Banff Activity

Banff Horseback Riding
Riders Dismount at Trail Head
After Horseback Riding in Banff

Banff activities vary from free activities to those that can be quite costly. These activities include "getting-about-activities" such as walking, nature walks, hiking, climbing, mountaineering, bicycling, canoeing, rafting, horseback riding, snowshoeing, and skiing.

Observational activities such as people watching, bird watching, wild animal observation, window shopping, photography, painting, etc.

Educational activities such as campfire programs, museums, art galleries, theater, and tours.

And then there is always shopping.

The descriptions here will concentrate on the free, low cost, best-value, and must-see-even-if-pricey activities.

Here is a sampling of these activities with more to come.

Cascade Rock Gardens

Banff Cascade Rock Garden in Bloom
Banff Cascade Rock Garden
in Summer Bloom

Banff Avenue, the main street of the Banff Town Site, runs north and south the two blocks between Wolf to the north and Buffalo to the south that bracket the main downtown area. A great place to shop or people watch.

Looking south you see the Banff National Park administration building, a short stroll over a bridge crossing the Bow River. Here you see the tent of Siksika Nation Interpretive Centre. Check your park schedule for scheduled dances and interpretive programs.

Surrounding the building are gardens, the Cascade Rock Gardens. The Canadians love their gardens and if this is not the official Banff garden, then it should be.

View from Banff Cascade Rock Garden
View from Banff
Cascade Rock Garden

The garden is terraced and trails winding through the garden pass through arches, gazebos with seats, and through blooming patches of flower and manicured lawns. At various turns are views of the surrounding mountains.

The guide books say to allow 30 minutes minimum, but this is a place you could spend hours soaking up the peace that comes to you both in the mountains and in beautiful gardens. It is also a peaceful place to eat. Pick some picnic items from the grocery store on Bear, one block west of Banff Avenue, and eat lunch here. It beats the atmosphere of eating in a fast food place (you can even bring your fast food sandwich.) Make sure you pack your trash out to nearby trash receptacles and leave the gardens as pristine as you find them.

The gardens are only a ten minute stroll from the heart of downtown and they are free.

Johnston Canyon Trail

Johnston Canyon Trail
Johnston Canyon Trail

The Bow Valley Parkway from Banff to Lake Louise is one of the most popular driving tours in the park. Along the way you come to the trail head for the Johnston Canyon Trail. This is not your normal trail head for it is located next to the historical Johnston Canyon Lodge where you can dine and shop. Popular with hikers in the summer is the soft ice cream stand that somehow tastes better after coming off the trail.


Cantelevered Trail
Cantilevered trail
takes hikers above
the rugged canyon

Johnston Creek
Johnston Creek
Lower Falls

The trail is paved and wheel-chair accessible all the way up to the lower falls, a distance of 2.2 km/1.4 miles.

The canyon is rugged and the trail taking you through it is interesting in itself. It is often cantilevered out from the vertical canyon walls, a practical engineering solution to getting through this wild area.

The first destination is the lower falls which is the end of the wheel-chair accessible part of the trail. For those wanting more, you can continue up to the upper falls and beyond them on a less travelled trail to the five Ink Pots, natural springs that contribute to the flow of Johnston creek.

Columbia Icefield Snocoach Tours

The Icefields Parkway, part of Highway 93, follows the continental divide for 230 km/142 miles. It is considered one of the world's most scenic drives and if you love the mountains, this drive is a must-do activity. If you already have a parks pass and a vehicle, it is free except for the gas. Make sure that you tank up before starting because there is only one service station along the way at the Saskatchewan River Crossing.

Head west out of Banff on Hwy 1 towards Lake Louis Village. A few kilometers west of the village you come to Hwy 93. The south gate to the parkway is about 2 km north of Hwy 1. There you will pass a booth where they will check if you have a parks pass, sell you one if you don't, and provide a map.

Brewster Snocoach
Jerry Dwarfed Beside
Massive Brewster Snocoach

About half way to Jasper, just north of the boundary between Banff and Jasper National Parks, you will come to the Columbia Icefield Centre. Park, enter and check out the availability of the Snocoach Tours. Whether you book a tour or not, look around the centre which provides quite an education on glaciers and what you are seeing across the road. Book a tour if you are interested and it fits in with your schedule. At $46.67 (2009) for 1 1/2 hour tour, it will ding your budget some. You have to decide if it is worth it to you. It was to us. You can find out more about the tour at Brewster's Columbia Icefield web page.[Opens in new window]

Snocoach on Athebasca Glacier
Tourists spew from the
Snocoaches onto the
Athabasca Glacier

You board the Snocoach at terminals next to the Columbia Icefield Centre and the driver starts the narrations. We love it when you get a good guide. They can communicate a lot of interesting information in a short time that they have collected from a much wider variety of sources than you are likely to research and can answer most questions factually. We had a good guide. One interesting fact is the care they take to keep dirt from the tires from contaminating the glacier. As it moves onto the glacier, each Snocoach drives through a stream of glacier melt that washes all dirt from the tires.


Ice Melt
Dee Drinks Ice Melt Frozen
for Hundreds of Years

Ice ages come and go, glaciers advance and recede, and the landscape is changed forever. All in a time span that makes our short time on earth seem insignificant. One sobering thought is to look at ice cores taken from glaciers and get some idea of when the snow fell that later compacted to ice and formed the glacier. Dee got to drink ice melt from snows that fell before the time of her great-great grandparents. The rumors are that drinking the water helps keep you young.

If you choose not to take the tour, you can still experience the glacier at no cost. From the west parking lot across from the Columbia Icefield Centre you can walk 1/2 km to the toe of the glacier and another kilometer onto it, making sure you stay within marked boundaries. Even experienced hikers get injured falling into crevasses on the glacier every year and there are deaths each decade. Wear sturdy shoes and be careful.