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The Best Short Hikes in Banff National Park

by Karen Ung

Banff National Park is a hiker’s paradise with turquoise lakes, jagged peaks, glaciers, and stunning waterfalls. You don’t have to hike far for stunning views; the best short hikes can be done in 1-2 hours or less! Here are the best short hikes near the town of Banff, Lake Minnewanka, and the Bow Valley Parkway.

A. The Best Short Hikes Near the Town of Banff

1. For a Bird’s Eye View: Sanson’s Peak

Sanson’s Peak, an outlier of Sulphur Mountain, offers panoramic views of six mountain ranges. While meteorologist Norman Sanson, for whom the peak is named, hiked Sulphur Mountain (6 km one way, 655 m elevation gain) year round to get to work, visitors can easily access the peak via a ridgetop boardwalk from the top of the Banff Gondola. The trail ends at the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station, a National Historic Site.

Distance: 500 metres one way from the top of the Banff Gondola / Sulphur Mountain
Elevation Gain: minimal
When to Go: Year round
Stroller friendly? No – there are lots of stairs

Insider tip: Go midweek or off season to avoid the crowds, then warm up at Upper Hot Springs! Kids 5 & under ride the gondola free!

2. Awesome First Summit: Tunnel Mountain

Tunnel Mountain is a great first summit as it’s short and scenic. Since the mountain doesn’t have a tunnel – the Canadian Pacific Railway decided not to build one – I prefer its Stoney name: “Sleeping Buffalo.” Check it out the next time you drive by on the Trans Canada (from the north and east); it really does look like one! For more info on this hike, read our complete trip write up here: Tunnel Mountain: Hike to the top of a mountain from town!

Distance: 2.4 km one way
Elevation Gain: 260 m
When to Go: Year round
Stroller friendly? No

3. Easy Access Sunrise or Sunset Spot: Vermilion Lakes

View from Vermilion Lakes Drive at sunset

Vermilion Lakes is the place to go for the perfect photo of Mount Rundle. Watch the sun rise behind Mount Rundle, or catch golden light on the peak before sunset. To get there, do the Fenland Trail loop counter clockwise through the spruce trees, and look for a side trail to Vermilion Lakes Road. Continue westward to the dock. Return the way you came and complete the loop through the spruce trees keeping an eye out for beavers in the creek.

Distance: 2.6 km round trip to first dock (3.6 km round trip to the second dock)
Elevation Gain: n/a
When to Go: Year round
Stroller friendly? Yes, but use caution on Vermilion Lakes Road as it is narrow.

Insider tip: Bring your standup paddleboard and catch the sunset from the water! You can drive Vermilion Lakes Road and park at a roadside pullout. Note that limited parking is available on summer weekends.

B. Going Further: Lake Minnewanka Area, Sunshine Meadows, and Johnston Canyon

1. Fantastic Family Hike & Day Use Area: Johnson Lake 

Enjoy views of Mount Rundle and Cascade Mountain as you circumnavigate Johnson Lake, then go for a paddle and have a picnic at the popular Day Use Area. Look for the swing and visit the hoodoos viewpoint and Billy Carver’s old hermit cabin.

Distance: 2.8 km loop
Elevation Gain:  minimal
When to Go: Year round
Stroller friendly? Yes

Insider tip: This swimming hole is busy on a hot day. Arrive early to get parking!

2. Lake Minnewanka Shoreline Walk: Stewart Canyon Bridge

As you walk along the shore of Lake Minnewanka it’s easy to see why the Nakoda call it “Lake of the Spirits.” A huge expanse of sparkling, turquoise water is guarded by dramatic peaks. It’s an easy walk on a wide trail to Stewart Canyon Bridge (middle photo above), the site of Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum’s famous kiss in the movie River of No Return. Keep an eye out for deer, bighorn sheep, and bears that frequent the area.

Distance:  1.5 km one way
Elevation Gain:  minimal
When to Go: Year round
Stroller friendly? Yes
Insider tip: There are lots of trees along the shore perfect for hanging a hammock! Stay a while and relax.

3. Epic wildflowers and scenery: Rock Isle Lake, Sunshine Meadows 

Sunshine Meadows Wildflowers, Banff

Sunshine Meadows has been touted as one of the best hiking destinations in Canada for its epic views, summer wildflowers, and fall colors (larch trees turn golden). Your adventure begins with a shuttle bus or gondola ride to the Standish Chairlift. From the top, several amazing hiking trails through extensive meadows of wildflowers await, but the best, short hike is to stunning Rock Isle Lake. As the name suggests, there is a small, rocky island in the lake! Go in late July for the flowers, late September for larches.

Distance: 1.8 km one way
Elevation Gain: 105 m
When to Go: June 24, 2022 to September 11, 2022. Check the website for hours. (Winter access is only permitted with a tour guide).

Insider tip: Book tickets in advance, especially if visiting on the weekend.

4. Waterfalls and catwalks: Johnston Canyon

Johnston Canyon is a must-see when you visit Banff! It will quickly become one of your favorite hikes with its waterfalls and cliffside catwalk high above the river. Lower Falls boasts a turquoise plunge pool and viewing platform you can only get to via a short tunnel. 30-metre (98 feet) high Upper Falls are most impressive in winter when ice curtains the cliff face, attracting ice climbers.

Distance:  1.2 km one way to Lower Falls, 2.4 km one way to Upper Falls
Elevation Gain:  30 m to Lower Falls, 120 m to Upper Falls
When to Go: Year round
Stroller friendly? no

Insider tip: Go in the off season to avoid the crowds! Wear microspikes or ice cleats in winter conditions as the trail gets packed down and icy. 

What is your favorite short hike in Banff?

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