Hiking and possibly swimming in Banff
June 12, 2018 6:31 AM   Subscribe

What are the best day hikes around Banff?

I'm looking for day hikes only as I have a place to stay in the city of Banff. I would say I'm an intermediate hiker (ideally would like to hike for maybe 5 hours a day max). Where are the most amazing views at? Is there a place where I can hike and also swim? Also, can I get to some amazing hikes by public transit, or do I need to rent a car?
posted by winterportage to Travel & Transportation around Banff, AB (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I did a lot of research on day hikes for my trip last year as we spent 5 days in the area. Don't Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies is a good resource.

I would classify myself as beginner/intermediate hiker (can hike far but not on too technical trails). I'll mention the Yoho hikes as well in case you end up with a car as it's not too far away. These were the ones we decided on, and they were well worth the trip.

Hamilton Lake (Yoho) 14km/924m
Mt. St Piran - 13km/950m

The ones we wanted to do but just didn't have time/energy/luck:

Sherbrooke Lake/Niles Meadow (Yoho) - 23km/1150m
Valley of the Ten Peaks/Larch Valley/Sentinel Pass - 12km/725m
Sunshine Meadows in general (the wildfire prevented us from going up the mountain) - more of a day trip for the view

St Piran should be accessible as long as you can get to Lake Louise. It's recommended as the easiest way to claim a summit. Very beginner friendly and amazing view.
Sunshine Meadows also has shuttles that you can book.
posted by lucia_engel at 8:31 AM on June 12, 2018

Head out to Johnston Lake - it's the only somewhat swimmable lake right near Banff, it is cold but bearable and there are change huts near the beach. There are several good hikes around there - the C-level Cirque, Stewart Canyon, and walking around Lake Minnewanka. It's easier to get there by car but there is a path from town, I think, if you want to walk.

For the best easy view, do Sulfur Mountain. The town bus will take you up to the trail start and you can either walk up (2ish hours?) or take the gondola. The view is great. The trail head is also right near the Hot Springs, which is not swimming exactly but hanging out in water.
posted by phlox at 8:34 AM on June 12, 2018

You'll want a car -- there is apparently some transit available, but it's likely to really limit your options. Most of the lakes and rivers are kind of cold for swimming, but Lake Minnewanka might be a bit warmer, and has nearby hikes -- I've heard good things about the Cascade Amphitheatre for instance.

Be careful about snow at high elevations. When are you going? If it's late enough in the season, you can take a gondola up to Sunshine Meadows, which drops you in the middle of alpine meadows with lots of trails (Rock Isle Lake is a good one).
posted by irrelephant at 8:36 AM on June 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Much of the water in Banff and Jasper National Parks is snowmelt or glacier-fed, and as such will be not much fun for swimming. Even spring-fed water is going to be unpleasantly cold for most people. That being said, I've heard of people swimming in some lakes later in the summer or on especially hot days, including Johnson Lake, Herbert Lake, and Edith Lake. Banff Upper Hot Springs is the other option that comes to mind, but it's a very developed and often crowded spot - not the sort of of secluded backcountry location you might have in mind.
posted by theory at 8:38 AM on June 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Grassi Lake is quite doable and the reward is a spectacular lake at the top :)
posted by Calzephyr at 8:52 AM on June 12, 2018

I highly recommend renting a car for at least a couple days. There are so many great day-hikes and beautiful locations that will be accessible to you compared to what's in the immediate vicinity of town.

Parker Ridge trail - approx. 2 hour drive from Banff - is very popular, and for good reason: it gets you above the tree line quickly and provides a spectacular view of Saskatchewan Glacier. It's a steep ascent but definitely appropriate for an intermediate hiker and well worth it.

If you don't rent a car, you can still make it to Lake Louise by shuttle bus. From the Chateau Lake Louise there is an excellent hike up to the Abbot Pass viewpoint via the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse. Also accessible by shuttle from Banff is Johnston Canyon, which has some nice hiking and beautiful waterfalls.

This site gives good descriptions of several day hikes in Banff.

For trails in and near Banff, here's a map.
posted by theory at 9:17 AM on June 12, 2018

I recommend you get the Gem Trek maps of the area; they're just excellent maps with the major trails in them. Second Don't Waste Your Time, although the authors also have a smaller book, Done In A Day, focused on day hikes in the Banff area that might make more sense.

There are a few hikes that start more or less in the townsite; you can walk to the hoodoos via Bow Falls from the town centre, about 9 km round trip. There's a hike to Sundance Canyon from town (there is a bus if you want to the trailhead at Cave and Basin which is worth a stop in and of itself) that's of similar length.

Further afield by public transit, your options are limited -- although it's not impossible. However, the transit schedules are not great - buses often run hourly or less frequently. This page has a PDF with a schematic map and schedules. There are buses to Johnson Canyon - the first section is very busy but the hike to the ink pots is supposed to be quieter; that's also in the 10 km round trip range. There are also buses as mentioned to Lake Minnewanka, but be aware that starting July 10th there is no hiking except in groups of four or more because of the bears. (You should be familiar with bear safety if you aren't already; even though Banff can feel touristy, you can get into no-shit wilderness pretty quickly.)

I'd also recommend the Plain of Six Glaciers hike from Lake Louise, which does have a shuttle bus from Banff, although that's starting to be a longer day - 75 minutes drive in each direction. (Of course, it's the same amount of time if you have a car, just a little more flexibility.)
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:53 PM on June 12, 2018

I live in Banff, I also moderate on the /r/Banff reddit page, and I'm a big fan of using public transit. Banff National Park is too big to walk, but still somewhat accessible without a car, more-so in the summer. The town of Banff is exceptionally walkable, with most of the town within a 2km square area. Here are some transportation resources:
  • Airport shuttle services: Banff Airporter, Brewster Express (also goes from Banff to Lake Louise), Greyhound (cheapest but less frequent, also goes to Lake Louise)
  • On-It Shuttle from Calgary to Canmore/Banff, $10 one way, it runs from May 19 to Sept 3 on Fri/Sat/Sun and holidays.
  • ROAM Transit has two local bus routes (1 and 2) that connect downtown to the Tunnel Mountain, Banff Springs Hotel and Gondola/Upper Hotsprings area.
  • ROAM Transit has a regional route 3 between the towns of Banff and Canmore
  • ROAM Transit has a seasonal (summer) route 6 to Lake Minnewanka
  • Parks Canada has seasonal (summer) route between the town of Banff and Lake Louise ($10 return)
  • Parks Canada has a seasonal (summer) route to Johnston Canyon ($5 return) from May long weekend until October.
  • Parks Canada has a seasonal (fall, weekends) shuttle between the Lake Louise Village and Moraine Lake
  • Ski Resorts of Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Mt. Norquay offer shuttle services, usually free with lift ticket or sight-seeing ticket purchase.
  • Some places are accessible by bicycle (e.g. Vermillion Ponds, Cascade Ponds, Johnson Lake (longer ride), Canmore)
As for hikes, Plains of Six Glaciers is at the top of my list for moderate hikes, it also ticks off the box for seeing Lake Louise. The views along the hike are stunning, photos never do justice to the scale, and there's a waterfall and a tea house at the end.

Here are some more moderate hikes in the area, all of them are well signed:

Hikes in Banff:
Mt. Bourgeau or Healy Pass, I’d lean towards Bourgeau unless they are super into flowers at which point Healy Pass has a beautiful meadow at the top. Scramble to the top of Bourgeau is optional but reasonable.

Close to Banff:
Stanley Glacier (Kootenay National Park): just a bit beyond Banff, beautiful drive over the divide into British Columbia, great hike.

Hikes in Lake Louise:
Plains of Six Glaciers.

Moraine Lake->Larch Valley->Sentinel Pass same neck of the woods, fantastic views, fun scree.

Mt. Fairview: great peak to bag also in the Louise, tack on the Saddleback at the beginning or end for a bonus objective.

Hikes further up the parkway:
Peyto Lake & Bow Summit Lookout: a 10 minute walk up a hill to an incredible view that’s worth it even with a million other tourists there.

Helen Lake: easy to moderate hike with a great view that’s constantly evolving. The lake at the end is arguably the most boring part of the hike. Bonus scrambles abound.

Parker Ridge: a ski touring classic, just as good in the summer when you get to the top and see the toe of the Saskatchewan Glacier

Iceline in Yoho National Park. Enjoy Takakkaw falls, 2nd tallest in Canada, and do a brutal uphill gain early into the alpine before enjoying a nice long top of the valley stroll. Just 30 min past Lake Louise.
posted by furtive at 9:31 PM on June 19, 2018 [4 favorites]

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