Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
- About Banff National Park
- Discover Banff Town
- Getting to Banff National Park
- 2. Explore Downtown Banff
- 3. Whyte Museum
- 4. Skiing and Snowboarding in Banff
- 5. Forest Bathing with Forest Fix
- 6. Plant Medicine Walk with Mahikan Trails at Cascade Ponds
- 7. Ride the Banff Gondola
- 8. See Wildlife!
- 9. Soak in Banff Upper Hot Springs
- 10. Stop by Cave and Basin National Historic Site
- 11. Visit Beautiful Lake Louise
- 12. Kayak in Banff National Park
- 14. Trek Along the Columbia Icefield Skywalk
My mid-April visit to Banff National Park in Western Canada was somewhat between seasons (some call it swinter). The ski resorts were still open and the sun was shining, enabling me to enjoy a variety of things to do in Banff National Park. And, the transitional season meant fewer crowds. For me, it was a perfect time to visit.
But no matter when you visit Banff, you’ll find an array of exciting activities. In winter, there’s skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, ice skating, dog sledding and more. Summertime activities include kayaking, rafting, biking and horseback riding. And year-round, you can enjoy hiking and biking (fat tire snow biking in winter).
In addition, wellness activities like forest bathing, a plant medicine walk and soaking in hot springs can help to rejuvenate your mind and body. These are all among the many diverse and rejuvenating things to do in Banff National Park.
About Banff National Park
Occupying 2,564 square miles, Banff National Park is Canada’s first national park. Located in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, the park was established in1885 after railway workers stumbled onto a thermal hot spring. Banff town – home to about 8,000 residents – is within the national park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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Located about 90 minutes from Calgary, the park is revered for its glacial lakes and Rocky Mountain peaks. And, if you happen to be in Banff from October to mid-April you might be lucky enough to see the Northern Lights. They’re best seen on a clear night with a new moon. Unfortunately, they weren’t visible during my visit. Maybe next time.
Discover Banff Town
Situated within Banff National Park, Banff is a resort town in the province of Alberta in Western Canada. It’s about 87 miles from Calgary. It’s a beautiful place in the Canadian Rockies with the Bow River flowing through the town of Banff. Along Banff Avenue and the surrounding streets are shops, markets, restaurants, a visitor center and the Whyte Museum. From Banff town, you can walk to or take a bus to major attractions in Banff National Park.
Getting to Banff National Park
The Banff Airporter is the original Calgary to Banff airport shuttle. It’s been operating for 20 years and is a reliable mode of transportation. After my plane landed, I easily found the Banff Airporter check-in desk at the arrivals level, domestic terminal, between exit doors 5 and 6.
When it was time to depart for Banff, employees transported my luggage to the shuttle. The shuttle made one stop in Canmore, where many locals who work in Banff live. That’s because it’s expensive to live in the town of Banff, which also caps population to 8,000.
1. Discover Banff & Its Wildlife Tour
I recommend this guided tour for everyone on your first day, if possible. It’s a wonderful introduction to Banff National Park. The shuttle picks up travelers from various hotels. On my springtime sightseeing tour, we visited several top attractions during the two-hour narrated tour. The knowledgeable guides were friendly and shared area history at each stop and while on the shuttle. At one stop, we had hot chocolate and maple cookies.
While you can visit the following attractions on your own, the guided tour includes history and fun facts.
Bow Falls and Bow River
This first stop was simply a winter wonderland. We stood on the snowy banks to take in the beauty of the Bow Falls splashing into the flowing Bow River. Not surprisingly, several Hollywood movies were filmed here, including River of No Return starring Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum. Our guides said that during filming the famous actress sprained her ankle and the young male employees at the nearby Fairmont Banff Springs were only too happy to assist her.
Surprise Corner Lookout
At the next stop, we walked up stairs to a platform and scenic viewpoint overlooking the 1888 Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel and Sulphur Mountain. It’s one of the most photographed spots in the park. Surprise Corner Lookout is located at the corner of Buffalo Street and Tunnel Mountain Road. From the parking lot you can walk to another popular site – Hoodoos Viewpoint.
We navigated a winding, snowy footpath to Hoodoos Viewpoint. There, a platform offers expansive views of the rocky spires, valley and mountains.
Two Jack Lake
We made a short stop at Two Jack Lake where we admired views of Mt. Rundle. In summer, the lake is popular for kayaking and swimming (even though it’s cold).
While it’s a scenic stop in winter when the lake is frozen, it’s a lively place in summer. The 17-mile long lake is about 466-feet deep, making it popular for scuba diving, boat cruises, kayaking and fishing. There are also picnic areas and hiking trails.
Fun fact: The lake got its name from the Stoney Nakoda First Nations people who called the lake Minn-waki or “Lake of the Spirits. (They’d heard stories of a half-man, half-fish living in the lake and believed that spirits reside in the depths.)
2. Explore Downtown Banff
During my visit, I took daily strolls through the cute Banff town nestled below Mt. Rundle and Mt. Cascade. Along Banff Ave. are the visitor center, shops, cafes and restaurants. I enjoyed being able to walk from my nearby hotel along Banff Avenue and the surrounding streets (with names like Caribou and Bear).
3. Whyte Museum
On my Discover Banff tour, the guide had recommended visiting the Whyte Museum for history about the Canadian Rockies and local heritage. And, indeed, the museum has many exhibitions featuring art, artifacts and various materials. This is a must-see attraction.
4. Skiing and Snowboarding in Banff
There are three world-class ski resorts in Banff National Park: Sunshine Village, Lake Louise Ski Resort and Mount Norquay. The typical ski season in the Rocky Mountains runs from mid-November to mid-May. (Sunshine stays open a bit longer and celebrates the last day of skiing with an annual Slush Cup event.)
I skied at Sunshine Village on a gorgeous sunny day with perfectly groomed trails. My friendly guide, David Arney, met me at the base and we got my skis, boots and poles from the rentals shop. Then we boarded the gondola for the ride up to the Banff Sunshine ski area situated on the Continental Divide at 7,200-feet. I love that once you show your ticket at the base, you never have to display your ticket again at any chairlift.
David said that Sunshine gets so much natural snow it doesn’t need to make snow. We skied for hours through Sunshine’s sprawling terrain spanning three mountains.
For lunch, we decided to eat outdoors to enjoy the sunshine and spring ski ambiance. Outside the Mad Trappers Public House, cooks were firing up tasty pizza and pulled pork sandwiches. After a satisfying meal, we parted ways – David for work and me for more skiing!
5. Forest Bathing with Forest Fix
When Forest Fix Owner Ronna Schneberger leads people through a forest bathing experience, it’s to help them tune in to their five senses and relax. You keep your clothes on for this forest therapy.
During my 90-minute forest bathing experience, Ronna and I would sit for 15 minutes under a tree and then take a short stroll to another area. Sometimes together, sometimes apart. She would offer prompts, like “close your eyes and what do you hear” or “which tree are you drawn to?”
The idea is that time spent in forests and nature can help decrease stress, lower blood pressure and rejuvenate the mind and body. Ronna said it’s common in Japan, where people are encouraged to practice shinrin-yoku (forest bathing).
As I followed Ronna’s prompts, I embraced the stillness of the forest and the sounds of the rushing Bow River, snow melting from tree branches and bird calls. Afterward, we sat under a tree where Ronna set out tea and apple slices for us to share and talk about our experience.
6. Plant Medicine Walk with Mahikan Trails at Cascade Ponds
Before we started our walk through the forest, my guide Jordan sprinkled some tobacco on the ground. It’s a cultural protocol to leave tobacco as an offering, a tradition followed by Indigenous People. Jordan’s mom, Brenda Holder, comes from the group called Aseniwuche Winewak. She’s the owner of Mahikan Trails, which offers walks with an Indigenous guide who explains how plants and trees were vital for survival. In addition, guides share area history and stories on the easy, two-hour walks.
On our walk, Jordan pointed out various things like wolf willow berries that were used for beads and braiding string and rope. Further along, we stopped by an aspen tree. He said trembling aspens provide a type of yeast that’s a natural pain reliever (also suitable for making beer).
7. Ride the Banff Gondola
The Banff Gondola is more than a ride to the Sulphur Mountain summit at 2,900 feet. The views of mountains and Bow Valley are spectacular from the gondola. It’s a short (about 8 minutes), enjoyable ride up to the summit building. Inside, there’s an interpretive center, two restaurants and a souvenir shop.
At the top, My host, Jennifer, and I walked to the outside deck to fully take in the jaw-dropping vistas of six mountain ranges and Bow Valley. I could even see the Fairmont Banff Springs far below. Walking around the deck, Jennifer pointed out an area where many weddings take place. With those views, I can see why!
Next, we walked along the Sulphur Mountain Boardwalk that traverses up the mountain. At the top is the Cosmic Ray Station, a weather station and National Historic Site.
Back in the summit building, we explored the family-friendly interpretive center. Exhibits showcase local history, geology and wildlife. With sunset on the horizon, it was time for dinner at Sky Bistro. Our table for two was by the floor-to-ceiling windows, affording us incredible views of the sun dropping behind mountain peaks.
8. See Wildlife!
On my Discover Banff tour we saw deer and bighorn sheep grazing alongside the road. But it was after my forest bathing experience that I saw about 10 elk walking on the outskirts of downtown! It’s also common to spot bears during the summer months. In fact, locals talk about two grizzly bears in particular. The Boss (so named for having fathered many cubs) and a rare white grizzly bear.
My various travel guides told me that it’s safe to admire the wildlife but to never approach them. That seems obvious but apparently there are visitors who encourage their kids to pet the wandering elk. That’s a big no-no and how tragic accidents can happen.
9. Soak in Banff Upper Hot Springs
Located near the top of Sulphur Mountain, Banff Upper Hot Springs are heated geothermally. Temperatures vary depending on the seasons. If you purchase the Thermal Waters Pass, you’ll have access to the mineral hot springs and the Cave and Basin National Historic Site.
10. Stop by Cave and Basin National Historic Site
The Cave and Basin National Historic Site is the birthplace of Canada’s National Parks. In 1883, three railway workers stumbled upon the thermal springs, which eventually led to the creation of Canada’s first national park. Today, you can visit the site to learn about the history of the basin as well as Banff.
11. Visit Beautiful Lake Louise
While Lake Louise is stunning in winter, the lake was still frozen in April, so I couldn’t see the blue water it’s known for. However, there are plenty of fun activities like cross-country skiing, ice skating and dog-sledding.
Year-round hiking trails in the area include Lake Louise Lakeshore, a flat path that circles the lake. It takes about 45 minutes. The trail was icy during my visit but the views were worth it.
Overlooking the lake is the stately Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Even if you don’t stay there, it’s a scenic spot for lunch.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Have more time? Take a short road trip (about nine miles) to Moraine Lake, another beautiful glacial lake with stunning blue water. The road is open from June to October.
12. Kayak in Banff National Park
Kayaking and canoeing are a fun way to enjoy the town of Banff’s lakes and rivers. Popular kayaking spots include: Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, Johnson Lake and Bow River.
13. Take a Scenic Drive
Bow Valley Parkway
The nearly 30-mile scenic winding route travels between Banff and Lake Louise. It’s about an hour drive to Lake Louise. But be sure to stop along the way to enjoy the sights. For example, the popular Johnston Canyon hike is found along this route. It’s a short, easy hike with waterfalls.
The 144-mile Icefields Parkway connects Lake Louise with Jasper National Park. It’s a beautiful place with 100-plus glaciers, waterfalls, rock spires and emerald lakes in sweeping valleys. There are many places to stop for a picnic along or just off the highway, including at Peyto Lake.
14. Trek Along the Columbia Icefield Skywalk
Also located along the Icefields Parkway, the Columbia Icefield Skywalk is a popular attraction for thrill seekers. Or, at least those without a fear of heights. The Skywalk is a cliff-edge, interpretive walkway with a glass floor offering sensational views of waterfalls and glacier landscapes.
15. Enjoy Many Dining Options
Dining in Banff is a treat for the senses. Not only is the farm-to-table food incredibly delicious, but many restaurant locations offer mountain and/or valley views.
Located at the Banff Center for arts and creativity, Maclab is a hidden gem. It’s an airy place with great food and views. Featuring healthy comfort food, the menu has a variety of soups, salads, burgers and sandwiches. My Chimichurri Skirt Steak Sandwich was absolutely delicious.
Park Distillery Restaurant + Bar
A favorite with locals, the cozy, two-story restaurant serves chicken, ribs, burgers (with vegan options) and Alberta beef steaks. Joining me for dinner was Kim from Banff & Lake Louise Tourism. She suggested we start with hickory truffle fries, made with a signature hickory spice, Grana Padano and truffle aïoli. It was a great choice!
Bison Restaurant + Terrace
Stairs lead to the upstairs rustic yet elegant restaurant. The food and service were impeccable, as was my view of Mt. Rundle. No wonder the restaurant is named in Trip Advisor’s top 10 Canadian Fine Dining Restaurants. The menu features locally grown, organic, sustainably farmed protein and produce. I enjoyed live acoustic music with my dinner: braised Alberta beef with ham and cheese dumplings, crimini mushrooms and red wine jus. Oh my, so tender and delicious! I wish I could have finished it there. But I did bring it back to my room to enjoy later. Somehow, I had room for the refreshing mango sorbet.
UNA pizza + wine
Inspired by California’s thin crust pizzas, this modern pizza restaurant serves pizzas, pastas and salads in five locations in Canada. I opted for the menu’s Canadian-style pizza – the Banff Ave. It’s made with smoked bacon, fennel sausage, smoked mozzarella, maple syrup and cracked pepper. It reminded me of a Hawaiian-style pizza, which I also love.
While waiting for my pizza, I had a simple green salad (not so simple!). It was a meal in itself with shaved apples, maple toasted sunflower seeds, shaved grana padano and green goddess dressing. My server recommended an itali-UNA soda, a non-alcoholic drink made in-house. I ordered his favorite: a blend of orange creamsicle and raspberry lime.
Dining in Sky Bistro caps an exhilarating visit to the Sulphur Mountain summit via the Banff Gondola. Rocky Mountains serve as a magical backdrop while enjoying lunch or dinner. The house bread, made with sun-dried tomato oil and fennel butter, is a must. Entrees include Alberta beef, fish, chicken, fish and seasonal vegetarian dishes. When I dined here, it was my last evening in Banff. I was tempted to order another Alberta steak. But after so many steaks in one week, I ordered the vegetarian sweet potato ravioli topped with dollops of edamame. It was a delightful choice.
16.Stay in Banff National Park
Moose Hotel & Suites on Banff Avenue
Just a one-minute walk from Downtown Banff, Moose Hotel & Suites is a 4-star property with guest rooms as well as one- and two-bedroom suites. The hotel has many amenities including a spa, business center, indoor pool and fitness center. After a full day of activities, nothing feels better than relaxing in a rooftop Jacuzzi with mountain views.
You can read our full review of Moose Hotel & Suites.
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