11 Outdoor Things to do in Banff
When traveling in the Canadian Rockies, you should definitely visit Banff at least for its nearby hot springs and wonderful mountain views.
Check the list of amazing outdoor activities to enjoy in Banff by Becca!
My family and I love seeing incredible places, especially in the great outdoors. A trip to the Canadian Rockies has been a long-standing tradition of our family. We are a diverse bunch, but Banff has a little something for everyone.
To help you plan your own Banff adventure, allow me to share the research I did for our previous few trips. At least one of these activities will spark your interest in the magical wonderland called Banff.
- 1 Enjoy a Ride on the Banff Gondola
- 2 Canoe on Lake Moraine
- 3 Have a Picnic Next to Lake Minnewanka
- 4 Take a Bath in Banff Upper Hot Springs
- 5 Bike the Two Jack Lake Trail or Bow River Trail
- 6 Go Whitewater Rafting on the Rivers of Banff
- 7 Ride the Scenic Chairlift on Mt. Norquay
- 8 Camp in Banff National Park
- 9 Explore the Cave and Basin National Historic Site and the Johnston Canyon
- 10 Go Skiing at the Lake Louise Ski Resort
- 11 Walk Around Downtown Banff
Enjoy a Ride on the Banff Gondola
The most relaxing way to experience Banff’s natural beauty is the Gondola, and this is coming from someone who is scared of heights.
You will find 4-person, fully enclosed gondolas just a few minutes south of the town of Banff. They’ll take you about 2,200 ft in elevation to the summit of Sulphur Mountain. The whole ride lasts about 8 minutes.
Trust me, all of this sounds much scarier than it is. If you are afraid of heights like me, rest assured that the amazing view will completely distract you.
You can stroll along the Sulphur Mountain boardwalk when you get to the top. You will be rewarded with the most breathtaking view of Banff when you get to Sanson’s Peak.
We bemoaned the high ticket prices (CA$62), but they were worth every penny. On top of the 360-degree rooftop observation deck, you’ll find a multi-sensory theater and interactive interpretive exhibits.
A tip from an experienced traveler: wear layers and purchase tickets in advance to get a discount.
Canoe on Lake Moraine
Yes, that water really is that color! Even in person, this lake almost looks fake.
Paddling on the stunning Lake Moraine is a surreal experience. With its perfectly calm waters nestled underneath snow-capped mountains, it is the epitome of the Canadian Rockies.
Canoe rentals are available from June to September at the Moraine Lake Lodge. They cost about $100 CAD ($80 USD).
Even though kayaks and canoes aren’t available to rent before 10 AM, we got up early to arrive there before the crowds—and I advise you to do the same.
As the day progresses, parking becomes scarcer. Before the rental shop opens, you can hike the trail that goes around the lake. You’ll spot gorgeous views of the Fay Glacier and Mount Fay as you walk along the lakeshore.
The lake is just an hour’s drive north of town. Do know that Moraine Lake Road is open only from mid-May to mid-October.
In the summer season, Parks Canada offers free shuttles to the lake. For more information, check out the Parks Canada website.
Have a Picnic Next to Lake Minnewanka
This mesmerizing glacial lake fed by the Cascade River is located just northeast of the town. It was named “Lake of the Spirits” by the First Nations Stoney people who used to camp and hunt along its shores.
Even though there’s tons of stuff you can do here, you’ll find me doing more “picnicking” and less “cruising down” and “trekking around” the lake. It’s an ideal place to spread a blanket, grab a bite, and take in the gorgeous vistas.
Do know that scuba diving is also a popular activity here. You can hop on a cruise tour of the lake if you love being in the water. If you prefer to stay on dry land, you can hike some of the scenic trails to the Cascade River and the Steward Canyon.
The drive along Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive alone is totally worth a picnic in the area. It is a large loop that will take you along the southwestern edge of the lake.
Take a Bath in Banff Upper Hot Springs
While you are in the area, why not take a dip in one of the last remaining springs open for bathing? The Upper Hot Springs are just a short distance from the gondolas and they are fairly cheap to get into (about $10 CAD).
Reserving a whole day for soaking in these hot springs is well worth it. The springs are mainly popular due to the stunning alpine views, serene atmosphere, and consistently hot water (84 to 104 degrees).
However, they feature all of the modern amenities you’d expect from a man-made swimming pool (such as a gift shop, cafe, changing areas, lockers, ladders, and railings), akin to Budapest’s thermal baths.
I plan to hit up Radium Hot Springs the next time I come back. It is an hour and a half drive outside of Banff but supposedly less busy.
Bike the Two Jack Lake Trail or Bow River Trail
One year, we pitched our tent right on Two Jack Lake. The sun set after 11 p.m., which was heavenly. We would go for a bike ride each night after dinner.
The Two Jack Lake Loop Trail is great for all skill levels. There are many different vantage points along the trail.
The Bow River Trail may be even more popular. If follows the river through the town. The Bow River Trail is great for families pushing strollers since it’s a lovely flat paved path.
You can use this trail to access the Banff Bike Park from downtown Central Park, or you can access the Recreation Grounds.
If you are up for a longer ride, you can take on the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail. This 12-mile trail connects Banff and Canmore.
Go Whitewater Rafting on the Rivers of Banff
Whether you want to peacefully glide through the water or go on an exciting whitewater rafting adventure, Banff tour operators can hook you up. When you’re not hiking in Banff National Park or exploring its stunning scenery from the comfort of your car, go out on the Bow River.
A leisurely float trip on one of Banff’s scenic rivers can span one to three hours. Depending on the tour, prices range from $55 to $90 CAD ($43 to $70 USD). During such a float tour, you’ll sit in a big raft as an experienced guide paddles you through the calm river.
If you are up for an adrenaline-pumping tour, head to the Horseshoe Canyon, Kananaskis River, or the Kicking Horse River. These wild rafting tours cost between $55 to $169 CAD ($43 to $70 USD).
Ride the Scenic Chairlift on Mt. Norquay
You must visit Mount Norquay as well if you haven’t had enough breathtaking views of Banff. This lift leaves you exposed to the elements as it consists of open-air chairs, so it is quite different from the Banff Gondola.
The ride to the top of Mount Norquay is not your average chairlift ride. You will glide over a natural grizzly and black bear habitat. The ride lasts about 10 minutes, taking you up to almost 6,900 feet.
You can enjoy boardwalks with many scenic views and the Cliffhouse Bistro when you get to the top. We ordered a few local craft beers and took the time to take in the vistas from the restaurant.
Camp in Banff National Park
Since the town is located within the national park, this one is obvious. But this magnificent park is truly one of the best places to explore in Canada.
Banff National Park, along with Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay national parks, and Hamber, Mount Assiniboine, and Mount Robson provincial parks, make up the UNESCO Canadian Rocky Mountains World Heritage Site.
You’ve got plenty of space to explore since the park is over 4,000 square miles. Banff National Park is famous for amazing geological formations, relaxing hot springs, and awesome mountain views.
To fully experience the national park, you should visit it at least twice, once in the winter and once in the summer. Thanks to our excellent tent, we had a comfortable experience camping in Banff during the shoulder seasons as well as the warmest months of the year.
There’s even one campground that’s open year-round, so you can still camp in Banff if you’re visiting in winter for skiing. Just make sure to bring a well-insulated tent.
During the coldest months of the year, it’s also a great place to go ice skating and snowshoeing. In the summer, you can go hiking, canoeing, fishing, backpacking, and so much more.
Throughout the years, we have seen fantastic wildlife within the park: deer, mountain lions, moose, coyotes, wolves, bears, and elk. These are wild animals after all, so one must be sensible when roaming around the park.
Explore the Cave and Basin National Historic Site and the Johnston Canyon
The Cave and Basin National Historic Site is popular among history buffs and nature lovers alike. It is considered to be the birthplace of the national park. For years, travelers have been coming here in search of solace.
Make sure to tag along the guided tour. You will get a chance to dip your hands in the steamy thermal waters on top of hearing all about how railway workers first stumbled upon these fascinating pools.
There are picnic tables, a cafe, and a gift shop near the site’s exhibit. The admission is only $3.9 CAD ($3 USD).
It’s a good idea to explore the nearby Johnston Canyon and its “hidden Cave” as well. Here, you will find beautiful waterfalls and a unique, fascinating rock formed by erosion.
Go Skiing at the Lake Louise Ski Resort
Encompassing three mountains and over 140 runs, Lake Louise is one of the largest ski areas in North America. If you are just starting out, it is a great place to take some ski lessons.
The Lake Louise Ski Resort is perfect for all levels, and it is family-friendly. Although we came here for the manicured trails and guided hikes, we were especially impressed with the top-notch eateries in the Temple Lodge.
If you are up for a bigger challenge, head to the Banff Sunshine Village resort. It is perfect for intermediate skiers, and it has over 130 trails. The best resort for more advanced level skiers is Mount Norquay. A 3-day pass for all three resorts costs around $400 CAD ($320 USD).
Walk Around Downtown Banff
I am a sucker for a lovely mountain town, and Banff delights me every time I visit. Even if you are not a big nature-lover, you will fall in love with the quaint European flair of this mountain town.
You won’t be disappointed with the variety of eateries and shops in the town if you enjoy dining, shopping, and leisurely strolls.
Craving something sweet? Cows on Banff Street is the best ice cream parlor in Canada I’ve ever been to. I had to wait in line for a while each time I was there but was worth it every single time. There are over 30 flavors you can choose from.
If you want something different than your standard Starbucks, I also recommend Evelyn’s Coffee Car or the Whitebark Cafe.
I’m Rebecca, a translator, avid traveler, and bookworm. My job has given me the amazing opportunity to travel to dozens of countries around the world, and writing on Rough Draft gives me a chance to try to showcase some of them.