Inspired Day Trips Beyond Banff

Exploring the areas around the famous resort town proved to be an eye-opening and memorable experience.

My husband, Larry, and I recently spent our spring vacation in Alberta. While the charming town of Banff is a must-see, exploring beyond Banff, either by car or on foot, is absolutely spectacular.

Larry and I set out with our GPS-equipped rental car to spend two days covering a veritable cornucopia of vistas and hikes, all within a relatively short distance.

Lake Minnewanka in BanffPhoto: Lauren Bauman
The rocky shores of Lake Minnewanka.

Day One

On the first day of our Banff road trip, we drove the Minnewanka Loop area northeast of the Town of Banff. A mere 24 kilometres in length round trip, this scenic circular route passes a trio of pretty lakes with imposing views of several mountain ranges. The entire route can be covered in about an hour, but stopping en route to enjoy the scenery is a must.

Our first stop was Lower Bankhead where, along an overgrown, self-guided trail, we explored the ruins of an abandoned coal mining town. It was constructed by the C.P.R. and operated from 1904 to 1922 before shutting down. You can still see the coal slag heaps left behind.

Lake Minnewanka, which means the “lake of spirits” was indeed worth checking out. In fact, standing on the huge rocks of the stony beach set against the jagged, mountainous backdrop proved popular for taking “selfies.”

Banff Day Trip - Johnson LakePhoto: Lauren Bauman
Peaceful Johnson Lake is a natural bird habitat.

An even more rugged adventure was hiking the Stewart Canyon Trail along the lake’s north shore. The forest trail led to a bridge above the Cascade River. We climbed over boulders to reach the bottom of the steep canyon and the river’s edge. Afterwards, we continued driving to nearby Two Jack Lake where we devoured a well-earned picnic lunch.

As they say, we saved the best for last—Johnson Lake. We hiked around this placid lake and finally just sat on a shaded bench, admiring yet another stunning mountain panorama and watching the flurry of birds in their natural habitat. Thankfully, very few people had the same idea. Although it started to rain, we’d had a full day.

Discover more great bird-watching spots across Canada.

Banff Day Trip - Upper Falls At Johnston CanyonPhoto: Lauren Bauman
The cascading Upper Waterfalls at Johnston Canyon.

Day Two

Our second Banff day trip proved more challenging. We drove the scenic Bow Valley Parkway that runs parallel to the Trans-Canada Highway from Banff to Lake Louise along the meandering Bow River. We only covered half of it, saving legendary Lake Louise for another day. Driving at a reduced speed was mandatory due to the wildlife along the route and, sure enough, bighorn sheep and elk were grazing nonchalantly, unaware of the traffic stopping for photo ops.

After passing the Muleshoe Wetlands, we headed to our destination, Johnston Canyon. This gorge has been carved into the limestone bedrock by thousands of years of water erosion. Along with many tourists, we climbed narrow, railed walkways to view the impressive lower and upper waterfalls—spray included—surrounded by ancient worn rock and fallen, lichen-covered trees.

We spotted signs for the famous Ink Pots, and people who were returning said they were amazing, so we kept walking. The trail was mainly a long, strenuous uphill climb, but the sweeping views were equally breathtaking during our frequent rests. Everyone we passed kept saying it wasn’t too far! We finally reached an alpine meadow, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The unique Ink Pots were indeed colourful—five blue-green mineral springs that bubbled up from deep below the mountains. We rested on benches, meeting fellow travellers who shared their snacks with us as we’d come unprepared.

Thankfully, the return trek was mostly downhill. In total, we’d hiked 12 kilometres! Johnston Canyon tested our endurance levels, but we conquered it.

We later enjoyed a late lunch overlooking a winding river alongside railway tracks and, as if on cue, a train rumbled by. To top off the day, we drove to Castle Cliffs viewpoint, where you can see the profile of Castle Mountain, named for its castellated, fortress-like appearance—no further hiking was involved!

Although we returned to Banff via the highway as it was quicker, the scenic route is definitely etched in my memory forever.

Now that you’ve got inspiration for your own Banff day trip, find out why Banff’s Tunnel Mountain doesn’t actually have a tunnel.

Originally Published in Our Canada