Canada’s Rocky Mountains are famed for their dramatic peaks, gemstone-coloured lakes, and diverse wildlife. But they’re also remote and cover a massive area, with many trails difficult to access if you don’t have a vehicle. So what happens if you find yourself in the town of Banff with only your own two feet to get you places? You have an amazing time seeing the sights, of course! There are a surprising number of great hiking options with trailheads starting right in town, from flat-and-leisurely to get-that-blood-pumping to ohmygod-what-was-I-thinking? Towering trees, fascinating canyons, and totally Instagram-worthy vistas are only steps away from your hotel/hostel/campsite. Always be prepared when you go hiking and make sure you check wildlife notices, trail conditions, and the weather report before you go, because mountain environments can change lightning fast. Everything you need to be smart and informed is available from the Banff Visitor Centre at 224 Banff Ave; or on the Parks Canada website.
Below you’ll find some of my favourite hikes and walks, all of them accessible from the town of Banff, and ranked (albeit, completely subjectively) by required effort.
(MOSTLY) FLAT AND LEISURELY
Stats: 2.1km loop, no elevation gain
Why I Love It: Wander through old-growth spruce trees and look out for local wildlife. You can pick up a brochure from the trailhead parking lot which follows interpretive signposts along the route too.
Vermilion Lakes Road
Stats: 4.3 km one way, no elevation gain
Why I Love It: Postcard-perfect views of Mount Rundle, one of the most recognizable mountains in the Banff area. Also dotted with interpretative panels, you can learn about the geology, unique environment, and cultural significance of the area.
Bow River Trail
Stats: Fenland Trail to Central Park 0.9 km, no elevation gain; Central Park to Surprise Corner Viewpoint 1.4 km, 20 m elevation gain
Why I Love It: Stroll through downtown Banff on this quiet trail with a coffee in hand. Paved and wheelchair accessible for the most part too.
Spray River Loop
Stats: 11.4 km loop, 65 m elevation gain
Why I Love It: Rolling terrain, lung-fulls of spruce-scented air, and beautiful forests. An old fire road that follows the Spray River upstream, it's popular with cyclists and horse riders as well as hikers. You'll need to cross the bridge at km 6ish and come back down to the Golf Course Road to complete the loop (stay on the trail and don't cross the fairways at the end, or you could end up with angry golfers chasing you down with their 9 irons).
Stats: 4.2 km one way, 60 m elevation gain
Why I Love It: You'd never know you were still in Banff as you follow the trail along the Bow River and skirt the cliff face of Tunnel Mountain. Gorgeous river valley views, interesting geological formations, and the possibility to spot elk and predatory birds along the way.
GET THAT BLOOD PUMPIN’
Sundance Canyon Trail (with Cave & Basin Trail and Marsh Loop)
Stats: Discovery Boardwalk 0.4 km one way; Cave & Basin to Sundance Canyon 4.3 km one way, 20 m elevation gain; Sundance Canyon 1.2 km loop, 145 m elevation gain; Marsh Loop 2.5 km loop, 10 m elevation gain.
Why I Love It: A mashup of hikes, the Discovery Boardwalk shows off the literal birthplace of Banff National Park (it was here that railway construction workers first discovered the hot springs that started it all.) The flat trail out to Sundance Canyon is paved and wheelchair accessible, offering views of stunning Mount Edith before you explore the scenic canyon (and where almost all of the elevation gain happens along this route). Top it all off with a loop through the marshes along the Bow River for views of Mount Norquay and the Bourgeau Range.
Upper Hot Springs Trail
Stats:1.1 km one way, 170 m elevation gain
Why I Love It:Short and sweet, this trail climbs through spacious Lodgepole pines and ends at the Banff Upper Hot Springs, which is conveniently the perfect place to soak your tired muscles. The Sulphur Mountain gondola is also at the end of this trail, jump into a gondola cabin and soar to the top for some amazing views of the Bow Valley.
Stats: 2.3 km one way, 300 m elevation gain (from Lower trailhead)
Why I Love It: A mountain right in the middle of town, steep(ish) switchbacks reward you with sweeping views of the town of Banff, and the Bow and Spray River valleys. This trail is extremely popular with locals and tourists.
OHMYGOD WHAT WAS I THINKING? OKAY, BUT THE VIEWS ARE AMAZING!
Sulphur Mountain Trail
Stats: 5.5 km one way to the upper gondola station, 655 m elevation gain; 1.0 km loop from upper gondola station to Sanson Peak and the old Cosmic Ray Station
Why I Love It: Strenuous and filled with switchbacks, Sulphur Mountain is here to test you, but try not to spend the entire way up thinking about why you decided NOT to get on the gondola instead. Once at the summit, a boardwalk connects the gondola terminal with the remnants of a cosmic ray station (which is actually exactly what it sounds like - it was built to measure cosmic rays and space particles entering Earth's atmosphere) and you get amazing, almost 360 degree views of the surrounding area.
Mount Rundle Trail
Stats: 11 km round trip, 1,5770 m elevation gain
Why I Love It: Incredible views with a significant portion of the trail above the tree line. Walk along the "Dragon's Back" a spine of rock separating two gullies, and test your scrambling skills on the seemingly endless scree slopes. This mountain is not for the faint-hearted. Challenging and unforgiving, this scramble shouldn't be attempted unless you are confidant in your fitness and hiking abilities. It's considered an "easy" climb but only because you don't require any technical gear to reach the summit. Not to be taken lightly, several people have died on Mount Rundle in the past so make sure to always stay on the trail, and turn back immediately if bad weather approaches. Download Parks Canada's brochure A Scrambler's Guide to Mount Rundle before attempting this climb for a suggested gear list, tips, and a detailed description of the route.