Photo: Lake with mountains at Banff
Glacier-fed Moraine Lake is one of Banff National Park's jewels.

Photograph by Caleb Foster, Shutterstock

Location: Alberta

Date Established: 1885

Size: 1,641,027 acres

Simplicity marks the origin of Banff—Canada’s first national park. In 1883, on the slopes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, three railway workers discovered a natural hot spring, and from there the park was born. Nowadays, Banff is one of the world’s premiere destinations, spanning a region of unparalleled majestic mountain scenery. Every year, millions of visitors make the pilgrimage to Banff to take in its stunning views and arsenal of activities.

Park Facts

Ancient Beauty Banff—the birthplace of the world’s first national park service—is part of UNESCO’s Canadian Rocky Mountain World Heritage site. Located in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, the park boasts a cornucopia of postcard-perfect mountains. These ancient monoliths range from 45 to 120 million years old, with the highest in the park, Mount Forbes, coming in at 11,850 feet.

Park Gems The park encompasses Banff, the highest town in Canada at an elevation of 4,540 feet; the hamlet of Lake Louise (5,052 feet), the highest permanent settlement in Canada; several national historic sites; Castleguard Caves, the largest cave system in Canada; more than a thousand glaciers; glacier-fed lakes such as Lake Louise as well as Moraine, Bow, and Peyto Lakes; and hundreds of hotels, restaurants, and retail shops, plus a 27-hole championship golf course.

Legacy Trail In 2010, the park marked its 125th anniversary, commemorating some of the finest unspoiled ecosystems in the world. An integral part of the celebrations was the creation of the Banff Legacy Trail, a nonmotorized, paved trail for the likes of walking, cycling, and in-line skating. Incorporating scenic views, the 16-mile trail runs primarily along Trans-Canada 1 and the wildlife fence from the park’s East Gate to the Bow Valley Parkway.

How to Get There

Banff National Park is located 80 miles west of Calgary. Calgary’s international airport is serviced by major national and international carriers with multiple flights arriving daily. From the airport, rent a car and take Trans-Canada 1 west from Calgary straight into the park, through Banff and Lake Louise. A direct bus service from the airport or downtown Calgary is also available to Banff and Lake Louise, as are shuttle services through tour operators.

When to Go

Open year-round, Banff offers amazing wildlife viewing and sightseeing, plus plentiful shopping and dining options, any time of the year. Summer is popular for hiking, paddling, mountain biking and cycling, photography, and climbing. The best time for viewing seasonal color is fall, when the larch trees—the only coniferous trees to lose their needles in winter—turn yellow.

In winter, the mountain landscape makes for incredible downhill and cross-country skiing. In fact, three major downhill ski resorts operate within the park. Lake Louise Ski Area, Sunshine Village, and Mount Norquay combine to offer a large skiable terrain, not to mention the backcountry trails available throughout the park. The ski season, which runs from November to May, is one of the longest in North America. Visitors can also enjoy wildlife tours, ice walks, snowshoeing, and dogsled and horse sleigh rides.

Weather in the Canadian Rockies can change quickly. A single day can have a mix of sunshine, snow, wind, and rain, so dress in layers. Summers are warm with low humidity. Temperatures average a high of 70ºF, and daylight lasts until 11 p.m. Autumn brings cool nights and crisp air. Winters can be frigid. In January, the average daytime high is minus 19ºF, but by April it is 49ºF.

How to Visit

Visiting the park by car or tour bus is most common. In the town of Banff you can also catch the ROAM bus, a publicly accessible and environmentally friendly hybrid outfitted with wildlife information. Pick up a map or bus schedule at the Banff or Lake Louise visitor information centers. GPS guides are also available.

To get the most out of the park, plan to spend a day in the town of Banff and the rest of your vacation outdoors, immersing yourself in the mountains, especially if you’re an experienced skier or hiker.

—Text adapted from the 2011 National Geographic book Guide to the National Parks of Canada

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