12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Banff National Park
Banff National Park is one of Canada's great national treasures, attracting millions of visitors every year. Encompassing a portion of the Rocky Mountains, the park is home to beautiful turquoise lakes mirroring the snow-covered peaks, along with glaciers and forests. Since 1985, it has been included in UNESCO's list of protected natural and cultural monuments.
The picturesque little town of Banff is the only township in the park and is the main hub of activity. The Icefields Parkway, which winds for 230 kilometers through the 3,000-meter-high mountains, connects Banff and Jasper National Park to the north. The main highlights of this impressive journey along the Parkway are world-famous Lake Louise, the aristocratic-looking Canadian Pacific hotel Château Lake Louise, and the huge Columbia Icefield. Visitors also have a good chance of seeing some of Canada's wildlife. The park is home to a large number of black bears, elk, caribou, wolves, beaver, and grizzly bears.
1 The Town of Banff
Located in the south end of Banff National Park, this little town, surrounded by mountains, is a main tourist destination in Alberta. It is devoted to the tourism industry with all kinds of accommodation options, interesting shops, and restaurants that range from casual to high end. In the summer, the streets are packed with tourists from all over the world who come to see the Canadian Rockies, and in winter, the town maintains its lively atmosphere as skiers descend on Banff to enjoy the nearby slopes.
Banff Springs Hotel
One of the main highlights in Banff is the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. This historic hotel was built in 1888 and is today the emblem of Banff. Once planned to be the largest hotel complex in the world, this traditionally-designed, castle-like grand hotel still preserves much of the glamor of the early days of railway tourism. In those days, only well-to-do travelers could afford to make the journey into the then still remote region of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
The hotel is set off on its own in a wooded area with lovely views of the surroundings. Below the Banff Springs Hotel, easily reached on foot from downtown Banff, the Bow River tumbles over a cliff-like rise.
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For fabulous views of the town of Banff and the entire valley, visitors can take the Sulphur Mountain Gondola up Sulphur Mountain. This is one of the most popular things to do in summer. The parking area is just four kilometers outside Banff. On a clear day, there is a splendid view from the three terrace decks and the mountain-top restaurant. At the top are a number of walking options, including the Banff Skywalk (Vista Trail), an easy one-kilometer trail that leads to the Cosmic Ray Station National Historic Site of Canada and the Sanson's Peak Meteorological Station. The four-hour Banff City Sightseeing Tour is an easy way to see this attraction, with pickup and drop-off at locations in town, a gondola ride, and additional sightseeing in the area.
2 Lake Louise
The jewel of Banff National Park is Lake Louise with its shimmering turquoise green water and surrounding snowcapped mountains rising up to 3,000 meters high. Although the water is too cold for bathing, it is ideal for canoeing. At the western end of Lake Louise, Mount Victoria (3,469 meters), rises in majestic splendor. A breathtaking view can be had from the famous Fairmont Château Lake Louise or the shoreline in front of the hotel. A paved trail runs along the water's edge with beautiful views of the lake, mountains, glacier, and the Château.
If you are staying in Banff and looking for an easy way to see some of the beautiful surrounding lakes, including Lake Louise, the Mountain Lakes and Waterfalls Day Trip from Banff is a good choice. This full-day guided coach tour takes you to some of the most scenic locations in the area. From Calgary, the Mountain Lakes and Waterfalls Day Trip from Calgary offers a similar experience, with transportation directly from Calgary.
Château Lake Louise
In 1890, the Canadian Pacific Railway built the first Château Lake Louise on the moraine at the end of the lake. Easily accessible by rail, Lake Louise and the surrounding countryside soon developed into a tourist center. From here, expeditions started out to explore the rocky region on horseback. Mountaineers from England and the United States scaled the as yet unknown peaks. The present day Château Lake Louise was built in 1924 after a fire destroyed its smaller wooden predecessor. In the early days, horse-driven coaches - later to be superseded by trams - transported guests from the rail station down in the valley to the hotel six kilometers away.
In the 1920s, a road was built from Banff to Lake Louise. In the Bow River Valley, the holiday village of Lake Louise developed with nearly 400 permanent inhabitants.
Hikes around Lake Louise
Well-known from many pictures and postcards, Lake Louise is a starting point for some rewarding walks, the best of which is perhaps to the Plain of Six Glaciers. Another very popular walk leads to Lake Agnes (difference in altitude 365 meters), which lies in a picturesque location between the two round hills known as the Beehives. The strenuous climb to the top of one of the Beehives is rewarded by a superb view over the entire area. In summer, the Lake Agnes Teahouse supplies food and drinks for hikers.
3 Lake Louise Ski Resort
Lake Louise Ski Resort is the most well-known ski resort in Alberta, catering to skiers from around the world. It offers skiing for all levels of ability with terrain that includes open bowls, groomed runs, and tree skiing. The runs on the mountainside are visible from the lake and Chateau Lake Louise.
During the summer months, the Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola offers an easy way to get up into the alpine landscape. The gondola ascends to 2,088 meters, where there are opportunities to tackle some day hikes or short walks, or simply enjoy a meal. Ride and Dine packages are available. The Whitehorn Bistro, at more than 2,000 meters, is open for lunch and breakfast at the top of the Sightseeing Lift. This restaurant has both indoor and outdoor dining and great views over the surrounding forest and beyond to the turquoise waters of Lake Louise.
4 Moraine Lake
Pictured on the reverse of the old Canadian twenty dollar bill, Moraine Lake in the Valley of the Ten Peaks is arguably as impressive as Lake Louise, but attracts fewer visitors. The picturesque turquoise-colored water is surrounded by ten peaks, each more than 3,000 meters high, and the Wenkchemna Glacier. The lake is located beyond Lake Louise, and the 13-kilometer road leading from Lake Louise up to Moraine Lake reveals one great view after another.
From near the parking area, a 1.5-kilometer-long walking trail runs along the northwest shore. This is a flat and easy walk. The most scenic walk involves a short climb up the Rockpile Trail to the best view of the lake, and the view most often seen on posters and postcards. This takes only about 20 minutes, but most people linger at the viewpoint. A popular, although strenuous, day hike leads from the lake to Sentinel Pass, one of the highest mountain passes in Banff National Park.
Accommodation, dining, and canoe rentals are available at the quaint Moraine Lake Lodge along the lakeshore.
5 Sunshine Village Ski Resort
Sunshine Village is just a short drive outside the town of Banff and is one of the top two ski resorts in Alberta, along with Lake Louise. The resort offers a variety of terrain and runs for beginners to advanced skiers. In summer, the area is open to hikers, who can take a bus to the upper regions. It's possible to do a short walk and take the bus back down, or embark on a longer hike that will take you back down to the parking area. The scenery here is stunning year-round.
6 Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) is one of the most scenic highways in Canada. It crosses the northern part of Banff National Park and the southern part of Jasper National Park and forms a link between Trans-Canada Highway 1 and Yellowhead Highway 16. Unlike the busy Trans-Canada Highway, the Icefields Parkway is purely and simply a sightseeing route through magnificent high mountain scenery.
Between Lake Louise and Jasper, the road follows a narrow valley running north-south for 230 kilometers between the glaciated peaks of the main range of the Rocky Mountains. Frequent overlooks with parking places provide opportunities to enjoy the breathtaking views, and interpretive plaques fill in the background on the landscape and local history. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats - at the roadside or on the mountain tops - romantic waterfalls, the shimmering turquoise waters of mountain lakes, looming icefields, and snow-clad mountain peaks all make for a journey of infinite variety.
7 Bow Lake
Bow Lake, 34 kilometers north of Lake Louise, lies below the Crowfoot Glacier (shaped like a crow's foot and clearly visible from the road) and Bow Glacier. The lake's still and clear waters mirror the towering, snow-covered peaks of the continental divide. These glaciers form part of the great Waputik Icefield. There are lovely walks along the lake to a waterfall at the foot of the Bow Glacier (half a day) or to Helen Lake and Catherine Lake at the Dolomite Pass to the east (whole day).
8 Peyto Lake
At 2,068 meters, Bow Pass is the highest pass in Banff National Park and the watershed between the river systems of the North and South Saskatchewan River. A short branch road leads to the magnificent Peyto Lake viewpoint, and there is another superb lookout point that can be reached on foot about a kilometer from the parking area. Peyto Lake is the unique turquoise color of many of the glacier-fed lakes in this area, and is especially lovely in mid to late summer, when Bow Summit's mountain meadows are carpeted with wildflowers.
A long, steep path from Bow Pass leads down for 2.5 kilometers to Peyto Lake, named after the mountain guide Bill Peyto, who began exploring the area in 1894 and took pack horses of supplies north over Bow Summit.
9 Bow Valley Parkway
The 48-kilometer-long Bow Valley Parkway, which runs between Banff and Lake Louise, offers an alternative route to the busy Trans-Canada Highway. This route has numerous viewpoints as well as camping and picnic sites. Towering above it all is Castle Mountain, whose Eisenhower Peak is 2,728 meters high. The Bow Valley Parkway also offers a great chance to see some of the park's wildlife. One of the most popular stops along the parkway is Johnston Canyon.
10 Johnston Canyon
About 26 kilometers along the Bow Valley Parkway is the entrance to Johnston Canyon with its two waterfalls. A trail leads through the canyon, with bridges along the steep cliff walls allowing visitors to get a feel for being in one of these unique canyons. The path continues on some six kilometers on the far side of the canyon, leading up to the Ink Pots, a group of springs. Two of these are particularly striking because of the bluish-green color of the water. Most visitors just stick to the lower level, while those with more time and energy take on the more strenuous walk to the Ink Pots. Johnston Canyon is an impressive site in both summer and winter, although it sees very few visitors outside of the summer season.
11 Lake Minnewanka
Lake Minnewanka, 11 kilometers northeast of Banff, is the largest lake within the national park and a scenic spot often frequented by bighorn sheep. A popular walking trail leads along the shore and up into the surrounding mountain side. Lake Minnewanka is the only lake in the park on which motorboats are allowed. It is also worthwhile going on to Two Jack Lake - where canoes can be rented - and Johnson Lake.
12 Wildlife Viewing
The wildlife that inhabits this area is one of the great tourist attractions of Banff National Park. More than fifty species of mammals can be found in the national parks of this rocky region. Large wild animals are most likely to be spotted in the early morning and the evening. Elk are more often seen in the damp meadows of the valleys, while caribou and deer frequent the thicker woods and meadows. Mountain goats and bighorn sheep are found on the higher mountain slopes.
The park is also home to grizzly bears. Hiking trails are sometimes closed due to grizzlies in the area. Normally, they do not come near roads and towns. When walking in the "backcountry," it is wise to keep an eye open for them and for the more common black bear. The latter prefer wooded areas and thick undergrowth on the flat valley floors and sunny south-facing slopes, while grizzlies keep to the alpine regions in summer but seek food lower down in spring and autumn. While it's rare, grizzlies have been known to come right down to Moraine Lake, on one of the busiest walking paths in the middle of the day, with large groups of people around. These animals have poor sight but can smell or hear approaching humans long before they see them. Bears can be surprisingly quick, so hikers should never approach one.
A great way to increase your chances of seeing some of these marvelous animals is on a Wildlife Tour, available during the summer months. This half-day tour is led by a professional guide and takes you to some of the best wildlife viewing areas around Banff.