There are 4 great scenic drives within 5 to 10 minutes from the town centre varying in length and well worth exploring. With the exception of Mt. Norquay the roads are easy to drive and navigate. All four drives offer different highlights and features which I’ve outlined below.
1. Tunnel Mountain Drive
Start anywhere along Buffalo St. and head east towards Tunnel Mountain and continue along the road, passing trail heads, hotels and campgrounds to finally loop back to the main east entrance into Banff along the main Banff Avenue.
Surprise Corner and the iconic view of the Banff Springs Hotel across the famous Bow River. There’s a small parking lot here and a view point platform up a log staircase.
Tunnel Mountain Trailhead: Stop and take in the view or head to the summit on a wonderful 1hr. hike for the best views of the town itself.
Hoodoos Trailhead – Just below the campground. Fantastic views across the valley towards Mount Rundle, the Rimrock Hotel, the Banff Springs Golf Course and river valley below. A small walk leads you to the famous sand formations called the Hoodoos which have been formed over thousands of years of erosion into interesting shapes.
2. Vermilion Lakes Road – 4.3km
Access when exiting the west end of town toward the Trans-Canada Highway. The road is well sign posted – if you reach the Highway or the Norquay Road you’ve gone too far! This is a lovely drive and a favorite spot for locals and visitors alike to enjoy the peace of 3 shallow lakes that are home to a plethora of wildlife especially birds and in the spring bald eagles. The road is best biked or driven though it is often dotted with joggers and walkers despite not have a proper sidewalk. At the end of the road is a turnaround point which is a particularly special part of the wetlands where warm sulphur water flows into the lakes from the adjacent mountains and warms the water negating any freezing in the winter months. There is a paved walking trail at the end of the road to stretch the legs that continues through the trees for about a kilometre or two.
3. Mount Norquay Road
Mount Norquay is the much beloved local ski hill and 7 switch backs whisk you up 6 km to a stunning viewpoint over the town and across a grassy opening which is a favorite grazing spot for the local Bighorn Sheep herd. Continue up to the ski hill proper itself and take a breathtaking (literally) chair ride up to 7000ft alongside the infamous Lone Pine ski run to the Cliffhouse Bistro/tea house and enjoy, hands down, the best views in Banff. Enjoy a cup of tea or brave the Via Ferrata along the cliff tops (assisted and guided rock climbing up rock faces, across ladders and suspension bridges).
4. Lake Minnewanka Scenic Loop – 24km
Access – East Banff entrance of the Trans-Canada Highway. West arm only is closed mid-November to mid-April.
A gentle coasting loop that winds past 3 lakes and often elk, Bighorn sheep and on occasion the odd bear can be seen.
There are several stopping points along the road for a picnic or short walk such as Cascade Ponds, The Cascade Falls trailhead, Two Jack Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Upper and Lower Bankhead and the Cascade Fire Road.
Highlights of each stop:
Cascade Ponds: pinic tables and shelters, bridges and a short loop trail, great for kids to run.
Johnson Lake: Sandy beach, 3km loop trail – check for closures due to whirling disease problems.
Two Jack Lake: Picnic tables, campground, ideal for paddle boarding or canoeing.
Lake Minnewanka: Largest lake in Banff National Park. Picnic tables and cooking shelters, shoreline walk, boat tours and a small summer only café.
Upper and Lower Bankhead: Bankhead was the original coal mining settlement of Banff. A short interpretive trail through old coal mine relics, building footprints and mine shafts.