For many international visitors, Banff IS Canada. Banff National Park represents the epitome of the wild natural beauty that exists throughout this vast country. Banff’s lakes, mountains and glaciers live in locals’ imaginations too. Our family’s summer road trip to explore Banff is a highlight among many years of family trips. Here’s how we recommend exploring beautiful Banff with kids.
What to Do in Banff with Kids
Banff Travel Tips
- Banff National Park was established in 1885 as Canada’s first National Park. Situated in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, Banff is the busiest and most visited national park in the country. Be prepared for the crowds, and book your hotels, restaurant reservations and excursions months in advance when planning to visit Banff with kids. You’ll be glad you did.
- Order Parks Canada’s free Discovery Pass. The Pass offers visitors free access to all Canadian National Parks and Historic Sites, including Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks.
- Begin your day early. Banff in summer is crowded and very, very busy. You can wait a long and frustrating time for entrance to most attractions. Is it a case of Banff being ‘loved to death’? We hope not. But it’s not the most popular tourist attraction in the country for nothing.
- Beware the ever-changeable mountain weather. Pack a sweater and wind-breaker, even on a sunny summer day.
- To get the true wilderness experience, camp at one of the many Parks Canada campgrounds throughout the park. Tunnel Mountain 1 campground is close to Banff but wild enough that you may see an elk while sipping your morning coffee or tea.
- Make sure your vehicle is road trip worthy. Those mountain roads and steep and curvy – is your car or RV up for the drive? Get your mechanic to do a once over and top off fluids and check brakes. We did all of this, and we still broke down in Lake Louise. Yes, leaking steering fluid is a thing.
- The towns of Banff and Lake Louise are surrounded by incredible adventure opportunities. Get ready to go play in the mountains and make some incredible family travel memories.
Ride the Banff Gondola
Looking for that bird’s eye view of Banff National Park and the valley? Take an eight-minute gondola ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain in the Banff Gondola. This is truly the best way to explore Banff. At an elevation of 2,281m (7,486 ft), you’ll enjoy an incredible vista of six mountain ranges from the spectacular Banff Gondola Summit.
This facility has restaurants, interpretive exhibits, a multi-sensory theatre, and a 360-degree rooftop observation deck. You can hike the self-guided interpretive Boardwalk to Sanson’s Peak and the Cosmic Ray Station. Keep an eye out for Parks Canada red chairs, and the local wildlife. Ground squirrels are particularly friendly. If you’re lucky you’ll see Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, hoary marmots, and gray jays too.
You can download to the valley on the gondola. We enjoyed a very pleasant 5.5 km hike down Sulphur Mountain. Or in my teen’s case, a 40-minute run down the mountain, for fun.
Walk the shoreline of Lake Louise
After you’ve circled the extensive parking lot and located a suitable spot, enjoy a walk along the shoreline of Lake Louise. Take in the views of Victoria Glacier and angle your way through the crowds to a great family photo. Hopefully, you’ll be photobombed by the famous Banff Squirrel or one of his furry cousins. If you have time to spend a full day in Lake Louise, perhaps rent a canoe, paddle across the emerald-colored waters and feel a quintessential Canadian moment in this iconic and spectacular landscape.
Hike to a Tea House
You didn’t come all this way to not explore the mountains, did you? From the shoreline of Lake Louise, you can choose between two alpine tea house hikes – Lake Agnes or the Plain of Six Glaciers. Both offer incredible views, and a good workout up and down.
We chose the 6.8 km (return) Lake Agnes Trail. It offers beautiful views of Lake Louise and the surrounding mountains. It’s a moderate hike that will take between 2.5-3 hours return. You can enjoy a cup of tea and fresh scone or pie at this historic Tea House.
Soak in the Banff Upper Hot Springs
‘Taking the waters’ at Banff Hot Springs has been a tradition since the hot spring was discovered in 1883. The natural hot mineral waters bubble up from miles below the earth’s surface. There’s nothing quite as soothing after a hot day’s hike as lowering yourself into a steaming pool. The views of the mountains, including Mount Rundle, are just as invigorating.
Walk Banff Avenue
Historic Banff Avenue is home to shops, restaurants and unique boutiques featuring all kinds of Canadian kitsch as well as outdoor recreation outfitters. There are parking lots off of the main avenue, or take a hotel shuttle if provided. If you’re an early riser, head to the Avenue to capture the sunrise on Mount Rundle, the mountain overlooking Banff village center.
6 Essential Tips for Camping in Banff with Kids
Visit Moraine Lake
You may recognize the impressive scene of Moraine Lake from that Canadian $20 bill in your pocket. The turquoise waters and rugged Valley of the Ten Peaks are nature at its most awe-inspiring. Take a seat lakeside to enjoy the view. Or hike the easy 3 km return route along the shoreline of the glacial lake, and leave the crowds behind.
Take a Scenic Drive
The road to Banff along the Bow Valley Parkway from either east or west is incredibly scenic. The mountains just get bigger and more spectacular around every turn. Moving north from Banff, the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper is among the best drives on the planet, as voted by National Geographic.
The Icefields Parkway connects Banff and Jasper National Parks. The view from the road is spectacular – the mountain peaks are a like a gallery of giants, one after the other. The parks share more than 1,000 glaciers. Many of the glaciers are in retreat due to climate change. Markers show the glacier tongue’s retreat by each decade. It’s a sobering sight.
Check out Bow Falls
The Bow River runs through Banff, and funnels through the Bow Falls, a beautiful waterfall that is an easy walk from town or from the historic Fairmont Banff Springs hotel. You can walk along the river via a quiet and level trail that’s just a few steps from town.
Walk on the Columbia Glacier Skywalk
If you feel like ‘going beyond nature’s edge’, take the day trip drive along the Icefields Parkway to the Glacier Discovery Centre at the Columbia Icefield. You can purchase your Glacier Skywalk tickets through Brewster Travel Canada at the Centre, then board buses for the short trip to the award-winning cliff-edge walkway.
The free audio tour and nature interpretation panels are warm-ups to the main event. Which is walking on the cantilevered, see-through walkway over the Athabasca River valley. This glass floor is all that separates you from a 918 foot drop. And it moves, due to the kinetic energy of visitors.
Could you do this? Take a Stroll along the Glacier Skywalk.
While my family could walk the length of the skywalk, I could not. My fear of heights kicked in big time. Taking photos is difficult when you can’t let go of the handrail. But the teens review? “Awesome! Totally awesome.”
Get out of the city and back into nature this summer by exploring Banff with your kids. It will be a holiday highlight for your family for years to come.
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Have you been to Explore Banff? Share your favorite memories and tips in the comments.
Photo Credits: Claudia Laroye. Feature and Lake Louise images courtesy of Banff & Lake Louise Tourism, Paul Zika Photography.
Disclosure: The Travelling Mom thanks Banff & Lake Louise Tourism, Brewster Travel Canada, and Parks Canada for their hospitality and support in visiting Banff. As always, our opinions are honest and our own.