Family Vacations to Banff, Canada

Vermillion Lakes Picnic, Banff, Canada
Vermillion Lakes Picnic (courtesy, Travel Alberta)

Banff Highlights

  • Ride the gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain and enjoy the staggering views.
  • Raft, canoe, hike, and horseback ride in Banff National Park.
  • Soak in Upper Banff Hot Springs.
  • Take a boat tour on Lake Minnewanka.
  • Ski some (or all!) of the 7,700 acres of Banff's three top-rated resorts.

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 year—most 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 areas—Sunshine Village, Ski Banff @ Norquay, and Lake Louise Ski Resort—with 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.'s resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 24 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 23 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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