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Banff National Park, AB

Best Attractions in Banff National ParkIn a national park with dozens of points of interest and things to see, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA travel editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”

While most visitors travel to Banff National Park to experience the glorious mountain wilderness and the great outdoors, the town of Banff, within the national park itself, has its share of attractions and fun things to do. Since the compact size of the village makes most of these sites accessible by foot, park your car and walk whenever possible. (Also, finding a parking spot in peak season can be difficult.) There's also an easy option for public transit: the Roam bus, which travels up and down the main street in town and out to many attractions.

First Things First

Even if you've carefully planned your trip to the national park, a stop at the Banff Visitor Centre in the heart of the village on Banff Avenue is a must. The center is staffed with representatives from the Banff/Lake Louise Tourism Bureau, Parks Canada and Friends of Banff. These local experts are eager to share their knowledge of the area, provide information about hiking trails and suggest sightseeing options and the best things to do in Banff National Park. In addition there's a comprehensive selection of maps and brochures and a small gift shop.

Downtown Banff Museums

Clustered together downtown near the Bow River are three museums worth a visit. The cultural heritage of Banff and the Canadian Rockies is depicted through the lives of 20th-century artists Peter and Catharine Whyte, an unlikely couple who met while attending art school in Boston. Peter, the son of a Banff merchant, spent his youth hiking and skiing in Banff. Catharine, the daughter of a Boston executive, was a debutante who summered in Maine. The couple traveled the world, but always returned to their log home in Banff, where they hiked extensively, captured amazing mountain landscapes on their canvases and welcomed artist friends to their home. The museum they established, the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies , houses their works as well as historical artifacts and rotating photography exhibits.

Banff Park Museum National Historic Site , in a rustic, 1903 two-story wood building reminiscent of early 20th-century park architecture, is one of Canada's oldest natural history museums. Many of the exhibit cases and much of the museum's intricate woodwork and detailing are original, adding to the ambience. The museum's extensive collection of mounted wildlife includes bears, mountain goats, wolves, deer and birds date to the 1860s. Central Park, behind the museum, provides access to the Bow River Trail and is a relaxing spot to enjoy river views.

To see what life was like in this part of the Canadian Rockies prior to European settlement, cross over the Bow River Bridge to the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum . The museum, inside a building resembling a stockade fort, is named for Norman Luxton, a local entrepreneur and great friend of the Plains people. Dioramas and exhibits, including clothing, quillwork, hunting implements and a tepee, depict the culture and way of life of the First Nations.

Virtually across the street from the museum are the imposing Banff National Park Administration Building and Cascades of Time Garden. The terraced gardens include a geological sequence of cascading ponds and water courses which are highlighted with flowers, shrubs, rustic bridges, pavilions and flagged walks that beautifully complement the stone exterior of the office building.

Discover Banff's History at the Cave and Mineral Springs

West on Cave Avenue is Cave and Basin National Historic Site , the birthplace of not only Banff National Park but Canada's national park system. Three Canadian Pacific Railway employees stumbled upon a cave and thermal springs at this site in 1883. The railway and the federal government understood the springs' potential to draw tourists to the area, and Banff, Canada's first national park, was established in 1885. Visitors today can see the cave, sulfurous mineral springs and exhibits. Two short interpretive boardwalk trails—the Discovery Trail and the Marsh Loop—lead to a hillside spring and a marsh area, respectively; wildlife can sometimes be seen.

If you actually want to soak in the hot springs, you'll have to head further up Sulphur Mountain to Banff Upper Hot Springs , where an outdoor pool is filled with natural hot springs water that averages 40 C (104 F). The pool's mountain setting provides superb views of Mount Rundle and the surrounding area, and a day spa offers pampering massages which makes a trip to the hot springs one of the fun things to do with friends.

Get a View from the Top on the Banff Gondola

Further up Mountain Avenue from the hot springs is a great way to get an overview of the townsite and the surrounding mountains (in more than one sense of the word). The Banff Gondola climbs 698 metres (2,290 ft.) from the base station to the top of Sulphur Mountain. The 8-minute trip, made in a four-person enclosed gondola, skims over treetops to a wraparound observation deck at the mountain's 2,281-metre (7,484-ft.) summit and spectacular 360-degree views. A 1-kilometre (.6-mi.) boardwalk leads (weather permitting) uphill to a former weather observatory. Be aware that the weather at the top of the mountain can be quite chilly and windy. Hikers can opt for a steep trail up the mountain, if they prefer.

Don't Miss the Fairmont Banff Springs

Not far from the gondola, in a beautiful setting at the junction of the Bow and Spray rivers, is Fairmont Banff Springs . Built to house wealthy guests traveling to western Canada on the new transcontinental railroad, the hotel welcomed its first lodgers in 1888. That wooden structure, destroyed by a fire in 1926, was replaced by an elegant, rambling stone hotel that resembles a Scottish castle, earning it the nickname “castle in the Rockies.” The grand hotel, a Banff landmark, is especially picturesque after a winter snowfall. Visitors are welcome and are frequently greeted by a doorman clad in a traditional kilt. It's easy to get lost while exploring the hotel's grand lobby, maze of public spaces and baronial halls. Be sure, though, to wander out to the terraces overlooking the river, the Bow Valley and Mount Rundle. If you're up for a splurge, consider making reservations (well in advance) at the hotel's spa or for a meal in one of its restaurants.

Scenic Views Near Banff Village

In a location where scenic vistas are seemingly endless, two fine viewpoints are easily accessible near Banff village. Off Bow Falls Drive, just before the confluence of the Bow and Spray rivers, near The Fairmont Banff Springs, the Bow River plunges over sloping limestone ledges, creating Bow Falls. A footpath along the river (the Bow Falls Trail) provides excellent perspectives of the crashing gray-green water, and benches create ideal spots to soak up the view. On the opposite side of the river, at the curve in the road where Buffalo Street bends into Tunnel Mountain Drive is Surprise Corner, a vantage point with a picture-perfect photo op proving why The Fairmont Banff Springs deserves its “castle in the Rockies” designation.

Adventurous Things to Do

A wonderful way to experience the national park from a different angle is a float trip on the Bow River. Among the companies offering these rides is Rocky Mountain Raft Tours . A knowledgeable guide provides the oar power and also information about the natural history of the Bow Valley as the raft drifts calmly down the river between Tunnel Mountain and Mount Rundle. You'll have plenty of time to get some great shots of the hoodoos, fancifully shaped eroded limestone spires perched along the hillside, and, if you're lucky, a bear, deer, coyote or other wildlife. (The hoodoos can also be seen from Tunnel Mountain Road.)

For another water-based means of sightseeing, head north to the Lake Minnewanka Loop and the Lake Minnewanka Cruise . Along the way you'll pass turn-offs for Cascade Falls; Bankhead, an old mining operation; and Two Jack and Johnson lakes. All are worth exploring if you have the time and offer scenic sites for a picnic lunch. Watch out for bighorn sheep; they tend to stubbornly congregate in and along the road. Passengers board a glass-enclosed boat for a 90-minute tour around the lake during which the captain provides a narrative about area history, folklore and geology. Towering mountains rim the turquoise lake, and Devil's Gap can be seen in the background. Wildlife are frequently spotted along the water's edge.

Hit the Road for More Fun Things to Do

Although there's much to see in and around the village of Banff, many of the national park's most memorable sights require some driving. You can easily spend several days exploring all there is to see between the towns of Banff and Lake Louise and Jasper National Park to the north. Two parallel routes connect Banff with Lake Louise—the Trans-Canada Highway (Hwy. 1) with a speed limit of 90 kph (56 mph) and the Bow Valley Parkway (Hwy. 1A) with a speed limit of 60 kph (37 mph). The former provides a faster, more direct approach, while the latter is a leisurely, more scenic route with more sightseeing options. Take your time on the Bow Valley Parkway. You'll be rewarded with unbelievably beautiful vistas at each turn of the road. Be on the lookout for elks, deer, bears, coyotes and bighorn sheep. Stop along the way at interpretive displays and viewpoints and take a few of the trails leading to picnic areas, crystalline lakes and incredible views of glaciers and ice fields.

One of the highlights of the parkway is Johnston Canyon . Although this day-use area is extremely popular and consequently can be quite crowded, it's worth the effort to find a parking spot. A short hike through the canyon begins along the woodsy edge of Johnston Creek; viewing platforms along the way are perfect spots for souvenir snapshots of the rushing water. As you continue upward, the curving walkway virtually hangs from the canyon walls. The Lower Falls is at roughly 1.2 kilometres (.75-mi.); a dark cave leads to a misty, close-up view. If you choose to continue, another 1.2 kilometres (.75 mi.) or so will take you to the Upper Falls. Parks Canada recommends that hikers bring bear spray if continuing to Upper Falls, especially during berry season in summer.

You've most likely heard of Lake Louise, one of the famous lakes in Canada. The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise has what must surely be the most impressive setting a hotel could have. Immediately behind the hotel is the brilliantly aqua Lake Louise , perfectly balanced between two mountains and set in front of snow-clad Mount Victoria with icy Victoria Glacier at the mountain's base. Absolutely breathtaking. Stroll along the shore of the world-famous lake or duck into the hotel for a bite to eat if the crowds are too heavy. The mountain and glacier are named for England's revered queen and the lake for one of her daughters.

Lake Louise Summer Gondola and Wildlife Interpretive Centre is at the Lake Louise Ski Resort . In summer, when the slopes are not covered with skiers, the gondola transports visitors up the side of Whitehorn Mountain. Passengers can choose between enclosed gondolas or an open chair for the 14-minute ride up the mountain. At the top, the Continental Divide is in the distance and the photogenic lake can be seen from a different perspective. Be sure and check out some of the presentations offered in the interpretive center; many focus on the grizzly bears common to the area. If you're interested in a guided walk, it's a good idea to sign up for one soon after arriving at the top of the mountain; they're available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Only a short distance from Lake Louise and, some say, equally as beautiful, is Moraine Lake . Often called “the jewel of the Rockies,” Moraine is smaller than Lake Louise, but is in the same blue-green spectrum so typical of bodies of water in the national park. Its location in the Valley of the Ten Peaks provides the lake with its signature geographical feature—the ten serrated snow-draped mountains that rise dramatically from the lakeshore; the Continental Divide runs along the ridges of the rugged peaks. Canoes can be rented, and the lake serves as the trailhead for several popular hiking trails.

In a national park known for spectacular scenery, arguably the most impressive feature is the Icefields Parkway (Hwy. 93) , a AAA GEM attraction. The north-south highway, which connects Lake Louise and Jasper National Park, is meant to be driven leisurely and with frequent stops, keeping a constant lookout for resident bears, elks, caribou, mountain goats and bighorn sheep. Towering mountains extend down both sides of the parkway, bare and rocky above the tree line except for a heavy dusting of snow. Ice fields, true to the parkway's name, are easily visible from car windows, seemingly spilling down the sides of craggy mountains. But to truly appreciate the majesty and beauty of the parkway and the national park, take advantage of the pull-offs and stop for up-close views of Hector, Bow and Peyto lakes, Crowfoot and Bow glaciers, Mount Chephren, the Weeping Wall and Bridal Veil Falls before reaching Sunwapta Pass, the boundary between Banff and Jasper national parks.

See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.

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Banff National Park, AB

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