Getting out into nature and the beautiful mountain landscape is fortunately easy and hassle free from almost anywhere in the Town of Banff. The Town of Banff is essentially an island of 4.85 square km (1.87 sq miles) surrounded by Banff National Park. Because of strict federal rules on growth, population and urban sprawl, Banff cannot expand beyond pre-determined set boundaries. This makes escaping the busy town extremely quick and easy, making wilderness very accessible for all. It also makes returning to civilization quick and rewarding with the plethora of fine eating establishments within the town.
There are literally dozens of amazing walking and hiking opportunities right from town but here are my top 3 picks for getting out there, from easy gentle flat strolls to extreme mountain scrambles; rated from easiest to hardest.
1. The Bow River Walk
Time: 20 minutes return, can be extended to 45 mins.
Key features: flat, paved part way, scenic.
A paved path wide enough to accommodate strollers and wheelchairs dotted with benches hugs the east side of the famous scenic Bow River which runs through the town. Start near the boat docks and stroll along the river, past Central Park and the gazebo, under Banff’s main vehicle bridge, past some gorgeous river homes to the new awarding winning pedestrian bridge which is well worth crossing and lingering on. Return from the river boat docks to the new pedestrian bridge is about 20 mins at a leisurely stroll. You can continue onward if so inclined as the path does continues along the other side of the river and left or east towards the Bow Falls and the famous Banff Springs Hotel. The paved path does end here but the dirt trail is well maintained. Carry on along the more shaded side of the river up a set of log stairs over a small hill to the spectacular Bow Falls, the Banff Springs Golf Course and the hotel – about another 20 mins one way.
2. Tunnel Mountain aka Sleeping Buffalo
Time: 1 hour round trip to the summit
Key features: Steepish, well maintained, popular, switchback hiking trail. Great views along the way and from the summit.
This is a great taste of what hiking is all about in the Canadian Rockies. The terrain gives you a proper sense of what it’s like to hike up a real mountain. With a relatively short distance to the summit, this hike allows for a quick fix and real sense of achievement in a short amount of time. This is a great first hike for active kids as young as 4. Even on this relatively short hike always come prepared with proper walking footwear, water and a windproof jacket.
There are 2 trailheads for this hike. The first is approx. 10 mins walk lower down the mountain. This lower trailhead is the official start with a large parking lot located just below the Banff Centre Arts School along St. Julien Road. The second trailhead has a much smaller parking area and is really best for non-hikers and more for a quick photo op.
The hike features long switchbacks through an old pine forest and scenic views west towards the beautiful Mt. Bourgeau and down onto the Town of Banff itself. The summit features views over the back side of the mountain east towards Canmore, the Banff Springs Golf Course and on a good day to the impressive Mt. Aylmer.
3. Mt. Rundle – 2949m
Key features: 1500 elevation gain, some route finding, outstanding views.
Mt. Rundle is one of the most iconic and impressive mountains within walking distance of the town of Banff. It towers over the eastern edge of the town arching into the clouds with a distinctive knife edge summit. This is not a hike for the first timers but a scramble exclusively for serious climbers who have experience trudging through rugged scree at high elevations. The reward of reaching the summit via the famous Dragon’s Back is well worth the minimum 6 hour uphill slog. If this hike is up your alley download or pick up “A Scramblers Guide to Mount Rundle” (pdf) for all the necessary trail information.
If you’re particularly interested in walks and hikes in Banff National Park, I would highly suggest purchasing the absolute bible on the subject and the only guide book I would recommend – “Canadian Rockies Trail Guide” by Brian Patton and Bart Robinson.