You really can’t visit Banff and Jasper National Parks without strapping on your boots. More than 1,600 miles of trails crisscross the parks, ranging from short scenic walks to waterfalls to day-long treks to remote alpine lakes. For those into mountaineering, canyoning, or rock climbing, both Banff and Jasper will leave you spoiled for route choices. But with grizzlies and black bears in the woods, just remember your bear safety 101: pack bear spray, try not to hike alone, and make your presence known on the trail. You can pick up day hike maps at the visitor centers in Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper, or peruse the Banff or Jasper National Parks hiking webpages. Top day hikes include Larch Valley (pictured)/Minnestimma Lakes (moderate), Johnston Canyon/Ink Pots (easy to moderate) and Sunshine Meadows/Rock Isle Lake (easy) in Banff and Path of the Glacier/Carvell Meadows (moderate), Maligne Canyon (easy to moderate) and Red Squirrel/Old Fort Point Loop (easy to moderate) in Jasper. For days-long backcountry treks, check out Banff and Jasper’s backpacking web pages for inspiration.
Explore a Glacier
Feel the crunch of ten-thousand-year-old ice under your feet while exploring the parks’ glaciers. Sitting amidst the roughly 125-square-mile Columbia Icefield–the largest expanse of ice in the Rockies–is Jasper National Park’s Athabasca Glacier (pictured): one of the most easily-accessible glaciers on the continent. You can get to its toe on an hour-long hike, but to really explore it, book a guided tour with Athabasca Glacier Icewalks, which will outfit you with crampons for an hours-long trek across the ancient ice. You can also head out on the icefield in an “Ice Explorer”–think a jacked-up six-wheeled bus with tractor tires–or take in a bird’s eye view from the glass-floored observation deck of the Glacier Skywalk. Several day-hikes in the parks–most notably Plain of Six Glaciers trail near Lake Louise and the Mount Edith Cavell trails in Jasper–can (with effort) get you within spitting distance of a glacier, but between house-sized icefalls and yawning crevasses, don’t go exploring them without a guide unless you really know what you’re doing.
Paddle in Paradise
Still as glass with mountains reflected in their milky, cerulean waters, the parks’ lakes are begging to be disturbed by your paddle. Canoes can be rented directly at several of the parks’ exquisite lakes, including Lake Minnewanka, Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and Vermillion Lakes (reached via the Bow River) in Banff, as well as at Maligne Lake and Pyramid Lake in Jasper. All of these lakes make fantastic picnic or lazing spots too, though only the brave dip into their chilly waters! If you’re into kayaking or standup paddle boarding, or want to strap a canoe on your car’s roof for your trip, rentals can be found in the Banff and Jasper townsites. There are also companies in both towns that can take you on wild white-water rafting adventures or languid float trips. For other aqua adventures, take a motorized boat tour on Banff’s Lake Minnewanka or Jasper’s Maligne Lake, or squeeze into a dry suit to go scuba diving at a flooded town at Banff’s Lake Minnewanka or a bizarre WWII wreck in Jasper’s Patricia Lake, which features the sunken remnants of an attempt to build an aircraft carrier out of wood pulp and ice.
Soak in Springs
There’s nothing quite like soaking in steaming water after a long day on a trail. Parks Canada operates two geothermal hot springs in the parks: Banff Upper Hot Springs (pictured), just outside of downtown Banff, and Miette Hot Springs, which is 38 miles east of Jasper. Banff’s springs, which were discovered in 1883 and developed just two years later, offer great views of the town and its surrounding summits from a big kidney-shaped pool. Things are much more tranquil in Jasper, with the springs’ large twin pools set in an isolated, wilderness-bound valley. Both hot springs are open well into the evening, though only Banff’s operates during winter. If you forget your trunks, they both rent old-timey one-piece swimsuits. There are also a slew of privately-run spas in the parks, many which have their own hot pools. By far the poshest of the lot, the Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel boasts an indoor Swiss mineral pool with vaulted ceilings, stone pillars, miniature waterfalls, and sweeping views of the mountains.
Soar on Gondolas Galore
Breathtaking views without losing your breath: there are gondolas in the Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper townsites that will whisk you close to the clouds. The Banff Gondola, which climbs Sulphur Mountain to look out over the town and its mountains, also has short hikes to an adjacent peak and a timeworn weather station. Outside of winter, when it shuttles skiers, the Lake Louise gondola is an excellent way to see a grizzly bear, and of course, the gorgeous lake below. From near the summit of Whistlers Mountain, which can be reached on an hour-long hike, the Jasper Skytram looks out over the snaking Athabasca River and mountain wilderness that surrounds the town. If you’re feeling peckish, all three have restaurants.
Explore Winter Wonderlands
From early December until the end of April, Banff and Jasper National Parks transform into winter wonderlands. Skate around an ice castle on Lake Louise, go dogsledding through the forest, take a horse-drawn carriage, clamber up a frozen waterfall, hit a trail on snowshoes or cross-country skis, or soak in an outdoor hot spring. There are also four ski resorts in the parks: Sunshine Village, Mount Norquay, and Lake Louise Ski Resort in Banff, and Marmot Basin in Jasper. The Mount Norquay and Lake Louise ski resorts also have snow tubing! If you’re into ski touring, anything is possible. Another winter must is the Maligne Canyon or Johnston Canyon ice walk tours, where you can strap on crampons to take in frozen waterfalls and ice caves. Keep in mind that snowfall can be monumental in the Rockies and roads can close without warning in the winter. If you’re in your own car, winter tires are a must.
Oh, the pleasures of the open road! Truly, one of the best things to do in Banff and Jasper National Parks is to simply drive. The montane ecosystem is on full display along the Bow Valley Parkway, a 30+ mile scenic route that runs parallel to the Trans-Canada Highway between the towns of Banff and Lake Louise. While the Rockies will draw your eye, be sure to keep a keen lookout for animals like grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, elk, and wolves alongside the road–especially in the morning and evening. The parks’ most magnificent drive, though, is the jaw-dropping Icefields Parkway. Running for 144 miles from Lake Louise to Jasper, the two-lane highway follows the Continental Divide, eventually bursting high above the tree line to a world of razor-crowned massifs, glittering glaciers, violent waterfalls, and vibrant alpine lakes. The entire road is dotted with turnouts and trailheads, like the short hike that leads to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier. Other excellent drives with plenty of adventure options include Banff’s eight-mile Minnewanka Loop Road and Jasper’s 30-mile Maligne Lake Road. For the cycling-inclined, there are numerous rental options in Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper–as well as plenty of bike lanes along roadways. For something completely different, try a tour in a Harley Davidson sidecar in Jasper.