Banff National Park, in the Canadian Rockies, is a playground for skiers, hikers, and anyone who loves mountain scenery. There are sweeping vistas of the Rockies at every turn and even the drive into the park is memorable. Though Banff's winter charms are well known, spring and summer offer gorgeous weather and loads of opportunities to hike and spot wildlife. Here's our perfect spring or summer long-weekend getaway in Banff.
Relax into the mountain life with a soak at Banff Upper Hot Springs. The outdoor pool with 100Âº F spring water affords gorgeous views of the Rockies and is a steal at only C$7.30. Remember to pack your bathing suit!
After a soak in the hot springs it's time for some retail therapy. Souvenirs galore, as well as all manner of fudge and candies, can be found on Banff Avenue, and Bear Street, just a block away, has some local boutiques. The sparkling Bow River winds its way through Banff Townsite and is easily reachable from Banff Avenue; don't miss taking a quick stroll along the Bow River Falls trail to see the falls up close.
The second biggest reason to come to Banff, after the mountains, is the wildlife. Take an evening guided wildlife safari at Discover Banff Tours to learn all about the animals that inhabit the park. You're almost sure to see elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep. The après ski scene has brought great dining and fun bars, like the Rose & Crown, to Banff, so plan for a lively night on the town.
Insider Tip: For some solo wildlife viewing, head to the Banff Springs golf course, where you'll find elk nibbling on the grass. Bighorn sheep can often be spotted on the Mount Norquay and Lake Minnewanka roads. Black bears and grizzly bears are a rare sight but the Bow Valley Parkway, which leads to Lake Louise, is a good drive to try. Always stay a safe distance away from wild animals.
Hike Banff National Park
You'll catch breathtaking mountain vistas all over Banff National Park, but the view from atop Sulfur Mountain is one of the best. The Banff Gondola speeds you to the summit in 8 minutes, or you can test your mettle and hike the arduous Sulphur Mountain Summit Trail. Once you're at the top, walk the short wooden skywalk to neighboring Sanson Peak where there was once a meteorological station. The enormity of the mountains is hard to capture in photos from this vantage, but you will never forget the view.
All that mountain air and aerobic activity is sure to spark your appetite—you might even be able to finish the bacon-and-gouda-stuffed French toast at The Bison (pictured), a favorite spot for brunch. Try for a table on their outdoor deck if the weather is fine.
There are two small museums in Banff, perfect for when the weather isn't cooperating. The Whyte Museum features art and artifacts from the Canadian Rockies and the Banff Park Museum, lovingly known as the stuffed animal museum, has dioramas of taxidermied animals native to the Rockies.
Insider Tip: If you get up early you'll be one of the first people on the Banff Gondola and will have the mountains to yourself before everyone else arrives. The trail up Sulphur Mountain and the skywalk are still snowy in the spring and the top of the mountain is always cold so dress in warm layers.
Drive to Lake Louise
It takes about an hour and a half to drive from Banff to emerald-blue Lake Louise, but the drive along the scenic Bow Valley Parkway is worth it: picture a winding two-lane road flanked by pine forest, with snow-capped mountains popping into view at every turn. Take a break after about half an hour and hike the Johnston Canyon Trail. There are two waterfalls to choose from—the trail to the Lower Falls is paved and makes a relatively quick hike. If you have more time, continue on to the Upper Falls for an even more dramatic waterfall.
Once at Lake Louise, you can't miss the Fairmont ChÃ¢teau Lake Louise directly on the lake. Take in the views of the lake and Victoria Glacier behind it over afternoon tea at the Lakeview Lounge and then make your way around the lake on the trail that leads from the hotel.
Insider Tip: Drive the Bow River Parkway on the way to Lake Louise, but if you're exhausted on the way back, opt for the multi-lane highway AB-1. Johnston Canyon Trail can by icy in the spring; check on conditions at the Banff Information Center before heading out. Lake Louise doesn't thaw until late May, and some years into June, but it is still a sight to see even if it's iced-over.
Where to Stay
The Fairmont Banff Springs, also known as the "castle in the Rockies," is one of the most atmospheric hotels in Banff. But with prices upwards of $300 a night, the hotel may be better for a visit than a stay. The free museum and lobby are worth touring to get a sense of this National Historic Site.
More affordable lodging can be found at Buffalo Mountain Lodge, five minutes up Tunnel Mountain Road. All rooms have a fireplace and balcony and some have exposed beam ceilings and claw foot tubs. The property is quieter than hotels in Banff Townsite and the stainless steel hot tub has an enviable view of the mountains. The on-site restaurant, the Sleeping Buffalo, is the place to sample elk, caribou, and buffalo. Try the charcuterie for a surprising and delicious variety of game meats.
Just a two-hour flight from Seattle to Calgary, Banff is closer than you may think. Fly into Calgary in Alberta, Canada, which has the closest international airport to Banff National Park. Pick up your rental car here for the 130 km (80 mile) drive into Banff National Park.
Insider Tip: No need to splurge on a 4-wheel drive vehicle—roads in the park are well paved.
Thinking of a trip to Banff National Park?
For up-to-the-minute hotel and restaurant recommendations, plus the best planning advice, check out our Banff National Park Travel Guide.
Photo credits: All photos courtesy of Salwa Jabado