If you’re planning to visit Banff National Park you may be contemplating whether to use the town of Banff or nearby Canmore as your base. There’s pros and cons to staying in each place, but what one person sees as a positive someone else might see as a negative. For every person that tells you they love staying in Banff, another will say they prefer Canmore. Once you learn the differences between the two communities you can decide for yourself which one might suit you best.
Comparing The Town Settings Of Banff And Canmore
Banff is a resort/tourism town with a population of 9000 people in a beautiful setting surrounded by mountains. It’s one of very few communities situated inside a National Park and therefore requires a park pass to visit. Development and growth has been restricted to limit the impact on the surrounding wilderness, but some people complain that it’s been allowed to become too commercialized. You might be surprised to know there’s a McDonald’s, Starbucks, Tim Hortons, Subway and Boston Pizza along with dozens of other restaurants and cafes. There’s also churches, schools, a hospital, a couple of smaller grocery stores, liquor stores and plenty of souvenir shops. There’s hundreds of accommodation options including a couple of large resort style properties, all of which book to capacity during the high demand of summer. Despite all this heavy commercialism, it is confined to a compact area and there’s still a sense that it’s surrounded by wilderness.
The town of Canmore sits on the eastern edge of Banff National park with a population of just over 13,000. It’s not within a park so there’s no pass required. The setting is in a narrow valley of mountains which does have nature and wildlife around it, but it doesn’t have quite the same feeling as Banff. The town is much more sprawled out and not as easy to get around on foot, but it does have its own mountain charm.
Canmore was a coal mining town until the mines were shut down in the late 1970’s and left it as a struggling community. It was not much more than a spillover option for when Banffs accommodation became full. This changed when the Nordic Center was built in Canmore to host the cross-country ski and biathlon events for the 1988 Calgary Olympics games.
Since the Olympics the town has tripled in size and has started to come into its own as a tourist destination. With over 70 km’s of trails Canmore became a popular place for cross country skiing. The same trails are used by mountain bikers in the warmer months.
Like Banff, Canmore also has a large amount amenities for a small town because of the amount of people that visit for the recreational activities and to pass through to the National Parks. There’s two large grocery stores, a Canadian Tire, and a couple of sporting/outdoor gear stores, a health food store, a specialty/gourmet food shop, several liquor stores and a wine specialty shop. There’s a variety of trendy, unique and eclectic boutique shops and restaurants. There are some excellent restaurants in Banff, but some people prefer the dining establishments in Canmore. They are not so reliant on tourists, but are geared more towards the permanent residents. Many of the restaurants in both towns are on the expensive side, Banff has a few more choices that would be budget friendly.
The main benefit to staying in Banff is having easy access to the nearby sights. It’s very pedestrian friendly with many attractions and trails being easily reached on foot. The majority of hotels are within a few blocks of the main shopping and dining area. There’s an excellent public transit system called the “Roam” bus that takes tourists from the main hotels to farther out attractions such as the Cave and Basin historical site and the Banff Gondola and hot springs.
If you want to be near all the action and enjoy people watching then Banff is the place to be. There’s always something going on and definitely more nightlife. However, the crowds can be overwhelming during the holidays and in the summer months. Some people love the lively atmosphere and others dread it and that’s why they might choose to stay in Canmore. Both towns will be busy in the summer as there’s just no way to escape that, but Canmore does not get the mass crowds that Banff does. In the winter months the bit of extra activity in Banff might be welcome where some people may find Canmore a bit too quiet.
Comparing Location And Driving Times
You’re likely to spend a lot of your time in the parks and continuously driving west during your visit. A lot of what is considered to be some of the best scenery and prime hiking areas are at the west end of Banff National Park near Lake Louise and Moraine Lake and along the Icefields Parkway. If you plan to see the highlights of Yoho National Park such as Takkakaw Falls and Emerald Lake they are also located west. The park boundary of Yoho is approximately 15 minutes past Lake Louise or an hour from downtown Banff. Canmore is just twenty minutes east from downtown Banff, but some people find the extra time adds to an already large amount of driving. Others find the extra commuting worth it because they prefer the lower key atmosphere of Canmore.
The areas three ski resorts are all in the park, so if you want to be at the slopes quickly Banff is going to be the most convienient base for Sunshine and Mount Norquay which can be reached within minutes from town. The Lake Louise ski hill is 40 minutes west. There are ski shuttles that serve both Canmore and Banff, but they don’t run as frequently to Canmore.
Canmore’s location does make an excellent base if you plan on exploring any areas of Kananaskis Country that sits just to the east. It’s also convenient if you have an early morning flight to catch out of Calgary, you can be there in under 90 minutes.
Accommodation Comparisons Between Banff and Canmore
The accommodation in Canmore tends to be of better value, often the rooms are larger and newer or more recently updated. Canmore has a large amount of self contained properties where you can prepare your own meals. You can often get a condo style unit with a full kitchen, fireplace, balcony and washer and dryer for the same price as a hotel room in Banff. There’s units available with multiple bedrooms if you need them. Banff does have a few properties with kitchens and multiple bedrooms, most of which are located on Tunnel Mountain a few minutes drive from downtown Banff.
A disadvantage to the accommodation in Canmore is that most of it is not within close walking distance of the shops and restaurants. If being in close vicinity of downtown is important make sure you check the location of your hotel. Many of Banff’s hotels are located within a couple of blocks to the main shopping and restaurant area.
A large amount of Canmore’s accommodation is in a dense area of vacation rental buildings that sit very close to one another on Kananaskis Way, approximately a 15 to 20 minutes walk from downtown Canmore. If having a feeling of privacy is important check to see if there are photos of the actual unit you are interested in. The view could be of the beautiful mountains or it might be facing a the balconies of sevearl other units. There’s also some accommodation along Bow Valley Trail which is a very busy road running through town. Just something to keep in mind if are choosing Canmore because you want to be in in a quieter setting.
For a short stay and particularly for a first time visit it might be better to stay in Banff so that you have easy and central access to everything. A longer term stay is where Canmore might be a better option as a base. Having a spacious condo with all the luxuries of home can make your stay more comfortable.
Comparing Banff And Canmore’s Activities
If you happen to get caught with a rainy spring or summer day there’s more to keep you entertained in Banff. A movie theatre, a couple of museums, a large amount of downtown shops and a small shopping mall. Canmore does have the newly built Elevation Place that is great for families with its lazy river, pools and climbing wall.
Canmore beats out Banff in the number of golf courses. There’s the world-class Silvertip Golf and Country Cub, the Canmore Golf and Curling Club and the championship Stewart Creek Golf and Country Club. Banff has Stanley Thompson designed golf course at the Banff Springs Hotel.
There’s more hiking opportunities in Banff, but Canmore does have some scenic walks and hikes. One of the most popular trails is to see the turquoise waters of Grassi Lakes. Many people enjoy climbing to Ha Ling Peak as hiking in nearby Grotto Canyon. There’s also an extensive network of trails in Canmore that branch out from the town center that are great for walking or biking.