This post is one in a series of posts from our recent trip to the Canadian Rockies and Glacier National Park in Montana. Check our our previous posts about Moraine Lake and Lake Louise and Yoho National Park. More to come soon!
During our trip to the Canadian Rockies, the town of Banff (as well as nearby Canmore) were the hubs for many of our adventures. Unlike the gateway towns for many US National Parks, Banff and Canmore feel more like small cities embedded in the heart of the wilderness. There are plenty of options for beatiful walks and challenging hikes within a short drive, and in town, there are lots of lodging options, major stores, and great food! Instead of listing things chronologically, we’ve organized this post by type of activity, with some links to additional suggestions of places to visit for those places we didn’t have time to see ourselves.
Hikes near town
The waterfalls and carved rock faces of Johnston Canyon are very impressive to see, and the trail to see it is a little steep but paved, making the hikevery accessible (but also extremely busy). Cars were already parked way down the Bow Valley parkway around 10AM on Tuesday in July, so we’d definitely recommend getting here early (probably making it your first hike of the day). Because of the width of the boardwalks and paved paths, we often found ourselves in a slow-moving, single -file line in this area. The most impressive part of the trail, and also one of the least busy, are the two views of the upper falls. In the morning, you have a good chance of seeing rainbows in the spray if the sun is out!
Sunshine Meadows, on the other hand, was very sparsely populated all morning. To get to the meadows, we took a gondola and chairlift from the Sunshine Village parking lot up the mountain. The gondola and chairlift rides provided some nice views, but they were not very open and felt a little repetitive after a while (the total gondola and chairlift rides took about a half hour). However, the panoramic view of alpine lakes and peaks from the Standish Viewing Deck was awesome, especially on a clear, sunny morning; we wish we could have stayed on the mountain longer to enjoy the hikes in the area. Note that it can be cold and windy on top of the mountain even if it is pleasant in town, so be sure to pack a windbreaker.
Parks, Gardens, and Scenic Views
In between our hikes, we were excited to find some more low key activities in Banff and Canmore that were still incredibly scenic.
Cascade of Time Gardens, at the very end of Banff Avenue across the bow river, was a beautiful place. We were first drawn to the grand stone building that houses the Parks Canada Administrative offices flanked by beautifully manicured gardens. From the walking paths, we also had great views of Banff Avenue and Castle Mountain, as well as other mountain peaks in the area. This was a great place to visit for an after dinner stroll. You can easily walk from downtown or park across the river in the small complex across from the garden.
We didn’t have the chance to take the Sulphur Mountain Gondola during our trip, but we still got a great view of the town of Banff and the Bow Valley from the scenic viewpoint on the road to Mount Norquay. The view from here is partially obstructed by the hillside, but it did provide some great views at sunset (it is on the opposite side of the valley from Sulphur Mountain, so it has great views with fewer shadows of both the town and the rest of the Bow Valley). Mount Norquay also offers a Via Ferrata course in the morning and afternoon for more adventurous travelers.
One day, we took a late aftnoon scenic drive to Lake Minnewanka, which is only 15 minutes outside of town. The water was a wonderful shade of dark blue, and the peaks on the eastern side of the lake were really nicely lit up at this time. On the way, we found Cascade Ponds, a local park with a short walking path and plenty of spaces to picnic. If you’re closer to Canmore, another nice picnic spot we visited is Quarry Lake.
We didn’t have time to visit the Fairmont Banff Springs during our trip (we were very tempted by the late-day specials at the spa), but we still got a chance to see its grand façade from Surprise Corner Viewpoint.
Food and Supplies
- Outdoor goods. One of your first items of business when you get to the mountains should be procuring bear spray. Bear spray is hard to dispose of, so the most environmentally friendly option is to borrow it from your hotel (our front desk had bear spray to borrow) or to rent it. Gear Up in Canmore offers bear spray for rent or purchase at better prices than the Canadian tire in town. It’s also a good source for other outdoor supplies if you forgot to pack anything.
- Groceries. There is a Safeway in Canmore, so you don’t have to worry about not having access to staples, produce, or even a pharmacy while you’re on your trip. A smaller store, Nester’s Market, is right next to the main parking garage in Banff, and we found it very convenient to shop there when we were already in town.
- Restaurants. We had great veggie burgers, vegetarian poutine, and shakes at Eddie Burger + Bar in Banff: we were able to get a seat with no wait right at the peak of dinner time, but the food did take a little while to come out, so consider this if you’re in a rush. A good take-out option is Thai Pagoda in Canmore; the curry was very hearty with lots of different vegetables and the pad thai was very flavorful.
- Farmer’s Markets. There are plenty of tourist shops and the Hudson’s Bay Company right on Banff Ave. for getting souvenirs and Canadiana while you’re visiting. If you’re looking for some great artisal food and crafts, check out the Banff Mountain Market on Wednesdays and the Canmore Mountain Market on Thursdays, both from 10AM-6PM. We stopped at the Banff Market, which is right at the end of Banff Avenue, and had a delicious vegetable pie, empanada, cookie, and coffee for dinner after a day of hiking.
We really liked staying at the Copperstone Resort in Dead Man’s Flats during this trip. Each of the rooms in this hotel has a super nice full kitchen (great for packing lunches, cooking dinner, or reheating leftovers), and some rooms have up to three bedrooms, which are great for travelling with a larger group (Vijay actually stayed here with 6 other guys during his Bachelor party trip in the winter). All of the staff at the hotel were very friendly and helpful with our trip planning, and there are great deals to be had if you book in advance. We also liked that this hotel is right off the highway: although it is the farthest major resort from most of the big attractions, the ability to make our own meals and the easy access to the highway without driving through town definitely saved us some time. The hotel also has a hot tub and grills for barbecuing, and it is pet friendly.
Two blogs we found really helpful while planning our trip were Banff and Beyond and In a Faraway Land. On these blogs, you’ll find great ideas for hikes, photo spots, and comparisons between different experiences in the mountains. Both bloggers are also super responsive and loved answering questions about our trip.
This post only scrapes the surface of things to do in Banff and Canmore – we’d love to hear about other interesting experiences you’ve had! Feel free to contribute in the comments below!