A grizzly bear galumphs through the underbrush, 500 pounds of muscle wrapped in shaggy brown fur.
An enormous moose sloshes through a soggy wetland, gooey strands of algae hanging from it’s six-feet-wide antlers.
A pair of male Bighorn rams face off head to head, the clashing of their horns so loud it echoes throughout the mountains.
Visiting Banff can make you feel like you have stepped into a nature documentary, with chances to glimpse incredible Rocky Mountain wildlife around every twist in the trail. You will likely spot deer or elk meandering right into the townsite of Banff and if you venture a little further out, you can see other animals such as bears, bighorn sheep, marmots and more.
If you are coming to Banff with the hope of seeing a particular mammal, your best bet is to research the travelling patterns and behaviour of that species. Also, you can visit the park during the slower seasons when it is quieter.
Maya from the blog Travel With The Smile notes that “Although wildlife is sometimes seen throughout the day, I would recommend going out after sunrise or before sunset. Most animals are active during these hours.”
She also recommends walking rather than spotting wildlife from a car if possible, as the animals will blend into the background and they are difficult to spot from a moving vehicle.
But if you’re looking for specific type of creature, keep reading for more details on where to find them:
Elk, Moose and Deer
“The Banff Springs Golf Course lies in an important wildlife corridor connecting Banff to the eastern part of the Bow Valley, and is a great spot for spotting all kinds of wildlife.” explains Emma Schroder of Discover Banff Tours.
“The loop road around the golf course grounds is open to the public in summer only and you’re allowed to drive it even if you’re not playing golf. It is a particularly good place to spot elk during the annual elk rut in September and October,” she explains.
The behavior of the Elk during rutting season can be fascinating to watch. The males will show off for the females with a loud bugling sound and will lock antlers with each other to prove their dominance.
Audrey from Banff and Beyond also shared some tips for spotting Rocky Mountain ungulates:
“Some of the best places to see elk and mule deer are along the banks of the Bow River near the bridge at the end of Banff Avenue or the Fenland Trail near Vermilion Lakes.”
The 2.5 kilometre Fenland Loop Trail is wheelchair accessible and there are guided nature walks around the Vermillion Lakes area in the summer season.
Also, don’t miss the scenic drive down the Icefields Parkway. Not only is it one of the most beautiful roads in the world, it has been referred to as the “Canadian equivalent of an African safari.” You will have a good chance of spotting elk, deer, moose, mountain goats and many other animals.
In an article for BanffLakeLouise.com, expert local Faye Baldock explains that May and June offer an opportunity for seeing bears in their natural habitat:
“They start to awake from a long winter in hibernation and are on the search for food. With snow still covering the higher elevations they come down to the lower sections of the valley and can often be seen on the side of the road foraging on shrubs and dandelions.”
When the big tourist crowds flood into Banff in the summer months, the bears will move further away.
“Mid-summer / early fall, buffalo berries are a major food source,” explains Faye, “and in turn can cause the bears to come back down to lower elevations providing another opportunity for them to be seen.”
So with bears being able to freely roam the 6600 km² of Banff National Park and neighbouring Canadian Rockies National Parks, where’s the best chance to see a bear?
For those wanting a guaranteed sighting, Emma Schroder from Discover Banff Tours recommends the Grizzly Bear Refuge Tour. “This tour visits the largest enclosed grizzly bear habitat in the world, at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort and is home to orphaned grizzly bear, Boo”.
The interpretive centre is open daily during the summer and provides guests the opportunity to observe an adult grizzly bear going about his daily routine, where Boo hunts, plays, forages, and explores, just like his wild cousins.
If you don’t see Boo during your initial visit you can return for another FREE* tour. All of our visitors agree that sighting Boo the Grizzly Bear in his natural habitat is a truly unique experience and one they will never forget.
“The rocky cliffs around the area between Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake and the Lake Minnewanka Dam are good for seeing Bighorn Sheep.” says Emma.
“Bighorn sheep can also often be spotted along Mt. Norquay Road or on the drive to Lake Minnewanka,” adds Audrey. These animals are quite impressive, with their muscular bodies and thick, curled horns.
I know from my experience living and working in Banff that Bighorn Sheep also like to hang around at the summit of Sulphur Mountain.
I took the gondola to the peak in summer and was lucky enough to see a group of five sheep lazily chewing the grass only metres away from the interpretive boardwalk. Also, Sulphur Mountain is great for spotting grey jays, ground squirrels and ridiculously adorable chipmunks.
There are many other animals that you can spot on your visit to Banff.
To increase your chances of seeing creatures of all shapes and sizes, take a scenic drive along the Bow Valley Parkway aka Highway 1A. On this scenic road, Audrey explains, “there are often deer, elk, coyotes and occasionally wolves and bears.”
“Try the back of Lake Louise or Moraine Lake near the rocky areas to spot pikas and marmots,” she adds.
Pikas are tiny mouse-like critters with round bodies and ears, short legs and no tail – closely related to rabbits or hares. They hide in the crevices of the mountainside and they make a loud piercing squeak that echoes around their rocky home – so you will probably hear them before you see them.
Marmots look somewhat like large squirrels and they also make a strange sound – a whistling call that many hikers have mistaken for another group of hikers whistling. They are excellent diggers and they live beneath the ground in an elaborate system of burrows.
Respect the Wildlife
It is a thrill to see wildlife in their natural surroundings, but it is crucial to be respectful and not to encroach on their environment. The Parks Canada website has a helpful guide to safe wildlife viewing that is a must-read before you visit Banff.
You should never try to entice wildlife by offering food or imitating it’s call and posing with a wild animal puts you in danger. Keep your distance – if you cause an animal to move that means you are too close. Remember: these are wild animals and observing them in a safe way is better for your health as well as theirs!