Banff National Park is a Canadian treasure for a reason
Synonymous with alpine peaks, glacial lakes and heart-stopping wildlife encounters, Banff National Park is the jewel of the Canadian Rockies. First Nations people had long been drawing medicine and therapeutic relief from the waters there when Canadian Pacific Railway workers “discovered” natural hot springs at the base of Sulphur Mountain, in what is now the heart of the park, in 1883. When conflict arose over the rights to develop the springs for tourism and commercial purposes, the country’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, stepped in and declared it the country’s first national reserve in 1885.
These days, there’s more to do in Banff than just “take the waters.” (However, no visit is complete without a sulfurous soak at the Upper Hot Springs, the only pools still open to the public.) In winter, tourists brave the icy 1.5-hour drive from Calgary to Banff to hit the slopes at three world-class ski resorts within the park: Lake Louise, Mount Norquay and Banff Sunshine Village. Summer draws a more diverse mix of adventurers, who come to paddle the turquoise waters of Lake Louise, raft down the Bow River and conquer mountainous trails, such as the 7.3-mile trek from Johnston Canyon to Ink Pots, which passes limestone caves, rushing waterfalls and mineral-tinted, brightly colored “ink pot” pools.
Most tourists spend an afternoon discovering the shops, art galleries and restaurants in the picturesque town of Banff. In peak season, the main thoroughfare, on the north side of the Bow River, is crammed with visitors. You’ll have to elbow your way through the crowds to get a cup of coffee at Wild Flour Bakery or pick up a souvenir at the Banff Trading Post. And good luck finding parking.
As for accommodations, there’s no shortage of places to stay, but most are either prohibitively expensive or in need of a serious refresh. The rustic, cabin-style lodges in the town of Banff are overpriced and dated, and the park’s most luxurious hotel, the Fairmont Banff Springs — set on the base of Mount Rundle and modeled after a Scottish castle — will set you back about $800 per night during high season.
Canmore offers the same scenery without the crowds or steep prices
For less congestion and easy access to the outdoors, bed down in the neighboring town of Canmore, about a 25-minute drive from downtown Banff. With its wide-open scenery and vibrant main street, the walkable town is the preferred base of local visitors and avid outdoorspeople (as well as the home to roughly 16,000 full-time residents).
You don’t have to sacrifice your Banff experience by staying in Canmore. Buses frequently run between the two towns, seven days a week. Or you can cycle between Banff and Canmore on the scenic Legacy Trail, which was constructed in honor of the park’s 125th anniversary.
But keep in mind that Canmore has its own charms: Grab breakfast at the bright and airy Communitea Cafe, discover the colorful paintings of Indigenous artist Jason Carter at the Carter-Ryan Gallery, and enjoy a tasting menu at Sauvage. Or set out on one of the 24 hiking trails that run through and around the town.
A crop of hotels has also popped up, offering style and great value. Local hospitality entrepreneur Sky McLean has opened four properties in Canmore in recent years, the latest being Basecamp Suites Canmore. Perfect for families and large groups, the apartment-style hotel has spacious suites with kitchens and laundry facilities, bath products from Rocky Mountain Soap Co. and free parking.
Then there’s the 124-room Malcolm Hotel, located a quick stroll from downtown Canmore with dead-on views of the Three Sisters mountains. The rooms are contemporary and bright, and the outdoor pool deck — complete with a heated pool and hot tubs — is the place to relax after a long day on the slopes or the trails.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.