The Horton Hill hike, just an hour's drive from Calgary in Kananaskis Country isn't going…
If you’re a new visitor to Banff National Park, you may find the selection of Banff hikes overwhelming until you get your bearings. Rest assured that any of the hikes described should satisfy your cravings for sublime Canadian Rocky Mountain scenery. Not all have gorgeous turquoise lakes on route, but all are worthwhile and some more so that others depending on the season.
It has taken me nine years to find the time to do all the Banff hikes described in this post. I love hiking in Banff National Park but the same goes for Kananaskis Country, Yoho National Park and Jasper National Park. Every summer I run out of time to do all the hikes on my wish list and last summer with COVID, some of the hikes weren’t accessible. This is not an exhaustive list of Banff hikes – but some of my favourites. Before you head out to the mountains, be sure to check out the local weather forecast and the trail reports for closures.
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Aylmer Lookout over Lake Minnewanka
Knock off the 23.4-kilometre return hike to Aylmer Lookout one fine spring day. From the lookout the views up and down Lake Minnewanka are exceptional. There is the option to continue up to Aylmer Pass or Aylmer Mountain.
This is an easy hike, save for the distance. Note that it gets closed for several months beginning in July when grizzly bears frequent the area.
Lake Annette – Paradise Valley
It’s hard to get into Lake Annette via the Moraine Lake Road because of traffic in the Lake Louise area. On a busy summer day, be sure to tell the traffic person at the Moraine Lake Road intersection that you are going to the trailhead for Paradise Valley. You shouldn’t have any trouble being let through.
Lake Annette, sitting under Mt. Temple’s sheer north face, is a pretty hike. It’s just 5.7 km one way with 250 m of elevation gain. Keen hikers can continue up the Paradise Valley to the Giant Steps or even up and over Sentinel Pass but then you’d need to hitchhike or have a car shuttle to get back to the trailhead.
Valley of the Ten Peaks – Sentinel Pass
The Larch Valley hike is one of the quintessential fall hikes in the Canadian Rockies. While pretty in summer, it’s the yellow larches in all their fall glory that beckon people to do crazy things like show up at the trailhead by 6 AM to get a parking spot. The hike starts at Moraine Lake, climbs up a series of switchbacks to reach the open meadows where larch trees are the star, and then continues past tiny Minnestimma Lakes to climb up talus slopes to reach Sentinel Pass.
The hike is a moderate one that will take you between four and five hours if you go all the way to the pass. All told, it’s 11.6 km round trip with 726 m of elevation gain.
Spectacular views of Sentinel Pass
Bourgeau Lake and Harvey Pass
Do the 19.2 km round-trip hike to Bourgeau Lake – with the option to summit Mt. Bourgeau (in which case it’s a 24 km round-trip) if you’re a fan of sapphire mountain lakes and wildflowers.
It’s a solid couple of hours of forest walking that’s not that interesting to reach the lake but the area around the lake itself is pretty. I’d suggest continuing up at least as far as Harvey Pass for sensational views.
Howard Douglas Lake – Citadel Pass
The Citadel Pass hike is considered to be one of the top day hikes in Banff National Park. Full disclosure – I didn’t make it past Howard Douglas Lake. I know we should have tried to go further, but my group was content to enjoy a long lunch with great views towards Sunshine Village.
The hike starts with a gondola ride up to Sunshine Village ski area – which is a good thing as you don’t want to waste your energy on the steep access road. From there you hike through meadows that are supposed to be at their peak for wildflowers between mid-July and mid-August. It’s about 5 km one way to Howard Douglas Lake and another 4.3 km to reach Citadel Pass.
There’s quite a bit of up and down over the course of the day, so you can count on a minimum of 700 m of elevation gain. If the forecast is for thunderstorms, choose a different day as the hike is very exposed to bad weather. Enjoy wildflower displays and panoramic mountain views.
Helen Lake – Cirque Peak
The hike to Helen Lake is one of the best Banff hikes, especially in wildflower season. The scramble up the ridge and onto Cirque Peak, will up the magnificence quotient many fold. From the trail to the peak, you’ll enjoy one of the best views in the Canadian Rockies, especially of the Crowfoot Glacier and the Wapta Icefields.
It’s a four-hour,14 km return hike with 550 m of elevation gain to get to the ridge above Helen Lake. Cirque Peak is a further 493 m up from the ridge.
If you’re driving the Icefields Parkway, be sure to stop and do the Parker Ridge hike. It’s well-signed on the west side of the highway as you’re heading north towards the Columbia Icefield.
The Parker Ridge hike delivers mountain views within minutes of starting out. By the time you reach the saddle, 2 km into the hike, you’ll be enjoying panoramic vistas of the Saskatchewan Glacier. There is the option to hike to the ridgecrest but that will be an 11 km return hike with 593 m of elevation gain.
Nigel Pass is the first major stop on the multi-day Brazeau Loop hike, but it’s a fine day hike in itself. It’s also one of the easier day hikes in Banff National Park, despite the fact that it’s14.4 km return. It gains 361 m gradually, so it’s a good multi-generational hike.
To get to the pass, hike through subalpine meadows, enjoying the wildflowers along with big views across to the mountains around Parker Ridge. At the pass, the landscape feels wilder and more remote compared to hikes further to the south. At Nigel Pass, a desolate-looking area, you can rock-hop over the Brazeau River and explore either side of the river.
Healy Pass is a premier hike for wildflowers from mid to late July to mid August. In fact, it’s one of the best wildflower hikes I’ve done in my life! I did it as part of a three-day backpacking trip to Egypt Lake but it can be done as a long day hike from the Sunshine Village parking lot via Healy Creek.
You can also get to Healy Pass via Simpson Pass but to do that you’ll have to pony up for the gondola ride up to Sunshine Village. You save yourself about 520 m of elevation. The free option up takes you at a moderate grade up mostly viewless Healey Creek for 9.2 km one way length. The elevation gain is climb 655 m. It’s all worth it when you pop out of the trees and see wildflower- filled meadows as far as the eye can see, along with panoramic mountain vistas.
Saddleback – Fairview Mountain
For anyone who wants a lofty view of Lake Louise, hike the Fairview Trail – the highest one in the Rockies. Depending on what season you hike, you might enjoy wildflowers or larches. We did it in early October after one of the first snowfalls and found it to be a beautiful outing. We also found micro spikes to be a useful piece of gear on the final approach.
The trail starts by the Lake Louise boat house and climbs up, first to the Saddleback at 3.7 km and then Fairview Mountain, 5.3 km from the trailhead. It’s 600 m of elevation gain to the Saddleback – a worthy destination in itself. But if you’re looking for grand views, just put one foot in front of the other and you’ll dispatch with the final 414 m of elevation in no time. Enjoy the 360-degree mountain panorama at the summit.
Sunset Pass Lookout (and off the radar hike)
The Sunset Lookout – Sunset Pass hike doesn’t see nearly the traffic of many other Banff hikes. It may be because of its location, north of Saskatchewan River Crossing, or perhaps because the trailhead isn’t signed on the highway, though there is a good-sized parking lot.
If you only have time for one part of the hike go to Sunset Lookout and ogle the views. You’ll still need to knock off somewhere in order of 36 switchbacks to reach the turnoff, 2.9 km and 420 m up from the trailhead. From the signed junction, take off through sub-alpine forest climbing another 183 m over 1.6 km. You’ll pop out at an opening beside the footings of an abandoned fire tower – with gorgeous views up and down of the North Saskatchewan River Valley.
Taylor and O’Brien Lakes (save for larch season)
The 12.6 km return hike to Taylor Lake is one I would encourage you to do when the larches are at their peak, sometime around the third week of September. You can also camp up by the lake. But if it’s a summer hike you’re planning, I think the other hikes described offer more bang for the effort.
The hike to the lake is primarily a forest walk. The grade moderates from gentle to steep, climbing 595 m over the 6.3 km to reach the hanging valley lake. A worthwhile side trip during larch season is to continue 1.8 km to O’Brien Lake. I think the larch display is equal or even better than what you get at Taylor Lake.
Lake Agnes Trail to the Teahouse and Big Beehive
The Lake Agnes Trail from Lake Louise to the Lake Agnes Tea House is one of the most popular ones in the park. It starts beside Lake Louise and climbs steadily via switchbacks to reach Mirror Lake at 2.6 km. If you look up from Mirror Lake you can see the Lake Agnes Teahouse. You can reach the teahouse two ways – by going left- which is the shorter route or right from Mirror Lake. The trail is well signed.
The teahouse is 3.1 km from the trailhead. It’s another 1.7 km to reach Big Beehive and I highly recommend doing it. To get there, take the trail along the north shore of Lake Agnes. It climbs to a junction. Go left and follow the trail to the end to reach the Big Beehive, just five minutes away. Enjoy terrific views over Lake Louise, 540 metres below. There’s a gazebo at the top too if you need shelter.
Sulphur Mountain via Cosmic Ray Road
The hike up Sulphur Mountain to the Banff Gondola is best done in the shoulder season. It’s snow free early in spring and stays that way well into fall because of the southwest facing slopes. There are panoramic views for much of its length, but in the height of summer, I’d recommend a wildflower hike or one that takes you higher in the mountains. We hiked the trail in November and didn’t see another soul until we reached the boardwalks near the Banff Gondola.
The trail is not a hard but it is a long on at 8.5 km one way with 880 m of elevation gain. If you had arranged a car shuttle or are prepared to take a ROAM bus and walk back to your car at the Cave and Basin parking lot, then you could buy a one-way ticket and take the gondola down.
Note: The hike is closed in the short term for some construction work so check the trail report for a reopening date.
Plain of Six Glaciers
The Plain of Six Glaciers hike takes you to a tea house set back in the woods above Lake Louise. It’s what I would consider an easy 13.8 km round trip hike with an elevation gain of just 380 m. As a perennial favourite, it invites crowds, bit it should still be on your must hike list, especially in shoulder season when people are fewer.
On this hike you start by walking along the gorgeous lakeshore of Lake Louise. As you begin the ascent, look back across the lake at the Fairmont and revel in the beauty of Mt. Victoria, Mt. Lefroy and of course the sight of numerous glaciers. At 5.3 km reach the tea house. Most people turn around here but it is possible to continue to a high viewpoint, 1.6 km further. Check signage to make sure it’s safe to do so.
Glacier Lake is one of the best early season hikes but it’s also a good one in the summer. The trailhead is located just north of Saskatchewan River Crossing so you don’t get nearly the people that you get on the trails in the southern part of the park. We did it as a one night overnight backpacking trip so we could enjoy the lake – something I’d recommend doing.
Turquoise-coloured Glacier Lake is beautiful but so are some of the stops along the way. The North Saskatchewan River Crossing is photogenic as are the red chair views from the Howse River Overlook. It’s 18 km round-trip and there’s only 475 m of elevation gain. This would be one of the easier backpacking trips to do with older kids. From the lake there is the option to hike towards the Southeast Lyall Glacier but that trail may require some route-finding.
If you’re visiting the Banff townsite and you only have time for one short hike, make it Tunnel Mountain. On a moderate grade you climb 260 m over 2.4 km one way. In winter, part of the road is closed so you may have to hike an additional 0.5 km.
What you get on this hike is a pretty walk with a fantastic view of the Banff Townsite and the Bow Valley, the Mt. Norquay ski area, and the back view of Mt. Rundle. If you’re trying to get a handle on how the town is spread out, this hike will put it all in perspective.
Johnston Canyon and the Inkpots
One of the most popular hikes in Banff National Park is the one up Johnston Canyon and onto the Inkpots. If you hate crowds (appreciating that it might be some time because of COVID that the trail is busy), I’d recommend starting early or late in the day, at least if it’s summer and the days are long.
The hike up Johnston Canyon is easy. It’s just 2.7 km to the second set of falls. From there it’s another 2.9 km one way to reach the Ink Pots. The total elevation gain is a very manageable 215 m. At the Ink Pots, you’ll find five turquoise green pools that maintain a year -round temperature of 4°C.
A few hikes I haven’t done you might want to consider
The Cory Pass hike has been on my list for years and yet I have yet to knock it off. The same goes for the Cascade Amphitheatre hike – which doesn’t actually get high marks for beauty unless you go in late June when the glacier lilies are in bloom. Still I’d like to do it, perhaps on an epic day to knock off Cascade Mountain. The other interesting hike/scramble is called The Onion. It’s near Bow Lake.
Banff hikes – consider taking these things
Always take the 10 hiking essentials.
On any hike in Banff National Park, you run the risk of meeting a bear. In a decade of hiking in the park I have only seen bears on trails once – and that was on the Aylmer Lookout Trail. Be sure to carry a can of bear spray and know how to use it. It should be easily accessible via a holster or a clip at the front of your pack.
If you’re hiking in the mountains, be prepared for whatever the weather Gods might throw your way. Include rain gear but also a ball cap style hat to keep the rain off your face.
For lunch time breaks I always recommend a soft blow-up cushion. It’s especially useful on cold or rainy days.
If you’re on a long hike where there’s a water source, consider taking water purification tablets so you don’t have to carry as much water.
In summer a pocket guide to wildflowers is a great addition.
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