The Rocky Mountain parks are the perfect places to entertain and educate children; light on gimmicks, but heavy on inspiration. Listen to fascinating tales from indigenous storytellers, feel the thrill of your first-ever bear sighting, or enjoy the good old-fashioned simplicity of a game of charades around the campfire.
Best Activities for Kids
Hitting the trails is the best way to appreciate the national parks.
- Canmore Nordic Centre
Discover 60km (37 miles) of trails at this purpose-built bike park.
- Snocoach Tour
Trundle up the Athabasca Glacier in an all-terrain Snocoach.
- Canoeing on Moraine Lake
Paddle across the waters of this idyllic mountain lake.
- Hot Springs
Kids will love the hot springs in Banff, Jasper and Radium.
- Gondola Rides
Zip up the mountainside in style in Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise.
- Horseback Riding
Trot through the Rockies and tuck into a trailside cookout.
- Wildlife Watching
From marmots to moose, the Rockies are a paradise for wildlife spotters.
- White-water Rafting
Get wet and wild on the Bow and Kicking Horse Rivers.
Banff, Jasper & Glacier for Kids
Sights & Attractions
Compared to the true wilderness parks in Alaska and the Yukon with next-to-zero infrastructure, the Rocky Mountain Parks are positively family-friendly, laying on many activities specifically for children.
Inevitably, it’s the outdoor pursuits that are going to be the main attraction. Wildlife walks, white-water rafting, canoeing and horseback riding are all popular family pastimes, and most activity providers are well set up for dealing with kids.
Children qualify for discounted entry to nearly all sights (generally around half-price for ages five to 15, while under-fives often go free). Family tickets, which usually include entry for two adults and two children, are also available for many tours and sights.
Hiking is one of the best all-round family activities. Many of the trails around the parks are well maintained and easily within the scope of active kids. Older kids should be capable of tackling some of the shorter overnight hikes, including staying out in the backcountry and cooking dinner over an open campfire with parents or extended family.
Trails that combine the sights are usually more fun for inquiring young minds, and there are many examples of walks that take in a mix of forest, mountain, river and canyon, or those that wind their way through well-known wildlife habitats. Several trails have interpretive panels to help you understand the geographical features, flora and fauna.
If the kids are interested in nature, it might be a good idea to join an organized hike. Many local guides are accredited by the Mountain Parks Heritage Interpretation Association (MPHIA) and can help children really engage with the natural world they’re walking through. The main tour operators in Banff run morning and evening wildlife tours, on which you’ll have a good chance of spotting elk, moose, bighorn sheep and other animals.
Remember to take along all the necessary supplies, including plenty of water, hats, sun lotion, blister cream and, most importantly, something nice to eat once you reach the end of the trail. Good-quality waterproofs will also come in handy in case of sudden rainstorms.
Top Hikes for Kids
- Johnston Canyon
- Sundance Canyon
- Consolation Lakes
- Garden Path Trail
- Mary Schäffer Loop
- Moose Lake Loop
- Crypt Lake Trail
- Avalanche Lake Trail
- Swiftcurrent Lake Nature Trail
Banff and Jasper have decent on- and off-road cycling networks with plenty of easy grades for kids. Most bike-rental companies offer children’s bikes, child helmets and protective pads, as well as child chariots and ‘tag-a-longs’ for younger children.
One of the best areas for biking is at the self-contained Canmore Nordic Centre, which has a huge system of trails catering for all ages and abilities. The Kicking Horse Mountain Resort is also good for downhill mountain biking in summer.
Canoeing & Rafting
Canoes and kayaks are readily available for hire on Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, Emerald Lake and many others throughout the summer months. For more thrills, white-water rafting on the Kicking Horse and Bow Rivers is a guaranteed knuckle-whitener, although – depending on the class of rapids – there are sometimes minimum age stipulations. More popular with families are relatively sedate 'float trips’, such as those offered on the Bow and Athabasca Rivers (in Banff and Jasper respectively). All canoeing and rafting companies provide suitable boats for kids, or spaces in adult boats, along with child-sized life vests.
If you prefer to let someone else do the steering, there are scenic boat cruises on Lake Minnewanka, Maligne Lake and several of Jasper’s lakes.
Horse travel is part of Rocky Mountain folklore and requires minimal skills if you're a first-timer. Most horse-trip companies provide small ponies and child-friendly saddles, and cater as much for novices as experienced riders.
Banff Trail Riders has lots of easy rides in Banff (from one hour in duration) and also offers a great evening trail cookout, complete with BBQ steak and homemade baked beans.
You can usually visit the horses at Spray River Corral and the Warner stables, near the Cave and Basin in Banff; phone ahead to check the stables are open for visitors.
Jasper also has plenty of potential for horseback riding, with popular day trails around Lake Annette and Lake Patricia, and longer trips into Tonquin Valley and Maligne Pass.
Skiing, Snowboarding & Other Winter Activities
In winter, skiing and snowboarding are the main outdoor pastimes. All of the ski resorts in Banff, Jasper and Kananaskis, as well as Whitefish Mountain Resort near Glacier, have runs that are specially tailored for younger users. Child-size skis, snowboards, goggles and gear are all available for hire. Banff's Mt Norquay is deemed particularly family-friendly.
Most resorts offer ski lessons and snowboard schools, as well as day care and baby-sitting services. For more info, the website for Banff’s Big Three (www.skibig3.com) ski resorts will give you some idea of what’s on offer.
Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are both fun and unusual ways to explore the winter landscape: The trails around Jasper townsite and the Lake Louise area are good places to start. Ice-skating is usually possible on some of the park’s lakes in winter, depending on seasonal temperatures.
Glacier operates the US National Parks Service’s excellent Junior Ranger Program (www.nps.gov/learn/juniorranger.htm), in which kids pick up a free ranger booklet from park visitor centers. The booklet contains activities, questionnaires, quizzes and games to complete during their stay; they’ll earn a Junior Ranger badge and a certificate when the book is completed. Before you even set out for the national park, kids can sign up to become a WebRanger at www.nps.gov/webrangers, where there are plenty of online games, puzzles and activities to pique their interest.
The Canadian Rocky Mountain parks – Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay and Waterton Lakes – all run an Xplorers Program aimed at kids aged six to 11. Kids are given a paperback Xplorer booklet full of interesting facts and tasks. They must complete a given number of tasks in order to claim a special souvenir. Xplorers 2 is a similar program aimed at teens. Booklets are available at any park information center.
Hands-on interpretive activities are often run at day-use areas or on trails in Banff. Activities range from stories about legendary park characters to field studies of bugs. Upcoming activities are displayed on the park website.
Parks Canada also provides regular educational programs at main campgrounds in Banff, Jasper, Waterton Lakes and Kootenay, with slide shows, talks, films and activities exploring many aspects of the parks, including wildlife, natural history and geology. Campgrounds with regular programs include Tunnel Mountain, Johnston Canyon and Lake Louise in Banff, and The Whistlers and Wapiti in Jasper. You don't have to be a campground guest to attend.
In West Glacier in the US, the Glacier National Park Visitor Center holds similarly entertaining ranger talks and slideshows throughout summer, and the Discovery Cabin in Apgar Village holds Junior Ranger programs in July and August.
Banff & Around
- Banff Gondola Ride the sky-skimming cable car to the top of Sulphur Mountain.
- Bow River Float the low-grade rapids below Bow Falls or hire a canoe and paddle up to Vermilion Lakes for some beaver-spotting.
- Lake Louise Hike up for afternoon tea at the Lake Agnes Teahouse.
- Rat’s Nest Cave This cave system near Canmore has over 65km (40 miles) of underground tunnels to explore.
- Boo the Grizzly Bear The Rocky Mountains’ only captive grizzly bear lives in a refuge on Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, meaning sightings are practically guaranteed.
- Cows Ice Cream Banff Ave has an outlet of what is possibly the best ice cream maker in Canada.
- Maligne Lake Jump aboard a cruise boat to Spirit Island.
- Jasper Skytram More gravity-defying cable cars.
- Columbia Icefield Centre Go for a Snocoach ride on the Athabasca glacier.
- Glacier Skywalk Test your head for heights on this daring glass-floor lookout.
- Jasper Town Trails Hike or pedal the scenic trails that fan out directly from Jasper’s townsite.
- Miette Hot Springs Splash around in geothermally heated waters.
Glacier & Waterton
- Going-to-the-Sun Road Ride this spectacular road in a vintage ‘Jammer’ bus.
- Native America Speaks Watch First Nations culture in action at the St Mary Visitor Center.
- Many Glacier Valley Top spot for wildlife- and glacier-spotting.
- Lake McDonald Dip a canoe oar into the frigid but beautiful water of this picture-perfect lake.
Bad weather can put a dent in even the best-laid plans, so here are a few ideas on what to do when the sun won’t play ball.
Banff Park Museum Get spooked out by stuffed beasts.
Lux Cinema in Banff Top place for catching the latest flicks.
Jasper Aquatic Centre Get wet in Jasper’s municipal pool.
Elevation Place Indoor climbing walls and a fun indoor pool are the highlights at this new Canmore recreation centre.
Banff Skatepark Plenty of bowls, rails and ramps to grind.
Hot Springs in Banff, Jasper and Radium Get wet and stay warm.
Museum of the Plains Indian Learn about First Nations culture at this interesting museum on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
What to Pack
For Babies & Toddlers
- Back sling or child-carrier rucksack Perfect for hiking the trails and keeping your hands free.
- Portable changing mat Plus hand-wash gel and other essentials, as trail toilets are very basic.
- Child’s car seat Avoid the extra expense and hassle of arranging a car seat from your rental company.
- Stroller with rain cover The cover is essential in case of bad weather.
For Five to 12 Year Olds
- Rain gear A good raincoat and plenty of warm layers will be indispensable.
- Proper footwear A pair of boots (or at the very least decent trail shoes) will help avoid sprained ankles and keep feet dry. Sneakers are not a good idea.
- Nature guides Essential for helping to identify wildflowers, birds and animals on the trails.
- Binoculars For long-distance wildlife watching.
- First-aid kit Including disinfectant, antibiotic cream, Band-Aids, blister cream and moleskin patches for hot spots in boots.
- Spare batteries For torches, games etc.
Most hotels will happily accept kids, and many places allow children under a certain age to stay in their parents’ room for no extra charge (the exact age varies according to the hotel, but it’s usually under 12, 15 or 16). Extra pull-out beds are often available; otherwise ask for a triple-bed or family room.
- Many hotels have extra facilities, such as games rooms, saunas and swimming pools with water slides, which can help to fend off boredom once the day’s activities are done.
- For larger families, booking out a whole hostel dorm is usually far cheaper than an equivalent hotel room. The big HI hostel in Banff has private self-catering cabins ideal for families.
- Many cabin complexes and some hotels have self-catering suites with fully equipped kitchens.
- Larger campgrounds such as Tunnel Mountain, Johnston Canyon and Lake Louise in Banff, or Whistlers or Wapiti in Jasper, host regular interpretive programs and activity sessions for children. Some of them also have playgrounds.
Most restaurants in the parks are kid-friendly, with the exception of some of the more upmarket establishments. Kids’ menus are widespread, especially in hotels and the main town restaurants. This being North America, menus usually arrive with a cup of crayons and an activity sheet to pass the time.
Some drinking establishments will serve kids food at sit-down tables in the early evening (usually before 9pm).
- In Alberta and BC, it’s a legal requirement that children under six and weighing less than 18kg (40lb) are secured in a properly fitted child-safety seat. In BC kids over 18kg but under 1.45m (4ft 9in) must use a booster seat (this is also recommended in Alberta).
- In Montana, US, kids under six years of age or under 27kg (60lb) must use a child-safety seat.
- Drivers are responsible for ensuring that other passengers are safely secured and wearing seat belts. Safety seats for toddlers and children are available from all the major rental companies, but you’ll incur an extra charge (usually around C$6 to C$10 per day). You’ll need to reserve them at the time of booking.
Best Regions for Kids
The park with the best infrastructure contains a sizeable town that hosts bags of restaurants and hotels, and a good cross section of outdoor adventure companies. Banff also has a gondola ride, hot springs and several museums.
A quieter alternative to Banff, Jasper also has a handy townsite, a gondola ride, hot springs and the best off-road bike network in the Rockies.
This pint-sized park has a small townsite equipped with its own large family-friendly campground. Also on offer are boat rides on lakes and some spectacular trails.
The most rugged park has an excellent Junior Ranger program and interesting Native America Speaks.