Years and years ago, a couple we’re good friends with traveled to Banff, and I couldn’t get over the pictures from their trip. I’m sure it was a well-known destination at that time, but before they went, I had never even heard of it!
In the years since then, Banff seems to have exploded in popularity.
I’ve come across countless stories in my travel magazines about train travel from Vancouver to Calgary via the national park, and I’ve found it’s impossible to follow a travel or outdoor-related account on Instagram without coming across incredible pictures of this area of Alberta, Canada.
When I talked to my parents about where we wanted to travel together in 2019, my mom’s initial response was Iceland. Iceland has long been on my list, but with our Japan trip already booked and Brian’s limited time off from work, it just wasn’t going to be possible to do both of those larger trips in the same year.
I thought briefly about where else we could go for a long weekend that would also put us relatively in the middle of Ohio and Washington, allowing us to spend more time at the destination and less time getting there. The obvious answer was Banff!
My parents were on board and we quickly began planning our trip—trying to align our flights into Calgary and mapping out a rough itinerary so we could figure out where we needed to book accommodations.
We ended up not staying in Banff proper, instead spending our first night in nearby Canmore and waking up very early the next morning to get a head-start on our day, which included time in the town of Banff.
Banff was as beautiful as those Instagram pictures suggest but also full of tourists. If, like us, that’s not your thing, consider staying elsewhere and just popping into Banff for a day. If you do, here are a few highlights from our experience that you shouldn’t miss!
Hiking Tunnel Mountain Trail
I wrote a detailed post about our sunrise hike up Tunnel Mountain Trail for views over Banff. At 2.7 miles and 950 feet of gain, Tunnel Mountain is Banff’s smallest summit and a great way to checkout Banff and the surrounding area before heading into downtown.
Riding the Mt. Norquay Chairlift
Hiking not your thing? You can also get exceptional views of Banff and the surrounding area from one of the chairlift/gondola rides into the mountains. We chose the Mt. Norquay lift after a bit of research because it’s lesser known (and therefore less expensive and less touristy).
The weather wasn’t fully cooperating but we made the best of our trip, ducking into the Cliff House Bistro at the mountain top for some hot beverages and food until the clouds cleared and we could ride back down without getting soaking wet!
Driving Around Lake Minnewanka
I dedicated a post to our drive around nearby Lake Minnewanka because of all the amazing wildlife we spotted there, and I would definitely recommend it be part of any trip to Banff.
The area is beautiful even if you don’t spot any animals–but from everything I read, you’re pretty likely to encounter some wildlife if you head there around dawn and dusk.
Wandering Around Downtown
Downtown Banff is filled with restaurants, shops, and hotels and as the day goes on, it gets busier and busier! This is not really our scene so arriving early before everyone was up and about worked perfectly.
We were able to enjoy the fog rising around the mountains, purchase our park passes from the visitor’s center, and grab some coffee before exploring a few specific spots we wanted to see.
Visiting the Cascades of Time Garden
If you’re not heading out of town to spend time in the outdoors, there are opportunities to enjoy nature right in downtown Banff.
One quick stop is the Cascades of Time Garden, which is just across the Bow river bridge from Banff’s major shopping streets. We were a little early in the season for some of the flowers and parts of the garden were under construction, but the areas we were able to enjoy were lovely and there was absolutely nothing strenuous about wandering the garden paths.
Walking Along Bow River to Bow Falls Viewpoint
Another easy way to experience nature and the area’s beauty without leaving downtown Banff is to walk along the Bow river trails and consider wandering down to the Bow Falls viewpoint.
The walk is only about 1.5 miles roundtrip on mostly flat trail, but you can also drive down to the falls to park and walk around if the weather or the walk are not appealing.
Eating at Saltlik
One of the best meals of our trip was our Father’s Day dinner to celebrate Dad at a restaurant I found in downtown Banff called Saltlik.
We were lucky enough to sit outside on the second floor balcony, and the atmosphere, service, and food were all excellent. Highly recommend!
Despite having all of these incredible experiences, there were a number of things we just couldn’t fit into our trip. A few things on my list for ‘next time’ include Cave and Basin National Historic Site, the Whyte Museum, and Grassi Lakes Trail, which I believe is actually a little closer to Canmore.
Are there other places you would recommend to someone visiting Banff? What else should go on my future planning list?