Banff National Park: Things to do

Banff National Park: Things to do

Honestly, I am really in two minds about the Banff National Park. The park is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful national parks in the world and offers an exceptionally beautiful landscape. I enjoyed the landscape a lot and would definitely recommend to spend a few days here.

But to be honest, there is also a downside. The Banff National Park is like a rock star under the national parks and therefore you won’t be alone here. Additionally, the highlights of the park are mostly very well developed, which means that tourists can visit the sights comfortably by car. This does not only attract individual tourists but also a big amount of travel groups. And we’re talking about lots of buses here.

I’m sorry but it’s not exactly idyllic when I have to queue at the parking lot where the police regulates the traffic and then hundreds of tourists are standing around me while I look at a beautiful lake. And we’ve even been here in the off-season.

My tip: The Banff National Park is definitely worth seeing. But you shouldn’t go in the main season. Additionally, you should visit the main sights, like Lake Louise, early in the morning – and I mean sunrise or at least shortly after. And above all: go to some places away from mass tourism. I will tell you more about it in my post “Banff National Park: Insider tip“.

General information about Banff National Park

Banff National Park is located in the Canadian province of Alberta in the Canadian Rockies. It was founded in 1885 and is not only the oldest national park in Canada, but also the third oldest worldwide. It covers a total area of 6641 km². The national park was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984, together with Jasper National Park, Kootenay National Park and Yoho National Park. Combined they are called the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks.

Banff National Park things to do. One of them is the Natural bridge.

Banff the town

Banff is a small town inside the national park. In fact, it’s the largest town in the area, with a population of about 7850 people.

The nice thing about the place is its location. From here you can not only start wonderful tours into Banff National Park, but also into the neighboring national parks Kootenay and Yoho.

Additionally, in Banff you can find everything your heart desires: great restaurants, bars, supermarkets, shopping and more. Moreover, you can easily find accommodation here. There is something for every taste and wallet – from cheap hostels and simple hotels to five-star wellness hotels.

Still, I also have mixed feelings about the town. The place is completely designed for tourism, can be very crowded and looks a bit artificial. So if you look for authenticity, isolation and silence, this might not be your place.

But at least there is always something going on in the evenings. For example, we went to the small cinema, which was also a welcome change in the evening program.

View of the main street in Banff

Main sights in Banff National Park

There are a few sights that everyone is visiting. And even if this loses some of its idyll, you should probably visit these sights anyway. After all, there is a reason for their popularity: they are simply beautiful places.

By the way, you can also easily escape the masses by doing some hiking tours. As most of the tourists only drive from one main attraction to the next, the hiking paths are much emptier. We had planned some hiking tours but unfortunately, we couldn’t walk most of them due to two reasons.

First we were there in May and there was an acute danger of avalanches. Therefore, a lot of the hiking routes were closed. Please keep to such warnings. Hikers and climbers regularly have deadly accidents here because they don’t take it seriously enough. In fact, just a few weeks before we arrived to Banff, three popular mountain climbers died here due to an avalanche.

Second, if there are a lot of bear sightings it is possible that paths are closed, especially in spring, when they have babies. Some paths are closed completely or you can only walk them in groups.

Moraine Lake

The Moraine Lake is one of the most popular and most photographed lakes in Banff National Park. If you like to look at travel pictures on Instagram you definitely have seen someone canoeing over the turquoise lake already. When we were at Lake Moraine it was still partly frozen, which also had its charm.

The lake is located in the Valley of the Ten Peaks at an altitude of 1,884 m above sea level. As the name says, it’s a valley surrounded by ten mountain peaks of the Wenkchemna Range. Its milky, emerald green color comes from the particles of glacial erosion that reflect the light.

Moraine Lake. one of the Banff National Park things to do

As already mentioned, the sights can be easily visited by car. There is a parking lot practically right in front of the lake. In any case, come as early as possible, which has two advantages. First, there are not so many people at the lake and second, there are not so many cars at the parking place. Those who are late might have to queue for a long time.

Golden mantled Ground Squirrel in  banff national park

Lake Louise

Every tourist who visits Moraine Lake probably also visits its neighbor Lake Louise. Personally, I liked Moraine Lake much better. Lake Louise had something artificial, which was probably mainly due to the huge hotel complex at the edge of the lake.

Lake Louise. Crowd in front of the lake.

At this point I need to mention that tastes are very different and this is only my personal opinion. Most of those who visited the lake go into raptures about it. I suspect that either they were here much earlier in the morning, they don’t attach so much importance to peace and idyll or they don’t have any good comparisons.

View of Lake Louise which is partly frozen.

Emerald Lake

After I was a bit disappointed by the first two lakes, this one made me really happy. There were only a few tourists around and we could really enjoy the Canadian peace and landscape.

We were here in the afternoon, how crowded it is in the morning I can’t say for sure. Since the lake wasn’t frozen anymore, we could rent a canoe and explore the lake from the water, which was a great experience.

By the way, Emerald Lake is located in Yoho National Park and not in Banff National Park. But since theses parks merge into each other, they are just the same to me. So, for those of you who are really into details, I am sorry…

Canoeing on Emerald Lake. Banff National Park things to do.

Natural Bridge

Those who drive to Emerald Lake should also stop at the Natural Bridge. It is a rock which has been gradually carved out over time by the powerful Kicking Horse River. Now it looks like a bridge surrounded by waterfalls. I read that it can be very crowded as well. But either we were lucky or it was because we’ve been here in the later afternoon, but we had the area on our own.

Natural Bridge in Yoho National Park.

Banff Gondola

The Banff Gondola is a must-do and offers an amazing panoramic view of the city and the Canadian Rocky Mountains. So, even if it is not the cheapest to do in Banff I would still recommend it. But you should definitely book your tickets in advance to avoid long waiting times.

Stephan and me sitting in the Banff Gondola.

The gondola travels in 8 minutes up to the viewing platform at 2.281 meters above sea-level. Here you find the observation deck, a restaurant, a bistro, a really nice museum and a small cinema, which offers a documentary film about Canada on a regular basis.

Golden mantled Ground Squirrel sitting in front of the Mountains of Banff National Park

From the Upper Terminal you can also walk on a boardwalk to Sanson’s Peak, the top of Sulphur Mountain. The view from here is very beautiful.

View of the observation deck in Banff
Boardwalk to Sanson's Peak, the top of Sulphur Mountain.

If you would like to be a little more sporty, you can also walk up to the top. I read that it will take about one and a half to two hours. If you are lucky, you can take the gondola down for free. But this depends on the season so no promises here.

bighorn sheep

Lake Minnewanka

I really liked the lake, even though we didn’t stay here as long as originally planned. More about that later. Already the drive from Banff was beautiful. But I would recommend the slightly longer way along Two Jack Lake.

Lake Minnewanka is 21 km long, which makes it to the second longest lake in the mountain parks of the Canadian Rockies. It is surrounded by many mountains such as Mount Inglismaldie, Mount Girouard and Mount Peechee. Thus, the location of the lake is very beautiful.

Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park

We did a little hike here. Actually, we wanted to hike much longer but the trail was closed at some point because of bear sightings. Since there are a lot of bears in this area and lots of them had babies, we kept to the rules.

Lake Minnewanka also offers a lot of activities on the water. You can swim, canoe and fish here. You can also take boat trips, which are generally offered from mid-May to mid-October. Smaller motorboats can also be rented and you can explore the lake on your own.

Banff National Park things to do. Lake Minnewanka hiking
View of the river at Lake Minnewanka

Johnston Canyon

I really enjoyed this hiking trail and would recommend it, even though there were no highlights that really impressed me.

But first things first. The entrance is about 30 minutes away from Banff when driving by car. I recommend to take the Bow Valley Parkway, which is much quieter than the parallel Trans Canada Highway. And a bonus is that you can often see animals like bears here.

By the way, Johnston Canyon is not an insider tip anymore. So, you should be here before 9 am to start the tour before the buses arrive.

Start of Johnston Canyon hike

There are three highlights on the hike

You have to walk 1.1 kilometers to the Lower Falls on a mostly asphalted path. We even saw parents with strollers, so the hike is very easy. The falls are about ten meters high, which is nice but not too impressive, I think.

You have to walk 3 more kilometers to the Upper Falls, which are 30 meters high. Since most travel groups and parents with small children only hike to the Lower Falls, this path is already much emptier. You mainly walk on wooden footbridges and forest ground, always slightly uphill. I would say it is still an easy hike which you could even do with children. The waterfall was much more impressive than the Lower Falls.

Walk through the Johnston Canyon to the Lower Falls
View of the Upper Falls at Johnston Canyon

The Ink Pots require an additional 6-kilometer hike further uphill. This part is a bit more exhausting but still doable. You immediately get rewarded, since here are now even fewer tourists on the road.

I read that some people were disappointed by the Ink Pots, especially after the long hike. I think it depends a bit on expectations and the weather.

Hike to the Ink Pots in Banff National Park

The Ink Pots are seven cold mineral springs bubbling to the surface in the open meadows of Johnston Canyon Creek. Nothing more and nothing less. The water glows in different shades of green and turquoise, which looks amazing in the sunshine. The springs are very unique as they have a constant temperature of 4 C° and their pools are made of quicksand. The water looked like it was boiling, which I found interesting to look at.

For me, the Ink Pots were the highlight of this hike, because I have never seen anything like that.

View of the Ink Pots
Ink Pots  in the Banff National Park

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Banff National Park: Insider Tip