Canoeing & Kayaking
Despite a modern penchant for big cars, canoe travel is still very much a quintessential Canadian method of transportation. The best options near Banff Town are Lake Minnewanka and nearby Two Jack Lake, both to the northeast, or – closer to the town itself – the Vermilion Lakes. Unless you have your own canoe, you'll need to rent one; try Banff Canoe Club.
There are lots of riding options around Banff, both on the road and on selected trails. Popular routes around Banff Town include Sundance (7.4km round-trip) and Spray River Loop (12.5km); either is good for families. Spray River & Goat Creek (19km one way) and Rundle Riverside (14km one way) are both A-to-Bs with start/finish points near Canmore. The former is pretty straightforward; the latter is more challenging, with ups and downs and potential for thrills and spills.
Serious road cyclists should check out Hwy 1A between Banff and Lake Louise; the rolling hills and quiet road here are a roadie's dream. Parks Canada publishes the brochure Mountain Biking & Cycling Guide – Banff National Park, which describes trails and regulations. Pick it up at the Banff Visitor Centre.
Snowtips/Bactrax has a barn full of town and trail bikes to rent (from $12/42 per hour/day) and will deliver them to your hotel. Ask about shuttles to trailheads.
Hiking is Banff's tour de force and the main focus of many travelers' visit to the area. The trails are easy to find, well signposted and maintained enough to be comfortable to walk on, yet rugged enough to still get a wilderness experience.
In general, the closer to Banff Town you are, the more people you can expect to see and the more developed the trail will be. But regardless of where in the park you go walking, you are assured to be rewarded for your efforts.
Before you head out, check at the Banff Visitor Centre for trail conditions and possible closures. Keep in mind that trails are often snow-covered much later into the summer season than you might realize, and trail closures due to bears are a possibility, especially in berry season (June to September).
One of the best hikes from the town center is the Bow River Falls & The Hoodoos Trail, which starts by the Bow River Bridge and tracks past the falls to the Hoodoos – weird-looking rock spires caused by wind and water erosion. The trail plies its way around the back of Tunnel Mountain through forest and some river meadows (10.2km round-trip).
You can track the north shore of Lake Minnewanka for kilometers on a multi-use trail that is sometimes closed due to bear activity. The classic hike is to walk as far as the Alymer Lookout, just shy of 10km one way. Less taxing is the 5.6km round-trip hike to Stewart Canyon, where you can clamber down rocks and boulders to the Cascade River.
Some of the best multiday hikes start at the Sunshine Village parking lot (where skiers grab the gondola in winter). From here you can plan two- to four-day sorties up over Healy Pass and down to Egypt Lake, or else get a bus up to Sunshine Village, where you can cross the border into BC and head out across Sunshine Meadows and Mt Assiniboine Provincial Park.
The best backcountry experience is arguably the Sawback Trail, which travels from Banff up to Lake Louise the back way – it's over 74km, with six primitive campsites and three spectacular mountain passes.
Check out Lonely Planet's Banff, Jasper & Glacier National Parks guide for more details about more single-day and multiday hikes.
Banff's first European explorers – fur traders and railway engineers – penetrated the region primarily on horseback. You can re-create their pioneering spirit on guided rides with Warner Guiding & Outfitting, which will fit you out with a trusty steed and lead you along narrow trails for part of the day. Instruction and guiding are included; a sore backside is more or less mandatory for beginners. Grin and bear it.
If you're really into it, Warner's six-day Wildlife Monitoring Adventure Expeditions will take you out to limited-access areas, accompanied by a Parks Canada researcher.
Skiing & Snowboarding
Strange though it may seem, there are three ski areas in the national park, two of them in the vicinity of Banff Town. Large, snowy Sunshine Village is considered world-class. Tiny Norquay, a mere 5km from the center, is your half-day, family-friendly option.
Sunshine Village straddles the Alberta–BC border. Though slightly smaller than Lake Louise in terms of skiable terrain it gets much bigger dumpings of snow, or 'Champagne powder' as Albertans like to call it (up to 9m annually). Aficionados laud Sunshine's advanced runs and lengthy ski season, which lingers until Victoria Day weekend in late May. A high-speed gondola whisks skiers up in 17 minutes to the village, which sports Banff's only ski-in hotel, the Sunshine Mountain Lodge.
Ski Banff@Norquay, just 6km north of downtown Banff, has a long history of entertaining Banff visitors. The smallest and least visited of the three local hills, this is a good place to body-swerve the major show-offs and hit the slopes for a succinct half-day.
Local buses shuttle riders from Banff hotels to both resorts (and Lake Louise) every 30 minutes during the season.
The best rafting is outside the park (and province) on the Kicking Horse River in Yoho National Park, BC. There are class IV rapids here, meaning big waves, swirling holes and a guaranteed soaking. Lesser rapids are found on the Kananaskis River and the Horseshoe Canyon section of the Bow River. The Bow River around Banff is better suited to mellower float trips.
Several rafting companies are located in the park. They offer tours starting at around $80. (Factor in $15 more for a Banff pickup.)