Banff National Park is one of the absolute gems of our country, with tall, snow capped peaks and tremendous wildlife protection. Want to see icy blue glaciers and stunning viewpoints? How about deer, bear, elk, moose, marmots, mountain goats and big horned sheep? Maybe a wolf pack, if you’re lucky? The highway animal corridor bridges are amazing to behold. Banff NP is the place to be to catch these and much, much more.
Because it is so incredible… so stunningly beautiful and so very, very spectacular, it draws tremendous tourist numbers to its town site, its arts centre (the Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity) and its trail heads. Bus tours are very common. And people love to shop in town so there are a ton of high end & chain stores. The plus side of all this? There is a fantastic restaurant scene in town, and lots going on in the arts community. The downside? Places like the Banff Springs Hotel site, the townsite itself, Bow Falls, Lake Louise, Bow Summit and highway 93 (which goes through the mountains from Lake Louise to Jasper) are very crowded. Trail heads and parking lots can even get closed off by parks staff if you are not at a trailhead early enough.
GO! You will LOVE it!
That does NOT mean you should not go! GO! You will LOVE it! It is still definitely possible to get away from the hordes and see these sites AND experience far more. Simply get early starts (8am at the trailheads should do it), and be sure to venture down the trails beyond paved parking lots and viewpoint trails for the camera-clicking bus hordes and get into the beautiful wilderness areas.
Here are a few of our favourite trails, listed in alphabetical order. I will add to this as time goes on and blog entries are created. Click on the links (the names of the hikes) to read the full blog posts.
10km return; ONLY 160m elevation gain (flat for the mountains!)
This hike starts at the Num Ti Jah parking lot on the shores of Bow Lake.
Excerpt: “This is a hike with the right blend of everything for a wonderful day… a relatively flat shore line walk along a lake as beautifully coloured as Lake Louise + only 160m elevation gain (that’s “flat” as far as mountain hikes go!!) + a decent distance (about 10km to the falls, return) + a few fun & easy stream crossings on a gorgeous gravelled delta + a gurgling stream to follow with ice cold glacial meltwater in it + a magnificent canyon + a set of stairs (rather then a slippery slog) that take you safely up the canyon’s side + a fantastic natural feature (a boulder suspended over the canyon that makes a natural bridge) + a glacially scoured landscape complete with moraines + at the end of it all, the most spectacular waterfall with fun rock slabs for optional scrambling that make the best natural chairs, loungers and picnic tables going at its feet! Yup this trail has it all… the right blend of everything! Everything except strenuous ups and crazy distances.”
17.10 return; 1060m elevation gain
This hike ends with a long scramble up a loose scree slope and gains a very small surface-area peak that gives you magnificent views of the mountains all around. From there you can see the Bow Glacier, the source of the Bow River that travels through Banff and Canmore on to Calgary and beyond, ultimately feeding into the great lakes and the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of kilometres away.
Excerpt: “Wanting to test our elevation limits before leaving for Peru, we did this hike, high in Banff National Park. Situated across the valley from Bow Lake, Bow Glacier, Crowfoot Glacier and Iceberg Lake, it was a hike with breathtaking views! Seriously, it was stunning. The hike to Helen Lake, and then up and onto Cirque Peak…”
Distance: 11.6km; Elevation Gain: 1225m; accessed from the Moraine Lake parking lot, follow the signs to the Sentinel Pass hike and veer left as you come through the larch meadow, about 100m after crossing the stream.
This hike has some scrambling up top. Wear a helmet on its upper reaches as you enter the couloir. One other tip: get to the Moraine Lake parking lot very early. If you are not there by 8am, on a weekday, in July and August, you will either be parking far down the road, or you will not get a spot at all.
Excerpt: “The effort it takes to hike and scramble to its summit, the vistas and views that you gain on its flanks of the scenery far below, and the way it delivers you from the clutches of the Moraine Lake & Sentinel Pass hoards is most certainly worthy of a good dose of awe and reverence, a healthy dose of accomplishment, and a shot of adrenaline from pushing the limits. That being said, this is the first hike/scramble of which I did not make it to the top. And for me, that was a difficult thing to come to terms with. I know I made what was the right call for me at the time, but it added self doubt to the equation… something I haven’t experienced on my mountain hikes before. I now know more about myself. And I know, in hindsight, that I could have easily done it. But I know, too, that your head just has to be in the game, when the stakes are high.”
10km in & out; elevation gain: 1013m; accessed from either the upper or lower Lake Louise parking lot
This trail begins at the popular photo spot of Lake Louise where the Chateau grounds meet the lake. Get to the parking lot before 8am to get a spot in July & August, even on a week day. It has a long approach up through the forest on an easy to find trail, wildflower strewn avalanche paths to cross, a larch forested saddle to mount, and then a scree climb that takes you up the back side of the peak to a point where you have commanding views of Lake Louise, the Victoria Glacier and the peaks of the area.
Excerpt: “The last 415m of the trail saw us working our way up this scree/talus slope to the mountain top… one step at a time. Just placing one foot in front of the other, it’s amazing what you can accomplish and what heights you can climb. As we ascended, it was quite atmospheric, with everything above (and often below) us enshrouded in cloud. The looming cliffs of Mount Aberdeen winked in and out of existence as we climbed, ever higher.”
15.76km loop; 920m elevation gain
Within site of Banff Avenue, this is one spectacular loop hike. It takes you high up to a mountain pass, full of strangely sculpted rock sentinals that give one of the access routes the name, “Gargoyle Valley.”
Excerpt: “Brilliant green grasses + a perfectly triangulated mountain peak upthrust through the landscape the way a child would draw it, its jagged slabs wrenched and lifted upright from the clutches of the earth + a steep alpine meadow in full bloom + a peaceful and oblivious black bear + a series of rock pillars standing like bizarre rocky sentinels… all this made for stellar ingredients in one of my favourite hikes that we did this summer. A 15km trek, it took us up a lush mountain slope, over a rocky pass and down onto the dry side of the mountain. It was a circuit hike full of contrasts and it was spectacular!”
20km return; 1090m elevation gain
This hike begins at Moraine Lake, a popular viewpoint on the way up to see the shores of Lake Louise. The ten peaks of its valley are tremendous and stretch out before you for most of this hike. It is not to be missed if you’re in the area! Warning: get to the Moraine Lake parking lot very early. If you are not there by 8am, on a weekday, in July and August, you will either be parking far down the road, or you will not get a spot at all.
Excerpt: Another one of those iconic hikes, this adventure took us through the Valley of the Ten Peaks, those towering beauties that used to stand in a line across the face of our Canadian $20 bill, past startling blue and green lakes and on up a mountain pass, perched on the edge of a vast wilderness.It was spectacularly beautiful and an incredibly fun day!