Wanting to plan a summer family trip to Banff National Park, Canada but not sure what to do?
Canada is such a large, vast country with a plethora of outdoor activities to do all year round, so we know that it can be overwhelming to plan a trip there. That’s why we’ve made it easy and not only have done all the research for you, but can personally vouch for these awesome, must-do activities in Banff. We’ve also included some areas near Banff to include Waterton and Jasper, if you want to do a road trip through Alberta, Canada (we highly recommend it!). This list includes some of the best highlights and family-friendly outdoor activities in all of those areas, and the best part? Almost all of them are FREE! (Can I get a whoop whoop?)
One of our favorite places on earth is Alberta, Canada. Our first trip to Canada as a family was the summer of 2015. We did a big road trip starting in Glacier National Park, Montana and then continuing north through Alberta, Canada. It was absolutely breathtaking everywhere we turned! The Canadian Rockies are hard to beat with their staggering, jagged peaks, but we also fell in love with the turquoise glacier lakes of Alberta such as Lake Moraine, Lake Louise, and Peyto Lake. And then there’s the wildlife! We saw bald eagles, bears, moose, mountain goats, big horn sheep, and more. Canada truly has some of the world’s most exciting wildlife to spot!
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Waterton National Park
If you only have a day in Waterton National Park and time for a short hike, do Bear’s Hump. It’s only 2 miles round trip (climbing a little over 700 feet) and it offers the best views of Waterton to include Upper and Lower Waterton Lake, the town of Waterton (which is so cute by the way), the famous Prince of Wales Hotel, and of course, the amazing Canadian Rockies which stretch as far as the eye can see.
If you have an extra day in Waterton and are up for a serious adventure and want to check one of National Geographic’s 20 Most Thrilling Hikes off your bucketlist, don’t miss the famous Crypt Lake trail. This trail starts with a short 15 min boat ride via Waterton Shoreline Cruise (cost is $20/person) across Waterton Lake to Crypt Landing where you begin the hike. This hike is challenging, a little over 10 miles round trip, and not suited for young children or those with a serious fear of heights. Also, don’t forget bear spray (that goes for any hike in Canada)! The trail passes by some waterfalls and pretty views, but the real thrill comes when you have to hold onto a steel cable and ascend up the narrow cliff with steep drop-offs, climb an eight foot ladder, and wiggle yourself through a 60 foot tunnel. This hike isn’t for the faint of heart, but it will definitely leave you with a surge of adrenaline when you accomplish the hike and make it safely down!
Red Rock Canyon
If you can squeeze it in (perhaps the same day you hike Bear’s Hump), Red Rock Canyon is a great, easy, short hike (less than a mile!) that takes you to a waterfall, and along a pretty red rock canyon where the kids can play in the water.
Banff National Park
Cave & Basin
While you’re in Banff, don’t miss Cave & Basin Historic Site, which is actually the birthplace of Canadian National Parks. In 1883, railway workers discovered warm water springs on this site on the side of Sulphur Mountain, which led to the establishment of a reserve around the hot springs in 1885. Two years later the Canadian government made the area a national park – the country’s first. We loved seeing the underground hot springs, but the museum is also very well done and includes a short film of all of Canada’s National Parks, which is beautifully done! Did we mention that it is free too?!
Banff Upper Hot Springs
You can’t come to Banff without soaking in some hot springs. We loved Banff Upper Hot Springs, but when we come back, we want to hit up Radium Hot Springs, which supposedly is less busy but a 1.5 hr drive outside of Banff, and Miette Hot Springs in Jasper National Park.
Explore Downtown Banff
We are suckers for a good mountain ski town, and Banff delivers! We loved that the town of Banff has a quaint European flair. If you enjoy strolling through the town, shopping, or dining out, you will not be disappointed with the variety of shops and restaurants in Banff. Make sure to check out the complete guide to best dining establishments in Banff. We also like to get the locals picks on where to eat.
Bike Bow River Trail or Two Jack Lake Trail
We camped right on Two Jack Lake, which was HEAVENLY. The sun didn’t go down until after 11pm, so each night after dinner, we would go for a bike ride on the trail that surrounds Two Jack Lake. We also biked the Bow River Loop Trail, which was super easy and flat and great with kids. They even have “bear gates” on this trail to keep the bears out and off the trail! We brought our own bikes, but there are also bike rental shops in town.
For more biking trail ideas, check out Banff’s Biking Guide.
Hike Johnston Canyon
This is popular trail outside Banff, along the Bow River Parkway, but you can’t go to Banff without hiking Johnston Canyon. It is short, (less than 3 miles round trip to Upper Falls) follows a beautiful creek up to Lower and Upper Johnston Canyon Falls. There is even a catwalk for part of this trail making it wheelchair accessible. It’s great for toddlers too since there isn’t much elevation gain. Our advice is to do it earlier in the morning to avoid the tourists! This hike is supposedly just as spectacular in the winter when the waterfalls freeze.
Canoe on Lake Moraine
By far, our most favorite thing we did in Banff National Park was to go canoeing on the stunning Lake Moraine. This lake almost looks fake, even in person! Lake Moraine is the epitome of the Canadian Rockies with its perfectly calm, turquoise waters beneath the towering snow-capped Rockies. We got up early to get there before the crowds arrived and I’m so glad we did because we were some of the only people on the lake. Canoes and kayaks aren’t available to rent until 10AM, but you can hike the trail that goes along the lake, take photos and come back before the rental shop opens. You cannot come to Banff without experiencing this!
Hike one of many Lake Louise trails
Like Lake Moraine, you can’t go to Banff National Park without visiting Lake Louise as well (just a short drive from Lake Moraine). Warning: in the summer months, it can be very CROWDED, so as mentioned previously, go earlier or later in the day. The Shoreline Trail starts at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Hotel (which is pretty amazing!) and winds along the lake offering some great viewpoints of Lake Louise and the surrounding mountains for about a mile. This trail can also be busy, so come before 10AM or after 4PM to avoid the crowds. The Fairview Lookout Trail is also a good short option and climbs up a little to give you a different perspective of the lake, Victoria Glacier, and the hotel.
One of our favorite hikes in the Lake Louise area is the hike to Lake Agnes Tea House.The trail to the Lake Agnes Tea House starts at the front of the lake near the Fairmont Chateau Hotel. It is rated as a moderate trail and is under 5 miles round trip. The elevation gain is 1300 feet. And who doesn’t want to end a hike with a hot cup of tea or bowl of soup?
If you’re up for more of a challenging hike, check out these tips for hiking to the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House. It’s a longer, but very rewarding hike. We didn’t have time to do this hike when we were there, but will definitely be hitting this trail next time we are in Banff. See more hikes in the Lake Louse and Banff surrounding areas.
Ride the gondola at Lake Louise Ski Resort
We made a last minute decision to head over to Lake Louise Ski Resort (literally across the highway from Lake Louise) because a local told us that the best grizzly bear sightings were there and to take the gondola or chair lift up to the top. So glad we did! Not only did we see a few bears from the chairlift (none of the pictures we captured there were great though), but we enjoyed the best views of the Canadian Rockies from up above. You can also do one of many hikes when you get to the top, but a lot of the area is roped off due to heavy bear population on the mountain.
Jasper National Park
As you travel up to Jasper National Park from Banff, (which by the way, is one of the most beautiful drives you’ll ever do), make a pit stop at Athabasca Canyon and Falls and walk along the river here (come at sunset and enjoy a picnic!). This is such a stunning gorge and canyon and often you’ll see kayakers paddling down this creek. The Falls are impressive and the most powerful in all of Canada (although not the tallest).
Lying just outside the town of Jasper, near the Athabasca River, Maligne Canyon is arguably one the most scenic hikes in all of Jasper National Park. This is a great hike for the family too, just under 5 miles and such a gorgeous canyon, and the deepest gorge in the Canadian Rockies. As the canyon goes further back, the walls get taller and close in on the river, creating waterfalls and cascades. I’ve heard this is a great hike in the winter too!
While you’re in Jasper, you have to stop at the picturesque Maligne Lake with the iconic Spirit Island.
Columbia Ice Fields
We wish we could’ve made it all the way to the Columbia Ice Fields (I guess that just means we will have to come back!), because everyone talks about this being the highlight of their trip in Jasper. It is also one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. The Columbia Ice Fields is found on one of the most spectacular mountain highways with unsurpassed mountain scenery paralleling the Great Divide, Bow and Crowfoot Glaciers, Athabasca Falls and Peyto Lake.
You can take a tour through Brewster Travel which has been highly recommended to us by several friends. This giant bus with special tires takes you up onto the Columbia Glacier where you can hike around on these incredible polar ice fields! They also offer tours to include the Glacier Sky Walk where you walk out onto a glass walkway hundreds of feet above the Sunwapta Valley.
Last but not least, you can’t go to Jasper National Park without visiting the famous Peyto Lake. Much like all the glacier fed alpine lakes in Alberta, this lake is also a color blue that looks fake or photo-shopped (trust us, it hasn’t been)! There is a short walk to an overlook (pictured here) and also other hikes around the area if you want to explore more.
Looking for good hiking gear to include shoes, hiking poles, clothing, and other necessities to keep you comfortable and dry on your hikes through Alberta, Canada? Check our our Hiking gear, that we’ve personally tested (and kid approved!).