For as long as I can remember, I have loved the picturesque town of Banff. Nestled at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, it’s like a secret passageway into the wild world beyond. As a child, I stopped there with my parents on the way to visit family in B.C. As a teenager, I set out to explore the town with a car full of friends. And now, as an adult, I have the chance to introduce my boys to the spot that holds so many memories for me.
And if there’s a great spot for a family vacation, it’s Banff National Park! That’s why my husband and I recently decided to spend a few days exploring the town and surrounding area. And if you’re planning a trip of your own, these activities are perfect for families:
1) Climb to the Top of Tunnel Mountain
A trip to Banff National Park wouldn’t be complete without climbing to the top of a mountain! This climb is on the outskirts of Banff and while there are some tough stretches, it’s easily done with children. Just make sure to bring plenty of water and a few snacks! At the top, climbers are rewarded with a picturesque view of the town of Banff and the nearby mountains.
As an added bonus, Parks Canada has placed two comfortable red Adirondack chairs at the top of the mountain, so climbers can catch their breath, relax and enjoy one of the most beautiful vistas in Canada. It’s a great way to recharge body and mind before making the hike back down again.
Even though this climb is so close to Banff, make sure to bring your camera, and maybe a whistle! Elk and bear have both been spotted on the mountain, though they tend to avoid the traffic on the hiking trails.
2) Learn About the Canada Parks System at Cave and Basin
Cave and Basin is one of nine different sulphurous hot springs found at Sulphur Mountain, and has been a popular destination since it was discovered by two Canadian Pacific Railway workers back in 1883. The hot spring is a National Historic Site and lets visitors explore the natural grotto full of the warm, sulphurous water.
An indoor information center provides plenty of information about Cave and Basin itself, and how its discovery inspired the Canadian government to protect and preserve the country’s most unique natural wonders. Since my husband works for CP Rail, our boys loved learning about the role the railway played in the discovery of the site and its development in later years.
The site also features a pleasant and educational hiking trail that lets visitors learn more about the area and its ecosystem. I especially loved learning about the tiny Banff Springs snails that make their home in the water. The snails are endangered and to ensure they continue to flourish in the area, touching the hot springs in this area is forbidden.
3) Visit the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
Even if you’re not staying at the Fairmont Banff Springs (and with prices often as high as $500 per night, it’s quite a splurge!), taking your family to walk the grounds and see the beautiful hotel up close is a must. In addition to stunning views of Mount Rundle, the hotel itself is a gorgeous example of Sottish Baronial architecture.
A former Canadian Pacific Railway hotel, the Fairmont really is something special. Some of my favourite features are the outdoor pool and the patio overlooking the golf course. My boys, on the other hand, adored the hotel’s resident Canine Ambassador, Bear. Some of the guests had the beautiful black lab out for a walk, and Zackary and Benjamin couldn’t resist spending some time petting and playing with the adorable animal.
4) Explore the Banff Park Museum
Fans of nature and animals will be fascinated by the variety of plants and animals at the Banff Park Museum. The building, a beautiful and rustic log structure, houses over 5,000 different varieties of mammals, insects, flowers and more. Seeing the claws and teeth on some of the animals that live in the area gave us new respect for Banff’s nearby carnivores!
When we were done learning about the wildlife and admiring the many displays, we headed into the Discovery Room for some hands-on fun. This room lets kids get up close and personal with nature by examining the difference between horns and antlers, feeling the texture of various types of fur, doing puzzles and even checking out real fossils! My boys loved sharing their thoughts about the museum on the large community blackboard in the room.
5) Hike Through Johnston Canyon
For some of the most beautiful views around Banff, Johnston Canyon is a must-see. The canyon’s trail has three main scenic points: the Lower Falls, the Upper Falls and, for the truly ambitious, the Ink Pots. While the Ink Pots, seven cold mineral springs with basins made of quicksand, are quite unique, the extra three kilometres of walking may be a bit much for families with younger children.
Instead, we enjoyed the stunning views of the canyon and the waterfalls as we made the journey to the Lower and Upper Falls. Both have some beautiful vantage points of the roaring water and the towering rocks that had us all in awe.
If possible, this hike is a great one to do first thing in the morning. The area does get very crowded and we encountered more than one large tour group along the way. At the vantage points, it can be especially hard to get a good view of the area when the crowds get thick. But since the tour groups are usually on a schedule, waiting for a few minutes is often helpful too.
6) Swim in the Banff Upper Hot Springs
While learning about the history of the hot springs in Banff is not to be missed, swimming the hot springs themselves may be even better! The Banff Upper Hot Springs is a beautiful outdoor pool that lets visitors relax in the sulphurous water while enjoying a stunning mountain view.
For those that have never swam in hot springs before, the sensation of swimming around in a giant bathtub is blissful. And the waters are rumoured to have healing properties too! But remember to drink plenty of water and take regular cool-down breaks when swimming. The warmth can make you a little woozy if you’re not careful!
7) Shop in Downtown Banff
Banff’s downtown area is the perfect spot to spend an afternoon. It’s small enough to be easily walkable and is filled with unique shops carrying everything from kitschy souvenirs to handmade candy to designer jewelry. My boys loved browsing the unique trinkets, and both were thrilled to have Zoltan, the resident wizard, tell their fortune.
Of course, when shopping time is done, there are plenty of amazing restaurants to check out for dinner! We decided to try Tooloulou’s, a Cajun restaurant featuring plenty of unique southern dishes in the heart of the Rockies. The boys loved being able to try alligator for the first time in such an unexpected place, and my own jambalaya had an authentic heat that was pleasantly unexpected.
For a family that loves being active like mine, Banff National Park really is a dream vacation spot. And if you’re planning a weekend vacation to Banff, make sure to try a few of these activities! Whether your kids prefer hiking, swimming or shopping, Banff National Park is the perfect place to spend some quality time with your loved ones!