A beginner's guide to Banff
Located in the heart of the majestic Canadian Rockies, about 125 km’s west of Calgary, sits one of Canada’s greatest treasures - Banff National Park.
Officially established in 1885, Banff National Park was the first national park in Canada and, in 1984, it was proudly declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, Banff has become a hugely popular Canadian tourist destination with over 4 million people visiting annually.
The allure to Banff is the opportunity to surround oneself with breathtaking scenery and endless outdoor adventure. No matter what you crave, whether its mountain biking, river kayaking or bird watching, Banff has you covered. One can literally spend months exploring the park and still only scratch the surface.
For those not familiar with Canada’s vast geography, it’s possible you’ve never heard of Banff before, but it’s highly likely you’ve seen images of Banff’s spectacular emerald lakes on advertisements around the world. In fact, laptops and computers running Windows 7 came preloaded with desktop wallpaper photos of Moraine Lake and the Valley of the Ten Peaks - see the image below, does it look familiar?
What to do in the winter
Known for its champagne powder, short lift lines and terrain suitable for all skill levels, Banff National Park is home to three world class ski resorts - Sunshine Village, Lake Louise Mountain Resort and Banff Mount Norquay. For hardcore skiers and snowboarders looking to tackle the combined 8,000 acres of skiable terrain, the tri-area lift ticket allows access to all three ski areas.
It’s important to note that, unlike Whistler or Sun Peaks in British Columbia, the ski resorts are not located in the actual town of Banff. Sunshine Village is located 15 km’s southwest of town, Lake Louise is 57 km’s from town, and Mount Norquay, the smallest of the trio, is a short 6 km’s from town.
It’s not essential to have a car, but it does help, particularly if you plan to visit all three mountains. Aside from Sunshine Mountain Lodge in Sunshine Village, there are no mountain accommodations, so guests stay in the towns of Lake Louise or Banff.
Other popular winter activities include ice-climbing, dog sledding, ice fishing, heli-skiing, snow shoeing and snowmobiling. And, after a long day on the slopes, a visit to the steamy Banff hot springs is an added bonus.
What to do in the summer
Banff’s summer commodity is the Great Outdoors. Within minutes of the main towns of Banff or Lake Louise, visitors find themselves surrounded by snow-capped peaks, steep canyons, glacier-fed rivers and lush forests. Because of this, every type of outdoor activity is available, from rock climbing to river rafting to wildlife watching.
Camping, whether in a campervan or traditional tent, is an extremely popular Banff pastime. Summer is the high season in Banff so campsites fill up quickly. The most popular campgrounds are Two Jack Lakeside Campground, Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court Campground and Waterfowl Lake Campground.
Another once-in-a-lifetime experience is witnessing the Canadian Rockies from the sky. Head east about 25 km along the Bow River until you reach the town of Canmore. From there, guests can choose from a variety of heli-tours, with the most popular being a fly over the mighty Three Sisters Peaks.
Located 57 km’s west of Banff, Lake Louise is a spectacular emerald green lake surrounded by jagged peaks and glaciers. The lake’s main attraction is the iconic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a luxurious mountain resort that dominates the eastern shore of Lake Louise. Staying at this historical hotel is an experience all on its own.
There are a variety of hiking trails around the lake, some open to mountain biking and horseback riding. With limited accommodations and restaurants on the lake, most visitors will stay in the village of Lake Louise, located near the Trans-Canada Highway about 5 km’s away.
All visitors to Lake Louise should take the 15 km drive to Moraine Lake, a magnificent turquoise lake situated in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Rent a canoe and circle the crystal clear lake before hiking the Rockpile Trail to one of the most photographed locations in Canada. Bring plenty of memory cards, you’ll need them!
Located at 4,537 feet, the Town of Banff is the highest town in Canada. There are strict by-laws that limit development in Banff, due to its unusual position as a municipality within a national park, so you won’t find any skyscrapers in this alpine town.
There are plenty of accommodation options in town, including over a dozen hotels on centrally located Banff Avenue. For the ultimate mountain resort experience, few hotels can compete with the stunning Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Labelled as Canada's "Castle in the Rockies", this legendary hotel has been serving guests for over 125 years.
While in town, a fun attraction is the Sulphur Mountain Gondola. The eight minute ride transports visitors up 2,300 feet, offering fantastic mountain views and a variety of hiking trails.
For day trips outside of town, head to Lake Minnewanka, the largest lake in the Canadian Rockies, or Johnston Canyon, home to cascading waterfalls and easy hiking trails.
Being an international tourist destination, there are no shortages of restaurants and bars. A couple popular joints include Eddie Burger Bar, for juicy burgers and deep fried pickles, and Banff Ave Brewing Co., for refreshing craft beer and pub fare. And for desert (or breakfast), you must try a fully loaded Beaver Tail.
Life moves a little slower in Banff, so it’s wise to reset your internal clock to ‘relaxation mode’. It’s common to see wildlife wandering right down the street and along the river, so keep your camera with you at all times.