Authored by Maya Steiningerova
Banff National Park is the most visited national park in Canada and one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
I’m going to share with you the 7 best things to do here, including hikes, lakes, waterfalls, glaciers, wildlife, and a fantastic road trip on Icefields Parkway considered one of the most beautiful drives in the world.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-time visitor or have been to Banff already; this is an excellent place to start planning your itinerary.
I’ve enjoyed these activities several times during my decade living close to Banff National Park because every season offers different views and experiences.
7 Best Things to do in Banff National Park
#1 Banff Town
Banff town and surrounding area offer so many activities that you can easily spend a week here. The main Banff Avenue is lined with hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, all with a mountainous backdrop.
Cascade of Time Garden provides a lovely stroll among blooming flowers, small waterfalls paired with mountain views for gorgeous photos.
When you enter Banff National Park and buy your park pass, the entrance to Cave and Basin National Historic Site is included. Here you can learn about the history of the Canadian Rockies, see a cave with a sulphur pond, and walk the boardwalk.
Vermilion Lakes are a walking distance from town, and I recommend visiting them in the evening. The small wooden pier is great for a picnic while watching the sunset behind the Rundle Mountains.
#2 Banff Gondola at Sulphur Mountain
Banff Gondola is one of the most popular attractions in Banff. However, not many visitors know that you can also hike up the same mountain, and it’s not even a challenging hike.
Sulphur Mountain Hike starts at the Upper Hot Springs parking lot. The trail consists of many switchbacks with a steady incline up the mountain with an occasional view of Banff, Rundle Mountain, and Spray Valley.
After 5.5 km, you reach the top of Sulphur Mountain at 2,300 meters above sea level, where the upper terminal for the gondola is located.
You can visit the interpretative centre, restaurants, or gift shop inside. The outdoor observation deck has breathtaking panoramic mountain views.
If you’d like to walk 1 km further on the boardwalk, it leads to Sanson’s Peak, an old weather station. Afterwards, you can hike back down or take the gondola for half the price.
#3 Lake Minnewanka
In the Indigenous Nakoda language, Lake Minnewanka means “Water of the Spirits”. It’s a glacial lake, about 21 km long and only a 20-minute drive away from Banff.
You can rent a kayak or canoe onshore and paddle around the lake. I suggest visiting early in the morning when the water is calm as this area gets its share of wind.
A guided cruise across Lake Minnewanka shows you a unique view of the lake and even some wildlife if you’re lucky. Many visitors spend a day at the lake picnicking and hiking.
Although Lake Minnewanka is too cold for a swim, you can hike to a nearby Stewart Canyon or Aylmer Lookout. Aylmer Lookout is a full-day hike or bike & hike trip 25 km in length and also has a backcountry campground if you’d like to stay overnight.
#4 Johnston Canyon
Take the scenic route from Banff to Lake Louise via Bow Valley Parkway and stop at Johnston Canyon. An easy trail along Johnston Creek leads to several cascading waterfalls.
The Lower Falls are only 1 km away from the parking lot, and the paved, almost flat trail is even suitable for strollers. You can admire the waterfall from the viewpoint or get up close for a refreshing spray through a short rock tunnel.
If you continue 1.5 km further, the Upper Falls are even more impressive with two different viewpoints. While most visitors turned around here, I recommend continuing a bit further up the trail.
You arrive at a wide gorgeous meadow surrounded by mountain peaks where Ink Pots are located. Ink Pots are colourful cold mineral springs that are constantly bubbling; the scenery is breathtaking.
#5 Lake Louise
Lake Louise is an iconic lake in the Canadian Rockies with a luxurious hotel on the shore. It’s easily accessible from the parking lot, and the turquoise water with Victoria Glacier at the far end will leave you speechless.
You can rent a canoe to paddle around the lake, bring your SUP or kayak, or try one of the many hikes in the area.
Lake Agnes Teahouse and Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse are the most popular ones. The first one has a beautiful small lake view, and the second offers views of Lake Louise from above.
My personal favourite is Mount St. Piran Hike. It’s a local’s secret and a very well-trodden 14 km (return) trail.
The trail is not monitored by Parks Canada and therefore it’s not on the official tourist maps. That means it’s the only hike in Lake Louise area that is crowd-free.
As soon as you reach the treeline area, the views of Lake Louise, Bow Valley, and Victoria Glacier open up, and it’s scenic to the top. Once you reach the summit of Mount St. Piran at 2,649 meters above sea level, you see even more glaciers and mountain peaks.
#6 Moraine Lake
Moraine Lake is the most photographed lake in the Rockies. The stunning blue colour with Ten Peaks in the background is hard to beat.
While many visitors ask about swimming in Moraine Lake, I would advise against it. Moraine Lake sits at 1,885 meters above sea level, is fed by a glacier, and therefore it’s freezing cold.
The temperature hovers around 5C, and without a wetsuit, you can get hypothermia very quickly.
However, there are lots of different ways to enjoy the lake. One of them is renting a canoe to paddle around the lake, and if you’re lucky, even spotting some wildlife.
Another option would be hiking; some of the most stunning hikes around Moraine Lake are Consolation Lakes, Sentinel Pass, Paradise Valley, and the Tower of Babel.
#7 Icefields Parkway
Icefields Parkway is a 232 km scenic road connecting Banff and Jasper National Park. It was named one of the most beautiful drives globally by many international publications.
As the name suggests, the main attractions are glaciers and icefields. But also breathtaking hiking trails, bustling waterfalls, crystal clear lakes, and lots of options for wildlife watching.
Bears like to hang out by the road in spring to eat the fresh grass and flowers, and many drivers stop on the side to watch them.
In summer, when the traffic on Icefields Parkway is high, Parks Canada patrols the wildlife sightings spot to ensure wildlife safety. If you feed, approach or harass any wildlife, you can get a hefty fine.
While there are over 20 spots to stop along the Icefields Parkway, these are my top recommendations:
➤ Bow Lake for a rest stop and photos
➤ Peyto Lake for a short walk to the viewing platform for the view from above
➤ Mistaya Canyon for a gorgeous rocky formation and mountainous background
➤ Panther Falls for a quiet place and huge waterfalls
➤ Wilcox Pass Hike for a view of Athabasca Glacier and meeting bighorn sheep
➤ Columbia Icefield to visit the glacier either on a tour bus or by yourself
➤ Horseshoe Lake for swimming or cliff jumping
➤ Valley of the Five Lakes for a beautifully scenic and easy hike
What do you think about Banff National Park? Which place would you like to visit first?