Visitors coming to Banff National park with a limited amount of time want to make the most of it by visiting the top highlights. There’s probably more worthy spots in the park than you can ever see in a lifetime which makes it difficult to narrow down a list. The must see places are subject to opinion, but below we’ve provided what we feel are the most awe inspiring sights and not to be missed attractions.
One of the most famous lakes in the Canadian Rockies, Lake Louise is known for its postcard photos. Visitors from around the world flock to the lake in the summer months to admire and canoe on the beautiful turquoise coloured water. With the backdrop of Mount Victoria and the Victoria glacier it’s a spectacular sight year round. Due to its high elevation the lake remains frozen from approximately late November through May. There are several worthwhile hikes in the area including the trails to the Lake Agnes Tea House and the Plain of Six Glaciers as well as the Fairview Lookout. A shoreline trail is an easy flat stroll that can be enjoyed by anyone. It starts right from the front of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel.
Moraine Lake has deep blue water and is situated in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. There’s an easy walk along the shoreline trail or you can make the short climb up the Rockpile trail for the best view overlooking the lake. Another popular but strenuous day hike leads from Moraine Lake to Sentinel Pass. Canoe rentals are available during the summer months. The road to Moraine Lake is closed to all vehicle traffic from approximately the third week of October through to mid or late May depending on the conditions.
Bow Lake can be seen from the Icefields Parkway. It’s situated below the Crowfoot Glacier and Bow Glacier. This is a favourite spot with photographers because the water is often still enough to capture the reflections of the mountains. Wildflowers can been seen in the surrounding meadows in late summer. A short access road leads to Nim Ti Jah Lodge, where the lake is just steps away. This high elevation lake is often frozen until mid to late June.
Peyto Lake is accessible from the Bow Summit area of the Icefields Parkway. A short access road leads to the parking area. From there a moderately steep trail leads up to the viewing platform. The colour of Peyto Lake is so unique and intense you will have a hard time convincing people that your images have not been photo shopped. Peyto Lake is most easily viewed in the summer months or early fall. During the rest of the year the Icefields Parkway can have poor winter driving conditions. The parking lot can be snowbound and the trail leading to the lake can be covered in snow that is knee deep or higher.
All of the above lakes are located within fairly close proximity of each other which makes it possible to visit them all in the same day. The driving distance between Lake Louise and Moraine Lake is approximately 15 minutes. Bow Lake and Peyto Lake are located along the Icefields Parkway and take approximately 30 and 35 minutes respectively to reach from Lake Louise.
Other Lakes Worth Seeing
The Vermillion Lakes are a series of wetlands that formed from the Bow River. They make an excellent place for viewing wildlife. The back drop of majestic Mount Rundle makes for a photographers dream. From Banff or the Trans Canada you can access the lakes from Mt. Norquay Road. From Mount Norquay Road turn onto Vermillion Lakes road, it follows along all three lakes.
Lake Minnewanka is the largest body of water in Banff National Park. It’s back dropped by the beautiful scenery of Mount Inglismaldie and the Fairholme range. There’s a walking trail along the shoreline and boat cruises on the lake can be booked through the local Brewster company.
Top Hikes In Banff National Park
This is a deep canyon carved over thousands of years by Johnston Creek. A series of trails and catwalks cling to the canyon walls and lead to a set of lower and upper waterfalls. The canyon is just as spectacular in the winter. With ice cleats strapped onto their footwear visitors can experience hiking to the frozen falls. See our posts on Johnston Canyon hiking in Spring, Summer and Fall and Johhnston Canyons Frozen Waterfalls
Plain Of Six Glaciers
The Plain of Six Glaciers trail starts near the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel, follow the shoreline to the far end of the lake. The hike is considered moderately difficult, switchbacks work their way up in elevation offering views overlooking the lake and of the glaciers and mountain peaks. If the tea house is open its worth stopping for a rest and a bite to eat. It’s an additional 1.5 km’s to the Victoria Glacier viewpoint.
Bow Glacier Falls
Bow Glacier Falls is located near the scenic Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway. It’s approximately 36 km’s north of Lake Louise. The trail leads along the north shore of Bow Lake shore, over some gravel flats and then across a small headland. The first part of the trail is easy and remains fairly flat until you get closer to the waterfall where a staircase leads up and over the canyon. A large rock boulder forms a natural bridge over a gap. The staircase and crossing the rock bridge are not something everyone will want to do.
The hike is considered moderate in difficulty. It’s 9km’s round trip with a 160 meter elevation gain. It can take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours return trip. The trail head is located near the Num Ti Jah Lodge. A short access road leads to the lodge from the Icefields Parkway near Bow Lake, 3 km’s north of the Crowfoot Glacier viewpoint.
This trail is best done further into the summer when the snow melt from the Bow Glacier into Bow Lake has decreased. More info on the Bow Glacier Falls trail can be found here: Albertawow.com/Bow Falls
The Tunnel Mountain trail is accessible right from the town of Banff. It follows a series of switchbacks to the low summit of Tunnel Mountain. At the top you can enjoy the panoramic views overlooking Banff, the Bow Valley and Mount Rundle. Check the trail conditions before you go from October through April, it can be icy. For more information see our post: The Tunnel Mountain Trail
The Parker Ridge trail is a short and popular hike accessed from the Icefields Parkway. It’s considered to be a top day hike because it offers great views for a minimal amount of effort.
The trail is rated as easy, but over the first 2 km’s there is a continuous set of well graded switchbacks that will have your heart pumping. The last set of switchbacks brings you above the treeline into the alpine zone and follows along just below the ridge. Keep hiking until you can see the Saskatchewan Glacier. It’s a 9km tongue of ice which is the headwaters of the Saskatchewan River. Part of the spectacular view will be snow and ice capped mountains including Mount Athabasca and Hilda Peak.
At the top of the trail there can be a dramatic temperature difference, even in the peak of summer. Bring a warm layer to put on. There can be days where hikers in t-shirts and shorts can’t bear the cold to make it to the end of the hike.
Due to erosion Parks Canada has been closing the Parker Ridge trail from late spring to early summer to protect the fragile tundra. Respect this beautiful area by staying on the established path. If you plan on doing this trail prior to mid-July check first to see if it is open.
The parking area is marked with a sign, it’s 9km’s south of the Icefield Center. On a summer day it can be full by 10am. To avoid crowds hike early in the morning or late in the day. The added benefit of these times is that they are better for photography. The hike is approximately 5km’s return trip with 250 meters in elevation gain. Allow up to 2.5 hours in total. Trailpeak.com/Parker Ridge Trail
Larch Valley And Sentinel Pass
Sentinel Pass and Larch Valley are one of the premier hiking areas in Banff National Park, particularly in the 2nd and 3rd week of September when the larch trees are displaying the peak of their golden colours. You can choose to do the easier Larch Valley hike or continue on to the more challenging trail to Sentinel Pass. The summer months are another great time to hike in this area. It’s not as crowded as when the fall colours are taking place. In late July wildflowers are usually at their peak bloom.
Larch Valley/Minnestimma Lakes
This hike is rated as moderate. It’s 8.6 km’s return trip with an elevation gain of 535 meters. Allow up to 4 hours depending on how long you spend taking in the views.
The trail head is located at Moraine Lake, follow the lake shore to the trail marker sign. It is a continuous ascent through a thick forest that offers occasional glimpses of Moraine Lake. A long series of switchbacks into higher elevations opens up into the meadows of the Larch Valley. In the background are the famous Ten Peaks. You can turn around at this point or continue through the valley. As you start to leave Larch Valley there are views of Mount Temple and Pinnacle Mountain and one of the Minnestimma Lakes comes into view, the other is behind a ridge near the base of Sentinel Pass.
The first part of the Sentinel Pass trail is the same as the Larch Valley trail noted above. From the Larch Valley there are challenging switchbacks ascending to Sentinel Pass. The pass sits at an elevation of 2611 meters between Mount Temple and Pinnacle Mountain. This hike is rated difficult. It’s 11.6 km’s round trip with an elevation gain of 725 meters. Allow 5 to 6 hours.
Minimum group hiking rules may apply to trails in this area when grizzly bears are present. Hikers must remain in a tight group of four or more people. It’s usually between mid-July and mid-October, but it’s best to check with Parks Canada to see when they are in place.
During the fall colours these trails can be overwhelmed with people. To avoid some of the crowds hike on a weekday if possible. Start your hike very early in the morning or later in the day. During the fall colours it’s usually easy to find others to hike with at the trail head if you need more people to make up the minimum group of four. On the September weekends a shuttle can be caught at the overflow parking lot. It’s located on the Trans Canada Hwy, 5.5km’s east of Lake Louise. The Moraine Lake Parking lot can become full as early as 9am on the weekends. See more info here: Hiking With Barry/Larch Valley And Sentinel Pass
The Helen Lake trail is located off the Icefields Parkway across from the Crowfoot Glacier viewpoint, approximately 30 km’s north of Lake Louise. This hike heads into a vast area of alpine meadows that are covered in wildflowers from mid-July to mid-August. Helen Lake is beautiful and there are also views of the Crowfoot Glacier and Dolomite Peak.
The hike is 12km’s round trip with 455 meters of elevation gain. It’s difficulty level is rated as moderate. Allow 4 hours round trip. Trailpeak.com/Helen Lake Dolomite Pass Trail
The Bourgeau Lake trail is 14.4 km’s return with an elevation gain of 725 meters. It’s rated moderate to difficult, allow 6 hours round trip. The views of the lake and surrounding mountains are beautiful. To trail head is located on the southwest side of the Trans Canada Highway 1.5 km’s past the Sunshine Village Ski Resort exit. Albertawow.com/Bourgeau_Lake
Top Drives In Banff National Park
The following drives offer the some of the best scenery in the park and opportunities to see wildlife.
The Icefields Parkway (Highway 93 N) is one of the most scenic drives in Canada. It crosses the northern part of Banff National Park and the southern part of Jasper National Park. Creating a link between the Trans Canada Highway 1 and the Yellowhead Highway 16 between Lake Louise and Jasper. It’s purely a sightseeing route through incredible high mountain scenery.
Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive – a 24 km scenic scenic drive offering access to several alpine lakes. In addition to Lake Minnewanka there are Johnson Lake and Two Jack Lake. There’s chances to see wildlife along the drive, the area is particularly known for bighorn sheep.
The Bow Valley Parkway – a 51 km scenic road between Banff and Lake Louise that offers an alternative route to the Trans Canada Hwy. There are panoramic views, chances to see wildlife and the famous viewpoint called Morant’s Curve. Viewpoints, camping and picnic sites and chances to see wildlife. The most popular stop along the drive is hiking Johnston Canyon.
More information on these drives can be found here: Scenic drives in Banff National Park.