Six Things To Do in Banff National Park that We LOVED

Six Things To Do in Banff National Park that We LOVED

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Is Banff National Park on your bucket list? If not, add it…NOW. Actually, go ahead add all of the Canadian parks in this area to your list. That includes Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho. (Although to be honest, we never had the chance to visit Yoho. It just has a seriously awesome name.)

We spent two weeks in Banff, Kootenay & Jasper National Parks, spending most of our time in Banff National Park specifically. When you enter the park, they give you a nice little map where they offer up the top 10 things to do in the park, but this list is totally wrong! (Let me save you some time: The #1 ranked Cave and Basin Historical Site is totally boring. Pass.)

We hiked, biked, explored, rode horses, shopped, ate, ATE, and took a few scenic drives. Plus, to make our time in Canada extra fun, my parents and my younger sister joined us for a week to explore. This is a long post, so if you don’t want to read the whole thing, just check out the million pictures I included and know that Banff is like the Disney World of national parks. It’s that awesome.

But if you’re down for reading the next 2500 words, here are our top six (because I couldn’t hammer down just five) things to do when you visit Banff National Park!

6. Drive through Kootenay National Park

There’s a few different ways to arrive in Banff from America. You can come in from the east through Calgary, or you can come in from the west through Kootenay. If you’re trying to choose your route, pick the longer one through Kootenay–trust me!

I had literally never heard of Kootenay until Heath and I made our exit from Radium Hot Springs toward Banff and the highway ended up at a national park kiosk. Apparently the entire stretch of highway from Radium to Banff is all national park, which we did not expect. We purchased a Canadian Discovery Pass–so now we can get into any Canadian parks for free for the next two years–and began one of our new favorite scenic drives.

As soon as you enter Kootenay, you pass by Radium hot springs (the actual hot springs, not the town). Hot springs are fairly common in this part of Canada, but these were some of our favorites. The pool here is about three times the size of the pool in Banff and considerably less crowded. We of course forgot to take any photos since we left our phones in the locker room and the frigid “summer” air in Canada made leaving the pool to run inside completely undesirable. But for $13 Canadian dollars, it’s worth the stop to soak in the waters for a little while before continuing on the drive. 

The rest of the drive winds along creeks and rivers and spends most of its time giving you views of endless mountains.

kootenay national park
Perks of having a Class A windshield: Panoramic views

The entire drive takes roughly an hour and a half and has plenty of scenic overlooks along the way. We surprisingly didn’t see any wildlife, but did see about 20 “CAUTION: Avalanche Area” signs. #Canada

kootenay national park
When we returned to America from Banff, we chose to drive back through Kootenay. The rain and the high elevation meant most of the mountains were shrouded in clouds and it was like living in a scary movie. PS Ignore the smudge on the windshield, which is clearly a dead bug.

5. Summit a mountain for the awesome views

I’m a completely average hiker. I don’t own hiking boots or a camelbak or even one of those “Life is Good” shirts. I typically hike in tennis shoes and a t-shirt. So when I look for a hike, I look for something that’s marked green or easy on the trail map. Let me tell you–“easy” by national park guide standards is not easy by my standards.

We chose Stoney Squaw, a simple, under 5K hike with an elevation gain of 185 meters to the summit. This was practically the easiest hike we could possibly choose.

The metric system is incredibly misleading here, because it definitely felt like way more than just a 3-mile hike. According to the Health app on my phone, we walked well over four miles and climbed up 62 flights of stairs. We were all incredibly sore afterward.

However, here is view from the summit:

Incredible, am I right? We almost turned around about seven times before we decided that we had already made it this far, so we might as well keep going on to the top. If you’re looking for a fairly easy hike with great scenery, this one was pretty awesome. (I can say that now that my legs aren’t sore anymore).

Here’s the view from just below the summit, where you can overlook the entire town of Banff, looking super tiny and cute:

banff national park
This photo taken about 15 minutes before the next two. Notice the difference in cloud cover! Banff weather changes faster than anywhere else I’ve ever visited.
family at the summit on stoney squaw
We asked two Canadians to take a picture of us. They said “How do you take a picture with an iPhone?” This was the example photo Heath took. We were all clearly surprised that there are humans who don’t know how to use an iPhone.
Cascade mountain banff
The peak of Cascade Mountain, shrouded in clouds, as seen from the summit of Stoney Squaw

4. Ogle at how blue every body of water is

Outside of the Caribbean, I’ve never seen water as blue as the waters of these national parks. Seriously. The color ranges from the light blue glacial water to a bright green glowing water. And of course, there’s always white water and waterfalls too:

bow falls, banff, alberta, canada
Bow Falls

Really at any given point and from any and every road, you have a view of gorgeous water. Except for Vermillion Lakes, which seemed more brown than red to me. There are scenic drives or hikes along most lakes, which I highly recommend.

Lake Minnewonka
Lake Minnewanka, and some random cyclists that we passed about six times, since we kept pulling over to take photos
Two Jack Lake
Two Jack Lake

Just don’t go swimming. It’s FREEZING. Heath and I tried to see who could last longer with our hands in the water. Neither of us made it past five seconds.

3. Explore the town of Banff (and eat at every restaurant you can)

Let’s talk about the difference between American and Canadian National Parks. When you go to Glacier or Redwoods or even Yellowstone, the area is pretty primitive. There are small stores providing basic goods, a gas station or two, and a couple lodges for the non-campers. You really feel like you’re out in nature.

Canadian national parks aren’t like that. In fact, Banff National Park has a couple small towns within the park, including Banff and Lake Louise. These small towns have more than just the basics. Banff is a bustling little town with tons of shopping, coffee shops, public wi-fi, a movie theater, and endless restaurant options. Plus it’s home to the Banff Springs Hotel. Oh, and of course there are ski lifts since it’s a resort town in the winter! (New bucket list item: ski Banff)

The town seriously has everything you could possibly want or need. Golf courses, the ability to see a bear walk past your RV, high-end shopping, dramatic mountain views, Starbucks. For someone who lives in an RV and isn’t very outdoorsy, it’s kind of perfect. For example, here’s the view from downtown:

The town itself is pretty condensed, but we racked up miles walking all around, exploring the town park by the river (above), buying t-shirts from shops, and of course buying ice cream cones because it’s vacation and doesn’t matter if it’s only 60 degrees outside.

fairmont banff springs
Sitting on the back lawn at the Banff Springs Hotel after walking all around town and complaining that we were so hungry.

I know what you’re thinking: “You live in an RV. Why are you hanging around a hotel?” This hotel is awesome. It’s like a museum + a hotel + a shopping mall, but with better, fancier restaurants. The history and architecture is stunning (but the rocky road brownie from the cafe is even better). The beauty and the stories here make it a must-stop. 

Park Distillery Banff
This meal was so good, we returned to the Park Distillery again the next day. Fantastic food, great whiskey. (And yes the only plate with no veggies is Heath’s! His mac & cheese was astounding.)

When you visit a national park, you aren’t typically looking for this kind of experience. But after spending most of June in Tetons, Yellowstone, and Glacier, we loved having a little town to explore. (We seriously loved the free wi-fi though).

We outstayed our reservations in town and ended up parking in overflow at the Tunnel Mountain Trailer campground, AKA parking on the side of the road because Banff is so popular in the summer, there’s no where else to stay. But hey, when the views look like this, long hair don’t care. 

tunnel mountain trailer campground
Tunnel Mountain Trailer Campground

2. Icefields Parkway

This drive is continuously listed as one of the best scenic drives on the continent–and we almost didn’t do it. We planned to devote all of Friday to this drive, starting in Lake Louise and making it at least as far as the Columbia Icefields. But weather in this part of the country is pretty crotchety. It was supposed to be sunny, but clouds came in early that morning and spats of rain came with it. It was the ideal day for a marathon of Friends and hot cocoa. 

But we knew we needed to get back to America by Sunday and this was our last chance to take this drive possibly ever. I mean, how often do you find yourself in the Canadian rockies? So we bundled up, popped a big bowl of popcorn for the ride, and started heading north.

icefields parkway
Seriously about the water here. It’s all so gorgeous!

The parkway connects Banff to Jasper National Park and it is a hot bed for scenic views:

scenic overlook icefields parkway

waterfall icefields parkway
Like every other waterfall you’ve ever seen, this was called Bridal Veil Falls.

You can see plenty of glaciers along the drive, but the pinnacle of the drive is the Columbia Icefields (below) where you can see a ton of snow (in July). 

columbia icefields

columbia icefield
See that large slope of snow? Heath and I walked up to that receding glacier. You can pass signs along the way that show you just how far the glacier has diminished in the past few decades. Then, if you’re lucky like us, as soon as you reach the snow, the skies will pour down freezing rain and soak your clothes.

Glaciers are pretty cool–but I’m not a cold weather person and after sleeping on a glacier last year, I’ve pretty much hit my snow limit. The highlight of this drive for me–aside from the lakes, rivers, mountain views, and waterfalls–was this “Weeping Wall.” This is the second weeping wall I’ve ever seen, but this one is HUGE. And has a ton of dainty waterfalls cascading down the rock. 

I could post pictures of this drive for days. Or you could drive it yourself and run your phone out of storage like I did.

1. Hike around Lake Louise & Lake Moraine

When you ask someone for advice on what to do in Banff, they give one answer: Lake Louise. Literally. We asked at least 20 people about Banff and they all said Lake Louise. This was evident by the sheer number of crowds in around the lake–and both times we visited, we were rained on. I can’t imagine what it’s like on a sunny day.

lake louise banff
Seriously on the crowds, guys. 24/7.

Don’t get me wrong. Lake Louise is seriously beautiful. It’s nestled right up against the mountains, and you can see Victoria Glacier overhead. Beautiful, right?!

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heath and alyssa padgett
PS Heath hasn’t taken off that Banff shirt since we left. It’s super soft!

For about five minutes during our visit to Lake Louise–and during a downpour–we had one glimmer of sunshine that produced a perfect little rainbow. The lake is a vision in the sunshine.

But perhaps even more beautiful is Lake Moraine: much lesser known, less densely crowded, and much more blue.

This lake is in what is known as the “Valley of Ten Peaks.” In my opinion, it’s way more breath taking than Louise. Although, we were blessed with sunshine during this visit! And you’ll never guess what happened. I forgot my phone. I know. Rookie mistake.

It’s kind of a funny story. Earlier than morning, we all went horseback riding–awesome, by the way–and as soon as we returned to the stables, my dad’s horse kicked Heath’s horse who ran into my horse and I ended up with a black and blue ankle for a couple weeks. This of course has nothing to do with forgetting my phone in the car, but has everything to do with my lazy decision to not walk back to the car to get it.

So I didn’t hike around Moraine much, but Heath took some awesome pictures from on top of the rocks:

An incredibly “touristy” photo, but had to grab one in front of Lake Moraine up in Banff. Hands down the most beautiful lake I’ve ever seen. The water is a crazy Caribbean blue. Had a blast this past week with my second family coming up to visit us and stay in the RV. We dined extremely well in Banff, rode horses up a mountain, summited another mountain, and explored the mess out of this place. My productivity (work wise) was almost non existent last week, it’s one of the few times I’ve really put everything aside to enjoy our travels to the fullest. I try to find the balance between work and travel, but sometimes I have to remind myself that these kinds of opportunities won’t be around forever. One of my favorite books is “The One Thing” by Gary Keller and he talks about the four bouncing balls (work, health, family and friends). Of the four balls, three are made of glass and if you drop them they’ll break and won’t be recoverable (I.e ignore health, family and friends forever and you can’t really recover from that). However the fourth ball, work, is made of rubber and always bounces back. For some reason that stuck with me when I’m faced with trying to decide between family time and work. Grateful for getting to explore such an amazing place this past week with family.

A photo posted by Heath Padgett (@heathpadgett) on

Easily the most beautiful view in all of Banff!

Heath and I spent a total of two weeks in the area after originally only making reservations for six days. We really didn’t want to leave, but needed to get back down to America to hang out with Heath’s parents, who just met up with us in Glacier. (Post coming soon!)

So like I told you ten minutes ago, add Banff to your bucket list!

Have you ever been to Banff National Park? What was your favorite part?