One of my favourite national parks in the world has to be the Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies in Alberta. In the heart of the national park lies the town of Banff itself and Olga and I have been fortunate so far to check this quaint little town out in the summer months and I had the chance to do this also in the winter months. I want to share my experience of the area and give my readers the lowdown on what to expect when spending some time here.
How to get to Banff
Most people drive to Banff with a hired car as public transport is limited. There is a coach from Downtown Calgary to Banff but it takes forever. A lot of visitors just hire a car when they arrive at Calgary International Airport and drive the ninety minutes west into Banff. Check out more information at the bottom of this blog post.
Canadian National Park Passes
Ok, before we get to the fun bit about what there is to do in Banff, all visitors must buy a pass to explore the Banff National Park which includes Banff. This maybe a little bit confusing but I managed to get my head around it. The ‘entry fee’ is what visitors have to pay and state how many days they will be in the parks. Now most visitors come to Banff National Park by car so visitors think they are paying for per vehicle when it's not. The charge is per person in the vehicle. However when coming by car, a pass will be given per vehicle and needs to be displayed.
Basically the driver and passengers coming into the national park in their own vehicle or a rented one that will stop or use the park in any way needs to have paid for the pass. If visitors arrive in Banff by other means and then hire a car, they still need to buy a pass. This is what I had to do on my winter visit when I hired a car from the hotel I was staying at. If coming to the park with a tour operator, send a message or speak to them and see if the price of a park pass is included or will they buy the park pass on your behalf.
Now this is the bit I love. A lot of visitors think they don’t require a pass if they stop off in Banff (or Lake Louise) or even to stop for a quick lunch break on the drive through the park. If visitors stop off at a viewpoint, or use a picnic area, stopping in Banff to go into a shop to get a bite to eat, these all require a PASS! Also if visitors have booked accommodation within the park, you will still need a park pass as this is not included in any accommodation price.
Also driving on the scenic parkways (and I have done both...amazing adventures to be had along those routes), like the Bow Valley Parkway (Route 1A which runs between Banff and Lake Louise) and the Icefields Parkway which runs from Lake Louise all the way to Jasper on route 93N, then a park pass is required. Now the good thing is, visitors are buying a pass for the days they are staying at the park. The park pass is valid in the following parks and you do not need to buy a different pass for different parks. It is valid in Jasper, Banff, Yoho, Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Kootenay, Elk Island and Waterton Lakes. As long as visitors have brought the pass for the days stated, this pass can be used in all the national parks listed. For this blog post, the best places to buy the pass when entering the park with a pass is at the toll booths on the Trans-Canadian-1 highway near Canmore (on the eastern side of the park), or at the booths on the Icefields Parkway or if you have already arrived in Banff then go to 224 Banff Avenue to buy the pass.
Pheewwww… so remember to buy that pass!
Now the fun part….what to do in Banff itself!
I start off with Cave and Basin because this is where it all began for the Canadian National parks. Here lies a small museum slightly on the outskirts of town but is within walking distance (Banff is pretty small to be honest and from the centre to the outskirts of town can be a twenty minute walk in all directions). Here there are interactive displays about how the park system was formed, a history of Banff National Park and the railway but also about how the hot springs in this area were found. After paying the small fee there was a short tunnel which took us into a hot springs cavern where we were hit by the whiff of sulphur in the air. The water here is heated up by geothermal activity which gives off the sulphur smell. One of my favourite things to do here is check out the views to the north on the open terrace at the top of the building or next to the car park.
To the south of Banff centre and over the bridge which crosses the Bow River is the Banff Gondola, which whisks visitors up to the summit of Sulphur Mountain. This is the best place to get views of the area if visitors don’t want to hike up a mountain. At the top are toilets, restaurants and shops plus an open terrace. However there is a boardwalk to walk across to another part of the mountain for more views of Banff down below. This walk leads to Sansom’s Peak. However I have been up here in the summer and winter months and I prefer to do that walk in the summer, trust me! It can get very cold at the summit in the winter.
Another place to get a great feel of the mountains (and relax at the same time) is the Banff Upper Hot Springs which is a must! I got to soak in steamy hot mineral water at Canada’s highest operating hot spring at over 1,585 meters (5,200 feet). The hot springs have been used for a very long time and probably were first used by indigenous people who saw this as one of their sacred places. Since then the first Europeans used the springs back in 1884 and now is one of the town’s popular attractions. I managed to do a visit here in the winter months on one snowy morning. I laid back in the warm water as the cold snowflakes hit my face. The view of Banff is also great from here.
For town hikes there are some paths which follow the both sides of the river. I did a little walk on the southern side and headed eastwards from the bridge at Banff Avenue and got some amazing views but then I headed back towards the bridge, crossed it to the northern side and headed east again along the Bow River Trail. I followed this trail and got amazing photos in the winter months. The trail turns into a road which I hiked up a hill and at the corner where the road bends to the left is Surprise Corner Viewpoint. Here I got amazing views of the castle-like-hotel of Fairmont Banff Springs on the other side. This is worth the short hike to see this beautiful building with the mountain backdrop.
For accommodation there are plenty of hotels in the area (which cater very well for skiers in the winter). One of the hotels I stayed at is the Fairmont Banff Springs, this five star hotel which overlooks Banff from the south and looks like a castle. This is a luxurious stay in the area and you can read my full review here.
Away from Banff - what else is there to do in Banff National Park
Outside Banff is the Vermillion Lakes which is an area of wetlands formed from the nearby Bow River and is an excellent place to view wildlife. Depending on what angle you see the lakes, a view of Mount Rundle overlooks the lakes from the distance and makes great photography.
The largest lake in Banff National Park is Lake Minnewanka. We came here in the summer months and took a peddle boat ride for an hour on the lake. With the beautiful scenery around us, we were in heaven. Still not sure why the lake has this name mind you but we found it quite funny. The lake is situated a few kilometers north of Downtown Banff.
Lake Louise is one of the most famous lakes in Canada and a lot of people come here to admire the views or even go canoeing. The water here is a stunning turquoise coloured water in the summer months. The lake has Victoria mountain and a glacier overlooking it and this gives it an even more spectacular view. However the lake is usually frozen from November to May so it is best to come in the summer months. This area is also known for several hiking trails, the easiest one being the shoreline trail around the lake which starts from the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Hotel. The drive from Banff to Lake Louise is about forty minutes.
When we first saw Lake Louise, we thought we were blown away however when we drove down the road to Moraine Lake, one of Canada’s main natural highlights, that is when we were blown away. The lake is situated in the Valley of the Ten Peaks and has beautiful blue water. We did the shoreline trail and also the Rockpile trail to get those amazing views. However, a few pointers, the road from Lake Louise to Moraine Lake is a 14km drive and is only open between the middle of May and into early October because of the harsh winter conditions.
Johnston Canyon - One of the popular day hikes we did in the summer months is the Johnston Canyon which is on the Bow Valley Parkway road between Banff and Lake Louise. This route is pretty easy and can be done by anyone due to the wooden walkway which has been put down here. The main hike and the one which most visitors do is to hike to the Lower and Upper Johnston Falls. The route took us through this woodland and then through a canyon. There is not much elevation so this part of the hike was pretty quick and easy. Soon enough we saw the Lower Johnston Falls, water rushing down from above, plunging into a pool which had been created by the water. There are a couple of viewpoints here, one of which is the bridge which crosses the creek, however the best one is from the platform which is just a few meters away from the waterfall itself.
The hike from the lower to upper falls has a bit more elevation in it, however the scenic views over the canyon kinda keeps you focused and forget about all the uphill struggles (to be honest, it’s not that bad of a climb). There are even some more small waterfalls to see en route. Once the Upper Falls is reached, there are two viewing platforms, one at the bottom of the falls but another is by hiking a steeper trail and then there is a platform from above looking down into the gorge.
I also want to mention at the start of the trail there are toilets and a cafe selling some hot snacks and cold food plus drinks. There is plenty of car parking, however if the car park is full like I saw, then park on the main road like the others do (did we just say that..opps! I hope I don’t get told off for mentioning this!).
Canmore - I am going to mention this town which is located east of Banff, only a few minutes drive and is on the entrance to Banff National Park. Reason being if there is no accommodation in Banff or looking for somewhere cheaper to stay (to be honest, it’s not that expensive in Banff) or want to do other hiking routes, then Canmore is the place. We stayed here on our first visit to the area and stayed in a chalet on the outskirts of town on a small mountain. In town there are restaurants and supermarkets.
Going even further afield…
Heading away from Banff, I can recommend taking a drive along the Icefields Parkway (route 93N) to Jasper (which is about four hours from Banff) and check out the amazing scenery, waterfalls, lakes. The first main lake which can be seen (which also has laybys for cars to pull over and take a wander, take photos etc) is Bow Lake. We love this lake for photography because the water usually has reflections of the mountains overlooking the lake. Here there are also two glaciers which can be seen, Crowfoot Glacier and Bow Glacier. This is just one stop on the Icefields Parkway which is a must. Check out the rest of the drive on this road and Jasper National Park on my blog post here.
There you have it guys, this is my introduction to Banff and Banff National Park in Alberta. This post covers two of my trips to this amazing region, one in the summer months and the other in the heart of winter. It is an all-year round destination depending on what you are looking for but most people come here for views, skiing and hikes. We seriously can’t wait to get back to this area as it is one of the most beautiful places we have come across on the road.
How to get to Jasper:
Fly: there are no airports near Banff. The main airports are found to the east, the nearest being the main international airport at Calgary. There is also Red Deer to consider for internal flights in Alberta. To the west it has to be Vancouver, but that is a day's drive away.
Train: There is a train station in Banff, however not many passenger trains come through here unless you are checking out the amazing Rocky Mountaineer, which runs from Banff to Kamloops and Vancouver.
By car: Banff is a very easy destination to get to by car as it lies just off the Trans-Canadian-Highway-1, the main highway between Vancouver-Calgary-Winnipeg-Montreal-Quebec-Newfoundland and is well signposted from Calgary in the east and from Lake Louise in the west.
By bus: There are several bus companies which run between Banff and Downtown Calgary (some of which go to the airport), Brewster Express, RTB Tours, The Canada Bus, Rider Express, Vivo Green. The journey usually takes between ninety minutes to two hours depending on the route.
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