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Banff National Park Travel Guide

This 6,641-square-kilometer (2,564-square-mile) national park encompasses some of the world’s most magnificent scenery. The snowcapped peaks of the Rocky Mountains form a spectacular backdrop for glacial lakes, fast-flowing rivers, and endless forests. Deer, moose, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, black and grizzly bears, wolves, and cougars inhabit the park’s vast wilderness, while the human species is concentrated in the picture-postcard towns of Banff and Lake Louise–two of North America’s most famous resorts. Banff is near the park’s southeast gate, 128 kilometers (80 miles) west of Calgary. Lake Louise, northwest of Banff along the TransCanada Highway, sits astride its namesake lake, which is regarded as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The lake is rivaled for sheer beauty only by Moraine Lake, just down the road. Just north of Lake Louise, the Icefields Parkway begins its spectacular course alongside the Continental Divide to Jasper National Park.

One of Banff’s greatest draws is the accessibility of its natural wonders. Most highlights are close to the road system, but adventurous visitors can follow an excellent system of hiking trails to alpine lakes, along glacial valleys, and to spectacular viewpoints where crowds are scarce and human impact has been minimal. Summer in the park is busy. In fact, the park receives nearly half of its four million annual visitors in just two months (July and August). The rest of the year, crowds outside the town of Banff are negligible. In winter, three world-class winter resorts–Ski Norquay, Sunshine Village, and Lake Louise (Canada’s second-largest winter resort)–crank up their lifts. During this low season, hotel rates are reasonable. If you tire of downhill skiing and snowboarding, you can try cross-country skiing, ice-skating, or snowshoeing; take a sleigh ride; soak in a hot spring; or go heli-skiing nearby.

The park is open year-round, although occasional road closures occur on mountain passes along the park’s western boundary in winter, due to avalanche-control work and snowstorms.

Planning Your Time

If you are planning to visit the Canadian Rockies, it is almost inevitable that your itinerary will include Banff National Park, both for its many and varied outdoor attractions and for its central location. The park can be anything you want it to be, depending on the time of year you visit and what your interests are. The main population center is Banff, which has all the services of a large town, as well as attractions such as landmark Fairmont Banff Springs hotel and the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. The park holds three lakes that you won’t want to miss for their scenic beauty: Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and Peyto. All three are easily accessible by road but also offer surrounding hiking, and the former two have canoe rentals. Hiking is the park’s biggest attraction, and many visitors plan their itinerary around it. I’d suggest mixing it up–choosing from the hikes that reflect your fitness level and combining them with visits to the major natural attractions. For example, when in the vicinity of Lake Louise, walk the Lake Agnes Trail, and while at Moraine Lake, plan on visiting Larch Valley. For the more adventurous, Bourgeau Lake is a stunning day-hike destination. Keen hikers with more time should also consider including Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, which is renowned for its network of trails.

You can book one accommodation for your entire stay or spend an equal number of nights in Banff and Lake Louise. If you have a family or like the convenience of staying put for your entire vacation, it is practical to book a room in either Banff or Lake Louise and use it as a base–spending your days in the park but also venturing farther afield, with, for example, one day scheduled for Yoho National Park and another for a Canmore/Kananaskis combo.

Unless you’re a die-hard skier or snowboarder, summer is definitely the best time of year to visit. The months of July and August are the busiest, with crowds decreasing exponentially in the weeks before and after these two months. June and September are wonderful times to visit the park. Aside from the crowd factor, in June, wildflowers start blooming and wildlife is abundant. September sees temperatures ripe for hiking, and the turning colors are at their peak. In either month, discounted accommodations are a welcome bonus. In May and October to November, the park is at its quietest. Temperatures in any of these three months are generally too cool for hiking (although welcome warm spells are common). The park’s three alpine resorts begin opening in December and remain in operation until April or May. While skiing and boarding are the big wintertime draw, plan on expanding your experience by joining a sleigh ride or trying snowshoeing.

Highlights

Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies: If you visit only one Banff museum, make it this one for a snapshot of the park’s human history.

The Fairmont Banff Springs: You don’t need to book a room at this famous Banff hotel to enjoy the many wonders of one of the world’s great mountain resorts—join a guided tour, enjoy a meal, or simply wander through the grandiose public areas.

Bow Valley Parkway: This scenic drive between Banff and Lake Louise provides views of abundant wildlife and many worthwhile stops.

Bourgeau Lake: A steep hiking trail leads to this lake’s rocky shores, populated by colonies of pikas.

Lake Louise: Famous Lake Louise has hypnotized visitors with her beauty for over 100 years. Visitors can rent canoes from the boathouse.

Moraine Lake: If anywhere in the Canadian Rockies qualified as a Double Must-See, it would be this deep-blue body of water surrounded by glaciated peaks near Lake Louise.

Lake Agnes Hiking Trail: You won’t completely escape the crowds by hiking this trail from Lake Louise, but you will leave most of them behind.

Peyto Lake

Peyto Lake

Larch Valley Hiking Trail: This trail near Moraine Lake is a good introduction to hiking in the Canadian Rockies, especially in fall when the larch trees have turned a brilliant gold.

Peyto Lake: Another one of Banff’s famous lakes. The main difference is the perspective from which it is viewed—a lookout high above its shoreline accessed from the Icefields Parkway.

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