10 Great Family-Friendly Trails in Banff National Park
Visiting Banff National Park
It wasn't our first trip to Banff; we'd been there the year before. From the moment we first set eyes on the mountain peaks, lakes, rivers, and glaciers, it became one of our favorite places.
Established in 1885, Banff National Park was Canada's first of its kind. By establishing the park, Canada has done wonders for protecting wildlife and wilderness. They have very strict limits on development, and they have built overpasses for wildlife to use on the Trans-Canada Highway that runs through the park, among other things. The very essence of the park is the preservation and enjoyment of wilderness and wildlife. In 1985 the park was designated a World Heritage Site.
Visiting the park, you have a chance to see some of the most spectacular scenery in North America.
One of the easiest and most enjoyable activities in the park is hiking. With more than 600 miles of trails, the park offers hiking opportunities for anyone, no matter your abilities.
Since we are still a family with children (at least one of them is still young), I chose some of the easy, family-friendly trails. There are many more than I could ever list, so I thought this would be a good start.
1. The Fenland Loop Trail
The Fenland Loop Trail is really just a walk in a beautiful white spruce forest at the entrance to the town of Banff. This pleasant mile-long trail loops around the forest, along the banks of Forty Mile Creek. It is a favorite spot for sighting white-tailed deer. Although this time we weren't lucky enough to see any, last year we saw a herd or two of them every time we stopped at this trail. In our experience, if you travel in the very beginning of summer, you are almost guaranteed to see a herd of deer.
It is probably one of the easiest hiking trails in the park, with no elevation gain, beautiful vegetation, and views of the river. Great for even very young children. It normally would take about 35-45 minutes, maybe longer if you are walking with kids, who need to stop in front of every tree or flower, or just to listen to the forest.
2. Banff Riverwalk
This is also an easy walking trail, taking you from the center of Banff town to Bow Falls and the Fairmont Banff Historic Hotel, a national historic site.
The trail follows the river and it is a very easy stroll on a wide trail through pine trees. Even though you are in town, most of the time it feels like you are not. Watch the squirrels running up and down the tree trunks, and lots of different birds flying about or sitting on branches.
Smell the pines, and listen to the rushing river.
As you get close to the falls, the river gets louder. You need to climb a few stairs, but nothing even a very young child can't handle.
3. Lake Minnewanka and the Stewart Canyon Trail
Lake Minnewanka is the largest man-made lake in Banff National Park. Its name means "Lake of the Water Spirits" and it is a very popular site for family picnics, boat rides, and fishing. The Lake Minnewanka Loop offers very easy access from the Trans Canada Highway. Once there, you have the choice to just have a picnic by the lake, take a boat ride, go fishing, or take a walk.
A short walk takes you to the Stewart Canyon Trail, which starts at the Lake Minnewanka day-use area. It goes through a few rocky beaches with pebbles and with lots of driftwood, through some wooded areas, and eventually reaches a bridge at Stewart Canyon, where the Cascade River flows.
This trail is very easy, great for families with children of all ages.
4. Johnson Lake
While you are on the Lake Minnewanka Road, Lake Johnson is a wonderful stop. The trail around the lake is a great walk for families. Starting at the day-use area by the lake, the mile-and-a-half loop winds through a lush forest by the time it reaches the far end of the lake. It is worth stopping here, since the view across the lake to the Cascade Mountains is spectacular.
Continuing the loop, the trail goes through open slopes, passes through some of the county's oldest Douglas fir trees, and goes through a shallow bay, where children love to stop and play (at least mine did). There is a great chance of spotting waterfowl in this area.
The tail is very easy and pleasant, with no elevation gain. Your return from the walk might be a great opportunity for a picnic.
5. Johnston Canyon Falls
This is probably the most popular hike on the Bow River Parkway. Every time we stopped there, it was crowded. There are two parking lots where you can stop for this hike, but most of the time they are both full, and people are stopped on the side of the road.
There is a reason for the popularity of this trail: it really is one of the most spectacular features of Banff National Park, and it is a must-experience for everyone. It is also easy to get to.
The trail is fun in addition to being gorgeous. A catwalk, made of wooden planks, leads above the canyon. Then you pass through a low tunnel to the impressive Lower Falls, where you can get wet from the mist of the water. You might need to wait to get through the tunnel, since only a few people can go through at any given time, but don't pass it up, you definitely need to experience it.
The trail does go higher up to the Upper Falls, a hike of another half mile.
6. Silverton Falls
The trail to Silverton Falls is also off the Bow River Parkway. Stop at the trailhead for the Rockbound Lake Trail. The walk up to Silverton Falls is short, and for the most part on level ground. The trail goes through a forest, then follows the river for a while. The end of the trail is a bit steep, but nothing a child older than six can't handle. The steeper part of the trail is easy to miss. If you are still following the river, but the trail seems to have ended and you are walking through rough terrain, it is time to stop. When you look back, you can see the wider trail leading up at a very sharp angle: seemingly going back, but up. It winds a bit, in an open area by the forest, and it is a bit steep, but this relatively hard part is very short.
In the end you are rewarded by the view of a narrow but very high waterfall, surrounded by the forest, cascading through a few ledges into the river below.
7. Castle Mountain
Castle Mountain is one of the more spectacular mountains in Banff National Park. The roads, both the Trans-Canada Highway and the Bow River Parkway, go by it for miles. On the Bow River Parkway there are a few stops to admire these mountains. The lookout is really just a stop, but definitely worth it for a perfect photo opportunity.
The stop for the trailhead is a bit farther. Once there, you can follow a short trail from the parking lot back towards the road. It goes through a small creek, then it's just a very short walk through a forest. This is a choice if you have very young children with you.
However, there is a more spectacular trail that goes uphill to a lookout on Castle Mountain.
Though very steep, and constantly climbing, it is not extremely difficult, if you take it slow.
In my case, I can't tell you that a nine-year-old can make it, because we only went up maybe one-third of the way. It was still a pleasant walk, even though steep, in the middle of a beautiful forest.
My husband and son went all the way, and I've seen children as young as ten hike it, so it really depends on your and their level. The only difficulty of this trail is the fact that it climbs the whole time, which might be tiring. However, it is not extremely steep, and quite manageable, at least for a while. Even if you don't go to the end of the trail, it is a pleasant hike in the forest.
8. Lake Louise Shore Walk
Lake Louise is the most famous lake in Banff National Park, and it deserves to be: it is one of the most beautiful lakes in the Canadian Rockies. It was named for Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, Queen Victoria's daughter. The famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is one of the most spectacular hotels, sitting across from the Mt. Victoria and Victoria Glacier, with the view of the lake, mountains and glacier. Two other mountains add to the spectacular view, Mt. Lefroy and Mt. Fairview.
The lake has the most striking turquoise color, which is due to silt from melting glaciers. Glacier melt also helps keep the lake extremely cold year round. Last year when we visited in early June there was still lots of ice on the lake. By the end of July it is all melted (at least it was this year), but the lake is still extremely cold. It means no swimming there (which probably is a good thing, keeping it pristine clean), but you can rent a canoe if you want to be on the lake.
The easiest activity by far is a walk around the lake. The trail is paved and it is a pleasant and easy walk for families and kids of all ages. The view is fantastic, no matter which angle you look from. After walking a bit, you can look back to enjoy the view of the Fairmont Chateau by the lake.
Look for wildlife while walking. Even though it is a very popular trail, with lots of visitors at all times, this is where we saw a porcupine last year, among lots of ground squirrels, birds, and other creatures.
9. Rockpile at Moraine Lake
This is the shortest and easiest trail at lake Morraine, and at the end of it you are rewarded with one of the most beautiful and most famous views in the Rockies. The image of the ten peaks surrounding the lake was on the old version of the Canadian $20 bill.
The trail goes up a few stairs through rocky terrain, hence the name Rockpile. On the way don't forget to look for pikas, tiny mammals living in the area. There are many of them, you can spot one or two any time you go.
The view from the top of the Rockpile encompasses all ten peaks: Fay, Little, Bowlen, Perren, Septa, Allen, Tuzo, Deltaform, Neptuak, and Wenkchemna (I copied the names from the sign by the lake, I could not memorize all of them). Surrounding the lake, these spectacular peaks make an unforgettable view. It's definitely worth the short walk, even when it is freezing cold. The temperatures at the lake are always colder than at surrounding places, including Lake Louise, so dress accordingly.
10. Bow Summit and Peyto Lake
This trailhead is right off the highway, north of Lake Louise. The hike is relatively short, but steep, so just take it slow, no rush. The trail is paved, and it has interpretive stops along the way as it goes through a beautiful pine forest. Wildflowers abound in the area, and there are pikas and squirrels around.
At the end of the trail you have another fantastic view. Peyto Lake is way below, and around it you can see Bow Summit. Another must-experience hike with the family.
More Information and Some Advice
- Even on short and easy trails, remember to stay safe. Pack snacks, bring water, and make sure you bring a jacket, since weather is unpredictable, one minute you may be hot, the next you are freezing on the same trail.
- Carry bear spray and/or a very loud whistle. On every trail they warn you about bear encounters; be prepared. While the park rangers keep track of the bears in the park, you never know when you might see one. Personally we didn't run into any on the trail, though we've been lucky enough to see a grizzly by the road on the Bow Valley Parkway. One of the rangers was there, making sure that motorists were aware of how to handle the bear; that is, not to scare him, but to stay safe around him. She told us that he was a "teenage bear." I'm guessing they are just like our teenagers; they don't listen to their parents and wander where they shouldn't be.
- Always stay on the trails, to prevent damage to nature and wildlife. Pack out your garbage.
- Leave everything undisturbed for others to enjoy. This includes rocks, fossils, horns, antlers, and wildflowers
- Please do not feed wildlife, and don't let your children do it. Explain to them that they are not helping wild animals by feeding them. Animals used to being fed have trouble learning to find food for themselves, and they may become pests for other visitors. This is a hard lesson for some kids, but please make sure they understand.
- Before heading out to any trail, stop by a visitor center, and pick up some brochures and maps. They are free and have a lot of information.
From the Author
The trails listed here are just a very small part of what's available in Banff National Park. If you like hiking, there are plenty of opportunities, a lot more than I have listed. I tried to highlight some of our favorite spots. Fell free to add to the list through your comments.