooled; once you have taken the Cory Pass path, you’ll go up, up, and up. Bring plenty of water.
The good news is the spanning views of Bow Valley are worth it, particularly the dramatic south face of Mount Louis, a limestone spire beloved by climbers. Just when you think the uphill is too much, it flattens out, and if you come down Edith Pass, your knees will thank you for the gentler descent. You may also be lucky with wildlife sightings on the way. And while encounters with grizzlies are rare, go prepared.
Best Guided Hike in Banff: Mount Assiniboine
As an outdoor enthusiast’s heaven, Banff has a slew of certified mountain guides available for anything from beginner group routes to solo backcountry romps. However, they really come into their own on multi-day hikes where all the planning and navigating is done for you.
The bucket-list, must-do Banff hike is between Sunshine Village and Mount Assiniboine (locally known as Matterhorn of the Rockies). The trail will take you to Lake Magog, where you’ll be treated to views of vast alpine meadows. There’s a good chance of spotting mountain goats, bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, and marmots—as well as a grizzly bear. Plus, when you get to the top, the complete serenity of Lake Magog is enough to revitalize even the weariest of feet.
The lake is an excellent endpoint, but if you’re a more experienced hiker, you might want to go all the way to the summit of Mount Assiniboine. It will require a bit of mountaineering, but it’s well worth it if you’ve got the skills (and the camping permits to stay in the park).
You can only access the Toblerone-shaped Mount Assiniboine by foot or helicopter, which may please the crowd-averse. It also offers tantalizing side trails. White Mountain Adventures fly to the summit and hike down. Both Banff Hiking Company and Canadian Rockies Alpine Hiking offer customized hikes.
Best Banff Hike for Fall Colors: Bourgeau Lake and Harvey Pass
Like the rest of this dynamic town, hiking trails in Banff can be enjoyed every season of the year, and fall offers the majestic golden beauty of the larch trees. Unique from the standard ever-green conifers, larches are a novel sight. Their needles turn mustard yellow in autumn before shedding and carpeting forest trail floors in saffron. Larch Valley is famous for spotting them, but avoid the crowds and stay close to Banff with the Bourgeau Lake hike.
The 9-mile (15-kilometer) trail takes you through thick forests before opening onto an amphitheater of cliffs encircling the turquoise lake, which is offset by the golden needles. It’s worth doing the extra 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers) to Harvey Pass for a fantastic view of Mount Assiniboine, too.
If you prefer guided hiking, try Alpine Air Adventures or one of the above companies. While it might seem unnecessary, guides familiar with the area ensure your safety while on the trail. Plus, with their tried-and-true local know-how, you’ll learn far more about the fauna, flora, and geology of the park than if you went alone.
Banff’s Best Hike for Frozen Waterfalls: Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon in summer is a delightful 3,000-mile (5,000-kilometer) ramble through the forest. Hikers travel up catwalks, along tumbling creeks, and through a dramatic canyon to a divided waterfall. In winter, when many visitors to Banff are gunning down these popular slopes on skis, this easy walk turns into a winter wonderland of ice cascades. It ends at the impressive 98-foot (30-meter) frozen Upper Falls, a great place to try ice-climbing. It may sound daunting, but ice-climbing will be simple if you can climb a ladder.
Crunching out in your winter woollies with your breath visible in the cold air makes this spectacular winter fun. Ice cleats are strongly recommended for walkers.
White Mountain Adventures and Discover Banff Tours are great options for guided hikes (although they won’t take you ice climbing). If you’re looking to get vertical on a frozen waterfall, get in touch with Alpine Air Adventures or Yamnuska Mountain Adventures to learn the tricks of the trade.
Good to know
- The most popular time to hike is July to mid-September, when most trails and passes are free of snow. Otherwise, pack your backcountry gear and your snowshoes or ice cleats. You may also pick up a pair in Banff.
- Buy your Banff National Park Pass ahead of your visit to avoid delays (you can purchase one online).
- Check the weather forecast, trail conditions, and closures before heading out. Visit an information center or look online at Parks Canada and Banff & Lake Louise Tourism.
- Be bear aware: Carry bear spray and know how to use it.
- Always explore responsibly, especially around wildlife. Keep a safe distance to protect yourself and the animal. Never feed, entice, or disturb a wild animal.
With so much to do in every season, Banff makes for the perfect year-round destination. For all the best planning and travel tips, check out our Banff Travel Guide.