Banff’s Best-Kept Secrets: 16 Essential Experiences in Canada’s Most Charming Mountain Town
Known the world over as the crown jewel of Canada’s national parks, Banff offers so much more than invigorating mountain air and some of the most stunning scenery in the Canadian Rockies. Here are 16 often-overlooked Banff attractions that make one of the highest towns in Canada one of the country’s most charming as well.
1. Be a Cowboy (or Cowgirl) for a Day.
If you grew up watching Gunsmoke or The Big Valley, chances are you dreamed of saddling up and having your own adventures in the Wild West. Banff Trail Riders makes those dreams a reality, offering everything from one-hour trail rides to a full-on cowboy cookout dinner, in which you’ll learn how to lasso before tucking in to a delicious steak on the banks of the Bow River. Not much of a rider? Not a problem! You can also book a private, horse-drawn carriage tour of Banff, which takes you along the Bow River and past the world-famous Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
2. Sample the Sippers at Park Distillery.
The only Canadian distillery located inside a national park, this trendy spot on Banff Avenue makes “Glacier to Glass” rye, vodka, and gin using fresh water drawn from six local ice fields.
3. Explore Cave and Basin.
Now a National Historic Site and recognized as a key factor in Banff’s designation as Canada’s first national park, Cave and Basin is actually a cluster of underground hot springs at Sulphur Mountain. Three Canadian Pacific railway workers discovered the atmospheric caverns purely by chance in 1883, later using the springs as their private retreat, making their way in and out via a felled tree. You can still pop inside for a peek, but taking a soak in the natural pools is strictly prohibited—not to mention somewhat slimy, as it’s the protected habitat of a snail that’s on the endangered species list.
4. Cruise Lake Minnewanka.
Known to local First Nations as the “water of the spirits,” this 21-kilometre lake—the longest in all of the Rocky Mountain parks—is lined with picturesque peaks. Sit back and enjoy the views from the comfort of a boat cruise, or charter a fishing boat and try your luck at reeling in a prized lake trout.
5. Rediscover Your Youth.
When’s the last time you went bowling? Combining pins, pints, and pizza, High Rollers is the perfect place to tap the nostalgia of old-school Saturday nights. The Banff hotspot boasts six bowling lanes, 48 beers on tap, and New York slices “as big as your head.”
6. Drive the Bow Valley Parkway.
Connecting Banff and Lake Louise, this 51-kilometre wildlife corridor features 13 interpretive stops and some of the finest scenery in the Rockies. Among the highlights is Castle Mountain (above)—a rugged peak that’s inspired artists from around the world to render its likeness in charcoal, watercolours, and oils.
7. Relax and Recharge.
Many visitors find there’s something about the crisp Rocky Mountain air that sparks a renewed interest in health and well-being. Inspired by its stunning surroundings and local First Nations culture, Cedar & Sage caters to this need with a “holistic health lounge” that offers a full menu of traditional spa treatments plus yoga, reflexology, an infrared sauna, and a juice bar.
9. Keep an Eye on the Skies.
Head to the outskirts of Banff for inky-black evening skies—and spectacularly bright stars. Viewpoints at places like Castle Mountain and the Vermillion Lakes provide dramatic stargazing opportunities.
10. Grab a Pint at the Waldhaus Pub.
Located inside the luxurious Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, this blast-from-the-past pub serves up excellent Bavarian beers, nightly billiards, and a surprisingly good brunch (make sure to try their signature Caesar).
11. Get to a Gallery.
Founded by artists Peter and Catherine Whyte, the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies is located on Bear Street, one block from Banff Avenue. The quaint, quiet gallery is perfect for rainy-day loitering, as you take in the rotating collection that reflects the art, culture, and legends of the Rockies.
12. Warm Up in the Hot Springs.
Banff’s Upper Hot Springs, located just a few kilometres south of town, are made for relaxation. Bring your swimsuit (there are change rooms with lockers on site) and climb into the hot, mineral-enriched waters that can reach temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius.
13. Enjoy the Great Outdoors—Indoors.
Head to the All in the Wild gallery to admire the striking photography of Jason Leo Bantle, a former Rocky Mountain wildlife guide, researcher, and educator. With subjects ranging from elks in battle to the icy glare of wolves, his images highlight the untamed beauty of the region.
14. Hike Tunnel Mountain.
Want the thrill of a mountain hike, without the need for a helmet and crampons? Although the summit of Tunnel Mountain is easily scalable, it delivers a huge payoff in providing one of the best views of Banff. Active folks who love a challenge should be able to tackle the 4.3-kilometre switchback trail to the mountaintop (shown centre, above) in a half-day or less.
15. Brave the Banff Gondola.
Ascending nearly 2,300 feet in eight minutes, this ear-popping gondola ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain has been thrilling tourists since 1958. While en route to the impressive new interpretive centre at the summit, be on the lookout for local wildlife, including Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, hoary marmots, and golden-mantled ground squirrels.
16. Arrive (or depart!) in style on Rocky Mountaineer.
Although there are several ways to get to Banff, Rocky Mountaineer makes the journey as impressive as the destination. Guests on the “First Passage to the West” route are spirited from Vancouver to the heart of Banff (or vice versa), through some of Canada’s most spectacular natural scenery. The best part (besides the gourmet food, impeccable service, and storytelling from onboard Hosts) is that, freed from the distractions of driving, you can devote your full attention to the panoramic views afforded by the bi-level, dome-window GoldLeaf Service coach. Experience the likes of Castle Mountain and Vermillion Lakes (above) from the unique vantage point of this historic Canadian Pacific railway line, then arrive in Banff prepared with 15 ways to enjoy it.