Banff National Park boasts unparalleled mountain scenery in the heart of the beautiful Canadian Rockies, so it is unsurprising that millions of people flock to this stunning part of the world each year.
As well as the mountains, the 6,641 square kilometres of the park boast the emerald waters of Lake Louise, jagged peaks and flower-filled havens.
The park offers you all the best summer and winter activities; from outdoor activities like hiking to driving through this special landscape and seeing all the snow-capped mountains and sweeping vistas.
Here we take you through the history of Canada’s first national park and share some tips you should follow when visiting the park.
History of Banff National Park
Banff was established in the 1880s with tourism front-of-mind after workers on the Canadian Pacific Railway came across a number of natural hot springs.
The area was identified as a hot spot for tourism, according to Banff & Lake Louise Tourism, and in 1885 it was named a reserve to protect the springs and surrounding area from development. In 1887 the protected area was increased and then named the Rocky Mountains Park of Canada, before being renamed Banff National Park.
The park was Canada’s first national park and only the third in the world, and is now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Tips for visiting Banff National Park
If you are planning a Canada fly drive holiday, then Banff National Park should certainly be at the top of your list as there is so much to see and do here. Let’s take you through some of the best activities you can do in the park as well as other tips you should consider:
Go on a road trip
Travel blogger Tara, who runs the site Where is Tara, recommends going on a road trip in the national park.
She says, “I think a road trip is essential. Hiring a car gives you a lot more freedom than travelling by coach. You can make stops at little diners and viewpoints along the way that you might otherwise miss. During my road trip through Banff National Park I stopped at Peyto Lake around dusk, after all the tour buses left, and I had the entire view point to myself. It was incredible. Peyto Lake is by far my favourite lake in Banff National Park, an absolute must-see.”
Enjoy the amazing views at Fairmont Banff Springs Resort
Known as the “Castle in the Rockies”, the Fairmont Banff Springs Resort is a luxury mountain resort that is still within walking distance of Banff town centre.
Paul Johnson from A Luxury Travel Blog highly recommends staying at the resort. He adds, “Stay at the Fairmont Banff Springs Resort and you can enjoy amazing views of the National Park year-round. You can even admire the snow-covered mountains from the warmth of the hotel’s outdoor heated swimming pool.”
Take a day trip and go on the Athabasca Glacier
If you are planning on staying in Banff National Park for a while, another great activity you can do is visit the Columbia Icefield with Athabasca Glacier Icewalks.
The Columbia Icefield is the largest mass of ice in the Rocky Mountains as it stretches a staggering 25 kilometres across the Continental Divide and straddles Banff and Jasper national parks.
The most accessible part of the icefield is the Athabasca Glacier, six kilometres of ice flowing just a kilometre away from the Icefields Parkway.
With Athabasca Glacier Icewalks you can join like-minded adventurous people as part of guided hikes onto this slowly moving river of ice.
There are three hour walks available that safely guide you across the lower half of the Athabasca Glacier for unrivalled views of glacial features and ice carved landscapes.
Transfers are available with some tours as Brewster Travel Canada offer you a trip on their massive all-terrain vehicle. This takes you onto the glacier and then allows you to get off for a walk around.
If you have hired a car you can drive there by heading west on the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1 west) from Banff and drive past the Lake Louise exit. You will then need to drive two kilometres to the junction of Highway 1 and the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93 north). Then head north at the turnoff to the Icefields Parkway.
Unsurprisingly with all the mountains and beautiful lakes on offer, there are lots of spectacular walking trails you can go on.
With so many hiking routes available and lots of stunning views on offer it is difficult to choose just one to follow, but Discover Banff Tours, a specialist guided tour operator who take small groups of people on a variety of tours, recommends one hike keen walkers should go on.
“If you are travelling in September make sure you hike the Larch Valley and enjoy the vibrant yellow colours of the larch trees as their needles change colour and shed.”
Go early to Peyto Lake, Lake Louise and Moraine Lake
Banff National Park is home to a number of world-famous lakes and Mickey Shannon, who runs the Mickey Shannon Travel & Photography site, recommends visiting the different lakes in the national park.
He says, “I’ve been blessed to travel to some amazing places around the world, from Switzerland to Hawaii. I can safely say that the scenery in Banff National Park is some of the most gorgeous on the planet! Nobody who has stood atop the rock pile overlooking Moraine Lake can say any different! The biggest tip I can offer is to get out early if you want to avoid the crowds! On my first trip to Canada, I stopped at Peyto Lake. Once was at midday and I shared the experience with multiple tour buses along with many other tourists who were excited to see the famous lake. The next morning, I stopped around 7 a.m. on a foggy late summer morning and had the entire place to myself! With this year being the 150th birthday of Canada as a nation, Banff National Park is free to visit. Make sure you take advantage of this!
“There are a number of must-visits while traveling throughout Banff National Park. Moraine Lake is the top of my list! The classic view from the top of the rock pile might just be the most gorgeous lake view in the world! Lake Louise is another obvious stop, as is a drive along the Icefields Parkway. Peyto Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Bow Falls Johnston Canyon and Mistaya Canyon are all must-visits as well.”
Go skiing at Sunshine Village
Located in the centre of Banff National Park is Sunshine Village, home to 3,300 acres of skiable terrain that varies from gentle beginner runs to the most extreme big mountain runs.
The ski resort also has 12 lifts, which include nine super lifts, and an impressive high-speed gondola that you can get spectacular views from.
Kendra Scurfield from Sunshine Village suggests some activities you can do during a visit to the iconic resort.
“When at Sunshine, you have to take Goat’s Eye Express. The chair features beautiful panoramic views of the Canadian Rockies, long runs, and something for everyone.
“For the advanced skier, book a Delirium Dive lesson, and ski/snowboard one of North America’s few lift accessed terrains.
“After skiing, grab a beer at Mad Trapper’s Saloon, the original ski lodge. Toast your day’s stories, surrounded by the famous characters and the legends of skiing’s early days at Banff Sunshine Village.”
You can ski at a number of ski resorts in the Banff area with the Ski Big 3 pass, which allows you to ski at Banff Sunshine as well as the Lake Louise and Norquay resorts. All three ski resorts are known for being world-class ski destinations and by purchasing one lift pass you can get into all three.
Visit the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies
The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies was founded by Peter Whyte and Catharine (Robb) Whyte, who were local artists and philanthropists.
Out of the idea of offering a place where people could gather and appreciate the area’s true beauty and its rich culture, the museum was born. Now it displays the history and culture of the Rocky Mountains of Canada through its exhibitions and collections.
Exhibitions include the Gateway to the Rockies, an exhibition that shows the history of the Canadian Rockies through artefacts, art and materials from the library. Other displays show-off works from the founders themselves and look at the many women who climbed the Canadian Rockies between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries.
The Banff National Park is home to a whole host of animals and these vary from grizzly bears to wolves. There is estimated to be over 50 species of mammals in the national park and most large animals are likely to be seen in the early morning or evening.
While you are very likely to see a lot of animals as you drive through the national park, there are a number of wildlife safaris you can enjoy that will let you get close to some of the park’s most famous wildlife.
Elk are commonly seen in the damp meadows of the valleys and caribou and deer commonly visit meadows and thicker woods. Grizzlies generally stick to the alpine regions in the summer, but often look for food lower down in spring and autumn, while black bears prefer to stay in wooded areas.
Tara from Where is Tara recommends that if you are visiting Banff National Park soon, you should look out for a particular Indian restaurant – and for bears.
She says, “Make sure to eat in Masala in Banff, an incredible Indian restaurant. If they’re showing the Banff Mountain Film Festival in the Lux cinema in Banff town make sure to go; you’ll be treated to some of the most inspiring short films you’ve ever seen. If you see a bunch of cars parked by the side of the road it’s likely to be a black bear sitting roadside munching on the dandelions, but don’t stop if you think it’s being crowded, always put animal welfare first.”
Tara, who has previously visited the national park, talks about why she enjoyed her visit so much.
She adds, “I loved my trip to Banff because everything exceeded my expectations. I thought that Banff town would be a bit tacky and touristy, but it was quaint and full of locals that knew each other. The nature was bigger and more beautiful than any nature documentary could ever convey. I mean where else could you watch a grizzly bear wander down a train track, witness an eagle chowing down on its fish dinner lakeside, walk on a glacier, stop the car for a crossing mama coyote and her pups, all while eating poutine to your heart’s content?! I also love how seriously the park rangers take the safety of the animals.”
Image Credit: Athabasca Glacier Icewalks, Sunshine Village.