It took me six years of living in Calgary to do the Tunnel Mountain hike in Banff. Now that I’ve done it I wonder why it took so long. This short must-do hike delivers a workout if you go fast enough, epic views of Banff and the valley including the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel from above and red chair moments on the summit. And you can do the Tunnel Mountain hike in spring, summer, fall or winter.
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Tunnel Mountain hike trail details and difficulty
Distance: 4.8 km return (3.0 miles) + 2.0 km (1.2 miles) if you walk to the trailhead from downtown Banff.
Elevation gain: 260 m or 853 feet
Difficulty: Easy. Active kids starting at 3 or 4 years of age should be able to do the hike. There are no challenging sections though there are safety rails on the west side of the mountain. Heed them as a fall off could be fatal.
Time needed: Allow about 2 hours to do the return hike. The trail is well graded with switchbacks that give you lots of different views.
Dogs: Leashed dogs are allowed on the trail.
Bears: Even though the Tunnel Mountain hike is a popular one, I’d still recommend taking bear spray. You can rent bear spray in Banff at Snowtips-Bactrax, Ultimate Sports, and the SkiBig3 Adventure Hub.
Best season: It’s a great year-round hike. I love it best in winter when the view from the top showcases the mountains draped in snow.
Permits: You do need a National Park passto visit Banff – and it must be prominently displayed on your car’s windshield.
Access and location of the trailhead for the Tunnel Mountain hike
In theory you can access the Tunnel Mountain trailhead on foot from downtown Banff (add extra hiking time of about 15 minutes each way), but you can also drive to a large parking lot.
By car or on foot
To get there take Banff Avenue to Wolf Street and go east until you reach the end of the road. Turn right onto Grizzly and then almost an immediate left onto St. Julien Road. Follow it to the Tunnel Mountain Trailhead – lower parking area.
The Roam Route #2 bus goes near the trailhead – but you’re better off simply walking from the downtown rathe than waiting.
Scenic viewpoints and point of interest along the Tunnel Mountain trail
If you only do one hike in Banff, I think it should be Tunnel Mountain as the hike is short but it delivers great scenery – and its ideal for understanding the layout of Banff and the Bow Valley.
Enjoy superlative views of the Bow Valley through the breaks in the trees on the way up as well as one of the best views of the Banff Springs Hotel. You’ll also get a great look at the Banff Springs Golf Course from above.
When you turn to follow the ridge to the top you’ll enjoy great views of the Bow Valley in each direction. Just shy of the summit, take advantage of the red chairs and enjoy the Bow Valley view in front of you.
Tunnel Mountain hike details
The Tunnel Mountain hike is a popular year round hike with both locals and visitors alike. The trail is only 2.4 km one way with a total elevation gain of 260 m (853 feet). The first 0.5 km switchbacks up a trail from the lower parking lot to a signed trailhead on Tunnel Mountain Road. This part of the road is closed in winter – but there is the option of adding to your hike by walking up or down it.
As you can see in the photo below the grade of the trail is moderate and it’s certainly family friendly.
Once you reach tree line the views unfold. Looking west over Banff you can see the Mt. Norquay ski area along with the walking/biking/snowshoeing trails through the marsh and along the Bow River.
Climb a little more and you get a glorious view of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel along with the skating rink – not pictured. A few minutes later the views of Mt. Rundle unfold – along with the valley looking east towards Canmore. On a bluebird day this would be an incredible place to be.
Red chairs on the summit
On the summit of Tunnel Mountain (elevation 1,690 m/5,543 feet) you’ll find some of Parks Canada’s red chairs. Sit back and enjoy the panorama – at least on a warm day.
This young couple are learning about the endangered limber pine – a relative of the whitebark pine. According to the sign “the population is in serious decline due to the effects of white pine blister rust (a fungus that attacks the tree) along with reduced wildfire and climate change.”
From there you can loop around the summit – sticking to trails to prevent erosion. On the east side there was noticeably more snow on the trees, a veritable winter wonderland.
The descent can be speedy especially if it’s icy. Consider bringing some icers or microspikes if it hasn’t snowed in a while. I always carry a pair in my pack in winter, just in case I run into ice.
Tunnel Mountain hiking record
One of the signs you’ll come across on the hike describes the accomplishment of Banff resident, Anne Ness. Reportedly she climbed Tunnel Mountain more than 8,000 times over 40 years. Sometimes she’d do it twice in a day!
History of Tunnel Mountain
Originally called Sleeping Buffalo Mountain by the Stoney Nakoda people because its shape resembles a buffalo sleeping on its side, its name since 1882 has been Tunnel Mountain. (There is some talk about changing the name back to a traditional name.)
The Canadian Pacific Railway proposed blasting a route through the mountain and while that never happened the name Tunnel Mountain stuck.
I recommend every visitor hike to the summit of Tunnel Mountain, not only for the experience but to get the lay of the land from above. All the Banff landmarks can be seen and you’ll have a better visual map.
Use a dose of common sense on the Tunnel Mountain hike – and take water, a protein bar or two and extra clothes or rain gear if the weather looks cold or bad. It’s not a long hike but you should still go prepared. If it’s winter the one thing that will make the walking easier if there is any ice is a pair of trail crampons or microspikes. You might also find a pair of hiking poles helpful on an icy day.
Where to stay in Banff
The following are suggestions across all price points.