There’s so much to do, it’s impossible to fit it all in during a single visit. And yet, you don’t want to miss out on the absolute best attractions.
So that’s where this quick guide comes in. As someone who’s experienced Banff as both a local and a traveller, I have a unique perspective on which adventures you must experience and which ones can wait until next time.
So if you’re planning to explore the Rockies soon, make sure you check out these top Banff attractions.
1. Banff Sightseeing Gondola
It’s hard to conceptualize the incredible scale of the Rocky Mountains from the ground, as they seem to recede up into the sky.
However, from the windy peak of Sulphur Mountain, you can see the Bow Valley stretched out below you. Gargantuan peaks dwarf the town of Banff. These jagged stone fortresses were once part of an ancient sea floor until they were thrust upward by continental plates between 140 million and 45 million years ago.
The Banff Sightseeing Gondola lifts you gently up the mountain slope. You’ll glide above the forest canopy, watching the treeline slowly thin out. It takes 8 minutes to ride to the top and once you reach the summit you can stop for lunch at the cafe or take a walk around the scenic interpretive trail.
There is a chance you might spot some local wildlife, including ravens, Clark’s nutcrackers, Gray Jays and Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep (but remember not to feed or approach them!).
The Banff Gondola is open all year round, offering views of a snow-covered valley in the winter and a lush-green vista in the summer with sparkling rivers and lakes. During the holidays, the visitor centre at the mountain’s peak is decorated with seasonal decor and hosts live events and programs.
If you want to make a special occasion out of your gondola experience, indulge in a meal at Sky Bistro. It offers an innovative menu made from local Canadian ingredients. For example, the gouda in the Prairie Grain Lasagne is from nearby Sylvan Lake, the beef is Alberta-raised and the peaches in the Cobbler come straight from B.C.’s Okanagan Valley.
2. Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon was named after a prospector who discovered gold within the creek back in 1910. You probably won’t find any gold here.
However, you will see golden-hued canyon walls, emerald green trees and turquoise water. The vibrant colours and the soothing roar of the waterfalls makes this place feel like a sacred natural sanctuary. If you want to beat the crowds, go as early as possible.
In the summer months you’ll feel the spray of the waterfalls that tumble down into crystal-clear Johnston Creek. If you have the energy, you can keep walking past the upper part of the falls and continue on to the Inkpots, which are 5.8km away. You’ll discover five deep blue-green underground springs in a peaceful alpine meadow, set in an area that’s often much less busy than the main trail.
In the winter, you can walk along the steel catwalks and see the glittering frozen waterfalls up close. Climbers can often be seen scaling these enormous pillars of ice. Even though the falls have frozen solid, you will still be able to hear the sound of the water rushing below.
The Johnston Canyon Icewalk has been so popular that Discover Banff Tours now also offers an Evening Icewalk Tour. Intrepid hikers are given a headlamp and before being lead through the canyon to see the ice sparkling in the quiet darkness.
3. The Columbia Icefield
A staggeringly huge slab of glacial ice, the Columbia Icefield slowly creeps across the mountains.
Its meltwater, clear and teeth-clacking-cold, feeds into streams and rivers all over the Rocky Mountains which flow as far as the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans. Many lakes you will see in Banff consist of glacial meltwater – their surreal chalky-turquoise colour is caused by the rock particles in the water reflecting the sunlight.
A tour of the Columbia Icefields Parkway is an absolute must, as it is considered one of the most jaw-droppingly scenic highways in the world. You’ll be glad someone else is driving as you won’t be able to take your eyes off the towering mountains looming all around you.
Once at the glacier, you’ll board a specially designed vehicle with tires taller than you are – designed for traction on the slippery ice surface. The Ice Explorer gives you the opportunity to set foot on the glacier itself and experience this ancient gargantuan sheet of ice first hand.
4. Lake Louise
This iconic, glacier-fed lake is incredible year round, with its famous turquoise water in summer and ice skating in winter. No matter what time of year you visit Banff, Lake Louise is a must see! For summer visitors, Moraine Lake is another incredible lake that shouldn’t be missed.
With limited parking we recommend planning ahead with transit, visiting during off-peak hours or joining a guided tour. In summer take a half-day tour or an extended evening visit. In winter, spend an afternoon at Lake Louise for a true winter wonderland experience with snowshoeing, a maple taffy treat and more.
5. Banff Upper Hot Springs
Last but not least, when your body is tired from all of this hiking and exploring it’s time to relax and soothe your aching muscles with natural geothermal heat.
The Banff Upper Hot Springs are filled with gloriously steaming mineral water. And they have been visited for over a hundred years by those who sought the healing effects of “taking the waters.”
The water in the springs is between 37 and 40 degrees Celsius, the perfect temperature for aching muscles. It also contains minerals such as magnesium, calcium and sulphate. Before the Canadian Pacific Railway Workers came across it in 1883, the First Nations people considered these hot springs a sacred place. The Upper Hot Springs bathhouse was opened in 1932, designed in the style of the luxurious spas of Europe.
Are the Banff Hot Springs suitable for the entire family? Absolutely. Jody Robbins from TravelMamas.com explains why it is a great kid-friendly activity.
“The water’s not too hot, so kids can happily bob about in the shallow area, and they rent bathing suits and towels in case you forget yours.”
The Banff Upper Hot Springs are open year-round, with different opening hours depending on the season. The entrance fee is $8.30 for adults and $6.30 for children. You can find out more information about their hours and location on the website.