The best places in the Canadian wonderworld of Banff to explore with your kids.
A location with a brand of beauty that makes you feel like you’re looking at a postcard regardless of where you turn, Banff National Park has all the fixings for family getaways flush with unexpected adventure, enriching exploration and a feast of views that make the spirit smile. Everyone likes Banff. Even those kids that roll their eyes at pretty much everything.
Whether you and your brood yearn to explore crystalline lakes and mysterious forests teeming with elk, bears, and wolves, or sweeping glaciers and massive peaks, the 2,564 square miles of Banff National Park will be your fantasyland of nature-made wonders. This place is so good it deserves to skip past all those other locales on your bucket list and claim a spot in your top 5.
To help you craft a primo Banff itinerary, we’ve pulled together many of the best destinations and activities in this hallowed zone.
Tip: When you arrive, head to the Banff Visitor Centre and grab your kids a Parks Canada Xplorers booklet, which will help them stay engaged during your Banff adventure.
1. Riding the Banff Gondola
During this 8-minute ride you’ll rise 2,292-feet and summit at a mind-blowing overlook featuring views of Bow Valley and six mountain ranges. Stroll along the Sulphur Mountain Boardwalk to Sanson’s Peak, distracting the kids with a mission to sketch the views or engage in a photo contest (where everyone wins!), while the adults read information boards chronicling the history of Banff, Canada’s first national park.
Then, check out the interpretive centre offering hands-on exhibits and the multi-sensory Above Banff Theatre that allows you to assume the POV of a bald eagle and experience the wild shifts in the local weather. Top off the adventure with a visit to the 360-degree rooftop observation deck and a bowl of chowder and strawberry shortcake at the Sky Bistro.
2. Hiking Sunshine Meadows
After taking a gondola ride to the gateway of Sunshine Meadows, a web of hiking trails await. These paths wind through an ecosystem of glacier lilies, fire weed, Lady’s Slippers, and other vibrant foliage, and are all backed by commanding views of the Canadian Rockies. While all of the trails in the meadows are spectacular, the most family-friendly include the Rock Isle Lake path (90-minutes), the Grizzly-Larix Lakes Loop (3.5-hours), and the Twin Cairns-Meadow Park/ Sunshine Meadows Loop (2.75-hours.)
Bring your binoculars as wildlife sightings are common in these alpine meadows. Butterflies, hummingbirds, warblers and even bears and elk call the area home.
If you want to get the inside scoop on the flora and fauna of the meadows, hop on one of the interpretive guided walks offered by Banff National Park.
3. Cruising on the Lake Minnewaka
A one-hour interpretive boat cruise on Lake Minnewaka allows you to gain a unique perspective of the emerald waters of this body of water, in addition to the awe-inspiring mountain vistas, lush pine and spruce forests, and if you’re lucky, bighorn sheep, American bald eagles, ospreys, and deer bordering the shore.
The boat captains are well-versed in the history, geology, animals, park-policy and native involvement of Banff, allowing the cruise to double as an in-depth education for those with an interest. When booking your tour, make sure to select the Family Cruise, as it’s geared towards children under 12 with a treasure hunt, games, a kids journal book, and of course, ice cream.
4. Soaking in Banff Upper Hot Springs
After all the exploring you’ve been saying yes to, a dip in these mineral hot springs will soothe your muscles so you can keep charging. The large tub’s unique fusion of minerals, gases and temperature enhance blood circulation, reduce stress and pain, and relieve symptoms of skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
In addition to the health benefits, the combination of steam rising from the water and the staggering views of the surrounding peaks and forests create an ethereal atmosphere sure to wow even the most blasé of kiddos. So bring your camera.
Tip: Miss the crowds by visiting the springs in the morning.
5. Playing at Central Park Playground
A playground that seems to have sprouted from nature, Banff’s riverside Central Park features a kid-friendly climbing wall, tiny grassy hill, faux mountain, multiple slides, and stumps to climb on. This is an optimal place for the kids to blow off steam while you read a book in the grass.
6. Exploring Cave and Basin National Historic Site
Discovered by railway workers in 1883, this cave, filled with sparkling blue hot mineral water, and surrounded by Middle-Earth-esque rock walls, is a great short excursion for families exploring Banff. Start in the small museum that provides interactive exhibits, and film presentations offering insight into the history of the springs and Banff National Park. Then, follow the tunnel into the cave and snap photos until you can no longer stomach the smell of sulphur.
7. Riding a Sleigh
The most idyllic way to take in snow-kissed Banff, the horse-drawn sleigh rides offered by Banff Adventures last 45-60 minutes and whisk you across the snowy meadows of the area, which dissolve into thick forests and the towering face of the Rockies. Make sure chills don’t ruin your ride by dressing warm, and bringing blankets and a thermos of hot chocolate.
8. Evening Wildlife Safari
As many of the most compelling local creatures, like elk, mountain goats and grizzlies, wait until dusk to get active, Discover Banff Tours offers various evening expeditions to areas that are almost sure to feature wildlife. While this company can’t guarantee your tour will include animal sightings, they have a 95% success rate.
9. Hiking Tunnel Mountain
This easy hike starts in town and weaves up the smallest mountain in Banff. But don’t let the “smallest” descriptor put you off, as the summit gets you high enough to provide spellbinding views that demand you sit and stare for awhile. If your kids are early risers, have a truly memorable breakfast by filling a coffee thermos, grabbing some goodies from Wild Flour Bakery and enjoying your fare at the top. Expect to spend two to three hours round-trip on this adventure.
10. Kayaking or Canoeing on Lake Moraine
As you glide above the depths of Lake Moraine you feel as though you’re floating on turquoise air. The astonishing clarity coupled with the mesmerizing color make this lake one of the most enchanting stops in Banff, especially because it also features views of the Valley Of The Ten Peaks, and occasionally, wildlife sightings if you paddle close to shore.
From mid-July to early October take full advantage of these waters by renting kayaks or canoes at Moraine Lake Lodge or Banff Canoe Club. Banff Canoe Club also offers canoe tours of Bow River, Forty Mile Creek and a branch of Vermillion Lakes.
11. Picnicking on Fenland Trail
Treat your family to a wander along this path that passes through a white spruce forest, and the shores of Forty Mile Creek and Vermillion Lakes. As it’s only a 1.2-mile loop, even the littlest of littles can manage it, especially if you stop for a picnic on the bank of the creek. If you want to extend the excursion, hop on the Bow River Trail that connects with Fenland on Norquay Road and follows the Bow River through downtown Banff.
Tip: This trail can get buggy so bring insect repellent.
12. Dogsledding Tour
Get an authentic feel for what life in the old world Canadian wilderness was like by being pulled on a sled by 12 to 16 dogs, and a musher (the driver.) Banff Tours offers a range of dogsledding packages that range from a short jaunt through the snow-covered meadows of Banff, to a full-on adventure past the peaks, lakes and forests of the park.
Some of the packages include a chance to drive your own sled, and one is even paired with a helicopter ride. If your tot is worried they won’t be able to join, know that all ages are welcome.
13. Driving Icefields Parkway
If you have an interest in taking in both Banff and Jasper National Park, hop on the Icefields Parkway, a 144-mile road named one of the best drives in the world by Condé Nast Traveler. This scenic drive takes you past more than 100 glaciers, lakes emanating colors so vibrant you’re pretty sure they’re fake (but spoiler, they’re not), jagged spires, dramatic valleys, latch and pine forests, and waterfalls, lots of waterfalls. It’s pretty much the best road trip ever.
Because there’s so much to see along the way, be sure to give yourself plenty of time. Highlights include the Crowfoot Glacier at Bow Lake, Bow Summit, Saskatchewan River Crossing, Weeping Wall, Parker Ridge, Glacier Skywalk, Athabaska Falls and so much more.
If you want your kids to be interested in the drive, create a sightseeing scavenger hunt list that contains sights they’re likely to see.
14. Taking Photos at the Top of Rockpile Trail
As it’s only a half-mile loop, this hike is super easy and offers jaw-dropping views of Lake Moraine. The views are so extraordinary they make the absurdly crowded parking lot worth it. Speaking of crowds... they fill up that parking lot fast, so plan to go on a weekday super duper early. Or, one of the adults can drop everyone off, and stay in the car until another adult trades off with them so they can do the short walk.
Fun Fact: This view is so epic it was the image used for the back of Canadian twenty dollar bills issued between 1969 and 1979.
15. Tubing at Mount Norquay
If you’re visiting Banff between December and April you can likely score a ride at this tube park located five minutes from town. With eight tubing lanes, a magic carpet that cancels out the worst part of sledding (walking up the hill), and a kid-zone for littles under four who are too young to ride a tube, this chilly wonderland is a great way to spend an afternoon and tucker out your kids.