Ascend to the Top of the World in Banff National Park
Dizzying views in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
“Dizzy heights” are quite literal in Canada's Rockies. Standing some 7,000-ish feet above sea level and steadying myself on a trekking pole, I acknowledge the thinner oxygen up here. But it’s not just the air that can cause some slight lightheadedness. I find myself almost woozy at the—okay, I’ll say it—breathtaking views before me. Ripples of stone humps stretch to the horizon in all directions, here on what feels like the top of the world.
It’s easy to see why Banff National Park was once advertised as “50 Switzerlands in one.” The mountain range (comprising bizarrely jagged peaks, many exceeding 12,000 feet) goes on for thousands of miles. And so many valleys between are filled with pools of water—each a different shade of glowing, ethereal teal—or a glacier spilling out like an icy tongue.
Banff is renowned for skiing in winter (though some heights have enough snow to backcountry ski all year long, even in July), while the valleys offer perfectly crisp hikes in spring and fall. Come summer, the balmy 70 degree weather keeps you from sweating too much as you ascend peaks or enjoy sparkling pools in the valleys.
Visiting here is a real two-for-one deal, since immediately next to Banff is Jasper National Park, located in such proximity that it’s difficult to tell where one park ends and the other begins. Plus, if you somehow tire of gondolas soaring above a sea of trees, incredibly scenic drives, glacier hikes, tasteful lodge towns, or tea houses serving steaming treats and drinks directly on the trail, the nearby cities of Edmonton and Calgary offer innovative restaurants, bars, and art. No matter how much time you have, here’s what to cram into your trip to Banff.
Start and end in a buzzing city
To get to Banff, you can fly in and out of either Edmonton or Calgary and then rent a car to drive to the national park. But instead of doubling back to the same city for the return flight, one ideal option would be to continue onward through the park in order to hit up both cities, picking up your car rental from one airport and dropping it off in the next. Both are newer cities with sky-scraper-filled downtowns; Calgary is on the more polished side, while Edmonton feels artsy and green.
In Edmonton, you’ll notice an enormous chain of parks running through the center of the city, thanks to protected land on both sides of the North Saskatchewan River. Locals bike, walk, or scooter around the 40 miles of pathways weaving through pine trees and descending down to glacier-blue water. You’ll find art scattered through the park and the city, much of which is created by indigenous artists and celebrates Métis First Nations or the Cree language. Whether you hike, kayak, or sign on for a dinner or party on a river boat on the North Saskatchewan, no worries about trekking all the way back uphill at the end of the day—you can ride the funicular instead.
Whyte Avenue is the street to check out while you’re in town, with its restaurants, indie theater, beer gardens, farmer’s markets, and street art. Here you’ll find a bar in an old train station, board game cafes, arcade bars, and restaurants dishing ramen, ice cream, vegan eats, curries, Cajun food, and more. Across town there’s some newer development, but you’ll find cool spots like the Neon Sign Museum. Eat spectacular bao buns and dumplings at the colorful Baiju (don’t miss the Last Days in Vietnam cocktail with soju and Thai basil), and settle in at Braven in the JW Marriott Edmonton Ice District, which features chic cabin decor and serves a hearty woodsman breakfast that’ll make you want to slap that syrup on your bacon.
The other option is Calgary. If Edmonton is the hip dive bar, then Calgary is the upscale dance club. The restaurant scene here is on point, with places like Nupo serving an omakase tasting menu (and while the regular fish option is divine, we cannot recommend the vegan version enough, which is shockingly innovative for the taste buds). Or there’s Lulu Bar, which creates incredible shared plates like lobster dumplings, fried coconut squid, and skewers—and you wouldn’t believe what they can do to cauliflower, which is roasted in miso and furikake.
You’ll also find gentle rafting and kayaking on the Bow River, a haunted ghost tour around the city, and chuck wagon races at the Calgary Stampede, where old wooden food carts go neck and neck. Check out the cool neighborhood of Kensington for nightlife, and absolutely stay at The Dorian Hotel, which is filled with floral decor, a heavy dose of British whimsy, and literary references to Oscar Wilde that quite possibly make it this author’s favorite hotel.
Take in the drive
Getting anywhere in or around Banff and Jasper means you’re doing a scenic drive, so we won’t even bother recommending specific routes—though you’ll probably take the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) and the Trans Canada Highway. In any case, just follow your maps app and be ready to look up a lot. Even the driver will be wowed—while still focusing intently on the road and keeping hands on the wheel at exactly the 10 and 2 o’clock positions, of course. Don’t be surprised if a massive caribou stands majestically by the road, allowing puny humans to snap their little photos. And yes, there are bears here, but whether you see them from a car or on the trail (like I did), they’re not particularly interested in humans.
Hit up tea houses and gondolas while hiking in Banff
Whenever you decide to stop the car, it’s time for open-air adventure. The most popular destination for hikers and non-hikers alike is Lake Louise, or Ho-Run-Num-Nay, meaning “the lake of little fish.” This is where you’ll find the most Instagram posts, as well as kayak trips on the turquoise water. One excellent hike in this area is the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail, which is a moderate 6-mile roundtrip walk from Lake Louise up about 1,000 feet to a lovely tea house serving cakes, warm entrees, hot cocoa, and—of course—tea. The hike to Lake Agnes Tea House also starts from Lake Louise and is easier to reach at only 4.7 miles roundtrip, though we’d say the less crowded Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House is more rustic and rewarding.
If you don’t want to pack your own trekking poles and lunch, or stress about where to find the best wildlife spotting, stopping points, and photo opportunities, companies like Discover Banff Tours offer guided hikes to take all the worry out of the outdoors. Banff is also making an effort to rename peaks back to the original names given by the indigenous people here—since the government spent ages allowing the first European who climbed a mountain to name it after themselves—but until that project is complete, these guides are the perfect chance to find out what the true names are.
Just across from Ho-Run-Num-Nay is the Lake Louise Summer Gondola that runs through early October. From the top dropoff point, you can hike one of the many trails on the summit or dine at the ski lodge that’s open year round.
For an easy but stunning hike in Banff, try Johnston Canyon Lower Falls, which is a flat 1-mile walk on boardwalks suspended over a river in a narrow canyon. You’ll feel like you’re levitating above the river until you get to a small cave and waterfall at the end, where teal blue water gushes into shimmering pools. You can continue onwards from there to Upper Falls for higher vistas. And close to town, Stoney Squaw is another short 2-mile hike that’s steeper and more secluded, with few people and many tree roots along the trail. You’ll mostly be surrounded by pines the entire time, except for some quick views at the top, so this is one for the forest bathers out there.
Climb up glaciers and into hot springs in Jasper
Walking on top of a glacier is a rare experience—and one that’s getting even rarer, since many of them are melting away. Going on a trek with a responsible tourism group allows visitors the chance of a lifetime while also learning about preservation and climate change. The glaciers from the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park are shrinking, but they’re still hypnotic to gaze upon as they sit like eerie, silent giants. Columbia Icefield Adventures offers the chance to trek for 30 minutes onto a hunk of ice and see how much the glacier has receded in the past few decades.
Whether or not you opt to walk on the icefield—for which a guide is required, lest you fall into one of the deep cracks—you can also hike a short trail that takes you to the edge of the glacier. The hikes start at the Glacier View Lodge, which is an elegant place to stay and see the bluish ice from the hotel’s huge floor-to-ceiling windows. From here, you can also purchase tickets for the Skywalk, where visitors walk out onto a glass platform suspended 900 feet above the rugged glacial landscape.
If even the thought of a glacier hike is chilling, there’s also plenty of heat to be had in Jasper. The Sulphur Skyline Trail is a jaw-dropping hike that ends in hot springs. About 5 miles roundtrip and with around a 2,000-foot elevation gain, this hike climbs gradually up inclines and switchbacks until you’re suddenly beholding the world from its crown. You’ll want to be extra careful with your footing at the very top, since it’s somewhat gravely. Or just skip the whole thing and sit in the natural Miette Hot Springs at the foot of the trail, surrounded by all the peaks you can admire regardless of whether you decide to climb them.
The Bald Hills trail is another iconic hike in Jasper with huge views at the top. The majority of the 8-mile route goes through forests, either steeply to the left or on an easier fire road to the right, until emerging for the ridgeline view. The trail starts and stops by Maligne Lake, where you can opt to go on a boat cruise.
Relax each evening in a lodge town
A couple of towns located within the national parks exemplify the best version of lodge towns. While there are certainly many tourists, the villages don’t feel plasticky; there’s an authenticity to the wood and fireplaces that perhaps comes with weathering many long winters. The main towns are eponymously named Banff and Jasper. You’ll find numerous shops and restaurants, all within wooden mountain houses. Tour operators pick guests up directly from the hotels in town and make it easy to get around the national park without having to drive or fight for parking at trailheads.
If you get back to town and still have the stamina to take in more mountain views, bike trails are the best way to explore the immediate area—which can be done via e-bike for those who want to see the sights but whose legs have called it quits. At Snowtips-Bactrax in Banff, workers will outfit you with either a mountain or electric bike and offer maps and suggestions of which routes to take from the center of town, depending on how long you want to ride. One nearby option with a glorious vista is Lake Minnewanka Loop, which goes up and down some hills in a 15-mile route along protected bike lanes and a low-traffic road.
While Jasper has plenty to offer as well, Banff is the perfect home base to return to after a long day of excursions. Three Bears Brewery is a highlight, where the food is as inventive as the beer. Whatever you do, order the lamb rib with pomegranate glaze and a hint of chili oil, which is an outrageous dish you’ll keep dreaming about on the trails. And though the beer menu is extensive, with hoppy trail brews and local pine pilsners, the restaurant’s signature drinks are infused beers. Using teas like rooibos and fruit such as blueberries or peaches, brewers experiment with flavors that come out fresh from the on-site infusion chamber. Look out for fruity combos in warmer months and a peppermint stout as the seasons get colder.
For a final dose of relaxation, one highly suggested activity is to soak in a steam room full of eucalyptus. Steam rooms might seem like they’re the same all over the world, but the humble mini-spa that’s free (I repeat, free) for guests of Peaks Hotel & Suites must have a rejuvenating secret beyond just a lovely smell. The new hotel in Banff is beautifully designed with rustic-chic vibes, small private balconies, and free hot cocoa by the gas fireplace—but their indoor pool and plunge pools are transformative after mountain climbing. The potent eucalyptus in all that steam seems to penetrate both your muscles and lungs for a deep hiking recovery that’ll have you ready to get back at it in no time.