Hiking, biking, and skiing are some of the most popular activities in the Banff area. But there are numerous other things to see and do in this magnificent National Park. Do you want to discover some hidden gems in Banff? We've got you covered.
Banff National Park is well-known for its breathtaking scenery and locations, such as Lake Louise. It's considered the crown jewel of Canada's national parks. Banff is an ideal destination for either a quick overnight trip or a week-long getaway. If you've got more time, try some activities that aren't always featured in travel magazines. Get away from the crowds and explore some of the less-traveled trails.
The travel experts at Canadian Train Vacations have all the insider info on Banff and its best spots. We've compiled a list of the best Banff hidden gems.
1. Cowboy Cookout
For the ultimate western experience in Banff National Park, you can take a morning horse-drawn wagon ride along the Bow River, until you reach 3 Mile Cabin. There are beautiful mountain views along the way. You might see ground squirrels, porcupines, and beavers. When you arrive at the cabin, tuck into a tasty BBQ lunch, and enjoy authentic cowboy hospitality and entertainment.
There is the the option to do this tour in the afternoon with a BBQ dinner. The dinner trip is also available with horseback riding (instead of a wagon ride) if that’s more your style!
2. Cave Ave. Pagoda
Head to this location in the early evening, and watch as the sun sets and illuminates the Rockies backdrop. Sit on one of the benches and take in the beautiful mountain views. You may even spot wildlife, which frequently visits this quiet location.
How to get here: Follow Banff Avenue over the Bow River to its end, and turn right for the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. Follow Cave Ave. to the parking lot. Take the river path to the pagoda (near the basketball court).
Explore: Rocky Mountaineer Train Trips
3. Spot ice bubbles
During the summer months, lakes in the Canadian mountains are well-known for their bright blue waters. There are many spectacular lakes in the Banff area, including Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. During the winter, the rocky mountain lakes freeze over and some even have frozen bubbles in the ice.
Ice bubbles are a natural phenomenon induced by methane pockets that are released underwater and freeze beneath the lake ice. Abraham Lake has the most visible bubbles. This is made possible by the fact that the wind clears the ice in this area of the Rockies, making the bubbles easily visible. January to March is the best time to visit to see the ice bubbles.
How to get here: Take Highway 1 to Lake Louise, then the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) to Saskatchewan River Crossing. Head east on Highway 11.
Explore: Vancouver to Banff Train Trips
#1 Travel tip: Winter heli adventure
Ask your Vacation Advisor about adding a winter helicopter and snowshoe experience along the Icefields Parkway. Fly over snow-capped mountains and see the ice bubbles at Abraham Lake. Simply unforgettable!
4. The Via Ferrata Tour
The Banff Via Ferrata is a one-of-a-kind adventure experience. Choose from five different tours on Mt Norquay: the Summiteer, the Ridgewalker, the Alpinist, the Explorer, and the Skyline. On Mt. Norquay's Via Ferrata tour, you are able to scale a mountain if you can mount a ladder. Via Ferrata routes feature a variety of fixed anchors, suspension bridges, cables, and ladders.
The tours cater to everyone from inexperienced hikers to professional mountaineers. They cover different distances and take 2-6 hours to complete depending on the route.
5. Mt. Norquay
During the summer, Mt. Norquay is an excellent location for wildlife viewing. As you drive up to the parking lot, you'll likely see some bighorn sheep. Sit and watch as the herd grazes on the grass.
Ride the sightseeing chairlift up the mountain to one of Banff's most spectacular viewpoints, a fantastic place for taking photos. The picturesque town of Banff and surrounding alpine scenery provides an incredible backdrop.
How to get here: Drive towards the Trans-Canada highway and then head up to Mt. Norquay Scenic Drive. Shuttle buses are available from Banff.
#2 Travel tip: Ride the rails
If you take the Rocky Mountaineer train between Banff and Vancouver, you’ll pass through Morant’s Curve. Look out the window and enjoy close-up views of the Bow River.
6. Carrot Creek Skating
Carrot Creek freezes over in the winter, providing a natural ice skating rink. Many people visit Vermilion Lakes and Two Jack Lake for wild ice skating in Banff National Park. Carrot Creek is a secret ice skating spot in Banff National Park.
To reach the creek, you'll have to do a short 10-minute hike down a hill and over a wildlife fence. Once there, you'll find a serene ice skating location with few people and magnificent Rocky Mountain views.
How to get here: The Carrot Creek trailhead is located on the opposite side of Highway 1. A small pullover area for Carrot Creek is less than 3 kilometers from the Banff Park gates (east entrance).
7. Tunnel Mountain Reservoir
The Tunnel Mountain Reservoir is a wide, open field located along Tunnel Mountain Drive. It is a beautiful, peaceful location for taking photos, having a picnic, or simply relaxing. Enjoy panoramic mountain views in a tranquil setting. It's also a popular spot for outdoor weddings in Banff.
How to get here: Take Banff Avenue to Wolf Street and head east on Tunnel Mountain Road. Turn right onto Tunnel Mountain Drive and the reservoir is on the left.
8. Bow Valley Parkway
The Bow Valley Parkway is one of the best places to see wildlife in Banff. This 48-kilometre (29-mile) wildlife corridor connects Banff and Lake Louise. It's a peaceful, scenic road popular with cyclists. There are many picnic spots and hiking trailheads along the parkway. One of the must-see stops along the parkway is Castle Mountain, a rugged peak that has inspired artists from all over the globe to recreate it in watercolors, charcoal, and oils.
How to get here: Take the Bow Valley Parkway/AB 1A exit on the Trans Canada Highway.
Checkout: Cross Canada Train Trips
9. Morant’s Curve
Morant's Curve is a scenic spot near Lake Louise. It is a bend in the Bow River where trains travel through the Canadian Rockies. Trains passing around the bend have a spectacular view of the mountains, trees, and valley near Lake Louise. If you time your stop at Morant's Curve right, you may be able to witness a train travelling through the curve — a great photo opportunity!
How to get here: The quickest route to Morant's Curve is from the Bow Valley Parkway's northern end, near Lake Louise in Banff National Park.
Checkout: Canadian Rockies Train Vacation Packages
10. Mountain Horseback Riding
Have an authentic cowboy experience on a guided horseback tour in the Rockies. Long-established operators can guarantee you a mild-mannered horse and a safe ride. Choose from a range of ride lengths, from a relaxed one-hour horseback ride by the Bow River to a multi-day horseback adventure where you stay overnight at a lodge. Private horse-drawn carriage tours of Banff can also be arranged for a unique sightseeing experience.
11. Wildlife Safari Tour
An evening wildlife safari is among the most exciting things to do in Banff, Canada. Wildlife viewing is a popular activity in Banff National Park. However, you must know where and when to go to have the best chance of seeing wild animals. These group tours begin at sunset and look for bears, deer, elk, and moose. Learn about the animals that live in Banff National Park and how we can preserve their habitat.
How to get here: Most tours offer pick up from your hotel in downtown Banff.
12. Bankhead Ghost Town
Bankhead in Banff (near Cascade Mountain and Lake Minnewanka) is a unique piece of Alberta history. Visitors to the Bankhead ghost town can take a fun and educational walk around the ruins of the old Banff coal mining operation. It's a simple, well-marked route with little altitude gain. You'll see abandoned mining structures and machinery in the middle of the mountains. The Lower Bankhead trail is a must-do for families visiting Banff.
How to get here: Lower Bankhead is the main part of the ghost town, which can be reached by driving north on Range Rd 1158 and following the signs to Lake Minnewanka.
13. Rundle Forebay Reservoir
The Rundle Forebay Reservoir (also called Canmore Reservoir) is located near the Three Sisters Parkway in Canmore. The reservoir is a serene, turquoise body of water where you can kayak, float, or SUP beside stunning mountain peaks. It is without a doubt one of the most popular hidden swimming holes near Banff.
How to get here: Rundle Forebay Reservoir is in Canmore, near the entrance to Banff National Park.
14. Cascade of Time Garden
The Cascade of Time Gardens is a small oasis just minutes from downtown Banff. The gardens are built into the hillside, with rock steps and pathways leading past flower beds, ponds, and trees. It is a beautifully groomed garden with walking paths and trails that you can enter freely. Take a moment to appreciate the view of Banff Avenue from the bottom of the garden, too.
How to get here: The Cascade of Time Garden is situated in Banff, at the southern end of the Banff Avenue bridge. It is behind the Administration Building.
15. Hoodoos Viewpoint
The Hoodoos viewpoint and trail is a lovely pullover area and walking path that provides panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. A hoodoo is a distinct rock formation in North America.
You can also visit Surprise Corner for a breathtaking view of the Banff Springs Hotel. Then, hike the hoodoo trail to get a closer view of these rocky spires. The trail starts from the Surprise Corner parking lot.
How to get here: Hoodoos Viewpoint is on Tunnel Mountain Road. Suprise Corner viewpoint is located at the corner of Tunnel Mountain Drive and Buffalo Street.
16. Johnson Lake Swing
Johnson Lake has a sandy pebble beach area and is an underrated swimming spot in Banff. The lake is a majestic body of water nestled among some of Alberta's oldest firs. Johnson Lake, while not as large as nearby Lake Minnewanka, is very pretty. The water is warmer than some of Banff's other lakes, so is suitable for swimming. If you walk the trail that follows the lake's perimeter, you will discover a hidden swimming spot and a rope swing.
How to get here: The Roam Route 6 bus runs from Banff town to Johnson Lake parking lot. Johnson Lake is located off of Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive.
17. Silverton Falls
Silverton Falls is a short hike to a beautiful waterfall viewpoint. The 2-kilometre (1.2 miles) trail is best visited between May and September.
How to get here: Silverton Falls is near the base of Castle Mountain, one of Banff's most recognizable mountains. It's halfway between Banff and Lake Louise. There are a few local buses that stop near the trailhead.
18. Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon is not quite a hidden gem, though it's a must-visit natural wonder. There are two hiking trails that lead you to gushing waterfalls (lower falls and upper falls). Walk through lush forest, over limestone cliffs, past plunge pools, and along protruding canyon walls.
The first part of the main trail is a picturesque path to the lower falls. From here, you can continue towards the upper falls (an extra 30 minutes one way). During the summer, walk along the catwalk, glance down at the pools of Johnston Creek, and admire the limestone canyon walls carved by years of water erosion. Lower Falls trail is 1.2 kilometres (0.7 miles) one way. Upper Falls trail is 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles) one way.
How to get here: You can take the Roam Transit shuttle from Banff to get to Johnston Canyon. Route 9 runs directly to the canyon and departs from the Banff High School transit hub every day.
19. Secret Cave at Johnston Canyon
A hidden cave exists in Johnston Canyon near the Upper Falls. Find the rocky shore's edge and look across for this secret cave that lies beside the waterfall.
Note: the entrance to the hidden cave at Johnston Canyon is unreachable from May to November each year. There is restricted access during these months in order to conserve the black swifts' habitat.
How to get here: Just before reaching the Upper Falls, take a right downhill along a mud trail through the forest for about 5 minutes.
20. Banff Upper Hot Springs
Dip into the revitalizing waters of the Banff Upper Hot Springs for ultimate relaxation. Since the late nineteenth century, people have been visiting these mineral-rich springs. The hot springs are on the northeast backline of Sulphur Mountain. You can enjoy beautiful mountain views while in the pool.
Bring your swimsuit (change rooms with lockers are available) and relax in the hot pool. Water temperature is around 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). The hot springs are open all year, usually between sunrise and sunset.
How to get here: Cross the Bow River on Banff Avenue and turn left at the last traffic lights. Follow the signs for 3.6 kilometers (2.2 miles) to the parking lot at the end of Mountain Avenue.
21. Radium Hot Springs
Radium Hot Springs is a picturesque mountain town about 1.5 hours from Banff. After an exciting day of adventures, you can relax at Radium Hot Springs. In addition to the mineral hot springs pool, there is a cooler swimming pool. To beat the crowds, head to the hot springs in the morning!
How to get here: From Banff, take Highway 1 then Highway 93. You will cross the provincial border between Alberta and British Columbia and drive through Kootenay National Park.
22. Golden Skybridge
Sitting at 426 feet above the ground, Golden Skybridge is Canada's highest suspension bridge. As you walk across the bridge, enjoy views of the Columbia Valley and the Rocky and Purcell mountain regions. You can do a range of activities here, including zipling, rock climbing, and axe throwing. End your visit with a ride through the forest on the Railrider Mountain Coaster.
How to get here: Westbound from Banff/Lake Louise, take the Trans-Canada Highway/AB-1 towards Golden. Take the 780 exit to Golden Donald Upper Rd. Then take the first left onto Lafontaine Rd. and the first exit at the roundabout onto Golden Donald Upper Rd. The journey from Banff is about 1.5 hours.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the most interesting aspect of Banff National Park?
The wildlife in Banff National Park is the most fascinating aspect of the park. Elk, grizzly bears, wolves, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep are among the 53 mammal species that live in the park. Furthermore, Banff National Park is home to over 300 bird species, including ospreys and bald eagles.
What month is best for Banff?
Overall, the best months to visit Banff are May, June, and September. Warm weather prevails during these months; however, there are fewer visitors than July and August.
Why is Banff so famous?
Banff National Park is well-known for its vibrant lakes, majestic mountains, and easy access to a variety of outdoor activities. It was the first national park in Canada and is part of the Canadian Rocky Mountains UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Can you see the Northern Lights in Banff or Jasper?
Yes, the Northern Lights can be seen in Banff. The best time to view the Aurora Borealis in Banff is in the winter, from October to May.
Can you see the Milky Way from Banff?
Banff National Park is one of the finest locations in Canada to see the Milky Way. With little to no city lights, this area provides a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the stars under some of the world's darkest skies.
About the author: Katherine is Product Manager with Fresh Tracks Canada. Having worked in the Canadian travel industry for almost 20 years, she enjoys sharing her local expertise with visitors. She is based in Calgary and one of her favourite Canadian destination is the... Read more
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