Whether you’re looking to plan your family’s next adventure, a getaway with friends, or simply a solo exploration trip, Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada offers sights, activities, and experiences that are hard to find anywhere else. With options for hiking, skiing, snowboarding, guided lake tours, whitewater rafting, and eating, you’re bound to find something to tickle your fancy regardless of when you visit.
To help you beef up your itinerary for your next visit to Banff, below are five essential things to see and do in Banff.
One of the most popular things to do in Banff is taking the eight-minute enclosed gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain. Atop the mountain’s 7,500-foot tall peak, you can explore the many interactive exhibits, gift shops, and restaurants. Plus, there’s a 360-degree observational deck with breathtaking views of Banff and the Bow River Valley. Although the changing scenery seen while riding the gondola is certainly nothing to scoff at, the best and most unique view available of Banff is atop the summit.
To avoid the crowds and cost associated with riding the gondola, you can hike the two hours to the top of Sulphur Mountain. Just know that as you get closer to the top, the boardwalk you follow to the summit can get very icy. So, it’s important to wear the right footwear.
At 17 miles long, Lake Minnewanka is the largest lake in Banff National Park. Fed by the Cascade River, it’s located just three miles northeast of Banff’s town. The lake got its name from the Stoney Nakoda First Nations people, who would hunt and camp along its shores. They called the lake “Minn-waki” — or “Lake of the Spirits” — because they believed the lake contained spirits. Upon seeing the pristine beauty of the lake, you’ll likely find it hard to argue with them.
In and around Lake Minnewanka, there are plenty of things to do to fill your time. You can hike around the many hiking trails that lead to Steward Canyon and Cascade River, go scuba diving in the lake, or take in the sights on one of the many lake cruises available. To save some money without sacrificing any of the beauty, you can drive along the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive. This is a large loop that goes right along the southwestern edge of the lake before circling back towards Banff.
Another iconic lake near Banff is Lake Louise. Getting its name from Queen Victoria‘s fourth daughter, Lake Louise is just 40 minutes from Banff by car and boasts the highest elevation of any community in Canada peaking at 5,200 feet. The aqua-colored lake and its iconic Victoria Glacier are a staple among many calendars and screensavers. However, the lake’s real beauty can only be experienced in person.
If taking Highway 1A when traveling between Lake Louise and Banff, there are plenty of opportunities to pull over and snap photos. Alternatively, you can take in the beauty of the lake up-close by hiking the Lake Louise Lakeshore Trail. This trail runs along the northwest side of the lake before meeting up with other trails farther along. When planning your trip to Lake Louise, be sure not to mistake the lake itself with the nearby town of the same name.
Only a 30-minute drive from Banff, Sunshine Village is often the first resort to open up in Canada every winter and one of the last to close. In fact, its ski season lasts from November all the way until May. Sunshine Village does not take its position as a popular ski destination lightly. As such, they provide 3000 world-class skiable acres, 12 chair lifts, and all sorts of different terrain to suit skiers and snowboarders of all levels. Because of this, Sunshine Village is particularly great for families. After you’re done skiing, you can warm up in the rustic lodge with a hot drink in the evening among friends and family.
If you happen to be visiting after the ski season is over, you can take advantage of the far less expensive but equally as enjoyable hiking opportunities among the Sunshine Meadows. Hiking around is a far more affordable way — free, in most cases — to experience the beautiful nature of Banff without breaking the bank.
If skiing, snowboarding, hiking, or scuba diving don’t get your heart racing, then you can up the game by taking advantage of the many whitewater rafting opportunities in and around Banff. If you’re looking to dip your toes in the water, then start off with some of the more mellow options, such as those available on the Kananaskis River. If you want something more than a lazy river ride but not too crazy, the more intermediate route in Horseshoe Canyon might be more up your alley.
If you’re looking for pure adrenaline, check out Banff’s most famous whitewater rafting destination, Kicking Horse River. A short distance from town, the river is considered to have some of the best rafting opportunities in all of Canada. Be prepared to go over waterfalls and squeeze between narrow gorges as you zip down the river’s class-five rapids. Regardless of the difficulty you choose, whitewater rafting is a great way to experience scenic parts of Banff that are otherwise difficult to access.