The Top 11 Most Breathtaking Things To Do In Banff National Park
Narrowing down to find the top 11 most breathtaking things to do in Banff, is actually really hard! Why? Because Banff National Park as a whole is breathtaking, so trying to narrow down a list of well over 100 things to do in Banff down to 11 is a challenge.
As locals to the area we are pretty lucky that we can even say we have a list of over 100 different things to do in Banff, I mean most people might only get three days to a week in summer or winter to explore what we consider to be our backyard! If you get the chance to visit Banff (and we definitely hope you do!) these are the top 11 things to do in Banff that will offer you views for days, especially number 5! You’ll never want to leave.
Banff is arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world and we aren’t just saying that we truly mean it. And after you visit, you will most likely agree with us.
Banff National Park was established in 1885 and is Canada‘s oldest National Park, in fact, it was our first National Park! It’s roughly 6,641 square kilometres (2,564 sq mi) in size and is home to over 56 different mammals species including, elk, bison (they were re-introduced in 2017), wolves, moose, mountain goats, lynx, and of course, bears. There are also over 280 different birds species who live in the park, ranging from bald and gold eagles to osprey and bluebirds to chickadees, it is very similar to wildlife in places like Yellowstone!
There are two main highways that get visitors around the Park, the Trans-Canada highway which takes people from Calgary through the park to Lake Louse and all the way to Vancouver and Highway 93, also known as the famously beautiful Icefields Parkway. If you are flying to Calgary and renting a car or taking a shuttle you will most definitely be using the Trans-Canada highway, also named Highway-1, to get to Banff National Park. Some of the top things to do in Banff are along the Icefields Parkway, so you’ll be able to use both of the highways through the Rockies.
If you are looking to rent a car you can get good rates here, and if you planning on taking a shuttle we suggested Brewster which you can take right from the Calgary Airport (YYC) and those can be booked here.
Now that you have a little background about the park and know how to get there, let’s dive into the top 11 most breathtaking things to do in Banff National Park.
1) Larch Valley
Hiking is one of the largest Banff activities that both locals and tourists do, so if you are planning a variety of things to do in Banff, don’t forget your hiking boots. You’ll need them in order to see the first breathing spot on our list! Larch Valley is a notorious spot for viewing Larch Trees and during the fall hundreds even thousands of people flock to see the orange needles (AKA get there early), it’s gold needles have given the spot the nickname ‘Valley of Gold.’
Larch Valley instantly became one of my personal favourite things to do in Banff because of how incredibly unique and breathtaking it is. The way the orange needles in the fall contrast the greys, blues, greens and whites of the mountain peaks and tree-line is nothing short of incredible.
Larch Valley got its name from the plethora of Larch Trees that grow in the area. Larch Trees grow in cooler temperatures so you tend to see a lot more of them at higher elevations like in the valley, Larch Valley sits at an elevation of 2,286 m (7,500 ft). Larch trees are the only member of the evergreen tree family that have colour changing needles that drop to the ground like leaves. These needles turn golden around the 3rd week of September, depending on the weather.
Now, this is also one of the things to do in Banff where safety can be a concern and groups are recommended if not required, why? Because bears (specifically Grizzlies in this area) are common and are feeding in the alpine meadows in preparation for winter hibernation. Most of the time Larch Valley will require at last 4 people to hike, so either find yourself a group through somewhere like the Hike Alberta Facebook group or ensure you have enough people! Not following the signs (if they are posted) can result in a fine upwards of $25,000CAD ($19,025USD).
If you don’t visit in the fall to see the orange needles, don’t worry! This hike starts another one of our top things to do in Banff and is still well worth your time and effort even in the summer. It still offers incredible views with a beautiful alpine meadow and glacial streams.
2) Peyto Lake
Another one of the notoriously famous things to do in Banff is this wolf-shaped lake. Peyto Lake is located down the Icefields Parkway and is only a 30-minute drive from Lake Louise. It’s famous colour and drop-dead gorgeous backdrop that stretches across the horizon is basically the definition of Mountain eye-candy. This is one stop you won’t regret going to.
Peyto Lake gets its famous colour from something called rock flour. Rock flour is essentially powdered rock sediment that is brought from glaciers or other erosion from streams. It then gets suspended in the water and reflects blue light, resulting in a ridiculously incredible colour that makes many lakes in Banff breathtaking. The waters of Peyto continue on to form the Mistaya River which merges into the North Saskatchewan River.
It’s a short walk from a designated parking lot to the viewing platform where you’ll get some epic views. Make sure you try and look at the shape of the lake! There is a reason we called it the ‘wolf-shaped lake.’
3) Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon is one of the more well-known things to do in Banff National Park and can get extremely busy during the high seasons (mainly in summer). But it is still 100% one of the most breathtaking things to do in Banff and deserves a spot on this list. With its amazing boardwalks that jet from the side of the canyon walls, its incredible waterfalls and its perfect streams, there’s no way we couldn’t include it!
Johnston Canyon is located on the Bow Valley Parkway (which connects Banff to Lake Louise and runs parallel to the Trans-Canada) and can be accessed via car or by taking an interpretive tour. If you want to learn a lot about the canyon or have some explanations about the area we recommend taking a tour! It’s one of those Banff activities that you won’t necessarily learn a whole lot about unless you take a tour, if you don’t there are still a few signs with explanations of native animals and history.
There are two main waterfalls that make Johnston Canyon even more notorious, the Lower Falls and the Upper Falls. The Lower Falls has a small viewing platform that allows you to walk through a small cave to an opening where you get so close you can feel the mist of the falls. The Upper Falls has a small platform that takes you out on top of the river so you can see around the corner to the powerful waterfall that is over 40 metres tall.
You can also view the Upper Falls from above and see where the water starts it’s plunging journey downwards. The water is a shade of blue that is different from the lakes but still just as stunning and vivid.
The entire trail usually takes anywhere from 1-2 hours depending on stops or if you’re taking a tour. The parking lot can fill up quickly so if you plan on driving yourself get there early! It’s a very busy place but no matter how many times we have done it, it still remains one of the most breathtaking things to do in Banff that never gets old.
4) Lake Louise
Lake Louise, there is no doubt that you have already heard of this very famous spot, it is without a doubt one of the top things to do in Banff. Lake Louise is well known around the world for its world-class skiing and it’s famously blue lake. Its blue colour also comes from rock flour!
Lake Louise is surrounded by soaring mountains tops and glaciers, making it one of the most truly unique places in Banff.
There are tons of hiking trails that start at Lake Louise, some that are easy and some that are a bit more challenging. Number 9 on this list of the top things to do in Banff is actually one of the many hikes in Banff that start from Lake Louise. But there are an endless amount of Banff activities that are found at Lake Louise like, canoeing, horseback riding, fishing, mountain biking and river rafting in the summer or skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, skating, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and horse-drawn sleigh rides in the winter.
So not only is Lake Louise breathtaking, but there are plenty of things to do!
5) Moraine Lake
Finally, we get to number 5, without a doubt Moraine Lake is THE most popular of all the things to do in Banff, when you Google, Banff, it is the first photo to show up. It is SO popular they actually close the entire road to Moraine sometimes as early as 8 am. Therefore, if you want to see Moraine Lake…GO EARLY, as early as you possibly can, there are tours available and those will give you a better chance of seeing this famous blue lake.
Why is Moraine Lake so famous? Well, its epic blue waters, the towering mountain peaks of the Valley of Ten Peaks, its perfectly placed rock piles, green evergreen forests, and waterfalls could be the reason.
Moraine Lake is literally the epitome of beauty.
Sit lakeside and enjoy the breathtaking views, rent a canoe (prices are $105CAD ($80USD) per hour), hike one of the many trails in the area, or take in the best view of Moraine Lake from The Rockpile Trail. The Rockpile Trail is a short path that is known as the ‘Twenty Dollar View’ because it was featured on the back of Canadian twenty dollar bills issued between 1969 and 1979.
6) Sundance Canyon
Sundance Canyon is the hidden gem of things to do in Banff and is located behind the famous Cave & Basin hot springs. This short hike is easy for beginners and takes you from a riverside walk to fully immersed in the Mountains and everything they have to offer. From epic views to large rocks pieces and peaceful waterfalls; Sundance Valley is the definition of what people expect to see in Banff Alberta.
So not only is it one of the top things to do in Banff, but it’s one of the top underrated things to do in Banff! You could think of it as a little bit of a local secret that we are sharing with you. While you may not an epic blue coloured lake, you will get up close and personal with the rocks, rivers and waterfalls that make Banff such a special place.
This short hike takes you along a paved pathway beside the Bow River with beautiful Mountain views and then continues down a dirt path. You will cross the creek on a small wooden bridge and continue up past small waterfalls and green moss. You’ll then cross another bridge and continue through dark mossy forest beside the bubbling creek.
Sundance Canyon gets you acquainted with Banff in the best way possible!
7) Healy Pass
Healy Pass is most definitely one of the awe-inspiring things to do in Banff but isn’t the easiest hike. It’s a 10km one-way hike (20km total there and back) that takes you past glacial streams, through alpine meadows, through evergreen forest and offers views for days. Larch trees also grow along the trail so hiking in fall you get a double bonus of seeing the orange needles.
Healy Pass starts from Sunshine Village (a popular ski resort in Banff) and is best during the summer or fall months. Snow does tend to fall quite early in the area and even when we went there was plenty of freshly fallen snow in the middle of September. During the entire 10km you are given some of the most breathtaking scenery and at the end of the 10km, there is a small ridge you can rest on to enjoy some lunch.
On this ridge, there are literal 360-degree views of just mountains, lakes, and trees. It is absolutely incredible.
8) Bow Lake
Bow Lake is located on the edge of Banff Alberta just before entering Jasper National Park. The lake is located along the ever so scenic Icefields Parkway just off the highway. It has a few different access points from the side of the highway, we recommend going to a few of them because every angle of the lake is different and more unique than the last.
Sitting at an altitude of 1,920km above sea level, Bow Lake is small in size compared to some of the other things to do in Banff but just as big in the beauty department. The water in the lake is meltwater from Bow Glacier and also has the same famous blue colour as lakes like Moraine and Peyto. It sits at the base of Bow Summit and on a calm day, the reflection of the mountain on the surface of the water is pristine.
Located nearby is the historic Simpson family’s Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. Jimmy Simpson came from England to Canada in 1896 as a year 19-year old and went on to become one of the greatest Canadian Mountain Men. When he first camped at Bow Lake in 1898 he vowed to one day ‘build a shack here.’ 25 years later he built his first log cabin on the site and it became a permanent base for his outfitting tours.
He called this business Num-Ti-Jah, which is a Stoney Plain word for Pine Marten (a small animal). The family used funds they made from tours to expand their lodge and by 1950 it had 16 rooms. The lodge hasn’t changed much since the 19050’s and has one of the best views of the lake!
9) Lake Agnes
Lake Agnes is a very short but popular hike in Lake Louise and is one of the things to do in Banff that is best to start early in the morning to avoid crowds. Starting from Lake Louise itself the trail takes you up and above the lake for a different perspective of the famous blue lake but continues past raging waterfalls off a massive cliff, views as far as the eye can see, a view of the Ten Peaks and a perfect wooden tea house with the best snack bar ever. This hike even made our list of the best easy hikes in or near Banff Alberta.
Lake Agnes is pretty small in size but it’s incredible views and pristine reflections make up for that. The hike takes you along the edges of Lake Louise before climbing up to give you views from the top. After taking a stop at the historic tea house at the base of the lake you continue on to get breathtaking views of the Valley of Ten Peaks.
The tea house only takes cash, so if you want a little snack or a drink make sure you bring some!
10) Sunshine Meadows
Alpine flowers, Mountain views, and a lake with a little island make Sunshine Meadows worth hiking. Located at one of the famous ski hills in the area, Sunshine Village, after the snow melts the site becomes a hiking mecca. Sunshine Meadows is one of the easier things to do in Banff in terms of hiking difficulty.
But this easy hiking trail takes you directly into the heart of the Rockies. You have to take a gondola or bus ride up to the base of Sunshine Village as no traffic is allowed up the access road, so that does come with a fee. The journey to the top takes about 20 minutes and will cost around $44CAD ($34USD), so it is not cheap but it is worth it!
There are quite a few trails you can take once you are up at the top. We recommend doing the path to Rock Isle viewpoint, Rock Isle Junction and then continue on to do the Grizzly/Larynx Loop. Along the loop, you’ll also get to see Simpson Viewpoint which gives you a look right into the heart of the mountains.
11) Ink Pots
We have reached the final spot on our list of things to do in Banff National Park, The Ink Pots. This unique spot is nestled behind Johnston Canyon but deserves its own spot on our list. The Ink Pots is made of seven pristine, aquamarine coloured mineral pools set amongst a backdrop of towering mountains and green evergreens.
Each pool looks as though it has a different colour swirling through it making this one of the Banff activities that are worth the effort to reach. These mineral pools are different colours because each of them fills at a different rate. The more milky-green pools fill at a slower rate and therefore have a heavier suspension of fine materials (think similar to rock flour). Year round the water temperatures of the pools is about 4°C, but you cannot (and should not) swim in them.
The Ink Pots is a 3km past the Upper Falls at Johnston Canyon and an additional 335m elevation gain. You can expect it to take anywhere from 3-4 hours.
Banff National Park is an outdoor paradise and a haven for those in search of a retreat from our very modern way of life. The rushing streams and waterfalls, the breathtaking mountain peaks, the abundant wildlife, and the green evergreens all make this UNESCO World heritage site beyond explainable. Even after spending year and year in the park, we never grow tired of it.
How could you?
Honestly, there are probably a thousand different reasons why you should visit Banff, but let these top 11 things to do in Banff be a starting point as to why you should take the plunge and visit. If you are looking for a short itinerary on what to do in Banff during the summer you can check out our summer guide here, or if you are visiting in the winter (many of these sites are just as incredible with frozen waters and a coating of snow) you can check out our winter itinerary here.