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48 Hours in Banff

posted August 5, 2017


With some of the best views in the Rocky Mountains, Banff town is one of our favourite places to stay. Nestled in the heart of the Banff National Park, it makes a great stop-off point on a fly drive holiday before heading off into British Columbia or deeper into the Alberta mountains. It also marks the start or end of a number of Rocky Mountaineer rail routes and certainly warrants spending an extra couple of days in.

The town boasts broad avenues lined with interesting shops, from outdoor gear to local art to restaurants and bars. The atmosphere is quaint and friendly rather than touristy or commercial, so you’ll feel relaxed the whole time. You’ll find yourself rubbing shoulders with tourists and locals alike as everyone comes together in the cafes and bars. You’ll also get closer than you imagined to the local wildlife too, as early morning elk frequently roam the streets!

Our suggested itinerary

If you have just a couple of days to spend here,  make sure you explore the spectacular scenery surrounding Banff. Here is our favourite way to spend 48 hours in Banff:

Day 1

Morning – Cycling on Tunnel Mountain

Afternoon – Banff Gondola Ride

Evening – Banff Hot Springs

Day 2

Morning – Walk on the Athabasca Glacier

Afternoon – Lunch and Glacier Skywalk

Evening – Sunset at Peyto Lake

We recommend that you spend at least a day soaking up the views that Banff is famous for. Walking and cycling are some of the best ways to see the national park.

 

Day 1

Morning – Cycling on Tunnel Mountain

cycling banff

Tunnel mountain is a great place to stay slightly out of the town centre. Hidden Ridge Resort offers fantastic self-catering accommodation for families, with apartments ranging from studios to 3-bed condos. The resort boasts gardens,  woodland, an outdoor pool, hot tubs, complimentary tea, coffee and WiFi, and communal BBQs dotted around the grounds. There is a free shuttle bus to connect you with downtown (5 minutes) or it’s just a 30-minute walk. You’ll also find campgrounds on Tunnel Mountain which are great if you’re in a motorhome.

Up on Tunnel Mountain, you’ll find miles of amazing walking and mountain biking trails right from your condo. The Hidden Ridge Resort has a few bikes that you can hire by the hour (just $10) or you can rent bikes from downtown for a bigger selection. The trails loop around Tunnel Mountain offering spectacular views of the great Rocky Mountain peaks. Keep your eyes peeled for Cascade, Rundell, Tunnel Mountain and more. You can also see the hoodoo rock formations, Bow River and the nearby lakes at Vermillion.

Banff Avenue in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.

If you fancy cycling further afield, there is a double-lane cycle path from Banff to Canmore. It’s flat and easy, and a very popular way to visit Canmore. Cycle over, have lunch and enjoy some time on a bike. If you cycle into the centre of Banff, you’ll find there are lots of easy walks around Banff town centre. Along the side of the Bow River is beautiful. You can rent canoes, kayaks or paddleboards at the Banff Canoe Club, which is a lovely way to spend a few hours. You can paddle down into Vermillion Lake or just walk down there to enjoy the views.

 

Afternoon – Banff Gondola Ride

Banff gondola

After a picnic by Bow River or lunch in the town, there’s no better way to spend an afternoon in Banff than by taking the scenic gondola up Sulphur Mountain. Run by the intrepid Brewster adventure company, the Banff Gondola has recently been reopened with a brand new visitor centre at the top.

It’s a short 8-minute ride to the top of the mountain in a glass gondola with spectacular 360° views. Once you get to the lookout centre, there are even more incredible views from the observation deck, with the option to walk out onto the summit along a boardwalk trail. You are simply surrounding by towering mountain peaks, with the Bow River Valley spread out below you.

banff views

You can have a lovely lunch or a coffee and cake from the café, or you can bring up your own lunch for a walk and a picnic. There is also an award-winning new restaurant called the Sky Bistro which serves up gourmet dishes with a view. In peak summer, you can rearrange your day to miss the queues by going up the gondola early in the day or late in the evening.

 

Evening – Banff Hot Springs

banff hot springs

The Banff Upper Hot Springs is a must-do while you’re in town. It’s the perfect way to unwind after a long day exploring. The steamy, mineral waters soothe body and mind as you relax in gorgeous surroundings. The springs have a lot of history too, with indigenous peoples using them for centuries before the springs opened as an attraction to Europeans in 1884. In fact, their discovery by the Canadian Pacific Railway is what led to Banff being protected as a national park – Canada’s first.

The springs are usually open until 11pm, which means you have the choice of going before or after dinner. We suggest going at sunset for a romantic experience with twinkling views.

 

Day 2

If you’re heading off the next day, make the most of the spectacular scenery close to Banff. This day trip to the Columbia Icefields takes you along the Icefields Parkway – arguably one of the most beautiful stretches of scenery in the world. You can take a trip up here by car, or Brewster also offers a full day trip from Banff.

Morning – Walk on the Athabasca Glacier

athabasca glacier

Get up early today and hit the road. It’s a two and half hour drive from Banff to the Athabasca Glacier on the Columbia Icefield, and the road offers mile after spectacular mile. This is Highway 93, or the Icefields Parkway as it is better known. You can take pit stops at iconic Lake Louise and ethereal Bow Lake along the way.

athabasca glacier

Once you arrive at the Athabasca Glacier, you’re in for a real treat. Huge red trucks specially adapted for the ice are ready to take you out onto the glacier itself. Take an obligatory selfie next to the monster wheels before hopping aboard for a slow but steep trundle up the face of the ice. Once you reach the top, you can hop out for half an hour to walk on the glacier itself. It stretches for miles after crusty mile, with peaks and troughs as far as the eye can see up the mountain side. Cracks reveal crystal-blue ice interiors where water flows. We recommend grabbing a water bottle to fill up with the freshest, coldest meltwater you’ve ever tasted!

 

Afternoon – Lunch and Glacier Skywalk

glacier skywalk

After you’ve come back down to earth from your otherworldly glacier walk, mosey over to the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre. Not only can you learn about the Columbia Icefield but they also have a delicious menu in their dining room.

Once you’ve refuelled, it’s time for another adventure – the Glacier Skywalk. 10 minutes up the road from the Athabasca Glacier is a towering, glass-floored skywalk that curves in an arc out from the sheer cliff face. Brave the walk along it and you’ll be rewarding with a different perspective of the glacier and valley – not to mention those views from the glass floor!

 

Evening – Peyto Lake

peyto lake

It’s time to wave goodbye to the Columbia Icefields and head back towards Banff. Don’t think the drive will be the same, as you’re treated to whole new views when you drive the Parkway in the opposite direction. On the way back, we recommend stopping off at Peyto Lake. It’s our favourite lake in the Rockies, and in the evening, you should be able to enjoy it without the crowds.

peyto lake

This lake really does have to be seen to be believed. It is an unblemished strip of brightest turquoise, glowing against the dark of the mountains and glacial scree. It’s brighter in colour even than Lake Louise, and friends will barely believe your photos are real when you show them!

 

Getting there

banff drive icefields parkway

The Icefields Parkway is the perfect day trip from Banff if you have a car, as you can stop wherever and whenever you like to visit attractions along the way and drink in the views. However, if you don’t have a car, Brewster provides a full day trip to the Columbia Icefield with a luxury coach service from Banff, that means all the driving is taken care of.

So now we’ve given you a taste of the spectacles Banff has to offer, how will you explore them? Will you hike up to the hoodoos? Paddle the languid Bow River? Play golf in the shadow of the Fairmont “Castle”? Or simply stroll the streets and drink in those Rocky Mountain views? The choice is yours.

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