If you’re a backpacker looking for something free to do in Banff National Park, hiking is the perfect answer. All you really need is some good shoes, food, and water (and maybe some bear spray just in case you come across some of these characters) and you’re good to go!
Here is a list of hostels in Banff, and here are just a couple of my favorite day hikes in and around this beautiful national park.
Having a car or the will to stick out your thumb however is required to get to some of the following.
The Teahouses in Lake Louise
We left late in the afternoon with the goal of solely visiting the Lake Agnes tea-house which in itself is a beautiful little trip up the right hand side of Lake Louise – passing another lake called Mirror Lake and the tea-house is a quaint little wooden building atop a waterfall. The teahouse is open from June through September, and makes everything fresh daily, supplies are brought in by horseback or helicopter once a year – make sure you bring Canadian cash though, no phone lines or electricity means that your credit cards are no good here.
Once there we decided to take the long way home and head up over the Big Beehive which gives a fantastic perspective of Lake Louise, out to the Plain of Six Glaciers (teahouse and back). We got out to the Plain of Six Glaciers way after they’d closed, and ended up making our way back to the Chateau as the sun was setting – a beautiful way to close the day. The highlight of the day was catching a glimpse of a wolverine, although many of my friends still refuse to believe me.
Lake Agnes (from Lake Louise)
Distance: 3.4 km one way
Elevation Gain: 385m
Round trip: 2.5 hours
Plain of Six Glaciers (from Lake Louise)
Distance: 5.3 km one way
Elevation Gain: 365m
Round trip: 4 hour round-trip
When I first arrived in Banff, it was late January and bitterly cold – after dropping my bags at the hostel, the front desk recommended a little jaunt up Tunnel Mountain – something that I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve done since. The hostel lies in the shadows of Tunnel Mountain and the peak can be reached in around an hour from their door (I’m told it can be done in 12 minutes running, but I’m not at all keen to test that one out). It gives you great views of the town as well as Bow Falls and the Banff Springs Hotel.
Tunnel Mountain is a great little ‘what can I do this afternoon’ adventure, and the peak is a great little base for a picnic or as an older boy told me, a couple of beers.
Distance: 2.4 km one way
Elevation Gain: 260m
Round Trip: 2 hours
We arrived at the trail head for Larch Valley and the Giants Steps late in the Fall, and quickly learned that due to Bear restrictions, myself and a buddy who were making the trek were unable to continue – Parks Canada has restrictions on trails through the year to minimize human/bear contact and the most common of these is the need to travel in groups of at least four. We waited by the sign and quickly made some new friends (one of which was a huge Bernese mountain dog) to make the rest of the journey with.
The Larch Valley is best experienced late in the hiking season – Larch trees turn a vibrant gold, making the journey to the Giants Steps arguably just as enjoyable, if not more so, than the destination itself.
Distance: 10.9km one way
Elevation Gain: 385m
Round Trip: 7-8 hours
Rockbound Lake is nestled in the middle of Castle Mountain, just a little bit west of Johnson Canyon on the 1A. If you’re up for it, with a half-hour detour you can also take in Silverton Falls which is far less frequented than the nearby Johnson Canyon waterfalls (although with due reason – Johnson Canyon has five falls with a very easy paved path running the whole way to the ‘Upper Falls’).
The hike to get to Rockbound Lake was the first time that my family had hiked together since what my brother and I referred to as ‘forced marches’ we used to take part in on family vacations. Since this was the first time we’d all been together for some years, it was a great way to bond, and a great way to show them a little slice of the Canadian wilderness.
The hike up to Tower and Rockbound lakes are with little reward, your largely within the trees for the majority of the journey, however once you reach Rockbound Lake (which sits in the horseshoe top of Castle Mountain), you almost feel like you’re in another world – the alpine meadows fill with wildflowers and the views looking back down the valley are phenomenal, especially in the late afternoon/early evening.
Elevation Gain: 760m
Round Trip: 6-7 hours
Getting to the top of Mount Bourgeau and back will take you the better part of a day (7.5 – 9 hours depending on the speed of you and your group), but as you venture to it’s 2,300 metre peak. The advantage of Bourgeau over some of Banffs more popular scrambles/hikes (such as Cascade or Rundle) is the sheer diversity in the journey – whilst Cascade and Rundle both boast spectacular views at the top, as you make your way up Bourgeau you’ll pass three or four lakes, and two or three small waterfalls.
When we went a few summers ago, there was a group of 8 of us and we spent a good hour or so on the summit just hanging out – one of my favorite days in the Rockies to-date. The second time I went, was last summer and a lot of the people joining the adventure were brutally hung-over and elected to nap at Harvey Pass instead – a worthwhile journey in itself.
Distance: 25km round trip
Elevation Gain: 1,435m
Round trip: 7-9 hours
Hostelling International has many hostels throughout the Canadian Rockies, including the beautiful HI-Banff & HI-Lake Louise as well as a string of rustic wilderness hostels located primarily on the ice fields parkway.
Check out Shaun Freeman on Flickr for more stunning photos of Banff National Park.
Canada is a beautiful country to visit at any time of the year.