A few spots in Banff National Park continue to get busier and busier despite the fact there’s many other scenic lakes and hiking trails with just as much beauty. There’s always going to be the desire to see places like Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, but once you’ve checked those spots off your list consider some of the alternatives. Banff National Park is massive and there’s lots more of it to explore beyond the two popular lakes.
Below are some options to the overrun tourist spots. For more tips see our post on Getting Away From The Summer Crowds In Banff And Jasper National Parks.
Mount Norquay Chairlift As Alternative To The Banff Sulphur Mountain Gondola
For spectacular views and less people take the Mount Norquay Chairlift. After taking the lift enjoy a meal or drink in the Cliffhouse Bistro. Also see our post on a free alternative to the Banff Sulphur Mountain Gondola. It’s as simple as driving to the lookout point on Mount Norquay Road.
Via Ferrarata (The Iron Road) on Mount Norquay For Adventure Seekers
The Via Ferrarata is something different for those seeking adventure. It’s a trail route on Mount Norquay that consists of a series of cables, steps and iron rungs. It’s kind of like rock climbing, but it’s an assisted experience with a guide. A harness attached to steel cables is worn at all times. There’s routes available for beginners and for those with a bit of alpine experience. It’s definitely a unique activity that only a small percent of the summer visitors are going to try. Via Ferrata Climbing Routes And Information.
The Fenland Trail sits right at the edge of the Banff townsite. It’s a tranquil area used more by locals than tourists. The flat 2km loop goes through woodlands and along the banks of the Forty Mile Creek. Parking for the trail is on Mt. Norquay Road between the railway tracks and the Trans Canada Hwy near the Fenlands Recreation Center. The trailhead is close enough to Banff town that you can easily reach it on foot.
Vermillion Lakes is located not far from the Fenland Trail. The Vermillion Lakes road takes you past the three finger lakes where you have opportunities to see wildlife and birds. It is becoming more popular, but is still a place where you can escape the chaos of town. Enjoy the wooden docks that jet out into the water. It’s a spectacular place for photography or for canoeing and kayaking. It’s the perfect place to ride a bicycle to. Several sources offer bike rentals in Banff town.
Upper And Lower Bankhead
Bankhead was once a mining town that supplied coal for the locomotives of the Canadian Pacific Railway until 1921. Most of the houses were moved to Banff and Canmore. Upper Bankhead was the residential area and Lower Bankhead was the mine site. A few foundations of the old mining buildings remain and some of the original coal cars and rusted mining artifacts. The Upper Bankhead trail is 3.9 km’s one way and the Lower Bankhead is a 1.1 km interpretative loop. Both Upper and Lower Bankhead are accessed from the Lake Minnewanka exit off Highway 1 just a few minutes from Banff.
Johnson Lake is another spot frequented more by locals than visitors, especially for a swim on a warm summer day. It’s also a popular place to have a picnic or go for a hike. When walking the trail around the lake in a counter clockwise direction there are views of Cascade Mountain. The lake is located on Lake Minnewanka Drive. Take the Lake Minnewanka exit off Hwy 1 to Johnson Lake Road. Parking is at the end of the road near the lake.
The Marsh Loop
The Marsh Loop starts at the Cave and Basin parking lot where it leads to the outflow for the hotsprings. There’s a blind where you can sit and watch for wildlife and waterfowl that are attracted to the area. It’s a 2.3 km loop that gains just 10 meters in elevation. Allow 45 minutes.
Canoe The Bow River
Canoeing on the Bow River where it runs along the town of Banff is a nice way to see the scenery and get away from the crowds. You can stay on the Bow River or follow Forty Mile Creek into the Vermillion Lakes. Both options offer beautiful views and a chance to see wildlife. Canoe and kayak rentals are available through the Banff Canoe Club, their office is located on the corner of Bow Avenue and Wolf Street. They also offer guided voyageur canoe tours on the river.
Tunnel Mountain Reservoir
The Tunnel Mountain Reservoir is a wide open meadow that is a popular spot for weddings in Banff. It offers stunning views of Mount Rundle and the Bow River Valley. It’s located across from Buffalo Mountain Lodge on Tunnel Mountain Road, accessed from downtown Banff.
Spray River Loop
A multi-use trail loop used more by locals for walks, bicycling and horseback riding in late spring, summer and early fall and cross country skiing in the winter. The first part of the loop is along an old fire access road. There’s views of the Spray River and Mount Rundle. After approximately 6km’s it leads to a footbridge and picnic area before looping back to the other side of the Spray Valley. 12 km’s round trip, 65 meters elevation gain, allow 3 to 3.5 hours. The trailhead is just past the Banff Springs Hotel parkade. It’s marked starting at the south end of the parking lot.
A popular spot to bicycle to, the Sundance Canyon Trail is often used by locals. It’s accessed from the parking lot of the historic Cave and Basin. A paved trail extends past the Cave and Basin building to the trailhead where it descends to the Bow River. It then gradually climbs through the forest to access a picnic area near the canyon. An additional 1.2 km trail loops through the canyon. The elevation is 145 meters, 4.3 km’s round trip. Allow 3 hours return trip if walking. You can ride a bicycle to the picnic area and lock it up if you wish to do the walking loop through the canyon.
The Legacy Trail
Rent a bike and go for a ride on the Banff Legacy Trail. The trail is a combination of paved pathway and parkway that spans 22.3 km’s from the Banff East Park Gate to the Bow Valley Parkway. Along the trail there are fantastic views, picnic areas and rest spots. The trail continues an additional 4.5 km’s outside the park to connect to the Travel Alberta Visitor Information Center in Canmore. It’s a 2 to 3 hour round trip for cyclists. The trail is open mid-April to mid-October (weather permitting). More information can be found here: Banff Biking Heritage Legacy Trail
The Fairview Lookout Trail As An Alternative To The Lake Agnes Tea House Trail
The Fairview Lookout trail is a short 2km roundtrip hike that takes about 45 minutes. The elevation gain is relatively low at 100 meters, but it does get you up high enough to get a fantastic view of the lake looking back to the Chateau Lake Louise hotel. It’s a great alternative to avoid the summer crowds on the hike to the Lake Agnes Tea House trail. It has much less elevation gain and actually offers better views. Most of views of the lake are obscured by the trees on the tea house trail. The trailhead for the Fairview Lookout starts near the lake boathouse.
Fairview Mountain Summit Hike As An Alternative To The Plain Of Six Glacier Trail
The Fairview Mountain summit hike is rated as more difficult, but if you’re up to the challenge it can be a great alternative to the Plain of Six Glaciers Hike that is becoming increasingly popular. It’s 5.1 km’s to the summit with 1013 meters of elevation gain. The 10 km round trip will take about five hours, but the views overlooking the lake, Mt. Victoria, Mt. Temple and the other surrounding mountains will be well worth the effort. The last part of the trail goes up a steep slope of loose scree. The start of the trail is the same as the Fairview Lookout trail. Always check for local avalanche conditions for this trail. Mount Fairview Hike
Pipestone Trail is near the village of Lake Louise. It’s a great place to ride a bike. They can be rented at Wilson’s Sports in the nearby Samson Mall in the village. The round trip trail is just over 14 km’s. It’s located 1.5 km’s west of the Lake Louise exit on Slate Road. More info on riding the trail can be found here: Bike Pirate/Pipestone Trail
Bow River Loop
The Bow River Loop is relatively flat so it makes a great for a casual walk or as a bike riding area for families. It’s a gravel trail that loops around the edge of the Bow River near the village of Lake Louise. There’s a parking area at the end of Sentinel Road next to the Station Restaurant or if you are renting a bike from Wilson Mountain Sports you can access it from the Samson Mall. It’s 7.1 km’s for the entire loop or it can be shortened by cutting across any of the bridges and looping back to your starting point. There’s another short portion that loops around the Lake Louise Campground. Even though this is a simple walk, keep in mind it is in bear territory and take precautions. Bears have been spotted along the trail particularly in the spring and fall which sometimes causing closures to sections of the route. Check with the visitor center at the Samson Mall in the village of Lake Louise for current updates. More trail information here: Bike Pirate/Bow River Loop
This lake gives gorgeous reflections of the mountains at sunrise. The lake is usually very calm first thing in the morning allowing for mirror like reflections of the mountains and trees. There is a picnic area on that shoreline of the lake. When heading north along the Icefields Parkway the lake is visible from the road and is just a few minutes from the village of Lake Louise.
One of the largest natural lakes in Banff National Park, Hector Lake is framed by the Pulpit Peak and Crowfoot Mountain. The majority of tourists drive past the trailhead located off the Icefields Parkway, so it’s not busy. It’s approximately 18 km’s north of the junction of the parkway and the Trans Canada Hwy near the village of Lake Louise.
Round trip the trail to the lake is 5km. Most of the trail has minimal elevation except a 60 meter decline at the end to get to the lake. This hike is best done in July through September. It’s an easy hike, but special care is needed crossing the Bow River. It’s best to check in at the Lake Louise visitor center to find out about current river conditions. The trailhead can be a bit difficult to find, ask for directions as well. Hector Lake Trail
If you’re up for a longer and more challenging hike try the Helen Lake trail. It’s 12km’s round trip with 455 meters of elevation gain. Allow 3 to 4 hours. The hike goes into an extensive area of alpine meadows that are covered in wildflowers that can start blooming in late June, but usually peak around mid-July and can be seen into the month of August. There’s views of the Crowfoot Glacier and Dolomite Peak. The peak can be continued onto as a longer hike. The parking area is on the opposite side of the Icefields Parkway from where the Crowfoot Glacier Viewpoint is located. It’s approximately 38 km’s north of Lake Louise and 1km south of Bow Lake. Helen Lake Trail
Hike To Bow Glacier Falls
Bow Lake is a popular stop along the Icefields Parkway. You may not have the trail to Bow Falls to yourself, but it’s not nearly as busy as some of the other trails in Banff National Park. It tends to be quieter on weekdays. The 9 km round trip takes 2 to 3 hours. The trail is reached from the access road for Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, it’s approximately 400 meters down the road past the lodge near the shore of Bow Lake. Bow Falls Hike
The Sunshine Meadows sit on the Continental Divide between the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. Sunshine Mountain is one of the three ski mountains in Banff National Park. In the summer and early fall it’s an an excellent hiking area. There are trails of varying lengths and difficultly, most can be done by people of any age as long as they are reasonably fit. Not only can you get views of some of the highest peaks in the Rocky Mountains, if you time if right you can see the meadows blanketed in wildflowers. Late July and early August are usually the peak of the colour display and in Autumn the larch trees show off their golden coloured needles.
You’re likely not going to have the Sunshine Meadows to yourself, but you can’t drive directly there so the trails are not as crowded as other more accessible ones in Banff. Getting to the meadows requires booking a seat on a shuttle bus. It travels on a 5 km private access road that is not open to public vehicles. You could walk, but it takes 1.5 to 2 hours and is uphill through the forest. Taking the bus is a much better use of your time and energy, especially since you’ll want to hike higher in elevation once you get there. One of the best views is from behind the top of the Standish Chairlift. This does require a hike up a steep trail.
New! Gondola And Chairlift Operating On Sunshine Mountain For Summer 2016
Sunshine Mountain is operating the gondola and one chairlift on an experimental basis through summer 2016. Operation is Friday through Sunday and on long weekends from 9am to 6pm, from July through September 5th. Included with the gondola ticket purchase is the Standish Chairlift. This makes the mountain even more accessible as it saves a further 1/2 kilometer walk up the steep trail to the lookout.
White Mountain Adventures will still operate the shuttle bus Monday through Thursday from mid-June to mid-September. For more hiking information, to book the shuttle bus or to purchase tickets for the Sunshine Mountain summer gondola see: http://www.skibanff.com/summer/.
To get to the Sunshine Village head west from Banff townsite on Hwy #1 for about 8km’s. Watch for the Sunshine Ski area exit. Turn off and follow the mountain road for approximately another 9km’s to the parking area. For a further cost the White Mountain Adventures will do pick up at various hotels in Banff if you do not have a vehicle.
If Money Is No Object You Can Have The Ultimate Experience And Isolation By Taking A Helicopter Tour
It’s an expensive option, but booking a helicopter hiking tour can be the experience of a lifetime. You can be whisked away to a high alpine meadow and enjoy hiking in a remote place that has hardly seen the feet of anyone else. It also saves you all the hiking effort of getting up to high elevations and instantly rewards you with spectacular views. An internet search will bring up the various companies offering heli-hiking.
Consider Visiting Other Nearby Parks
There are other beautiful parks that get overshadowed by Banff. Kootenay National Park shares a border to the south of Banff National Park and Yoho to the west. This makes both of them easy day trips or you can take advantage of their accommodation and camping options. These parks offer incredible mountain scenery, waterfalls, rivers, lakes and hiking with far less crowds. For more information on these parks and other areas beyond Banff see our posts: Alternative Parks And Overlooked Areas In The Rocky Mountains and Highlights And Day Itinerary For Yoho National Park