Family Vacations to Banff, Canada
|Vermillion Lakes Picnic (courtesy, Travel Alberta)|
Banff, about 90 minutes northwest of Calgary, is Canada's highest town, nestled at 4,540 feet in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. It's the gateway to massive Banff National Park, Canada's first national park, established in 1885. Today, more than 4.5 million people visit each yearmost of them in the summer, which can make the tiny town of Banff unbearably crowded. That said, the national park offers 2,564 square miles of exquisite alpine scenery, from verdant river valleys and forests to craggy, skyscraping peaks. And there are plenty of places to escape where you'll feel like the first human ever to set foot there.
No trip to Banff is complete without an eight-minute gondola ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain. There, a boardwalk snakes from the gondola terminal along a ridge and up to a historic weather station. Go slowly and take in the astonishing views. The hardiest can also hike the trail to Sulphur Mountain's true 7,486-foot summit if they'd like to burn off a few calories.
Banff Upper Hot Springs, open year-round, is the perfect place to soothe sore muscles or simply indulge for the pure enjoyment of it. The park's 1930s heritage bathhouse sits beside the spring-fed pool, which has a children's wading area. Be warned: it does get busy in summer, so don't expect wilderness solitude.
Head to more adventurous water with one of the numerous outfitters that offer rafting or canoeing trips on the Bow River, which meanders through town but gets more riotous as it cuts through the national park. The twists and turns below Bow Falls in particular will give you a real whitewater adrenaline rush.
During all the excitement on the whitewater rafting trip, you might have forgotten to take in the stunning Canadian Rockies scenery. So slow it down a little and explore the iconic landscape on a 90-minute boat tour of Lake Minnewanka, seven miles from town. Guides talk about the history, geology, wildlife, and even folklore of the blue-green lake and surrounding land. When you're ready to get back on land, saddle up with Warner Guiding & Outfitting, which offers summer horseback tours from one hour to six days, evening barbecue rides, and winter sleigh rides. Minimum age is six for horseback rides; wagons take all ages.
Two museums provide great insight into Banff and Canada's human and natural history. Canada Place has lots of interactive exhibits, including one in which you sit in a birchbark canoe and "shoot the rapids" like Canada's historic fur traders. Banff Park Museum National Historic Site of Canada is an interpretive center with more than 5,000 specimens from birds to grizzly bears.
Come winter, Banff National Park has three top-rated ski areasSunshine Village, Ski Banff @ Norquay, and Lake Louise Ski Resortwith more than 7,700 acres of skiable terrain. Check out the "club" program giving adults and kids (ages six to 12) skiing and lessons in all three resorts.
If you want grandeur and history with your lodging, then check in to historic Fairmont Banff Springs, built in 1888. You could spend a day just wandering the vast hotel, peaking into corners, or bowling (in neon blacklight if you'd like) at the hotel's Bowling Center. The lunch buffet could even suck up a few hours of your time. Another family favorite is Douglas Fir Resort & Chalets, with two indoor waterslides and condo units with convenient kitchens and cozy fireplaces.
Recommended Side Trips: Calgary, Lake Louise, Columbia Icefield, Jasper National Park
Tip: Grab good food to go at Evelyn's or Barpa Bill's, both on Bear Street, or Jump Start, on Buffalo Street, and picnic in Banff's Central Park on the banks of the Bow. In winter, skate on Lake Minnewanka. Rent skates at the Banff Recreation Center on Mount Norquay Road.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication