Banff National Park Hiking
After experiencing the international thrills of Banff Avenue, most people will want to see the real park, which is, after all, the reason that millions of visitors flock here, thousands take low-paying jobs just to stay here, and others become so severely addicted that they start families and live happily ever after here.
Although many landmarks can be seen from the roadside, to really experience the park’s personality you’ll need to go for a hike. One of the best things about Banff’s 80-odd hiking trails is the variety. From short interpretive walks originating in town to easy hikes rewarded by spectacular vistas to myriad overnight backcountry opportunities, Banff’s trails offer something for everyone.
Before attempting any hikes, visit the Banff Visitor Centre (224 Banff Ave., 403/762-1550), where staff can advise you on the condition of trails and closures. The best book on hiking in the park is the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide (www.summerthought.com) which covers each trail in exacting detail. Another good source of information is the Canadian Rockies Hiking Blog.
If you are planning an overnight trip into the backcountry, you must pick up a backcountry camping pass from either of the park information centers before heading out; $10 per person per night or $70 for an annual pass.
Hikes Near the Town of Banff
Fenland Hiking TrailLength: 2 kilometers/1.2 miles (30 minutes) round-trip Elevation gain: none Rating: easy Trailhead: Forty Mile Creek Picnic Area, Mount Norquay Road, 300 meters (0.2 mile) north of the rail crossing
If you’ve just arrived in town, this short interpretive trail provides an excellent introduction to the Bow Valley ecosystem. A brochure, available at the trailhead, explains the various stages in the transition between wetland and floodplain spruce forest, visible as you progress around the loop. This fen environment is prime habitat for many species of birds. The work of beavers can be seen along the trail, and elk are here during winter. This trail is also a popular shortcut for joggers and cyclists heading for Vermilion Lakes.
Tunnel Mountain Hiking TrailLength: 2.3 kilometers/1.4 miles (30 to 60 minutes) one-way Elevation gain: 300 meters/990 feet Rating: easy/moderate Trailhead: St. Julien Road, 350 meters (0.2 mile) south of Wolf Street
Accessible from town, this short hike is an easy climb to one of the park’s lower peaks. It ascends the western flank of Tunnel Mountain through a forest of lodgepole pine, switchbacking past some viewpoints before reaching a ridge just below the summit. Here the trail turns northward, climbing through a forest of Douglas fir to the summit (which is partially treed, preventing 360-degree views).
Bow River/Hoodoos Hiking TrailLength: 4.8 kilometers/3 miles (60 to 90 minutes) one-way Elevation gain: minimal Rating: easy Trailhead: Surprise Corner Viewpoint, Tunnel Mountain Drive
From a viewpoint famous for the Fairmont Banff Springs outlook, the trail descends to the Bow River, passing under the sheer east face of Tunnel Mountain. It then follows the river a short distance before climbing into a meadow where deer and elk often graze. From this perspective the north face of Mount Rundle is particularly imposing. As the trail climbs you’ll hear the traffic on Tunnel Mountain Road long before you see it. The trail ends at hoodoos, strange limestone-and-gravel columns jutting mysteriously out of the forest. An alternative to returning the same way is to catch the ROAM bus from Tunnel Mountain Campgrounds. It leaves every half hour; the trip costs $2.
Sundance Canyon Hiking TrailLength: 4.4 kilometers/2.7 miles (90 minutes) one-way Elevation gain: 100 meters/330 feet Rating: easy Trailhead: Cave and Basin National Historic Site
Sundance Canyon is a rewarding destination across the river from downtown. Unfortunately, the first three kilometers (1.9 miles) are along a paved road that is closed to traffic (but not bikes) and hard on your soles. Occasional glimpses of the Sawback Range are afforded by breaks in the forest. Where the paved road ends, the 2.4-kilometer (1.5-mile) Sundance Loop begins. Sundance Creek was once a larger river whose upper drainage basin was diverted by glacial action. Its powerful waters have eroded into the soft bedrock, forming a spectacular overhanging canyon whose bed is strewn with large boulders that have tumbled in.
Spray River Hiking TrailLength: 6 kilometers/3.7 miles (2 hours) one-way Elevation gain: 70 meters/230 feet Rating: easy/moderate Trailhead: From the Bow Falls parking lot, cross the Spray River and walk along Golf Course Road to behind the green of the first golf hole on the right-hand side of the road.
This trail follows one of the many fire roads in the park. It is not particularly interesting, but it’s accessible from downtown Banff and makes a pleasant way to escape the crowds. From behind the green of the 15th hole on the Stanley Thompson 18, the trail heads uphill into the forest. It follows the Spray River closely–when not in sight, the river can always be heard. For those so inclined, a river crossing one kilometer (0.6 mile) from the golf course allows for a shorter loop. Continuing south, the trail climbs a bluff for a good view of the Fairmont Banff Springs and Bow Valley. The return journey is straightforward with occasional views, ending at a locked gate behind the Fairmont Banff Springs, a short walk to Bow Falls.
For serious hikers this trail provides access to the park’s rugged and remote southern reaches, but there’s another interesting option involving this trail for eager day hikers. It involves arranging a lift to the trailhead of the Goat Creek hike in Spray Valley Provincial Park in Kananaskis Country. From this trailhead, it’s 19 kilometers/11.8 miles (six hours) one-way back to Banff down the Spray River watershed on a trail that drops 370 meters (1,210 feet) in elevation. The trail is most popular with mountain bikers and cross-country skiers.
Western Slope of Mount Rundle Hiking TrailLength: 5.4 kilometers/3.3 miles (2 hours) one-way Elevation gain: 480 meters/1,755 feet Rating: moderate Trailhead: From the Bow Falls parking lot, cross the Spray River and walk along Golf Course Road to behind the green of the first golf hole on the right-hand side of the road.
At 2,950 meters (9,680 feet), Mount Rundle is one of the park’s dominant peaks. Climbing to its summit is possible without ropes, but previous scrambling experience is advised. An alternative is to ascend the mountain’s western slope along an easy-to-follow trail that ends just over 1,000 vertical meters (3,280 vertical feet) before the summit. The trail follows the Spray River Trail from Golf Course Road, branching off left after 700 meters (0.4 mile). Climbing steadily, it breaks out of the enclosed forest after 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles). The trail ends in a gully from which the undefined route to the summit begins.
Stoney Squaw Hiking TrailLength: 2.4-kilometer/1.5-mile loop (1 hour round-trip) Elevation gain: 180 meters/590 feet Rating: easy Trailhead: top of Mount Norquay Road, 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) from town
Looking north along Banff Avenue, Stoney Squaw’s 1,884-meter (6,180-foot) summit is dwarfed by Cascade Mountain, directly behind it. To get to the trailhead of a trail that leads to its easily reached summit, follow Mount Norquay Road to a parking lot in front of the resort’s day lodge. Immediately to the right of the entrance, a small sign marks the trail. The narrow, slightly overgrown trail passes through a thick forest of lodgepole pine and spruce before breaking out into the open near the summit. The sweeping panorama includes Vermilion Lakes, the Bow Valley, Banff, Spray River Valley, Mount Rundle, Lake Minnewanka, and the imposing face of Cascade Mountain (2,998 meters/9,840 feet). The return trail follows the northwest slope of Stoney Squaw to an old ski run at the opposite end of the parking lot.
Cascade Amphitheatre Hiking TrailLength: 6.6 kilometers/4.1 miles (2 to 3 hours) one-way Elevation gain: 610 meters/2,000 feet Rating: moderate/difficult Trailhead: day lodge, top of Mount Norquay Road, 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) from town
This enormous cirque and the subalpine meadows directly behind Cascade Mountain are one of the most rewarding destinations for hiking in the Banff area. The demanding trail begins by passing the day lodge, then skirting the base of several lifts, and following an old road to the floor of Forty Mile Valley. Keep right at all trail junctions. One kilometer (0.6 mile) after crossing Forty Mile Creek, the trail begins switchbacking up the western flank of Cascade Mountain through a forest of lodgepole pine. Along the way are breathtaking views of Mount Louis’s sheer east face. After the trail levels off, it enters a magnificent U-shaped valley, and the amphitheater begins to define itself. The trail becomes indistinct in the subalpine meadow, which is carpeted in colorful wildflowers during summer. Farther up the valley, vegetation thins out as boulder-strewn talus slopes cover the ground. If you sit still long enough on these rocks, marmots and pikas will slowly appear, emitting shrill whistles before disappearing again.
The most popular route to the summit of 2,998-meter (9,840-foot) Cascade Mountain is along the southern ridge of the amphitheater wall. It is a long scramble up scree slopes and is made more difficult by a false summit; it should be attempted only by experienced scramblers.
C Level Cirque Hiking TrailLength: 4 kilometers/2.5 miles (90 minutes) one-way Elevation gain: 455 meters/1,500 feet Rating: moderate Trailhead: Upper Bankhead Picnic Area, Lake Minnewanka Road, 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) beyond the TransCanada Highway underpass
From a picnic area that sits on the site of an abandoned mining town, the trail climbs steadily through a forest of lodgepole pine, aspen, and spruce to a pile of tailings and broken-down concrete walls. Soon after is a panoramic view of Lake Minnewanka, then the trail reenters the forest before ending in a small cirque with views down the Bow Valley to Canmore and beyond. The cirque is carved into the eastern face of Cascade Mountain, where snow often lingers until July. When the snow melts, the lush soil is covered in a carpet of colorful wildflowers.
Aylmer Lookout Hiking TrailLength: 12 kilometers/7.5 miles (4 hours) one-way Elevation gain: 810 meters/2,660 feet Rating: moderate/difficult Trailhead: Lake Minnewanka, Lake Minnewanka Road, 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) beyond the TransCanada Highway underpass
The first eight-kilometer (five-mile) stretch of this trail follows the northern shore of Lake Minnewanka from the day-use area to a junction. The right fork leads to a campground, while the left climbs steeply to the site of an old fire tower on top of an exposed ridge. The deep blue waters of Lake Minnewanka are visible, backed by the imposing peaks of Mount Girouard (2,995 meters/9,830 feet) and Mount Inglismaldie (2,964 meters/9,725 feet). Bighorn sheep often graze in this area. From here a trail forks left and continues climbing to the alpine tundra of Aylmer Pass. (Access along this trail is often restricted in summer due to bear activity–check at the visitors center before heading out.)
Hikes Between Banff and Lake Louise
Cory Pass Hiking TrailLength: 5.8 kilometers/3.6 miles (2.5 hours) one-way Elevation gain: 920 meters/3,020 feet Rating: moderate/difficult Trailhead: Fireside Picnic Area, Banff end of the Bow Valley Parkway
This strenuous hike has a rewarding objective–a magnificent view of dog-toothed Mount Louis. The towering slab of limestone rises more than 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the valley below. Just over one kilometer (0.6 mile) from the trailhead, the trail divides. The left fork climbs steeply across an open slope to an uneven ridge that it follows before ascending yet another steep slope to Cory Pass–a wild, windy, desolate area surrounded in jagged peaks dominated by Mount Louis. An alternative to returning along the same trail is continuing down into Gargoyle Valley, following the base of Mount Edith before ascending to Edith Pass and returning to the junction one kilometer (0.6 mile) from the picnic area. Total distance for this trip is 13 kilometers (eight miles), a long day considering the steep climbs and descents involved.
Hiking at Sunshine Meadows
Sunshine Meadows, straddling the Continental Divide, is a unique and beautiful region of the Canadian Rockies. It’s best known as home to Sunshine Village, a self-contained alpine resort accessible only by gondola from the valley floor. But for a few short months each summer, the area is clear of snow and becomes a wonderland for hiking. Large amounts of precipitation create a lush cover of vegetation—over 300 species of wildflowers alone have been recorded here.
From Sunshine Village, trails radiate across the alpine meadow, which is covered in a colorful carpet of fireweed, glacier lilies, mountain avens, white mountain heather, and forget-me-nots (the meadows are in full bloom late July to mid-August). The most popular destination is Rock Isle Lake, an easy 2.5-kilometer (1.6-mile) jaunt from the upper village that crosses the Continental Divide while only gaining 100 meters (330 feet) of elevation. Mount Assiniboine (3,618 meters/11,870 feet), known as the “Matterhorn of the Rockies,” is easily distinguished to the southeast. Various viewpoints punctuate the descent to an observation point overlooking the lake. From here, options include a loop around Larix Lake and a traverse along Standish Ridge. If the weather is cooperating, it won’t matter which direction you head (so long as it’s along a formed trail); you’ll experience the Canadian Rockies in all their glory.
It’s possible to walk the six-kilometer (3.7-mile) restricted-access road up to the meadows, but a more practical alternative is to take the Sunshine Meadows Alpine Shuttle along a road closed to public traffic. This service is operated by White Mountain Adventures (403/762-7889 or 800/408-0005, www.sunshinemeadowsbanff.com). Through a June to September season, buses depart Banff (at 8:30 a.m. daily, adult $55, child $30 round-trip) and the Sunshine Village parking lot (on the hour 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, adult $26, child $15 round-trip).
Bourgeau Lake Hiking TrailLength: 7.6 kilometers/4.7 miles (2.5 hours) one-way Elevation gain: 730 meters/2,400 feet Rating: moderate Trailhead: signposted parking lot, TransCanada Highway, 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) west of Sunshine Village Junction
This trail follows Wolverine Creek to a small subalpine lake nestled at the base of an impressive limestone amphitheater. Although the trail is moderately steep, plenty of distractions along the way are worthy of a stop (and rest). Back across the Bow Valley, the Sawback Range is easy to distinguish. As the forest of lodgepole pine turns to spruce, the trail passes under the cliffs of Mount Bourgeau and crosses Wolverine Creek (below a spot where it tumbles photogenically over exposed bedrock). After strenuous switchbacks, the trail climbs into the cirque containing Bourgeau Lake. As you explore the lake’s rocky shore, you’ll hear the colonies of noisy pikas, even if you don’t see them.
Shadow Lake Hiking TrailLength: 14.3 kilometers/8.9 miles (4.5 hours) one-way Elevation gain: 440 meters/1,445 feet Rating: moderate Trailhead: Redearth Creek Parking Area, TransCanada Highway, 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) west of Sunshine Village Junction
Shadow is one of the many impressive subalpine lakes along the Continental Divide and a popular base for a great variety of day trips. It follows the old Redearth fire road for 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) before forking right and climbing into the forest. The campground is two kilometers (1.2 miles) beyond this junction, and just 500 meters (0.3 mile) farther is Shadow Lake Lodge. The lake is nearly two kilometers (1.2 miles) long, and from its southern shore trails lead to Ball Pass, Gibbon Pass, and Haiduk Lake.
Castle Lookout Hiking TrailLength: 3.7 kilometers/2.3 miles (90 minutes) one-way Elevation gain: 520 meters/1,700 feet Rating: moderate Trailhead: Bow Valley Parkway, 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) northwest of Castle Junction
However you travel through the Bow Valley, you can’t help but be impressed by Castle Mountain rising proudly from the forest floor. This trail takes you above the tree line on the mountain’s west face to the site of Mount Eisenhower fire lookout, abandoned in the 1970s and burned in the 1980s. From the Bow Valley Parkway, the trail follows a wide pathway for 1.5 kilometers (0.9 mile) to an abandoned cabin in a forest of lodgepole pine and spruce. It then becomes narrower and steeper, switchbacking through a meadow before climbing through a narrow band of rock and leveling off near the lookout site. Magnificent panoramas of the Bow Valley spread out before you in both directions. Storm Mountain can be seen directly across the valley.
Rockbound Lake Hiking TrailLength: 8.4 kilometers/5.2 miles (2.5 hours) one-way Elevation gain: 760 meters/2,500 feet Rating: moderate/difficult Trailhead: Castle Junction, Bow Valley Parkway, 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) west of Banff
This strenuous hike leads to a delightful body of water tucked behind Castle Mountain. For the first five kilometers (3.1 miles) the trail follows an old fire road along the southern flanks of Castle Mountain. Early in the season or after heavy rain, this section can be boggy. Glimpses of surrounding peaks ease the pain of the steady climb as the trail narrows. After eight kilometers (five miles) you’ll come to Tower Lake, which the trail skirts to the right before climbing a steep slope. From the top of the ridge, Rockbound Lake comes into view, and the reason for its name immediately becomes apparent. A scramble up any of the nearby slopes will reward you with good views.
Lake Louise Hiking
Lake Louise is one of the premier hiking areas in the Canadian Rockies, and to reflect its importance, we’ve created a section devoted to the very best hikes in this area. For details, visit the Lake Louise Hiking page.
Hikes along the Icefields Parkway
Helen Lake Hiking TrailLength: 6 kilometers/3.7 miles (2.5 hours) one-way Elevation gain: 455 meters/1,500 feet Rating: moderate Trailhead: across the Icefields Parkway from Crowfoot Glacier Lookout, 33 kilometers (20 miles) northwest from the junction with the TransCanada Highway
The trail to Helen Lake is one of the easiest ways to access a true alpine environment from the southern end of the Icefields Parkway. The trail climbs steadily through a forest of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir for the first 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) to an avalanche slope, reaching the tree line and the first good viewpoint after three kilometers (1.9 miles). The view across the valley is spectacular, with Crowfoot Glacier visible to the southwest. As the trail reaches a ridge, it turns and descends into the glacial cirque where Helen Lake lies. Listen and look for hoary marmots around the scree slopes along the lakeshore.
For those with the time and energy, it’s possible to continue an additional three kilometers (1.9 miles) to Dolomite Pass; the trail switchbacks steeply up a further 100 vertical meters (330 vertical feet) in less than one kilometer (0.6 mile), then descends steeply for a further one kilometer (0.6 mile) to Katherine Lake and beyond to the pass.
Bow Glacier Falls Hiking TrailLength: 3.4 kilometers/2.1 miles (1 hour) one-way Elevation gain: 130 meters/430 feet Rating: easy Trailhead: Num-ti-jah Lodge, Bow Lake, 36 kilometers (22.3 miles) northwest from the TransCanada Highway
This hike skirts one of the most beautiful lakes in the Canadian Rockies before ending at a narrow but spectacular waterfall. From the parking lot in front of Num-ti-jah Lodge, follow the shore through Willow Flats to a gravel outwash area at the end of the lake. Across the lake are reflected views of Crowfoot Mountain and, farther west, a glimpse of Bow Glacier among the jagged peaks of the Waputik Range. The trail then begins a short but steep climb up the rim of a canyon before leveling out at the edge of a vast moraine of gravel, scree, and boulders. This is the end of the trail, although it’s possible to reach the base of Bow Glacier Falls by picking your way through the 800 meters (0.5 mile) of rough ground that remains.
Peyto Lake Hiking TrailLength: 1.4 kilometers/0.9 mile (30 minutes) one-way Elevation loss: 100 meters/330 feet Rating: easy Trailhead: unmarked pullout, Icefields Parkway, 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) north of Bow Summit
Without a doubt, the best place to view Peyto Lake is from a popular viewpoint accessible via a short trail from Bow Summit, 41 kilometers (25.5 miles) along the Icefields Parkway from the TransCanada Highway. The easiest way to access the actual shoreline, though, is along this short trail farther along the highway. A pebbled beach, strewn with driftwood, is the perfect setting for picnicking, painting, or just admiring the lake’s quieter side. Back at the lake lookout, a rough trail drops nearly 300 meters (980 feet) in 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) to the lake.
Chephren Lake Hiking TrailLength: 4 kilometers/2.5 miles (60<\#208>90 minutes) one-way Elevation gain: 100 meters/330 feet Rating: easy Trailhead: Waterfowl Lake Campground, Icefields Parkway, 57 kilometers (35 miles) northwest from the TransCanada Highway
This pale-green body of water (pronounced Kef-ren) is hidden from the Icefields Parkway but easily reached. The official trailhead is a bridge across the Mistaya River at the back of Waterfowl Lakes Campground (behind site 86). If you’re not registered at the campground, park at the end of the unpaved road running along the front of the campground and walk 300 meters (0.2 mile) down the well-worn path to the river crossing. From across the river, the trail dives headlong into a subalpine forest, reaching a crudely signposted junction after 1.6 kilometers (one mile). Take the right fork. This leads 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) to Chephren Lake, descending steeply at the end (this stretch of trail is often muddy). The lake is nestled under the buttresses of Mount Chephren. To the left–farther up the lake–is Howse Peak.
The trail to smaller Cirque Lake (4.5 km/2.8 miles from the trailhead) branches left 1.6 kilometers (one mile) along this trail. It is less heavily used, but this lake is popular with anglers for its healthy population of rainbow trout.
Glacier Lake Hiking TrailLength: 9 kilometers/5.6 miles (2.5<\#208>3 hours) one-way Elevation gain: 220 meters/770 feet Rating: moderate Trailhead: an old gravel pit on the west side of the highway, 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) west of Saskatchewan River Crossing
This three-kilometer-long (1.9-mile-long) lake is one of the park’s largest lakes not accessible by road. Although not as scenic as the more accessible lakes along the parkway, it’s a pleasant destination for a full-day or overnight trip. For the first one kilometer (0.6 mile), the trail passes through an open forest of lodgepole pine to a fancy footbridge across the rushing North Saskatchewan River. From there it climbs gradually to a viewpoint overlooking Howse River and the valley beyond, then turns away from the river for a long slog through dense forest to Glacier Lake. A primitive campground lies just over 300 meters (0.2 mile) from where the trail emerges at the lake.
Saskatchewan Glacier Hiking TrailLength: 7.3 kilometers/4.5 miles (2 hours) one-way Elevation gain: 150 meters/490 feet Rating: moderate Trailhead: small parking lot, 35 kilometers (22 miles) northwest of the Saskatchewan River Crossing (just before the highway begins its “Big Bend” up to Sunwapta Pass)
The Saskatchewan Glacier, a tongue of ice from the great Columbia Icefield, is visible from various points along the Icefields Parkway. This hike will take you right to the toe of the glacier. After crossing an old concrete bridge, the trail disappears into the forest to the right, joining an overgrown road and continuing up the valley along the south bank of the river. When the toe of the glacier first comes into sight it looks deceptively close, but it’s still a long hike away over rough terrain.
Nigel Pass Hiking TrailLength: 7.4 kilometers/4.6 miles (2.5 hours) one-way Elevation gain: 365 meters/1,200 feet Rating: moderate Trailhead: Icefields Parkway, 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) north of the switchback on the “Big Bend”
Park on the east side of the highway and follow the gravel road to a locked gate. Turn right here and cross Nigel Creek on the bridge. The trail is obvious, following open avalanche paths up the east side of the valley. In a stand of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the trailhead is an old campsite used first by native hunting parties, then by mountaineers exploring the area around the Columbia Icefield. Look for carvings on trees recording these early visitors. From here the trail continues to climb steadily, only increasing in gradient for the last one kilometer (0.6 mile) to the pass. The pass (2,195 meters/7,200 feet) marks the boundary between Banff and Jasper National Parks. For the best view, scramble over the rocks to the left. To the north, the view extends down the Brazeau River Valley, surrounded by a mass of peaks. To the west (left) is Nigel Peak (3,211 meters/10,535 feet), and to the southwest are views of Parker’s Ridge and the glaciated peaks of Mount Athabasca.
Parker’s Ridge Hiking TrailLength: 2.4 kilometers/1.5 miles (1 hour) one-way Elevation gain: 210 meters/690 feet Rating: easy/moderate Trailhead: Icefields Parkway, 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) south of Sunwapta Pass
From the trailhead on the west side of the highway, this wide path gains elevation quickly through open meadows and scattered stands of subalpine fir. This fragile environment is easily destroyed, so it’s important that you stay on the trail. During the short alpine summer, these meadows are carpeted with red heather, white mountain avens, and blue alpine forget-me-nots. From the summit of the ridge, you look down on the two-kilometer-wide (1.2-mile-wide) Saskatchewan Glacier spreading out below. Beyond is Castleguard Mountain, renowned for its extensive cave system.