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A look at what's ahead

Alternatives to Banff National Park in Summer

I love visiting Banff National Park but in the height of the summer I tend to avoid the town of Banff and any of the mainstream sites and hiking trails. I’m not a fan of crowds.

Fortunately there are excellent summer alternatives to Banff National Park during the peak summer period. If you’re like me and a little crowd adverse try some of the following equally awesome experiences.

Kootenay National Park

If you’re driving to Kootenay National Park from Calgary you’ll still end up going through the gates of Banff National Park. If you don’t have a pass already you can get one in person at the gate. But if it’s a weekend you can expect seriously long line-ups so get there early. (You can also order your pass from Parks Canada ahead of time.)

It’s about a 40 minute drive to the boundary of Kootenay National Park from the Banff gates. Kootenay National Park doesn’t see nearly the number of visitors that Banff does – in large part because it’s not nearly as developed. But it’s equally beautiful.

To plan your visit to Kootenay National Park click here.

Beautiful Floe Lake on the Rockwall Trail
Beautiful Floe Lake on the Rockwall Trail – one of the outstanding summer alternatives to Banff

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Where to stay in and around Kootenay National Park

You have the option of both front-country and back-country camping. Check out the Kootenay National Park website for information and reservations. In the Village of Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia there are loads of affordable accommodation options.

Just outside of Kootenay National Park is Storm Mountain Lodge. It’s a great place but a pricier option than camping. Nipika Mountain Resort is another option.

Our cozy cabin at Nipika Lodge
Our cozy cabin at Nipika Mountain Resort

What to do in Kootenay National Park

In Kootenay National Park I highly recommend backpacking the Rockwall Trail. It’s a tough 4 – 5 day adventure that delivers big time on mountain scenery. There are also day hikes up to many of the campsites used on the Rockwall Trail.

Consider the 17.7 km Kindersley-Sinclair Col loop hike and the guided hike to Stanley Glacier to look for fossils. You must reserve that one in advance.

 Looking for fossils on the Stanley Glacier hike
Looking for fossils on the Stanley Glacier hike

Yoho National Park

Yoho National Park is a fraction of the size of Banff National Park but offers some of the best mountain scenery in the country, especially in the Lake O’Hara area – but it will probably be very busy this summer. Don’t despair.

Head to one of four campgrounds in the park, including a walk-in campground near Takkakaw Falls where there’s a very high probability of scoring a beautiful campsite. Then spend several days hiking in the area. The Iceline Trail is fantastic.

Our walk-in campsite near Takakkaw Falls
Our walk-in campsite near Takakkaw Falls

If you stay overnight at the Stanley Mitchell Hut (run by the Alpine Club of Canada) or camp nearby then you have access to phenomenal mountain hiking in the President Range.  Don’t miss your chance to do the hike to see the Burgess Shale fossils when you’re in the park by making a reservation here.

To plan your visit to Yoho National Park click here.

Summer Alternatives to Banff National Park
Beautiful hiking on the Iceline Trail

You can also stay overnight in Field at one of the many B&B’s and Golden, British Columbia is only about a 50 minute drive away. The lovely Emerald Lake Lodge is another option.

Access to Yoho National Park is via the Trans-Canada either heading west about an hour from the gates in Banff National Park or east from Golden.

Emerald Lake in summer
Emerald Lake in summer

Alternatives to Banff – Waterton Lakes National Park

Waterton Lakes National Park is a three hour drive from Calgary. The park borders Glacier National Park in Montana. You can expect gorgeous mountains and glacial lakes. Although it will be busy, it won’t be anything like Banff.

Where do you stay in Waterton?

If you want a hotel check out this website. I highly recommend a drink or a meal at the Prince of Wales Hotel for the view alone.

One weekend I stayed in the Waterton Glacier Suites and would suggest booking with them.

There are also camping options; choose from nine wilderness campsites and three campgrounds that are vehicle accessible. For more information visit this website. Book EARLY! 

The Alpine Club of Canada also operates a backcountry hut called Cameron Cabin though it’s only open in winter. You can book that here – even if you’re not a member.

What can you do in Waterton?

Enjoy fantastic hiking, biking, cycling, horseback riding and a boat ride down the length of Waterton Lake. The night skies are dark too and excellent tours are available.

Read: 7 Things to do in Waterton Lakes National Park

Fantastic horseback riding in Waterton Lakes National Park - even for beginners
Fantastic horseback riding in Waterton Lakes National Park – even for beginners

I’ve done three hikes in the park and all were phenomenal. The Crypt Lake hike is one of the more unusual ones you’ll ever do in Canada as it includes a ladder, tunnel and chains. The Lineham Ridge hike takes you into gorgeous red rock country. 

Take the shuttle and do the Carthew-Alderson Trail as a one way hike. Expect very diverse scenery – from mountain to prairie views. 

Views you get on the Lineham Ridge hike
Views you get on the Lineham Ridge hike

Waterton Lakes National Park is home to over 250 species of birds and 60 species of mammals including a healthy grizzly and black bear population. It’s also considered to be one of the wettest and windiest places in Alberta – something to keep in mind if you’re planning to camp.

The Crowsnest Pass area 

The Crowsnest Pass area is not on the radar of many people and yet it’s got top-notch scenery including mountains and waterfalls, Canada’s second largest landslide, a host of cute towns and lots of accommodation options. Also, it’s just a 2.5 hour drive from Calgary.

You could easily visit this area, cross into British Columbia, check out Fernie and Cranbrook and return to Calgary via a stop in Kootenay National Park.  You’d lose the crowds completely.

Where can you stay in the Crowsnest Pass area?

I’ve tried out two places so far – Country Encounters in Coleman – which I quite enjoyed and The Kanata Inn in Blairmore which is a tad more basic. There are loads of other options including camping beside the pretty Lundbreck Falls.

There's a campground a stone's throw away from Lundbreck Falls
There’s a campground a stone’s throw away from Lundbreck Falls

What can you do in the Crowsnest Pass area?

There is a surprising amount of excellent hiking. One in particular – the hike to the top of Turtle Mountain – may cause a bit of an adrenalin rush as it takes you to the point where Turtle Mountain broke away and caused the Frank Slide.

This post showcases five of the best hikes in the Crowsnest Pass area. Don’t miss a stop at the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre. And consider bringing your bikes as you can cycle the 23 km Crowsnest Community Trail. It’s a scenic way to visit all the communities.

Window Mountain Lake in the Crowsnest Pass Area
Window Mountain Lake in the Crowsnest Pass Area
One of the Alberta hikes with a fabulous backdrop
Quite the backdrop for the hike up Turtle Mountain

Alternatives to Banff – Canmore and Kananaskis Country 

Canmore is both the gateway to Banff National Park and one of the points of entrance to Kananaskis Country. With a population of about 14,000, Canmore has all the amenities you need along with great access to hiking and biking trails.

Where can you stay in Canmore?

Canmore offers the whole range of accommodation options from B&B’s to the intimate Paintbox Lodge run by Olympian Sara Renner and her husband to the newer Basecamp Resort where you can make your own meals and enjoy a hot tub with a view. Nearby there are campsites at Bow River and Lac des Arcs.

What can you do around Canmore?

There is so much to do around Canmore that you don’t need to venture into Banff National Park. But you could on a bike by cycling the fabulous Legacy Trail – and it’s easy to rent bikes in Canmore. There are also some lovely family-friendly bike paths around the town, especially along the river.

There’s enough hiking to keep you busy for a week. The Grassi Lakes are always a popular choice. Do the steep hike to the top of Ha Ling Peak for stellar views. Try Mount Lady McDonald, EEOR Peak or nearby Mt. Yamnuska. 

The new High Rockies Trail, the westernmost section of the Trans-Canada Trail in Alberta, offers superlative scenery and caters to both hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers. The starting point is near the trailhead for Ha Ling Peak.

You can also go caving in Canmore. See what you think of the laundry chute.

Summer Alternatives to Banff National Park
The steep hike up Ha Ling Peak
Now that's a view of Canmore
Now that’s a view of Canmore from EEOR

Kananaskis Country via Highway 40 – local’s favourite 

You don’t have to go to Canmore to get into Kananaskis Country. Just drive from Calgary to Highway 40 and turn left -southwest. It’s only about an hour’s drive to get into Kananaskis Country – usually an uncrowded alternative to Banff National Park.

There are lots of overnight options from front and backcountry camping (click here for more info), to a stay in a tipi stay at Sundance Lodges, to the newly renovated Pomeroy Kananaskis Mountain Lodge and the wonderful Mt. Engadine Lodge – my personal favourite.

Once you’re in K-country as it’s often called, you can road or mountain bike and hike to your heart’s content.

For biking I recommend the ride up Highwood Pass – the highest paved road in Canada. There’s also some lovely hiking at the top including the fantastic Pocaterra Ridge hike and the easier Arethusa Cirque hike.

Summer Alternatives to Banff National Park
The Pocaterra Ridge hike is at its peak in larch season – one of the great summer alternatives to Banff
Superb views from the high point of Kananaskis Lakes
Superb views of Upper Kananaskis Lake from the south end of Lawson hike

There are mountain biking trails everywhere in K-country. I’ve only done a couple – one to Troll Falls and another behind the Delta Hotel so check in with Kananaskis Outfitters to get some local knowledge. They rent bikes too.

Closer to Mt. Engadine Lodge (where you’ll often see moose) there are some excellent hikes. I’ve never done Tent Ridge but it’s one everyone I talk to raves about. The hike to Buller Pass is a beauty as is the hike to Black Prince Cirque. I’d also recommend the South End of Lawson hike.

You could literally spend weeks exploring Kananaskis Country. There are no fees for entrance into the park. For access from Calgary, Kananaskis Country ranks at the top for summer alternatives to Banff.

Even if Banff National Park is very busy there are enough choices near the park that a summer visit is still extremely worthwhile. And if you avoid the town of Banff, and head for the backcountry, you can almost always enjoy a peaceful, wilderness experience. Just book backcountry campsites early.

Click on the photo to bookmark to Pinterest boards.

Alternatives to Banff National Park in summer that are 1.5 - 4 hours away





Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Wow !amazing tourist destination the Banff National Park. This is pretty awesome! there is nothing to compare with its nature beauty great pictures

  2. Great suggestions! I’ve been telling friends to avoid the major Canadian parks this year because free=crowded, but this has some great options!

    1. Thanks Cindy. I think the town of Banff will be completely nuts. I have a few hikes planned but I’ll be doing my best to avoid the crowds. I see a future post about Jasper but will be doing some on the ground research first.

  3. Canada’s National Parks look stunning and that’s so cool that they’re free admission for 2017. I’ll have to bring all of best car gadgets for the road trip over! Kananskis Country looks amazing, I love how there is so much to see.

  4. Hey Leigh, totally agree. There’s so much more to the Canadian Rockies than Banff (and Banff National Park). Kananaskis Country is currently my favourite as it’s so accessible and close to Canmore but all the parks you’ve spoke about on this list are spectacular too. I was surprised I didn’t see the Bugaboos on there though. There’s some incredible hikes (and climbs) there and I think I’ve read somewhere that it has the highest concentration of monoliths in the world.

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