Exploring Banff National Park through hiking is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many visitors and stands out as one of the best things to do in Banff’s captivating wilderness. Despite having extensively hiked these trails, we remain perpetually astounded by the breathtaking sights, including turquoise lakes, glaciers, alpine meadows, and stunning mountain panoramas.
While some hikes offer remarkable rewards with minimal effort, others demand greater difficulty or distance, yet the investment in time and energy pays off the manifold. The hikes are predominantly concentrated around the Lake Louise area or along the Icefields Parkway. Generally, the farther you venture from Lake Louise, the less crowded the trail becomes. However, as you ascend the Icefields Parkway, you reach higher elevations, where the weather can be more unpredictable.
The type of scenery should also be factored into your decision-making. Hikes around Lake Louise are characterized by dense forests, with some trails spending a considerable amount of time in the woods before unveiling breathtaking views. On the other hand, hikes along the Icefields Parkway commence at higher elevations, featuring less time in the forest and more expansive, open spaces. While this is ideal in clear weather, conditions can worsen swiftly, presenting challenges faster than anticipated.
Banff’s hikes vary in difficulty, accessibility, and length, requiring careful consideration of your fitness level before embarking on any adventure. Despite the popularity of these trails, the sheer magnificence of the surroundings ensures a sense of happiness and courtesy among all hikers, even in busy conditions.
Discover the trail that suits you with our compilation of the best hikes in Banff National Park.
1. Parker Ridge
Placing this hike at the top of our list is justified by its relatively easy-to-moderate difficulty level and the captivating view of the glacier. Although the trail commences as a somewhat unremarkable ascent to the ridge, the reward at the end makes the journey worthwhile.
Parker Ridge stands out as perhaps the finest hike in Banff National Park, considering the balance between effort and reward. The trailhead at a high elevation ensures that the hike involves an easily manageable uphill walk to the summit.
Covering 5.4 kilometers (3.3 miles) round trip, this hike is comparatively straightforward when measured against many other trails in the park. With a modest elevation gain of only 250 meters (820 feet), it lacks technical difficulty.
While the trail may not appear overly exciting from the highway, reaching the ridge unveils truly spectacular views of the Saskatchewan Glacier. The well-marked trail remains mostly open, allowing for breathtaking vistas across the valley. Take in the panoramic scenery featuring Mount Athabasca, Mount Andromeda, and Cirrus Mountain.
If you time your hike for late July through early August, you’ll be treated to a delightful display of wildflowers. The trail typically retains snow, often lingering into late June or beyond, depending on the specific year.
2. Bow Glacier Falls
While traveling along the Icefields Parkway, you will probably make a stop at Bow Lake to capture a photograph, as the captivating blue-turquoise waters irresistibly draw your attention and practically plead to be photographed.
If you cast your gaze down the lake toward the glacier at the beginning of this hike, you’ll spot a waterfall cascading down – Bow Falls, your destination for the day. The journey is characterized by its scenic beauty, emphasizing the experience more than the destination, although Bow Glacier Falls is sure to be satisfying.
This is a relatively easy hike, featuring a moderate elevation gain of 148 meters (485 feet) and covering a round-trip distance of 9.2 kilometers (5.7 miles).
As is typical with most hikes in Banff National Park, the exertion is handsomely rewarded. You approach the waterfalls from their base, allowing you to witness the water tumbling over the ridge high above.
3. Johnston Canyon and The Ink Pots
Johnston Canyon is an excellent family-friendly hike within Banff National Park. The round-trip distance to the lower falls is a mere 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles), featuring minimal elevation gain. The walk extends an additional 1.3 kilometers (less than a mile) to reach the rather impressive 30-meter-high (100-foot) upper falls.
The imposing canyon walls and the thundering waterfalls consistently leave a lasting impression.
The trail is remarkably enjoyable as it traces alongside Johnson Creek, and a significant highlight of the hike is navigating the metal walkway securely fastened into the canyon walls. As you gaze downward, the rushing river becomes visible beneath you.
For those with remaining energy who seek to witness a distinctive geological marvel, the journey can be extended to the Inkpots. Here, natural springs cause water to bubble out of holes in the ground.
4. Wilcox Pass
Just past Parker Ridge along the Icefields Parkway toward the Athabasca Glacier Visitor Center lies the Wilcox Pass hike. Regarded as one of the premier hikes in the park, it ascends 390 meters (1,280 feet), offering unmatched vistas of the Athabasca Glacier, Snow Dome Mountain, Snow Dome Glacier, and the Columbia Icefield.
The round-trip distance for the hike is eight kilometers (five miles) and is not recommended for the faint of heart. The initial ascent is relatively rapid, and when considering the elevation and thin air, it can be challenging. Nevertheless, do not be discouraged. Taking it slow will make the effort worthwhile.
As the trail eventually emerges from the forest, you may find yourself compelled to pause and absorb the breathtaking views. Keep going, and you’ll reach the official summit of Wilcox Pass, distinguished by a sizable cairn of rocks.
5. Healy Pass
Reaching the summit of Healy Pass rewards, you with a breathtaking display of wildflowers and expansive landscapes. Previously a more challenging endeavor involving a scheduled shuttle from the Sunshine gondola base to the ski area, the hike is now more accessible. With a simple arrival and a gondola ride, you can commence your hike in just under 20 minutes, having already gained 500 meters (1,640 feet).
The trail from the upper village to Healy Pass encompasses a gradual elevation gain of 360 meters (1,180 feet), guiding you through open areas that serve as downhill ski runs in the winter. Late July to early August is the optimal time for the Healy Pass hike, offering peak wildflower displays and favorable weather conditions.
Beyond the captivating wildflowers, the views along the Continental Divide are truly awe-inspiring. Mount Pharaoh, Mount Assiniboine, Mount Brett, Mount Bourgeau, and The Monarch grace the forefront, while Pharaoh Lake sits perfectly at the base of Mount Pharaoh beyond the pass. The round-trip distance of the trail is just over 18 kilometers (11 miles), and the rewards far exceed the effort invested.
6. Peyto Lake
If the hikes mentioned seem a bit challenging for you or if you’re accompanied by young children, Peyto Lake could be the perfect solution. This exceptionally stunning lake in the park is easily accessible via a short 500-meter paved path to an overlook. The water, with its light blue hue, appears to glow in the sunshine and offers a sight unlike anything you’ve seen before.
While many visitors stop and turn around at the overlook, an unpaved trail extends further for a few kilometers, offering what many consider to be an even more impressive view of the lake and the surrounding mountains.
7. Plain of Six Glaciers
Many individuals embarking on the Plain of Six Glaciers hike often find themselves there unexpectedly. Inquisitive hikers who set out on the Shoreline Trail are often compelled to explore what lies beyond the corner at the end of Lake Louise.
This curiosity is met with reward as they traverse the open plains beyond the lake, heading towards the conclusion of the trail with the Victoria Glacier on their right.
Ultimately, the additional effort pays off not only with magnificent views but also with a treat and a warm beverage at another historic tea house.
The trail extends for 13.8 kilometers (8.6 miles) to its conclusion, but if you opt to turn back at the tea house, the distance is only 10.6 kilometers (6.6 miles). The elevation gain is relatively moderate, reaching 365 meters (1,197 feet) to the tea house and 464 meters (1,522 feet) at the turnaround point.
8. Helen Lake
Exploring the forest on the Helen Lake hike proves to be a rewarding endeavor. The scenery from the lake, especially from the ridge above, offers spectacular views, stretching across the valley and showcasing landmarks like the Crowfoot Glacier and Bow Falls.
This hike is of moderate difficulty, covering 12 kilometers (7.4 miles) round trip with an elevation gain of 455 meters (1,492 feet), making it relatively manageable in the context of Banff National Park.
A highlight of the hike is the presence of open areas adorned with glacier lilies. While the temptation to wander off the trail might arise, it’s crucial to resist, as this delicate ground doesn’t recover well from foot traffic.
Upon reaching the lake and taking a rest, the desire to continue up to the ridge will likely arise. Following this urge is recommended, as the views from the ridge surpass those of the lake. Cirque Peak looms above Helen Lake, and those willing to invest an additional hour in climbing will be rewarded with the summit, standing at an elevation of 2,993 meters (9,817 feet) and providing unobstructed 360-degree views. Mount Hector stands in the distance, and Helen Lake appears diminutive below.
What sets this hike apart is the continuous cascade of breathtaking views. The return journey offers incredible perspectives across the valley, overriding any fatigue that may have set in.
9. Mistaya Canyon
While not a hike with a specific destination like Parker Ridge or Healy Pass, Mistaya Canyon offers a short and delightful excursion that is both enjoyable and easy. Ideal for individuals of all ages and abilities, this 1.8-kilometer trail presents captivating features.
The trail is broad and straightforward, featuring minimal elevation changes. Standing on the bridge and observing the water surging through the narrow chasm, accompanied by the thunderous sound, creates a sensory experience. The sinuous chasm serves as a captivating testament to the force of water and its capacity to erode solid rock. Peak flows occur in June during the melting period, often accompanied by frequent rainstorms.
The rocks flanking the canyon are popular spots for walking and relaxation, but caution is advised.
10. Nearby: Iceline Trail, Yoho National Park
Although situated outside Banff National Park, this hike ranks among our favorites in the region and is just a short distance away. If you are up for a challenging yet breathtaking trek, the Ice Line Trail in Yoho National Park is well worth exploring.
The trail ascends through the trees and emerges onto an open bench adorned with ice on the upper side, featuring the stunning Emerald Glacier. As you traverse the trail, crossing small creeks and glacial moraines, the Vice Presidents (mountains) loom majestically above. From this vantage point, you’ll enjoy spectacular views across the valley, encompassing the Daly Glacier and Takakkaw Falls.
The length of this hike can vary from 13 to 20 kilometers (eight to 12.4 miles), depending on how far along the bench you choose to walk. If this hike piques your interest, keep in mind that the elevation gain is 710 meters (2,229 feet), nearly double that of many hikes mentioned in this article.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Banff National Park: Best Areas & Hotels
Q: Are there any age restrictions for the listed hikes?
A: Most trails are suitable for various age groups, but it’s essential to choose a trail that matches your fitness level.
Q: What wildlife should I be cautious of during my hike?
A: Banff is home to bears, elk, and other wildlife. Carry bear spray and familiarize yourself with wildlife safety guidelines.
Q: Can I hike in Banff during the winter months?
A: Yes, many trails are open year-round. However, winter hikes require additional preparation and equipment.
Q: Are there guided tours available for these hikes?
A: Yes, guided tours are available for some trails, providing both safe and informative experiences.
Q: How can I contribute to the conservation of Banff National Park?
A: Follow Leave No Trace principles, support local conservation initiatives, and stay informed about sustainable tourism practices.