Banff National Park Nature Guide
The Banff National Park Nature Guide describes the geology, plants, and animals of Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies.
Banff National Park lies within the main and front ranges of the Rocky Mountains, a mountain range that extends the length of the North American continent. Although the mountains are composed of bedrock laid down up to one billion years ago, it wasn’t until 100 million years ago that forces below the earth’s surface transformed the lowland plain of what is now western Canada into the varied, mountainous topography we see today.
The front ranges lie to the east, bordering the foothills. These geologically complex mountains are made up of younger bedrock that has been folded, faulted, and uplifted. The main ranges are older and higher, with the bedrock lying mainly horizontal and not as severely disturbed as the front ranges. Here the pressures have been most powerful; these mountains are characterized by castlelike buttresses and pinnacles, and warped waves of stratified rock. Most glaciers are found among these lofty peaks. The spine of the main range is the Continental Divide. In Canadian latitudes to the east of the divide, all waters flow to the Atlantic Ocean; those to the west flow into the Pacific.
Since rising above the surrounding plains, these mountains have been eroding. At least four times in the last million years sheets of ice have covered much of the land. Advancing and retreating back and forth like steel wool across the landscape, they rounded off lower peaks and carved formerly V-shaped valleys into broad U-shaped ones (Bow Valley is the most distinctive). Meanwhile, glacial meltwater continued carving ever-deeper channels into the valleys, and rivers changed course many times.
This long history of powerful and even violent natural events over the eons has left behind the dramatic landscape visitors marvel over today. Now forming the exposed sides of many a mountain peak, layers of drastically altered sediment are visible from miles away, especially when accentuated by a particular angle of sunlight or a light fall of snow. Cirques, gouged into the mountains by glacial action, fill with glacial meltwater each spring, creating trademark translucent green lakes that will take your breath away. The wide, sweeping U-shaped valleys scoured out by glaciers past now create magnificent panoramas that will draw you to pull off the road and gasp in awe; open views are easy to come by here, thanks to a climate that keeps the tree line low.
Banff National Park Trees, Plants, and Flowers
Nearly 700 species of plants have been recorded in Banff National Park. Each species falls into one of three distinct vegetation zones, based primarily on altitude. Lowest is the montane zone, which covers the valley floor. Above it, the subalpine zone comprises most of the forested area. Highest of all is the alpine zone, where climate is severe and vegetation cover is limited.
Montane-zone vegetation is usually found at elevations below 1,350 metres (4,430 feet) but can grow at higher elevations on sun-drenched, south-facing slopes. Because fires frequently affect this zone, lodgepole pine is the dominant species; its tightly sealed cones only open with the heat of a forest fire, thereby regenerating the species quickly after a blaze. Douglas fir is the zone’s climax species and is found in open stands, such as on Tunnel Mountain. Aspen is common in older burn areas, while limber pine thrives on rocky outcrops.
Dense forests of white spruce and Engelmann spruce typify the subalpine zone. White spruce dominates up to 2,100 metres (6,890 feet); above 2,100 metres (6,890 feet) to 2,400 metres (7,870 feet), Engelmann spruce is dominant. In areas affected by fire, such as west of Castle Junction, lodgepole pine occurs in dense stands. Subalpine fir grows above 2,200 metres (7,550 feet) and is often stunted by the high winds experienced at such lofty elevations.
The transition from subalpine to alpine is gradual and usually occurs around 2,300 metres (7,560 feet). The alpine has a severe climate, with temperatures averaging below zero. Low temperatures, strong winds, and a very short summer force alpine plants to adapt by growing low to the ground with long roots. Mosses, mountain avens, saxifrage, and an alpine dandelion all thrive in this environment. The best place to view the brightly coloured carpet of alpine flowers is at Sunshine Meadows or Parker’s Ridge.
Banff National Park Wildlife
Viewing Banff National Park’s abundant and varied wildlife is one of the most popular visitor activities in Banff. In summer, with the onslaught of the tourist hordes, many of the larger mammals move away from the heavily traveled areas. It then becomes a case of knowing when and where to look for them. Spring and fall are the best times of year for wildlife viewing; the crowds are thinner than in summer, and big-game animals are more likely to be seen at lower elevations. Winter also has its advantages. Although bears are hibernating, a large herd of elk winters on the outskirts of the town of Banff, coyotes are often seen roaming around town, bighorn sheep have descended from the heights, and wolf packs can be seen along the Bow Valley Corridor.
For the best places to see wildlife, go to our Banff National Park Wildlife Viewing page.
Mule Deer and White-Tailed Deer
Mule deer and white-tailed deer are similar in size and appearance. Their colour varies with the season but is generally light brown in summer, turning dirty gray in winter. While both species are considerably smaller than elk, the mule deer is a little stockier than the white-tailed deer. The mule deer has a white rump, a white tail with a dark tip, and large mulelike ears. It inhabits open forests along valley floors. Banff townsite has a healthy population of mule deer. The white-tailed deer’s tail is dark on top, but when the animal runs, it holds its tail erect, revealing an all-white underside. Whitetails frequent thickets along the rivers and lakes of the foothills.
The elk, or wapiti, is the most widespread and common of the larger mammals living in the Canadian Rockies, and they are often seen in meadows around town, on the golf course, and along the Lake Minnewanka Road. It has a tan body with a dark-brown neck, dark-brown legs, and a white rump. This second-largest member of the deer family weighs 250-450 kilograms (550-1,000 pounds) and stands 1.5 metres (five feet) at the shoulder. Beginning each spring, bulls grow an impressive set of antlers, covered in what is known as velvet. The velvet contains nutrients that stimulate antler growth. By fall, the antlers have reached their full size and the velvet is shed. Rutting season takes place between August and October; listen for the shrill bugles of the bulls serenading the females. During the rut, randy males will challenge anything with their antlers and can be dangerous. The bulls shed their antlers each spring, but don’t relax too much because, also in spring, females protecting their young can be equally dangerous.
The giant of the deer family is the moose, an awkward-looking mammal that appears to have been designed by a cartoonist. It has the largest antlers of any animal in the world, stands up to 1.8 metres (six feet) at the shoulder, and weighs up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds). Its body is dark brown, and it has a prominent nose, long spindly legs, small eyes, big ears, and an odd flap of skin called a bell dangling beneath its chin. Apart from all that, it’s good-looking. Each spring, the bull begins to grow palm-shaped antlers that by August will be fully grown. Moose are solitary animals preferring marshy areas and weedy lakes, but they are known to wander to higher elevations searching out open spaces in summer. They forage in and around ponds on willows, aspens, birches, grasses, and all aquatic vegetation. They are not particularly common in the Canadian Rockies, numbering around 400. Although they may appear docile, moose will attack humans if they feel threatened.
The two species of bears present in Banff National Park—BLACK BEARS and GRIZZLIES—can be differentiated by size and shape. Grizzlies are larger than black bears and have a flatter, dish-shaped face and a distinctive hump of muscle behind their neck. Colour is not a reliable way to tell them apart. Black bears are not always black. They can be brown or cinnamon, causing them to be confused with the brown-coloured grizzly.
If you spot a bear feeding beside the road, chances are it’s a black bear. These mammals are widespread throughout all forested areas of Banff National Park, but are also common along the Icefields Parkway in spring. Their weight varies considerably, but males average 150 kilograms (330 pounds) and females 100 kilograms (220 pounds). Their diet is omnivorous, consisting primarily of grasses and berries but supplemented by small mammals. They are not true hibernators, but in winter they can sleep for up to a month at a time before changing position. During this time, their heartbeat drops to 10 beats per minute, their body temperature drops, and they lose up to 30 percent of their body weight. Females reach reproductive maturity after five years; cubs, usually two, are born in late winter, while the mother is still asleep.
Grizzlies, second largest of eight recognized species of bears worldwide (only polar bears are larger), have disappeared from most of North America but are widespread throughout the Canadian Rockies and Banff National Park, numbering around 70 in the region. Grizzlies are only occasionally seen by casual observers; most sightings occur in alpine and subalpine zones, although sightings at lower elevations are not unusual, especially when snow falls early or late. The bears’ colour ranges from light brown to almost black, with dark tan being the most common. On average, males weigh 200-350 kilograms (440-770 pounds). The bears eat small and medium-size mammals, and berries in fall. Like black bears, they sleep through most of the winter. When they emerge in early spring, the bears scavenge carcasses of animals that succumbed to the winter, until the new spring vegetation becomes sufficiently plentiful. Females first give birth at four years old, and then every three years, with cubs remaining with their mother for 2-3 years.
The coyote is often mistaken for a wolf when in fact it is much smaller, weighing up to only 15 kilograms (33 pounds). It has a pointed nose and a long, bushy tail. Its colouring is a mottled mix of brown and gray, with lighter-coloured legs and belly. The coyote is a skillful and crafty hunter, preying mainly on rodents. Coyotes have the remarkable ability to hear the movement of small mammals under the snow, allowing them to hunt these animals without actually seeing them. Coyotes are widespread along the entire Bow River watershed. They are attracted to Vermilion Lakes by an abundance of small game, and many have permanent dens there. They are often seen patrolling the edges of highways, crossing open meadows in low-lying valleys, and sneaking around the town of Banff.
Wolves are present in Banff National Park, but are rarely sighted by casual observers. They were extirpated from the region over 100 years ago, but they have slowly returned, and there are currently two packs in the park.
Wolves that inhabit the Canadian Rockies are larger than coyotes and larger than the wolves of eastern Canada. They weigh up to 60 kilograms (132 pounds), stand up to one metre (3.2 feet) high at the shoulder, and resemble large huskies or German shepherds. Their colour ranges from snow white to brown or black; those in the Canadian Rockies are, most often, shades of gray. They usually form packs of up to eight members, travelling, hunting, and resting together, and adhering to a hierarchical social order. As individuals, they are complex and intriguing, capable of expressing happiness, humor, and loneliness.
Rarely encountered by casual hikers, these majestic creatures (known in other parts of North America as mountain lions, pumas, or catamounts) measure up to 1.5 metres (five feet) long. The average male weighs 75 kilograms (165 pounds) and the female 40-55 kilograms (90-120 pounds). Cougars are versatile hunters whose acute vision takes in a peripheral span in excess of 200 degrees. They typically kill a large mammal such as an elk or deer every 12-14 days, eating part of it and caching the rest. Their diet also includes chipmunks, ground squirrels, snowshoe hares, and occasionally porcupines. Their athletic prowess puts Olympians to shame. They can spring forward more than 8 metres (26 feet) from a standstill, leap 4 metres (13 feet) into the air, and safely jump from a height of 20 metres (65 feet).
The cougar is a solitary animal with distinct territorial boundaries. This limits its population density, which in turn means that its overall numbers are low. They are most common in the foothills along the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies.
The elusive lynx is identifiable by its pointy black ear tufts and an oversized tabby cat appearance. The animal has broad, padded paws that distribute its weight, allowing it to float on the surface of snow. It weighs up to 10 kilograms (22 pounds) but appears much larger because of its coat of long, thick fur. The lynx, uncommon but widespread throughout the region, is a solitary creature that prefers the cover of subalpine forests, feeding mostly at night on snowshoe hares and other small mammals. Although present, lynx are rarely seen in Banff National Park and when there are reports it’s generally in winter along the Icefields Parkway.
It is estimated that Banff National Park is home to around 900 mountain goats. The remarkable rock-climbing ability of these nimble-footed creatures allows them to live on rocky ledges or near-vertical slopes, safe from predators. The goats stand one metre (3.2 feet) at the shoulder and weigh 65-130 kilograms (140-290 pounds). Both sexes possess a peculiar beard, or rather, goatee. Both sexes have horns. It is possible to determine the sex by the shape of the horns; those of the female grow straight up before curling slightly backward, whereas those of the male curl back in a single arch. The goats shed their thick coats each summer, making them look ragged, but by fall they’ve regrown a fine, new white woolen coat.
Bighorn sheep are some of the most distinctive mammals of Banff National Park. Easily recognized by their impressive horns, they are often seen grazing on grassy mountain slopes or at salt licks beside the road. The colour of their coat varies with the season; in summer, it’s a brownish-gray with a cream-coloured belly and rump, turning lighter in winter. Fully grown males can weigh up to 120 kilograms (270 pounds), while females generally weigh around 80 kilograms (180 pounds). Both sexes possess horns, rather than antlers like members of the deer family. Unlike antlers, horns are not shed each year and can grow to astounding sizes. The horns of rams are larger than those of ewes and curve up to 360 degrees. The spiraled horns of an older ram can measure longer than one metre (3.2 feet) and weigh as much as 15 kilograms (33 pounds). During the fall mating season, a hierarchy is established among the rams for the right to breed ewes. As the males face off against each other to establish dominance, their horns act as both a weapon and a buffer against the head butting of other rams. The skull structure of the bighorn, rams in particular, has become adapted to these head-butting clashes, keeping the animals from being knocked unconscious.
Your best chance of seeing one of the park’s 2,000 to 2,300 bighorn is at the south end of the Bow Valley Parkway, between switchbacks on Mount Norquay Road, and between Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake.
Bighorn sheep are particularly tolerant of humans and often approach parked vehicles; although they are not especially dangerous, as with all mammals, you should not approach or feed them.
Before the arrival of Europeans, millions of bison roamed the North American plains, with some entering the valleys of the Canadian Rockies to escape harsh winters. Several factors contributed to their decline, including the combined presence of explorers, settlers, and indigenous peoples. By the late 1800s they were wiped out, and since then a few attempts at reintroduction have taken place, including in the remote Panther River Valley of Banff National Park in 2017, where the newly relocated herd is now thriving. For more information on the bison reintroduction go to this page of the Parks Canada website.
One of the animal kingdom’s most industrious mammals is the beaver. Growing to a length of 50 centimetres (20 inches) and tipping the scales at around 20 kilograms (44 pounds), it has a flat, rudderlike tail and webbed back feet that enable it to swim at speeds up to 10 kph (6 mph). The exploration of western Canada can be directly attributed to the beaver, whose pelt was in high demand in fashion-conscious Europe in the early 1800s. The beaver was never entirely wiped out from the mountains, and today the animals can be found in almost any forested valley with flowing water. Beavers build their dam walls and lodges of twigs, branches, sticks of felled trees, and mud. They eat the bark and smaller twigs of deciduous plants and store branches underwater, near the lodge, as a winter food supply. Paddle upstream toward Vermilion Lakes from the Banff Canoe Club in the late evening and you may see these industrious creatures at work.
Several species of squirrels are common in the Canadian Rockies. The GOLDEN-MANTLED GROUND SQUIRREL, found in rocky outcrops of subalpine and alpine regions, has black stripes along its sides and looks like an oversized chipmunk. Most common is the COLUMBIAN GROUND SQUIRREL, which lives in burrows, often in open grassland. It is recognizable by its reddish legs, face, and underside, and a flecked, grayish back. The bushy-tailed RED SQUIRREL, the bold chatterbox of the forest, leaves telltale shelled cones at the base of conifers.
High in the mountains, above the tree line, hoary marmots are often seen sunning themselves on boulders in rocky areas or meadows. They are stocky creatures, weighing 4-9 kilograms (9-19 pounds). When danger approaches, these large rodents emit a shrill whistle to warn their colony. Marmots are active only for a few months each summer, spending up to nine months a year in hibernation.
This small, squat animal is easily recognized by its thick coat of quills. It eats roots and leaves but is also known as being destructive around wooden buildings and vehicle tires. Porcupines are common and widespread throughout all forested areas, but they’re hard to spy because they feed most often at night. Porcupines are relatively rare in Banff National Park, but you may see them scurrying off the trail on an early morning hike through subalpine forest.
Widespread throughout western Canada, muskrats make their mountain home in the waterways and wetlands around Vermilion Lakes. They are agile swimmers, able to stay submerged for up to 12 minutes. They grow to a length of 35 centimetres (18 inches), but the best form of identification is the tail, which is black, flat, and scaly. Closely related to muskrats are voles, which are often mistaken for mice. They inhabit grassed areas of most valley floors.
A member of the insectivore family, the furry shrew has a sharp-pointed snout and is closely related to the mole. It must eat almost constantly because it is susceptible to starvation within only a few hours of its last meal. Another variety present throughout the region, the pygmy shrew is the world’s smallest mammal; it weighs just four grams (0.1 ounce).
Pikas, like rabbits, are lagomorphs, which are distinguished from rodents by a double set of incisors in the upper jaw. The small, grayish pika is a neighbor to the marmot, living among the rubble and boulders of scree slopes above timberline.
The weasel family, comprising 70 species worldwide, is large and diverse, but in general, all members have long, slim bodies and short legs, and all are carnivorous and voracious eaters, consuming up to one-third of their body weight each day. Many species can be found in the Canadian Rockies, including the WOLVERINE, largest of the weasels worldwide, weighing up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds). Known to indigenous peoples as carcajou (evil one), the wolverine is extremely powerful, cunning, and cautious. This solitary creature inhabits forests of the subalpine and lower alpine regions, feeding on any available meat, from small rodents to the carcasses of larger mammals. Rarely sighted by humans in Banff National Park, the wolverine is a true symbol of the wilderness.
The FISHER has the same habitat as the wolverine but is much smaller, reaching just five kilograms (11 pounds) in weight and growing up to 60 centimetres (24 inches) in length. This nocturnal hunter preys on small birds and rodents, but reports of fishers bringing down small deer have been made. Smaller still is the MARTEN, which lives most of its life in the trees of the subalpine forest, preying on birds, squirrels, mice, and voles. Weighing just one kilogram (2.2 pounds) is the MINK, once highly prized for its fur. At home in or out of water, it feeds on muskrats, mice, voles, and fish. Mink numbers in the Canadian Rockies are low.
As well as being home to the largest member of the weasel family, the region also holds the smallest—the LEAST WEASEL (the world’s smallest carnivore), which grows to a length of just 20 centimetres (8 inches) and weighs a maximum of 60 grams (2 ounces). Chiefly nocturnal, it feeds mostly on mice and lives throughout open wooded areas, but it is not particularly common.
Reptiles and Amphibians
The wandering garter snake is rare and found only near the Cave and Basin, where warm water from the mineral spring flows down a shaded slope into Vermilion Lakes. Amphibians found in the park include the widespread western toad; the wood frog, commonly found along the Bow River; the rare spotted frog; and the long-toed salamander, which spawns in shallow ponds and spends summer under logs or rocks in the vicinity of its spawning grounds.
Birdwatching is popular in Banff National Park, thanks to the approximately 300 resident bird species and the hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that pass through each fall. All it takes is a pair of binoculars, a good book detailing species, and patience. Dense forests hide many species, making them seem less common than they are.
A wide variety of raptors are present in Banff National Park—some call the mountains home year-round, while others pass through during annual spring and fall migrations.
GOLDEN EAGLES migrate across the Canadian Rockies, heading north in spring to Alaska and crossing back over in fall en route to Midwest wintering grounds. Golden eagles—more than 10,000 of them annually—soar high above the mountains on thermal drafts. BALD EAGLES also soar over the Canadian Rockies during annual migrations; mature birds can be distinguished from below by their white head and tail (immature birds resemble the dark-brown-coloured golden eagle). OSPREYS spend summers in the region, nesting high up in large dead trees, on telephone poles, or on rocky outcrops, but always overlooking water; look for their nests along the Bow River. They feed on fish, hovering up to 50 metres (160 feet) above water, watching for movement, then diving into the water, thrusting their legs forward and collecting prey in their talons.
Distinct from all previously listed species is a group of raptors that hunt at night. Best known as owls, these birds are rarely seen because of their nocturnal habits but are widespread throughout forested areas of the mountains. Most common is the GREAT HORNED OWL, identified by its prominent “horns,” which are actually tufts of feathers.
Birdwatchers will be enthralled by the diversity of eastern and western bird species in Banff National Park. In low elevation wetlands and lakes are CANADA GEESE, LOONS, MALLARD DUCKS, MERGANSERS, and BARRON GOLDENEYES.
Widespread elsewhere are MAGPIES, SPARROWS, STARLINGS, GROUSE, RAVENS, and CROWS. BLACKBIRDS, FINCHES, THRUSHES, HUMMINGBIRDS, WOODPECKERS, FLYCATCHERS, and 28 species of WARBLERS are common in forested areas. PTARMIGAN are common in open meadows above the tree line. A popular campground visitor, the cheeky GRAY JAY is similar in appearance to the curious CLARK’S NUTCRACKER.