Few towns are nestled so literally in big, showy scenery: Banff is defined, surrounded, and dominated (in a good way) by mountain peaks.
Banff the town is located in Banff National Park, created back in 1885. (The world's first National Park was Yellowstone; Banff was the third.)
Folk back then knew how to make a park: Banff National Park has over 2500 square miles. Moreover, it connects to Jasper and other National Parks, all part of the UNESCO Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site.
Banff is located 128 km (about 80 miles) from Calgary. Most visitors fly into Calgary International Airport.
Banff the Town
Banff the town -- which is within Banff National Park-- got its start with the Banff Springs Hotel, a classic railway hotel, still imposing today and run by the luxury Fairmont chain. Some 8700 people live in Banff, and 4.5M visitors come every year.
Banff town is small-scale (--in fact, it's not allowed to grow)-- and families will quickly feel at home in its grid of Caribou Street, Bear Street, etc. Eateries range from Subway to family-friendly sit-down restaurants to fine-dining; Banff may be a small town, but it's long served sophisticated and international visitors.
A short stroll takes a visitor to several museums in Banff, or to the Bow River, or out of civilization altogether and into the Great Outdoors.
Families will find plenty of lodging choices along the main Banff Avenue. Or try the Juniper Lodge just out of town, which has a couple of condo units, a fine restaurant with awesome breakfasts, and -- in summertime-- a popular outdoor patio with mountain view.
Top To-Do's in Banff Year-round: ride the Banff Gondola up to awesome views; take a soak in the Banff Upper Hot Springs outdoor swimming pool.
Forty-five minutes drive from Banff, and also in Banff National Park, is scenic Lake Louise: a lake, a village, and a ski resort.
Like Banff, Lake Louise is home to a classic railroad hotel, now run as the Fairmont Lake Louise. The village of Lake Louise has several hotels and a few shops; the ski resort is about ten minutes away.
The actual Lake Louise ranks high on the world scale of sightseeing, as you can see above. In summer, take a walk round the lake, or ride a gondola to see the views; a nearby glacier adds to the visuals.
In winter, be wowed by ice sculptures at the annual Ice Magic Festival in January.
Summer in Banff
Summer's the peak season in Banff National Park. Some visitors arrive via the scenic Rocky Mountaineer Train from Vancouver, or alternatively they board the train in Banff to travel through the Rockies and onward to the West Coast. UK visitors often do a fly-train or fly-drive combo. (The nearest major airport is in Calgary, about 2 hours away.)
For most visitors, the priority in visiting Banff is The Great Outdoors: hiking, horseback-riding, biking... Or maybe just driving to Lake Louise, through the magnificent scenery.
Cool things for families to do in summer:
- Visit the Huskies and other sled-dogs who love to dog-sled in the winter (-- see for the (Dog Daze of Summer kennel tour.)
- Visit on Canada Day, July 1st: huge pancake breakfast, birthday cake in Central Park, music, entertainment, games, parade and fireworks.
- lots of outdoors summer activities in Banff.
Winter in Banff
No surprise, there's some vertiginous skiing in this area of the Canadian Rockies.
Lake Louise Ski Resort has 4200 skiable acres, and a vertical rise of 3250 feet, to a top elevation of 8560 feet. This resort also has a terrific day-lodge if you need a break from the slopes, and stunning views of Lake Louise.
Sunshine Village Ski Resort, just 15 minutes from Banff, has even more awesome views: the ski area is high up the mountain (-you take a gondola to start out), with wide open spaces above the tree line, and views toward cascades of snowy mountain peaks. Sunshine Village has a 33 acres on three mountains, vertical rise of 3515 feet; highest elevation is 8954 feet.
- Neat option at Sunshine Village: stay overnight, slopeside right on the mountain, at the Sunshine Inn. Guests have the mountain to themselves!
- For hotshot skiers/boarders: take a beacon and a partner with you into off-piste Delirium Dive.
Note that skiing at these resorts may at times be colder and icier than some of us tenderfeet are used to: for example, the day we skied Sunshine was -10C ( F), which fellow skiers considered to be a pretty fine temperature.
The third resort in the area, Norquay, is smaller, closer to Banff, and reportedly more temperate; Norquay dubs itself " Banff's best family ski resort."
At any of these ski resorts you'll see ski school classes of little kids; instruction and gear are so good these days that even the wee-est master the slopes.
And, bonus: snowhounds can get a "Tri-Area Pass" for all three ski resorts.*
Winter cool thing to do: hike the Johnston Canyon to frozen waterfalls. If you go with Discover Banff Tours, you'll get a friendly Guide and handy ice-cleats that fit over your shoes.
My teen boys and I loved our dog-sledding outing. It was just so--well, doggy. The dogs yawned and yapped and rolled in the snow, and were incredibly keen to pull their sleds.
Nearly 100 dogs awaited when we arrived in the morning, all harnessed to their sleds, six dogs to each sled.
While we listened to a 20-minute introduction, every so often, a few of the dogs would howl with impatience. And the instant our instructor stopped speaking and moved toward the sleds, every one of the dogs was up'n'at'em and hollering wildly, thrilled to finally be on their way.
Read more about a dog sled excursion, with photos. Be sure to book from a company that takes great care of their dogs!
Photo: Scenic Driving near Banff
Banff is just off the Trans-Canada Highway, which travels through the awesome scenery of Banff National Park.
photo : Winter Ice Walk, Johnston Canyon
Our guided "Johnston Canyon Icewalk" hike with Discover Banff Tours took about three hours, to trek to the upper waterfalls and back. Ice cleats on the feet helped a lot!
Frozen Waterfall in Johnston Canyon
The culmination of our guided "Johnston Canyon Icewalk" was a shining ice waterfall. After hot chocolate and cookies, we headed back.
It doesn't get much more Rocky-Mountain scenic than this. Ride the Banff Gondola, whose base is just a few minutes' drive from Banff Avenue.