High in Canada's Rocky Mountains and just a 90-minute drive from Calgary International Airport, Banff National Park is a ski-lovers' paradise, writes Jessica Wynne Lockhart.
With its world-class ski resorts, glacial blue lakes surrounded by snow-capped peaks, and 1600km of hiking trails, it's a destination likely to need no introduction.
Located in Alberta province, Banff isn't just Canada's most-visited National Park—it's also the oldest. Founded in 1885, it's the birthplace of the Parks Canada system, but tourists were travelling here even before that to visit the area's natural hot springs.
But a long and storied history doesn't mean Banff is trapped in time. Instead, it's a constantly evolving destination, with a vibrant community of entrepreneurs looking to show off the mountain playground they call home.
If you're headed to Banff this Northern Hemisphere summer or autumn, here are the top new ways to explore.
Go on a Canadian wildlife safari
Scenic vistas are nice but it's the white powdery stuff that has made Banff National Park an icon for Kiwi snowhounds. The park has three world-renowned ski and snowboard areas, including the Lake Louise Ski Resort. A 40-minute drive northwest of the Banff town, it's the second-largest ski resort in Canada (after Whistler Blackcomb) and over the past two years it's expanded. There's now 194ha of new terrain, bringing the total to 1700ha spread across four mountain faces, and in February 2022, a new high-speed quad chairlift was installed, providing faster access to the runs.
Even after the snow melts, there's reason to visit. From May through September, the hill's gondola—which takes visitors to high-alpine hiking trails—transforms into the ultimate wildlife-watching vessel. Last year, grizzly or black bears were spotted nearly every day in late June and throughout July, but visitors also have a chance to see lynx, moose, mountain goats and elk.
Cycle one of Canada's most scenic (car-free) roadways
Although tourism destinations worldwide felt the effects of the pandemic, the silver lining of reduced visitor numbers was the opportunity to experiment with new ideas—some of which remain. This was the case in Banff, when motor-vehicle access along a portion of the Bow Valley Parkway—the scenic 48km road connecting Banff to Lake Louise—was restricted. Now, cyclists can go car-free along a 17km section of the well-maintained road, with the opportunity to view wildlife up-close along the way.
If mountain biking is more your thing—or if you'd like to make it more your thing—join Clare McCann on a guided tour. The head guide at the brand new Bikescape (Banff's only guided mountain biking company) McCann and her team of guides specialise in working with newbies and families, ensuring you're equipped with skills you can bring home. Bikescape also has a fleet of e-bikes to make gruelling mountain climbs easier, and fat bikes for the snowy months. https://bikescape.ca/en/
Indulge in Canadian cuisine along Bear St
The township of Banff may be surrounded by 6641sq km of untouched wilderness, but rest assured you're unlikely to see an actual bear wandering along the new revitalised Bear St, which was completed in July 2021. In classic Canadian fashion, the fully accessible street politely prioritises pedestrians, with expanded patio spaces, outdoor fireplaces, and public displays of artwork.
This is where you'll find 3 Bears Brewery, a new brewpub serving Alberta striploin steaks and woodfired pizzas. The new local favourite, however, is just around the corner on Wolf St, where you can make new friends by belting out your best Celine Dion rendition. A Japanese restaurant and karaoke joint, Hello Sunshine is styled to mimic the vibes of a 1970s ski lodge meets traditional Japanese restaurant, complete with a secret four-seat omakase bar.
All that being said, Banff's downtown core is incredibly walkable and if you're missing home while you're abroad, Uprising Craft Brewery is only a short stroll away. This is where you'll find flat whites and loaves of New Zealand rye sourdough, alongside picnic supplies. Or, if you're feeling lazy you can get the Banff Graze Co. to organise a luxury lakeside picnic for you, with artistically presented grazing tables, platters, and boxes.
Travel back to the future
One of Banff's newest tour operators is, in a way, also one of its oldest. On a tour with Open Top Touring, you'll be transported back to the 1930s when your costumed guide arrives to pick you up in a custom-built vintage-inspired coach. Modelled after the vehicle that Banff tourism industry pioneer Jim Brewster used 90 years ago, the buses are entirely open-air, providing unparalleled views of the surrounding mountains, along with envy-worthy photo opportunities. Over the course of 90 minutes, you'll visit the town's most popular and picturesque attractions, including Bow Falls and Banff's own castle in the Rockies—the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
Have a Banff experience at home
Can't make it to Canada? The Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival is taking place in New Zealand in June, featuring more than 20 acclaimed mountaineering and outdoor adventure documentaries. Tickets are still available for a range of screenings around the country, see banff.nz for details.
For more travel ideas, see banfflakelouise.com
Travellers to Canada require proof of Covid-19 vaccination, uploaded to ArriveCAN within 72 hours of arrival. Unvaccinated travellers need to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test, taken within 24 hours of their flight. Check with your airline, travel agent or travel.gc.ca for details.