Soaring peaks, icy blue lakes, thick blankets of forest – all just waiting to be discovered by you.
As you take a deep breath and reach for another step on your way to one of the summits that call Banff National Park home, it’s not lost on you that this is what summer is all about – endless adventure and exploration. As you stop to take a sip of some ice-cold water (boy, the incline on today’s trail is intense), you take a moment to look at the views – soak it all in; there’s something about standing amongst the giants that can be intimidating and awe-inspiring.
Here’s the secret that locals have come to discover; hiking regardless of the trail, regardless of the season is one of the most incredible things you can do when you’re in Banff. With over 1,600km (994miles) of trails, hiking in Banff offers something for everyone. So whether you are a seasoned pro at hiking or prefer strolls, the Canadian Rockies will deliver incredible adventures. Every. Single. Time.
Now for the challenge – no, it’s not the incline on a particular hike or the chance of running into wildlife; it’s not even the chance that you might run out of snacks on your journey – no, the challenge is deciding which hikes to do. There are so many beautiful ones that creating a list of the best hikes in Banff is, in all honesty, a pretty ambitious task. In our humble opinion, what we’ve come up with is the cream of the crop, the popular hikes, which you as a visitor have to experience before leaving.
BEFORE SETTING OUT
Let’s get some housekeeping out of the way before getting into the good stuff – trust us, this is information you’ll be thankful to have. Hiking, like any activity, requires preparation, and there is no better place to start than the Parks Canada website. They provide essential information about hiking in Banff, from being wildlife prepared to trail conditions and even allow you to pre-purchase your Parks Pass, allowing you to skip the park gates when entering Banff (for those entering with a vehicle, rented or owned).
BANFF NATIONAL PARK QUICK FACTS
Located in the Canadian Rockies and the province of Alberta, Banff National Park covers around 6 641km² of land. Filled with snow-covered peaks in every direction you look, diverse wildlife, rushing rivers, and so much more, Banff National Park is a spectacular place to spend some vacation time! Below we’ve listed some things you should know ahead of your itinerary:
Location: Alberta, Canada
Nearest City & Airport: Calgary
Available Transportation to the Park: Car Rentals, Shuttle Buses
Available Transportation in the Park: Shuttle Buses, Car Rentals, Bikes, Public Transportation etc
Park Pass Costs: Can be found via the Parks Canada Website
WHAT TO WEAR ON A HIKE IN THE ROCKIES
- Jacket (rain, windbreaker, down etc.) – it’s essential to have a lightweight jacket that can pack small. While summer weather in the mountains is quite warm, the higher you climb, the cooler it gets. Mountain weather is also unpredictable, blue skies one minute and rainy the next.
- Hiking Pants/ Leggings – they protect you from the elements (like fallen rocks, branches and mosquitos) and are designed to move with the body.
- Sunglasses – It might seem silly, but you have to protect your eyes!
- Hiking Shoes – either hiking boots or trail runners, proper footwear is a MUST.
- Hiking Poles – for hikes with significant elevation gains, hiking poles can save those knees.
- Lightweight Backpack – Something that can hold all the essentials but is easy on your back
- Sunscreen & Bug Spray – no brainer.
STAY BEAR SAFE
The Canadian Rockies are prime bear country, and while you are unlikely to run into them on well-travelled trails having some basic knowledge on what to do if you encounter one during your travels can be helpful. Once again, Parks Canada will have the most up-to-date information. But here are some additional tips we can offer:
- Have bear spray with you, and understand how to use it (although not mandatory when hiking in Banff, it is strongly recommended)
- If you can, hike trails with a buddy and make noise while hiking (talking loudly, singing, listening to music etc.)
- Don’t throw food out along the trails – what you came in with, you leave with
- If you do see a bear, report it to Parks Canada.
Also available to you are tons of guided hikes – most of them provide a guide and explore well-travelled routes. These guided hikes are available for guests who stay at the hotel through our Resort Activities team or numerous vendors, like Discover Banff Tours etc.
Finally, when deciding what trails you want to explore, be honest with yourself about your fitness level. It’s fantastic that you want to get out and explore and trust us when we say you can spend a lifetime exploring Banff, but given the elevation gained on some of the trails as well as the altitude that Banff sits at, even the most seasoned pros can get a little tired out there. Choose wisely and always wear appropriate clothing and shoes.
Now, for our list.
OUR HIKING LIST:
VERMILION LAKES (from Fairmont Banff Springs)
This easy walk takes you from the hotel through the town of Banff onto your final destination of the scenic Vermilion Lakes.
GOLF COURSE AT FAIRMONT BANFF SPRINGS
This stroll takes you along the road of the Golf Course of The Fairmont Banff Springs, parallel to the rushing Bow River and in between Rundle Mountain and Tunnel Mountain; the views will not disappoint.
LAKE LOUISE LAKESHORE
This accessible stroll allows visitors of all abilities to explore Lake Louise, and the views do not disappoint.
This heavily trafficked trail is an easy hike with minimal elevation gain and located minutes from the Town of Banff. Featuring a paved path for pedestrians and cyclists, starting at Cave and Basin Historic Site (the birthplace of Canada’s National Parks). Once the pavement ends, Sundance Canyon trail truly begins. Cross the footbridge and start your adventure through this canyon.
Distance: 8.6km roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 145m
Time Required: 1.5hrs
This local favourite, located on the scenic Icefields Parkway, is a missed spot on the Parkway due to the sheer amount of other unique sites to stop. However, take the time to do this hike (especially try to make it in the am for the best views). The views of the surrounding peaks will leave you in awe. Keep in mind that this hike is about 2hrs from Banff, so it might be worth exploring once you’re already on the Parkway.
Elevation Gain: 269m
Time Required: 2-4hrs
JOHNSTON CANYON & THE INKPOTS – currently accessed by bike or hike
Another heavily-trafficked trail in Banff National Park, Johnston Canyon & The Inkpots, has it all. As you travel parallel to a fast-moving river, you are encompassed by forests, waterfalls, bridges and more! The trail showcases the lower and upper falls before hikers decide whether to turn back for the day or continue to the Inkpots. Either option allows travellers a relaxed pace and a chance to see nature at its finest.
Distance: 12km roundtrip (to Inkpots)
Elevation Gain: 215m
Time Required: 3-4hrs
SUNSHINE MEADOWS – currently closed
A paradise for skiers in the winter and a paradise for hikers in the summer – simply, hiking in Banff is not complete without a visit to Sunshine Meadows. This expansive and one of the most photographed landscapes in Canada offers hikers everything, wildflowers (early July), blue lakes, mountain ranges in every direction and even a place to grab a snack and beer. The trail starts at the base of Sunshine Ski hill, and if you want the challenge, you can hike up to the trailhead or take the 25min gondola ride and hike from there
Distance: 7.6km (starting at the trailhead and not base)
Elevation Gain: 175m
Time Required: 2-3hrs
MORAINE LAKESHORE & ROCKPILE
They are known as one of the most, if not the most, iconic backdrops in Canada. Moraine Lakeshore and Rockpile is an easy way to appreciate the grandeur of the Canadian Rockies. The famous blue lake with the Valley of the Ten Peaks behind provides a trail running along the lake and a literal rock pile to gain some elevation to soak in all the views.
Distance: 3km roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 30m
Time Required: 1hrs
LAKE AGNES & BIG BEEHIVE
This popular hike starts at the base of our sister property Chateau Lake Louise and climbs through forest with intermittent views of Lake Louise. A short hike later, you arrive at Lake Agnes, home to the famed Lake Agnes Tea House and cradled by mountains like Mount Piran. Once you’ve stopped for a tea break and snapped a few photos of the scenic lake, find the trail that leads around the lake to start your ascent to Big Beehive. This high ridge provides the most epic views of Lake Louise.
Distance: 7km (to Lake Agnes, roundtrip), 12km (to Big Beehive, roundtrip)
Elevation Gain: 435m (to Lake Agnes), 776m (Big Beehive)
Time Required: 4-6hrs
PLAIN OF SIX GLACIERS
Another gorgeous hike starts at the base of Lake Louise. This classic hike in Banff National Park guides you alongside the lake and into the forest – as you reach the second tea house in this area, continue hiking until you reach a stunning view of a glacier.
Elevation Gain: 420m
Time Required: 4-6hrs
Truly a local hike – Tunnel Mountain is located in the heart of the Town of Banff. This relaxed hike offers excellent views of Banff’s town, the mountains surrounding it, and the Bow River as it snakes its way alongside the Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course.
Elevation Gain: 266m
Time Required: 1.5hrs
Rated as one of the most scenic hikes in Banff National Park, this trail shines in the early summer when the valley is flooded with wildflowers and again in the early fall when Larch madness begins in the Canadian Rockies. Once hikers reach the pass, they are rewarded with views of the many surrounding peaks and of Egypt Lake.
Elevation Gain: 890m
Time Required: 4-8hrs
Don’t let the distance of this hike put you off – if you have stamina and good leg strength, this hike is one of the best hikes to do in Banff National Park. Starting in the quiet forests of Banff National Park, spend about 7.5kms trekking to Bourgeau Lake. This scenic lake is often the end of the journey for some; however, some people make the scramble to the top of Mt Bourgeau to gain even greater views.
Elevation Gain: 960m
Time Required: 6-8hrs
Just beyond the Parker Ridge hike (mentioned above) is the slightly more strenuous Wilcox Pass. This is one of the most scenic hikes on the Parkway, and rightfully so. You gain elevation right from the start but don’t be dissuaded. Take your time. As you emerge from the forest, you’ll eventually see the official Wilcox Pass summit, which offers an all-access gazing pass to a pretty epic glacial view.
Elevation Gain: 587m
Time Required: 3-5hrs
SENTINEL PASS/LARCH VALLEY
When you think of hiking in Banff National Park, what you are probably envisioning is Sentinel Pass. This quintessential Canadian hike is pretty challenging, but it’s all worth it for the reward because it offers some if not the most scenic views in the Canadian Rockies. Although pretty popular in summer, early fall during Larch season, this trail comes to life as the valleys turn to a golden colour and the first snowfalls hit the peaks.
Elevation Gain: 792m
Time Required: 6-8hrs
This intense hike to a high valley offers views of two beautiful lakes. While this trail spends a lot of time in the forest, gorgeous views of Banff National Park will greet you once you emerge. When you arrive at Tower Lake, the views really start to take shape and past that, you arrive at Rockbound Lake with a few more switchbacks. True to its name, surrounded by steep ridges and gorgeous views.
Elevation Gain: 911m
Time Required: 6-8hrs
For more information regarding hikes in Banff National Park, please visit the Parks Canada website for trail reports. When heading out into the backcountry, always be prepared; research before your journey makes a huge difference.
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