Banff National Park: Planning the Perfect Summer Family Vacation
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Alberta's Banff National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, and it's an ideal place for a family summer vacation. The weather is warm, and the blue skies reflect in the pine-fringed glacial lakes. The mountains are easily accessible, and the roads are good. Kids (and adults) are almost sure to love the great outdoors at Banff, especially in the summer months.
Banff is located about 75 miles west from Calgary, Alberta. You can fly into Calgary International Airport (YYC) and drive into Banff within a couple of hours (though Calgary is worth a visit too).
An added bonus to picking Banff for your family's summer vacation is that kids under 17 can enter Canada's national parks free of charge. All other visitors require an entry pass. The Discovery Pass for families and groups (CA$136.40, or about $100) is a great deal if you're staying for a few days. This gives unlimited access to more than 80 parks for a whole year. (The family pass is valid for a carload of up to seven people.)
Here are some of the best experiences for families planning a summer vacation in Banff.
Short Walks in Banff
The lakes, rivers and mountains of Banff are a scenic setting for short walks along boardwalks and trails to lookout points, as well as longer and more rugged trails. These are suitable for kids of all ages, from toddlers in hiking packs to teens seeking a challenge.
The walkway around Lake Louise is flat, and once you leave the area immediately in front of the parking area, the crowds thin. The hike up to the Lake Agnes Teahouse, in the forest above the lake, is more challenging, and a return trip will take a couple of hours. Refreshments with a view have been served at the tea house since 1905.
A must-do attraction in Banff is the gondola, which takes passengers to the top of Sulphur Mountain. There's a gentle boardwalk for panoramic views of the Rockies and down to Banff, or you can continue on the South Ridge walk. The terrain is a bit more rugged than the boardwalk, and there are fewer people.
Johnston Creek rushes through the steep, wooded slopes of limestone in Johnston Canyon. Schedule a couple of hours for ambling at a slower pace. It's a popular trail, so get there as early as possible. There's woodland, rivers and waterfalls to enjoy along the way.
If you want to do more than walk and hike, you'll find plenty of options at Banff.
Paddling a canoe is a quintessential Canadian Rocky Mountains experience, and it hardly gets more picture-perfect than this. But be warned that renting a canoe at popular Lake Louise and Moraine Lake will seriously hurt your wallet. A cheaper (CA$70, or about $55 per hour, per canoe) but no less spectacular option is to head to Emerald Lake instead, just over the mountains in British Columbia, in Yoho National Park.
Horseback riding in the Banff area goes back to the early fur traders who first explored the Rocky Mountains in the 19th century. Horse treks start from Banff or Lake Louise and can last an hour or up to several days, catering to beginner and more experienced horse riders. Multiday treks overnight at mountain lodges or in tents. Tour prices vary, but to give you a flavor, one-hour rides from Banff Adventures start at CA$85 ($65) per person and are appropriate for children ages 8 and up. Or you can skip driving the horse yourself and book a covered-wagon tour and dinner for CA$145 ($110) per adult and CA$ 110 ($82) for children.
While there are many things to see and do around the town of Banff, families with older kids who will tolerate more car time should spend at least one day on a road trip along the Icefields Parkway. The full parkway, connecting Banff National Park and Jasper National Park, is 142 miles long. Driving a shorter stretch will allow you to see some of the most spectacular scenery along the road without overdoing the car time. Take a picnic, as there are limited food options along the way.
The road from Banff to Crowfoot Glacier is 56 miles. Resembling a crow's foot, the glacier is wedged high in Crowfoot Mountain. Five minutes further up the road is Bow Lake. The dazzling turquoise waters are surrounded by mountains with snow on their upper reaches and pine forests below. During the summer, bright wildflowers bloom, making this a colorful place to take a walk.
The next essential stop is Peyto Lake, another short drive up the road. From the parking lot, the viewing platform over Peyto Lake is a 10-minute uphill walk. Bus tours stop here, so you won't have it all to yourself.
At this point, you could return to Banff or continue to the Sunwapta Pass, beyond which is the entrance to Jasper National Park. The Athabasca Glacier is an impressive sight, if you are up for traveling that far.
While the weather is likely to be good in summer, it can rain. When it's wet, check out the fun and educational Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum in Banff. This rather old-school museum displays beaded clothing, stuffed animals and dioramas depicting the lives of traditional First Nations people. Be warned that younger kids might be afraid of the stuffed and mounted animal heads, such as the bison. (Tickets are CA$10 ($7.50) for adults and CA$5 ($3.75) for kids 7 to 17, and entrance is free to kids under 7.)
Another attraction that's good no matter the weather is the Banff Upper Hot Springs, an outdoor geothermal pool complex near the Banff Gondola. The view of the mountains from the outdoor baths is good, and the water isn't too hot. Entrance is CA$7.30 (about $6) per adult and about CA$6.30 ($5) for kids 8 to 17. There are no age restrictions, but children under 5 must be kept within arm's reach of a parent.
Where to Stay
Banff town is the most convenient base. It's touristy and busy during peak seasons, but there are many accommodation options, such as the Delta Hotels Banff Royal Canadian Lodge, bookable for 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night (or use an up to 35k certificate from the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card or Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card).
You'll also find the Best Western Plus Sliding 29 Lodge in Banff. Award rates vary at that property (24,000 to 36,000 points in our tests), but that can be a good deal when paid rates creep toward CA$500 ($375) per night during the priciest summer nights. Nearby Canmore and Lake Louise are other options for lodging.
But the grandest residence in Banff is unquestionably the palatial Fairmont Banff Springs, first opened in 1888 and exuding history and charm to this day. It is (very) expensive during peak season, but travelers with the Platinum Card® from American Express or the Business Platinum Card® from American Express can book using the Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts program to enjoy very nice inclusions and perks.
The FHR program will give you a full breakfast for two, confirmed 4pm late checkout, early check-in, a $100 food-and-beverage credit and more. Pets are welcome -- especially convenient if you're road tripping and don't want to leave the family pet behind. There's also the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, 35 miles from Banff.
With exciting outdoor activities, extraordinary mountain and lake vistas, and a pleasantly warm summer climate, Banff is an all-around great summer vacation destination that will satisfy all family members. Just remember that you're in Canada, so while you're doing your CAD to USD conversions in your head, be sure to pay with a credit card that has no foreign-transaction fees.