From hiking in Banff National Park to skiing in the Rockies, find out why Banff is the perfect destination for mountain lovers and outdoor enthusiasts in this post!
This post has been written in collaboration with Canadian Affair.
Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. All this means is that if you make a purchase through one of the links I have provided, I will earn a small commission as a result but the cost to you will remain exactly the same.
It’s been a tradition of mine over the past few years to attend my local screening of the Banff Mountain Film Festival.
The Banff Mountain Film Festival is an international film competition and annual presentation of short films and documentaries about mountain culture, sports, and the environment. It was born way back in 1976 in Banff, Alberta, but the Banff films didn’t tour the UK until 2010.
They’ve been so well received that tickets are snapped up almost as soon as they go on sale.
The films chart some incredible adventures and outstanding achievements. There’s the amateur film-maker who self-shoots his epic three-year bike ride through the Americas, the humble piano tuner who embarks upon a quest to transport a 100-year-old piano from London to a school in a remote Himalayan village, the courageous climber who overcomes injury in order to finish his ascent of the famous Totem Pole in Tasmania, and the adventurer who doesn’t let his blindness stand in the way of his dream to complete a kayaking expedition through the Grand Canyon.
Regardless of the subject matter, these films always leave me with a renewed sense of vigour and a desire to get out into the mountains and challenge myself.
It was the 2017 film ‘Mira’ that inspired me to take up running. And, three years later, I’m still running on a regular basis. It’s one of the things that is keeping me sane during lockdown. Being able to go out on my own little running adventures – plotting new running routes and discovering parts of my hometown that I’ve never explored before – is my own way of travelling at a time when I can’t actually travel.
This year’s screening of the Banff Mountain Film festival in Shrewsbury was scheduled for the 22 April. However, as a result of the UK being on lockdown since the 23 March, in response to the global coronavirus pandemic, my local theatre has been forced to postpone the event.
I may not be able to make it to the film festival, but there’s nothing stopping me from virtually travelling to the place where this incredible film festival was born. Maybe one day, when it’s safe to travel again, I’ll actually be able to make it to Banff in person.
If you’re also looking at Banff holidays, I’m hoping this post will inspire you to seek out your very own mountain adventures in this stunning part of Canada.
But first up, a few facts about Banff National Park.
- Location: The Canadian Rockies, along the Trans-Canada Highway.
- Closest airport: Calgary International Airport, 120 km/75 miles away. From the UK, a number of airlines operate direct flights from London to Calgary. I always use Skyscanner to research and book flights.
- Date established: 1885, a couple of years after three railway workers stumbled upon a series of natural hot springs on the side of Sulphur Mountain. Banff is Canada’s oldest National Park.
- Size: 6,641 km²/1,641,027 acres.
Things to do in Banff National Park
These are just a few of the activities that I’ve short-listed; there are many more things to do in Banff if your courage and budget know no bounds.
Hiking in Banff National Park
Hiking is my absolute favourite mountain activity, and I’m so excited to hopefully go hiking in Banff one day!
If you’re also an avid hiker who adores dramatic mountain landscapes and immense lakes, then you’ll be spoilt for choice in Banff National Park. But here are a few of the Banff hikes that I’m most looking forward to completing:
- Healy Pass. Almost every article I’ve read cites this as one of THE best hikes in Banff. But Healy Pass also appeals because the entire hike is well marked and the trail is well maintained. The hike sees you climbing gradually through a lush forest and then crossing the bridge over Healy Creek before emerging into a beautiful alpine meadow filled with colourful wildflowers (depending on the time of year). Once you reach the apex of the peak, you’ll be rewarded with some stunning mountain vistas sprawling out in front of you. Healy Pass can be completed as a (long) day hike which should take around five or six hours plus stops. You can descend via Simpson Pass, but the easier route is the one you ascended by. You’ll find the trailhead at the Sunshine Village parking lot.
Total distance: 20.9 kilometres | Elevation: 705 metres | Difficulty level: 4/5
- Cory Pass to Mount Edith. If you’d rather hike a circuit in preference to an up-and-down trail (which, admittedly, is normally what I choose to do), then this is definitely one of the most scenic options for hiking in Banff. It’s also one of the most difficult, with a gruelling uphill section for the first few miles, and several scree slopes to navigate your way across. But big challenges reap big rewards and I’ve read several accounts by travellers who cite this as one of the best hikes they’ve ever done. The route passes through a number of different micro ecosystems (which means dramatic shifts in climate; go prepared!) and the section through Gargoyle Valley affords spectacular views of Mount Louis, Mount Fifi, Mount Cory and Mount Edith. Follow the route in a clockwise direction to ensure an easier descent. Again, this hike should take around five or six hours plus stops.
Total distance: 14.3 kilometres | Elevation: 1075 metres | Difficulty level: 5/5
- Citadel Pass. This is another hike that’s full of variety, with opportunities to spot an equally varied spectrum of wildlife along the way – from Columbian Ground Squirrels to Grizzly Bears. And to top it all off, the hike starts with a fantastic gondola ride up to the trailhead at Sunshine Meadow. Citadel Pass is also one of the lesser-trafficked hikes in Banff, so you might be lucky enough to have the trail to yourself in parts. Although there are fantastic views all along the trail, the most Insta-worthy can be found at the Standish Viewing Deck (where you can gaze upon Rock Isle and Grizzly and Larix Lakes), at Quartz Ridge, and at Citadel Pass itself. Make sure you leave early in the morning for this hike, as the last gondola back down from Sunshine Meadow is at 6 p.m.
Total distance: 21.9 kilometres | Elevation: 885 metres | Difficulty level: 4/5
Further Reading | I’ve added this handy little guide to 10 of the best hikes in Banff to my Amazon wish list. If you’re considering doing some hiking in Banff, it’s definitely one of the best guides I’ve found so far. At the moment (May 2020), it’s priced at just £3.06.
Canoeing on Lake Louise
This has got to be a bucket list activity even if you’re not a hugely keen or confident canoeist, because just look at these views!
It is, however, an activity that can only be completed within a very limited window of time. The lake doesn’t normally thaw until around mid-June, and by September/October the hours of daylight are significantly decreasing and the temperatures are plummeting once again.
There is only one boat rental outfit on the lake and it’s operated by the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel. Prices are $125 (£73) plus tax for one hour on the water, and each canoe seats up to three adults (or two adults and two small (under 25kg) children. Canoe rental hours are weather dependent (the weather can and does fluctuate rapidly here) but operation doesn’t normally begin until around 11 a.m and finishes around 7 p.m.
Unfortunately, the canoes cannot be reserved in advance. They’re rented out on a first-come, first-served basis, and priority is always given to hotel guests. But don’t let that deter you; after all, good things come to those who wait.
Skiing in the Rockies
When Stu’s dad used to live just outside Granada in Spain, we’d take regular skiing trips to the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains. Considering that – aside from a few lessons on a dry ski slope in my teens – I didn’t try my hand at skiing until the age of 28, up in Coronet Peak in Queenstown, New Zealand, I did actually get to the stage where I could confidently tell others that yes, I could ski.
My confidence grew with every day that we spent up on the slopes and I loved the enormous sense of achievement I gained every time I successfully managed to tackle a run that I hadn’t felt brave enough to attempt beforehand.
Although I think my preference will always be for outdoor activities that require little more than my own two feet, I’d really love to head up to the top of a snowy mountain and strap a pair of skis on again. And Banff is well known for its phenomenal snow and a ski season that runs from November right through to May.
There are three ski areas in Banff – Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise. Between them they offer a massive 8000 acres (32,374,851 square meters) of piste. Mount Norquay is the closest to Banff town (eight kilometres away) but it’s also the smallest ski resort. So, if you want a greater choice of ski runs, head to Sunshine Village, 16 kilometres away, or Lake Louise, 65 kilometres away. Regular shuttle buses run from Banff town to all three ski resorts.
Unfortunately you won’t be able to go skiing AND hiking in Banff on the same trip, because it’s considered dangerous to hike while there is still snow on the mountains, due to the risk of avalanche. However, if you live a little closer to Banff than I do, then maybe you could head over for both a summer and winter vacation.
Relaxing in a hot pool
Hot springs are the sole reason Banff was established back in 1885, so if you want to go back to the national park’s roots, whilst at the same time easing those aching muscles after a day of skiing or hiking up in the mountains, then this is the perfect activity for you!
Banff’s original hot springs, discovered in 1883, are known as Banff Upper Hot Springs. At an elevation of 1585 metres above sea level, they’re the highest hot springs in all of Canada and are one of nine different naturally occurring hot springs in the Banff area. The toasty warm waters (water at Banff Upper Hot Springs is kept at 37-40 °C all year round) and incredible views across the valley to Mount Rundle will keep you here for hours.
Single entry to the springs is $8.48. Alternatively, if there’s a group of you, you can rent the whole pool for one hour before or after the official opening times for a cost of $275.74. There’s definitely the potential for some amazing Instagram shots with that option!
You’ll also find hot pools in both the Fox Hotel and Suites and Moose Hotel and Suites. The former offers a cave style experience in their award-winning ‘Hot Pool Grotto’ but I must admit that I prefer the rooftop pools of the latter because I simply love those amazing mountain vistas.
If you’d prefer to see evidence of hot springs in a more natural environment then head to Vermilion Lakes, where you can watch steam rising from the surface of the lake due to the presence of hot springs beneath it. Vermillion Lakes are an easy two and a half kilometre walk from Banff Town.
Photo by liquidcrash via Flickr’s Creative Commons Licence
Alternatively, Emerald Lake Lodge is the most secluded of Banff’s commercial hot springs. It’s not far from the Lake Louise ski resort. You’ll pay a fine price for the peace, tranquillity and exclusivity though.
Walking on a glacier
There are not many places in the world that you can get up close and personal to a glacier, but Athabasca Glacier is one of the world’s most accessible glaciers. Part of the Columbia Icefield, the Athabasca Glacier covers an area of approximately six square kilometres and measures around 300 metres at its thickest point.
Although you can see the Athabasca Glacier from the Icefields Parkway, walking on the glacier is permitted by guided tour only as a result of several tragic deaths of tourists who have fallen through hidden crevices in the ice.
Ice Explorer is the name given to the massive six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle which will transport you along the moraine and on to the glacier. The adventure culminates with a visit to the Columbia Icefield Skywalk – a glass-bottomed 800 metre-long walkway that hangs from a cliff edge overlooking the Sunwapta Valley.
Whilst a guided hike will give you a more personal experience, I think the Ice Explorer adventure looks like so much fun!
Visiting Pastoruri Glacier was one of the highlights of my trip to Peru, so really hope that Banff’s version lives up to expectations.
And that’s my round-up of the five things to do in Banff National Park that I’m most looking forward to being able to tick off my wish list.
If you’ve done any hiking in Banff and believe there is a stand-out hike that I haven’t included on my list, please let me know in the comments. Likewise, if there are any other outdoor activities you’d recommend in Banff, I’d love to hear about those too.
Where have you been dreaming about travelling to once it’s safe to do so again? And what specifically inspired you to do so?
If you’ve enjoyed reading about hiking in Banff, you may want to check out some of the amazing hikes I’ve done in the following countries:
If you like this article, please share it on social media using the share buttons at the top of the post. And if you’d like to save it for reading later, why not pin to one of your Pinterest boards? Alternatively you can follow along on Facebook or Twitter, or you can look me up on Instagram or Pinterest too!