Banff National Park Scenic Drives
Vermilion Lakes Drive
Accessed from this road close to the town of Banff, this series of shallow lakes forms an expansive montane wetland supporting a variety of mammals and 238 species of birds. Vermilion Lakes Drive, paralleling the TransCanada Highway immediately west of Banff, provides the easiest access to the area. The level of First Vermilion Lake was once controlled by a dam. Since its removal, the level of the lake has dropped. This is the beginning of a long process that will eventually see the area evolve into a floodplain forest such as is found along the Fenland Trail. The entire area is excellent for wildlife viewing, especially in winter when it provides habitat for elk, coyote, and the occasional wolf.
Mount Norquay Road
One of the best views of town accessible by vehicle is on this road, which switchbacks steeply to the base of Mount Norquay, the local hangout for skiers and boarders. On the way up are several lookouts, including one near the top where bighorn sheep often graze.
Lake Minnewanka Road
Lake Minnewanka Road begins where Banff Avenue ends at the northeast end of town. An alternative to driving along Banff Avenue is to take Buffalo Street, opposite the Banff Park Museum, and follow it around Tunnel Mountain, passing the campground and several viewpoints of the north face of Mount Rundle, rising vertically from the forested valley. This road eventually rejoins Banff Avenue at the Banff Rocky Mountain Resort.
After passing under the TransCanada Highway, Cascade Falls is obvious off to the left. The base of the falls can be easily reached in 10 minutes (climbing higher without the proper equipment is dangerous). In winter, these falls freeze, and you’ll often see ice climbers slowly making their way up the narrow thread of frozen water. Directly opposite is a turn to Cascade Ponds, a day-use area that was devastated by flooding in 2013, but is still a popular spot where families gather on warmer days to sunbathe and barbecue.
The next turnout along this road is at Lower Bankhead. During the early 1900s, Bankhead was a booming mining town producing 200,000 tons of coal a year. The poor quality of coal and bitter labor disputes led to the mine’s closure in 1922. Soon after, all the buildings were moved or demolished.
From the parking lot at Lower Bankhead, a 1.1-kilometer (0.7-mile) interpretive trail leads down through the industrial section of the town and past an old mine train. The town’s 1,000 residents lived on the other side of the road at what is now known as Upper Bankhead. Just before the Upper Bankhead turnoff, the foundation of the Holy Trinity Church can be seen on the side of the hill to the right. Not much remains of Upper Bankhead. It is now a day-use area with picnic tables, kitchen shelters, and firewood. Through the meadow to the west of here are some large slag heaps, concealed mine entrances, and various stone foundations.
Minnewanka (Lake of the Water Spirit) is the largest body of water in Banff National Park. Mount Inglismaldie (2,964 meters/9,720 feet) and the Fairholme Range form an imposing backdrop. The reservoir was first constructed in 1912, and additional dams were built in 1922 and 1941 to supply hydroelectric power to Banff. Even if you don’t feel up to an energetic hike, it’s worth parking at the facility area and going for a short walk along the lakeshore. You’ll pass a concession selling snacks and drinks, then the tour boat dock, before entering an area of picnic tables and covered cooking shelters—the perfect place for a picnic. Children will love exploring the rocky shoreline and stony beaches in this area, but you should continue farther around the lake, if only to escape the crowds.
Banff Lake Cruise (403/762-3473) is a 90-minute cruise to the far reaches of the lake, passing the Devil’s Gap formation. It departs from the dock late May to early October 3 to 5 times daily (first sailing is 10 a.m. and costs adult $45, child $20). An easy walking trail leads past a number of picnic spots and rocky beaches to Stewart Canyon. The lake is great for fishing (lake trout to 15 kilograms/33 pounds) and is the only one in the park where motorboats are allowed. The same company operating the tour boats rents aluminum boats with small outboard engines.
From Lake Minnewanka the road continues along the reservoir wall, passing a plaque commemorating the Palliser Expedition. You’ll often have to slow down along this stretch of road for bighorn sheep. The road then descends to Two Jack Lake and a small day-use area. Take the turnoff to Johnson Lake, to access a lakeside trail, good swimming on the warmest days of summer, and picnic facilities with views across to Mount Rundle.
Bow Valley Parkway
Two roads link Banff to Lake Louise. The TransCanada Highway is the quicker route, more popular with through traffic. The other is the more scenic 51-kilometer (32-mile) Bow Valley Parkway, which branches off the TransCanada Highway five kilometers (3.1 miles) west of Banff. Cyclists will appreciate this road’s two long, divided sections and low speed limit (60 kph/37 mph). Along this route are several impressive viewpoints, interpretive displays, picnic areas, good hiking, great opportunities for viewing wildlife, a hostel, three lodges, campgrounds, and one of the park’s best restaurants. Between March and late June, the southern end of the parkway (as far north as Johnston Canyon) is closed 6 p.m. to 9 a.m. daily for the protection of wildlife.
As you enter the parkway, you pass the quiet, creekside Fireside picnic area, where an interpretive display describes how the Bow Valley was formed. At Backswamp Viewpoint, you can look upstream to the site of a former dam, now a swampy wetland filled with aquatic vegetation. Farther along the road is another wetland at Muleshoe. This wetland consists of oxbow lakes that were formed when the Bow River changed its course and abandoned its meanders for a more direct path. Across the parkway is a one-kilometer (0.6-mile) trail that climbs to a viewpoint overlooking the valley. (The slope around this trail is infested with wood ticks during late spring/early summer, so be sure to check yourself carefully after hiking in this area.) To the east, Hole-in-the-Wall is visible. This large-mouthed cave was created by the Bow Glacier, which once filled the valley. As the glacier receded, its meltwater dissolved the soft limestone bedrock, creating what is known as a solution cave.
Beyond Muleshoe the road inexplicably divides for a few car lengths. A large white spruce stood on the island until it blew down in 1984. The story goes that while the road was being constructed, a surly foreman was asleep in the shade of the tree, and not daring to rouse him, workers cleared the roadway around him. The road then passes through particularly hilly terrain, part of a massive rock slide that occurred approximately 8,000 years ago.
Continuing down the parkway, you’ll pass the following sights.
Johnston Creek drops over a series of spectacular waterfalls here, deep within the chasm it has carved into the limestone bedrock. The canyon is not nearly as deep as Maligne Canyon in Jasper National Park—30 meters (100 feet) at its deepest, compared to 50 meters (165 feet) at Maligne—but the catwalk that leads to the lower falls has been built through the depths of the canyon rather than along its lip, making it seem just as spectacular. The lower falls are one kilometer (0.6 mile) from the Bow Valley Parkway, while the equally spectacular upper falls are a further 1.6 kilometers (one mile) upstream. Beyond this point are the Ink Pots, shallow pools of spring-fed water. While in the canyon, look for fast-moving black swifts zipping through the air.
At the west end of Moose Meadows, a small plaque marks the site of Silver City. At its peak, this boomtown had a population of 2,000, making it bigger than Calgary at the time. The city was founded by John Healy, who also founded the notorious Fort Whoop-Up in Lethbridge. During its heady days, five mines were operating, extracting not silver but ore rich in copper and lead. The town had a half dozen hotels, four or five stores, two real-estate offices, and a station on the transcontinental rail line when its demise began. Two men, named Patton and Pettigrew, salted their mine with gold and silver ore to attract investors. After selling 2,000 shares at $5 each, they vanished, leaving investors with a useless mine. Investment in the town ceased, mines closed, and the people left. Only one man refused to leave. His name was James Smith, but he was known to everyone as Joe. In 1887, when Silver City came under the jurisdiction of the National Parks Service, Joe was allowed to remain. He did so and was friendly to everyone, including the Stoney, Father Albert Lacombe (who occasionally stopped by), well-known Banff guide Tom Wilson, and of course the animals who grazed around his cabin. By 1926, he was unable to trap or hunt due to failing eyesight, and many people tried to persuade him to leave. It wasn’t until 1937 that he finally moved to a Calgary retirement home, where he died soon after.
Castle Mountain to Lake Louise
After you leave the former site of Silver City, the aptly named Castle Mountain comes into view. It’s one of the park’s most recognizable peaks and most interesting geographical features. The mountain consists of very old rock (approximately 500 million years old) sitting atop much younger rock (a mere 200 million years old). This unusual situation occurred as the mountains were forced upward by pressure below the earth’s surface, thrusting the older rock up and over the younger rock in places.
The road skirts the base of the mountain, passes Castle Mountain Chalets (which has gas, food, and accommodations), and climbs a small hill to Storm Mountain Viewpoint, which provides more stunning views and a picnic area. The next commercial facility is Baker Creek Mountain Resort (403/522-3761), where the mountain-style restaurant is an excellent spot for a meal. Then it’s on to another viewpoint at Morant’s Curve, from where Temple Mountain is visible. After passing another picnic area the Bow Valley Parkway rejoins the TransCanada Highway at Lake Louise.
The 230-kilometer (143-mile) Icefields Parkway, between Lake Louise and Jasper, is one of the most scenic, exciting, and inspiring mountain roads ever built. From Lake Louise it parallels the Continental Divide, following in the shadow of the highest, most rugged mountains in the Canadian Rockies. The first 122 kilometers (76 miles) to Sunwapta Pass (the boundary between Banff and Jasper National Parks) can be driven in two hours, and the entire parkway in four hours. But it’s likely you’ll want to spend at least a day, probably more, stopping at each of the 13 viewpoints, hiking the trails, watching the abundant wildlife, and just generally enjoying one of the world’s most magnificent landscapes. Along the section within Banff National Park are two lodges, three hostels, three campgrounds, and one gas station (summer only).
Although the road is steep and winding in places, it has a wide shoulder, making it ideal for an extended bike trip. Allow seven days to pedal north from Banff to Jasper, staying at hostels or camping along the route. This is the preferable direction to travel by bike because the elevation at the town of Jasper is more than 500 meters (1,640 feet) lower than either Banff or Lake Louise.
The parkway remains open year-round, although winter brings with it some special considerations. The road is often closed for short periods for avalanche control; check road conditions in Banff or Lake Louise before setting out. And be sure to fill up with gas; no services are available between November and April.
Lake Louise to Crowfoot Glacier
The Icefields Parkway forks right from the TransCanada Highway just north of Lake Louise. The impressive scenery begins immediately. Just three kilometers (1.9 miles) from the junction is Herbert Lake, formed during the last ice age when retreating glaciers deposited a pile of rubble–known as a moraine–across a shallow valley and water filled in behind it. The lake is a perfect place for early-morning or early-evening photography, when the Waputik Range and distinctively shaped Mount Temple are reflected in its waters.
Traveling north, you’ll notice numerous depressions in the steep, shaded slopes of the Waputik Range across the Bow Valley. The cooler climate on these north-facing slopes makes them prone to glaciation. Cirques were cut by small local glaciers. On the opposite side of the road, Mount Hector (3,394 meters/11,130 feet), easily recognized by its layered peak, soon comes into view.
Hector Lake Viewpoint is 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the junction. Although the view is partially obscured by trees, the emerald green waters nestled below a massive wall of limestone form a breathtaking scene. Bow Peak, seen looking northward along the highway, is only 2,868 meters (9,410 feet) high but is completely detached from the Waputik Range, making it a popular destination for climbers. As you leave this viewpoint, look across the northeast end of Hector Lake for glimpses of Mount Balfour (3,246 meters/10,650 feet) on the distant skyline.
The aptly named Crowfoot Glacier can best be appreciated from a viewpoint 17 kilometers (10.6 miles) north of Hector Lake. The glacier sits on a wide ledge near the top of Crowfoot Mountain, from where its glacial claws cling to the mountain’s steep slopes. The retreat of this glacier has been dramatic. Only 50 years ago, two of the claws extended to the base of the lower cliff. Today, they are a shadow of their former selves, barely reaching over the cliff edge.
The sparkling, translucent waters of Bow Lake are among the most beautiful that can be seen from the Icefields Parkway. The lake was created when moraines deposited by retreating glaciers dammed subsequent meltwater. On still days, the water reflects the snowy peaks, their sheer cliffs, and the scree slopes that run into the lake. You don’t need photography experience to take good pictures here! At the southeast end of the lake, a day-use area offers waterfront picnic tables and a trail to a swampy area at the lake’s outlet. At the upper end of the lake, you’ll find the historic Num-ti-jah Lodge and the trailhead for a walk to Bow Glacier Falls.
The road leaves Bow Lake and climbs to Bow Summit. As you look back toward the lake, its true color becomes apparent, and the Crowfoot Glacier reveals its unique shape. At an elevation of 2,069 meters (6,790 feet), this pass is one of the highest points crossed by a public road in Canada. It is also the beginning of the Bow River, the one you camped beside at Lake Louise, photographed flowing through the town of Banff, and fished along downstream of Canmore.
From the parking lot at Bow Summit, a short paved trail leads to one of the most breathtaking views you could ever imagine. Far below the viewpoint is Peyto Lake, an impossibly intense green lake whose hues change according to season. Before heavy melting of nearby glaciers begins (in June or early July), the lake is dark blue. As summer progresses, meltwater flows across a delta and into the lake. This water is laden with finely ground particles of rock debris known as rock flour, which remains suspended in the water. It is not the mineral content of the rock flour that is responsible for the lake’s unique color, but rather the particles reflecting the blue-green sector of the light spectrum. As the amount of suspended rock flour changes, so does the color of the lake.
The lake is one of many park landmarks named for early outfitter Bill Peyto. In 1898, Peyto was part of an expedition camped at Bow Lake. Seeking solitude (as he was wont to do), he slipped off during the night to sleep near this lake. Other members of the party coined the name Peyto’s Lake, and it stuck.
A farther three kilometers (1.9 miles) along the parkway is a viewpoint from which Peyto Glacier is visible at the far end of Peyto Lake Valley. This glacier is part of the extensive Wapta Icefield, which straddles the Continental Divide and extends into the northern reaches of Yoho National Park in British Columbia.
Beside the Continental Divide
From Bow Summit, the parkway descends to a viewpoint directly across the Mistaya River from Mount Patterson (3,197 meters/10,490 feet). Snowbird Glacier clings precariously to the mountain’s steep northeast face, and the mountain’s lower, wooded slopes are heavily scarred where rock and ice slides have swept down the mountainside.
As the parkway continues to descend and crosses Silverhorn Creek, the jagged limestone peaks of the Continental Divide can be seen to the west. Mistaya Lake is a three-kilometer-long (1.9-mile-long) body of water that sits at the bottom of the valley between the road and the divide, but it can’t be seen from the parkway. The best place to view it is from the Howse Peak Viewpoint at Upper Waterfowl Lake. From here the high ridge that forms the Continental Divide is easily distinguishable. Seven peaks can be seen from here, including Howse Peak (3,290 meters/10,790 feet). At no point along this ridge does the elevation drop below 2,750 meters (9,000 feet). From Howse Peak, the Continental Divide makes a 90-degree turn to the west. One dominant peak that can be seen from Bow Pass to north of Saskatchewan River Crossing is Mount Chephren (3,268 meters/10,720 feet). Its distinctive shape and position away from the main ridge of the Continental Divide make it easy to distinguish. (Look for it directly north of Howse Peak.)
To Saskatchewan River Crossing
Numerous unofficial trails lead to the swampy shores of Upper and Lower Waterfowl Lakes, providing one of the park’s best opportunities to view moose, who feed on the abundant aquatic vegetation that grows in Upper Waterfowl Lake. Rock and other debris that have been carried down nearby valley systems have built up, forming a wide alluvial fan, nearly blocking the Mistaya River and creating Upper Waterfowl Lake.
Continuing north is Mount Murchison (3,337 meters/10,950 feet), on the east side of the parkway. Although not one of the park’s highest mountains, this gray and yellow massif of Cambrian rock comprises 10 individual peaks, covering an area of 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres).
From a parking lot 14 kilometers (8.9 miles) northeast of Waterfowl Lake Campground, a short trail descends into the montane forest to Mistaya Canyon. Here the effects of erosion can be appreciated as the Mistaya River leaves the floor of Mistaya Valley, plunging through a narrow-walled canyon into the North Saskatchewan Valley. The area is scarred with potholes where boulders have been whirled around by the action of fast-flowing water, carving deep depressions into the softer limestone bedrock below.
The North Saskatchewan River posed a major problem for early travelers and later for the builders of the Icefields Parkway. This swiftly running river eventually drains into Hudson Bay. In 1989 it was named a Canadian Heritage River. One kilometer (0.6 mile) past the bridge you’ll come to a panoramic viewpoint of the entire valley. From here the Howse and Mistaya Rivers can be seen converging with the North Saskatchewan at a silt-laden delta. This is also a junction with Highway 11 (also known as David Thompson Highway), which follows the North Saskatchewan River to Rocky Mountain House and Red Deer. From this viewpoint numerous peaks can be seen to the west. Two sharp peaks are distinctive: Mount Outram (3,254 meters/10,680 feet) is the closer; the farther is Mount Forbes (3,630 meters/11,975 feet), the highest peak in Banff National Park (and the sixth highest in the Canadian Rockies).
To Sunwapta Pass
On the north side of the North Saskatchewan River is the towering hulk of Mount Wilson (3,261 meters/10,700 feet), named for Banff outfitter Tom Wilson. The Icefields Parkway passes this massif on its western flanks. A pullout just past Rampart Creek Campground offers good views of Mount Amery to the west and Mounts Sarbach, Chephren, and Murchison to the south. Beyond here is the Weeping Wall, a long cliff of gray limestone where a series of waterfalls tumbles more than 100 meters (330 feet) down the steep slopes of Cirrus Mountain. In winter this wall of water freezes, becoming a mecca for ice climbers.
After ascending quickly, the road drops again before beginning a long climb to Sunwapta Pass. Halfway up the 360-vertical-meter (1,180-vertical-foot) climb is a viewpoint well worth a stop (cyclists will definitely appreciate a rest). From here views extend down the valley to the slopes of Mount Saskatchewan and, on the other side of the parkway, Cirrus Mountain. Another viewpoint, farther up the road, has the added attraction of a view of Panther Falls across the valley. A cairn at Sunwapta Pass (2,023 meters/6,640 feet) marks the boundary between Banff and Jasper National Parks. It also marks the divide between the North Saskatchewan and Sunwapta Rivers, whose waters drain into the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, respectively.
For the section of Icefields Parkway north of Sunwapta Pass visit the Jasper National Park Scenic Drives page.