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My 5 Favourite Things to Do in Banff Town in Summer

Summer in the Canadian Rockies seems to be all about three things: epic mountains, ice-cold rivers, and crystal clear lakes. Banff definitely has all three in spades, with the Rockies rising high all around the town, the Bow River running turquoise through its centre, and a number of lakes dotting the valleys nearby. I loved that, even in the centre of a bustling town in the middle of tourist high season, there were still any number of options to get away from the crowds (at least, sometimes) and really enjoy the natural wonders that this gateway in the Canadian Rockies has to offer.

The Mountains of Vermillion

Mountains behind the last of the Vermillion Lakes, which sit just outside of the town of Banff.

Our trip was as much about relaxation and enjoying family time as it was about rushing around to see all the sights, so this is definitely not a comprehensive list of everything Banff has to offer — in fact, I’ve included a few things we missed that I’d love to do if (and when) I get back to the Rockies.

1. Tunnel Mountain Road

The Tunnel Mountain Road

The view on a cloudy day from the Tunnel Mountain Road.

When I initially researched our trip to Banff, Tunnel Mountain appealed to me because it wasn’t right in the centre of town. We wouldn’t be hindered mobility-wise (since we still had a rental car) and we could spend our time enjoying what we’d come to see: the national park.

While the Tunnel Mountain Road is definitely the long way to our lodge on Tunnel Mountain–driving through town was much faster–it was much more scenic and even offered the chance for wildlife spottings. We saw a deer run across the road to snack on the bushes outside a restaurant, and just down the road in one of the campsites, a brown bear had been wandering and scaring the campers in the middle of the night. The views from the road were gorgeous even on a gloomy day; had we had more time, the view from the top of the Tunnel Mountain Trail would have been even better!

2. Bow Falls

Bow Falls & The Fairmont Banff Springs

The Fairmont Banff Springs perches on a hill overlooking Bow Falls.

This waterfall is incredibly accessible, sitting right beside the chateau-inspired Fairmont Banff Springs just outside the centre of town. If you want to see the closest view of the falls possible, there is a carpark next to the Fairmont where you can stroll along the banks of the Bow River and get (kind of) close to the cascade.

My favourite view of the falls section of the river was from a different angle though. If you follow Buffalo Street out of town (on the opposite side of the river from the Fairmont Banff Springs) this spot, Surprise Corner, will be on the right hand side of the road (although it won’t be very much of a surprise, since it has a parking lot that is often packed). While we couldn’t see the falls themselves from this angle, we could see the whitewater churning up in the river as it rushed towards them…and we got a fantastic view of the Fairmont Banff Springs nestled in amongst the trees as well. I’d recommend visiting this spot early in the morning so you can easily nab a parking spot before the tour buses arrive though.

3. Vermillion Lakes

Vermillion

A wooden jetty sticks out into one of the Vermillion Lakes.

Located just outside of the Banff townsite, these three lakes are somewhat uninspiring colour-wise–the person that named them ‘vermillion’ wasn’t lying–but like most places in the Rockies, it’s the surrounding scenery that makes it. Go on, go out on one of the wooden jetties, taking in the reflections of Mount Rundle and the various other pine-coated mountains around the lakes, and then tell me you didn’t like the lakes because they weren’t crystal clear or brilliantly blue!

The small road to these lakes, which runs parallel to the Trans-Canada Highway, has an insanely slow speed limit and a few parking spaces at the edge of each lake. We didn’t have any trouble with nabbing these spaces at all since there were only a few other cars ambling along the lakes. Even so, it would have been nice to rent a bike and head out there instead–you can probably get up to the speed limit on a bike anyway, and plus, it’s a nice flat road.

4. Johnson Lake

Johnson Lake

A massive bank of clouds boiling up behind Johnson Lake.

This lake is a bit more off the beaten track and I certainly didn’t see it in any published literature while I was in Banff. So how did we end up here? We went to Lake Minnewanka and saw that there was a scenic route back to Banff (since the Lake Minnewanka road is essentially one giant loop). However, because of bear activity in the area–much increased due to a massive number of fish that had stranded themselves in pools during the floods, leaving the bears plenty of easy food–we could only make it as far as Johnson Lake before turning around.

Aside from the kayakers lashing their kayaks to the roofs of their cars, we only ran into a couple other groups the entire time we were there. We walked part of the way around the lake, looking out across its placid waters at the massive bank of clouds boiling up in the distance. It was relaxing and easy hiking underneath what Parcs Canada calls ‘some of the oldest Douglas fir trees in Alberta.’ Had we gone further around the lake on the 3km (1 hour) loop, we would have been able to look back at reflections of Mount Rundle and Cascade Mountain as well.

5. Walking the Sulphur Mountain Boardwalk

Sulphur Mountain View

Looking out at Banff National Park from the boardwalk.

I had so much to say about this boardwalk, which stretches 1km across the top of Sulphur Mountain and takes in some of the most epic mountain views I saw on my entire trip, that I wrote an entire post about it. Even though there is no way you’ll be escaping the crowds up here, they are at least stretched out across the entire 1km stretch rather than all concentrated at one lookout. Plus, if my mother, who is terrified of heights, can admit that the view made the gondola ride worth it, then you know it’s something special.

The Things I Missed

Banff Upper Hot Springs

Who can pass up a chance to soak in natural hot springs? Unfortunately, we did–but only because there was a cracking thunderstorm that closed them on the afternoon we planned to go! When I get back to Banff, this will definitely be one of the first things I do…especially if I go in winter. This is one of the most popular places in Banff so you certainly won’t avoid the crowds, but as long as you get your own corner of a hot pool, I’m sure that won’t be a problem.

Hiking

Bow River Reflections

The view as we walked along the Bow River Trail in the centre of town.

There were so many hiking opportunities in Banff, but unfortunately, I didn’t get to tackle any of them. Hiking isn’t really my family’s cup of tea, so we did slightly less physical activities–although we did stroll along the Bow River as well as walk the Banff Skywalk as I mentioned above. The hikes that caught my eye–which would be perfect to do just before a long soak in the hot springs–were:

Whether you have a day or a week in Banff, hopefully you’ll be able to do at least a few of these things and get a taste for the amazing area that Banff is.  I’d love to hear from you about what you thought of them, especially if you end up doing anything on the ‘things I missed’ list!

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